Don’t despise transfer growth

A lot of us like to take pot shots at transfer growth. At one level, I get it. There is nothing especially exciting about growing a church exclusively from transfer. If all we’re doing is shuffling Christians from one church to another, what are we really adding to the kingdom? The blunt answer is, not a great deal. The slightly more nuanced answer is, actually there is kingdom value in discipling existing believers and if the Lord has blessed you with them, then you are feeding his sheep. So, whilst it may not have quantitative value (but we’re not counting success by numbers, right? We wouldn’t do that, would we? Performance related pay for ministers based on conversions and baptisms?) it does have qualitative value. But it bears saying, had they stayed where they were, they might have received similar qualitative value added, assuming they were coming from another gospel preaching church that disciples its people.

Where people (rightly) take aim at transfer growth is when that is used to show our success. Whether we should or not, we do still frequently default to numbers to measure the health of our ministry. We still look at the 400 or 500 strong church as being ‘successful’. Now, it might well be, though we equally might want to ask ourselves – if nobody has become a believer through that ministry and every single person has transferred in from other churches – how successful have we really been? That doesn’t mean the transfer growth was wrong of itself. Ultimately, these are the people the Lord has given you, so there it is. But to brandish our size on that ground as ‘success’ and then find that gives us a platform to talk about successful evangelism or ministry – when actually our numbers do not speak to any great success on that front – that is where I think people start to bristle a bit.

But often, because of that, we can despise transfer growth altogether. Almost as though ‘transfer’ is a dirty word. It’s not real growth. Well, the fact is, it is real growth and it doesn’t matter what we’d prefer, that is what it is. The particular local church that received people from other churches has grown. What is more, the Lord is no less sovereign over that transfer growth than he is over another church’s growth by conversion. In different ways, the Lord has grown both of those churches and, in both cases, the growth is real. Both have grown, both are valid, both are under God’s sovereign control and neither should be sniffed at just because that’s how it happened.

Where I think some of us get a bit tetchy is when very large churches continue to grow by transfer when we recognise far greater needs in another place. So, for example, a couple transferring to a town with a 200 strong church and going there as opposed to the church of 10-15 people on a local council estate can make us question people’s gospel priorities. And that question might well be justified. But it bears saying that somebody who ultimately makes such a choice probably isn’t going to be the happy transfer into your church that you assume they would be, otherwise they would have come to you). The Lord remains sovereign over that choice and we probably don’t thank him enough for keeping us from those who might not be best for our church. Not everyone is led to join the places of greatest need and, even if we somehow managed to engineer it so they did, it would probably lead to problems that we never foresaw as those unsuited to our context are forced in to the detriment of the ministry. That is to nobody’s benefit.

Again, that leads us to view transfer growth badly. But the very fact that we often wish those people would join us, tells us that we don’t think transfer growth is the problem. For many churches, the transfer of one or two couples can be a major boost to their ministry. Not just in terms of numbers on seats, but in terms of evangelistic outreach and discipleship. It can be the impetus for reaching more people and what began as transfer growth (boo hiss) specifically leads to growth by conversion (yay!) It is hard to have a problem with transfer growth when it is the catalyst for growth by conversion, which is apparently what we are all aiming to do. What is more, sometimes the right people transferring can have a major transforming effect on your discipleship so that – in ways you might not have managed before – your members are built up so that they are better equipped to do the work of evangelism that leads to – yes, you’ve guessed it – growth by conversion.

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about hoarding resources. We should be talking more strategically about where people go, why they go there and how we can get them to move to the areas of greatest need. There are legitimate questions to be asked about whether a church of 500 or 600 people needs more people to transfer in or whether the kingdom is better served by encouraging those people to go to a smaller church in need of help. All of these things are legitimate to ask and there is a right discussion to be had about them. But those are all slightly different questions to the one at hand. The issue there is not whether transfer growth is good or bad. The issue in those questions is about whether we are transferring people to the areas of greatest need, should be more strategic in encouraging people to move to those areas and if it is right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful for transfers to just be an organic, self-selecting process.

But that does not mean transfer growth itself is wrong. Nor that transfer growth is a dirty concept. I can think of dozens of churches who would be greatly helped by the transfer of one or two godly couples committed to the gospel. I can see how that transfer would not just be for the sake of the making the pastor feel nice that a few new folks turned up but so that the work of ministry might flourish. It would be the kick-start of reaching people and seeing growth by conversion that might not otherwise happen. So, we shouldn’t despise transfer growth, even if we might want to carefully think through how it tends to happen and whether that is best.