The first was a prayer asking God to direct me where he wanted me to serve as a missionary.
“Okay God,” I remember praying. “I’m going to lean back, close my eyes, and the first country that pops into my head – I promise you that I will move there and spend the rest of my life trying to reach those people.”
With all the impulsive recklessness a newly converted 18 yr. old with the gift of evangelism could muster, I leaned back, cleared my mind, and waited.
Seconds later the word Greenland came to mind.
“Okay let’s try this again,” I thought.
The second prayer I regret praying was another promise. But unlike the first, this one I’ve kept.
As I was packing the Ryder truck in preparation for our move to the suburbs of Philadelphia in 1999 to start Christ’s Church of the Valley, I told God,
“I promise we will grow this church through conversion growth only.”
And for the last 15 years I’ve been dealing with the joys and travails of that promise ever since.
Conversion Growth In Action
Every church leader I know agrees that transfer growth (one Christian deciding to leave their church to attend yours) is rarely a win for the kingdom. But few take actual steps to prevent it from happening, as if the matter was completely out of our realm of influence.
Not quite sure how to make good on my promise to God (and with few models to learn from in this regard), we’ve tried a number of strategic measures over the years to fend off the tide of church transfers:
- We’ve taken time during our biggest days (Easter, Christmas, etc.) to de-invite Christian visitors from coming back the following Sunday.
- We continuously remind our people NOT to invite their friends that are already Christians to our church.
- During our introductory 101 class called “Starting Point” we take time to explain why 80% of the Christians in the room should never come back to our church.
- When I meet visitors after the service and find out that they’re from a Bible-believing Christian church, I always encourage them to go back to back to their former church.
- When selecting elders, staff, or volunteer team leaders we always look for those converted from within the ministry of our church first.
- If a churched visitor attends our church and we find out they have unresolved conflict in a previous church, we deny them membership until they go back, resolve the conflict, and we receive written verification from that church’s leadership.
- We never advertise our church on the church page in the newspaper, on Christian radio stations, or in the Christian Yellow Pages.
- Occasionally, for no reason, we instruct our ushers to punch people in the face if they look like they’re visiting from another church.*
- We don’t design worship services that cater to consumeristic self-interested Christians who “want to be fed.”
- We don’t allow Christian community groups like the local homeschooler’s association (i.e. groups that gather Christians inter-denominationally from various churches) to ever use our facilities.
- We never play in a local church softball league.
- We have poker groups at our church.
- We offer comedy nights with a mixture of Christian and non-Christian comedians, along with a cash bar.
- We play non-Christian music in our outdoor speakers as people walk up to the building on Sunday mornings.
- We preach in-your-face, sin-convicting, gospel-centered, prophetic messages that call people to repent, take up their crosses and suffer for the sake of the kingdom.
Finally, when all else fails…
- I strategically mention that Amish-based Christian fiction and Thomas Kinkade paintings are blights on the Christian community.
That usually does the trick.
Has It Worked?
All told I’d say that our strategy has been successful. Christians coming from other churches HATE our church. And I use the word hate in the most gracious way possible. Despise is more accurate. And that’s a good thing.
Without the complete derision of just about every single churched visitor that has come through our doors in 15 years, we never would have been able to baptize 1825 non-Christians. Ever.
We would have compromised our vision. One Christian would have brought another, then another, until finally I was staring at a sea of people wearing “I Love John MacArthur” t-shirts.
And over time we would have become a bloated, highly touted, Christian famous mega-church with little-to-no kingdom impact.
The Downside Of Exclusive Focus On Conversion Growth
Why don’t churches strategically focus on kingdom growth? It’s simple: money, attendance, and ego.
New Christians don’t automatically start giving the way churched attenders give. They have to be taught. And they don’t respond to the time-tested gimmicks that have floated around Christian churches for years. If you’re trying to teach stewardship to new Christians the way you did it in 2010, you’re grossly out of touch.
Building a church around new converts has also limited our pool of big givers for capital campaigns. Everyone knows that a person’s greatest giving potential comes between the ages of 45-65, which is not coincidently the sweet spot age of the average churched visitor. Try doing a capital campaign with newly converted 25-35 year olds. You don’t break giving records with folks skipping trips to Starbucks to give to your building program.
Wide fluctuations in attendance patterns come with the territory when focusing on conversion growth. Attendance is up one week and down the next; no rhyme or reason. Churched people go to church. That’s what they know. That’s what they do. That’s what their parents did. And that’s what their children will do, hopefully.
New Christians go to Valley Forge National Park and jog on a beautiful sunny day. Because that’s what their parents did. Because in their mind that’s what any thinking person would do on a beautiful Sunday. They haven’t grown to a point of depth in discipleship that radically changes their attendance patterns.
That’s why in any outreach-focused church, the rule of thumb is that the people who actually consider your church “home-base” is 2-3 times your Sunday attendance. For us that means anywhere from 3,600-5,000 people are loosely connected to our church. If those same 3,600-5,000 people were all from churched Protestant backgrounds, our attendance would be significantly larger, simply by shifting the target.
Finally, the biggest downside is the toll it has taken on my ego.
But before I get to that, let me take a second to focus on the upside of our strategy.
I tell Senior Pastors I coach that there are amazing benefits to focusing on conversion growth:
- You don’t have to try to build a church with people who can’t resolve conflict and are running from obeying Matthew 18 in their former church.
- People converted in your church are 100% sold on the church’s vision and philosophy.
- No-one invites unbelievers like people that have come to Christ in your church.
- And, of course, no-one comes indoctrinated in nutty belief systems. You rarely have to un-teach bad theology with new Christians.
There are great things about the promise I made.
But the downside has been costly to me personally.
Making that promise to God to focus on conversion growth has put a dent in my quest to become the pastor of the largest, fastest growing church in the history of human civilization. How does God expect me to become “Christian famous” and validate my self-worth without building an insanely large mega-church of people that I cherry-picked from other churches?
Growing a church solely through conversion-growth is rewarding, but painful.
The only up-side to all this, I guess, is that I’m not trying to do this in Greenland.
*Good news – due to the overwhelming pressure we received from certain Christian groups, we stopped the practice of punching Christian visitors in the face years ago. So if you are ever in the suburbs of Philadelphia, please feel free stop by for a visit. ☺
Why do you think Senior Pastors are so reluctant to focus exclusively on conversion growth?