Jim Tomberlin and I have had the privilege of gathering 18 large multisite churches who average more than 8,000 attendees across at least four campuses. In our first gathering in New York City, we focused on where we are in the church in America today.
Collectively, we observed that there are two seemingly opposite dynamics at work in the American Church today. The first is the continued expansion of the megachurch/multisite movement, with leading churches now pushing past the 10,000-person barrier and reaching sizes previously unimagined in the West. The second is the unmistakable reality that the American Church as a whole is losing ground by almost every conceivable measure.
How is this possible? How are we experiencing overall decline on the watch of some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in history?
The answer, we believe, is simple math.
Of the approximately 320,000 Protestant churches in America, 80% consist of congregations of less than 200 people, most of whom are struggling to survive. The culture at many these churches is one of Subtraction, where the primary call to the congregation is “Please stay!” Churches with subtraction cultures are just one major crisis away from having to close their doors.
If small, Subtraction culture churches represent as much as 80% of the congregations in America, then the prevailing megachurch model represents the bulk of the remaining 20%. Not all of that 20% has attained the size of a megachurch yet, but most have figured out a growth engine that results in relatively large numbers of people attending their church each week. In almost every instance, that growth engine is based on an Addition culture, where the primary call from the church to the community is “Please come!”
There is no doubt that Addition is better than Subtraction. Every church leader in America would rather have a growing church than a stuck, stalled or dying church.
There is also no doubt, though, that Addition on its own is not enough. If we were to lump all of the Subtraction culture churches together on one side of a seesaw, and all of the Addition culture churches together on the other side of the seesaw, the results are both clear and discouraging: even the biggest gains we see in individual churches in the Addition world are woefully inadequate to offset the struggle and loss and decline that the American Church is experiencing in almost every other form.
Clearly, our seesaw is pointing the wrong direction. The size and reach and influence and voice of the church in America is in decline. So what are we to do?
More than any other church culture, Multiplication best embodies our gospel identity as a sent people.
The needed difference, we believe, lies in our widespread adoption of the biblical principle of Multiplication. Beyond an Addition culture of gathering and accumulating and growing one congregation larger and larger, a true Multiplication culture prioritizes releasing and sending and empowering the growth of many new congregations, each of which are then expected to also release, send and empower the growth of many new congregations. If the Subtraction model asks the church to “Please Stay!” – and the Addition model asks the community to “Please come!” – then the Multiplication model asks disciples and congregations to “Please go!” More than any other church culture, Multiplication best embodies our gospel identity as a sent people.
The Navigators are famous for saying that you haven’t really made a disciple of Jesus until your disciple makes a disciple of Jesus. In other words, for The Navigators, the ability to reproduce a disciple is intrinsic to genuine discipleship.
This same principle applies equally well in the context of reproducing congregations. What if we agreed that you haven’t really launched a congregation until your new congregation has launched a congregation? In other words, what if reproducing a congregation is intrinsic to being a congregation?