Disciple Multiplication Is the Main Thing

February 10th, 2014
This article is featured in the Stuck: Now What? (Feb/Mar/Apr2014) issue of Circuit Rider

To live out our mission in relevant and vibrant ways, two things are required of us: to multiply disciples and to innovate. We can’t manage, restructure, or cut our way out of decline. We can’t solve a spiritual crisis with a structural solution. The regions struggling to make disciples within The United Methodist Church lack a foundational discipling culture, which is a spiritual problem. That spiritual crisis can be measured not just by lack of discipleship fruit but also by the pervasive lack of trust and burnout of leaders (lay and clergy). It is evident in those members of our churches who have faithfully attended worship and Sunday school classes for years but who can’t recall an encounter with the living Christ. The problem is apparent among clergy who demonstrate in word and in deed that they no longer believe in the power of prayer or that God will show up when the body of believers assembles.

Instilling a culture of multiplication in every layer of the system begins in faith communities. This requires shifting to multiplying disciples rather than trying to grow churches or ministries. A culture of multiplication is less about managing an institution and more about fanning a kingdom movement. Faith communities with multiplication DNA don’t focus on maintaining the status quo plus a little growth to cover normal attrition. Nor do such places set modest growth goals for themselves as a knee-jerk response to years of decline. These faith communities aren’t focused on growing their church or ministry business. They are seeking to live out the great commandment and the great commission as modeled by Jesus so that as many lives, communities, and churches as possible are changed from the inside out.

If we look at the mountains of research conducted in the last decade across Christian denominations and cultures, we see vast amounts of information about what propels a Christian church to thrive in a region. There are many accounts of “how we did it” in places that have multiplied disciples. Paul Nixon (with Path 1) and I distilled that research and compared it with our own study and application to discover common principles in churches of all shapes, ages, sizes, locations, and ethnicities that were making significant—often dramatic—impacts in their communities. From onsite research in the Far East (China, Philippines) to high impact United Methodist and nondenominational churches throughout the United States, we identified key factors that influence the rate of multiplying disciples.

Prayer and Discernment

Churches that multiply their kingdom impact pray about everything. Prayer is the main strategy. Prayer is central. Prayer is not perfunctory or a ritual performed only by a “professional.” Jesus not only taught us to pray but, in the feeding of the five thousand, he also demonstrated the power of prayer, when a couple fish sandwiches became a meal for all. At all levels of the church, decisions should be made by discerning God’s will through prayer and holy conferencing. However, if people aren’t seeking God’s will personally, it is virtually impossible for them to meaningfully participate in seeking God’s will with a group. At a recent retreat with a friendly town church of about 150 folks, the congregation and I began to discern what God wanted them to be and do to grow the kingdom in that town. One stage of the discernment process is praying about indifference: a prayer where we ask God to remove from us our own preferences and stumbling blocks so that we might be able to fully attend to and hear God’s wisdom. Some folks were visibly uncomfortable (one even left the room). Many experienced a powerful shift as they sought to apply a faith lesson (not my will but your will must be done). As we continued onto a prayer for wisdom, several people identified the need to practice discerning more. At district, annual conference, and general church levels, how are we modeling the importance of prayer and discernment?

Abundant Evangelism

People who encounter Jesus cannot help talking about it. This personal faith sharing tends to result in new people brought to the movement, regardless of whether the movement is theologically right, left, or center! People can’t help but talk about what God is doing in their lives or their church. Evangelization is often focused on finding the next leaders, the people who have the gifts and passion. It is everyone’s concern. Never do multiplying movements frame the challenge as a search for more paying customers. Rather, the challenge is to build a relationship with each person you encounter until the opportunity for sharing faith happens.

While districts, annual conferences, and agencies seek to get the word out about how our churches and initiatives are changing lives, most of these stories are geared more toward our own people rather than those who need to hear the good news. While it is vitally important to celebrate signs and wonders of what God is doing in and through us, it doesn’t embed evangelism in our culture. Evangelism is rooted in relationship. District, annual conference, and general church persons need to share how God has shown up in their lives in authentic and relevant ways with everyone they meet. It could be as simple as sharing about how God led you to your current position or how God moved recently in your life. Each time I take the time to do that, people comment about how they had forgotten the importance and power of testimony.

High View of Scripture

This view has nothing to do with fundamentalism. Rather, people with a high view of scripture have a sense of expectancy that when the word is read, God is in the room and is going to say something fresh and new to the people gathered and reading. Therefore the Bible is used easily and freely in every type of gathering. Laity are trusted and encouraged to use it. And scripture is consulted and used as an aid in times of confusion, debate, and learning. Jesus modeled this as he made reference to the word of God throughout his ministry.

