It Is Time to Stop Celebrating Church Transfer Growth: A Church Answers Research Article

I love our large community of pastors, church staff, denominational leaders, and lay leaders at Church Answers Central. The promise we make them is they can ask any question or make any comment, and we will respond within a few hours. We usually respond within an hour.

That’s the promise. They can learn from us. 

But, frankly, I feel like I am learning more from the Church Answers Central community than they are learning from me.

For example, one of the pastors in our community posted this insightful comment this week:

“My church has been experiencing growth due to the decline of sister churches around the area. I feel sad for the declining churches, but this also creates a potential problem in my church: the complacent attitude of the members who believe that we don’t need to reach out to people. Can someone see the issue here?”

I responded to the pastor that his comment and question were prescient. He is wise to see the potential harm of transfer growth. So do I. Indeed, please continue to read. I will try not to rant.

Transfer Growth Has Not Always Been Considered True Growth

From my research, it appears that the concept of transfer growth is relatively new in the 2,000-year history of the Church. Donald McGavran, in his 1970 book Understanding Church Growth, classified how churches grow numerically as conversion, biological, and transfer. He offered this typology as a reminder that churches should focus on conversion or evangelistic growth. Sadly, many church leaders took his typology to mean that church growth is growth regardless of its source. That was not what McGavran meant, nor was that the impetus behind the beginning of the church growth movement.

Another historical factor in the focus on transfer growth was how Southern Baptist churches handled members who transferred from one Southern Baptist church to another, usually from one community to another. Historically, the transferring member would present a letter from the church he left to the church he wished to join. The letter would affirm that the person was regenerate and a member in good standing.

Today, very few Southern Baptist churches continue to ensure transferring members are both regenerate and in good standing in their former churches. Instead, transfer growth has become just another category of church growth.

Because the Southern Baptist Convention became the largest Protestant denomination in America in the second half of the twentieth century, its influence was pervasive. This “letter growth” soon became another way of saying “transfer growth.” Again, transfer growth became accepted as a form of church growth that was equal to others.

These two historical developments in the church growth movement and the Southern Baptist Convention contributed significantly to the acceptance of transfer growth as legitimate church growth and as something that should be celebrated.

But Is Transfer Growth Bad?

The simple answer to the question is “no,” or better, “not always.”  Sam Rainer is our lead researcher on growth typologies. He will release a significant Church Answers Research work on transfer growth on May 9, 2024. It will be available for Church Answers members. You will not want to miss this incredible information. Sam does a deep dive into the past twenty-five years of transfer growth. He also offers a typology of growth with four categories instead of three. It makes a lot more sense.

Rather than divulge the details of his research early, I will simply say that he affirms that transfer growth is not always bad. When someone moves from one city to another and desires to remain an active and contributing local church member, that’s a good thing. When someone leaves a church teaching heresy and moves to a church that is true to the gospel, that’s a good thing.

My concern is about other reasons for transfer growth. Even more, my concern is that there exists a celebration culture of transfer growth that is not healthy. I will elaborate, but first, we need to define the “good” growth, conversion growth. 

What Is Conversion Growth?

At its heart, conversion growth is the fruit of evangelism. When someone becomes a follower of Christ, they move from darkness to light and eternity with God instead of eternity apart from God. They are Christians as depicted in Acts 11:26, where the disciples of Christ were given this name in Antioch. 

Conversion growth is also local church centric. While we celebrate conversions anywhere at any time, conversion growth leads to the growth of a local church. If a team from a local church goes overseas and leads dozens to Christ, we celebrate those conversions. But by definition, that is not conversion growth of the church that sent the team. We pray those new Christians will become fruit-bearing disciples in a nearby church. Then, those churches will experience conversion growth.

Conversion growth, then, represents those new followers of Christ who have become disciples of Christ and committed members of a local church.

For most of Church history, conversion growth was the heart of local churches. In recent history, the celebration of transfer growth has become normative. That is not healthy. That is not Kingdom growth.

The Problems with Celebrating Transfer Growth

Do we really celebrate transfer growth? Yes, we do.

We celebrate transfer growth when we list or recognize fast-growing churches without asking how much of their growth came from other churches. I do not have the data, nor have I been able to get such data. Based on our work with thousands of churches, I believe most of that growth is transfer growth.

We celebrate transfer growth when we list or recognize the largest churches. Again, I can only assume most of their growth is transfer growth. 

Like the quote from the pastor at the beginning of this article, church members often celebrate transfer growth when the reality is the church has grown at the expense of other churches. Those members are often lulled into complacency to reach their friends and neighbors with the gospel. Why should they be evangelistic? The church is growing anyway, isn’t it?

While not all transfer growth is bad, it often represents disgruntled church members moving their attitudes and preferences from one church to another. If they don’t get their preferences met in the next church, they will cause trouble or leave again.

