By Bruce Webster
The Bible’s mandate is to grow quickly, not to grow large. Look what happens when believers today take their strategy from the New Testament instead of the church in the West.
Are you like me? For many years when I read the parable of the mustard seed1, I pictured a tiny seed growing slowly like an oak tree, attaining good height as it matured. But when the people listening to Jesus heard him tell that parable, they had a very different picture. They knew the mustard plant didn’t grow very big—maximum height about 10 feet—but it grew very rapidly.
The early church did grow rapidly, starting with 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost. Soon there were 5,000 men (Acts 4:4), and the total probably exceeded 20,000 when counting women and children. Should we expect that kind of growth today?
Late in 2000, Ying Kai and his wife, Chinese-American missionaries, began working with a large, unreached people group in Asia. In the beginning, they worked with 30 farmers. Ten years later they could document more than 1.7 million baptized believers!
Can that kind of explosive kingdom growth happen here? Yes, and no. Yes, in a few places it is already beginning to happen here. But no, it can’t happen here without a major change in how we think and do church.
The ministry of Porch Church, a house church in Alabama, resulted in more than 10,000 “professions of faith” in 360-plus daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, etc., churches in just 14 months.2
Sugar Creek Baptist Church, a megachurch outside Houston, is an example of what a megachurch can do to rapidly expand the kingdom. I’ll say more about both later.3
Can we make the changes necessary to have rapid kingdom growth here? Those changes will happen only if we face the brutal fact that, from a kingdom perspective, we are failing. What we’re doing, especially in large, growing churches, often appears to be good, sometimes very good. People are baptized. Lives are changed. Christians grow and become more like Christ, but Christianity is dying in America.
Good Isn’t Good Enough
The first thing Jim Collins says in Good to Great is “Good is the enemy of great.” Does Satan tempt us to do something good to keep us from doing something great?
We see the large growing church as the ideal. We honor the leaders of those churches. But as the number and size of such churches has grown, the number of people actually participating in church has declined. We’re losing more people than we’re reaching. That’s now true even among the independent Christian churches.
Our focus on the large gathering prevents us from obeying Jesus’ command to “love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). That’s part of the reason Barna Group research shows that people in church frequently behave more like the Pharisees than like Jesus.4 It’s a big part of the reason Rick Wood, editor of Mission Frontiers, could write, “We have failed miserably to equip the people in our churches to be disciple-makers and church planters.”5 Those two things are largely responsible for Christianity’s declining in America.
Church leaders usually try hard to do what they were taught to do. However, a lot of what they were taught to do comes not from the New Testament but from church tradition. We’ve been taught to focus on the wrong things.
When we look at individual churches, it often looks like they are doing well, sometimes very well. However, when we dig deeper, and especially when we look at the church (kingdom) in any of our cities, we are doing very poorly.6
We’ve been taught to focus on gathering a large crowd, and the bigger the better. We’ve been taught to focus on growing our church rather than growing the kingdom. We’ve been taught to focus on teaching what we know, not how we should live. We’ve substituted “worship” for loving (obeying) God.
Jesus focused on one small group. He focused on loving that small group of men. He spent a lot of his time teaching by example. Jesus commanded us to love one another “as I have loved you.” A person can do that only with a small group of people. You can’t do that while looking at the back of someone’s head in a large group.
Shifting the Focus
Both Porch Church and Sugar Creek Baptist Church have shifted the focus from the large gathering—though Sugar Creek still has one—to small, easily reproduced small groups that multiply disciples. Both are focused on growing the kingdom rather than growing a church. Porch Church has deliberately stayed small. Some of the people Sugar Creek reaches become part of the church. Many do not. Some of the small groups become house churches, while others combine with other small groups to form a new church. That is a key part of their kingdom strategy.
How are Porch Church, Sugar Creek Baptist Church, and similar groups able to rapidly reproduce small groups and disciples? Some use Training for Trainers, also called T4T, developed by Ying Kai and his wife.7 Others use Discovery Bible Studies (DBS).8 Both are similar, and both focus on behavior.
At the end of every meeting, participants are encouraged to pray about and share how they will apply what they have learned; participants are also asked to list the names of people in their oikos (their network of family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers) whom they will tell what they have learned. The next week the participants are held accountable by being asked to provide details about how it went when they shared the information with others.
Both programs use a very simple leader reproduction system. In T4T, leaders teach this week what they learned last week. In DBS, the leaders are primarily facilitators asking a predetermined set of questions—the same questions every week—related to a passage of Scripture.9 The Scripture and the Holy Spirit do the teaching.
In both T4T and DBS, people who have been Christian for less than a month can lead groups; these new Christians normally will be in two groups, one they are leading and the other where they are being trained and held accountable.
We see another version of this strategy as it was applied in Erdenet, Mongolia, a city of 65,000. There’s a Sheep in my Bathtub is the account of Brian Hogan’s family as missionaries there.
When the first missionaries arrived early in 1993, Erdenet was totally unreached. When the Hogans arrived to work with them a year later, there were five growing, reproducing house churches made up almost entirely of teenage girls. Just two years after that, Easter of 1996, the team passed the baton of leadership to the Mongolian church elders, and soon after, the team members left Erdenet. Subsequent trips back found the church continuing to grow and reproduce and sending missionaries to other parts of Mongolia and beyond.
Rapidly Multiplying Small
How could so much be accomplished in such a short time?
• The missionaries and church leaders looked to the New Testament, not the church in the West, to guide what they did. They quickly trusted God (the Holy Spirit) to guide the Mongolian Christians and their leaders rather than thinking they needed to maintain control.
• House churches regularly reproduced themselves.
• The missionaries also found that when they brought all the house churches together for a weekly celebration service, their growth stopped, but occasional large celebration services worked fine. Is this a lesson for us?
