So one of the cool things about hanging out with Ralph Moore is that he recommends a lot of books. I am just starting on one he recommended, Ephesiology, a study one of the most powerful of the New Testaments churches, Ephesus. The book is by Michael Cooper.
I am not far in, but I would like to share some things that have gripped me.
“The key to the ongoing success of a movement is its maturation process. At the critical juncture, leaders can decide to take the movement toward an exponential growth model that will see a percentage of population growth gain over time or an addition model that will grow in numbers but will not grow in influence.”
This a great illustration of the dilemma of Level 3 growth versus Level 4 and 5 reproduction/multiplication. Level 3 is the growth we have been chasing. There are some really big churches with great buildings and awesome programs. But the fact of the matter is that there is not a county in America with more people in church today than it had in 1990. We are blinded by the growth in our own or other churches, to the reality that Christianity is shrinking.
Cooper notes: in 1990, 86.2% of the U.S. population identified as Christian. I would have been in the 14% that definitely did not. In 2014, the number of those identifying as Christian had dropped to 70.6%. Today, it is down to 65%. Church membership may well be growing in sheer numbers, but in terms of keeping up with the population, we are not.
One of the ways I have looked at our tribe, the United Methodist Church, is to see ourselves in terms of percentage of the population. When we started dying, in 1957, about 6% of the U.S. population was a member of the Methodist Church. We declined and then popped back up to 6% when we merged with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968… and then we immediately started declining again. Currently, 1.9% of the U.S. population is United Methodist. That is a level of decline that should cause us to mourn, repent, fire our leaders, and figure out how to get back on track.
In Ephesiology, Michael Cooper wonders “if we have lost the vision of multiplying disciples (2 Timothy 2:2) and have focused on our own legacy that borrows believers [most church growth is people leaving one church going to another], constructs buildings, creates programs and divides churches?”
He brought up 2 Timothy 2:2, so I have to say a word about it. One of the reasons I preached from 2 Timothy early on in my time at Trinity Hill was because, outside of the first 2 chapters of Mark, it is one of the most condensed disciple-making treatises in the New Testament. 2 Timothy 2:2 is such a power-packed multiplication passage: “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”
Notice the generations: Paul—>Timothy—>reliable men—>others
4 generations, and Paul does not know the ones who Timothy will disciple. Because there are too many. Because he does not need to know. Just so that they follow the method and message of Jesus.
The same is true for churches. How cool for a church to plant a church that plants a church that plants a church and so on… When you get to the 4th generation of disciples or churches, you are really on to something. [Ralph Moore has seen some 9th generation church plants. Many of those churches have no idea they were birthed from Hope Chapel in Hawaii.]
There was a time when Methodists were planting churches like there was no tomorrow. We stopped doing that. And now you know why we declined!
But still that Level 3 magnet keeps talking, whispering to us, you should focus on your church. Bigger building. More staff and programs. I will never say that that is a bad thing. But is it the best thing? Is it the God thing?
What if we stopped asking how many people came to our thing, and started asking how many came to God’s thing, and rejoiced, even and maybe especially, when it did not happen at our place?
And what if we turned out to be like the churches in Samaria, or at Antioch, where people wrote back to the home church in Jerusalem and said “y’all have got to see this!” And because we knew and saw that God was acting, we would expect it where we are, too, and we would be even more wiling to send people and money out to do God’s thing!