When Transfer Growth is Healthy

Sometimes we are overly-simplistic in our criticisms and cautions. That’s just part of being human. Still, accuracy and balance (if biblical and true) is something to pursue. And one area in which I think pastors particularly get a little overly-simplistic is that of transfer growth. Transfer growth occurs when someone who is already a follower of Jesus (or at least professes to be so) switches from attending one local church to another.

There is a status quo regarding transfer growth that is understandable, often legitimate, but sometimes overboard. It is frankly taboo to appear to be at peace with Christians coming to your church or church-plant from another local church. As such, pastors who don’t want to be filleted don’t talk openly about it, no matter what the reason someone may have transferred to their church may be. My belief is that, while much of the time (perhaps most) transfer growth is due to unhealthy thinking or behavior, sometime’s it is not. And what I hope to do is shed some light on reasons why sometimes transfer growth can even be a godly, wise, and needed reality.

Let me be clear upfront that I don’t think intentionally pillaging the members of a gospel-centered, God-ordained church is ok. The leaders of the church I serve have, and will continue to tell people at times that they need to return to the church they came from when they desire to come to our fellowship in an unhealthy way, with selfish and sinful motivations. But I’ve also seen people come through our doors from other places who I will never tell to go back to where they came from. Here are some reasons why:

 1. The Gospel must be preached

Not all churches that have the gospel correct on their doctrinal statement actually preach the gospel. Some churches are so focused on speaking to people’s felt needs and emotional struggles that they forget to be clear on the problem of sin and how Jesus solved it for us in His death, burial, and resurrection. And in case we forgot, the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16-17), nothing else. Sometimes people come to my church from another, maybe visiting with a friend or something, and they hear the gospel clearly proclaimed, and God convicts them of sin, brings them to faith in the gospel and regenerates them. And as we counsel with them we discover that though they’ve been at a church that has the right gospel on paper, they’ve never heard it preached before. But now they understand it, are broken over it, and put their trust in Jesus in light of it.

The deal is, if you don’t understand and believe the true and simple gospel, you are not born-again. You are not saved from hell. So, for me, when I meet this kind of person at Refuge that last thing I’m going to do is tell them, “Well I’m sorry, but you need to go back where you came from.” I’m going to love them and make sure they have the opportunity to get the discipleship they’ve never had.

 2. Heresy is real

This ties in with the last point, but not every church that names Christ actually preaches Christ. Churches get into weird crap. That’s the bottom line. I remember learning that a local Episcopal church in a town where I used to pastor had started encouraging their Moms of Preschoolers (MOPS) group to start using the Quran and Book of Mormon for their studies in addition to the Bible. Because of that kind of thing, I was more than happy to welcome a few transfers to our church who knew there was something wrong with that. They voiced their concerns, called for a change and repentance, and were unheard. So, I was happy to welcome them to a place they could not only be discipled, but invite moms to, knowing that they’d be getting the living water of God’s word instead of the poisonous waters of pluralism.

 3. Seasons in Life Change

We also need to allow for people to grow or transition into different seasons of life. If I were simply looking for a church to plug my family into in a non-vocational ministry sense today, I wouldn’t go to the churches I attended in the past. This isn’t because they are evil or wrong. They’re just not a good fit for where our family is at right now in our relationship with Jesus theologically and philosophically.

4. Sometimes Churches Really do Hurt People

One of the most tragic reasons I’ve seen transfer growth is when people are truly hurt by leaders and churches. A couple years ago a pastor in my area was found to have been having affairs with underage girls in the youth groups he was leading. Part of the fallout from that was that people transferred from that church to other churches, including ours. We welcomed these people to our church as a hospital where they could be cared for and encouraged.

