Rethinking the Church’s Present Operating System for Future Multiplication

If you aspire to multiplication but aren't seeing it, then It's time to examine and change the design of your church's operating system

Todd Wilson

Leading your church toward Level 5 multiplication will require change, most notably a change in your operating system. Here, Todd Wilson, director of Exponential and co-author of Becoming a Level 5 Multiplying Church, explains how operating systems work and why our prevailing system isn’t producing the transformation needed to fuel movements of multiplication. 

Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last 15 years, you probably have a smart phone and have discovered a myriad of uses for it. Within seconds, we can easily connect with anyone in our address book and access just about any information we need.

At its core, three components combine to give us consistently good experiences with our smart phones:

Hardware + Software + Operating System = Consistent Results

The hardware is the tangible device we hold in our hands. The software resides inside the device and interacts with humans and the hardware. The operating system offers a framework for the hardware and the software to interact and play together nicely. The operating system provides a context for a wide variety of different software applications to work within the hardware and produce a desired result.

The Role of the Operating System

In life, most things are perfectly designed to deliver the consistent results we see. If you don’t like the results you’re getting in some area, then that’s a signal for change. Start by looking carefully at the alignment of the elements that make up the operating system.

Our deep burden at Exponential is the lack of healthy church multiplication happening in the U.S. Church. Approximately 80 percent of U.S. churches are either plateaued or declining—indicating that only 20 percent are growing. Of those growing churches, less than 4 percent are reproducing, with well under .5 percent (essentially 0 percent) multiplying as a consistent and regular product of their operating systems.

The prevailing operating systems that give us church growth are falling short of giving us church multiplication.

Through survival of the fittest, the current system sets its sights on accumulation and addition-growth. We are adding, but are we adding in a way that produces the transformation needed for multiplication?

Bugs in Our Current Operating System

I remember talking about this with my good friend, author and missiologist Alan Hirsh. He explained it simply, saying that apple trees don’t produce oranges because they’re not designed to yield anything but apples.

“The current operating systems of the church are not designed to produce multiplication,” he said. “In fact, they are perfectly designed to produce what they’re currently producing: subtraction or addition.”

Several decades ago, the operating system for planting churches changed. Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, made an indirect impact on the emerging church growth movement. At the core of Drucker’s marketplace work are three simple yet profound questions: Who is our customer? What do they value? How do we deliver that value?

This customer service posture has also helped fuel the church growth movement. By focusing on who the lost people in our communities are and understanding what they value, we can design church to attract and serve these people.

The strength of the megachurch (where we see most of the numerical growth in U.S. churches) is rooted in operating systems that align and scale the resources of the local church (the hardware) with addition-oriented activities and strategies (the software) to target and meet the customer’s perceived needs. The megachurch’s strength is its attracting capacity. We see this through staff, buildings, programs, excellent Sunday services and preaching, marketing and outreach events.

This operating system values a scalable, transactional approach to adding. We “score” when we attract the customer and they choose to stick around. Unfortunately, this system also set us up to spend increasing amounts of time and energy seeking to appease our customers. As a result, it circumvents our obedience to God’s calling to make disciples who go as an expression of their increasing maturity.

The strengths of this current operating system—attracting and connecting with people far from God—are essential. But I’m deeply convicted that the prevailing operating system new church planters so passionately embrace also has shortcomings because we’re not producing the transformation needed to both fuel and sustain multiplication movements.

Transformation vs. Transaction

What if the fuel to healthy growth came through transformation rather than transaction? What if the lack of multiplication we see in the U.S. Church is actually a reflection of the quality of our disciple making? What if our zeal for accumulation is unintentionally making cultural Christians who continually need to be fed rather than biblical disciples who actually fuel multiplication and movements?

David Garrison, an expert on church-planting movements, has said that if we want to see churches planted, then we must set out to plant churches … “If you want to see reproducing churches planted, then you must set out to plant reproducing churches.”

The current system perfectly aligns us for accumulation and addition-growth. What if, instead, we could have addition-growth that actually fuels multiplication? What if, instead, we became catalysts for deploying and sending biblical disciples?

We stand at a crossroads in history with the opportunity to pilot a better future. But to make this revolutionary change, we need to rethink our current operating systems and become courageous leaders willing to discover and embrace new ones.


Todd Wilson is the founder and director of Exponential. He is passionate about mobilizing people on their unique, God-given, personal calling and the author of several books including More: Find Your Personal Calling and Live Life to the Fullest Measure, Becoming a Level 5 Multiplying Church (with Dave Ferguson) and Spark: Igniting a Culture of MultiplicationTodd is married to Anna and they have two sons and one daughter-in-law.