Dave Ferguson: The Reproducible Life—Part 2

Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Dave Ferguson talks about how his ministry has grown since writing Hero Maker, why the greatest obstacle to church health is internal, and the power of collaboration for the future of the church.

How does the model of a church-planting network take advantage of the unique opportunities present in the disruptions happening now in our culture?

It reminds me of something another pastor shared that has stuck in my brain and in my heart. It feels consistent with what we see in 2 Timothy. It’s this idea that fear sees a crisis, and faith sees opportunity.

There are some remarkable opportunities right now—if we’ll lean into them.

I recently reread something I’d written long ago for On the Verge, with Alan Hirsch, during the 2008 economic crisis:

If you really want to see innovation happen, find a crisis. It’s in the middle of a crisis that we come to the realization that either the end is near or a new future is being born. On the verge of a crisis, we are also on the verge of our greatest moment. It’s at that moment that we must decide: innovate or die.

As I read it, I felt like a younger, braver version of myself was talking to me. I just felt like God was challenging me.

The first opportunity is in the area of innovation. Seldom does innovation happen when we’re in the middle of success, because there’s hubris when we’re comfortable. I think you can probably take most of our North American churches and say that some were successful, but a whole bunch were just comfortable. Suddenly, in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, it’s neither right now—neither successful nor comfortable. When most of the U.S. states went into their respective lockdowns, The Washington Post reported that a third of all churches had no savings. Only 1 in 5 had worship services online. Less than half were able to accept donations electronically. In that scenario, you just know that there are many who aren’t going to make it the old way.

Innovation faces the brutal facts. That sounds depressing. But in facing the facts you also find faith and hope. We have the challenge of a hard economic environment right now. We’ll have the continuing challenge of people who are going to be hyper safety-conscious, and probably astutely so. We’ll have to play catch-up with a society that is used to moving seamlessly between online and offline environments. We’re behind on that. We’re suddenly finding ourselves in the middle of something that for a long time has only happened in disaster simulation games.

There are so many questions right now. And there will be for a long time. In Illinois, as of the time we’re talking, Governor Pritzker just laid out a five-phase plan. He’s not planning on opening it up to groups of 50 until they get to Phase 5, which will only happen when we have a vaccine. Which, according to Dr. Fauci, that can happen in January 2021, and according to one depressing article from The New York Times, it could be as long as 2036. [Laughs]

This is real. It is very possible that even if you’re in a state that’s opening, we could be entering a “stop and start” society for a while. To respond, we all need to innovate. The metaphor I’m using is that every church needs to throw away their blueprint and pick up a playbook.

Elaborate on that metaphor.

You see a blueprint, and you have a plan. All the specifications are there. You’ll build according to those exact specifications, and you’ll get the precise outcomes that you’ve planned for.

As church leaders, we need to replace the blueprint with a playbook. A playbook is a plan that is still strategic and realistic, but it is adaptable and reactive. Speaking for Community, we saw a need for four plays in our pandemic playbook: a play we can call if we have to meet in groups of fewer than 10, a play we can call if we can meet in groups of 50 or fewer, another one if there are groups of 250 or fewer, and one if it opens it up completely.

So we came together as the lead team, talked with our community pastors and some of our key staff, and filled in the playbook. Our first play is a digital church. We have a play for how we can do this whole thing digitally. The second play—with 50 or fewer—is basically a microchurch expression. Play 3 is essentially what Life.Church is calling a “touchless” service—a hybrid of church on and offline. The fourth one is a multisite church like normal—just like we used to do in “ancient times” a few months ago. [Laughs]

The key idea is flexibility. Let’s say you’re a basketball coach. If the other team puts on a full-court press, you have to respond with a different kind of play to break the press and try to score. What I’m trying to stress with our staff (and there’s going to be a lot of stress involved with this) is that now we don’t have job descriptions as much as we have missions. It very well could be that each of us has three or four different jobs depending on what play we call. Each of these plays will require us to do different things.

With all that requires of organizations and staff, what practical principles can we fall back on?

