It is quite dispiriting to feel the need to return to this topic. It has been quite a few years since I first wrote about the ‘Transferee Mirage’. The original context was the satisfaction being expressed by many church leaders at the time that a (then) recent National Church Life Survey (2011) indicated ongoing attendance growth in the churches comprising the particular large church region I was part of. (Although note – that growth trend has since turned to one of decline). It was claimed that the statistics showed the ‘Success’ of the large ‘Mission’ campaign that had been in train for nearly ten years.
‘There are still church leaders being deluded by the ‘Transferee Mirage’
However, I pointed out that the ‘growth’ statistics actually created a ‘Mirage’ that was a delusion in regard to missional success. For, over the same period of attendance growth there had been a steady decline in ‘Newcomers’ in the congregations surveyed. ‘Newcomers’ are defined as those who have joined a church in the last five years who were NOT previously a member of another congregation. That is they had never been a church member (the Unchurched) or not for a long time (the De-churched). While not perfect, the ‘Newcomer’ statistic is arguably the best metric we have of missional success, measuring as it does new disciples, or at least potential new disciples of Christ engaged in a church fellowship.
So then, how could it be that missional success, as measured by Newcomers was declining while attendance was growing? The answer was that attendance growth was largely due to people transferring from other denominations, from churches interstate but in our region mostly due to immigration. This is not the result of missional endeavor and is not ‘Kingdom growth’! It does however make churches look good in their annual statistics and also make members feel good.
The reality was however, that declining missional success was actually being masked by what can be called the ‘Transferee Mirage’. Jesus said go and be disciple-makers not poachers, i.e. not count ‘success’ as gaining church members from other congregations, locally, interstate or overseas.
What is so dispiriting about this issue is that even after eight years or so there are still church leaders being deluded by the ‘Transferee Mirage’ to the detriment of their understanding of their church’s missional success or otherwise. This raised its head again recently in a conversation with a colleague who told me about the leadership of his church which consistently fails to discern the difference between ‘Transfer Growth’ and ‘Kingdom Growth’, the latter being the ‘new disciple’ fruit of effective missional endeavour.
The apparent health of a congregation, church plant, house church, and even an ‘Unbounded Church’ type missional community may well be a mirage, the ‘Transferee Mirage’, where attendance growth is due to arrivals from some other church elsewhere, not ‘Newcomer’ growth.
When a church leadership fails to critically analyse attendance data they may be deluded by the ‘Transferee Mirage’ as to their missional success. The membership also may be deluded into thinking that the attendance increase they see on Sundays is the success of missional effort when in reality the ‘Newcomer’ percentage ranges from minimal to zero.
For the missional health of a congregation it is vital to spot the difference between ‘Attendance Growth’ and ‘Kingdom Growth’. If we think that the fellowship we belong to, small or large, is healthy, it is helpful to do a survey in our mind. How many ‘Newcomers’, not ‘Transferees’ are there.
Better still, ask the leadership. They are supposed to know!