The church multiplication challenge
an outreach magazine / exponential special report
Originally published in Outreach Magazine August 2019
the church multiplication challenge
ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, IN CHURCHES OF ALL SHAPES AND SIZES, GOD IS BREATHING NEW LIFE INTO HIS PEOPLE AS INCREASING NUMBERS OF LEADERS EMBRACE THE KINGDOM CALL TO NO JUST GROW, BUT TO REPRODUCE AND MULTIPLY.
In Rockwall, Texas, Lake Pointe Church is making big plans. The church has planted 42 congregations in major cities around the country—and is raising up anchor churches in each of these cities to become a hub for planting additional churches and providing training for future church planters, as well as core team members for new church plants. Steve Stroope, who is lead pastor along with Josh Howerton, says that in the churches Lake Pointe has helped start, almost 12,000 people have met Christ.
Clear across the country, Hope Church NYC and New City Network, both led by Drew Hyun, have helped start 23 churches in urban areas around the world. Now, they’re bringing a collective of churches to urban centers around New York City and North America. The dream, Hyun says, is to see new and different forms of churches birthed throughout New York City for the next 10 to 20 years and to see gospel movements multiply in global cities worldwide.
Throughout the country, a fresh wind is blowing in churches that are embracing a reproducing scorecard. Leaders like Steve Stroope and Drew Hyun and thousands of others are burdened by the truth that growth is an important and vital outcome of health. But what’s changing now is the understanding that numerical growth without a balanced emphasis on healthy reproduction can produce an elusive and never satisfying form of idolatry.
A generation of seasoned pastors who’ve pursued the growth paradigm—and now an emerging generation of new leaders with an eye toward the next move of God—are uniting around the priority of reproduction and multiplication. Like Lake Pointe and Hope Church NYC, these churches are leaning into their discontentedness and taking action. They are shining the light on a new and far-less-traveled path to success for leaders who’ve been focused exclusively on the church-growth paradigm of the past 40 years.
Throughout Scripture, God repeatedly and clearly lays out this 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.
Disciples who make disciples—who 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 when we embrace the “multiply” intent of Jesus’ teaching over the “accumulate” bias of our own scorecards.
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).
The church-multiplication advocacy group Exponential has championed this biblical call to see the multiplication of disciples and churches in the United States and beyond,
“An emerging generation of new leaders with an eye toward the next move of God is uniting around the priority of multiplication.”
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 reproduction and multiplication bias, Exponential has created and is debuting in this issue of Outreach The Church Multiplication Challenge. This declaration of foundational priorities and actions aims to help churches make a public proclamation of their commitment toward multiplication. Exponential CEO Todd Wilson explains what led to this definitive work.
“We want to see reproduction and multiplication become normative,” he says. “We want to see leaders changing their scorecards as they think differently about what it means to lead successful churches and to build legacies that last. The good news is that a growing number of leaders are starting to make those shifts and that others, like this magazine, Leadership Network and LifeWay Research, are also seeing and valuing this emerging shift.”
Ten years ago, Exponential assisted Ed Stetzer and LifeWay Research in creating a list of 25 Top Reproducing Churches for this magazine. Wilson recalls the extensive effort required to find and validate those churches. “At that time, it would be hard to credibly conclude that reproduction and multiplication were a strong priority within the church’s collective understanding of success.”
Today, that narrative is changing—and at an accelerating pace. As Exponential set out to identify and validate 100 reproducing churches for this issue, the stories poured in. Church leaders throughout the country, not just in specific regions, shared the scorecard shifts they were making both personally and in their congregations—in the number of churches they envision planting in the next five, 10 and even 20 years, their dreams for creating church-planting residencies and much more.
“Our whole team was thrilled as we read through these stories of reproduction,” says Wilson, who calls himself a multiplication activist. “With each page, we got more excited as we realized how many leaders had actually caught this fresh wind and were actively engaging.”
Exponential’s goal of finding 100 reproducing churches has now expanded to identifying 1,000 churches. The Church Multiplication Challenge is one way they are looking for churches committed to healthy reproduction
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. In fact, it’s sobering. The truth is that less than 10% of U.S. churches are reproducing or multiplying. And congregational growth—size—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, the 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 that we have to 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.”
The top 100 largest churches can grow 100 times larger, and we will scarcely make a dent in what true fruitfulness looks like, Couchenour explains. “We need an ever-increasing number of churches with 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 church.”
Wilson and Couchenour say hard questions must be asked, specifically, “Why are so few churches committed to reproduction and multiplication if it’s God’s plan?” They identify and flesh out three critical problems that Exponential’s Multiplication Challenge seeks to address.
