Saturday, January 26, 2008

Is 90% of all church growth nothing but transfers?

Over the past decade, Xenos leaders have led research teams to dozens of the most famous and rapidly growing churches around the country to study their methods and outcomes. These include churches from a wide array of approaches—charismatic, seeker-sensitive, cell-based, emergent, house church, health and wealth, satellite churches, extra-local planting, etc. During our early trips, the teams often commented that virtually none of the members or staff they interviewed had met Christ as grown-ups or at that church.

Curious at this anecdotal finding, we decided to begin counting. In the studies since that time, we have determined that large, growing churches in America are gaining nearly all their growth through transfer of believers from other evangelical churches. To make sure of these results, we interview as many members as possible (at least scores, and sometimes hundreds) randomly at services or home groups. We ask them whether they consider themselves Christians, and where and how they became believers. To our own shock, we have found that the number claiming to have become believers at that church is invariably less than 10% of the sample—often less than 5%! In some cases our teams include dozens of researchers and we interview hundreds of members to reduce the sampling error. I am not going to name the churches involved, because I don’t want to cause problems for them. But readers would be shocked like we were if this research were ever published. So far, using this technique, we have only identified three churches where more than 10% of their own people report that they were converted in that church: Willow Creek Community Church. There, we found a significantly higher 23% of the people interviewed saying they became believers at that church. Several others said they were non-Christians still, which is also a good sign (most studies have failed to discover any non-Christians present). Best of all were Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa and Xenos Fellowship. Both these groups have over 60% converts in a typical meeting (both include 7-12% of their own home-grown kids).

We continue this research today, still looking for other large groups where the majority of their growth comes from conversions. If you think you know of one, let us know in a comment!

I discuss this problem more in Organic disciplemaking.

Do you think these results are valid?

Why do you think this is happening to the American church?

What's the answer?


Brian said...


I originally come from Southern California, where large numbers of Christians move from church to church in search of good teachings, interesting speakers, and the like. They hear that so-and-so is teaching at one church, and immediately pick up and move there until something more interesting comes along. There is an emphasis on the experiential that may be part of the LA ethos, but wherever that comes from, this could have the effect of skewing attendance numbers in churches that are seeing a rise in popularity. In fact, it's self-perpetuating, since popularity brings more people in from other churches.

Whenever new people show up at a seeker-sensitive church, resources will be expended in following them up, seeing where people are at spiritually, and guiding them toward the options for growth and involvement in the group. This could mean that most of a church's work force is following up on people who are already believers. It would be heartless to shun these people once you found out that they were already Christians, but the net effect might be that lost people who are coming in the door are overlooked, and move on.

Dennis said...

Yeah, I saw the same thing when I lived in CA. Every Sat. people would say "where do you want to go to church this week?" There were tons of good choices. So very little loyalty.

But I was thinking also how that makes it even more remarkable that Calvary would have 60% converts in their church. They're famous, they must have huge volumes of visitors, and yet most people there say they met Christ there!

Anonymous said...

If these results are valid (and I don't doubt that they are), you would think that you would see the death of many smaller churches in the area when these churches move in. Is this the case? I imagine it would be much like when all of the smaller business die off when a Wal-Mart moves into the area.

Brian said...

Even though they must have a large number of visitors who come as Christians, something is also drawing a large number of non-Christians. I suppose it's possible that some public means, like radio or TV advertising, could account for some of these, but it seems much more likely that there is a strong witnessing community in the church as well.

Did you get a chance to encounter and talk to some of the people at Calvary who were responsible for bringing others to the meeting who then met Christ? To what did the established members attribute this growth among the unconverted? Prayer? Small groups? Parties? Or did they simply invite their friends to church and God drew them out?

JeffD said...

I think adamk makes an interesting point. Are there any supporting statistics that show a large number of smaller churches dying as these megachurches just pull folks from existing churches? That's a trend I would expect to see. Also, is the movement from one evangelical church to another? Or is some of the movement happening from mainline denominations into evangelical churches?

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