Rethinking Church

More and more churches are embracing a new metric of success that prioritizes sending over gathering and accumulating.

Like thousands of churches across the country, Church Project in The Woodlands, Texas, near Houston closed their doors as the country battled coronavirus. But the defining change the 10-year-old church had put into play a decade before set them up to actually thrive during the pandemic, says Lead Pastor Jason Shepperd.

In January 2010, the church that began with 40 people in an obscure warehouse quickly grew to thousands decentralized. It was an attempt to return to a biblical and Spirit-led church-planting model. By becoming a large church of connected small house churches, they were better able to handle this year’s unexpected national and state stay-at-home orders.

The idea when they started down this house church road, Shepperd says, was to resist most common elements of churches and church planting, such as massive marketing, large overhead and attractional elements.

He explains: “These house churches would be accountable to, developed, approved and resourced by a common elder team who would pastor the individual house church pastors. These pastors would be empowered to lead their house church through teaching, meeting needs, counseling, accountability, cultivating community, even doing weddings and funerals. We would gather weekly in a very simple manner to study Scripture, worship, pray and give commonly so that we could be potently generous with gospel-centered local and global ministry partnerships.”

Church Project is one of a growing number of churches throughout the United States that are rethinking what church looks like—and how they’re defining success, not by how many people and resources they gather and accumulate, but rather by how many disciples and resources they’re releasing and sending out. (Check out the 100 Reproducing Churches list on Outreach100.com.)

Shepperd is also part of a growing number of leaders increasingly discontent with the idea of growing a large church that isn’t reproducing disciples and churches. They’re leaning into their discontentedness and pursuing a new yet ancient paradigm, rethinking what it means to be a successful church—and the fruit that DNA produces.

THE ‘MULTIPLY INTENT’ OF JESUS

Throughout Scripture, God repeatedly and clearly lays out this multiplication vision. But nowhere is that plan more vivid than in the ministry of Jesus. From the start (“I will make you fishers of men”) to the end of his time on Earth, Jesus focused on the elements of health that produce multiplication. Yes, his plan is for healthy addition as the means to fulfilling the Great Commission. But we know we are being good stewards of his plan when that healthy addition produces multiplication as its fruit.

Exponential CEO Todd Wilson says that disciples who make disciples—that plant churches that plant churches—must become our future norm. “God’s call to be fruitful and multiply will produce fruit in us when we follow the ways of Jesus and make disciples his way rather than programmatically.” That starts, he explains, when we embrace the “multiply” intent of Jesus’ teaching over the “accumulate” bias of our own perspective and experience.

Jesus’ last words on Earth focused on kingdom multiplication: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

As a church multiplication advocacy group, Exponential has championed this biblical call to see the multiplication of disciples and churches in the United States and beyond, and to see multiplication become a normative measure of success in the church.

To help church leaders move from a growth-centric focus to a multiplication bias, Exponential has created a the Reproducing Churches list, in association with Outreach magazine. On Outreach100.com, we’ll look at several of the churches on this year’s list and how they’re rethinking their paradigm and, in turn, preparing for the next unexpected wave or crisis.

Eleven years ago, Exponential assisted Ed Stetzer and LifeWay Research in producing a list of 25 Top Reproducing Churches for Outreach magazine. The effort to identify and validate just 25 churches was extensive.

“At that time, it was be hard to credibly conclude that reproduction and multiplication were a strong priority within the church’s collective understanding of success,” Wilson says.

As Exponential set out to identify and validate last year’s 100 reproducing church list, the stories poured in. This year was no different. Once again, church leaders throughout the country (not just in specific regions) shared the shifts they were making both personally and in their congregations. This time, they talked more about how many multiplying churches they were envisioning planting in the next five, 10 and even 20 years—including how many they have already planted to date; and they detailed dreams for creating church-planting residencies, even an inner-city church-planting university and conference.

TOUGH QUESTIONS

While the numbers and stories are increasingly positive, the road ahead remains long because the reality of what’s happening in the majority of today’s churches and our culture isn’t so positive. The truth is that the 16% tipping point we’re after is still elusive—with less than 10% of U.S. churches reproducing or multiplying. And local church congregational numerical growth is still the normative measure of success in the U.S. church.

Several years ago, Exponential set out to identify 10 rapidly multiplying churches in the United States. Unfortunately, their research team couldn’t find even five. Even more troubling, their work concluded that as few as 4% of U.S. churches were reproducing.

These stats raise some tough questions we must confront, says Bill Couchenour, Exponential’s director of learning communities. “Imagine the disastrous impact of less than 10% of the human race reproducing,” he says. “Now, consider the impact of less than 10% of U.S. churches ever reproducing. With this reality, we’re losing ground.”

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The top 100 largest churches can grow 100 times larger, and we will still not make a dent in what true fruitfulness looks like, Couchenour explains. “We need a continuous increase of churches that are acting on a vision to see 100,000 new Christians in the collective churches they’ve planted as a priority above seeing 10,000 in their own congregation.”