- We have 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. He says church-multiplication movements are rooted in disciple-making movements—and disciple-making movements are born out of prayer and fasting. “Are our prayers mostly focused on conquering the next growth barrier, or on restoring us to biblical disciple making?” he asks.
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 we have the capacity to reproduce. Is our scorecard biased to what we catch, accumulate and consume; or by whom we reach, develop and deploy?
A ‘Lake’ Church vs. a ‘River’ Church
Larry Walkemeyer, leader of Light & Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, California, faced these problems as the church considered relocating to a larger property. When he and his wife, Deb, went away for a week to pray over this decision, God gave them a vision from Ezekiel 47.
“God revealed we had been a ‘lake’ church where we were seeking to get as many people as possible to flow into one place, around one pastor, giving to one budget—and keep them there,” he explains. “But the Spirit was calling us to become a ‘river’ church where people flowed in, and then many of them would flow out to start other churches.”
Walkemeyer and multiplying leaders like him have come to see 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.
And as the culture continues to shift, more leaders are discovering that these prevailing models that launch and grow large multisite churches are becoming increasingly difficult to reproduce in the hard corners of society. “The more Americans become urbanized, the harder it’s going to be to reproduce megachurches,” says Walkemeyer.
5 TYPES OF CHURCHES AND THEIR KINGDOM IMPACT
Level 1—Churches That Are in Decline
Level 1 churches are characterized by subtraction, scarcity and survival. These churches experience some combination of declining attendance, staffing, income and conversions. Without a turnaround, Level 1 churches eventually close.
Level 2—Churches That Are at a Plateau
Level 2 churches are plateaued and looking for the next catalyst to spark a season of growth. These 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 That Are Growing
Level 3 churches are characterized by addition, growth and expansion of impact. These 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 in these churches.
Level 4—Churches That Are Reproducing
Level 4 churches are characterized by the value and priority they place on starting new churches—they have a strong programmatic emphasis on it. They see their fruit as more than the apples on their own tree, but by the other trees they plant in the orchard—or the new orchards they establish. These churches continually feel the tension pulling them toward investing in addition at their own church on the one hand, and the kingdom expansion of new churches on the other.
Level 5—Churches That Are Multiplying
Level 5 churches are characterized by multiplying, releasing and sending everyday missionaries and church planters. Multiplication is so deeply embedded in the DNA of these churches that they would need a strategy to stop multiplication. These churches plant churches that plant churches to the fourth generation, resulting in hundreds of churches in their multiplication family. These churches reach non-Christians at a much higher rate of conversion than other churches and see disciple making to the fourth generation as a cultural norm.
The Attractional Volunteer Drain
Another subtler 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. Think about the number of volunteers it takes to keep all the internal operations and programs running in a church.
Church multiplier Ralph Moore (the church movement he founded has ties to almost 3,000 churches worldwide) says that 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.
Wilson adds, “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. And it’s healthy reproduction to the fourth generation that produces multiplication.”
The good news? Things seem to be changing in a positive direction—and at an accelerating pace. Earlier this
“Disciples who make disciples—who plant churches that plant churches—must become our future norm.”
year Exponential and LifeWay Research completed a major national study on church multiplication. They found 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.
Thankfully, hopeful indicators of change can be seen. According to a Leadership Network survey, 83% of lead pastors below the age of 40 have a vision to reproduce and multiply. Leadership Network concludes, “The next generation of church pastors is aiming to grow via outreach by multiplying.”
And increasing numbers of church leaders (both young and seasoned) are experiencing a growing uneasiness and even discontentedness. They are realizing that this current operating system isn’t advancing the multiplication vision God has called his church toward.
While Celebrate Community Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was good at addition (they had planted two churches but weren’t intentionally focused on multiplication), Founding Senior Pastor Keith Loy knew something was missing. He was even pondering leaving the megachurch he planted. He took a month away to pray and hear from God. “God spoke directly into my heart: You’ve spent the first years of your ministry building your church. I want you to now let them go to build my kingdom.”
Loy went back to his church and asked who might feel called into ministry. “We had over 80 people stand,” he remembers, “and our journey to multiplication began.”
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, Exponential says.
Couchenour urges church leaders to first assess whether 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. Every leader knows that where we allocate money is the most direct indication of what we 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 for reproduction and multiplication activities?” he says. “We’d quickly change the spiritual landscape of our country.”
Unfortunately, he adds, the financial demands of feeding the internal church-growth engine often keep church leaders from stepping out in faith to commit the church’s firstfruits to multiplication-producing activities.