 5. Sharing the lowest theological common denominator isn’t always enough

Generally speaking, if we have the gospel in common with another church I love to promote unity between us. But there are some churches that are involved in things that are just weird enough for me to understand why people would leave them. For instance I know of a church not far from us that began promoting the idea that certain crystals used in worship services can encapsulate the praises of God’s people and project them into the cosmos. This church was encouraging people to give their money and tithes to the people taking these crystals around and doing presentations with them. Then there is the whole prosperity preaching issue that was prevalent. Still other churches who have that “come to us if you don’t want to be held accountable for your sin, in the name of grace” reputation are a problem in our area too. Some of these churches claim (or really do) believe in the same Jesus and gospel we do. But that lowest common denominator isn’t always enough. I would never tell someone they need to go back to that kind of environment because of the way people over-generalize the problem with transfer growth.

I hate unnecessary, flippant, consumeranity, transfer growth. I want people to get saved through Refuge Church. But I also don’t want to be so naïve as to act as if there are no legitimate reasons people may transfer into, or out of the church I lead. So am I saying that all transfer growth is good? No! I’m just saying we need to not be overly-simplistic in the way we talk about the issue.

A Final Exhortation

Having a good relationship with the other pastors in your community is vitally important for handling transfer growth in a way that keeps the gospel witness in tact in your area. If the pastors in your area lob grenades at each other behind one another’s back without having face-to-face interaction, we turn into a bunch of squabbling church people. And most lost people don’t want any part of that. Communicate with the pastors in your community about transfer growth. Ask their advice on how to handle it, and follow-up with each other. The witness of the gospel depends upon it.

12 replies
  1. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Good points all, Kellen. After reading #6 I am going to put away my crystals! 🙂

    Another point is that another church in town may be doctrinally pure, missionally motivated, loving leadership, etc., but the Holy Spirit is grieved and quenched. Think Ephesus in Rev. 2. I rarely examine the motives of transfer growth. They are adults and they can do what they want. If they have unfinished business I urge them to take care of that – reconciliations/forgiveness/etc., but I can’t remember the last time I urged someone to return to the church they left.

    I think that leaving a church should be a big deal with months of prayer and thought and conversation. This being so, by the time they do attend my church, they have pretty much emotionally and spiritually disconnected from the one they left.

    • Kellen Criswell
      Kellen Criswell says:

      Somehow I knew the “crystals” point was prophetic. 🙂 I think we’re in line here. I urge them to take care of their issues too. It isn’t common for us to tell someone to go back, but it does happen if they won’t take care of their issues, particularly when they’re in the wrong. We also make a practice of telling people that they’re sure to find things they don’t like about our church as well. I heard that Augustine once wrote “the church is a school for sinners.” If he did, he was correct. No perfect church will exist on earth practically speaking.

      And I can’t agree more about it being a “big deal” to leave a church, even when your reasons are good. Leaving right, and in a Spirit of unity is crucial.

  2. Daniel Fusco
    Daniel Fusco says:

    “My belief is that, while much of the time (perhaps most) transfer growth is due to unhealthy thinking or behavior, sometime’s it is not.”

    This is a very true statement. Much (perhaps most)… this is why I try and focus church planters on the vast # of lost peoples and discourage them from seeking transfer growth. Sure it happens, but we shouldn’t seek it.

    • Kellen Criswell
      Kellen Criswell says:

      Totally agree, Daniel. And to be clear, this post wasn’t any kind of response to your post a couple weeks ago, which I actually liked. 🙂 I would have to say I’ve never met a planter who states that their intention is to pull people out of other gospel-centered churches. Have you? If guys actually say that and have that mentality, that’s definitely nutty.

      • Daniel Fusco
        Daniel Fusco says:

        No one says that. But often actions betrays confession.

        I wasn’t worried about some potential response. People have their opinions. When you plant in San Francisco, you are not expecting everyone to agree with you 😉

        • Kellen Criswell
          Kellen Criswell says:

          Haha. Amen. I know you weren’t worried. I just wanted to clarify. These are some things I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m doing a couple of posts similar to this one. The next one’s going to be “Sometimes it’s Legitimately all about the Numbers.” 🙂 And again, I did agree with your article. I just also agree with mine.

