"Half of all churches in America did not add one person through conversion last year."
Read that again.
Now, read it again.
That is pathetic! Our nation is crumbling, the people are searching, searching, searching. What they are searching for, no one seems sure. But they are searching. This nation is hungry, and we in the Church know that we have access to a food that truly satisfies.
So what is wrong?
Jon and Dave Fergusson, two of the founders of a fantastically quickly growing circle of churches, think that they have the answer. In part I think they are right. As the foreword says, "They are as many of us desire to be--successful leaders of a very large multisite church." Well, I tend to like neither very large, nor multi-site churches, but let's let that go for the moment.
Their new book, EXPONENTIAL, is a high octane description of how they have grown from four evangelistically minded college kids into an enormous network of churches, many of them multi-site congregations. These churches, in many cities and increasingly many countries, have all grown from the initial set of four friends, dreaming about how they could impact Chicago for Christ. Crunching the numbers that were involved in this rapid growth feels like I am crunching my skull! How is it possible? And is it what Jesus called the Kingdom of God? Is this how church is supposed to be?
Imagine the worst it could be: huge churches that function like social clubs, with maybe a few truly saved Christians among them. Is that any worse than that half of all American churches that grew by NOT ONE SOUL last year? I honestly couldn't answer that, but I'm glad to say that that is not what I think Dave and Jon Ferguson are all about.
Church growth for the Fergusons takes place on three levels, or in three spheres: the personal, the numerical and the structural.
PERSONAL GROWTH, as they describe it, is all about moving from one level of leadership up to a higher level of leadership. Yes, their system is very hierarchical. Don't let hierarchy scare you off quite yet, it has its strengths as well as its drawbacks. But, so far as I can tell from this book, personal growth has little to do with "knowing Christ in the fellowship of his sufferings." It has little to do with growth in grace, or with walking as Jesus walked, which John encourages us to do. When looking for someone who is ready to move from one level of leadership to another, they do not encourage us to examine a person by the criteria that Paul sent to Titus and to Timothy: temperate, gentle, not a lover of money, not quarrelsome, etc. Instead they point us to their main criteria: that "a leader must be able to attract followers."
As Dave writes, "I had to set aside my selfish reluctance and begin encouraging Troy to continue moving forward on his leadership path by planting this new church." Throughout much of the book, that seems to be the real goal, each person's "leadership path."
They are right that within the church, "Everything rises and falls on leadership." A church without a leader will fly as well as a kite without a string. But they take this fact and elevate (if one can take the book at face value) anyone who is a natural leader into positions of leadership over God's people. Not all leaders are Godly leaders. Ask Germany. Ask Chicago. Ask anyone.
If we are going to use some principles from EXPONENTIAL, we must do so with care and caution. But don't misunderstand. I honestly don't think that this is how the Ferguson brothers built their churches. I think they did use discernment, and caution, and biblical principles in choosing future leaders. But this does not really come through in the book at all. They seem to assume that naturally we will use such discernment. But the real danger is that once one makes a strategy--and this book is a strategy for rapid church growth--once we make a strategy our focus, we run the risk of losing sight of such details as biblical qualifications for leadership in the Body of Christ. In fact, if the way this book is written is any indication, I wonder if the Fergusons have become too enamoured with the strategy and have lost sight of the goal.
NUMERICAL growth is, for the Fergusons, the purpose of God's Church. A child is born to grow, if it does not grow then something is very wrong. Perhaps that is why new churches grow rapidly and churches more than ten years old rarely grow at all.
They are right, churches should grow. New converts should be added to their numbers. A stagnant church is a dying church. A church that does not feel compelled to reach out beyond those church doors should be tossed out into the streets where they would have no choice but to mingle with the hoi-poloi.
But growth by itself is not evangelism. While their approach really does encourage evangelism and sees conversions, that is not the only source of their growth. Although they do once mention that they do not seek to draw members from other churches, still they mention at least one leader whom they drew away, and I get the impression that much of their rapid growth comes from such "stealing." How else do you get (after months of canvassing and tele-marketing) four to five hundred people at the first service in a new church? The huge success they have enjoyed is the triumph of highly professional marketers for Jesus. And like any marketer, they pay great attention to the packaging.
