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