Courageous Convictions Will Drag the Dream into Existence
Why don’t we see a multiplication movement in churches in America? There are plenty of places around the world where multiplying movements are happening. Jessie and I have long-supported a missions group that works with unreached peoples, and their ministry thrives and multiplies. Multiplication is a feature of the Gospel, whether in the first century Roman Empire, hostile countries in the 21st century, or the Methodist Revival of the 1700s and 1800s. But we are not seeing multiplication in America.
[I am going to be mentioning something called Level 3 and Level 5 quite a bit in this post. For a summary of what that means from a previous post, click here]
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Last month at a church planter training in Pittsburgh, I was talking to a missionary about the lack of a multiplication movement in America. As we were brainstorming ideas, we realized something: we kept hitting on the sociology of 20th/21st century America: individualized, private; distrustful of organization and institutions… but then we also reminded ourselves that if we say we have to change a culture in order for it to be ready for the Gospel, well, that would be the colonialist theory of missions, and we don’t want to try that again. It could be that America is the one place that is impervious to the Great Commission? I doubt it.
Let’s pause and explain what we mean by multiplication. What we mean is that a disciple makes disciples who make disciples, and that carries on. A church plants churches that plant churches, and that carries on. We are not talking about adding a few more disciples. We are not talking about planting one church from an existing church, or making a few disciples here and there. Jesus had 12 disciples, and that was His plan to reach millions. If His 12 disciples each make 12 disciples every 3 years…
1 x 12= 12
12 x 12= 144
144 x 12= 1728
1728 x 12= 20,736
20,736 x 12= 248,832
248,832 x 12= 2,985,984
2,985,984 x 12= 35,831,808
35,831,808 x 12=429, 981,696
429, 981,696 x 12= 5,159,780,352
So, somewhere after the ninth generation of disciple-making, you have blown past the entire current world population. The whole world is within reach of a disciple-making generation if we can get over our addiction to Level 3 growth. I know the example is an ideal, perfect-world situation, but it shows the power of multiplication in disciple-making. Maybe a more practical example would be how the standard for multiplication works. 4th-generation multiplication is the sign you are on to something, the sign you might have a movement going. Imagine if a church plants a church that plants two churches. One of those two new granddaughter churches plants a new church… you are getting started in multiplication. It’s not one church simply growing larger where it is, it is now 4 churches, each one capable of growing, and planting more churches. This kind of growth is what we are not seeing on the American church scene.
The problem for launching a multiplying movement is with how we “see” and “do” church. What is it that the current church system in the U.S. is prepping you for? We think of church as a building with a full-time pastor. The system of a growing church in America is built around paid staff providing programs in a building, mostly on Sunday. It is supposed to grow right where it is, where the stakeholders (members and givers) can see the momentum. Where do we get our cues for how to do that? By looking at and emulating a large and successful church. Reading their books, signing up for their web content, going to their conferences, implementing their system.
The reason we don’t see multiplication in America is because we do not have a church system built for it. More importantly, the Level 3 magnet seems so easily able to drag back into the system every attempt to tweak it. Primary example: multiplication has been reduced to a synonym for addition growth. It’s not bad to grow by addition. It’s good and it’s comfortable. But it is not the fullness of the Gospel plan.
Let’s use my church as an example. A good, strong, church. A church planted in 1966 by Ray Throckmorton. It grew under Dr. Throckmorton, and then really exploded with the next two pastors, Noel White and Howard Olds. By 1989 there were about 800 people on a Sunday! But the 90s were not kind to Trinity Hill, and the church went into a serious slide. By 1998 we were below 200. Then Steve Drury came, and was here for 22 years, leading to a lot of growth. I came in the midst of the pandemic—which is another issue, one we will be figuring out for years. Anyway, two times from 2012-2017, the church flirted with 400, but could not quite stay there. There are two main reasons. First is parking. There is not enough of it. “But wait, you said there were 800 people in the late 80s.” Yeah, the late 80s. I don’t know about you, but if my whole family was going somewhere, we went in one car. Not mom in one, dad in another, kids in another. 1.8 people per parking space is what you get now. So, multiply your number of parking spaces by 1.8, and that is how many people you can have in the church at one time. For us it is 444. (thank you for counting, Rachel Woodall)
The second reason is staffing. Level 3 growth requires 1 full-time staff person per 80-100 people in worship. And, you need to staff in advance of growth. You don’t grow then add staff as you have the money. You invest in staff for the growth you want.
Put together, our parking and our staffing will support a church of around 320-350. Let’s say Trinity Hill wants to grow. We have a double whammy. We need to have the money for staffing and parking.
