Richard Coekin and those deck chairs…

Posted: September 3, 2012 by J in Church, Mission

I was talking to Richard Coekin at a Diocese Conference recently. He’s developed a network of churchplants across London. Fifteen churches. Pretty impressive. I asked him how they go about reaching the unchurched – obviously they’re pretty good at it.

In answering, he pointed out that only about 25% of their people have come as ‘unchurched’. The rest switched from some other church involvement. To his credit, Coekin was humbly downplaying the success they’ve had in mission.

That network of 15 new churches looks a bit different, once you know that, doesn’t it.

But when you compare it to our new churches in Sydney, I’m guessing 25% is a much higher figure than any we can boast of. I hope someone can correct me, but I haven’t heard of any of our Sydney Anglican churches that have grown through 25% or more conversion-growth.

In fact, I’d be impressed if anyone had 10% conversion-growth around here.

Now here’s the problem: this means that for most of our success stories, the churches we look to that have experienced significant growth, that growth is largely illusory. It has come at the cost of other churches shrinking. The net result citywide is negligible.

Trouble is, we have this habit of talking about this ‘growth’ as if it were an achievement. Let’s say it loud and clear: when people join my church from another church, it’s not an achievement. It’s just a transfer. No one gets saved. As long as we talk like that’s a success, we avoid facing the real issue. The BIG issue. The stubborn issue that is not going away.

Mission failure.

After all our mission efforts, we’ve hardly reached anyone. That’s the stark reality that gets masked by all our talk about growth. Our ‘market share’ of Sydney’s population has remained more or less static over ten years.

And that is so painful, I’m wondering if we can bear to talk about it openly. I hope we can, cause until then we’re not going to see any change. We need Richard Coekin’s hard-nosed realism and humility if we’re to deal with this problem.


1. Let’s stop talking about the % growth of congregations. That stat is worthless and even misleading.

2. Let’s discipline ourselves to talk specifically about conversion growth – growth through unchurched people joining our churches.

3. Let’s keep talking about the city-wide stats, not just the local successes. That will stop us getting too excited when the deck-chairs get rearranged. How is the whole ship travelling?

  1. Perhaps the phrase “conversion growth” is (speaking as a Calvinist) claiming a little too much. What about “To-Church Growth” vs “From-Church Growth”? Easier to quantify, if nothing else.

    After much reflection last year, I don’t think I am so negative about “transfer growth” as I once was. Remember, the reason deck chairs get shuffled is so they don’t blow overboard in high winds.

    One of the major challenges in times past was drop-out at major life stages, particularly early on (finishing school/uni, full-time work, getting married, etc). However, the recent growth of churches in our network that cater specifically for people at those stages may mean that our overall retention rate is higher in the long term. For example, Church By The Bridge is almost all transfer growth of Christians who have left their home churches as they’ve left home to live/work in and around the CBD. CBTB knows that they won’t have these people for long before they do the Migrate-Procreate Waltz to the ‘burbs, so they train ’em up in the time available and either use them to plant new congregations or prepare them to be well-resourced laypeople for whatever new church they join. In the old days many of those sheep would have wandered off for 10 years (or permanently) and if/when they returned they would not be as ready to serve the body of believers.

    Obviously, not all transfer growth is like this, but it helps to be clear that not all transfers are the same. Some are transferring for really good reasons because the kingdom as a whole is growing stronger. Others are serial church hoppers whose financial contributions don’t make up for the disruption they cause wherever they go.

    On the other hand, I fully support your view that our To-Church Growth as a whole is pretty pathetic. Mostly it’s because our people are ignoring all that stuff in the New Testament about being Devoted To Doing Good and so the World never gets to see what a difference Christ makes to our lives.

    • Jonathan says:

      Great comments, Luke.

      I’ve got nothing against transfers, they’re normal and a natural part of church life. They’re just not an achievement from the point of view of our mission.

      I don’t actually mind what we call it, ‘to-church growth’ sounds fine. Could be ‘unchurched growth’. Whatever. As long as we have clarity about what it represents.

      What would ‘from church growth’ mean? Could you explain?

      I like your capitals for Devoted to doing good. DTDG. If I was american, I’d start a ministry with that name:

      DTDG Ministries. Nice.

      Maybe needs ‘International’ on the end.

  2. All I was trying to do was to keep a clear distinction between two different types of congregation increase. By “From-Church” I mean transfer growth (i.e. they come From A Church to join yours) as opposed to “To-Church” (i.e. they’ve started coming To A Church when they join yours).

    I fully support your not claiming transfers as Mission Accomplished.

    Spurred by your approval, I am going to copyright “DTDG Ministries” right now! There will be t-shirts, bracelets, inspirational posters. I’ll be rich…RICH I tells ya!!!

  3. Lauri Moyle says:

    How about making disciples? As your blog says question everything, how about thinking along those lines? What does it mean to make disciples? What is a disciple? That is your mission. Transfers, are therefore your mission because they too need to be discipled. Having gone to a Coeken Church plant for over 4 years and having experienced a lack of discipleship an overemphasis in my opinion of duty to perform as somebody who brings in bodies, I feel a little lethargic about this way of thinking about growth… Anyway, as somebody who has been hurt by it and who is not bitter, be aware.

    • Jonathan says:

      Lauri, thanks for your comment. You’ve raised an interesting issue.

      First let me say I agree with you – our mission is making disciples, not justing seeing conversions. Both and, not either/or. So yes, ‘transfers’ are part of our mission too. Everyone who comes is equally deserving of our love and attention, whether convert or ‘transfer’.

      However, my post was about how we talk about growth. It’s not true that everyone who joins my church represents growth of the same sort. Conversions mean numerical kingdom growth, where transfers don’t. Once they’ve joined, they and we all need to grow up into Jesus together – not something you can quantify! But both matter, maturing growth and numerical growth. My post was about the latter kind.

      For me the interesting issue you raise is whether outreach and discipleship function as rivals or companions. Is it true that every hour spent on discipleship is one hour taken away from ‘mission’? Or that every outreach effort is done at the expense of discipling the flock?

      It sounds like your own experience was of competition between the two, and discipleship lost out.

      If that’s truly how it works, then we would need to carefully balance the two kinds of activity so that neither reaching out nor building up misses out totally.

      But I wonder if it has to work that way. Could there be a different approach to both mission and discipleship, where the one happens through the other? Outreach happens through discipling, and strengthening the believers happens through mission?

      Has anyone experienced anything like this, where the two work in synergy rather than competition?

  4. MichaelA says:

    Lauri and Luke have it right. Concentrate on making disciples as Jesus commissioned us, and planting and watering healthy congregations as Paul did. The numbers will take care of themselves.

    • J says:

      Thanks for your comment, MichaelA. I wonder then if we’d be better off to minimise how much we talk numbers? It does seem a bit unhelpful in some ways. But then how do we measure the recent success or failure of the mission in our patch?

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