Dave Ferguson: Collaboration Is the Future—Part 1

Church multiplication will require a spirit of collaboration.

Months ago, when the Outreach team identified church planting as the key theme for this issue, there was no way to have foreseen the national disruption and tragedy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides the loss of irreplaceable human lives and the health of hundreds of thousands, the impact on churches and global culture has been profound and is likely to continue to impact ministry for the foreseeable future.

Fitting then, to speak with Dave Ferguson. Dave likely needs no introduction for Outreach readers—he is an award-winning author, founding and lead pastor of Chicago’s Community Christian Church, and serves as the visionary for the international church-planting movement NewThing and president of the Exponential Conference. [For more context on Dave’s journey into ministry, see OutreachMagazine.com/making-heroes.]

We caught up with Dave to discuss church multiplication and planting in our quickly changing day, and dig for the inner principles of the pastoral heart that lie behind the cutting-edge practices of reproducing churches.

We last spoke in-depth three years ago, at the release of your book Hero Maker. Catch us up on some of the highlights of your work since then.

The theme when we last talked was my ministry story and backstory to my passion for reproducing churches. Hero Maker has now been translated into four different languages and has been taught around the world, assisting in the planting of quite a few churches.

First, I should say that there are teams in place for all of our initiatives. It’s not just me. In that time, we also started five local church-planting networks here in Chicago. About 35 churches across the Chicago area are part of those. These are multidenominational, multiracial and multicultural. It’s been amazing to see—and those networks have met profound needs in the present crisis our culture is facing.

NewThing has taken off like a rocket. When we talked last there were probably around 1,300 churches in the network. Now there are about 3,000. We’re just a little shy of planting 2,000 churches in those three years too. Exponential has continued to scale. We went from a couple regional conferences, plus the event in Orlando, to eight regionals. We now have Exponential Europe, which was planning to host their first conference in October, but now we’re looking at how we take that digital.

Each area of ministry, by God’s graciousness, we’ve continued to expand.

Based on research Exponential commissioned from LifeWay, only about 4% of all Protestant churches in the U.S. were reproducing. Probably the biggest thing that’s happened nationally is that Exponential got research back in early 2019 showing that that number has jumped to 7%. (For context, every percentage point is 3,000 more churches involved with church planting and multiplication. So that movement is a big deal.)

As you’re seeing this success, what are the emerging challenges to church multiplication? So many pastors see the world changing at a rapid pace. There’s uncertainty for many.

The changes we’re feeling match reality. We’re not just imagining it. But the emerging challenges coincide with our emerging opportunities.

In my view, the one huge challenge that is holding churches back pivots on whether a lead pastor is willing to collaborate with other churches. Those who are, in my experience, have more of a kingdom mindset. They’ve moved from trying to be the hero to being a hero maker. Their question has shifted. They’re not just asking, “How do I grow my church?” but are asking, “How do we multiply God’s kingdom?”

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I was expecting an external answer to that question of challenge—cultural, demographic, financial. But you’re saying that our real challenge is internal. What holds churches back is their leader’s reticence to collaborate.

Exactly. One of my movement mentors has been Alan Hirsch. Alan has always taught that inside every one of us is everything needed for movement. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, lives inside of me. That rolls off the tongue like it’s not a big deal, but it’s huge. If he’s inside every one of us, everything needed for movement to happen (and movement is important because movement is how we accomplish the mission), exists inside us. That’s where the real challenge always is. It’s always going to be an internal issue.

Then how do leaders progress on that internal movement in this present uncertainty, when old models are breaking?

You pinpointed the challenge here—a paradigm shift. I’m not one to bash the church growth movement. It did us a lot of favors. But it also got us stuck. If we are just asking how to grow our churches, we aren’t asking the best question.

To move, we must start thinking differently. One of our themes for Exponential this year is what we’re calling “The Great Collaboration.”