You become what you celebrate. More churches are declining than not. But most of those that are growing have grown through transfer growth. When we celebrate them, we celebrate transfer growth.

By the way, if you are in a church that has lost members via transfer to larger churches, please consider your church’s own evangelistic urgency before you lament what the big churches are doing to your church.

Our Present Reality

Earlier in this article, I noted the influence of the Southern Baptist Convention on transfer growth. Notably, Southern Baptist’s peak number of baptisms (its close proxy for conversion growth) was 445,725 in 1972. In 2022, total baptisms were 180,177, a decline of 60%! The Southern Baptist Convention is a macrocosm of the local churches in the denomination. Where is the urgency at the local church level?

This denomination might be the largest for now, but most denominations in America paint a similar picture. And even faster-growing non-denominational churches typically grow at the expense of other churches.

Our present reality today in churches is that they are declining, or they are celebrating the wrong things.

The question should not be, “How many is your church running in worship?” The question should be, “How many people did your church reach for Christ in the past year?”

It’s time to stop celebrating transfer growth. 

Let’s celebrate those churches that are reaching people with the gospel of Christ.

Posted on April 8, 2024

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I have communicated to our church that the main audience we are trying to reach with our outreach is the unchurched and the de-churched. However, we also experience some transfer growth – either from people moving into town, or from people who are leaving churches that have started to drift away from sound doctrine in their teaching or theology. There times that I have encouraged people to stay in their current church when they talked about moving to another church. I agree with the assessment that a lot of growth is transfer growth at the expense of other churches. A previous church I was with added several people from 2 smaller congregations who shut their doors. We’ve had a little of that at our current church as well. We can celebrate those people and welcome them as new members, but also continue to focus on the lost and wandering.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    I posted an intro and a link to your article on my blog and my Facebook page. Churches need to be celebrating conversion growth, not transfer growth. When a church makes more disciples, it is carrying out the Great Commission. Neither transfer growth or biological growth do that. In the latter case we have no assurance that the baby we dedicated last Sunday will one day become a fully devoted, fully functional disciple of Jesus Christ.

    In 1992 Matthias Media publised a slim volume written by Peter Bolt and titled Mission-Minded: A Tool for Planning Your Ministry around Christ’s Mission. It is a useful tool to determine what a church is setting as its priorities from its budget. When it is applied to one’s own church, it can be very eye-opening.

    Celebrating transfer growth creates a false sense that we are carrying out the Great Commission. However, when we look at what funds we are apportioning to various activities and forms of training associated with evangelism we have a more realistic picture of what we are doing We may be doing nothing!

    I hope that Sam will make his research findings open to a wider group than Church Answers members. Making it widely available would increase the likelihood of more churches thinking about what they are doing and what they are not doing and making a necessary course change.

  • Bob Brainard says on

    You forgot to include biological growth in your planning. I assume that biological growth means children. In Europe the Muslims are using that to take over some of the countries there and is some areas of America. The 2 children family does not replace the population and it is one reason we are getting our population in the USA by transfer growth.

    Think about it. The Amish still seem to be growing.

  • Larry Shaw says on

    Wonderful insights and certainly food for thought. While celebrating growth in any form is understandable, such celebration can be short-sighted if we fail in our primary mandate of making disciples. Thank you for addressing such an important and often overlooked issue!

  • Great emphasis for study and discussion among the Body of Christ as a whole. I think another significant and legitimate category is the growth from the de-churched, people who have dropped out of church for various reasons, but have connected with a vibrant missional church. In the South where we are, everyone is supposedly a Christian. We find many of the de-churched were never really saved; others experienced renewal by joining a different congregation.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I agree, Ben. The dechurched are often an opportunity for conversion growth. They certainly are not transfer growth in the purest definition.

  • Lesley Thomson says on

    My PhD looked at the breakdown and restoration of community and a church congregation. One of the key factors that I identified was “sudden growth”. In the church context this was the influx of a large number of members from another church who had become disillusioned with their former fellowship. Among them were some very talented musicians. .They quickly infiltrated the worship group and became very influential within the church concerned – this had two strong (and potentially negative) effects. Firstly they influenced he nature and tone of the songs used in worship (people learn their theology through the hymns and praise songs used rather more than the teaching and preaching) and secondly the older very loyal, rather more traditional congregation who worshipped at the early service became isolated from the rest of the church as the 10.45 and 6.30 services became increasingly “free” and (in their view) noisy. When one of this group stopped one of the 9.00 ladies and asked her if she was “new” – it was really the last straw somehow. The lady was in her 70s and had been attending the church from when she was baptised as an infant. This “older” congregation was my particular purview and so I knew all about it. Eventually, this cabal blew the entire church apart as they left “en masse” again over some other issue having blown the leadership team apart in the process – which is what led to my PhD looking at ways of haling and restoring the congregation as well the the community it served – who had been blighted by massive house building programmes and fights for funding which meant that none of the local community centres talked to each other either!