Note: I met Andrew Turner at the Inspire Summit (the annual church planting conference) a few years ago. His speaking captured many of the themes that we as church planters were trying to articulate. Andrew emphasises the equipping and sending Jesus followers to make disciples. This excerpt from his book Fruitful Church demonstrates the impact that a sending church’s sending culture potentially has. Andrew’s blog can be found at sacredagents.net.
A Tale of Two Churches
Numbers can be helpful, so let’s do some maths. Consider two similar churches, creatively named Alpha Community Church and Beta Christian Church. Each has members. They are both engaged in their local community, and they are both growing. But Alpha Community Church sees growing as success, whereas Beta Christian Church has a vision for sending.
Through effective local outreach, each of these churches welcomes 10 believers each year. And each church does this for 100 years. [Now please bear with my simplistic assumptions. Certainly, during that period some people will die – but others will be born. Let’s call that square. And some will transfer out – but others will transfer in. For now, let’s call that square also.]
After 100 years, and a couple of significant building programs, Alpha Community Church has grown to 1100 people! Who wouldn’t consider that success? Indeed, for the centenary celebrations the historians write the story of the little church that dared to grow, and there is much self-congratulation. Who can deny that the last century has been anything but successful?
By contrast, across town Beta Christian Church still meets in a renovated version of its small, hundred-year-old building. For the last century, Beta has taken a different approach. Considering throughput (i.e. sending well-made disciples) to be a better measure of success than size, they have had a policy of commissioning 20 people to plant a church whenever their attendance reaches 120 – that’s been about every two years. Additionally, the churches that plant are encouraged to do likewise: When (after say 10 years) you reach 120, send 20, and keep doing that.
After 100 years, Beta Christian Church still only has about 100 people. What have they been doing for 100 years? To an outsider it might not look like much. Church Growth statisticians would classify it as ‘stalled.’ But in contrast to Alpha’s 1100 disciples, Beta now has an extended family of over 107 million disciples.
One hundred and seven. Million. Missionaries.
When I first did these calculation, I was so startled by the results that I thought surely my assumptions were too optimistic. How can church sustain that level of conversion-growth for 100 years? So I factored into my spreadsheet a new rule – that every church in Beta Christian Church’s system (including the original BCC) dies after just 25 years. That is, each church is planted, grows for 10 years, multiplies for 15 more, and then implodes when they can’t agree on the colour of the curtains. The total of that network’s disciples plummeted from 107 million to a paltry 93 million!
This modelling is of course still over-simplified, but it does suggest that fulfilling the great commission is not about keeping your church expanding or even healthy or even going forever. It’s about making and releasing disciples.
There is an enormous difference between collecting believers and making disciple-making disciples. There’s a mighty gulf between growing a church and planting church-planting churches. No longer can we fool ourselves by considering size success. Above all, it’s not how God look at things.
Now let’s be clear, this is not a word against large churches. I am not against big-church. I am for fruitful churches. If bigger churches can produce more and better disciples per capita than small churches, then sign me up. I wonder what the optimal fruitfulness size is, and imagine it will be different in different contexts. But if we are to re-open the big versus small debate, let’s at least have a good measure by which to compare mega-church and micro-church: Which ones produce more disciple-making disciples?