What Will Your Church’s Legacy Be?

An encouraging new study reveals an increase in church multiplication. Here’s what we’re learning—and how your church can be a part of this kingdom call.

“When the master returned from a long absence, he rewarded his two faithful servants and said to each of them, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’” —Matthew 25:21–24

Most, if not all, church leaders know this Scripture well. Jesus’ hard-hitting parable focuses on the legacy our faithfulness yields. In the same way, most leaders today are also wrestling with what has become a familiar question of impact: “If your church were to shut down tomorrow, would your community even notice?”

Scripture and questions like this help us focus our energies. Instead of thinking only about our own needs and church, we realize the eternal potential of reaching out beyond our church walls and into our communities. In many ways, it’s the difference between a church “having success” and “leaving a legacy.”

Bottom line: We all want to make a kingdom impact both now and when we leave this earth. We all want to be called “good and faithful servant.” But what does this kind of eternal legacy look like? And how can you as a leader—regardless of the size or context of your church—make this kind of impact?

THE DEATH OF YOUR CHURCH

Before thinking through those questions, Exponential CEO Todd Wilson urges us to first understand one important truth: Our churches are going to die. Maybe not tomorrow or next month or next year or even 20 years from now, but the inevitable reality is that every church will eventually die. Saddleback Church, North Point, Community Christian Church—all of these thriving churches will die because every church experiences growth, plateau and then decline.

So if this is the case—that our churches will eventually die—how do we leave an eternal legacy?

It is a question Hope Chapel founder Ralph Moore has spent his career discovering the answer to. To date, more than 2,400 churches around the world are rooted in Hope Chapel.

“I’ve come to realize that the only way for a church to leave a lasting legacy is to reproduce itself,” Moore says with the wisdom that 50-plus years of ministry have afforded him. Since the early days of his first church plant in the ’70s, Hope Chapel has multiplied one to two churches every year.

“Our goal was to build multiplication capacity into each pastor as they launched,” Moore explains. “The legacy of a church isn’t measured simply by its size but by the leaders and new churches the congregation sends out.”

DISCERNING KINGDOM IMPACT

How do we know if we’re leaving an eternal legacy?

Earlier this year, Exponential partnered with LifeWay Research to study, in part, the kinds of legacies churches across the United States are leaving. The two ministries developed a series of questions to accurately discern where churches are in their life cycle. Are they Level 1, Level 2 or Level 3? Here’s a quick breakdown of each category:

Level 1 Churches: Subtraction, Scarcity and Survival. Level 1 churches are experiencing some combination of declining attendance, staffing, income and conversions. Without a turnaround, Level 1 churches eventually die, usually in the short-term.

Level 2 Churches: Plateaued, Seeking the Next Catalyst to Spark a Season of Growth. Level 2 churches experience some combination of flat attendance, staffing, income and conversions. These churches may see temporary ups and downs, but their overall trend is flat.

Level 3 Churches: Addition, Growth and Expansion of Impact. Level 3 churches have a strong growth culture with some combination of increasing attendance, staffing, income and baptisms. Leadership development and conquering the next growth barriers are often key priorities.

The research reveals that for the core of churches in Levels 1, 2 and 3, 35% of U.S. churches are subtracting (Level 1), 35% are plateauing (Level 2) and 30% are adding (Level 3). Every church has a culture that can be placed in one of these levels. Every church is subtracting, staying at a plateau or growing.

Wilson compares it to the human life cycle: birth, development, growth, decline and death. But also in that mix, he says, is often reproduction. Our children are part of the legacy we leave. In the same way, reproduction is key to a church leaving an eternal legacy.

“If we’re going to see the gospel spread among the nations and see Jesus’ mission accomplished,” he asserts, “then more churches must reproduce, send out leaders and create a culture of multiplication.”

A NEW METRIC FOR SUCCESS

Just a few years ago, it was believed that only 4% of U.S. churches were reproducing. In light of that finding, Exponential launched what it calls the “4 to 10 mission”—to see the needle move from 4% to 10% of churches reproducing within this generation.

“We want to see multiplication become a primary metric for success in churches,” Wilson explains, “to see it become the new normal in North America, the way addition has been the focus in the past.”

That’s where this new study comes in: to determine if the needle is actually moving in Levels 1, 2 and 3 churches, and to understand the current rate of reproduction (Level 4) and multiplication (Level 5) in U.S. churches. Exponential’s framework adds clarity to what this looks like:

Level 4 Churches: Make Starting New Churches a Priority. Their approach to starting new churches is strongly programmatic; beyond simply adding to their number, reproduction has become an important part of their strategy.

