Examining Assemblies of God statistics on growth

Update: See “The A/G: Desperately Seeking Disciplers” for the latest information on this issue, and to see what the A/G is doing about it.

Blogging from the heartland, Sean MacNair calls it like he sees it. In a brief post he concisely serves up highlights from 100 years of American church renewal (See: “The Pardoner’s Tale: My best (stolen) idea so far this year“). He buzzes over Pentecostalism, the Charismatic renewal, healing revivals, Billy Graham, the Charismatic Catholic renewal, the Jesus Movement, the megachurch-cum-denomination trend, worship innovations, and the Emergent Conversation. His point: Renewal threatens the status quo but ultimately gets institutionalized, fades into oblivion, or is assimilated into the mainstream.

Buried in his post is a subtle criticism of the movement that spawned them all, and the institution that formed as a result: Pentecostalism and the Assemblies of God. He writes:

New movements come, new movements go, and the people on either side of an impending change in style always look askance at the guy across the aisle, when in fact they don’t have to, this too shall pass or at least be assimilated.

For example, look at the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in the early 1900′s. The holy rollers came on the scene in waves, and boy were the established churches aggravated. Excessive emotion was being brought into the church, emotion not befitting the “house of Gawd” (adopt the proper pseudo-reverential tone here). These Pentecostals, as they were dubbed, were driven out and forced to establish their own fellowships. Eventually groups like the Assemblies of God sprang up, never intending to become a denomination, but after 30 years travelling down that road anyway. 100 years later the AOG is part of the establishment and new groups are trying to breath life into it. A movement that brought much needed life to the faith of many, and was thought of as a threat, did not remain so.

(Emphasis mine.)

MacNair’s criticism echoes Margaret Poloma’s evaluation:

Just as other once-charismatic religious movements have followed the path of over-institutionalization and over-regulation, which in turn has discouraged much of the original charisma, the Assemblies of God could suffer the chilling effects of routinization. … Paradoxically, the institution that developed out of charisma and has been strengthened by fresh outbursts also seeks to tame and domesticate this spirit. it remains to be seen whether — and how much — charisma will rule over bureaucratic forms and regulations, or whether organizational concerns will stifle the Spirit.

(Again, emphasis mine.)

 — Margaret Poloma, ‘The Assemblies of God at the Crossroads: Charisma and Institutional Dilemmas,” Christian Century, (10/17/90), pp. 932-934.

My knowledge is neither vast nor deep. But in my brief time with the A/G (since 1980 or so) I only recall two recent reformation movements directed at the Assemblies of God, and they were both internal: the “Decade of Harvest” and, on its heels, the “Vision for Transformation.” (If any of you know of others, internal or external, please let me know.)

Prompted by MacNair’s post, I thought I’d look at what exactly has been happening with the Assemblies of God in raw numbers over the past few decades to see if either of these reforms have had an effect. For my numbers I relied on the outstanding 2004 statistical report prepared by the A/G’s statistician, Sherri Doty, available from the A/G’s website at http://ag.org/top/about/Statistical_Report_2004.pdf.

As always, please correct me if I make any counter-factual claims below.

The Decade of Harvest:
The Decade of Harvest was instituted in the 1990s in light of several years of declining church growth in the area of church plants. From about 1965 to 1982 (the height of the charismatic renewal) more churches were opened than closed. But according to official A/G statistics this changed in 1983. Paul Drost, director of the A/G’s Department Church Planting, reflected on this in 1999:

[F]rom 1983 until the present, church plantings have been on a downward trend while church closings have been on an upward trend! The exception was 1990-92, which was the beginning of the Decade of Harvest. We do thank God for the first time in 7 years new church openings topped the 300 mark with 315 reported for 1999! (35 years of Church Planting: 1965-1999, viewed 01/02/06)

The Decade of Harvest saw 2,940 new A/G churches planted, but when you subtract the closed churches (2,077), the net change is just over half of what happened in the 80s. Drost claimed that the program’s emphasis on planting new churches not only offset the closings, but actually diminished the closings. The actual numbers do not bear that out (see chart below). The 1990s were a time of continued losses and faltering growth.

General Superintendent Thomas Trask has indicated this program-driven effort, though beneficial, ultimately might not have been directed by the Spirit:

“The Decade of Harvest was a program, a set of goals established by this church in the ‘90s. Goals were set for planting churches, adding ministers, and more. The goals were certainly good for this Fellowship, but we can’t be driven by a program; we must be led by the Spirit.” (Emphasis mine. From: “Where Is The Spirit Leading The Assemblies of God?“)

Worse, says, C. Peter Wagner, the Decade of Harvest is not only programmatic, but serves up evidence of the lack of vitality and evangelistic zeal in the Assemblies of God:

C. Peter WagnerI mentioned how the Assemblies of God growth rate had slowed down in the 1990s, which was projected to be their “Decade of Harvest.” Here is the way the denomination chose to report progress to their constituency in mid-decade, 1995:

“The Harvest Task Force, in its first meeting under the new leadership structure, issued a clarion call to ‘retool and refocus for the harvest.’ Specific directives include (1) A spiritual call to revival. … While number goals can serve as a measure of progress, the emphasis needs to return to the basics.”

Notice how the language of this report focuses on yesterday: “Re-tool,” “Re- focus,” “Re-vival,” “Re-turn.” The prefix “re” means to reinstate something from the past. “Revival” literally means to bring back to life. What life? The life of the past. Help is obviously needed. Where will this help come from? The past! This sort of appeal is extremely common whenever evangelism bogs down. On the other hand, when evangelism is powerful, when soul saving is on a roll, you simply don’t hear this kind of language from leaders of growing churches and apostolic networks.

—C. Peter Wagner, Churchquake: The Explosive Dynamics of the New Apostolic Revolution (Regal Books: August, 2000), 61. (See “Inside the Book.”)

