By Brian Jones
In all my years of following Christ, there are only two prayers I really regret praying.
“OK 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-year-old with the gift of evangelism could muster, I leaned back, cleared my mind, and waited.
Seconds later the word Greenland came to mind.
OK, 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 1999 in preparation for our move to the suburbs of Philadelphia to start Christ’s Church of the Valley, I told God, “I promise we will grow this church through conversion growth only.” And 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 his or her church to attend yours) is rarely a win for the kingdom. But few take steps to prevent it from happening, as if the matter were 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 have tried a number of strategic measures over the years to fend off the tide of church transfers:
• We’ve taken time during our biggest Sundays (Easter, Christmas, etc.) to de-invite Christian visitors from coming back the following Sunday.
• We continuously remind our people NOT to invite Christian friends to our church.
• During our 101 class called “Welcome to CCV,” we take time to explain why 80 percent of the Christians in the room should never come back to our church.
• When I meet visitors after the service and find out they are from a Bible-
believing Christian church, I always encourage them to go back to their former church.
• When picking elders, staff, or volunteer team leaders, we first look for those converted from within the ministry of our church.
• If a churched visitor attends our church and we find out he or she has unresolved conflict in a previous church, we deny that person membership until he or she goes back, resolves 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 ever allow Christian community groups like the local homeschooler’s association (i.e., groups that gather Christians interdenominationally from various churches) to 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.
• We broadcast non-Christian music through 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 the Left Behind series, Amish-based Christian fiction, and Thomas Kinkade paintings are blights on the Christian community.
That usually does the trick.
Has It Worked?
I’d say 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 who has come through our doors in 11 years, we never would have been able to baptize 1,286 non-Christians. Ever.
We would have compromised our vision. One Christian would have brought another, then another, until finally I would have been 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 megachurch with little-to-no kingdom impact.
What’s the Downside?
Why don’t churches strategically focus on kingdom growth? It’s simple: money, attendance, and ego.
Money—New Christians don’t automatically start giving the way churched attendees give. They must 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 2006, 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 a person’s greatest giving potential comes between the ages of 45 and 65, which is, through no coincidence, the sweet-spot age of the average churched visitor. Try doing a capital campaign with newly converted 20- to 30-year-olds. You don’t break giving records with folks skipping trips to Starbucks to give to your building program.
Attendance Stability—Wide fluctuations in attendance 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 hopefully will do.
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 depth in discipleship that radically changes their attendance patterns.
That’s why, in any outreach-focused church, the rule of thumb is this: the people who actually consider your church “home base” is 2 to 3 times your Sunday attendance. For us that means anywhere from 3,300 to 5,000 people are loosely connected to our church. If those same 3,300 to 5,000 people were all from churched Protestant backgrounds, our attendance would be significantly larger.
Ego—Finally, the biggest downside is the toll it has taken on my ego.
Yes, 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 percent sold on the church’s vision and philosophy.
• No one invites unbelievers like people who have come to Christ in your church.
• And, of course, no one believes in Calvinism or other kooky belief systems. You rarely have to unteach bad theology with new Christians.
But the downside has been personally costly.
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 megachurch of people that I cherry-picked from other churches?
Growing a church solely through conversion growth is rewarding, but painful.
The only upside 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 Philadelphia, please feel free to stop by for a visit.
Brian Jones is senior pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He blogs at BrianJones.com and is the author of three books, none of which is Amish-based Christian fiction.