Addition growth, Level 3 growth, the growth we have come to envy, is very expensive. Frankly, this is why your church doesn’t grow when you try to look at the large and successful church that is “doing it right,” and you try to do what they do. You don’t see the massive amount of money they spend on facilities, staff, and programming. And because the Level 3 model is staff- and program-driven, it short-circuits the disciple-making work the church should be doing. A Level 3 system provides the worship, teaching, children’s programs, youth programs, whatever it is… people come and plug in, drop their kids off… each group gets to have its own experience. The problem is, we are not meant to be consumers of a religious product. In all fairness, that is not what the Level 3 church was meant to do; there are so many great disciples in such churches, some of the best you know. But the end result has too often been too many people coming to church do just that…come to church and leave. We are called to make disciples, but we make it too easy to be spectators.
HOW DO WE BREAK OUT?
It sounds like we have to make huge changes and really freak everyone out. Not really. Like I said, it’s not that addition growth is bad. It’s just expensive. And in my church’s case, very expensive: parking and staff. We don’t have that kind of money. (Well, we do; it’s just still in our pockets.) What can we do with what we have? The biggest change is how we see staff and programs. Do we see the staff as people we pay to do the ministry? Do we see the church as the place with programming for age-levels and programming that interests people? Maybe put more directly: do I really want to outsource my own discipleship, and the discipleship of my family, to the staff and programs of the church? Please, please, please say, “no.”
The first “discipleshift” is for staff to not be as active in programming. What I mean is that in a multiplication-driven church, the staff is more about being there to help church members develop and run ministries that God has called the members to, that the member sees a need for, rather than staff being in charge of identifying and developing the programs of the church. In a Level 3 church staff runs programs people come to participate in, or drop their kids off to participate in. The “discipleshift” to Level 5 thinking is for staff to become disciple-makers by helping church members live into their God-given gifts. It’s a shift. An important one. Church members become disciple-makers as they use their God-given gifts in ministries they have been called to. For a practical example, see my post on What To Do About The Worst Idea You Ever Heard (click here)
But we have to go back a bit, to look at the system of how we see church, how we “do” church. We have to make some other “discipleshifts” in terms of how we think about church.
Level 3 looks at what is working in a successful church we see as an example, and tries to emulate it. Level 5 knows we have to pay closer attention to the New Testament as a disciple-making manual, and see if what we are doing is a reflection of the evangelism/discipleship method that Jesus taught.
Currently, what moves the church forward is momentum—more people coming, more money coming in. We will need to adjust our values to seeing 4th-generation disciples and churches as our motivating factor. That is, we need to see disciples making disciples who make disciples, and churches planting churches that plant churches.
A Level 3 church sees its goal as having a large and sustainable church. A Level 5 church realizes that Revelation 7:9 is the endgame: people from every nation, language, tribe, and race worshipping in heaven. A Level 5 church has learned to be less interested in “who’s here?” and more interested in “where can we send some people to reach new people?”
The engine of a Level 3 church is programs, especially on weekends. A Level 5 church’s engine is obedience-based discipleship. It asks these questions: what is the Spirit saying to me? What am I going to do about it? Listening to the Spirit leads people to follow Jesus in ways that are beyond the church’s current practices, beyond the church walls. It sounds too simple to be true, but that is what multiplies disciples, leaders, and churches!
What does it mean to be a church? For the current church system, it means having a building and a full-time pastor. Those things are not wrong; they are just not the only way that church will be done. A Level 5 church knows that church is wherever Jesus is worshipped—in a typical church… or a home… a coffee shop…
Man, this is a lot. Viewed from one angle, yes. On the other hand, it is an interesting blueprint, because a church could probably leapfrog from Level 2 to Level 4 or 5, without getting trapped in Level 3. And a Level 3 church already has the leadership, staffing, and funding to make these discipleshifts. It could even opt for a kind of hybrid model. What I mean is, let’s say there is a strong, growing church that is in an area where land for new facilities and parking would be prohibitively expensive. That church could be a church that focuses on growing with the purpose of sending out 40-50 people every so often with a church planter who would in turn also be looking to grow and then send out people to plant a new church. (See my post on the idea of a Lake Church. Click here). There is a church like this, Light and Life Free Methodist Church in Long Beach, CA. They have planted dozens of churches across L.A., but have not attracted a lot of attention because they are not a megachurch. They consciously decided to become a church that would send new churches out. The beauty of this is that the Kingdom of God is better served by 20 churches with 300 people than 1 church with 6000. Isn’t it interesting though, that we would probably never ask a church of 200 what they were doing that allowed them to multiply? We’d want to know what it was that the 6000-person church did that allowed them to grow. That right there illustrates the problem as to why we are not seeing multiplication in the American church landscape: who are you taking your cues from about how to do church? Level 3 or Level 5 thinking?
Thanks for reading The Dream of Church Multiplication! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.