Indeed, after 1995, few mentioned the Decade of Harvest goals and program. When the 1990s closed, if it was mentioned at all, the Decade of Harvest was declared a mild success, then quietly ushered off the stage. Statistically, it’s true that more churches opened than closed in the 90s, but as I noted, the numbers were merely half that of the 80s. And the downward trend has continued on the same track through the first half of the new millennium. Here’s a summary:

80-89 90-99 00-04
Churches Opened 3,226 2,940 1,329
Churches Closed -1,596 -2,077 -1,107
Net Change 1,630 863 222
Net Change Per Year 163.0 86.3 44.4
Source: 2004 AG Statistical Reports (http://ag.org/top/about/Statistical_Report_2004.pdf)

The program apparently had little or no effect on church openings or closings. Perhaps Trask was right: it simply wasn’t of the Spirit. For a more comprehensive look at the trends, see this chart:

The “Average Net Change” line, in the chart, is a moving 10–year average. Clearly, in terms of physical churches, the A/G in North America is weakening despite the best efforts of the Decade of Harvest. Whatever the Decade of Harvest was supposed to “fix,” it didn’t improve anything from the church opening or closing standpoint. (Though, since 1975, the mean number of adherents per church increased from 136 to 226–-churches are now, on average, 166% fuller than they were three decades ago.)

Interestingly, as the A/G decided to focus away from the Decade of Harvest program in 1995–1996, the rate of new conversions suddenly reversed its trend. Looking at the reported conversions, we see that from 1990 to 1997 there was a dramatic increase in reported conversions from the years before (nearly double), but since 1997, annual reports of conversions have steadily decreased. It’s possible the DOH emphasis could have been a contributing factor, but it could also be coincidence. (For instance, the Brownsville Revival began in June, 1995, spawning other revivals nationwide). See chart:

Now, church planting is one way to look at the A/G’s relative health from a “church growth” perspective. Another method, of course, is to look at membership and adherents. There are problems with either number, of course. Church membership is not necessarily indicative of the number of people who attend a church or who claim to “belong” to a church, since the primary benefits of membership are the voting privileges in church business matters. That number is necessarily smaller — especially in larger churches. On the other hand, the count of attenders, or adherents, is more volatile and less subject to validation. So, the number is more “fuzzy.” I prefer looking at adherents, though, since church membership is becoming increasingly less relevant as a method of determining a church’s overall attendance.

Despite the Decade of Harvest’s apparent ineffectiveness, we saw that conversions were nevertheless up. So, how did the A/G’s numbers fare in terms of adherents? Here’s the chart:

Clearly, the A/G is still growing, in terms of numbers. But something interesting emerges when you compare the new converts versus the adherents. If you only look at the net change of adherents in each year, and compare it with the new converts each year, perhaps we could get a view of how “sticky” the conversions are. Presumably, each new convert stays in the church for a time, for discipleship, before moving to a new church, unless the church has a high level of transient attenders (say, for example, a church near a large college).

Looked at this way, the picture seems startling, to me. Not only are the new believers outstripping the net change in adherents, they seem to have no impact on the growth trend at all. If the data are accurate, we may be bringing folks to Christ in the A/G, but we’re not keeping them. One explanation is that people leave the A/G for a church more in harmony with their childhood expectations, say a mainline or other Evangelical church. A more disturbing explanation is that we’re preaching the gospel and getting decisions, but that these new believers are falling by the wayside, and not staying plugged into church anywhere. There’s no way to know, really. Not from the stats.

Whatever the case, these numbers tell me that the A/G’s evangelism efforts have failed over the last 20–30 years. Not even half the new converts are staying. Barna and others report that the majority of church growth is transfer growth: “More than 80% of the current growth registered by Protestant churches is biological or transfer growth.” (See barna.org.) If that analysis holds true for the A/G, then we are in seriously bad shape as an evangelistic enterprise.

And this, despite Barna’s findings that A/G adherents place a very high value on evangelism:

Members of the fellowship provided a wide variety of topics when asked about the single most important activity that Assemblies of God churches perform. The most frequently mentioned activity, offered by one in four members of the fellowship (26%), was evangelism. This included sharing faith, witnessing, winning souls, and reaching the lost. (See: “Assemblies of God Fellowship Study, 2003.”)

Only 8% felt that discipleship was most important. Do the math.

The Vision for Transformation:
After the Decade of Harvest program faded from view and it became clear to A/G leadership that something else needed to change, attention turned from purely mechanical emphases on church planting and evangelism to discovering what needs attention spiritually. Thus, Trask’s criticism of the Decade of Harvest as merely a program, and his insistence that the Vision for Transformation emphasis is Spirit-led. Let’s revisit Trask’s quote, and extend it:

The Decade of Harvest was a program, a set of goals established by this church in the ’90s. Goals were set for planting churches, adding ministers, and more. The goals were certainly good for this Fellowship, but we can’t be driven by a program; we must be led by the Spirit. We would be fooling ourselves if we thought the Vision for Transformation alone could change the spiritual climate of this church. It can’t. It won’t. Four words characterize what I believe needs to happen: renew, release, resource, and realign. Most importantly, we must have renewal — a passion for the things of God: prayer, evangelism, discipleship, worship, missions, and more.

Notice here the recurrence of the theme that Wagner commented on: “renew,” “release,” “resource,” and “realign.” To echo Wagner, at least two of these are backward looking emphases: “renew,” and “realign.” The difference, though is in the emphasis on “release,” and “resource.” Searching for these emphases revealed only this expansion:

RENEW — We must have a spiritual renewal within our hearts and churches – a fresh passion to win the lost, and then to disciple them.

REALIGN — We must seek ways to more effectively serve this church by realigning our ministries.

RELEASE — We must take whatever steps are necessary to release this church and its people to fulfill the call of God upon their lives.

RESOURCE—We must make the best use of the resources entrusted to us.(From: 2003-2005 Biennial Report: General Superintendent’s Report)

I like the first theme a lot, but I haven’t seen much about it in the official documents yet (it may be there, I haven’t found it). The emphasis currently seems to be on the fourth theme: “resource.” Namely: the headquarters and leadership resource.

According to AG.org, the latest incarnation of the Vision for Transformation (VFT) committee highlighted three emerging themes:

The Assemblies of God should be a network of fully empowered Pentecostal churches that multiply themselves through church planting.

The Fellowship should give emphasis and priority to the call of God and effective ministry in the credentialling process.

The Fellowship’s organizational structure should be aligned around mission and ministry to serve our ministers and empower local churches. (See “Progress Report.”)

The first theme sounds like a rewording of the Decade of Harvest emphasis. The second theme relates to changes in credentialing processes to both tighten (background screening) and loosen (local church credentialing) the ministerial application process. The third theme relates to changes at the organizational level, primarily in and around the national headquarters beauracracy.