Are we rewarding failure when we honor the pastors of large, growing churches while most Christians fail to live like Christ and Christianity is declining in America? Do we need a different reward system?
Great movements to God are never about growing big. They are always about rapidly multiplying small. Whether it’s the Wesley revival and classes, Ying Kai, T4T, church planting movements in Asia and beyond, or Porch Church in Alabama, it’s always about multiplying leaders and small groups/house churches. Leaders are not trained and then put in leadership. They are trained as they lead.
Let’s work to rapidly multiply leaders and reproduce small groups/house churches and come up with ways to honor those who do so.
1The parable of the mustard seed is found in Matthew 13:31, 32; Mark 4:30–32; and Luke 13:18, 19.
2Curtis Sergeant, “Growing U.S. Movements to the Lost and the Unreached,” Mission Frontiers, March–April 2014; www.MissionFrontiers.org.
3Steve Addison, “From Megachurch to Movement Catalyst,” in Pioneering Movements (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015). The Lighthouse in Cape Town, South Africa, also described in Pioneering Movements, is a church with a similar story. See also Steve Addison’s website, www.movements.net.
6For example, the Cincinnati and St. Louis metro areas have both grown in the last 15 years, but today there are 15,000 fewer people attending church in Cincinnati than in 2000; in St. Louis, the decline in church attendance has been twice that.
7For information, see http://t4tonline.org/.
8A description of Discovery Bible Series, and why each of the eight parts is important, is available at http://bit.ly/1Y74Fkn. Another website, https://app.box.com/v/10storiesofhope, provides 10 examples of DBS in a slightly simplified form.
9Sample questions include, “What does this passage say about God? What does this passage say about people? What does this passage say about obedience? Based on what we learned from this passage, what does God want you to do this week?”
Bruce Webster serves as president and consultant/coach with Kingdom Expansion, Indianapolis, Indiana.
BRUCE WEBSTER COMMENTS, “Christianity is dying in America.” But Soong-Chan Rah wrote: “As many lament the decline in Christianity in the United States in the early stages of the twenty-first century, very few have recognized that American Christianity may actually be growing, but in unexpected and surprising ways” (The New Evangelicalism, 2009, p. 12).
While the primarily white church in America may be declining, many “ethnic” churches, many African-American churches, and churches among immigrants are growing rapidly—but these churches just don’t get the attention of the pollsters!
This fall I sat in on a presentation about the status of the church in America presented by Ed Stetzer, director of the Billy Graham Association in Wheaton, Illinois. He said that three-quarters of Americans self-identify as Christians. This group is evenly divided between those who are cultural Christians (i.e., “Of course I am a Christian, I was born in America”), those who are celebratory Christians (go to church on Christmas and Easter), and those who are committed Christians. The percentage of people in that last group has not changed and is not projected to change in the next decade, though the other two groups are expected to decline in the coming years.
Webster also talks about strategies that are working around the world, like disciple-making movements and church planting movements, which I support and have seen in numerous places. However, his article is primarily about the church in the United States, and it has been pointed out there is no significant church planting movement in the West (see David Harrison’s Church Planting Movements, 2004, for a definition of that term).
—Doug Priest, executive director, CMF International (www.cmfi.org)
THERE’S A MASSIVE sea change taking place in missions today. Practically everyone is transitioning to the simple teachings of the Bible—that is, disciple making movement (DMM) approaches. So in that respect, Bruce “nails it.”
At this point, probably 80 percent of all our Team Expan-sion workers in more than 40 countries are using DMM principles and practices. And it’s yielding amazing results.
In one field (a Muslim land), we had seen around 30 believers come to Christ after nine years of “traditional missions ministry” (seeking to establish “beachhead churches”)—and we didn’t feel bad about that because that’s what we had come to expect among Muslims.
In July 2014, the leadership of that field participated in one of our training programs on DMM approaches (we sometimes refer to it as “Jonathan Training” or “JT”). The team embraced JT and fully began implementing T4T approaches (as referred to in Bruce’s article). In the next 24 months, our team there was able, through God’s power, to launch more than 150 three-thirds groups—or discovery Bible studies—with more than 1,000 people attending. More than 500 people were baptized. All this took place within 24 months—and there’s no end in sight.
If I were to humbly differ with Bruce on anything, I would meekly say we’re trying very hard not to discourage anything at this point. I am a product of “program” church (with a building and a full-time preacher), not a house church. So, in this new age of DMM, let’s seek God for the best approach in our own context, whatever that may be.
So join me in praying that God will continue to bless the megachurch movement just as he’s blessing the simple church approach.
—Doug Lucas, president, Team Expansion (teamexpansion.org)
BEGINNING IN GENESIS, the Bible’s mandate for all things is to grow. All things living are either growing or dying, and the church, a living organism, is no different. It can grow larger, wider, deeper, higher, or faster . . . the point is to grow.
In this article, I am once again reading about how large, growing churches are somehow seriously flawed because they are, in fact, large and growing. With indictments such as, “Focus on the large gathering prevents us from obeying Jesus’ command to ‘love one another . . . ,’” and that we are doing poorly in “any of our cities,” it’s clear that this is an anti-megachurch opinion.
I’m not pro megachurch, anti-house church, sans Internet campus, or missional, or multisite, or whatever . . .
I am pro growth. I desire growth in the kingdom, evangelism, discipleship, leadership, in movement, and in life!
Robert Coleman wrote The Master Plan of Evangelism, a foundational work on discipleship, more than 50 years ago. It has sold more than 3 million copies and been translated into more than 90 languages. Coleman’s book talks about the power of discipleship in small groups, but Coleman worships at Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, a gigachurch. My point? Let’s just grow.
—Jerry Harris, senior pastor, The Crossing, Quincy, Illinois