That is what we are supposed to do, right? We say it all the time. Your church, my church, our goal is to “reach people.” But what does that even mean?
Contemporary Christian churches and believers in general use this phrase all the time to refer to the mission given to our churches by Christ to make disciples of all nations. I use the phrase all the time. It is good shorthand. The problem with shorthand, however, is that it can quickly lose that original meaning.
Here is the issue: growing your church larger does not necessarily equal reaching people.
Simply put, there are two basic kinds of growth for a local church. Churches can grow through conversion, or the reaching of lost people through the proclamation of the gospel and their accepting it in faith. Consider this birthing sheep. A church can also grow through transfer, or the moving of existing Christians from one church to another. Think of this latter approach as shuffling sheep.
Now to be sure, there is a small third category out there of believers who have lapsed from any church attendance. Of course, it is completely proper to question the sincerity of faith when someone professes belief and refuses to be part of a local church anywhere. For the purpose of this mental exercise, let us discount this group.
Too often today, church growth is really shuffling sheep not reaching new people. This is true for existing churches and church plants. In both instances, local churches are attempting to “reach people,” and in both instances it is very common for that to equate to attracting people who are already Christians. In any given city, churches who are growing from transfer growth are doing so because other churches in that town are losing members. Or, in those urban centers that are seeing rapid population growth, transfer growth is Christians moving into town looking for a new church. This, of course, means there is some small town out there where churches are losing those members. Where is the overall growth in any of that? It is merely the shuffling of sheep from one pasture to the next.
For established churches, transfer growth happens in a number of ways. Perhaps there was a deep spiritual concern with practices at the former church, or perhaps there is a deep sense of entitlement that did not get what it wanted at the old church. Either way, it is no surprise to anyone that church hopping is a common occurrence. And we need to be honest with ourselves, the kind of church member that leaves someone else’s church because of some preference is the kind that will quickly leave yours when your church is no longer to their liking.
For those church plants landing in larger urban centers right now, they cast a vision for reaching the lostness that exists there. They raise support talking about the millions of unbelievers in the urban core. When they hit the ground and launch, what they often find is that growth really occurs from Christians who are part of the urbanization movement into cities. They are moving in for jobs or because they think cities are cool, and they are looking for a good, healthy church that meets their values. Of course, this is not a bad thing in itself. Christians moving into your city do need a new church home. However, we all must question whether plants that grow primarily through transfer are doing much to impact lostness in their city.
Motives and Methods Matter
The pressures that exist on local churches for growth are immense. Established churches have developed ministries, expenses, and facilities that must be maintained. In addition, there is an abstract quality of motivation and excitement that makes people feel like their church is “doing something” if they are growing in number. Church plants have their own sets of concerns. Many church plant teams today are funded through a support model that runs out after a specific number of years. In other words, if that church does not have enough people to continue paying the light bill when the support runs out, then it will shut its doors. Add to that this terrible notion that growth in numbers (any kind of numbers) is the measure of a church’s success.
However, these pressures cannot drive our motives or our methods. If a local church, established or planting, is to be faithful to the real purposes for the church, then growth through conversion should be the goal. By no means am I claiming that it is wrong for people to transfer churches under any circumstances. Yet, for a church to really consider itself missional, it should grow through conversion.
Ask the hard questions of your church. If you are growing, is it through conversion or transfer? Are you baptizing the majority of new members, or are they coming through the transfer of a membership letter? And even then, are you baptizing people that had some false experience as a child but later came to faith and have not received proper baptism?
If we set conversion of the lost through the proclamation of the gospel as a bedrock goal of our local church, it should dictate methods. Drawing a distinction between types of growth helps a church see if it is actually reaching new people or just shuffling sheep and calling that reaching people. A church that sees the difference between these types of growth can still celebrate the arrival of a new Christian family to their town and congregation but focus their mission on reaching the people around them who have not accepted the truth of the gospel.
So keep challenging your church and friends to reach people. Just be sure to tell them what that means.