In all, the VFT emphasizes mechanical and structural transformation more than spiritual transformation. To be sure, at each biennial business meeting, there is a “Spiritual Life” report given that carries strong calls for spiritual renewal, but those calls seem absent in much of the VFT reports ag AG.org.

For example, the Progress Report cited above lists VFT progress in the following areas:

  • Facilitating the Credentialing Process
  • New District Governance Models
  • Mandatory Screening of Ministerial Applicants
  • National Placement Service
  • Cooperative Church Status
  • Assistance to Language Credential Holders
  • Local Church Credential
  • Credentialing Reciprocity in the United States
  • Requirement of A/G History and Polity Course by All Credentialed Applicants
  • Global University and Berean Courses
  • Church Planting
  • Resolution 17: Internal Structure of General Council
    Culture (Culture at HQ — Rich)
  • Structure (Constitution and Bylaws changes — Rich)
  • Internal Economy (Budget by Deliverables)
  • Training Systems (Methods and Tools)
  • Metrics and Rewards (At HQ — Rich)
  • VFT Committee Reappointed

    (See “Progress Report.”)

In short, the work that’s been done is almost entirely organizational and structural, not spiritual. It remains to be seen what long-term spiritual and corporate effects this will have. But the reports on HQ organizational change are mixed. From friends who work there, “It’s more of the same.” But CIO magazine provided a report, which I blogged on, that seemed very optimistic. (See: “The Assemblies of God’s corporate roadmap for transformation.”)

Conclusion:
I am an A/G boy through-and-through. I came to faith in a Baptist church, rededicated my life and was baptized in another Baptist church, but I was discipled and grew up in an Assemblies of God church. I went to an A/G bible college, studied at an A/G seminary, and still attend an A/G church where I occasionally enjoy the privilege of leading a Christian education course now and then. When asked, I leap at the chance to preach at an A/G church. I agree with A/G theology, I conform to A/G practices and I feel no need or desire to change my affinity. (That doesn’t mean that you who aren’t A/G are wrong. You might be, but it’s not because you’re not A/G! This is the way I do church. I recommend it for like-minded folks, but it is not the only way to be a solid, Christ-loving, God obeying, Bible believing, Christian.)

That doesn’t mean that my denomination — err … fellowship — doesn’t have its problems. We have problems. Every organization has problems. We’d be in Heaven otherwise.

The Decade of Harvest program was created to address some of those problems. I’m not sure it succeeded. It probably succeeded at something: perhaps more churches were planted than would have been otherwise, and that’s not bad. We need that emphasis today. Sometimes, healthy churches should spawn a daughter church rather than fund a new megachurch building program. Seriously. It should happen a lot more often.

The Vision for Transformation project was also created to address some of these problems, and it appears to be succeeding at transforming the organizational structures — but it will take considerable time before we know whether those transformations were beneficial or detrimental. And there’s no evidence yet that VFT has affected either A/G church growth or membership retention.

I’m proud of my adopted Pentecostal heritage. I’m proud of many, if not most, of my fellow Pentecostal believers. (I’m ashamed of some, too.) I was proud when Barna reported that Assemblies of God believers were more likely to be born again, to believe the Bible, to believe in Heaven and Hell, are more likely to pray, and more likely to share the gospel with unbelievers (see “Religious Beliefs Vary Widely By Denomination“). And we’re still among the fastest growing denominations in America.

And overseas? Whoa, don’t get me started there. (Well, I already have. See: “Diversity, the Global South, and the Assemblies of God,” and “Mormons, Church Growth, and the Global South“.) Well, actually, speaking of the Global South, I return to my theme, and the point of my conclusion.

We believe in evangelism, but we seem not to be doing it. We have the orthodoxy, but we lack the orthopraxy. And I think it’s because of our character, not our beliefs.

I think one of the biggest problems facing the American Evangelical church — not just the Assemblies of God — is our lack of emphasis on genuine spiritual transformation through and beyond the salvation experience. We seem to be content to get people to say the sinners’ prayer and let them warm the bench while the pastor does all the heavy lifting. Instead, we need a return to spiritual transformation and the expectation that character and behavior will noticeably improve after salvation, and continue improving. In the early-to-mid-1900s we had this expectation, and it devolved into legalism. Perhaps, in our reaction against legalism we have too quickly embraced a cheap and easy grace. There must be a balance.

As seen by the statistics above, we are not doing anybody a service by getting great evangelistic numbers if we are not following-through in discipleship and spiritual growth. If our retention rates are buoyed by “transfer growth” and babies instead of evangelistic growth we’re not growing: we’re homesteading.

(Thanks to Sean MacNair for prompting my romp through the stats. I apologize to all of you who waded through it — I didn’t expect it to take this long!)

[tags]BlogRodent, Pentecostal, Assemblies-of-God, Assembly-of-God, AOG, demographics, missions, religion, christianity, evangelical, Thomas-Trask, statistics, church-growth, evangelism, George-Barna, Global-South[/tags]

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38 Responses to Examining Assemblies of God statistics on growth

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  5. Sean MacNair says:

    Thanks for the mention- I’m always amazed when people find the stuff I’ve written and then comment on it themselves.

    Just for the record, I am Pentecostal in my belief, although I try to eschew labels. My whole point in writing the original article was to point out to people who only see the value in the “new thing” God is doing, that pretty soon they will be on the other end of the finger they are pointing- the accuser eventually becomes the accused. So it is in our best interest to certainly bless renewal movements whenever and wherever they arise, but not to be haughty and think that our particular movement is the straw that stirs the drink.

    Peace,
    Sean

  6. Glen Davis says:

    Good observations If I can find the time I’ll blog some thoughts in response. If not, just know that I read your comments with interest.

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  9. Charles M Lyons says:

    You said:

    “I am an A/G boy through-and-through. I came to faith in a Baptist church, rededicated my life and was baptized in another Baptist church, but I was discipled and grew up in an Assemblies of God church. I went to an A/G bible college, studied at an A/G seminary, and still attend an A/G church where I occasionally enjoy the privilege of leading a Christian education course now and then. When asked, I leap at the chance to preach at an A/G church.”

    Pardon the question, but how come with such a pedigree you are not pastoring or missionarying or some such?

