Why minus four is greater than plus twenty: the curious maths of a growing church


healthy-growthWe had about twenty new people at our newcomers event last time we ran it.  But in the week afterwards, a couple of church families warned me they might be moving away for job reasons.

Still, twenty new adults in, four adults out, 20-4=16 – sounds like church growth, doesn’t it?

Not so fast, young Jedi.

The new people – well, some aren’t Christians yet, they’re just curious; some are Christians who are ‘considering joining’ us; and a few are keen Christians whom we are now going to work to hook up with a small group, and then we can chat about where they might serve.

In other words, if they are actually joining, they are joining the outermost circles of the church, where they hardly know anyone, and don’t yet play a significant part in the church. Even keen, well-taught and self-sacrificial Christians can only join a church at the edges.

The two families, though, are core, and will leave a hole if they go.

So, the bare sum total tells us little.

Once again, it points out that churches need an intentional process to help people grow as Christians, and play their role in the body.  We need a series of clearly marked out pathways and entrance points for people to travel through to Christian maturity and ministry, so that we have growing servants waiting to take the place of the core Christians themselves, and to help those joining to move increasingly close to being core themselves.

We can’t rely on that happening by accident.

But, in the meantime, remember that not all numbers are created equal – in this case, minus four is larger than plus twenty.

As church leaders begin to get ready for their annual congregational meetings, one of the central facts we check before the meeting is the number of members – in, out.  And you’ve prayed, worked, hoped for a positive number in that column.

But look underneath the numbers to the reality, and you’ll find that even if your total is static, (gained five, lost five) your church is not in the same position it was.  People can only join at the circumference, but they can leave from anywhere, even the core.

We can make this even sharper: if we are being deliberate about evangelism and God blesses our church with new Christians, then that pushes the average spiritual maturity down.  Effective obedience to the Great Commission will increase the number of immature Christians, and therefore increase the need for us to build and mature them.  Who would have thought that effective ministry produced a more immature church? Hence the need for fruitful evangelism to connect with intentional disciple-making.

Who would have thought that effective ministry produced a more immature church?

And sharper yet: if your church intends to plant, then it must become even more intentional about that deliberate approach to maturity and ministry.  You’ll need to increase the number of people who can leave in order to serve, and those who can replace them and serve, because you only ever plant from the core.

So, what have you put in place to move people from the circumference to the centre, so that you can say goodbye without bursting into tears?

If you want to know more about new members groups, see The 10 Key Elements of a New Members Session and Never, Ever, Delegate This.

Pile in!


20130617-143219.jpgI wrote a ton of stuff about being an intentional church in ‘The Message of the Church’ for the Bible Speaks Today series.

You can order (discount) from 10ofthose here,

Otherwise, from Amazon here, and for your Kindle here.

US edition available from Amazon here, and for your Kindle here.

Aussie? Koorong has it here.


6 comments on “Why minus four is greater than plus twenty: the curious maths of a growing church”

  1. Hi Chris,
    I found this article thought provoking and helpful. I took a bit of time to reflect on it and here are some of my further thoughts. I think there are some added complexities. By the ay I think these are reasons that support your argument for clearly marked pathways not against!
    First of all, people who have been “churched” may well know how to move from outer circle to inner core reasonable quickly or at least at their own pace. Also churches seem to know how to help those people do it. Now sometimes that’s a good thing. When a Christian moves into the area and is ready to get involved then it’s brilliant. However, we also have people moving around churches for not so good reasons. Some may not yet be believers and some may come with a lot of mess, hurt, fall out, unresolved issues, failed ambitions etc. and particularly in smaller churches quickly get processed into the system. So sometimes our pathways may need to also include some gates and checkpoints to actually slow some people down on the journey. Sadly you can then end up with people being very new to the church leaving very quickly but causing a lot of unsettlement in the process.
    This also means we need to be careful – church plants and new incumbents in particular because we can set ourselves up in a way that will primarily attract transfers. This unsettles and disrupts other churches and doesn’t actually help you in the long run. I guess that should be obvious but you still see people almost intentionally setting up so that will happen.
    Secondly, because we have got used to processing transfers and people with a reasonably churched background we have to do a lot of work thinking about how you engage with people who come from far messier backgrounds who find a lot of what churches do alien and bewildering and for whom finding their place right in the middle of our church family may well not fit the traditional picture of what it means to be at the core. A very obvious example –when someone simply isn’t able to put together all the relevant paperwork to get their DBS complete and you have built your church core around getting people to help with kids clubs. So pathways into the core shouldn’t stop us checking that our core is actually right!
    Thirdly, if someone leaves out of necessity or because we intentionally send them out, then they’ll leave from the core but people also move out from the core. Things pull them out to the circumference. They get distracted or discontent. Sometimes the core of the church actually shifts because things have changed, especially when new leaders bring a different emphasis. Any thoughts on that? What do you do when someone is on that trajectory? Is there a point when you recognise that they probably will end up on the circumference and then leave and there’s not much you can do about it? Or do you try and find ways to bring them back in again?


    1. Good thogyts, Dave. Id emphasis that this is a s-l-o-w process, adneach time we should make it clear that some people present aren’t yet Christina,s and it’s Ok to listen but no go through that particular doorway yet. So bags of time for people to grow and come to Christ. And of course people have messy, complicated lives. And of course none of this is a sliver bullet to replace hard won, hard worked discipleship and pastoring.

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