The Seeds of Exponential Church Growth

church growth

Take Up the Multiplication Intent of Jesus

For more than a year, the church in America has grappled with the challenges of a pandemic that turned the world upside down. Yet amid a shifting sea of regulations and a flurry of new methods to engage with church members, ministry leaders are finding solace in the knowledge that nothing has caught God off guard. The church’s mission to multiply to the ends of the earth has not changed and neither have the building blocks to accomplish that mission. 

In Matthew 7, Jesus paints a picture of a wise man who builds his house on a rock. “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (v. 25). While the wise man did not escape the storm, his house remained standing. Like the wise man, the church has experienced the rain, floodwaters and winds of a global pandemic. Still the gospel message and the church’s purpose remain solid. 

Throughout his time on earth, Jesus called his followers to multiply. To make disciples that make disciples. To be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Todd Wilson, CEO of Exponential, a national nonprofit dedicated to accelerating church multiplication, suggests that when we embrace the multiplication intent of Jesus over the accumulation bias of our own human nature, we will begin to produce the fruit that Jesus desires from us. Specifically, we must manage this tension in the areas of making disciples, mobilizing everyday missionaries and building capacity. 

Multiplying Disciples

When Josh Hussman planted Mercy Road Church in Carmel, Indiana, he felt that God was calling them to the entire state of Indiana and asking what it would look like to reach a million people for Christ. That was an audacious goal for a state with less than 7 million residents. Hussman quickly realized that it would never happen through one person’s leadership, one building or one church. Adding disciples a few at a time would never cut it. In fact, adding disciples in large numbers wouldn’t cut it either. 

The solution to go beyond addition and multiply disciples, he discovered, was simple yet challenging. Hussman says that we must acknowledge “God can use someone else as much as he can use us.” The real power of the church is not in a leader’s cleverness or strategies, but in the Holy Spirit working through the body of believers. It is the reason Jesus commanded his disciples in Acts 1:4 to wait for the Holy Spirit. When the people of God walk in the power of the Spirit, they are an unstoppable force. As Mercy Road discovered, the church needs to raise up disciples that can make disciples. Within every new disciple is the seed of multiplication, a forest that can spread beyond any one church.

Mercy Road is one of hundreds of churches that Exponential has identified as a reproducing church. Not satisfied with simply growing a single congregation, reproducing churches shift from programmatic growth strategies to relational disciple making that eventually results in new churches being planted. Exponential’s hope is to see so many churches embrace a commitment toward multiplication that it becomes a new normal for the American church.

Mobilizing Everyday Missionaries

Programmatic growth is not the only thing holding churches back from multiplying, though. Reproducing churches also manage the tension of mobilization. They recognize that the people in their church must be activated on mission, but that the mission cannot be solely accomplished within the four walls of the church. 

Rob Wegner wrestled with this very idea several years ago as he saw mobilization equated with volunteer recruitment. He explains that if recruiting volunteers is the end goal, “then we will have done a great disservice to the people of God and the mission of God.” 

The call on a Christian’s life is so much more than volunteering for an hour or two per week. Every Christian is a missionary, designed by God to make new disciples in every nook and cranny of society. While recruiting volunteers is good, there is more to the equation. 

As he planted the KC Underground, Wegner implemented a five-step missionary pathway for the church to penetrate the lostness in Kansas City with the gospel. Christians move from prayer and fasting, to living as missionaries, and then on to planting the gospel, whereafter a church will emerge, which leads to multiplication. The multiplication of believers on mission is the endpoint. 

Reproducing Churches aren’t content with mobilizing volunteers on Sunday; they are focused on mobilizing missionaries every day of the week. With intentionality, they seek to help every Christian view their entire lives as their mission field.

Building Capacity 

In the small town of Stephenville, Texas, Timber Ridge Church works to train, commission and resource new church planters. Lead Pastor Nic Burleson understands that to see new churches spread across the country, his church must live openhandedly. Multiplication must be an embedded value, not just a nice idea that hangs framed on a wall. 

Timber Ridge structures for multiplication by helping everyone on the team, down to the last volunteer, see church planting as part of their job. Whatever gifts, time, expertise or finances they have, they share with new churches. 

