Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Power of Multiplication

Here are some thoughts from Organic Disciplemaking on multiplication growth as opposed to linear growth in the church.

Multiplication Growth

The period from the death of Christ until the end of the first century was the most fruitful in the history of the church. During these few decades, Christianity spread clear across the Roman Empire and even penetrated deeper into Africa, the Parthian Empire, and India. The best estimates put the number of Christians at the end of the first century at around 1 million.1 That’s an increase of 2000 times the number of Christians before Pentecost (perhaps 500). And all of this growth was facilitated by the process of discipleship. Without mass media, without advertising, without church buildings, and without seminaries, the primitive church expanded at a rate never equaled in the nineteen centuries since.

Both Christian and secular observers recognize the New Testament church as a perfect example of a church planting movement. In this type of movement, local house churches each strive to replicate themselves by planting additional churches. The result can be exponential growth.

To understand the power of exponential growth, consider the following scenario: Nobody would feel bad about a church that could win fifty thousand people in two years. In fact, we know of no church that has done so well. And if they won an additional fifty thousand each two years thereafter, such a church could win 1.5 million people during a sixty-year period. Remarkable indeed! This would truly be a super church.

On the other hand, a single house church of thirty people, where the average member did nothing but win and disciple one other person during a two-year period would seem rather unremarkable. They would have a mere sixty people after two years, and would become two home churches. But if the original group and the new group both did the same thing during the following two years, and this process continued for the next sixty years, the result would be far more remarkable than that of the super church. In fact the duplicating group would have won 16 million people! They would, in fact have out-performed the super church by more than ten times! Not only that, but within another twenty-five years, this duplicating group would have won every person on earth.

We are not suggesting these numbers are realistic, but they do illustrate the power of exponential growth. However, notice two important points about these calculations:

1. To achieve true multiplication growth, the duplication of individuals and churches must go forward without degradation. If the quality of disciples or churches declines at all with each duplication event, the whole process breaks down very quickly. Quality is one key to ongoing duplication. Historians have noted that church planting movements tend to fizzle out after a number of years. Why? Probably some movements compromise on quality for the sake of quantity. Others may grow so concerned about quality that they cease duplicating and become saddled with too many rules and restrictions.

2. In the duplication model, results are very small during the early years, compared with the super church. By year 10, for example, the duplicating group would have only 480 members in sixteen house churches, while the super church would already have a quarter million members. Can you imagine these two groups looking over at each other? How inferior the duplicating group would feel with less than five hundred members to show for ten years hard work, seeing a super church nearby that had reached a quarter million people during the same period! At this stage the super church would be more than five hundred times larger than the duplicating group. Surely, it would seem, God’s blessing rests on the super church, and not on the duplicating church. (Although we know the duplicating church is actually doing ten times better than the super church, though it doesn’t show yet). It would take a powerful act of faith to continue using the duplication approach. Anyone impatient for quick results will abandon duplication.

Organic growth is biblical and powerful.

[i] For instance, the World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that by A.D. 100 there were 1 million Christians in the Roman Empire out of a population of 181 million. David B. Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia. A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 3. Recently, Rodney Stark has written a book offering an entirely implausible estimate of only 8000 Christians by the end of the first century. We would join most historians in rejecting this estimate. In the first place, we can account for 8000 Christians within the first few chapters of Acts, unless these narratives are completely discounted. Secondly, his estimate is based on a straight mathematical formula assuming 40% growth per decade for 300 years, ending in six million Christians by the time of Constantine. But this is not how Christianity grew. The growth was far better during the early years and slowed thereafter. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1996). For a more responsible account see Latourette: “Our records, unsatisfactory though they are, suffice to show that by A.D. 180 Christians were in all the provinces of the Empire and in Mesopotamia.” Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan Publishing House, 1970) 85. He also observes, “Never in the history of the race has this record ever quite been equaled. Never in so short a time has any other religious faith, or, for that matter, any other set of ideas, religious political, or economic, without the aid of physical force or of social or cultural prestige, achieved so commanding a position in such an important culture.” 112. Of course Islam and Communism spread fast, but both used military force. Notice that Tacitus refers to the “huge multitude” of Christians captured during Nero’s persecution Tacitus, Anal. XV. 44. Shortly after the first century, anti-Christian governor Pliny says that in his province Christians were so numerous that temples were empty, and they couldn’t sell sacrificial animals or fodder. (Pliny, 10.96.1-2)

[ii] If the same rate of growth had continued, everyone on earth would have been a Christian before the end of the second century. Only in our own day to we see a comparable level of growth in some parts of the world, unfortunately not including Europe or the U.S. See Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith, Invading Secular Space: Strategies for Tomorrow’s Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2003) Chapter 1. Also see David Garrison, Church Planting Movements, (Midlothian, VA: WIGTake Resources, 2004).


Darlene said...

It does take quite a bit of vision, perseverance, and spiritual fortitude to hold onto the duplication model. Unlike a "mega-church" where you can gain or lose members and not even know their names, with discipleship you invest so heavily on all levels with the one you are mentoring that if they leave, you not only notice, but you feel great pain. It is much more emotionally and spiritually draining and discouragement can easily set in. However, the joy and contentment is even greater when that person does succeed and goes on to do the same thing with someone else. It is much more rewarding. And even if there is failure, because you have faithfully sacrificed your life, you still gain the reward that comes with loving others in this way.
The first 21 years of my life were spent in churches that did it the "congregational" way. In all those years, I can only think of 4 or 5 people that I knew well that continue to live a sacrificial and radical Christian life. The next 27 years have been spent getting discipled, learning how to disciple, and teaching others how to do the same thing. Because the fellowship I am a part of does things the "duplication" way, I know hundreds, actually thousands of people now whose lives all demonstrate this sacrificial service to the Lord.
The best thing is - you don't have to be a "professional" minister, nor do you have to be highly gifted to do this. You merely have to have a willing and faithful heart. There's a young guy in our fellowship who has Asperger's Syndrome - a form of autism - who has brought one of his friends to Christ, has invested heavily in him, and now THAT guy has brought someone to his bible study.
Goes to show...Jesus knew what He was always.

Dennis said...

Darlene said, "with discipleship you invest so heavily on all levels with the one you are mentoring that if they leave, you not only notice, but you feel great pain." Boy, you said it! I wonder if this is why the church today elects to avoid discipleship in favor of institutional ways of doing ministry? But you're right--the joy of even one disciple making it outweighs any amount of grief from those who choose to walk away.

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