While teaching the principle “simplify your structure” with my pastor, Joe Daniels, we were explaining how to transition to a single board model when a pastor in the room said something like: “It sounds like your people trust you. All I have to lead them is this book.” He wasn’t holding up the Bible but The Book of Discipline! That scene plays out in my head anytime I see a slavish adherence to rules in any layer of the connection. Too often we are ignoring the Bible as a central leadership tool.

Theological Simplicity

Not to be confused with theological stupidity. We are not dumbing down the gospel. In the churches that multiply, we find widespread consensus and clarity on the relationship between the gospel of Jesus and God’s expectations for human beings. The multiplying community manages to get its collective brain around some key principles that tie it all together. They know what a disciple of Jesus Christ is and how that is relevant to the lives of people who don’t yet have a relationship with Jesus Christ. They are able to explain without jargon what they believe and why that makes a difference in what they practice. This sense of coherence empowers and gives courage to common people to dive into conversational Bible study themselves, without expecting the clergy and the “experts” to tell them how to live life well through faithful love. Jesus used his behavior and parables to make theology practical and simple for the people he encountered.

At district, annual conference, and general church levels we should network or resource churches to accomplish this behavior. Instead of branding the denomination or even the annual conference, why not invest that money in helping our churches brand themselves authentically. The branding process should include a distillation of core identity, which includes articulating theology (beliefs and practices). The mission, values, and beliefs of The United Methodist Church remain constant and shouldn’t be reinvented. However, each of our faith communities needs to express these identities in ways that the communities beyond their walls can understand.

Economical Approach

In the affluent Western world, we have mastered the art of expensive church. In some contexts, we throw money at everything: from the people who serve us to dazzling technology and buildings. However, if we are serious about multiplying our impact, we need to rethink investments here. Has a materialistic distortion of “excellence in all things” replaced the value of “good enough”? Sloppiness, by definition, would not equal good enough. But neither would lavishly wasting resources on superfluous things. Think about it. There is a continuum in the economy of excellence, and we are wise to stay in the middle of the continuum more often than not. Faith communities are rethinking building utilization so that the place where the church gathers has lower overhead.

In the new places where multiplication happens, we see a plain, functional meeting space, often leased or bartered but rarely expensive. And volunteers do more of the work—even some of the pastoral work. Smart economics means giving much of church leadership back to ordinary people. Jesus was essentially homeless for the three years of his active ministry. He didn’t invest significant financial resources to start this movement called Christianity. As we start new things and reevaluate old things, we must do so with an eye toward sustainable ministries designed to expand impact.

High Level of Trust

In churches that multiply, we see trust at every level—among leaders, between leaders and followers, between clergy and laity, and, in all cases, foremost between people and God. Sacraments and scripture are given to the people for them to steward and to use. Central control is loosened, but a strong spirit of accountability within the movement typically persists. If leaders step out of bounds with the core principles or behavioral covenants of the movement, it is addressed. But it is amazing how little leader misbehavior seems to appear in a system when there is less anxious central control. Jesus demonstrated great trust in humanity through consistently being a conduit of God’s love for us.

The level of trust among layers of the connection is inconsistent. I have met pastors who have a high degree of trust with their affinity group in the connection but a low degree of trust with their district or annual conference affiliation. There are annual conference staff who see no value in general agency work. There are local church folk who see no value in, or don’t know about, annual conference or agency leaders. Without trust it isn’t possible to leverage the gifts of the connection—nor is it possible to gain 100 percent apportionments! Trust is earned when (a) roles/functions are clarified; (b) decision making is transparent; (c) the people of God speak truth in love (Matthew 18) without inserting more drama; and (d) the people consistently seek God to bring unity and order as needed.

Focus on Finding and Apprenticing Discipling Leaders

Each one teaches one. Intentionally focus on filling up the leadership pipeline and helping people discover their call and find their place in the body of Christ. This is the core flywheel of the multiplying movement! Great churches are all about developing ordinary people to live out God’s dreams in new ways. Contrast this with churches that exist to appease and please members (who behave more like consumers) or denominational supervisors. Jesus sought out twelve disciples who would be leaders and poured his Spirit into them.

Since discipleship is caught more than it is taught, it is essential that leaders who are influencing other leaders are spiritually mature disciple makers, not member caretakers or politicians. Incubating and apprenticing leaders—lay and clergy—who hear and obey God is a task that must be supported at all levels of the connection. At local church levels this often happens through intentional apprenticeship in small group formats and through discipleship mentors/coaches.

