Of Elephants and Rabbits: Church Multiplication

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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.

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You are not nuts.   You are not crazy.   Some seminary trained preachers preach the pure word of God, but some don't.  Some established churches practices church discipline but some don't.   Some administer sacraments purely, but some don't.   A missional group may be as much "church" as any of these established churches, and may have the "marks" of the church, or may make similar mistakes or different mistakes than established churches.  Preach the word in season, and out of season (indoors, and outdoors, and without doors...).  

Thanks John.  It is good to know at least one guy thinks I am not nuts.  I recently shared the Bosch quote with another friend of mine and he said Bosch is drawing too much of a distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism.  Yet I see Bosch challenging the model of what the church as institution has become (i.e. "a place where") rather than distinguishing between the two.  I believe Bosch sees the church as institution (with creeds, confessions, sacraments, corporate worship, and preaching) and the church as organism are one in the same and ought to operate that way.  What do you think?

They are obviously not the same.   Unless you think only one denomination, or one local church is 'the church".    The church is the people of God, the body of Christ.    The institutional is a particular manifestation of that in a particular time and place.  I think the principles should be the same, but sometimes there is more discipline for example between church groups than within church groups.   Sometimes the confessions are professed more by one church, but practiced more by another church that does not have them down on paper.   Sometimes the best corporate worship is biblically practiced in a non-building setting, where people(two or three prophets) take turns in speaking, where each one shares a word, or a hymn or spiritual song, or a prayer.  

A certificate of incorporation is not a bad thing, but if we think the certificate is the most important part of authenticity or legitimacy, then we certainly have it wrong.

So what are the implications of this for church multiplication?  Should we be concerned with planting institutional CRC's or should we be more concerned with bringing new believers to a greater knowledge of the love and grace given in Jesus?  This is where my dilemma comes in.  I am a committed member of the CRCNA as a minister of the Word in that same denomination, but my greatest concern is for the advancement of Christ's Kingdom to the furtherance of God's glory.           Are these two separate issues?  

First, we need to trust God.  I know that sounds like a stupid oversimplification, but it is so important, that it can never be forgotten nor neglected.   It is God's kingdom, not ours, and we seek God's glory, not our own (personal nor denominational).    So, the issue of bringing God's word is not separate from denomination, but always it is first God's word, then perhaps denomination.   The more we focus on denomination, the less the denomination will benefit.  

We do not plant churches just so we can say we have more churches, do we?  do we?  Aren't we planting churches so that no lambs and sheep will be lost?   So that God's word speaks more clearly?   So that is what we should focus on first. 

In a "planting" situation, we plant God's word.   To bring in the lost.   Then we use God's word to encourage the saved.   Bringing new believers to a greater knowledge of love and grace in Jesus is good, necessary.   But in essence, it is the same purpose for old believers;  a greater knowledge of love and grace in Christ.   Just at a different stage.   And we know how quickly and urgently new believers capture this knowledge, often not taking it for granted, nor being complacent like "old" believers.  

The new church plant should be a natural consequence of the mission effort.   And I certainly do not agree with the nonsense of having a group that has been worshipping together, being called an emerging church for ten or twenty years.   That is simply absurd, hierarchical, autocratic, and egotistical.   The normal situation would be perhaps about three years, maybe less.   This sounds scary sometimes.   But only if you put on unreasonable expectations.   And remember, we need to trust the Lord. 

Thanks again John.  I really resonate with what you are saying.  Planting God's word is the key.  Paul says, "I planted, Apollos watered, and God made it grow."  I also believe reaching people who don't know Jesus with the truth about Jesus must be our focus for planting God's word.  We still must help God's people grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus, but I think the best way they can grow is by participating in God's mission with Him.  That's what's at the heart of it for me.  I recently read the book "The Sacrament of Evangelism" by Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie; an excellent book and I highly recommend it.  In the book they  suggest that the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) are about experiencing a greater awareness of God's presence.  If that is true, then they claim we are never more aware of God's presence than when we are participating in mission with Him.  They contend God is already at work in the lives of our family, friends, and neighbors so we need to develop the ability to discern what God is already doing and join Him in it.  That's really good stuff!