Level 5 Churches: Multiply, Release and Send Out Everyday Missionaries and Church Planters. Reproduction is so deeply embedded in the DNA of Level 5 churches that they would need a strategy to stop it from happening. These churches are deeply committed to biblical disciple making—disciples who make disciples, who plant churches that plant churches, to the fourth generation. This commitment produces hundreds of churches in their multiplication family. And they reach non-Christians at a much higher rate of conversion than other churches.

SEEING GOD MOVE

The new research reveals evidence that God’s hand is definitely moving.

The number of Level 4 reproducing churches has grown to 7%. While this may seem like a small change, every 1% increase makes a profound and lasting impact that continues multiplying itself forward.

Each 1% increase in Level 4 reproducing churches results in thousands of new churches being started each year. And because reproducing churches are themselves more likely to reproduce, the result is millions of additional people who were far from God will experience new life.

This phenomenal news is a huge encouragement to all pastors who desire to see their churches and others reproducing and multiplying to further God’s kingdom, says Dave Ferguson, Exponential’s conference president. And it offers enormous potential.

“We would love to see every church in the United States become a Level 4 church-planting church,” he says. “If we can get that number to 10 or 16%, the United States will never be the same.”

Level 4 multiplier Larry Walkemeyer, lead pastor of Light and Life Fellowship in Long Beach, California, describes the shift as an “exciting harbinger for the American church.”

“During the past four decades, the emphasis on ‘church growing’ dominated the spotlight, leaving ‘church starting’ in the shadows,” he says. “This dramatic increase to 7% indicates a new, substantial and spreading appetite for not only gathering but also sending. Church reproduction is no longer forgotten or just a fad.

“The wind of the Spirit is clearly blowing in this direction,” Walkemeyer adds, “and more churches are raising their sails.”

PLANTING ORCHARDS

The news of this shift is not only extremely encouraging, the dynamics are also powerful markers to use as metrics to ensure churches yield kingdom impact.

Nine percent of these churches said that the church plants they helped start have directly started a new, autonomous church in the last five years.

“The scorecard for a Level 4 church shifts from attracting to releasing,” Wilson explains. “These churches have decided to shift their legacy from harvesting from one tree (their church) to planting orchards (church planting).”

Tim Hawks, lead pastor of Hill Country Bible Church in Austin, Texas, and founder of the HCBC church-planting network, took his church from Level 3 to Level 4.

“As a regional church, people were driving great distances to us,” Hawks explains. “Planting a few churches in outlying areas for our members to bring their friends made logical sense. But we were still operating as a Level 3 church.

“The real change came when we started looking at the lostness of our city. As God began to break our hearts for the whole city, we realized that rapid multiplication of churches was the only way to make a dent in that lostness.

“Our scorecard changed from building a great church to reaching a great city,” he says. “We shifted our budget, started a residency and began to plant multiple churches every year with a reproducing DNA from the start, so many of them have planted churches as well.”

Today, the HCBC network has birthed almost 30 churches.

According to Exponential’s Ferguson, adopting a new scorecard also brings the stewardship of resources into full focus.

“Trust God with 10% of your resources for multiplying,” he says. “If we will, in faith, tithe our resources and our people, we can make that move to Level 4 or 5. And God will bless us and his kingdom will flourish.”

Ferguson, who also is lead pastor at Community Christian Church outside of Chicago, explains their commitment to developing apprentice leaders.

“One of my favorite examples of how apprenticeship leads to movement is one of my early small group apprentice leaders. Troy McMahon was my small group apprentice and very quickly caught on. In no time, he moved to leading a new group, then reproduced several other groups, became a small group coach and eventually led one of our sites.”

In time, McMahon and his wife, Janet, returned to their hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, to plant a new church. In 2009, they planted Restore Community Church with a multiplication DNA. The church has birthed more than 45 new churches and two NewThing church-planting networks in the area. NewThing coaches leaders who are interested in launching and leading a network of reproducing churches (NewThing.org).

“God is changing the spiritual landscape of that city and region. They are planting new churches, helping other churches become reproducing and helping more people find their way back to God,” Ferguson says. “At the core of every movement is apprenticeship.”

Walkemeyer says Light and Life Fellowship’s journey to becoming a reproducing church was inspiring yet difficult.

“When God clearly called us to start planting churches, we had 39 parking spaces. It was an uncomfortable paradigm shift. We had to forego or delay relocation, remodeling, hiring ministry staff, raises and more parking spaces.

“But a greater dream had captured our hearts—to build a legacy of seeing thousands attending new churches we had started,” he says. “We started casting vision based on a new mission statement; prayer walking areas of our city in need of churches; setting aside significant funds for planting; teaching through Scripture on multiplication; recruiting people inside and outside the church who might like to lead or participate in a church plant; and training ministers to go instead of stay.

