Cannibalizing the Church

I’m worried that we’re cannibalizing our churches.

A few days ago, Lifeway published data about more churches closing than opening during the pandemic. That week, McKinsey Co. stated that more businesses opened than closed during the same period. We’re losing ground.

But that’s not the worst of it. For decades big churches have swallowed smaller ones. Often through self-promotion and clever marketing. Other times it’s a matter of people looking for a home after a church closed. Either way, this presents a false picture of church growth. There’s a big difference in motives. However, none of this is good. We’re cannibalizing ourselves.

It feels reassuring to hear glowing numbers about individual congregations growing while we fail to notice that we continue to lose ground. We’ve been lulled to sleep while the house burns around us.

Pulling from other congregations affects how we approach church planting, as well.

A friend is up to his eyes in a church plant. He’s also in some hot water with his funding/coaching agents. They’re demanding a large opening day crowd, which openly assumes pulling people from other churches. Seen as necessary to build momentum and ensure funding for the new church, it looks like cannibalization to me.

The saddest part of this is that he’s gaining ground by making disciples in a single neighborhood—dozens of them. But that’s not enough to satisfy his critics. Planting via evangelism and disciplemaking may be slower but it is how movements build momentum.

It seems that evangelism has become a back-burner issue. I’ve noticed this as I’ve published a series of blogs and videos touching the subject. The number of people responding by opening articles or watching videos drops each time evangelism shows up in a headline for a posting.

U.S. population continues to proliferate while church attendance and the number of self-identifying Christ-followers shrinks. We need to stop kidding ourselves about transfer growth and teach our people to make disciples outside the church. Remember those folks in Jerusalem, “enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

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26 thoughts on “Cannibalizing the Church”

  1. Tom Clinkscale

    Adding to it is leaders who accept those who come into their churches and do not ask what brought them. Those who leave one church to another are definitely not happy with their former church. They likely have not genuinely sought to resolve the issues or biblically address broken relationships.

    1. So true. We even had people try to reproduce the very thing that upset them in their previous church home. But, I learned not to reject transfer growth, just not to build on it. Often those who are upset by another congregation handle it poorly, but the underlying problem is that they were not allowed to fully function in their spiritual gifts. Sometimes discipline was the best form of love, other times it was simple encouragement.

  2. Ouch! I would be interested in knowing how many of these new businesses that opened during the pandemic are Business As Mission businesses with the express purpose reaching the lost in a post-Christian culture and providing a place of cover to disciple them?

  3. I couldn’t agree more. I do training in Evangelism by Multiplication for pastors and churches. I get very little interest (but a lot of lip service) with American churches. Asian and African churches, on the other hand, welcome my training with open arms.

    1. At the present rate of “growth,” what kind of churches will be left in 10-15 years?
    2. At the present rate of “growth,” how long will Christianity survive in the US?
    It seems that almost all churches are much better at creative worship/entertainment than they are at evangelism. But where is “worship/entertainment” in the Great Commission?
    We need to look at our churches and ask?
    1. How much of our budget goes toward evangelism?
    2. How much time and effort do we make to get to know our communities and to develop effective ways to meet them?
    3. How often do our staff go to evangelism training conferences?
    4. Do we require each of our staff to actively be involved in soul winning every week?
    5. How often do we preach on the responsibility for personal evangelism?
    6. How often do we talk about evangelism from the pulpit? (If we can take an offering every service, we can promote evangelism every service).
    7. Do we make an evangelistic appeal and give an invitation to accept Christ in every service?
    8. What are we doing to develop and sustain a culture of evangelism in our church?
    9. Do we make Gospel tracts available for our members to use?
    10. When is the last time we trained our members how to use Gospel tracts?
    11. How many months has it been since we had a personal evangelism class for our members?
    12. Do we make new believers wait before they are allowed to obey God in baptism?
    13. Do we have a systematic program for following up new believers?
    14. What is our goal for a specific number to be saved this year? Have we prayed about it? Are we believing God for it? Are we constantly equipping our people for the work of this ministry? Do we talk about it with our people to keep it top-of-mind? Is this a major part of our church program or just a dispensable add-on?
    15. How many of the people that made decisions for Christ through our church last year are still in church this year?

    If we are not doing evangelism, we are not doing church.
    We don’t need laser lights, fog machines and other worship toys to do the Great Commission.
    We need a passion for Christ, a church fueled by prayer and bold obedience to the Great Commission our Lord gave us. “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do the things I say?”

    1. A BIG Amen. And the list goes on and still not even exhaustive. Perhaps the principle behind Eph. 4:11-13 be at best thoroughly understood. As our church leader often say, Discipleship is an “Old Boring Strokes” but it works. This is where our faithful congregation leads to become ministers and passed on to generations”

    2. 35 years ago David Watson could have made a similar list. A few years earlier in one year he had “won” and baptized 200 people. Today he says “I was very good at manipulating people.” It was around 1990 when he first saw something he’d read many times. It was what Jesus says in John 6:44&45. Jesus says that the Father is the only one who brings people to Jesus and that EVERYONE who hears and learns (to obey) from the Father comes to Jesus. He began simply arranging for people to hear the Father, the WORD of GOD. He passed out 1000 audio Bibles to villages in North India and saw over 600 churches started by people just listening to the Word of God. Today there are tens of millions, perhaps over a hundred million disciples around the world willing to die for their faith as a result of Watson’s training of leaders. A good place to start learning about what he’s learned is the book he and his son, Paul, wrote, Contagious Disciple Making.

      1. Sign in front of a little church in the back hills of Virginia:
        “The Lord calls us to be fisher’s of men”,
        You catch them,
        God cleans them.

  4. I always questioned the “Launch Big” approach because I knew it had to involve lots of money on clever marketing opposed to lots of time doing messy ministry. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t sell out finances to a denominations approval.

    1. Thanks Dru, I totally agree about doing the messy thing. Slow at first, but momentum builds when you make disciples who can make disciples. Your food after church is also a great way to network new people into the family.

  5. I love this article because it realigns our compass. Bob Sharpe’s list profoundly exemplifies the evangelistic side. I believe we are a people of “AND.” As we do evangelism, we also have to edify the body of believers. We need each other. All our perspectives bring clarity.

  6. Excellent, very true article. The challenge is reaching out to the ever growing number of people who won’t walk inside any church & have adverse feelings towards anything related to Church, yet know that in times of crisis, it’s God who they call out to. I’ve always had a lot of people close to me like this, but go on cyclical, endless pursuits that always come up empty and when they do, I’m there in friendship. I’ve struggled how to bring Jesus into the friendship without preaching & turning people off, and have found that bringing people to soup kitchens & feeding the homeless is a good segway-unfortunately, lots of opportunities for that here in LA.

    1. Wow, love the idea of bringing others to feed the homeless. We did some of this in Honolulu and found outsiders to the gospel quite willing to help. A great first step toward better things…

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