Simple Systems with Noncompeting Priorities

Places that multiply ministry keep the main thing as the main thing. Multiplying disciples trumps all other concerns. Sometimes there are major disagreements, but decisions are ultimately made with the highest priority in mind. A multiplying church may explicitly limit the types of activity that it will directly sponsor—so that much is pushed to the realm of extracurricular—often encouraging members to partner with nonmembers for various kinds of good endeavors that are not central to the core flywheel of multiplying disciples. And such partnerships are the stuff out of which relationships (and more evangelism) are born. Nothing Jesus did was separate from or in opposition to growing disciples. The structure needs to help keep the focus on this main thing. Layers of boards and committees and complicated decision making slows down and frustrates those who are new to the faith. Complexity consumes time and talent that could have been spent in ways that more directly have impact on making disciples. The local context rules, all the way down to the most grassroots expression of a community. Community-development models are poised to explode in all arenas of life and in all cultures. This mission shouldn’t be foreign to us, since John Wesley seemed to have community development in his blood. His simple formation and organizational system enabled the Methodist movement to multiply rapidly through accountability groups with clear expectations led by unordained laity.

This grassroots, noninstitutional approach mirrors the simplicity of Jesus’ own ministry. He kept it simple while seeking to revive and reform the institutional church. Simple systems with noncompeting priorities are even more difficult outside of the local church. When we as a denomination made professional clergy the head of societies (now known as local churches), we stopped multiplying. Not because these elders weren’t doing a good job, but because resources were limited (as they always are) and perhaps laity subconsciously decided to let the professionals handle ministry for them. We can’t afford the number of elders we have currently, and the issue will only get worse.

Just as the local church decides that the role of members is to reach new people first and then care for each other, on the national level we need to keep the focus on the mission field instead of on churches—even though churches are the ones who are paying to sustain the connection. I support bringing most agencies under one roof (except for designated ombudsmen that serve a watchdog purpose). How this happens is critical. It could be as simple as adding “or equivalent” to each agency description and then limiting the pool of funds so that agencies are free (and motivated, if not compelled) to merge in ways that focus on the primary mission of the church. We also should start a “mission conference” (with the working name of New Frontiers Conference) that is not tied to a geographical region, ethnicity, or general agency but is focused on a single mission with a defined result: the habit of planting at least one church a day throughout the world.

Rapid Reproduction and Innovation

Multiplying movements, from the house-church variety to the more conventional congregations, typically encourage some sort of planting to emerge within a couple years. With United Methodists in the Philippines, a new faith community is not considered ready to begin weekly worship until it is ready to simultaneously adopt another neighborhood for mission outreach—meaning that they are beginning the planting of their offspring congregation at the same time that they are launching public worship. In most cases, leader development and spiritual formation will take nine to eighteen months before a new generation of ministries can be birthed. But when a group or ministry or church waits longer than two years to begin working toward the birth of the next thing, the chances rise that they will settle in and never multiply rather than continuing to pioneer new frontiers. Jesus and his disciples never stayed in one place for long.

Planting new faith communities that reach new people is the research and development activity of the church. Currently there are lots of experiments underway that are testing everything from “What if we intentionally incubate high-potential planters in large-impact churches?” to “What happens if we swarm an area and start ten to twelve churches in the next two to three years with a meager budget?” What we learn in this living laboratory can be taught to existing churches as we pioneer new ministry frontiers with new people for a new reality.

Through establishing a New Frontiers Conference, we can reclaim the United Methodist movement and put leadership and congregational development back in sync with each other. We can allocate funding to establish a planting conference that would have the authority to ordain, develop, and deploy clergy and laity across the world to plant new places with new people. The territory of this conference would be the world, and its bishop would have a strong church planting background. This New Frontiers Conference would help us evolve many aspects and rules for our core systems (e.g., Board of Ordained Ministry), be a proving ground for best practices (and key learnings), and allow us to have a national deployment strategy for planters and restarters that isn’t tied to one geographic territory or subject to episcopal or superintendent indifference. For this to work, this New Frontiers Conference would relate to all other annual conferences in ways that are collaborative rather than competitive.

I have witnessed the power and possibility of our connection: how networks of support, encouragement, and resourcing matter in the lives of individuals and communities. I understand why some people want to do away with as many agencies as possible while others actually find strength and hope in the work of the general church. But if we don’t actively commit to a cultural change—everything focused on multiplying disciples—no rearranging of the deck chairs will help us. When we change the mission to multiplying world-changing disciples, groups of people who gathered to talk about how to manage decline or contraction come together to discern the will of God and leave with bold visions for the future. Some bold visions rally people toward new behaviors that begin the work of culture change and fruitfulness. Some bold visions are reduced to something that is more manageable or palatable because the leaders entrusted with implementing the vision don’t trust that God’s vision would be accompanied in prayer by divine provision. When people of God come together to discern the will of God, amazing things happen. We can do this, by the grace of God.

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