“We knew our culture had shifted when we sent out more than 20% of our congregation on one Sunday, and there were more cheers than tears.”

DISCIPLES WHO MULTIPLY DISCIPLES

Clearly, moving from Level 3 to Level 4 is a quantum leap for a church and the kingdom. But Wilson and Ferguson have an even bigger Acts 1:8 vision: to increase the number of Level 5 multiplying churches and thus have an exponential ripple of congregations like Hope Chapel that have trouble tracing how many multiplying churches they’ve helped start. The dream is huge compared with the current reality—based on the findings of the research, virtually no U.S. churches are considered multiplying Level 5 churches. (The few we know of constitute far less than 1% of U.S. churches—statistically, 0%.)

That statistic is a strong indication of the challenges involved. In fact, getting to Level 5 will take a new approach, one that requires exponential multiplication of disciple makers. It also has to go back to the Jesus-style of relational disciple making versus a programmatic approach to adding disciples, says Bobby Harrington, point leader for Discipleship.org.

“Jesus’ method was based on a totally different operating system,” he says. “Jesus didn’t focus on drawing a crowd. Instead, he raised up 12 men who experienced and learned what it meant for God’s kingdom to be made real. He sent out these men (like he sends out his church today) to make disciples who would make disciples built around his teachings and his disciple-making methods.”

Life-on-life discipling is based upon Jesus-style love—and a message that the kingdom of God is present, says Harrington, “Intentional, relational discipleship changes everything. This DNA creates a culture that leads to disciple making in homes, communities, ministries and churches.”

Level 4 multiplier Tim Hawks points to relational disciple making as the lynchpin at HCBC.

“As we began to run out of church planters, we realized we needed to shift our focus away from the Level 3 mentality of discipling people through the ministries of the church and begin to personally disciple people to become disciple makers themselves,” he says. “Making the shift to see every member as a potential missionary and every leader as a potential church planter completed our transformation to a Level 4 church.”

The challenge to becoming a Level 5 multiplying church lies in the fact that leaders can’t just add programs to yield multiplication like they can to get to Level 4 reproduction.

“You can programmatically get yourself to Level 4 by designating tithes to church planting, having an intern and residency program, sending church planters and coaching church planters,” Wilson says. “But you can’t programmatically get to Level 5.”

It’s clear that Wilson has thought long and hard about the opportunities and potential of a Level 5 multiplying movement. “What if the new churches we are planting start out with a Level 5 operating system? And what if the existing Level 4 churches can coach and help the new church planters? The existing churches that would be constrained by a new operating system would, instead, release and accelerate the new church planters at Level 5.”

RAISING UP THE NEXT GENERATION

Today, Wilson and Ferguson are celebrating this new evidence that the needle of multiplication has moved—and that an entire generation of next-generation leaders like Joby Martin, lead pastor of The Church of Eleven22 based in Jacksonville, Florida, are already asking, “What eternal legacy will my church leave?”

Martin shares about his scorecard change. “Over the past few years, we’ve defined success not just by how many people come through Eleven22—it’s more about how many leaders, how many church planters and how many missionaries we send out of Eleven22.”

Martin points to a trip to Israel as a turning-point moment. “I was in Shechem, the city where Joshua gathered the Israelites and said, ‘Choose this day whom you will serve.’ All of the people say they are all in. But only two pages later in the Bible, Judges 2:10 tells us, ‘There rose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.’

“This cannot happen on our watch,” says Martin. “What’s happening through Eleven22 is awesome, but raising up another generation has become more important. In the kingdom of God, success may not be in what we do, but in who we raise up.”

To learn more about Exponential and its mission to see churches reproduce and multiply, visit Exponential.org.

LIVING BEYOND YOUR CHURCH’S IMMEDIATE IMPACT

Level 4 and Level 5 churches share certain kingdom behaviors that are required to reproduce and multiply. Check out the characteristics the study surfaced, and as you read each one, ask yourself and your team, “Are we doing this? How can we improve in this area?”

12% of churches report being substantially involved with opening an autonomous church plant in 2018—among highly engaged churches, more than a third (39%) were directly involved in an autonomous church plant last year.

14% of Protestant churches give more than 1% of their budget toward church planting—but among churches opening at least one church plant in the last 12 months, the number jumps to 53%.

17% participated in church-planting networks—54% among highly engaged churches.

19% are providing support services to church planters—among highly engaged churches, nearly a third (29%) provide coaching for church planters, and almost 6 in 10 (58%) provide some form of supporting services to church planters.

8% conduct an internship or residency program.