    Really enjoyed reading this

  10. Rich says:

    Thanks for the compliment Charles, I appreciate it.

    I am doing professional ministry as editor of online media at Christianity Today for CTCourses.com–but I am in many respects a frustrated preacher/pastor. I fell into a “career” in technology by accident, or God’s providential design, and I try to find ways to accommodate my calling within whatever my current job is. I started working at the A/G headquarters to finance my seminary pursuit, but found that working full time at AGHQ and attending seminary were terribly taxing–especially when I was also a volunteer Chi Alpha campus minister and attempting to woo my intended bride. Too many things suffered and I decided to resign my ministry position and I eventually failed to re-enroll for coursework. I did marry, though, and I did stay at the HQ for few more years. While at the AGHQ I moved from doing word processing, to computer support and eventually into a position as their first webmaster. When I left HQ I landed at Christianity Today doing more webmastering and then managing the Internet Operations department. God has been good, though, and he “rescued” me from a technical role and placed me in a position where I can use my meager tech skills to “do” discipleship and training in an slightly unconventional way.

    Hindsight will reveal more as time goes by, but I hold out hope (e.g. I have faith) that the path I’ve trod has been directed by God’s hand of providence and design.

    Who knows? Maybe a church posting is in my future? God’s still shaping me, and my years of productivity are far from over. For now though, the average starting salary for newly credentialled ministers is from $18-25K a year (just take a look at agjobs.org to get a sense of this). I couldn’t support my family on that income, and God hasn’t made it clear in any way that I should make that move. So, I continue blooming where I’m planted. Whatever my hand finds to do, I do it with all my might.

    We’ll see.

    Thanks for the question,

    Regards,

    Rich
    BlogRodent

  11. Hello, I am the owner of one of the above mentioned website, Assemblies of God Jobs Online (www.AGJobs.Org) and wanted to post that I have posted a blog of my own entitled “Pastoral Salaries — Or The Lack Thereof” in which I further address the issue of how much ministers are making — or rather, the lack of what ministers are making. I try to present some hard-fact numbers about (a) the average salary pastors are being offer, and (b) the average salary pastors are asking for. Might be something some of you reading Richards Blog would be interested in!

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  13. carl says:

    I would be more interested in the number of people baptised in the Holy Ghost rather than those who did the altar prayer. Now I know that there is not way to know such a number, to me it defines who we as Pentecostals are. Baptists do the sinner’s prayer, we get people connected to the power of God (at least we used to).

    The AG will repeat the cycle of every other American religious movement if it does not focus on getting people baptised in the Spirit of God and commissioning them to do the work of the ministry.

    We have become far too Presbyterian.

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  17. Louis says:

    Rich,

    Thanks for digesting the data and regurgitating it in palatable form (honey). (Please excuse the graphic.)

    Rich wrote:

    “ … people leave the A/G for a church more in harmony with their childhood expectations …”

    Who are these people (Builders, Boomers … ) and what are their childhood expectations? What is it that they have looked for and not found in A/G churches? Do you have any idea if they found what they were looking for?

    Rich went on to say:

    “The Decade of Harvest program was created to address some of those problems. I’m not sure it succeeded. It probably succeeded at something: perhaps more churches were planted than would have been otherwise, and that’s not bad.”

    Perhaps TDH failed as a program, but maybe it succeeded in that it opened our eyes to few of the real problems ( … we ain’t sticky enough). Your regurgitation (honey) suggests that when we focus on growth we fail. The growth we’ve managed to produce seems to be — by-in-large — more the result of being attractional than missional (reaching and being sticky).

    So, you are now the pastor of Average Church and it embodies the issues you’ve raised in your regurgitation. ? What will it take to restore health to Average Church? How will you lead Average Church into a healthy future? In practical terms, what will enable Average Church to become a healthy Pentecostal Church?

    Keep up the good work!

    Blessings,
    lou

  18. Rich says:

    Hi, Lou!

    First off, thanks for visiting and commenting. I’m glad you came by (I haven’t been as active on the listservs lately — and this blog is the reason why.)

    Second, are you calling me honey, or my post honey?

    Thanks, sugar.

    You asked about the people leaving the A/G in waves of transfer growth:

    Who are these people (Builders, Boomers … ) and what are their childhood expectations? What is it that they have looked for and not found in A/G churches? Do you have any idea if they found what they were looking for?

    Who knows? I’m only speculating here, based on my experiences with churches and logic. Disappointment generally stems from unmet expectations. If new converts come to the A/G with any expectations that could lead to disappointment, then I reason that these expectations were most likely formed at childhood. Either that, or television.

    Who knows if they found what they were looking for. How much of the transfer growth in your church stays? Have you tracked this in any way?

    Your regurgitation (honey) suggests that when we focus on growth we fail. The growth we’ve managed to produce seems to be — by-in-large — more the result of being attractional than missional (reaching and being sticky).

    Yes, but especially an overbalanced focus on evangelism without a healthy complement of discipleship, worship, and fellowship. If pressed, I think the focus should be principally on discipleship, not evangelism. A concerted focus on discipling every believer — on bringing every believer to Christ-likeness in spiritual transformation — will naturally result in evangelism, worship, and even fellowship.

    The charge is “go and make disciples” not “go and make converts.”

    The difference is salient. It’s as markedly different as assuming that making a family is the same as making babies. The baby-making part is only the beginning. Sure, conception was fun, and the payoff after the pain of labor is joyous. But our job as parents doesn’t end there, and our job as evangelists doesn’t end at the altar call either.

    So, you are now the pastor of Average Church and it embodies the issues you’ve raised in your regurgitation. What will it take to restore health to Average Church? How will you lead Average Church into a healthy future? In practical terms, what will enable Average Church to become a healthy Pentecostal Church?

    Note, I am not a pastor, I have never pastored a church (well, I was a Chi Alpha campus pastor, but that’s no the same), and I have no business telling you, a seasoned and well-respected pastor, how to do your job. I may very well be wrong here.

    But, since you asked, and since this is a hypothetical scenario, I’ll take a breath and plunge ahead.