Wilson and Couchenour insist that hard questions must be asked—specifically: Why are so few churches committed to reproduction and multiplication if it’s God’s plan? The two Exponential leaders identify and flesh out three critical problems we must address as we rethink church.

The church has a disciple-making problem. Jesus’ method for healthy addition was found in disciples who make disciples who make disciples. It’s the simple engine for reproduction. Our church growth strategies are optimized on programmatic approaches for adding. Unfortunately, these programs never reproduce themselves. The product they produce is often cultural or consumer Christians who are also not capable of reproducing. We produce a product that is essentially infertile.

We have a posture problem. Bobby Harrington, founder and CEO of Discipleship.org, is a student of disciple-making movements. Harrington says church multiplication movements are always rooted in disciple-making movements and that disciple-making movements are born out of prayer and fasting. He asks: “Are our prayers mostly focused on conquering the next growth barrier or on restoring us to biblical disciple making?”

We have a scorecard problem. Multiplication starts with the scorecard of the leader. How the leader measures success will define how the church measures success. How we measure success will define how we add, and whether or not we have the capacity to reproduce. Is our scorecard biased to what we “catch, accumulate and consume” or by who we “reach, develop and deploy”?

Reproducing leaders are waking up to the sad fact that the prevailing growth-focused operating system in the majority of U.S. churches is producing cultural or consumer Christians versus surrendered disciples who are obedient to Jesus’ teaching. As a result, increasing percentages of people are distanced from Jesus and especially the church.

As the culture continues to shift, more leaders are discovering that these prevailing models that launch and grow large multisite suburban churches are becoming increasingly difficult to reproduce in the hard corners of society.

For Myron Pierce, lead pastor of Mission Church in Omaha, Nebraska, reaching and deploying are the two motivators for the young church that essentially planted with a multiplication DNA two-and-a-half years ago—bent on reaching inner cities. The church proactively responded to its community during both COVID-19 lockdowns and the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. On June 11, just days after Floyd’s funeral, Pierce hosted Citywide Prayer and Worship at which churches throughout the city came together in a church parking lot (staying in their cars or standing outside them).

Over the next 10 years, Pierce’s vision is to raise up and release 100 church planters who plant inner-city churches that make disciples to the fourth generation. Pierce has other dreams, as well, including an inner-city church-planting university.

“I envision thousands of leaders being mobilized and equipped to destroy hopelessness in inner cities across the world,” he explains.

“This is the kind of vision—and plan to reach it—we need from other leaders,” says Exponential Chairman Dave Ferguson—“A vision to rethink church and start a movement.”

Another subtle reality is also hindering multiplication. The come-and-see attractional program-based approach to growing a church is consuming the largest volunteer force on the planet. Church multiplier Ralph Moore (the multiplication movement he founded has ties to almost 3,000 churches worldwide) says this consumption is not equipping and mobilizing everyday missionaries into the everyday mission fields—the places where they have the most relational influence to make disciples.

“The vital programmatic elements known to produce numerical growth don’t necessarily give us the form of addition that will also produce healthy, sustainable reproduction,” Wilson adds. “And it’s healthy reproduction to the fourth generation that produces multiplication.”

INTENTIONAL ADDITION, REPRODUCTION AND MULTIPLICATION

While “being fruitful and multiplying” is the definitive biblical call, a new conversation is critical to carrying out God’s kingdom vision.

Couchenour urges church leaders to first assess whether or not their church is intentionally reproducing, and, if not, why not? “Too often leaders say, ‘We will plant a church when [fill in the blank] happens.’ Unfortunately, that elusive day never comes for most. But that trigger continues to change with each church growth obstacle. Leaders unintentionally prioritize growth over reproduction.”

To press further into this question of intentionality, church leaders must also confront the principle of “firstfruits.” Leaders know that where money is allocated is the most direct indication of what they value, both personally and as a church.

Wilson notes that every one of the 320,000-plus churches in the U.S. is “one priority decision away from tithing to church planting.”

“Imagine the impact if just 20% of churches called a board meeting today and decided to begin tithing to reproduction and multiplication activities?” he says, “We’d quickly change the spiritual landscape of our country.”

Unfortunately, the financial demands of feeding the internal church growth engine often keep church leaders from stepping out on faith, he says, to commit the church’s firstfruits to multiplication/reproducing activities.

A second and vitally important question for church leaders to address is to look at how their church is adding, because how we add makes a huge difference in whether we will be capable of reproducing. With church growth strategies being built on finding new and better ways to add (services, ministries, sites, etc.), it’s even more critical that leaders consider their methods of producing growth, Couchenour explains.

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“This is especially important because not all forms of addition are actually capable of producing reproduction,” he says. “This means that your church growth strategies, while aimed at good things, could hinder healthy reproduction.”

