Church Growth is Not a Zero Sum Game

Zero sum game: A situation in which a gain by one person or side must be matched by a loss by another person or side – The Free Dictionary

There is a way to grow attendance in a church without actually making new disciples. It is called transfer growth. Churches of Christ were masters at this in the 50s & 60s. Transfer growth is more a shuffling of the saved than it is evangelism and discipling. The sad thing is, that is the only approach some people know and many haven’t learned an approach to “evangelism” that is actually directed at the unchurched. We became pros at convincing churched people that they aren’t really in the church until they come over here with us. This is not growing the church or the kingdom. Transfer growth is a zero-sum game. That means it all equals out to zero at the end of the equation. If one church grows from 100 to 150 because other churches lost members, those other churches are in decline with a net loss of 50 people. The church in Acts didn’t grow because Jerusalem sent members to the church in Ephesus and so the Ephesian church had a boom while the Jerusalem church was in decline.

Church growth was never intended to be a zero-sum game because the biblical model of the church being added to (growth) is through evangelism and disciple making. Just to be clear, evangelism is speaking the Gospel to lost people. Disciple making is teaching those who believe to follow Jesus. They are not the same thing but they do go together. The church only grows when we baptize the lost, not convince Christians of particular doctrinal errors. That is called reproof or correction, not conversion. Paul did it with Peter (and so did Jesus, by the way…man Peter had it rough) and that didn’t make Peter lost and then saved. That doesn’t mean doctrine isn’t important…it just means not all doctrine is a salvation issue.

I am afraid we have relied so much on transfer growth that we are now reaping the cost. The number of people who are transferring around is just getting smaller and smaller. Churches that don’t make the adjustment toward outreach to the unchurched are going to have to close shop. But if we just do what Jesus told us to do we can thrive. Shouldn’t we expect it to be that way?

Thinking transfer growth is real kingdom growth is like moving some shirts from storage onto hangers in your closet and thinking you got new shirts. You had them all along just now they are visible to you.

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

4 Responses to Church Growth is Not a Zero Sum Game

  1. John says:

    This brings to mind how the history of the CoC, escpecially in the south, is so connected to the Baptist church. Their relationship can be described as “First cousins jealously competing for ‘grandpa’s’ attention”. The debates between the two were grand spectacles, especially in rual areas where nothing else was happening. One name that stays in my mind is Ben Bogard, a famous debater for the Baptist. I used to hear stories of how our preachers (CoC) always bested their champion (Bogard). Of course, they believed that Bogard bested us.

    During those days it was THE mission to get our Baptist friends to the Gospel Meetings, where most sermons were aimed right at them. In turn, we were invited to their Revival Meetings where sermons on the error of “works and water” was the topic of the week.

    Strange as it seems, many in the CoC today who consider themselves progressive are, for all intents and purposes, Baptist. But, they still prefer weekly communion. I think they just got tired of fighting.

  2. I expect you’ll have a lot of comments on this post. The question is, will they generate more heat or light?

  3. alegler says:

    I just finished a great book titled “No Perfect People Allowed” by John Burke on how to reach the unchurched. He planted a church that grew to about 2,000 members in 5 years of mostly unchurched people in Austin. He sets out a model on how to reach our postmodern culture. A lot of it has to do with how we foster relationships and spiritual growth.

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