A review of Stealing Sheep: The Church’s Hidden Problems with Transfer Growth. By William Chadwick.

InterVarsity Press, 2001.

This book has a sobering and timely message: most churches have stopped growing. Sure, many are getting bigger, but that is only because others are getting smaller. Church growth, in other words, is largely that of transfer growth (people leaving one church to join another), with very little due to conversion growth (people being saved and brought into a local fellowship).

This book examines the issue of transfer growth, and the larger phenomenon of the church growth movement. The author argues that transfer growth is wrong and it should be discontinued. In a nutshell, transfer growth gives a false view of the state of the church; it devalues evangelism; it promotes individualism instead of body life; and it detracts from the kingdom of God, exalting instead individual ministries.

The sad fact is, transfer growth adds nothing to the Kingdom of God: it simply reshuffles the deck. The church growth leaders of the 1980s closely examined the data and came to just that conclusion: there was no appreciable growth in the American evangelical population during this period. And the author quotes Australian research to show similar findings here as well.

Indeed, the whole issue of church growth needs to be questioned. Too many pastors have fell to the intoxicating spell of numbers – numerical growth is seen as evidence of God’s blessing. But, if this growth is simply the recycling of existing Christians, one has to question its validity. The command to reach the lost has degenerated into the desire simply to be bigger. But bigger is not necessarily better, and raiding other churches to become bigger is an unethical means of growth.

Of course this emphasis on numbers and the marketing techniques to obtain such numbers is a product of the secular culture around us. Says Chadwick, “The McChurch has replaced the traditional home church and its relational values. Fast-food Christians pull up to ecclesiastical drive-through windows, order their McGroups, consume the experience and then drive off, discarding relationships like burger wrappers on the highway of life. Savvy church growth pastors quickly learned that significant growth can occur if a church learns how to market its burgers to capture the appetite of this roving crowd.”

The truth is, church growth by conversion is a long and difficult task, while sheep stealing is quick and easy. In an age that values instant results, this is a plus. But for a church that has been told to make disciples, not steal sheep, this is a minus. Pastors must resist the temptation to take the easy path.

Also problematic is the fact that people often leave churches for the wrong reasons: to avoid conflict and its resolution; because of personality conflicts; impatience with worship styles; etc. Christians have become shoppers – religious consumers who instead of seeking to plug into a body of believers and stick with it, making it a better place, simply flit from one church to another, much like we flip through television channels with the remote control. Thus both leaders and lay people contribute to the sheep stealing problem.

There are cases, however, when a believer may need to leave a dying church. For example, churches that no longer preach the gospel message, or that teach heresy, or that are abusive, are all cases where a believer probably should leave. But such a move is about sheep rescue, not sheep stealing. It is a healthy type of transfer growth. But such a move should be considered prayerfully. Perhaps in some cases the desire to leave should be reconsidered. Perhaps staying and fighting might result in the renewal of the dying church.

And there is a time and place for a pastor to let go of some sheep as well. Sometimes a change is needed for the person’s individual growth. But again, such moves should be prayerfully considered. Escapism is the easy way out too often.

Thus this book does not call for a total ban on transfer growth. But it does dismantle many of the myths about church growth, shows the dangers involved, and points to a better way. In an age of mega-churches, and Christian marketing techniques, we need to be discerning and cautious. Simply adopting the world’s methods may seem to bring good results, but such results may in fact be built on sinking sand. Only churches built on the rock will stand. This incisive book helps us to do just that.

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