A lot of churches are stuck and they don’t know why.
Trust me, I know this from experience. Years ago at my church we felt like we had examined every possible cause for our “slow-to-no” growth. We attended all the best conferences, read all the best books, and used all the best tools we could find. And don’t get me wrong – those things were helpful and necessary, but there was a fundamental switch that needed to be flipped. We needed to move from an “EITHER/OR” mindset to a “BOTH/AND” mindset.
Here’s the bottom line — and I’m convinced that in every example of healthy church growth you will find this to be true: Churches were meant to multiply. When you read the New Testament, there doesn’t seem to be any other model of what a church should aim for. Just as disciples of Jesus are expected to make new disciples, churches are expected to make new churches. It’s as though we can’t reach our full potential without this one critical piece.
Multiplication is the most exhilarating opportunity in life, period. Nothing better expresses the creative genius of bearing God’s image. There is no better reward for a parent than to raise up a healthy, growing child. There is no bigger thrill for a leader than to develop another leader that will go on to do greater things. And there is no greater achievement for a church than to reproduce another healthy, reproducing church. It’s a mark of maturity, and I believe it should become one of the primary measures of church health. Without church multiplication there is no proof of church health, and there is certainly no shot at building a sustainable movement.
But sadly, it’s not happening. With only 7% of churches in America currently reproducing, we aren’t even keeping up with attrition. It can seem nearly impossible to see widespread improvement in this area. If we could make progress – even a little bit of progress – in this area, the wins would be enormous. On a broad scale, our capacity as Christ-followers to serve, lead and add value across our country would skyrocket. If we could double our multiplication rate over the next 10 years in America, we could get ahead of the curve on church decline and make a new statement to a new generation that Jesus is alive and hope is real. We could carve out new spaces for emerging young leaders to explore and express their calling and giftedness at an accelerated rate, making the church once again a platform for excitement and adventure. This is the kind of thing that could literally change the world. But it’s never going to happen if we don’t flip the switch in our individual churches.
We have a balance problem. It’s easy for churches to lean either inward or outward. We need both. When leaders focus only on the well being of the church itself, we end up creating an organization that is overinflated, selfish, crippled by latency and ineffective in expanding the Gospel. On the flip side, when leaders focus only on the well-being of the city, with no plan for nurturing the church, we end up creating anemic churches and unsustainable movements that stall out by starvation. This is where we need balance. We need to focus on both the church AND the city.
I want to encourage you to take some practical next steps for moving toward the balance that leads to health and growth, and ultimately will lead to multiplication.
“Me” Syndrome | Lacks Compassion | Overinflated
If your church leans toward the “Church Only” side of the equation, here are a few thoughts that can help you start moving forward:
1. Focus on the city, not just the church
This is a mindset shift, and it’s most difficult when you’ve lived inside a culture of competition. If you see the church down the street as a competitor, you’ll have to widen your definition of who is on Team Jesus. If God chooses to grow another church before He chooses to grow yours, that’s a win. As Tim Keller pointed out, our goal should be to build great cities, not just great churches. This is one of the things I love best about working alongside Stadia to plant churches: we’re in it together and we’re better together.
❑ Idea: Find one like-minded leader outside of your church and schedule coffee with them to get this conversation moving.
2. Draw a bigger circle
When our church was starting on this journey, we had to expand the imaginary borders of our ministry area. We zoomed out and changed our target from having a neighborhood reach to having a city reach. That gave us a chance to get involved in opportunities we would have never discovered otherwise. It caused us to start attending key city events, meeting new friends and leaders, pooling resources with other churches to solve problems, and praying more boldly about what God could do through His people in His city. Our friends at Christ Together call this concept a “Circle of Accountability.” This is all about taking spiritual ownership for a larger part of your city, and being willing to work together with others to see God’s mission accomplished.
❑ Idea: Map your ministry area to triple your current boundaries.