Most of us are familiar with the “Great Commission,” Matthew 28. We’ve gone after that. There was a time early in my ministry when it was all most of us were focusing on. Well, then came a renewed pastoral focus on the Great Commandment. Much of this recognition has come from millennials, who reminded us that God’s not interested in saving disembodied souls. We’re whole people, and ministry should reflect that. So, we have the going and the loving.

But the part that is still missing is the Great Collaboration. This is where we join God in the relational work that’s been there from the beginning of time—read John 17, Christ’s great prayer of unity. And here we remember that we must go and love together. That’s the mission.

But as senior leaders, I think we have missed that. Not to get too theological about this whole thing, but if you go way back to the beginning, we know that God himself existed in community and in collaboration with himself—the Trinity. The earth was created out of that unity. If we want to recreate God’s original dream, we must do it together.

Let’s follow this a little further.

When I planted a church, the people that everyone was looking to were Rick Warren and other church growth experts. And it was good—their voices helped restore the priority of evangelism in the church.

Then came an emphasis on the missional church. The missional church understands that we were to incarnate ourselves into a community and that we had to love whole people. But the third missing piece is that you have to do it together.

We’ve assessed thousands of churches in the work we’ve done at Exponential. One of the things we’re discovering is that it’s nearly impossible for a local church to get to what we call “Level 5” multiplication. A local church can reproduce, but struggle to get to a multiplication movement on their own. They need a network.

What we’re beginning to see is that church-planting networks are the best expressions of this collaboration, which allows us to go and love together, and to move to a true multiplication movement, which I believe gets the Jesus mission done.

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Let’s shift to the external now. Do you see any cultural changes that threaten the traditional modes or patterns of church reproduction?

Well, if the major opportunity in front of us is collaboration, the threat is our divisive tribalism. It can be tribalism around doctrine, denominations, politics or even race. Tribalism is the evil twin of collaboration. If collaboration requires love, tribalism exists on hate. Collaboration takes trust—tribalism needs suspicion. I think collaboration is about being for something; tribalism is against something. Tribalism has a scarcity mindset and collaboration has room for generosity.

How have you seen leaders overcome that dynamic?

Well, first it’s important to note that they often don’t.

A quick story on that. Four leaders from different churches in the same area contacted us at NewThing. They all came to us independently and wanted us to come there and do something called a Catalyst Community, where we pull leaders together and help them start networks. We’ve done this widely, in about 30 countries around the world. We went back to them and said, “Hey, we want to make you aware all you guys are asking for this.” We suggested that they work together to help host the event—because that cooperation is essentially what it’s all about.

They were from different denominations in this case. To a person, they couldn’t agree even on where to have it. Finally, we said, “Hey, when you guys figure this out, get back to us.” Sadly, they never did—as a group. They got back to us individually, to express, “Hey we couldn’t figure it out, but we’d still like to do it.” We politely declined, but it was brutal.

I think that kind of stuff—that inability to work alongside those who are just a little different than we are—gets in the way.

Do you have a story of more positive collaboration?

I’ll go back to our Chicago network. We have five networks in and around the city. I’m in one of them. On the surface there are significant demographic differences between, say, me and the man who leads the network I’m part of. He’s Latino, I’m white. He’s in the city, I’m in the suburbs. Theologically, he’s Reformed, I’m more Arminian. I could go on. And for us to share a network is, I think, a quiet victory.

Because when we actually pulled together these networks for the first time, drawing diverse leaders from all over the city, our strategy was going to be to create local clusters. We wanted to arrange the networks geographically, because obviously in a large city, proximity makes it easier to meet. So, in that early gathering of leaders, we actually broke up the room by our geography. It made perfect sense—until we looked around the room and realized that we’d inadvertently repeated what the city had done for the past 75 or so years. We had all the white pastors from the North Side and all the black pastors from the South Side, and so on.

“OK,” we said. “Hold up, time out.” We made a quick decision to form our networks based on relationships, not geography. And it has been so cool.

Read more from Dave Ferguson »

In Part 2 of the interview, Dave Ferguson talks about how his church has adapted in the new normal of ministry, the power of collaborating with other pastors and churches, and the future of church multiplication.