By John Worcester
What makes it hard for committed Christian churches, ministries and groups to grow by a high percentage of adult conversions? There are several contributing factors, but this one may surprise you.
It is the ratio factor. The number of committed Christian workers in a group compared to the number of pre-disciples and new converts needs to be low. In other words, you want to have a lower percentage of dedicated long-term Christians in a group than pre-disciples or brand new Christians.
A pre-disciple is anyone who has not been genuinely converted, or has been away from God and/or the church for a significant amount of time. Sometimes they are churchgoers, but for some reason they have not understood the gospel and God has not transformed their lives from the inside out. They are what you might call “non-transfer” people; they are not functioning disciples that are transferring from one good church to another. Up to a point, the higher the percent of pre-disciples that form a group the better chance the group has of being able to reach and include adult converts.
If this sounds weird to you do not stop now. Keep reading! Stay open! You are about to understand a principle that could revolutionize your ministry. You are about to explore a new paradigm that maximizes the chance of your group growing adult conversions.
Right ratios is one reason why new churches or groups that start from scratch by targeting the unsaved and unchurched often grow by 50-70% non-transfer growth. We have experienced this repeatedly in our church plants, and we have witnessed it as being a key factor in the evangelistic effectiveness of many churches and campus ministries. Think about it! Jesus had to start this way. By necessity everyone in His group started as a pre-disciple. The rapid growth of the church in early chapter of acts gave the Church in Jerusalem good ratios those brand new to the faith. Paul started churches with a small team of dedicated workers, but he quickly created crowds of pre-disciples that overwhelmed these workers with a majority of new disciples.
Conventional thinking says the larger the group of strong Christians you have to start with the more people you will be able to reach. This is not necessarily the case. It is not the number of people you have but the type of people you have. You may have heard of some cases of large groups of Christians coming together and still being able to reach many non-believers. This happens, but I do not believe it is the norm.
Often churches that start with a large group of Christians grow very fast, but this grow can be deceptive. One church in Houston grew to over 500 in the first year, but they only baptized 5 people. This kind of growth is exciting, but it may be mainly transfer growth. It is worth digging around behind the scenes to see what type of grow it really occurring. When analyzed you often find out that most of the growth is from committed Christians who have just moved to an area and are actively looking for a church of their brand and style.
I hope you are asking the question “why?” at this point. The answer may have more to do with sociology or anthropology than theology. When a pre-disciple visits a group of 80-90% longtime, committed Christians they simply do not feel comfortable. They feel way behind. They feel ignorant. They feel like they could never become a significant leader in the group. They fear they may not be accepted. They doubt if they could ever live up to the high spiritual standards of the group. This seems to be especially true for upper middle class and upper class people are not used to feeling like the low man in a group.
These seeking pre-disciples feel uncomfortable even if the Christians are really friendly, healthy, and accepting people. They sense how different the people in the church are even when the Christians are trained to be seeker sensitive and do not flaunt their knowledge or speak “Christianize”. The fact remains that the majority of the people in most Christian group have been Christians for a long time and new people and see how different they are. If the Christians are not very different in important things like morals then it is even worse. Now the seeker sees not only churchy people, but recognized them as hypocrites to boot.
I remember what one pre-disciple said to me in church we started in California. It was church that had grown to around 200 in the first year and 80% of those regularly attending were non-transfer types. She said, “I love this church because so many other people do not know anything either.” She was saying that she liked starting off the Christian experience with the majority of other people at her same spiritual level. Don’t we all feel this way when start something new? If I am just starting to run I don’t want to run with the Olympic contenders I want to run with people closer to my level of fitness.