          • Benjamin Morrison
            Benjamin Morrison says:

            kellen –

            great post! even though this wasn’t intended as a “response” to daniel’s previous post, i do think it added some healthy nuance and balance. i probably feel the validity of healthy transfer growth in my context more than just about any pastor in the states, since there are NO gospel-centered churches in our city besides ours. almost all the churches in the city are filled with prosperity theology and abusive, authoritarian power. again, that’s not the case for almost anyone in the states (or other countries with a strong protestant presence), so daniel’s post has lots of fair points as well. both of these posts together make for a very well-rounded approach.

  3. michael schreck
    michael schreck says:

    Great discussion on this ongoing topic of Church transfer growth. I feel that unless you are planting amongst a unreached people group (which i have been apart of for 12 years) this issue is bound to come up. After reading all three posts, i feel like all three together give a great balance.

    Agreed, if any pastor is planting with the motivation (spoken or unspoken) of intentionally drawing from a gospel centered church for their church plant, it certainly not the heart of God and also doesn’t make Jesus happy. I think this is a given.

    but one or two observations for thought…

    1. double standard…all of the writings have been in the context of the new church plant drawing away from an established church…but what about an established church receiving transfer growth from other established churches in the area. many times, intentionally or unintentionally, recognized or not recognized, through media outreaches, such as radio, internet etc…larger churches grow at great expense of other churches in the area…but many times, this isn’t taken into consideration or even recognized by the larger church…if i’m planting a church with 30 and we baptized 10, that means that 20 came from preexisting churches (transfer growth) but a larger church who grows by 200 in the year but only baptizes 50 or so, well they have experienced tremendous growth from transfer…but maybe not even aware of it or don’t concern themselves with it, i would gather probably even happy with it….double standard???….thoughts????

    2. one pastor, who pastors a large church, once told me, “my deacons can be assistant pastors in other churches.” this statement has always struck me. on one level it speaks of the tremendous impact that his ministry has had and ability to raise up such quality leaders in the church. praise the Lord for that! but on another level, why not let your deacon go, encourage him to step out to become that assist pastor, to develop his gifts in the context of a “smaller church” (perhaps a new church plant) and be raised up in ways that he might never be in his current church…in this sense, wouldn’t his transfer be ultimately for the greater glory of God and the extension of his kingdom. i know from my own experience, that when i transferred churches (from a very large church to a much smaller church), though my transfer was due to a change of geographic location across the states, the experience i got and mentorship and training i received could never have been given in my previous church. this isn’t meant to be a critique of larger churches, nor meant to be in favor of smaller churches, but just a reality that the experiences and opportunities that came to me could have never presented themselves to me in my previous context. but as they came were strategic in the Lord’s development of me.

    3. Another reason why someone might leave their current church to attend another is that God simply calls them to. Though i believe this reason could be spiritualized to the point where it means absolutely nothing but don’t forgot…God still calls.

  4. Matt Kottman
    Matt Kottman says:

    Great post Kellen,

    I love your last paragraph. By having a good relationship with pastors in our area, I’ve been able to sit down with some where transfer was happening. We are able to encourage one another and inform one another on the story of the one transferring. Since the love and mission is mutual, we don’t look at one another’s churches with suspicion. This is regarding true gospel-centric churches.

    • Kellen Criswell
      Kellen Criswell says:

      Thanks for the comments guys! Matt, I share the experience you’ve had communicating with other pastors in the community. It really promotes unity and better serves the body. What tends to be unhelpful is when we get bent out of shape about “stealing sheep” as if they were OURS in the first place. When people leave Refuge, I know they haven’t left THE church. And as long as they go to a gospel-centered church where the leaders are pursuing Jesus according to scripture and conscience, I don’t see it as a loss.

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