Whenever we think about growth in the local church, we typically think about it in two threads: Transfer & Conversion. There's a third as well, which is what I affectionately call "The Great Commission 9 months at a time" where families in the church add through children. But for purpose of this let's think along the Transfer & Conversion.
Transfer is where someone from another church attends and joins yours. They have already made a profession of faith, they've been baptized, and they come with a "letter" (if your denomination practices that) affirming their membership in good standing. These are folks who have been Christians for years and may have served in a number of areas. Their reasons for changing churches could be a relocation for work, they wanted to attend closer to home, they have family in your church, or there may have been a reason to leave their previous church home.
Conversion growth is where someone is brought into the membership through salvation (and baptism) as a result of a personal connection, invite, or some other introduction to the Gospel and to the church. Conversion growth where people are discipled from spiritual infancy, are mentored, and many times are introduced to the culture and practices of a church.
All conversion growth is good. It means your church is reaching into its community and sharing Jesus with neighbors. It means you're doing your mission. At the same time, not all transfer growth is bad. Sometimes you'll have people join because they want to be part of a church doing something. Sometimes they'll join because they got mad and left. Sometimes it's because they can't make the long commute. Sometimes it's because they lost a power struggle. Not all transfer growth is bad. It can be really good.
Perhaps the best way to draw the analogy is to look at college basketball (I'm from Kentucky, if you're not from there you have no idea how big it is). In basketball, a team can get new players two different ways: graduate transfers and recruiting classes. Graduate transfers are players who have finished their degree at a school and can transfer for one year of eligibility at a new school. Recruiting classes are the players brought in as freshmen who coaches have built relationships with for years. Both help a team, and both carry over into church growth.
Graduate transfers can immediately contribute, and so can transfer growth - What I love about transfer growth is that it brings in people who know how churches work, who have a heart for ministry, and who many times have years of experience in previous contexts. They can, in many cases, be an immediate help to meet needs. In the same vein, graduate transfers don't have to learn college officiating or unlearn AAU tendencies. Many times, they immediately start and can contribute.
Recruiting classes are hard work, so is conversion growth - The thing that sets apart college sports from pro sports is that in college, coaches recruit. They can build their team. And many of them spend more time & money on recruiting trips and visits than they do on practice and game prep. Not every player recruited will commit. Some will back out. Others will sign with a rival. Sometimes a coach will spend months working on bringing in a player only to lose out. Conversion growth is hard work. Sometimes people will reject the message. Other times they might not want to talk further. Sometimes it can take weeks or months to get them to make the first visit to your church. One thing I've noticed is that it can take more than a year to assimilate from conversion to active membership.
Graduate transfers are short-term, recruiting classes are long-term - As much as I love good transfer growth, it's not sustainable. You can't constantly depend on others to drop in your lap. A college coach can't chase the graduate transfer route year after year. They aren't able to develop a healthy culture or long-term success. Conversion growth in the church is the sustainable option. Churches that engage in mission, that have people sharing Jesus with their friends and neighbors, that are baptizing regularly, are churches that see long-term fruition.
Losing people is hard, but you pick back up - Graduate transfers are a zero sum equation. If your school gets a player, another school has to lose a player. Transfer growth in the church is like that as well. If someone joins your church, they left another. If someone joins another church, they leave yours. It's tough. Sometimes you'll spend months or years investing in people and they get a job transfer or something happens and they decide to leave. It's hard for a coach when a player decides to leave the program. But they can't delay, because the season is around the corner. In ministry, we can be sad when people leave. But it doesn't take away from our responsibility to serve and minister and invest in our community.
How have you seen transfer growth help your church? How has your church been blessed by continued conversion growth?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.