3. Find a community partner
In our scenario, we’ve decided to make our local public schools our primary community partners. Think about it – all the cultures, languages, opportunities and needs in a city are represented in the schools. Most schools would be happy to have a “no-strings-attached” partner with pure motives who is there to serve and make a difference. Yes, it takes time to build trust and get into a groove, but it’s so worth it! We’re privileged to be partnered with 7 local schools currently, and our goal is to expand to 12 school partnerships in the next couple years. This has not only given our church members new ministry opportunities, but it has helped solve real needs in our city. By having an outlet outside the walls of our church, we’re better poised for health and multiplication. For more about partnering with local schools, check out my friend Chuck Bomar’s book Serving Local Schools.
❑ Idea: Make a list of at least 3 potential community partners and pray this month that God will open the right door for your church to connect. Our friend Kevin Palau has encouraged so many of us to get involved, and you can find inspiration and ideas at the City Gospel Movements website.
“Martyr Syndrome” | Lacks Capacity | Overextended
If your church leans toward the “City Only” side of the equation, here are a few thoughts that can help you start moving forward:
1. Focus on the church, not just the city
This is the flip side. Often churches that struggle here feel that it’s “selfish” to build anything internal. They take the “giving away” mandate to an unhealthy extreme, preventing their own well-being and thus their opportunity for lasting impact. Once again, this calls for a mindset shift. It’s the old airplane analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping the person next to you. You can’t help anyone else if you can’t breathe yourself. In our church scenario, we brought in Tony Morgan and The Unstuck Group to help us understand what leads to sustainable health over the long haul, and we’ve worked hard over the last few years to build our capacity in this area. In fact, I fell in love with the process and joined The Unstuck Group’s consulting team for 2 reasons: (1) To constantly improve my church-building skills as a leader, and (2) To encourage and support other churches in this journey.
2. Create a better growth engine
John Maxwell said, “You reproduce what you are.” If we’re going to reproduce other reproducing churches, we’ve got to help people take their next steps as disciples and fulfill their personal potential. We got stuck here. We knew we wanted to build a church where unchurched people could be welcomed, engaged and brought to life-changing faith in Jesus. But we didn’t clarify a growth path beyond the basics. As a result, we saw people “timing out” of our ministry, wondering what was wrong or why they were dissatisfied. The truth is, they had stalled out because we hadn’t helped them identify a path for their own spiritual development. As a ministry consultant, this is one of the most common stumbling points for churches that I work with. When our church went to work on this issue, we saw an almost instant improvement in volunteer retention, overall morale, and high-capacity leadership. We’ve now formed a “Next Step Team” of incredible leaders who are helping us navigate the ever-changing landscape of moving people toward Jesus.
❑ Idea: Read Move by the Willow Creek Association and sketch out some possibilities for your church’s Discipleship Pathway.
3. Build a leadership pipeline
Church health includes church multiplication. And church multiplication requires a constant stream of new church leaders. Two mistakes we’ve made in this area are (1) Not having a plan for leadership development, and (2) Depleting our leadership pool by sending too aggressively. A healthy leadership culture means helping people identify the gift of leadership and equipping them to grow and reproduce as leaders. I recognize that not everyone in the Body of Christ is called to leadership. That’s why churches should have a separate Discipleship Path and Leadership Pipeline. In our case, when we introduced our own version of Residency at our church, it gave our emerging leaders
something to reach for, and it gave them a process to grow as leaders. Admittedly, this is at the far end of the spectrum and it’s a pretty intense step for people to take. But it has forced us to think differently at all stops along the way and to get more intentional about helping leaders grow. Now our residents are leading ministries and campuses, and we hope one day we’ll have residents leading new church plants in our city.
❑ Idea: Read Exponential by Dave & John Ferguson and identify the right leadership pipeline for your church to develop a ministry of healthy multiplication and high impact.
To engage further in this conversation, consider leaving a comment with your thoughts or questions. —
If you’re in the Portland, Oregon area, I’d love to invite you to join me for the Northwest Church Health and Growth Accelerator, which I’m co-hosting with my good friend and ministry colleague, Steve Barker of Stronger Sundays on Saturday, May 4th, 2019. Tony Morgan will be joining us live to help unpack the issues of health, growth, and our way forward. Register today by clicking here.