    Examine every message for its content. Are you driving people toward genuine spiritual transformation? Are you giving them the tools to become self-feeding disciples? Are you motivating them to mentor somebody? Are you goading them to build discipling relationships? Are your church programs geared toward a classroom model, or are you intentionally structuring things so that mentors can find new converts and the undiscipled can find the mentors? Too little discussion time in our CE programs means people come, sit in class, move to the sanctuary, and go home. What time is there for people to discuss, engage with each other, and build relationships. Note, I’m not talking about “fellowship” per-se, but about the kind of dialog between mentor and mentee that leads to challenge and growth.

    Do you have structured spaces in your church where conversations can happen naturally? Is your church a McDonald’s or a farmhouse kitchen? Think about it, McDonalds is where you go to fulfill your obligatory urge for food, and run. It’s fast food and little conversation. But the family kitchen in the old farm-house is meant for slow-food, much dialog, and strong relationships. You can always tell the family that has a rural country kitchen in its background somewhere: the kitchen and meal-table is where all the action occurs.

    Are your church programs focused on spiritual transformation, or surface conformation? Are you, the pastor, mentoring a handful of men, and have you communicated your expectation that you expect them to mentor a few themselves? Is your wife doing the same? I suspect the folks in the pews won’t bother mentoring if they’ve never been mentored themselves. The change starts behind the pulpit.

    The church needs a buddy-system.

    Part of the problem here is that many of our preachers in many of our pulpits may have never been mentored and have no idea how to go about discipleship. Perhaps many have never really experienced spiritual transformation and it’s not an ongoing process in their lives. Spiritual transformation and discipleship can get too easily replaced by study and work. We can mistake intellectual growth for spiritual growth because we’re so knowledge oriented. But this is, clearly, a mistake.

    Those are some thoughts off the top of my head. Maybe they’ll spark some ideas of your own. Probably, I’m wrong. I’m sure others, here, will have better ideas.

    Rich.
    BlogRodent

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  20. anonymous says:

    I just stumbled across the article “Examining Assemblies of God Statistics on Growth.”

    I too am A/G through and through so nothing I state should be construed as critical, but hopefully insightful and constructive in nature. The article is accurate in its analysis of the statistical data from a comprehensive perspective. However, it misses a critical point. Most of the church growth that has taken place since 1990 is attributable to the ethnic minority sector, particularly among Hispanics. In fact about 1 in every 5 A/G churches is an ethnic minority congregation and a few others fall under the category of “no single majority.” It is noteworthy that every Hispanic district has experienced significant church growth since 1990 and they were not the product of national or geographic district program and stragegies designed to plant new congregations. The ethnic minority churches and the districts to which most of them belong lack the resources and sophisticed organizational structures of the national office and the geographical districts.

    The statistics that bear out my assertion are available from Sherri Doty. It just takes some digging to get them.

    Bottom line. The majority population of the U.S. has increased by about 16 million souls since 1990 and fewer of them are attending A/G churches now than were attending 16 years ago.

    I would enjoy hearing your perspective on this information. If you use it please keep it anonymous as per source.

    Thank you.

  21. Rich says:

    Anonymous,

    (Note to readers, the commenter is not anonymous to me, but I’ve removed his name from the previous comment to ensure his anonymity.)

    Thanks for your comments, and, especially, thanks for slogging through my entire post. It was a long one!

    You noted:

    The article is accurate. … However, it misses a critical point. Most of the church growth that has taken place since 1990 is attributable to the ethnic minority sector, particularly among Hispanics.

    You’re right, both on the growth sector and on the missing point in this article. But I’ve noted this elsewhere:

    Diversity, the Global South, and the Assemblies of God

    As a harbinger of how the global South will further change the complexion of the predominantly white A/G, we find in other news that “65.6 percent of overall growth in the AG was Hispanic.” Another article revealed, “In the past dozen years in the Assemblies of God there has been a 91 percent increase in the number of black churches, 50 percent hike in Asian/Pacific islander congregations and 31 percent rise in Hispanic churches.”

    [snip]

    Not only are ethnic minorities on the rise in the A/G American church, the whites are on the decline. Currently, there is a greater percentage of minorities in the A/G church in America than there is in the U.S. population at large. Seventy-five percent of Americans are white. But in the A/G only 60 percent are white. And, surprisingly, since 2001,

    “the number of those classified as ‘white’ has slightly decreased, by about .3 percent.”

    And I tangentially addressed it here:

    News item: The Battle For Latino Souls

    The truth behind the article’s bias is: ethnic minorities are coming into the Evangelical church at an alarming pace. But alarming to who?

    Depends, I guess, on whether you’re fer it or agin’ it.

    I’ve mentioned more about the Global South in other posts, if you’re interested.

    You noted:

    Bottom line. The majority population of the U.S. has increased by about 16 million souls since 1990 and fewer of them are attending A/G churches now than were attending 16 years ago.

    According to my stats (from the A/G’s published 2004 report) this is what we know:

    A/G Adherents
    1990: 2,181,502
    2004: 2,779,095 — 27% increase

    A/G Membership
    1990: 1,298,121
    2004: 1,594,062 — 23% increase

    A/G Hispanic Districts (combined) Sunday Morning Attendance
    1990: 103,319
    2004: 147,317 — 42.6% increase

    All Sunday Morning Attendance
    1990: 1,504,417
    2004: 1,737,463 — 15.5% increase


    Total U.S. Population
    1990: 248,709,873 (U.S. Census)
    2004: 292,414,289 — 18% increase (U.S. Census)

    Hispanic U.S. Population
    1990: 22,354,059 (U.S. Census)
    2004: 41,322,000 — 85% increase (U.S. Census)

    White-Only U.S. Population
    1990: 199,686,070 (U.S. Census)
    2004: 293,655,000 — 47% increase (U.S. Census)

    What sense to make of this barrage of numbers? I’m no statistician, but on the whole, it looks like A/G membership is actually out-pacing U.S. population trends by at least 5-12 percent. But it also looks like A/G Hispanic Sunday morning worship attendance is not keeping pace with U.S. Hispanic growth rates. (Of course, Sunday morning worship is not a valid indicator of Hispanic reach because according to our statistics, only 31-38% of our adherents attend the main worship service. So, if Hispanics attend worship services more or less frequently than whites — and I’m sure there are cultural differences — that number may represent not much at all.)

    So, your numbers appear to be off. White America has grown by more than 16 million souls since 1990 — it’s closer to 93 million. And the A/G church has also grown significantly in that time: by half a million folks if you count adherents, or by 300K if you count members, or by 233K if you count Sunday morning worshipers.

