What’s Your Number? 

An awkward conversation about leadership

May 27, 2024

We were almost four years into our second church plant and I was determined to break the 400 growth barrier. 

We were hovering in the low to mid-300s in attendance, and I was convinced that this would finally be the year we broke through to new heights. I started reading everything I could find on the topic of church growth, and most of the literature always summarized the complexities of the church down to six or seven easy steps. I needed to change the governing board, raise the bar of excellence in weekend worship, delegate more, improve my preaching, and become more externally focused to reach more people in the community. I also intuitively knew that I needed to become a better leader. 

Fixating on Church Growth

During that season, I reminded myself of John Maxwell’s famous mantra, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” I religiously attended The Leadership Summit every year, read all the Patrick Lencioni and Jim Collins books I could get my hands on, and reached out to a few pastors with growing churches to help me move forward. I still have notes from a retreat I attended at one of the flagship churches in my denomination that stressed the need for more “five-talent” leaders. I was fixated on the art and science of leadership.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with one of the megachurch pastors I was connecting with during that season. He was intimidating and outspoken, and a few minutes into lunch, he asked me a pointed question, “So Jon, what’s your number? How big do you want your church to grow?” The question caught me off-guard, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I said, “I don’t know, umm, maybe 2,000?” He disapprovingly shook his head and said somewhat forcefully, “Dream bigger!” His response caught me off guard, so I fired back, “OK, what about 1,000,000?” He had a serious look on his face and stared back at me. Then after a pregnant pause, he broke into laughter. I awkwardly laughed with him, and we continued the conversation. I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth. 

I guess Maxwell was right, though. If everything rises and falls on leadership, then everything rises and falls on…ME? Yikes! Could I grow a church past 400? What about 800? What about 2,000? I began to look in the mirror and started reflecting on a few important questions I had never asked before. 

Was I gifted and savvy enough to lead an organization past the different growth barriers that were required? 

Was I one of the 1% (actually 0.5 %) of pastors who could lead a church in the United States over 2,000 people? 

My mom and dad always told me I was special growing up. My professors in college said I was a world changer. Maybe I just needed to dig a little deeper, work a little harder, and pray more … and so I did … and eventually I burned out. 

A New Perspective 

A decade of church planting and pioneering two “launch-large” churches took a toll on my emotional and spiritual health. What began with a genuine desire to answer God’s call on my life turned into an unhealthy obsession with church growth that often kept me awake at night. The pace of ministry and how I carried the load eventually proved unsustainable. Fortunately, I was offered a three-month sabbatical as an opportunity for rest and healing and, eventually, I recovered from that very painful season. I’ve been around long enough to know that isn’t always the case. There are many who never make it back from burnout. There are others who leave the faith. In my case, the issue wasn’t necessarily the pace or the weight of the ministry. Instead, it was how I was carrying the load. My priorities were out of order. 

Jesus spoke to me very clearly during that season and reminded me that, first and foremost, I was a child of God and adopted as his son. He reminded me that he offered abundant life and that I needed to spend more time abiding with him. He showed me in scripture that his primary call on my life was not to plant churches or grow churches, but to make disciples. He reminded me of the power of the Spirit living inside of me and that everything rises and falls on him. 

In that season and the months to follow, I turned my back on an old way of living my life and tried my best to embrace his easy yolk in a beautiful exchange. That said, it’s been a process. Old habits and old thought patterns don’t always die overnight.

During that season of burnout, I also attended an Exponential conference. A new book called Becoming A Level Five Multiplier was released that year and included a now-ubiquitous chart that provided me with a new framework for thinking about leadership. Level 1 churches are in decline. Level 2 churches are plateaued and “stuck.” Level 3 churches are growing and getting larger. Level 4 churches are reproducing and starting new churches and campuses. Level 5 churches are multiplying. 

I began to think deeply about what it might look like to be a multiplying leader. Instead of the larger-than-life, charismatic CEO leader who could chair board meetings, cast vision, and preach life-changing sermons in a single bound, a new metric was placed in front of me that captured my imagination. This was an altogether different way of thinking, and it resonated with me. I was reminded of a scene in the movie The Matrix when Morpheus offers Neo a choice between a blue pill and a red pill and an opportunity to have his eyes opened to something new. Perhaps a bit dramatic, but if the blue pill were the church-growth, level-3 leader, the red pill would be the multiplying, level-5 leader. That said, the same temptation exists regardless of the framework. 

Fixating on Church Multiplication

I would imagine that somewhere there is a young leader who is obsessing over church multiplication. Instead of attending the Leadership Summit, this young leader religiously attends every single Exponential Conference. Instead of reading Patrick Lencioni, this leader is  gobbling up all the Alan Hirsch books. Instead of reaching out to those leading large, growing churches, this leader is learning from those leading multiplying churches. That young leader might even find themselves in a conversation with a multiplying pastor and get asked, “So, what’s your number?” The young leader might respond, “I don’t know maybe 20 … micro-churches?” and then hear the words, “Dream bigger!” They might then walk away with the same bad taste in their mouth that I had over a decade ago. 

Level five leadership is a different type of leadership, but if the fixation is on leadership, then the same patterns will emerge. Those uniquely gifted to oversee a new kind of multiplying church will begin to be elevated and, without doing the deeper soul work, people will wrestle with the same questions I had 10 years earlier. 

Am I gifted enough and savvy enough to lead a church to multiply to three, five, or even 10 churches? 

Am I a “Level-5” leader? Am I one of the 1% (actually, far less) of pastors who could lead a Level-5 church in the United States? Do I have the gifts and abilities to multiply microchurches? 

I wonder if there is an alternative. What if the focus was less on leadership and more on discipleship? What if the most important questions weren’t whether we had the leadership chops required to lead a growing church or a multiplying church or even a growing church that multiplies. What if we kept the conversation around identity, cultivating time with Jesus, intentional disciple-making, and mobilization? What if we focused more on those women and men who long to be healthy disciple-making leaders who champion reproduction? That is our new focus at Exponential, and it’s a phrase worth repeating.

We want to serve healthy, disciplemaking leaders who champion reproduction. No matter the “talent,” no matter the “level,” no matter the “leader,” may we all stay laser-focused on cultivating healthy disciples who make disciples who make disciples.  

Jon Wiest

Jon Wiest

Jon Wiest (“West”) is the Co-Founder of Mobilize the Church, a global ministry mobilizing a growing wave of disciple makers, pioneer leaders, and church planters. He previously planted churches in Dallas, TX and Des Moines, IA and is the author of Banding Together and Pioneers. Jon has degrees from Wheaton College, Wesley Seminary, and a D.Min. in Church Planting from Asbury Theological Seminary. He is a rabid San Francisco 49ers fan, loves traveling, sports, and history, and currently lives in the Indianapolis, IN area with his wife and four daughters.
View Author

Related Articles