“It can’t just be for our house,” says Burleson. “It has to be for the kingdom.”

Since its launch just 10 years ago, Timber Ridge has helped plant 36 other churches. By investing what they sacrifice, the church’s impact extends far beyond itself. More than 20% of its budget goes toward planting.

“If it’s not in the church wallet, it’s not in the church heart,” says Burleson. 

This sacrificial giving is just the sort of thing that Jesus was referring to in John 12:24, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Only by putting the kingdom first and strategically setting aside resources for multiplication will today’s church’s legacy be one of true impact. 

The Need for Multiplication

But why sacrifice? Why strive toward multiplication when we know we must die to ourselves to be effective? 

Daniel Yang, director of the Send Institute, a think tank for evangelism and church planting, feels the urgency for multiplication every day because he understands the demographic trajectory of the United States. By 2050, the country is projected to grow to 438 million in population, a significant increase from now. According to Yang, just to maintain the current 1:1,000 church to population ratio, we will need to see a net gain of 2,100 churches every year until 2050. And that is just to maintain the status quo, not to gain any ground. 

The sobering reality though is that the best research from a 2014 Lifeway study indicates only 300 new churches are opening each year. Without innovative multiplication, the landscape of America is set to become less and less Christian.

What is needed isn’t just new church plants but church plants that go on to plant other churches. Now more than ever, church leaders need to lead in a way that influences lives beyond their own churches. And churchgoers need to be mobilized to take the gospel to every part of their lives. 

In years past, missionaries went to the blank edges of the map in search of people who needed the good news. Nowadays the maps are filled in, but the great tragedy is that Christ followers fail to fan out and permeate the world. Early church fathers had the courage to go to unknown places for the sake of kingdom expansion. What is needed now is the courage to send the people in the pews to be missionaries to familiar places for the same purpose. 

Beacons of Hope

Thankfully, there is evidence that more and more churches are committing to becoming a reproducing church. To help churches move from growth-centric biases to multiplication, Exponential has created a reproducing churches list in association with Outreach magazine. For the third year in a row, 100 different churches have been highlighted as beacons of hope committed to multiplying the kingdom (see Page 164). 

As Exponential set out to identify and validate these churches, the stories poured in. Once again, church leaders throughout the country shared the shifts they were making both personally and in their congregations. More than ever, they talked about how many multiplying churches they envisioned planting in the coming years. This is exactly what is needed: Churches planting churches to the fourth generation. 

Reproducing churches are what Pastor Larry Walkemeyer of Light and Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, California, calls “river churches.” As people and resources flow in, a substantial amount flows out to birth new works. The running water of these churches’ ministries brings vibrancy and life to the people of God. Rather than let what God has given them go stagnant by hoarding resources in a single lake, river churches are a blessing to other churches generations down the line. 

Church multiplier Ralph Moore experienced this when he attempted to count the number of churches that have come out of his hands-on disciple-making efforts. As he made calls to pastors he had sent out, he discovered they too had let their resources, time and experience flow downstream. Soon he was encountering churches that knew nothing about him—more than 2,400 total—and in some places nine generations deep.

Looking to the future, the Exponential team and its growing community of thought leaders are asking today’s church leaders critical questions: 

• What if the next great church awakening is centered on the importance of healthy reproduction?

• What would it look like for a church to pursue becoming a reproducing church with the same priority it pursues growth?  

• What would it take to mobilize multiplying disciple makers?

To help churches embrace and carry out this expansive vision God has set in motion, Exponential has developed The Church Multiplication Challenge. This challenge is a simple declaration that includes foundational priorities and seven specific commitments to move a church from good intentions to action (see below). 

Now is not the time to let the rain, flooding and wind of the pandemic distract us from the mission to multiply. With our foundation firmly upon solid rock, we can be fruitful, confidently pressing forward to take new ground.

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 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 take risks to find and pour into new wineskins.

Truths to Acknowledge

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

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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. 

6. Multiplication is the outcome of healthy reproduction to the 4th generation. 

Aspirations to Pursue

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