At this point your may reasonably convinced about the concept, and you are becoming concerned about solutions. You are in a group of nearly all well established Christians. They are good, sincere people who love the Lord, but the church is not growing much by conversion growth. The few baptisms you have are usually children or occasion you. Where the adults whose lives are being transformed? You want your church to grow. You are trying to reach people, but when pre-disciples to visit they do keep coming back. They say they like the church, but they do not become a vital part. They bounce right off, and your group cannot seem to get any momentum. To say the least you are frustrated. Join the crowd. This is the story of the vast majority of churches the US.
YOUR CHURCH SERVICE
You have a some options. Both are good ones, it all depends on your gifts and resources. First, if you have enough money and a really good marketing strategy you may be able to overwhelm current group with a flood of new pre-disciples all at once. Have a big day, use your current group as a launch team and create a crowd of new people. Design your service to be seeker friendly, and work hard on creating an environment where new people are encouraged to meet each other. Utilize things like refreshments after the service, and nametags. New people will feel more comfortable when they meet lots of other new people and when they meet people on a similar spiritual level. You can find out more about how to create a crowd of pre-disciples in my materials on how to plant a Purpose Driven Church.
DECENTRALIZING YOUR TROOPS
The second option is to decentralize your troops. Equip and encourage them to start their own personal evangelistic ministries. Get them befriending their neighbors and coworkers, loving on them, and starting small groups tailored to their needs. If a strong Christian get one pre-disciple to meet with them and they have a reasonable ratio (50-50). This mustard seed size group is better able to include pre-disciples and grow than a group of many Christians. If the pre-disciple brings one friend to the group you now have a 1 to 3 ratio which makes it even easier for new pre-disciples to fit in.
When you get enough of your strong Christians out developing their personal ministries you will begin to see converts, and these new disciples will have many new friends to invite to church. After a period of this personal work going on, plan a big day. A day when those who are building friendships, starting small groups and sharing Christ can bring those they have been working with together. The best thing may be to invite them all on the same day so you overwhelm your Christian core and change your ratios. Once the ratio of pre-disciple and new converts is at least equal to the number of longtime Christians you have a fighting chance to see your church continue to grow by conversion growth.
The third option is to do both of the above. Most churches need to pull out all the stops and do something that drastically changes that ratios in the church. Through Grassroots evangelism and big days your maximize the chances of enough pre-disciple visitors to make the church more appealing to other pre-disciples.
What is ratio in your group? If it is not right then start focus on mobilizing your people to start personal evangelistic ministries in the neighborhoods or at work. Start new groups as small as you need to have the right ratios, and grow them as large as possible as long as your ratios stay right. New converts in your group do not mess up your ratios, at least for a while. After a new convert has been a believer for long enough they grow spiritually and they naturally become different from pre-disciples you are seeking to reach. Unless you maintain great growth momentum the ratios of Christian groups naturally become more weighted toward the Christian end. At this point you need to change the dynamics of the group by changing it into a discipleship group that equips and encourages members to go out and start their own personal ministries and their own new groups with the right ratios.
Groups started with the right ratios go through two stages. The first stage is the growth stage. New pre-disciples are integrated quite easily into the group during this stage. It may grow from 2 to 10 in just a few months. This is incredibly fast growth. At some point most groups come to a mature size for the group and it stops growing. Growth momentum is lost and the ratios make it harder and harder to grow by conversion growth. Now is the time to lead the group to shift into its multiplication stage. The energies of the group are now focused towards helping the members of the group start their own grassroots evangelistic ministries and new groups full of mainly pre-disciples and new Christians. Picture a wheat plant growing rapidly to its mature size, and then producing a head of seeds so that it can reproduce itself into several new reproducing plants.
Many rapidly grow churches and movements around the are thinking this way around the world are experiencing explosive conversion growth. Along with a passionate spirituality a part of their secret formula has to do with ratios.
These options are not easy, but for many churches it may be your only way out to break through to the type of ministry that bears much fruit, and allows you to experience the fullness of joy, John 15:8.11. Are you willing to pay the price to start bearing fruit?
“Truly, Truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24.
© 2005John Worcester, Pastor of TEAM Church