Moving the Multiplication Needle: What We’re Missing in the West

Church growth pioneer and futurist Carl George looks ahead to identify vital insights for the coming church landscape

Exponential

If you know anything about the church growth movement, you know that Carl George is one of the venerable voices in it and the author of several related books, including his seminal work, How to Break Growth Barriers. After studying the Yoido Central Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, and its exponential growth, George essentially introduced the idea of the “meta-church,” or small groups, to the U.S. Church. If you lead a church with a small group ministry, you can thank Carl George. An astute researcher and observer of the Church, George is future-fluent, adept at identifying the next frontier. At Exponential East 2017, we had the opportunity to sit down with him and get his take on the future landscape of the Church and what he sees as some of the primary tensions we’ll need to navigate to see a multiplication movement in America.

Carl, before you became the leader of the Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth, you planted two churches. So you champion church planters and the Kingdom impact of multiplication.

When I started my church in Gainesville, Florida, a collective of churches sponsored us. And in the process, we sponsored two churches, a white church, and a black church. We helped one of our associate pastors get his start for a church in Georgia. He collected other support along the way, but if it had not been for our mentoring him and then our encouraging him to accept ordination and go forward, he wouldn’t have done it. So, we were intentionally and purposefully sponsoring a church.

With the black church, we didn’t really intend to start a church. We started a vacation Bible school and had 1,000 children take part; 300 of them were black. We asked black adults in our community to help us disciple the children, which they did. They eventually decided that they didn’t want to join our church; they wanted to do their own church. They looked upon us as their sponsors, and truly we were because we ordained their pastor, and the church’s original dozen people were led to Christ at our church.

But we never said, “Let’s sponsor a church.” We said, “These people aren’t willing to join us, so what do we do to disciple them?” And a church was the way it was done. This year, this church celebrated their 40th anniversary and had me back in to speak.

I was recently in a church where years ago the pastor there had been led to Christ in that black church we sponsored. In fact, I baptized this pastor’s grandmother in that church. The pastor called me forward to the pulpit and had me tell the story. Here I am in Greenville, South Carolina, in a church pastored by a very capable young man, who came to Christ because he was living with his grandfather, who is a deacon in that Florida church where I had baptized this pastor’s grandmother. Church planting leaves quite a legacy.

The idea that a church can have among its intended purposes the starting of additional churches, is a mind shift that Exponential is sponsoring.

And I think it is a tremendously important one. When a pastor and a group of church leaders determine they’ll deliberately and intentionally plant a church, or sponsor a new church, new churches result. So the degree of intentionality that Exponential has been pulling forward is worth all the effort.

In what ways has church planting evolved and changed over the decades?

In my youth, they used to have what they called annual revival meetings. A church that was evangelistic did two things regularly: an altar call after most sermons on Sunday morning; and an annual revival or evangelistic outreach meeting. But the thought of planting a new church, that was the stuff denominations did, or the stuff done by “first” churches (First Baptist, First Methodist, etc.) when they had reached a magical number of an ideal size such as 500, or maybe 1,000, whatever. And then they would spin off what we called the compass churches—located on the north side, the south side, the east side, the west side—from that mother church.

The idea that every church would be a church planter just wasn’t imagined. That was the domain of first churches, state organizations or denominations. Exponential has encouraged young pastors who have energy—who normally wouldn’t think of planting a church until they had reached some magic saturation point. I appreciate how Exponential is exhorting these leaders to plant even during those initial formation stages before they hit plateaus of various kinds, to be looking around and finding ways of galvanizing action toward new church plants way before their maturity would indicate that it was necessary to do so to carry the Christian movement forward.

Look ahead for us. What are some of the possible outcomes (pros and cons) of churches planting churches before they or others think they’re “ready” to plant?

That intentionality is blessed by the fruit of many churches sponsoring daughter churches. I suspect if we followed that very long, we would find that some of those daughter churches would, in fact, outperform their young mothers. If you sponsor the right combination of location and leadership, these daughters could very well take off and exceed their parents’ performance. And with the germ of church planting, they would be launching new churches before they were five years old.

The idea that you don’t need your own facility before you can be a church planter is a revolutionary idea. Many of the young church planters may not be good managers, but boy, they can be good vision casters and excite people.

If they’re ready to release new people from the get-go, then the outcome will be more people commissioned, more opportunities pursued.

The downside of it, of course, is that if you don’t adequately resource these new young people that are going out, their progress will be inhibited because they will struggle with being under-capitalized. It’s a factor of how many personalities are commissioned because if you sow enough, and put enough different kinds of personalities in enough different situations, some of these people will ignite an amazing story that is going to result in healthy and strong new churches.

Basically, the law of large numbers takes over. If you plant 1,000 churches, you’ll have 100 of them that are going to thrive very, very well, and 10 of them will exceed any imagination. So there’s something to be said for commissioning lots of churches. Then the operations people will start doing the research and realize, “Well, wait a minute, now these thriving situations correlate with the following set of resources. And these failing, under-performing units correlate with the lack of those resources.” Pretty soon, you’ll get new refined church plans for how to launch a mission successfully. And when you do, you bring other churches into the fold and make partnership arrangements.

