You Gave Words to the Angst I Was Feeling

August 7, 2023

What’s next for you, as a church leader?

We are in a unique time period in the history of the church in the West. The pandemic accelerated some trends that were already in motion and shined the light on some brokenness in the church that had sometimes been hidden by rising attendance numbers. As we look ahead, we see an accelerating rate of change. While every generation shapes the church for the one to come, I think we are at a particularly malleable hingepoint.

Which makes this one of the most exciting times in history to be a Christ follower in the West.

Which makes this one of the most exciting times in history to be a Christ follower in the West.

In my conversations, I am finding that nearly every church leader today understands the church must move from addition to the kind of Kingdom multiplication Jesus intended. But what does that really mean? Here’s a framework that has proven useful to thousands of pastors and leaders that long to move beyond the status quo:

Level 1: Churches That Are in Decline

Level 1 churches are characterized by subtraction, scarcity and survival. They experience some combination of declining attendance, staffing, income and conversions. Without a turnaround, Level 1 churches eventually close.

Level 2: Churches That Are at a Plateau

Level 2 churches are plateaued and looking for the next catalyst to spark a season of growth. These churches experience some combination of flat attendance, staffing, income, and conversions. These churches may see temporary ups and downs, but their overall trend is flat.

Level 3: Churches That Are Growing

Level 3 churches are characterized by addition, growth and expansion of impact. They have a strong growth culture with some combination of increasing attendance, staffing, income, and baptisms. Leadership development and conquering the next growth barriers are often key priorities in these churches.

Level 4: Churches That Are Reproducing

Level 4 churches are characterized by the value and priority they place on starting new churches—they have a strong programmatic emphasis on it. They see their fruit as more than the apples on their own tree, but by the other trees they plant in the orchard—or the new orchards they establish. These churches continually feel the tension pulling them toward investing in addition at their own church on the one hand, and the Kingdom expansion of new churches on the other.

Level 5: Churches That Are Multiplying

Level 5 churches are characterized by multiplying, releasing, and sending everyday missionaries and church planters. Multiplication is so deeply embedded in the DNA of these churches that they would need a strategy to stop multiplication. These churches plant churches that plant churches to the fourth generation, resulting in hundreds of churches in their multiplication family. They reach non-Christians at a much higher rate of conversion than other churches and see disciple making to the fourth generation as a cultural norm.

The Level 3 Magnet

It is interesting to recognize that there’s a sort of “magnet” at Level 3 Addition. Most churches are drawn to the success metrics we mentioned earlier—attendance and finances. There are volumes of resources to help you build the biggest and best. The majority of the ways we assess, train, and coach are designed to help leaders build the best Level 3 church they can. So much so, Level 1 and 2 churches are pulled toward Level 3 like paperclips to a horseshoe-shaped magnet.

The Level 3 magnet works the other way, too. Many, perhaps most, of the things you do to become a great Level 3 church become the very things that make it difficult to move to Levels 4 and 5. By the time you’re successfully at Level 3, you’ve staffed to build and maintain the programs to serve the people attending. You’ve spent money on facilities and structures to house and manage the people coming. And you’ve developed an unwritten social contract with your people, because, as the saying goes, “What you win them with, you win them to.”

Level 3 Addition Magnet -- 5 Levels of Multiplication from Exponential

I have shared the framework of the 5 Levels of Multiplication with hundreds of leaders. More often than not, after recognizing the magnet at Level 3 the response I hear goes something like this, “you gave words to the angst that I was feeling”.

There is a growing awareness that the prevailing model of church alone will not accomplish the Jesus mission of Gospel saturation.

There is a growing awareness that the prevailing model of church alone will not accomplish the Jesus mission of Gospel saturation. A focus on addition will not get the job done—we need to be thinking about multiplication. And to do so, we need a focus on disciple making that leads to the mobilization into mission of everyone that chooses to give their life to Jesus.

The magnet we show at Level 3 is meant to convey how we are drawn to a particular form of church planting and ecclesiology. The financial model of the church is dependent on weekend gatherings, as is the notoriety of the church, the expectations of church attenders, and even the well-being of the pastor. To be a great Level 3 church often means building more and larger spaces, and that can mean financial debt. With more people attending, there’s pressure to add staff for programs and improving the “excellence” of the weekend gathering.

Are You Feeling the Tension Yet?

Even the social contract we make with our people can make it difficult to move beyond Level 3. Many churches implicitly or explicitly say, “Come to our church and we’ll give you relevant messages, meaningful worship, a place you’re not embarrassed to bring your friends. We will even throw in a trendy blond roast, dark roast, and donuts.” This can create a bait and switch feeling if we then say, “We want you to be a missionary in your neighborhood…” or “…we want to send you to be a part of this church plant.” Be sure to remember: what you win them with; you win them to.

What you win them with; you win them to

Pressing beyond Level 3 thinking creates tensions. It’s important to acknowledge and not ignore the tensions because they are real. Maybe you’re feeling some external tensions for your church similar to:

  • Should we focus on growing our attendance or starting new places of growth?
  • Should we prioritize our financial stability or, in an act of faith, commit our financial resources to sending and releasing?
  • Should we try to draw more people by offering more comfort and better programs or challenge them to live sacrificially on mission with God?

Or, maybe, you’re feeling some internal tensions like:

  • Is your personal self-image predicated on the size of your church?
  • Do you fear that “mother church” will be unduly impacted by the attempt?
  • In practice, do you live as though your church’s success has more to do with you than with God?
  • Control…does your reluctance to relinquish control restrict multiplication?

These tensions hit close to home don’t they! I encourage you to do the important work of reflecting on these tensions some more. Invite your team to do so with you. For more on specific tensions and a real-life story about moving from Level 3 to Levels 4 and 5, I encourage you to download the FREE ebook Flow: Unleashing a River of Multiplication in Your Church, City, and World by Larry Walkemeyer HERE.

Take heart – there is hope for moving beyond a Level 3 mindset! Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share the 5 Shifts necessary to move beyond the magnet at Level 3. And, if you’re a brand-new church plant or if you find yourself at Level 1 or 2, you can use these shifts to avoid Level 3 and head directly to Levels 4 and 5.

Stay tuned!

Reflection Questions

  • Are you feeling external or internal tensions or both? What is one step you can take to think like a level 5 church and grow through that tension?
  • Is God stirring your heart in a way that – in spite of the tensions – you find yourself desiring Levels 4 and 5?

Have you been feeling this angst and are ready to do something about it? Check-out Exponential’s Multipliers Learning Communities.

Multipliers Learning Community


Bill Couchenour

Bill Couchenour

Bill has a fervent desire to see gospel saturation locally, regionally, and throughout the US. He has served churches across the country for over 30 years. As Director of Learning Communities at Exponential, he provides strategic and operational oversight of Exponential’s R&D and expanding educational opportunities. He facilitates the Exponential Learning Communities that have included Future Travelers and Radical Multisite and, currently, Multipliers: Leading Beyond Addition. He also serves network and denominational leaders of church planting movements with the Exponential resources. Bill also serves as a governing elder and board member at the Underground Network, a network of micro-churches around the world that is based in Tampa, Florida. He has also served in leadership for several other organizations including Youth for Christ, Heartland Christian School, and BeTheChangeProject, and cofounded the Cornerstone Knowledge Network. Bill is married to Pam, and they have four adult children and three grandchildren. He received a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Youngstown State University and an MBA from The University of Tampa.
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