Consider the core distinctions between adding and reproducing. Wilson notes that the difference is largely dependent on whether or not the outcome is offspring that are themselves capable of reproducing—and whether the offspring actually do reproduce. If churches choose a method of addition that produces offspring that can’t reproduce themselves without the action of a parent, the multiplication vision God has called us to will never see fruition.

For example, if a church has one service and then adds a second church service, that’s adding, not reproducing. Wilson explains: “The reality is that you’ve added because the first service doesn’t have the ability to reproduce itself. It’s reliant on the parent to take that action.

“When we add programmatically, that cuts off our ability to reproduce. Multiplication of both churches and disciples results from sustained efforts to reproduce in a healthy way,” he says. “Addition is the building block for healthy reproduction and multiplication. But we can’t stop there.”

In addition to offspring that can’t reproduce, Exponential has identified yet another issue. “The problem is not that we’re not planting enough churches,” Wilson says. “We’re planting churches that aren’t reproducing even though they have the capacity to reproduce. What happens to the world’s population if only 1 out of 4 children ever reproduce? In essence, when we plant churches that don’t plant churches, our efforts are really focused on addition, not reproduction.

Unfortunately, that’s the current reality. According to LifeWay Research’s study, 73% of all church plants in the U.S. don’t turn around and plant. That statistic is frustrating to Exponential Chairman Dave Ferguson. “It’s not enough to plant a church or site,” he says. “We have to be planting churches that can plant churches—to the fourth generation. We’ve got to get more serious about that.”

And yet, there is good news. Things have been changing in the positive direction and at an accelerating pace. Just last year, Exponential and LifeWay Research completed a major national study on church multiplication. They found that that approximately 7% of U.S. churches are substantially involved in church planting. While this is still below the 10% that Exponential has set as its first benchmark, it’s a shift worth celebrating.

MOUNTING EVIDENCE OF MOVEMENT

Thankfully, there is evidence that a movement is beginning. In addition to this encouraging list of 100 Reproducing Churches and LifeWay Research’s 7% finding, Exponential is also seeing a shift in leaders’ hearts and minds. According to a Leadership Network survey, 83% of lead pastors under age 40 have a vision to reproduce and multiply. Leadership Network concluded: “The next generation of church pastors is aiming to grow via outreach by multiplying.”

And ever-increasing numbers of church leaders (both young and seasoned) are experiencing the growing uneasiness and even discontentedness that Church Project’s Jason Shepperd has not only identified but also radically acted on.

“I amicably and fearfully initiated a departure from a secure position at a large and respected and healthy church and pursued the cloudy but increasingly clarifying convictions God had been developing in me since my teenage years,” says Shepperd, whose discontentment continued to grow.

More and more leaders like him are realizing that this current operating system isn’t advancing the multiplication vision God has called his church to model.

The Church Multiplication Challenge

Exponential’s call to action is a manifesto of sorts that aims to help churches make a public declaration of their commitment toward multiplication. The points were introduced last year, and Exponential continues to press into this call, hoping to see more and more leaders take The Church Multiplication Challenge.

The first step of The Challenge is to affirm six “Truths to Acknowledge” to create a culture of multiplication. These points inform and influence seven additional “Aspirations to Pursue.”

The goal, Exponential says, is to provide an accountability pathway churches can follow to embrace a commitment toward multiplication. The simple steps of action to accepting the challenge include reviewing the truths and aspirations, and taking the Multiplication Challenge Survey to publicly proclaim your commitment to pursue multiplication.

Exponential’s hope and prayer is to see a tipping point of churches that embrace and act on these points of truth and aspirations as they risk to find and pour into new wineskins.

WHAT WE BELIEVE TO BE NECESSARY

1. Any thought or effort toward reproduction and multiplication must be bathed in prayer and fasting.

2. A new scorecard for success is nonnegotiable.

3. Multiplication requires personal surrender.

4. All multiplication movements find their roots in disciple-making movements. Disciple making Jesus’ way is the core mission of the church and the biblical strategy for multiplication. Shifting from a programmatic growth strategy to relational disciple making is critical to a multiplication movement.

5. To multiply, we must intentionally mobilize everyday missionaries into their everyday mission fields.

WHAT WE COMMIT TO DO

1. We commit to tithe the firstfruits of our income to church planting regardless of our financial position.

2. We commit to support church multiplication beyond our finances with tangible, direct involvement.

3. We commit to make sending a priority and to see every person as a missionary and potential planter.

4. We commit to taking risks with evangelistic urgency and a missionary mindset.

5. We commit to planting autonomous churches.

6. We commit to partnering with others.

7. We commit to being intentional about reproduction, including prayer, fasting and strategic planning.

To take the Challenge and read how churches are pursuing reproduction in prayerful, strategic and powerful ways, visit ReproducingChurches.org/challenge.