Carl, you’ve written extensively on how churches can break the various growth barriers. How can we leverage what we’ve learned about breaking growth barriers to advance the multiplication of churches?

You have to talk about the essence of the barriers. Most of the barriers can be found between the ears of the pastor. The pastor will get into a performance mode, in which he or she finds a certain amount of satisfaction, and sees the fulfillment of certain ideals and dreams. And that mode reaches a plateau point, what we call the barrier. Going beyond that mode requires altering your vision of your role and what it should or could be. When we start examining what’s causing this barrier, we find that in most cases, we have to alter something in pastors’ thinking and feelings before they can move beyond that level to break through that barrier.

The reality is that the more “shepherding” that pastors are, the less likely it is that they’ll push past the number of people they can personally touch. And so, they wind up full of things to do before their congregation is full—stuck with a very full, very busy schedule, with a lot of self-satisfaction because of the people that they see they’re helping. Setting aside those satisfactions, the stroking patterns, and increasing the number of people under their care will create for them more grief, loss, and pain than satisfaction. The qualitative dimension of all the warm embracing regard the pastor enjoys as shepherd-pastor cannot be duplicated by enlarging the number of people. With enlargement, there’s some loss in the intimacy involved in that earlier stage.

Anytime a pastoral leader sees someone else ministering to a member of his flock, he has to go through the temptation of jealousy that this person is going to be enjoying the fruit of that caring. It’s a very sad reality. But if you get into conversations with pastors over a long enough period of time, they will begin to tell you the stories that relate to how intimately they value the stroking that comes from grateful people whom they’ve rescued. And it’s a harsh reality for them to watch other people get credit for helping others.

Instead, a pastor has to prepare to suffer the personal loss of the caregiving status and to move from being the caregiver to being the assurer of caregiving—the major shift needed to break barriers and reach more people. The key question becomes, “Are my people being adequately cared for, regardless of whether I or someone else is doing the caring?” Pastors must have a sense of call that there are people who are not yet cared for, and ask, “How will we reach these people?”

Now, there’s a mathematical and social reality underlying all of this. Because we know this attractiveness of the strokes that a pastor gets for caring for people is so strong, we can anticipate that the majority of pastors will not be able to go beyond personal caring. So again, what we want to do is invoke the law of large numbers and plant enough churches and commission enough pastors to the work so that we assure the percentage of the pastor-leaders who can stay focused on evangelism, who can move past the barriers. We can reach more people through individual units, but also through larger individual units, as well. We don’t despise the unit for being small if it’s engendering additional units, knowing that some of those additional units will break the gravitational effect of personal caring, and will release new pastor leaders in new places, and allow them to carry forward to larger numbers of people.

So overcoming barriers starts with changing leaders’ desire to move beyond their shepherding role and follow the call to reach people not yet cared for. What else can we learn about multiplication from your research and work with thousands of church leaders?

The second area is an element of this that goes beyond the personal caring dimension that traps pastors, and that is the need for managerial competence to take an organization forward past a certain level. So you not only need a willingness to share the caring; you also you need the competencies for creating an organizational structure in which other people can find meaningful participation.

Many of these charismatic leaders don’t tolerate the routines of management and administration well enough to make room on their team for people who will, in fact, enlarge and develop their organizations. They are so fixated on their own performance and satisfactions, and the way they glitter when they walk that they will attract fans, not co-workers, because co-workers have to be granted a certain measure of autonomy, privilege, and recognition.

You need people alongside of you who are adept at organization, and who are willing to say, “Okay, here’s a layman who cannot aspire to be a preacher and lead a large congregation, per se, but he has the ability, with his wife’s help, to open his home and to bring in a half a dozen friends, and to nurture those people over a period of years.” Giving that person a legitimate role within the church structure is what the organizer is gifted to do.

Many pastors have confessed to me that tension as they examine their own structure. But the sadness is that those issues are unresolved and relevant to a discussion of why a pastor cannot push past a certain point. One of the reasons is because he cannot tolerate on his team the people whose organizational abilities will release additional leaders among and within the congregation. We have to multiply the number of caregiving units in a congregation.

Many pastors do not have an awareness that their strength in teaching and caring has a hidden side to it, and that their very effectiveness and the joy they receive from the strokes that come back to them could, in fact, be limiting their ability to move forward. Without help to discover it, that thought doesn’t occur to very many.

The new subtitle on your updated book (How to Break Growth Barriers) highlights the need to release the people in your church. How does releasing people lead to the multiplication of disciples and churches? Essentially, we’re talking about the priesthood of all believers.

Yes, that’s the theological justification for allowing more people to participate in leadership. I have no argument with that, except for a major reality: A conceptual empowerment through a teaching such as the priesthood of all believers is not the same thing as an actual empowerment, which involves enrolling people in a permission-given role. In other words, to ordain someone gives them a certain privilege that they become aware of and the people around them become aware of. But we can talk about the universal priesthood of all believers, and then not give anyone a role in which to operate. Let me give you an example.

