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Back in 1970, Donald McGavran published a book that has since become one of the most influential books in Christian missions. The book is called Understanding Church Growth. For the vast majority of people reading this article (assuming I have my normal audience), you have probably never heard of McGavran or his book. No worries; that will not affect you one bit concerning this article. That said, there will be a sliver of you who have heard of him, and you will fall into two camps. My devout missiologist friends will laud the fact that I am referencing the work. The rest of you probably think of “church growth” as a dirty word. After all, it was the church growth movement that resulted in the terrible reliance on consumerist practices and church marketing instead of the gospel and discipleship… right? Regardless of your stance on McGavran, suspend your judgment for 900 more words and overlook the excesses brought about by some who teased out (correctly or incorrectly) his implications in North America. There is, in fact, much we need to learn (or perhaps relearn) from his work.

I am willing to wager today that most churches in North America are interested in growth, but most churches are much less concerned about the kind of growth they have. The thinking claims any growth is good growth, and the way through which we get people in seats is never considered.

In his book, Understanding Church Growth, Donald McGavran develops a real simple concept that gets at the heart of that issue. He claims that there are only three types of church growth, and if your church is growing, then it is doing so by one (or more) of these ways. In fact, it is so simple to be common sense, and yet the truth often eludes us in ministry. McGavran claims that growth will always occur through biology, transfer, or conversion. That is it. Now, let’s look at each of the three and draw out some implications.

Biological Growth

Biological growth is what happens when a man loves a woman, and they happen to be members of your church. This is a good and completely normal way for churches to grow, with the necessary caveats of an evangelical. Simply being born into a church community does not automatically make you a believer or a member of that church (at least it should not make you a member). That said, those born into families of the church grow up from a young age regularly hearing the gospel and are the first objects of any church’s evangelism. It is a ripe field for harvest, and by virtue of being the sons and daughters of the church, of particular importance to the families.

Of course, this type of growth is limited to the offspring of the church, and that usually makes it a pretty small pool (in North America that is). No church in the US can really consider its primary or only goal as simply reaching the children it raises. Nevertheless, there is more than one study out there that demonstrate that the vast majority of baptisms that occur in evangelical churches are their own children. Here is an article on my own denomination written by a colleague: The SBC had a Baptism Problem — And it is Not What You Think.

Transfer Growth

McGavran describes transfer growth well, “the increase of certain congregations at the expense of others.” In other words, a church grows through transfer when someone who is already a believer, already a member of another church, decides to switch churches. Sometimes, these members are lapsed and may not have been to their home church in a while. Often, they are merely disgruntled with their current church and begin shopping for another church. I have nothing other than anecdotal evidence to offer here. I am making this claim on a hunch, but I think the majority of churches in the US that are getting larger are doing so by transfer growth.

Transfer is sometimes the result of someone moving to a new city and having to move churches. Think of the wave of millennial believers who are moving into our urban centers and in need of a good church. However, much of this growth is hopping from one church in town to another church in town. Are there legitimate reasons to do that? Sure. Are all of the reasons legitimate? Not by a long shot. In fact, any local church who primarily grows through transfer needs to sit back and consider how and why that is occurring? Perhaps your church’s outreach strategy is less about sharing the gospel with people and more about attracting people who already agree with it. Furthermore, local churches need to question the reasoning behind such a move. Remember, transfer growth to your church is at the expense of another. Finally, does your church want the kind of members that will jump ship if something is not to their liking?

In short, transfer growth is not necessarily wrong, but it should be questioned. The Great Commission is about making new disciples from the nations. Your church can double in size, but if it does so through transfer growth, all you may have done was make other churches in your area weaker without seeing any new disciples added. This brings me to the final way churches can grow.

Conversion Growth

McGavran says conversion growth is the kind of growth, “in which those outside the church come to rest their faith intelligently on Jesus Christ and are baptized and added to the Lord in his church. This is the only kind of growth by which the good news of salvation can spread to all the segments of American society and to earth’s remotest bounds.” Conversion growth is good growth.

Along with McGavran, I would concur that churches should focus much (if not most) of their effort on reaching the lost outside of their church by proclaiming the gospel and seeking to lead people into faith. In order to do this, churches need to ask some questions. First off, is your church growing? If not, perhaps your ministry is inwardly focused. Another potential reason could be that your ministry is not focused on the gospel. That may sound counterintuitive, because we often think we need to use something to entice unbelievers to church. We will plan programs and events and go light on the “Christian stuff” in order to get people to come. That said, without focusing on the unique message of the faith with unbelievers, your church will not grow in any meaningful way.

If your church is growing, which of these three types of growth are you seeing? Be honest with yourself and figure out if it is primarily transfer growth or biological growth. Are the majority of your baptisms children from your student groups? Are the majority of new members transferring in by letter? If so, you are not primarily growing through conversion. If you are truly concerned about the biblical mission of the church, that matters.

Further Reading