Well, relationships are always relevant. And relationships work for all four of the plays that I just mentioned. Practically, one of the things we are going to always stress is small groups. Whatever you want to call them, our small groups are poised to reproduce, to be outward focused, to include new people. Focusing on them works if we’re a digital church, it works if we’re a microchurch, it works if we’re a larger “touchless” church, and it works if we’re a multisite church. The constant in small groups is relationships, which is the genius of the New Testament—the genius in how Jesus catalyzed our movement. It started with a small group—it started with relationships. They always scale and they always make an impact. They always make a difference.

We have huge opportunities for innovation, but we’re going to have to be really smart about it. For all its difficulty, shame on us if we don’t take advantage of this time. Candidly, some church leaders have been dying for a chance to change things. Well, you can change whatever you want right now, so go crazy.

That resilience and adaptability is inspiring. But while some ministries are well-poised to take advantage of it, others are simply reeling. How do we support and help everyone—who may or may not have innovation gifting or resources during this time?

While excitement for innovation is just how God wired me, not everyone’s like that. I get an adrenaline rush with change or disruption. Moments like that feel like I get to plant a church again. Of course, part of that is scary, but there’s also part of it that is fun. That’s how God made me—I am high on the “apostolic” gifting and have an entrepreneur’s spirit.

But there are a whole lot of people who got into pastoral ministry because they just love Jesus and want to teach the Bible. For many of them, this sucks. And again, we must do this together. We all have to contribute our diverse giftings to help the rest of the church flourish.

I’m not prophetic like some pastors are. I’m probably not as good at shepherding people as many other pastors. I’m an OK teacher. But I do have the ability to see around the corner of what’s happening. We must work together.

Collaboration means partnering in Christ together. In the first six weeks after the pandemic really hit, NewThing coached around 2,000 churches. My hunch is that many of those 2,000 churches don’t have an apostolically gifted leader. And if that’s you—whoever you are reading this—you shouldn’t feel the pressure to have the idea. You just need to be exposed to it so you can lean into it and learn. None of us should feel pressure to become something we’re not. But we must be willing to work with others.

Dr. Michael Carrion, a pastor and vice president of church planting and leadership development at Redeemer City to City, called me recently. He planted a church in The Bronx, New York, which has grown into a significant network. As of the time we’d talked, his congregation had lost 13 people to COVID-19, including an 11-year-old and a 20-year-old. He was in tears. His heart was breaking. But part of the reason for our call was that he had seen that our church had been able to move everything online, including small groups and were even beginning some new groups.

He said, “I have about 200 churches in our network. A lot of them don’t even have their churches online yet. I don’t think any of them are doing their small groups online yet.” We were able to set them up with services online and connect them with one of our small group champions to help them make that transition too. I don’t say that to sound like a hero. But our gifting met their need, just like theirs might meet ours someday, and we experienced mutual blessing. This is the body of Christ. Together, we can do some awesome stuff.

Let me give you another example about “together.” We have about 35 churches in the five NewThing networks in Chicago. My brother Jon and I got a call recently from Watson Jones, a pastor on the Southeast Side at Compassion Baptist. He said, “Hey, we heard from Mayor Lightfoot (she’s the mayor of Chicago) that 70% of the COVID-19 deaths are happening in the African American community.” For context on this disparity, African Americans make up 29% of the city. Furthermore, these deaths were happening primarily in the elderly. Many of them were on the food assistance program, but it doesn’t deliver food to them, they have to go get it.

“We’re putting together a plan called Chicago Delivers [ChicagoDelivers.org],” he said, “where we would work with different companies and pay them to actually deliver the food to these people to limit their exposure.” We knew we wanted to participate. Community got involved along with a whole bunch of churches. We raised some money, and we launched this thing. And I mean literally, Watson’s idea and all of our contributions were saving lives.

I say this to encourage all of us. If you’re a leader who would rather not think about this stuff, don’t be discouraged. But do find others whose ministry giftings complement yours. Work together. Pray and search for a network with some kind of apostolic leadership, with forward-thinking people, who may be innovating resilient ways to get the message and mission out, but who may not be gifted like you in teaching and shepherding.

We need to work together like that.

In the coming years, what do you think the world will look like for church planting?

There will be new opportunities for innovation. But I think there also—stick with me on this—will be huge opportunity for mobilization.

