Dave Ferguson: An Unprecedented Opportunity

Don’t miss Part 1 of the Outreach Interview with Dave Ferguson—president of Exponential, founder of the NewThing church-planting network, and pastor of Community Christian Church in the Chicago area—in which he describes the vision for multiplication God gave him at an early age, and how he strives to make “heroes” who lead the church in multiplying disciples. Here, in Part 2, Ferguson talks culture, helping people find their way back to God, and how he stays grounded and keeps his love for ministry from becoming idolatry.

Let’s shift gears and talk culture for a minute. We are in a time of historic changes in attitudes and demographics. Where do church multipliers fit in the modern milieu?

Some leaders are up in arms these days as faith is in cultural “decline.” I’m not. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity. People are searching more today than any time in my lifetime. Let’s throw a few numbers around: 89 percent of the U.S. population believes in God or some higher power, according to Gallup. Only about one-third says they’re in church on any given weekend. When asked about their religious affiliation, a growing percentage (1 in 5) say, “None.”

Everybody seems freaked out by that. But what’s really happened? I think in the last generation, you’ve seen people simply walk away from faith that wasn’t really faith to begin with—inherited, nominal faith. “My parents are Baptist so I’m Baptist.” More people now have an investigative faith. They’re searching. Those “nones”? Many of them are trying—actively—to find spiritual truth. To find God. We have to help people find their way back to him. They haven’t found what works for them yet. In business terms, there’s a huge market share out there saying that they’ll still buy the product if someone just shows them how it works in their life.

For leaders, multipliers, planters and networks, this is a time of truly unprecedented opportunity. It’s dramatically increased in the last 10 years. People are in tune with generic spirituality and transcendence, longing to find meaning and truth and wonder. We just have to find ways to help them find their way back to God. They haven’t given up.

In light of that opportunity, what ministry frontiers should we explore?

It’s pretty simple: We need to join people in their seasons of investigative faith.

I have a friend I’ve been praying for for three years. Our boys run cross-country and track together. He has a tragic childhood story of abuse and neglect; he basically raised himself. About 20 years ago, he was in an accident with his best friend, who died brutally. My friend ended up going to jail. When he got out, he moved far away and tried to escape his horrible guilt and pain. Today, he’s a pretty successful executive.

He asked me, over breakfast one day, “I’ve had executive coaches. Will you be my spiritual coach?” “Of course,” I said.

When we began meeting, he began coming to our small group and opening up for the first time about his past. In the process of telling his story and understanding that God could forgive him, he discovered freedom. “I had been carrying around a bag of bricks,” he said, “and I traded it for a bag of feathers.”

He sent me a text at one point that said, “I used to hear people talk about being ‘born again’ and I would call bull—-. But now I believe it.”

Amazing. I got the chance to baptize him several months ago. He found his way back to God, but it wasn’t because of any grand strategy—it was because I was present in his life as he was asking big questions. I was simply trying to be a blessing in his life. Stories like this happen on personal and small-group levels, where people find each other and love each other. It’s just a relational thing that anyone can do. And that’s exactly how God meant for the church to work. That’s how people find their way back to God.

I know that’s been your mission statement from the beginning: “Helping people find their way back to God.” If that’s unchanged, what are the areas you’ve grown in over the course of your ministry?

We’ve always kept it pretty simple: large gatherings to celebrate, small groups to connect and going out into the world to contribute. The “how” of those has changed, but the “what” really hasn’t.

In terms of how I have grown as a leader, two things come to mind. The first has to do with money—I simply had to learn how finances work and to exercise wisdom in that area.

The second is being more in touch with my inner life and health. There are a lot of opportunities God has given to me right now—conferences, networks, writing, speaking. But there are also a lot of opportunities for my life to go out of control.

There’s something that I do on almost a daily basis—what we call the RPMs. It’s a way to gauge my relational, physical and mental well-being. I journal frequently, reflecting on where I am in each of those areas. This is an area of self-leadership, and it’s so healthy. We leaders need to learn how to lead ourselves, every day.

One thing that happens to leaders is that we drift—not usually ending up in a ditch suddenly, but slowly drifting over the course of days, months, years, until we are doing things and becoming someone that we never intended. For me, the simple act of reflection keeps me on track. I give myself a 1-to-10 score in each of those areas, and I’ll put an arrow trending up or down, like the stock market, to show some pattern or direction It’s not a cure-all, but it makes me stop every day to ask the right questions. You have to start lying to yourself in a profound way to drift past a daily check-in.

You mentioned an “unprecedented opportunity” for mission and ministry earlier. What is it that pastors and planters need to really own for themselves as we press forward?

I want us to change what “success” looks like in ministry. In my ministry lifetime, success has been largely measured by size. “Grow something really large.” I have nothing bad to say about large churches. I lead one. But I would love for our definition of success to be determined not just by size, but by multiplication. “Grow and multiply.”