    Yes, compared to overall population numbers, that may not seem like much. But in 2004 one out of every 100 people in America attended an A/G church (0.95%) and more than half of them were showing up on Sunday mornings (0.59%). (In 1990, the numbers were 0.88% and 0.52% respectively.)

    As I noted earlier, I agree that the Hispanic (or just plain non-white) growth in the A/G is considerable. And yet it’s not keeping up with the overall non-white growth in America as a whole. I find that interesting.

    I’ve cited my sources so you (or anyone) can backtrack and check the numbers here. If you find errata, I welcome corrections. If my math or reasoning is wrong, I welcome further insight. As I said, I’m not statistician.

    Regards,

    Rich
    Rich

  22. Rich says:

    In the interest of comparing apples with apples, here is a direct comparison using the numbers above:

    A/G Hispanic Districts (combined) Sunday Morning Attendance
    1990: 103,319
    2004: 147,317 — 42.6% increase

    All Sunday Morning Attendance
    1990: 1,504,417
    2004: 1,737,463 — 15.5% increase

    Just looking at Sunday Morning worship within the Latin American districts (which admittedly doesn’t count the Hispanic worship attenders included outside of the District counts), this indicates that while the A/G has grown by 233,046 worshippers since 1990, the overall Hispanic worshippers have grown by 43,998.

    It would be interesting to know if our other non-Hispanic District churches have become more diverse since that time, and where more than half of our growth can be attributed to Hispanics (or non-whites) joining the A/G for worship. It can’t be shown, with the numbers I have, whether this is the case, or not.

    Rich
    Rich

  23. Anonymous says:

    Rich, again I prefer to remain anonymous and I respect that you have done so. I sent you a couple of emails. Let me try to clarify a bit more. Here are the salient points.

    1. Every A/G geographic district has non-English speaking ethnic minority congregations that are part of their districts. Southern Cal., Northern Cal, Arizona, New Mexico, Hawaii, New York, and New Jersey are examples of geographic districts that have large numbers of ethnic minority congregations. So you can’t look at the data from the Hispanic, Korean, Portuguese, or any other minority districts to get a complete picture of how many churches and adherents they have.

    2. The white population of the U.S. and of A/G churches includes recent (mostly) Eastern European immigrants that I would not classify as part of the “majority population.” Nevertheless this is where they are placed by the U.S. Census as well as by the A/G and that (total) white population increased by 9.9 million between the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census and has now grown by about another 6.1 million, which is about 16 milliion, not anywhere near 93 million 93 million. The entire U.S population has grown from 281.3 million in 1990 to just over 300 million today, an increase of less than 20 million.

    3. You are assuming that the “main” worship service is Sunday morning for all ethnicities. The Portuguese A/G churches in the U.S. do not even have Sunday morning services. Their “main” worship service is Sunday night. The same is true, to varying degrees, among many other A/G ethnic minority congregations.

    So I am still very confident that fewer majority (second generation whites) are attending A/G churches today than were in 1990. That’s not a judgmental statement. It’s just the way it is.

  24. Rich says:

    Anonymous,

    I believe I noted your exceptions to my research as caveats already–I know there are problems with any assumptions where data are absent. So, I see no need to rehash that ground. I think where we disagree is on the actual numbers. I have different numbers than you do, given the sources that I cite. You say the U.S. population was 281.3M in 1990, my sources say 248.7M. A significant difference. As is my citations for the white-only numbers, which I still show as a 93M increase–so it probably depends on where we both get our numbers from.

    Nevertheless, we quibble over details. On the whole, I see no reason to disagree with the overall theory: whites are diminishing in our churches in comparison to minorities of all flavors. There are probably numerou factors contibuting to the difference, one is surely the same factor that is true for the American population as a whole: whites have fewer children. It’s true in Europe (where they’re breeding — or failing to breed — themselves out of existence, and it’s likely true here.

    Another factor is surely the same thing that accounts for the surge of Pentecostal growth in the Global South: non-whites are apparently far more prepared and expectant to see God move. There is no messy debate about continuationism versus cessationism for immigrants and minorities who clearly expect to see God at work in the world today.

    But whatever the causes, I have no truck with the basic truth of the matter. Nevertheless, I do wonder: are we going to do any better at discipleship regardless of our ethnic and racial diversity?

    Regards,

    Rich
    Rich

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  26. Dan Stanley says:

    This was an excellent outline of some of the difficulties the A/G has been having in recent years. These difficulties are not unique to the A/G. American evangelical churches are all facing a “crisis of discipleship” (to borrow Rev. Crabtree’s phrase). We’re pretty good at getting people to an altar, and fair at keeping the people we already have, but we stink at disciple making. And alas, that’s the ONE thing Jesus told us to do in the Great Commission.

    I have served on the A/G’s Commission on Discipleship. I am also honored to work at the big blue (now grey) building at 1445 Boonville. I serve in the Christian education department and I can tell you that we are dedicated to reversing (I don’t share Wagner’s distain for all “re” words) the trend and focusing on discipleship. I know that our leadership is as well. When I first came to headquarters, I had a welcome meeting with Brothers Trask and Crabtree. During that meeting they both readily admited the discipleship problem. They even took some ownership of the lack of emphasis on discipleship and therefore, accepted responsibility to change things. In a meeting with Rev. Crabtree recently, he started the meeting by saying, “I consider this to be the most important meeting I’ve ever had in my ministry”. That meeting was about a plan to help our fellowship focus on making disciples.

    Things are changing, but it’s going to be a GENERATIONAL change. I may not be around to see the fulfillment of all we’re doing, but there WILL be change. It may be slow, but it will come and it will last.

    Blessings,

    Dan

  27. Roger says:

    I have been searching for a good AG church for a while. While I am sure they are out there my wife and I have left many shaking our heads in puzzlement. I am an AG University grad. My expectations may be a little higher but I have lowered them, in hopes of finding something even the slightest tolerable. Even in the larger churches the messages are so poor it is mind numbing. pastors everywhere seem like they do not spend more than 5 minutes in study and even less time in prayer. If the AG wants to grow. forget all the statistics and programs. You are looking in the wrong place. Focus on learning how to prepare sermons, how to hear from God, and how to preach. Pastors need to get out of the sandbox with their silly topical sermons and self improvement speaches and preach the gospel with conviction. Otherwise the charts will continue to fall. That simple.