When I say mobilization, I’m talking about the really basic and important stuff. The everyday physical needs of people are going to be more in our face than ever before. As of the last statistics I’ve heard, food pantries are saying the need is up 400%. And it won’t end there. There are going to be more emotional needs. People are distraught. There will be more vocational needs, spiritual needs … just go down the list.

If we would mobilize our people to find the needs and do those things, then collaborate, whenever there’s mobilization and collaboration, it’s going to result in multiplication. It’s inevitable. What will happen is some of those leaders who step up to fill a need will discover their evangelistic and apostolic gifts, and we’ll send them out as church planters.

But I do think the forms of church planting will change. And again, shame on us if we miss this opportunity. For as long as I can remember, everybody in the North American context has complained, “We’re spending too much on church plants. We need something that costs less and is more reproducible.”

Well, we have the opportunity now and it is sort of being forced upon us. I think we’re going to have church plants that are going to be only digital. I think we’re going to have a lot more microchurches that can be led by bivocational pastors. Some of it will be by need, if our situation is unpredictable, especially in a start-and-stop society, or in a society where people are reluctant to go back to their favorite restaurants, let alone their church. If that’s the case, not only will the church need to be cheaper and smaller, but now for the first time, I think the people in North America, are like “You know what? I’d like to stick a little closer to home and have smaller groups.” I think that creates a great opportunity for the microchurch model.

We live in a world quickly changing. I had the chance to spend a little time with Sangeet Paul Choudary, an MIT prof who coauthored Platform Revolution. He writes a lot about disruptive innovation, and does his homework. His illustrations are around things like Uber and Airbnb and those kinds of businesses. These companies are seeing remarkable things happen fast. Take Uber, for example. If they’d had more ethical business practices, they essentially could have put taxis out of business. Airbnb basically did in eight or nine years what took Marriott more than 100 years to do, they essentially outgrew them.

Well, we’ve yet to see this kind of innovation really impact church culture. I’m pretty convinced that eventually somebody is going to host a church exclusively on the internet. If they get it right, the same way that Uber and Airbnb did, there is the opportunity for massive growth. Because all of a sudden, you’ve got a platform, and the whole platform organization is based on matching (and I’ll use this terminology) a grower with a grow-ee: someone who wants to grow spiritually—which I would contend is in every one of us—and someone who actually can do it in a way that’s trustworthy. (In the future, that’s what is going to be most valuable on the internet: trust.)

In a decade such a thing could make Hillsong or Life.Church look like small potatoes.

Not quite sure how I feel about the idea, but it’s a great reminder of the possibility that is present in crisis.

For sure. Now, to come back full circle, I don’t think multiplication is dead. Not at all. If we continue to mobilize and collaborate, we’ll continue to multiply. But there are opportunities for new expressions, two of which I believe will be microchurches and online.

Whatever our external realities are, the truth is that our closest opportunity right now is to deepen our character, to work on our inner life. Besides cultivating a life of prayer and engaging Scripture, what postures or practices should leaders—whether an established pastor or new church planter—take on to put roots down during these times?

No matter their model, I believe a Christian leader’s most valuable commodity is trust. What garners real trust is authentic spirituality—the quality where someone looks at your life and feels, I want to live like that.

Now being transparent, this is an area that I feel I struggle in. I think there are too many people that look at me, and while they see things they might admire, there is still so much space for me to go deep. Like if we hung out, you’d probably like me, but you’d probably also think, Wow, he’s driven. I don’t want to keep up with that.

I guess I’d say it this way: We need to live a reproducible life. That will garner trust, the kind of deep trust that will inspire participation.

Say another three years pass before we connect again. What is your dream for what these next three years can hold for the church?

We’ve had this dream at Exponential—what we call the 4 to 10 mission (move the number of reproducing churches from 4% to 10%—it’s now at 7%). But really, we would love to see the number of reproducing churches get to 16% or 17%. If we got there, that would be a tipping point. We think that at that point, we could change the spiritual landscape of North America.

We imagine that one day, in every metro area, midsize area or county seat, someone would be able to find a local network of churches to attend or, if they’re a pastor or planter, to partner with. The dream is to cultivate networks that are working together as movements to advance our mission.

That would be the dream. And that’s what will get the mission done.

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