The Danger of False Negatives

by | Oct 23, 2012 | Church Leadership, Church Planting

When groups of churches (i.e. denominations, networks, etc.) attempt to understand their collective missional progress, they sometimes make a classic mistake that skews the picture of their progress. They treat the opening of a new church as equal to the closing of an existing church. Openings and closings are not equal and should not be treated as such. In fact, treating them equally might cause the organization to veer dangerously away from tracking with the mission of Jesus.

Allow me to explain.

The majority of new churches these days are founded by an energized team of people. Led by a visionary leader, they’re laser focused on raising up a very specific kind of church designed to effectively communicate the gospel to the people of a particular community or demographic group. The majority of churches that close are composed of a small group of discouraged attenders/members unable to find a leader. Do you see the difference? Newly opened churches and churches that close are not equal.

We know from research conducted by Ed Stetzer that the average new church in the U.S. has an average attendance of 40 by the end of their first year. I dare you to try to close a church of 40. Most churches that close have dwindled down to 10 or less. So again, church openings and closings are not the same. In terms of actual people impacted, it might be reasonable to say that at least four churches must close to cancel out the positive missional impact of one newly opened church.

So why is it dangerous to treat openings and closings as equals? I’ve heard organizational leaders say, “Praise God, we opened 25 new churches this year, but we closed 27. So our net gain is -2.”  While the math may be accurate, the sum creates a distorted view of what is really happening and, too often, the skewed view leads to poor decisions regarding allocation of funds and personnel. On the surface, it’s a matter of logic. If we are closing more churches than we are opening, we’ve got to stop closing churches or we will never make progress. And so, the organizational resources are shifted to endeavors designed to eliminate closures.

The problem is that the net gain sum based on openings and closings alone is only part of the picture needed to understand what’s really going on. One more set of calculations is needed for an accurate picture of missional progress to come into focus. The number of openings should be multiplied by 40 (average number of people in a new church) and the closed number should be multiplied by 10 (typical maximum number in a closed church). Now, the number of people in closed churches should be subtracted from the number of people in newly open churches. This adjusted net gain number will be a much more accurate representation of the missional progress being made. So, in the case of 25 openings and 27 closings, the adjusted net gain would be +730! So 25 openings and 27 closings is actually a net gain instead of a net loss.

Why does this matter? Back to the allocation of resources question. The natural reaction to a net loss number is that we want to stop losing. We will tend to put our money and manpower into not closing churches, which is painfully analogous to playing not to lose. It’s never been a winning strategy. Especially when it comes to healthy churches, it is better to fix the future than to renovate the past! Rescuing a dying church is complicated, costly and rare. False negatives can cause an organization to prioritize revitalization over planting and that is a strategy that is doomed to fail.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I’m really not trying to argue that revitalization efforts are wasteful. I believe every church should be in a constant mode of revitalization. Why I believe that is a complete blog post in itself! I am trying to say that the goal of revitalization must be healthy, reproductive churches! It’s the only way to justify the cost and effort. More disciples, ministries and churches are the normal fruit of a healthy church. Revitalized churches know they have been successful when they create healthy, reproductive disciples, ministries and churches. When done well, church planting and revitalization are the same activity, starting in a different place in the life cycle of the church. The ultimate organizational goal of every denomination or network should be an ever-expanding number of healthy, reproductive churches.

Circling back to where I started — comparing church closures to openings results in a false negative pointing our attention and energy in the wrong direction. We end up prioritizing fruitless activities. On the other hand, adjusting our metrics to accurately measure missional progress and prioritizing healthy reproduction results in people, churches and communities transformed by Jesus! I choose the second option. How about you?

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Steve Pike

Steve Pike is the founding director of the Church Multiplication Network and led church planting for the Assemblies of God. Recently, he left the Assemblies of God leadership and became the founding director of the Urban Islands Project, a forerunner of city-focused church planting strategy. Read More About Steve Pike At His Author Page