  28. Jeremy says:

    “Even in the larger churches the messages are so poor it is mind numbing. pastors everywhere seem like they do not spend more than 5 minutes in study and even less time in prayer.”
    “Pastors need to get out of the sandbox with their silly topical sermons and self improvement speaches and preach the gospel with conviction.”

    Exactly.

  29. Nate Elarton says:

    I have often pondered why the A/G in America is not growing. I thought about leadership issues, education of pastors, district involvement, the “hand of God”, and our style. I came to a couple of conclusion for my life and the church I pastor.

    1. Traditional Assembly of God, ministry style, needs to be evaluated.

    2. The church can be relevant without compromising revelation, the gifts, or pentecostal priorities.

    3. I personally needed more education in the Word (graduated in May with a Master’s in Theology)

    4. The church gatherings have to be a place of love, acceptance, and encouragement.

    5. I personally needed renewal.

    Things five things have all been addressed by myself, and staff. We have grown by over 50% since then!

  30. Greg says:

    While I am appreciative of it, in some respects this discussion itself is a symptom of the underlying problem in the A/G and Evangelical church in general in the U.S.

    Ironically, I believe the present problem with church growth can be traced back to the “Church Growth Movement” (a la Fuller Seminary, Peter Wagner, et. al.) which now for some 30 years has defined how we talk about and implement ministry. We now accept and use terms like “transfer growth” and “homogeneous principle” hardly without questioning their biblical roots.

    To be sure, over that time there have been many who have raised concerns about the Church Growth approach, but CGM largely has become the standard. I believe one of the reasons the CGM (now in numerous incarnations) has been so enthusiastically embraced by church leaders is that it provided a means to quantify ministry. It gave us a technical vocabulary, it provided ways to statistically analyze cause and effect in church health and growth, it utilized tangible measures of success, etc.

    While each of these things may not be bad in and of themselves, they oftentimes have and still can serve a sinister function. What I mean is that the Kingdom of God is “not meat and drink, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” In other words, authentic Kingdom work deals primarily with intangibles, not statistically measurable quantities.

    I realize church bureaucracies don’t want to hear this because they live and breathe statistical data. But bean-counting never builds the true Church. My experience is that a majority of church leaders have not been able to resist the temptation to bite into the forbidden fruit of the promise of “success” offered by CGM philosophy. In just enough cases, the promise has seemed to come to fulfillment. The “mega-church” appeared and confirmed the “wisdom” of the Fuller gurus. Churches that called pastors with a certain personality profile and skill-set, built non-churchy facilities and allowed them to never grow beyond 80% capacity (a tenet of CGM), made sure they had ample parking, effectively marketed to their homogeneous niche, and etc., in some cases began to experience unprecedented growth.

    The fact is, the mega-church was always the exception. The overwhelming majority of churches are 100 and under — and probably always will be. But the bait had been effectively set on the hook. Now every pastor of a church of 25 or 50 or 100 began the quest to become the next megachurch — driven more by a fear of being perceived as inferior, incompetent and irrelevant than by a love for Christ and a burden for lost souls.

    And like all false gods, the idol of Church Growth deceived us. The reason I say the CGM has oftentimes served a sinister (i.e. satanic) function is that is has the marks of the subtleties of the Serpent all over it. It is made to appear to be so good, and yet it is actually destructive. It appeals to the carnal impulses in ministers — the drive for success and a feeling of accomplishment and peer-recognition.

    These are not insignificant things. They should never be allowed a place in the heart of a minister. By all accounts at the time, the Son of God himself died an utter failure. But what appeared to be failure, three days later was confirmed as the greatest success ever achieved. When measured by God’s standard, what appears successful is not necessarily so — and what statistically is counted a failure can actually be a great success in spiritual terms. Thus it has pleased God to choose the things the world (and the carnal church) considers foolish and weak to shame the wise and the strong (1 Corinthians 1).

    My final thought: Church growth is the wrong goal. What the last 30 years has proven, and the statistics now bear out, is that a church can grow without the Kingdom growing. The mega-church movement and most church growth of the last 30 years in the U.S. has been “transfer growth”. By and large it is a growth attributable to migration, not to salvation.

    How could this have happened? Why only now are denominational leaders facing this fact? Because we bowed down to the idol of church growth and were not really concerned with Kingdom growth. The Kingdom only grows when basically two things take place:

    1.) a previously unregnerate soul comes to salvation

    2.) the saved grow in holiness (sanctification).

    Church Growth philosophy has failed us on both of these points. The net result of CGM ideology has been diminished real evangelistic effectiveness (despite its promise to the contrary) and rampant carnality in our churches. The marketing approach produces carnal churches — and in some cases over-sized carnal churches. But after all, if church growth is the goal, any growth is good growth — carnal or not.

    We need to change our goal from church growth to Kingdom growth. Kingdom growth takes into account not only (or not even primarily) quantity growth, but also quality growth (holiness, true spirituality). Jesus is not coming back to receive a big church necessarily, but a holy church.

    My advice to our denominational leaders and local church leaders would be to stop obsessing over statistical growth or non-growth. To everything there is a season. Perhaps this is the season we should be focusing on the spiritual quality of our churches, not their size. There IS such a thing as unhealthy growth. Just like cancer in the body, some church growth can be pathological.

    The real present crisis in the church is a crisis of holiness. A holy church is a healthy church.

    I’m still waiting to hear this come as the urgent cry of our leaders rather then lamenting plateauing or declining numerical growth.

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  33. Karl L. says:

    Rich,
    I am a Mennonite working for a regional denominational agency. A colleague found your post yesterday and passed it along to me b/c some of the issues you describe among the AOG closely parallel issues we have been wrestling with among Mennonites.

    We found your post both provocative and helpful in our own conversations on these issues.

    Having said that, I want to respond to your concern about the “failure” of evangelism among the AOG.

    As I read your numbers, evangelism seems to be working just fine among the AOG, if by “evangelism” we mean leading people to make decisions for Christ. In 1997, admittedly a peak year, the AOG reported a new conversion for every 4 existing adherents. That’s amazing! Your data indicate that the AOG have recorded double digit new conversion rates for every one of the last 25 years ranging from 14% to 25% per year! If true and reliable, those numbers are incredible. Yet you conclude that “the A/G’s evangelism efforts have failed” and “we are in seriously bad shape as an evangelistic enterprise.”