A woman came to me and she says, “I’m really committed to Christ and to His work. And I’ve counseled with my priest about this, and as a result, I’ve enrolled in seminary and am on track to becoming an ordained minister.” I looked at her and said, “Well, what are you doing now? Why the big leap from laywoman to ordained minister? What about other roles in between such as Sunday school teacher, small group leader?”

“Oh, we don’t need any of those things,” she said. “Our priest handles all that.”

In other words, there was no ladder, no stair step of minor roles that would lead to a major role. So, the question I have is, where are the apprentice roles, small group roles, and small class roles that allow a person to take one of these minor roles and see themselves and be seen as a potential helper/leader in this congregation?

We need not just a theological understanding of the priesthood of all believers, but also an operational understanding of commissioning people to shadow others, apprenticing others, and so forth. That’s where I have advocated so strongly that small group systems—in which leaders are identified, apprentices are assigned and pre-apprentice behaviors are recognized and celebrated—create those kinds of initial releases through these partial roles that are developing toward more significant, visible roles.

We’ve got to commission leaders that are able to sponsor life together in their home meetings, and become seen as actual functioning pastors. And as you do that, and you empower more and more people along that line, you can care for more and more people. And that helps to break the barriers.

As a result of your research and writing about the meta-church model, thousands of U.S. churches now have small group ministries. Yet we’re still not seeing multiplication. What are we missing?

It’s a matter of clarity of intention—when you say to a pastor, “Celebrate the creation of a small group leader,” as opposed to celebrating the creation of a counselee who’s going to come to your office and use your Kleenex box. When we help leaders to see the strategic nature of commissioning new small group leaders, the intentionality of that is part of what this organizational development theme has to be.

Now when you take it one step further and say well, can we do that with whole church units, absolutely, we can! It’s a step of intentionality. If the idea has not occurred to a pastor, Oh, I can be a sponsor of a small group of churches? Wow! I thought that was something the bishop or others did. The fact that I can be a starter of a church and be used by God to help start another church, that’s a novel idea.

And it’s an earth-shaking one.

Now the next wave, of course, is what Exponential is beginning to envision and imagine—the church without walls, the micro church era—basically small groups in homes that don’t require the same kind of meeting structures and facility structures. It’s almost the Church of the persecuted nation that we’re getting ready for.

It’s the Church of the future, which does the same kind of work in our time as the Christian churches of the first three centuries, in an atmosphere in which they were the persecuted minority. The only way that they could demonstrate their loyalty was through martyrdom. That wave of churches which established Christianity has returned to the Communist world and Muslim world. It’s supernatural in its quality. What these guys are leading us to is an understanding of the church that thrives through martyrdom. That’s going to be a very interesting development to watch.

What are other areas prohibiting multiplication in the U.S. Church?

Well, the Christian Church in America has by and large embraced the secularism of the Enlightenment, to such an extent that it’s basically bought into most of the neo-Darwin ideas about worldview. We have become increasingly less supernaturalistic and more empirical in our approaches to things. In other words, without admitting it, we have brought into a worldview, in which God is not an active and invisible component.

The consequence of that is powerless churches—little reliance on God for divine healing, a loss of prophetic ministry, a distrust of the unseen world. We’ve tried to say, “Well, God stopped all this” (cessation theologies), insisting that God doesn’t work that way anymore. That’s our Western ignorance because wherever the Church has grown dramatically in the world is traceable to the daily lives of people and their interactions with the spirit world. They’re fighting demonism continually, regarding it as part of their reality.

We, Westerners, go in with shades on our eyes. So what’s getting ready to happen to release us from this darkness is the necessity to recover our biblical and supernatural worldview. We’re going to have to get past this division of the church (natural versus supernatural groups) and start accepting the biblical description of reality, where the Book of Job becomes as important to us as any other book in the Bible. Job describes the realm of the seen and the unseen. Until we recover our sense of the seen and the unseen, we’re not going to be operating with the power of the unseen. So right now, we’re like blind men walking around in dark rooms.

So you’re saying we must be Holy Spirit-dependent to see a true Kingdom movement of multiplication?

Yes and no. We should and we must, and yet, without it, we will still do something. Intentionality, even on the part of a blind man, takes you farther than the lack of it.

Acts 1:8 shows us the correlation between the Holy Spirit and a movement of multiplication. Jesus says He’s giving us His Holy Spirit and then shares His vision for seeing His witnesses multiplied “to the ends of the earth.”

Did I just hear you rely on the Bible as justification? Wow! What a novel idea, that we can trust the Bible to inform our worldview.

The beauty is that the Holy Spirit operates anonymously or otherwise. We would be greatly advantaged if it were not quite so anonymous. Our blindness to the supernatural in our lives is a great hindrance to the fruitfulness that we would hope to engender.

The newly revised edition of How to Break Growth Barriers includes stories from today’s churches and explores the impact of churches that take seriously the priesthood of believers and the call to leaders to help people identify their gifting and actively release them to do the work of ministry both inside and outside the local church.

To read more about the micro church movement, check out Exponential’s recent white paper, The Emerging Micro-Church Era: Addition Reproduction or Multiplication? 10 Questions to Consider.