What’s it gonna take to see church growth surpass 10% per year?

Recently a good Romanian friend of mine, whom I consider one of the most influential champions of domestic church planting and foreign missions in Romania, wrote me a thought provoking question.

Given the reality that in Romania the rate of church growth is slowing down at the national level, as one who is familiar with the dynamics of church growth in different areas of the world and knows the context in Romania, what would be, in your opinion, steps to once again have an annual growth of over 10%?

Because achieving an annual church growth rate that surpasses 10% is universally relevant,  I’ve chosen to provide some background information that will offer a useful perspective to answer this question.  Here I will summarize the growth of the church in Romania since 1989 and the significance of a 10% annual growth rate in comparison to rates of church growth in other countries. I believe this perspective is needed to answer the question: What’s it gonna take to see church growth surpass 10% per year?

Church Growth in Romania since 1989

The fall of Communism in Romania in December 1989 opened the way for a period of extraordinary church growth. During 1999-2001 I was part of a team who performed a nationwide church census in Romania. We determined that the number of evangelical churches easily doubled in the 1990s. Likewise a significant number of new believers were added to evangelical churches.

In our report, God’s Heart for Romania, we documented that for the period 1990-1995, 14 of Romania’s 42 administrative regions had an average annual church planting growth rates between 10% and 27%, which is quite strong. Likewise we documented that between 1996 and 2000, just two administrative regions continued to have growth over 10%, although several denominations in these regions continued to have exceptional growth, with an average annual growth rate (AAGR) above 10%.

We continued to monitor church planting after 2001 based on information provided by the Romanian evangelical denominations.  The data is approximate, but I would say that the number of evangelical churches in Romania grew from 5,000 in 2001 to approximately 6,000 in 2011.  Thus the approximate AAGR for 2001-2011 is in the area of 1.8% – a good bit less than the 10% my friend would like to see.

When we look at the change in the number of evangelical believers in Romania, the government census data can be used to monitor this dynamic.  We found the 2001 Census figures to be very close to the information we gathered in 1999-2000. So I consider the Census information to be reliable. According to the Census, between 1992 and 2001, the number of members of evangelical churches rose at least 35% (3.05% AAGR).  An annual average growth rate of 10% is equivalent to a ten year growth rate of 160% (also known as the Decadal Growth Rate). From 1992-2001, a growth rate of at least 160% for all denominations was recorded in the Calarasi, Ialomita, Olt and Vrancea regions, though individual denominations also realized exceptional growth in certain regions.

For the period 2001-2011, the government unfortunately has not published Census information for denominations with less than 100,000 members. So we have information for only the Pentecostals and Baptists. On average, the Pentecostals grew by 12% (or 1.14% AAGR) but the Baptists decreased by -6.8% (-0.65% AAGR).  It is important for us to keep in mind that Romania’s population decreased 12.2% between 2001 and 2011. In this context any positive growth is significant.  Two general factors contribute to Romania’s population decline: a drop in birth rates and an increase in emigration. The Pentecostals in Ialomita have continued to have a high growth rate (192% DGR) and Buzau has a DGR of 312%. I recollect a pastor telling me that several entire villages of Gypsies came to faith in this area.

This brief overview for Romania shows that since 1990, there have been regions where the church planting rates and the Christian growth rates have been 10% or more per year. In the 1990s, the national church planting average was approximately 7.2% and some areas of Romania had church growth rates of over 10% per year. However since 2000, the church planting rate has declined to 1.8%.  The growth rate for new believers was around 3% in the 1990s. Since 2001, the Pentecostals in a few areas in Romania have seen the number of new believers surpass 10% per year; but their average annual growth rate is 1.15%. The Baptists are in decline – and it probably is a reasonable assumption that the other evangelical groups are in decline as well.   But on a positive note, since 1990 we do see exceptional cases in Romania were 10% annual growth has occurred and continues to occur. So the growth rate proposed by my friend and colleague is attainable. But you can also imagine that it will take some effort to turn this growth trend around.

Romanian Church Growth in Global Context

I also want to view the goal of achieving an annual growth rate of 10% from a global perspective. When I wrote a blog last August on the top  20 “hot spots” in the world where Christianity is growing the fastest, https://discipleallnations.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/the-top-20-countries-where-christianity-is-growing-the-fastest/  I observed that only two countries in the entire world are projected to have an annual growth rate of over 10% for the period 1970-2020: only Nepal (10.94%) and China (10.86%). Thus an average annual growth rate of 10% over a long term growth is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Take away points

There are two take away points from what I’ve written here. First, it is possible to see church growth surpass 10% per year. We documented several areas in Romania where this has happened and continues to happen. Second, an annual growth rate of 10% or higher is an extraordinary accomplishment.  Might extraordinary outcomes require extraordinary actions? We will see.

My next posting will focus on Church Planting Movement and will examine the growth rates for several of these movements from around the world. We will see groups of churches growing at much higher rates than 10% for an extended period of time.  I believe case studies of Church Planting Movements can help us answer the question:  What’s it gonna take to see church growth surpass 10% per year? I hope you will follow along.

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