    The AOG is growing at a steady rate of about 3% per year. Yes, churches are closing and net gains in terms of number of churches are down, but the overall denomination has more than doubled in the past 25 years! Many denominations would be delighted to realistically project adding 3 million adherents in the next 25 years based on recent trends. Members of AOG churches clearly DO believe in evangelism and excel at doing it despite your lament to the contrary.

    The real problem these data highlight is one of “disciple-making” or “assimilation,” which you also note. That is, most of the people who are noted as making commitments for Christ are not becoming members or adherents of AOG churches. It looks like about 27% of new conversions DO become adherents, while the remainder (73%) do not. But we’d have to have similar data from other denominations to know whether this is better than average, about average, or worse than average. In the absence of a meaningful context it’s hard to know. My guess is the Southern Baptist Convention would be a good comparison group b/c of their emphasis on evangelism.

    If the AOG had retained everyone one of their new converts over the past 25 years (i.e., seen them become adherents), I estimate they’d have 10.3 million adherents by now rather than 2.8 million. The data presented here do not support inferences about what happened to the missing 7.5 million. We can posit many different theories, but they’re all just speculation that would require other data to substantiate. But it would certainly be worth finding out what happens to the “missing” 7.5 million.

    Some theories that occur to me about the “missing” 7.5 million:

    a. They go to other churches (AOG is building the larger kingdom (POS)). What a gift this is to the larger kingdom of God and to other denominations that are less effective at evangelism!

    b. Some of them are phantom conversions (Churches pad their numbers to look good on the denomination’s highest priority (NEG)). This is a fact of life among groups that emphasize evangelism to the exclusion of disciple-making.

    c. The conversions don’t “stick” (New converts do not become disciples and “fall away” (NEG)). Another fact of life among groups that emphasize evangelism to the exclusion of disciple-making.

    d. Some conversions are repeat conversions. (The same person “converts” several times as they grow in understanding (POS? NEG?)). To the extent that this is true, it may indicate a crude form of disciple-making.

    My question for you: Is it necessary that every AOG convert become an AOG adherent for you to celebrate the AOG’s evangelistic work? (I hope not!)
    If not, what % of them would have to become adherents for you to celebrate AOG’s evangelistic work?

    It may be true that the AOG should increase its emphasis on genuine spiritual transformation rather than emphasizing conversion decisions, but GST is much harder to measure and count up across all its churches.

    Blessings to you as you stimulate clearer and better thinking and strategizing in the church!

    Karl L.

  34. jp says:

    I think also that when ag and other churches start emphasizing growth it actually hurts the people. You have church members who are hungry for a word from god and all they hear is more people. that really kills a church.

  35. Lucy C. says:

    Hi Rich,

    I agree with most of what you write, you are straightforward and honest, but not insulting.

    I have been an AOG pastor’s wife for approximately 30 years. My husband has been in various positions of ministry, (youth, Assoc., Senior).

    From what I have observed, those statistics are many times what the pastor hopes will happen the next year, not what actually is. I don’t believe they intentionally lie, but there is much more attention and respect paid to the pastors of larger churches….I liken it to the business world- money and people.

    I have become pretty disappointed over the years at the way leadership in many of our churches do not follow Jesus’ command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

    Without getting specific, I have found that if you disagree with certain people, and especially if they perceive that they have “position” because a relative is a superintendent, or they have a friend at headquarters, these “ministers of the gospel” can become pushy, abusive, screaming maniacs. Also, some pastors and their wives seem to be some of the worst gossips I have ever seen.

    In other words, not much “Fruit of the Spirit” going on. How do we expect God to bless when we act like this?

    Instead of all the programs, why don’t we have more accountability, zeal to see the kingdom of God grow, not “my kingdom”. I know it seems basic, but a mutual respect for everyone, (not just those with huge churches or with connections). It seems to me , that’s how Jesus ministered.

    What is very disturbing to me, is that people say to you , Rich, that you can say the things you do because you are not an Assemblies pastor, like we are in the Mafia. Are we ruled by fear of man?

    Let me clarify: There are wonderful pastors, wives, superintendents, etc. in the Assemblies.

    It just seems that as a whole, we are becoming much more like the world that we used to preach against and heading in a direction that we want God to bless, not following after God’s heart.

    God help us!

    Lucy

  36. Bryan says:

    I hope I spelled kăt right…

    Hey, I only got to skim the above article, which strides along with focus, but then offers honestly posted speculation. Thanks for being honest about that…

    Thank you for pointing to an emphasis in discipleship. I agree whole-heartedly with evangelism, but newborn infants need milk fairly quickly after birth, or life ceases. There are already enough adult children in the United States of America as it is…

    TO THE KING!

    In Christ,
    Bryan

  37. Tom says:

    I have spent 30 years working with the Assembly of God. I have served on staff at several large churches and have work in all areas of ministry. I attended Southwestern ran an outdoor wilderness ministry for many years.

    I have seen many changes over the years but I believe that the Assemblies is becoming the church of the “I remember when”. I have taught and spoken at many churches and anymore when I ask the question is the Spirit moving the answer is “I remember when”, the Spirit use to move, I remember when people were healed at the alter. Over the last few years instead of giving the people the answer of the Holy Spirit and the being filled with the Spirit we are even afraid to mention it due to the fact that we might scare them off.

    When I see Assembly churches teaching the Apostles Creed to our young girls instead of “We Believe” and when the Missionette leaders are told not to follow the example of praying with the girls to receive the Holy Spirit because praying for them to receive the Holy Spirit should not be done in the Church.

    My heart cries to see the Holy Spirit leave our denomination but no one will listen. So I am on my knees praying that we wake up and get back to living the 16 Fundamental Truths under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  38. Dan Martin says:

    I don’t accept the premise that one church closed is equal to one church open. What types of churches close? Ones that are dying and irrelevant in their communities. In contrast. the new church is usually visionary, energetic, and focused on evangelism. Additionally, new church plants these days often begin with a massive outreach or with a core group of believers from a sponsoring conrgregation. Thus, numerically and spiritually, the gain of one new church is much greater than the loss of one other church.

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