A few years ago I attended a West Coast Regional Ministry Summit which got me thinking about church multiplication and ways to get it done. The illustration was shared by our guide for the discussion comparing elephants and rabbits in the area of multiplication. The scenario was take two elephants (male and female) place them good close proximity to each other and come back a year later. At that time how many elephants will there be? The answer is 3 (the two you left a year ago and one more). Now take two rabbits (male and female), place them in close proximity and leave them there for a year. When you come back how many will there be? The answer was more than 200,000!!! Then our guide asked us to consider the way we go about church planting today and made the analogy that we handle church multiplication more like elephants than rabbits.
While I appreciate this scenario there are also more ideas to draw from it. First, the average lifespan of elephants is much greater than that of rabbits. So if a church begins and ends within a few years having reached more than a few people with the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ; people who did not know Him before, then I think that should be okay. We should not expect rabbits to outlast elephants. Second, this means the way we think about church would have to change in order to see church multiplication take place.
I have a friend named John Wagenveld who works with a mission organization called "Multiplication Network". They work primarily to resource church leaders and churches in Latin America and China toward church multiplication movements. John has said there are 3 obstacles to church multiplication: 1) The need for a seminary trained pastor in each congregation, 2) The need for a paid pastor in each congregation, and 3) The need for a building owned and used primarily if not exclusively by the congregation. These three factors cause us to reproduce more like elephants than rabbits in our church planting strategies. But does it have to be this way?
Some have suggested that our current church order does not permit this type of model, and I would agree if we are speaking only about "established" congregations (what you might call elephants). However, if we are talking about groups of believers gathering together for Bible study, worship, and prayer even as they go out into the places God has uniquely placed them to serve as Christ's representatives praying for their family, friends, and neighbors and looking for opportunities to share their hope in Jesus as they live authentically as people who know they are saved by grace through faith in Jesus, (what we might call rabbits) then I think they can fit under the umbrella of "established" congregations without ever seeking to become or even feeling the need to become organized themselves. Then when their purpose has been served they can end the group and start new ones with new believers and non-believers in their different circles of influence.
I recently read a quote from the book Missional Church: "A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America" edited by Darrel Guder. The quote was from David Bosch from South Africa and was made in 1991 (20 years ago):
The churches shaped by the Reformation were left with a view of the church
that was not directly intended by the Reformers, but nevertheless resulted from the way that they spoke about the church. Those churches came to conceive the church as 'a place where certain things happen'. The Reformers emphasized as the 'marks of the true church' that such a church exists wherever the gospel is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and (they sometimes added) church
discipline exercised. In their time, these emphases may have been profoundly missional since they asserted the authority of the Bible for the church's life and proclamation as well as the importance of making that proclamation accessible to all people. But over time, these 'marks' narrowed the church's definition of itself toward 'a place where' idea. This understanding was not so much articulated as presumed. It was never officially stated in a formal creed but was so ingrained in the churches' practice that it became dominant in the churches' self-understanding." (p. 79-80)
At another recent meeting of West Coast Regional Ministry Team I raised the suggestion that church plants could exist as emerging groups without ever feeling the need to become organized with their own building and paid staff. Yet when I raised the question the answer I received was the marks of the true church from Belgic Confession Article 29 “pure preaching of the gospel, pure administration of the sacraments, and practice church discipline”. It seems there is an assumption even today among new church developers that these marks require “a place where” in order to be properly administered. Yet as Bosch suggests this need not be so.
So I am curious what do you think about this? Am I nuts? Is this crazy? Why can’t this model of church multiplication, which flourishes in developing countries, not flourish in North America?
Finally, I want to end with this definition of “missional” church, which I read in a book by Ed Stetzer (Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too): “Missional churches do what missionaries do, regardless of the context ... study and learn language, become part of culture, proclaim the Good News, be the presence of Christ, and contextualize bibilcal life and church for that culture.” (p. 4) This is what I mean when I say “missional church”. It is God’s people; Christ’s body; doing the work of the Lord everywhere.