Not All Addition Is Created Equal
A second and vitally important question for church leaders to address is 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.
“This is especially important because not all forms of addition are 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 says that the difference is largely dependent on whether the outcome is offspring that are 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 one, 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 , it cuts off our ability to reproduce. But multiplication of both churches and disciples results from sustained efforts to reproduce in a healthy way. Addition is the building block for healthy reproduction and multiplication. But we can’t stop there.”
He points to God’s design in Scripture. After the flood, Noah and his wife weren’t tasked with having all the children to repopulate the earth, nor did they have to give
“The top 100 largest churches can grow 100 times larger, and we will scarcely make a dent in what true fruitfulness looks like.”
their children permission to reproduce. The human race multiplied through the inherent reproduction of offspring, one generation after another.
Wilson’s words ring true for Dave Dummitt, lead pastor of 2|42 Community Church in Brighton, Michigan. The church has a 15-year plan to raise up their campuses to become autonomous churches that remain connected through cultural DNA.
“The idea is to release our campuses similarly to how parents raise and release children,” he says. “These newly independent churches would then go forth and launch new campuses and plant even more churches that plant churches.”
More churches like 2|42 are needed, says Exponential Board Chairman Dave Ferguson.
Addition or Reproduction?
In addition to offspring that can’t reproduce, Exponential has identified yet another issue that can be a roadblock.
“We’re planting churches that aren’t reproducing even though they have the capacity to reproduce,” says Wilson. “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 and not reproduction.
Unfortunately, that’s the current reality. According to a LifeWay Research study, 73% of all church plants in the U.S. don’t turn around and plant. That statistic is frustrating to Exponential. “Not all church planting is reproducing,” Wilson says.
“It’s not enough to plant a church or site,” adds Ferguson. “We have to be planting churches that can plant churches—to the fourth generation. We’ve got to get more serious about that.”
Exponential is encouraged by the number of prominent churches, such as The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, that are beginning to shift their multisite strategy to increase their multiplication capacity. Led by pastor and author Matt Chandler, the church is now using its multisite model as a strategy for church planting. They plan to transition their remaining campuses into autonomous churches by 2022, Chandler explains. “By planting these churches—whose people can continue the good work of making God known and enjoyed in Dallas-Fort Worth and beyond—we multiply his kingdom.”
The Call to Your Church
With minds and hearts 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 wave of opportunity to build on the churchgrowth movement is an awakening to the importance of healthy reproduction? What would it look like for your church to pursue becoming a reproducing church with the same priority you pursue growth? What would that take?
To help churches embrace and carry out this big vision God has set in motion, Exponential has developed The Church Multiplication Challenge. The Challenge is a simple declaration of multiplication that helps a church embark on the journey toward multiplication. The declaration includes foundational priorities and seven specific commitments to move a church from good intentions to action.
According to Exponential, the goal is to provide a simple accountability pathway churches can follow to embrace a commitment toward multiplication. The simple step to begin your journey is visit ReproducingChurches.org and take The Church Multiplication Challenge. When you do, you will endorse a declaration and assess where your church is now on the journey to church multiplication.
A DECLARATION OF MULTIPLICATION
Because We Believe …
• Any thought or effort toward reproduction and multiplication must be bathed in prayer and fasting.
• A new scorecard for success is non-negotiable.
• Multiplication requires personal surrender.
• All multiplication movements find their roots in relational disciple-making movements rather than programmatic growth strategies.
• To multiply, we must intentionally mobilize everyday missionaries into their everyday mission fields.
We Commit to …
1. Tithing the firstfruits of our income to church planting regardless of our financial position.
2. Supporting church multiplication beyond our finances with tangible, direct involvement.
3. Making sending a priority and seeing every person as a missionary and potential planter.
4. Taking risks with evangelistic urgency and a missionary mindset that takes us into new places with new models and approaches.
5. Planting autonomous churches with as much (or higher) priority as adding new programs.
6. Partnering with others to do more together than we can do alone.
7. Being intentional about reproduction, including prayer, fasting and strategic planning.
“You will never discover who you are until you risk and lose,” New Life Pastor Brett Andrews says. “Your church will never discover the redemptive capacity God has placed within her until you’re willing to fail and lose. And to try.”
HOW DO I BEGIN THE JOURNEY TOWARD MULTIPLICATION?
Visit ReproducingChurches.org and Take The Church Multiplication Challenge.
The Church Multiplication Challenge includes a short survey to endorse the declaration and an assessment to help you discover where you are now on your multiplication journey. It’s all free and can be completed in less than 30 minutes.