STRUCTURAL GROWTH takes place, in the Ferguson system, when leaders move up to higher levels and eventually one or two are deemed ready to head their own congregations, using of course the Ferguson strategy in those new congregations. Thus the strategy spreads, and in theory (they do crunch the numbers) soon the whole world will be Christian, living in an EXPONENTIAL church, all hoping to move from one level of leadership to the next.
Sound a bit like Amway hype? Oh, it is. Very much like Amway hype.
But still . . .
I think that many church leaders could learn a lot from tiny workings of how the Ferguson brothers explain the system.
Consider Charles Spurgeon, that prince of preachers. A great man, a Godly man, a superhuman evangelist. But where is his church now? What happened to it? It has become just a wispy shadow of what it once was. Within just a few years of his death, the Tabernacle had veered away from his great and true doctrines, and had lost the power that his careful passion had overseen. What happened? Well, it seems that he prepared no successor.
And that is what the Ferguson strategy is all about: successors.
They make much of Paul's instructions to Timothy: "The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others." If you look at that carefully, you will see that there are four generations mentioned: Paul, Timothy, Reliable Men, Others. And the idea is that those others will then be able to continue the pattern.
Timothy was Paul's protégé, his apprentice. And Paul was telling him that Timothy was to do what Paul was doing, that is, he was to take apprentices and teach them to take apprentices. This is what Jesus had also done; he took disciples and trained them to make disciples, who would in turn make disciples.
Simple? Well, duh! But the problem is, we don't do this in most of our churches. The church is full of people who can teach, and many of them do. But how often do they make a focus of also training one or two to be able to also teach? Where do most churches get their leadership? their pastors? their priests? their musicians? Don't they expect them to come from a seminary or the music department in some university or some burned out rock musician? Why do we not train our own pastors and leadership and musicians?
The pattern that Jesus and Paul display and encourage is that they expect each person who is any type of leadership to prepare others to also fill that type of leadership. Thus, the leader of a Bible study does in fact teach the Bible study. A group of people are in fact edified through the Bible study. But one or two of those in the group are also being shown exactly how the leader prepares, are praying with the leader for the members of the study group, are paying close attention not only to the lesson but also to how it is presented. Over time the "apprentice" learns how to lead a group, and also how to train a new leader. The Fergusons lay it out simply:
1) I do. You watch. We talk.
2) I do. You help. We talk.
3) You do. I help. We talk.
4) You do. I watch. We talk.
5) You do. Someone else watches.
It is that simple. But by doing this over and over, preparing new leaders for new Bible studies, one soon multiplies the leaders of study groups exponentially. Bravo!
But the process is not lightning quick, for it takes time to really train a new convert to lead a Bible study. The Fergusons have the advantage in that many of their leaders came to them ready equiped with a grounding in the Bible. My church has no such luxury. We intentionally seek those who have no such grounding.
And training a new leader involves a HUGE investment of time on both the current leader's part and on that of the apprentice. They spend time together preparing and discussing each meeting of the study group. They pray together. As is stressed in the book, the time investment is crucial in order to really train a person, and the time investment also makes it impossible for any person to train more than one or two at a time.
Simple in the extreme!
Simple but not easy.
Simple, but also thoroughly biblical. One to one training, training within the church, these are the pattern that we see in the Bible. Sending our bright young folk away to seminary for four to six years, having them trained by professionals, and then probably never seeing them again because they will be sent elsewhere to lead some other church: that is not the biblical pattern. If they are sent elsewhere, it should be their home congregation that has trained them and sends them off with their blessings to further God's kingdom.
Interestingly, while the hype of big numbers and rapid growth tends to mask it, the Ferguson's strategy is one that actually engenders a true sense of community. It is all about one person spending and being spent for the building up of another person. Strip it of the grandiose ego pumping hoopla (OK, then it would be 20 pages) and you will find that at the core of what drives their machine is one heart beating alongside another, as they each learn to keep time with Christ's heart.
If every leader within our churches were intentionally guiding and training an apprentice to do that same work, then would our churches be dying? Begin simply; lead a Bible study including both Christian and non-Christian friends (you can do that, right?); and work with one of the people to get them ready to lead a Bible study. When they are ready, you help them launch their study group, and help them to pick and to train an apprentice of their own. Simple.