Joe,

If you're interested in a church that has structured itself according to a central site/satellites/home church model, check out The Meeting House:

http://themeetinghouse.ca/

I am pastor of an "elephant" church in the country.  In small communities, the pace of change and the gestiation period can be long.

That's not to say that Rabbits don't inhabit the village and country churches too.  The Rabbits are our ministries that live and die.  And there are rabbits who are started by people and not formally supported by a church.   
Just my thoughts...

Hi Joe,

Glad I found your article.  I miss your presence up here at Classis Columbia :(

I'm joining the conversation pretty late, but the content of your article is still viable and I'll attempt to offer a couple points from my experience and understanding of "church" from a Biblical study.

First I would say it is important to realize the church has at least two, not one, essential requirements:  1) To find and proclaim the Gospel to the Lost AND 2) to Grow the Found.

In the past I would have wholeheartedly endorsed a "church" without brick and mortar.  This does work well in much of the world, of particular note would be places of strong persecution, China is a notable example.  But here is the challenge (and danger) for North America:  Our general culture is a very fluid one in terms of transportation and relocation.  It is also one that has spawned the attitude of "easy come, easy go."  These two realities make a "church without walls," or a "church on the street" pretty elusive.  They tend to be constantly morphing into something other than “church.” (Both these names of church plant attempts I was personally familiar with.  Neither of them made it. After 1-2 years of effort they ceased altogether).  In my last church plant I continually faced the attitude of a "consumerism mentality" where people came expecting to be blessed!  They stayed as long as they felt we "blessed" them.  When they no long felt "blessed," they left.  Again and again we were warned by our denomination (not the CRCNA) NOT to fall into the trap of becoming a "Consumerism" Church, making available religious goods and services for the taking by whomever wanted to show up, take, and leave.  I think that warning was right.  There is no building of ties, family, the kingdom, or the church in that kind of scenario.

What I'm getting at is this:  In our culture, I think there IS a need for "brick and mortar."  There is something that happens in the hearts of people in the new church when they start seeing the "building" going up.  It does more than cement in the footer and foundations of the building, it kind of "cements" the hearts of the people to one another too.  It tends to encourage a long term view and commitment to one another as fellow members of the same church.  And it brings a focus for growing up into Christ, and not just running here and there looking for the next place to find the latest blessing.

As I plant again, I am definitely giving more thought to how the structures, even the brick and mortar structures affect the heart and mind of the church and its members.  Notwithstanding, your insight to the unintended consequences of the Reformers’ teaching should not be obscured by my comments.  I think your warning is very important to listen to.  The flip side of brick and mortar can be a "hardening of the categories," as a friend of mine puts it.  This is where, as you say in your article, the church becomes a place where certain things are done.  I agree that when and where that becomes the case, we have really lost the vitality of what it means to be a Spirit-filled Biblical Church.  Our "doing" supersedes our "being," and our doctrines, no matter how Biblical, can lose their life as they get framed and hung on the walls instead of getting planting in the soil of people's hearts.  My old Church History Prof, Dr. Richard Lovelace called this the condition of "dead orthodoxy vs. live orthodoxy."  Our goal is ultimately, to plant churches that are on fire with "live orthodoxy," being and living the true faith to the glory of God, the salvation of the Lost, and the growth of the Found.  Some throw out the old structures because they seem to create stale dead orthodoxy to these new and young church planters.  But I would caution, that the "new structures," of no walls and fluid edges can bring their own problems, they can be just as bad.  The decisions of how to structure the church plant and what materials to build with, are  important ones.  But I do not think there is a "one size fits all" answer to the question.  At the risk of seeming trite, the best structure for the new church is the one God gives!  But I think I have observed that God gives many different kinds of structures and they seem to reflect, the planter he calls, the gifts He has deposited in the planter, the people that are gathered, the local culture within which the church is being planted, and similar characteristics.

The big "C" Church is a beautiful world-wide, multi-cultural, inter-generational, multi-millennial blend of the local churches everywhere, past, present, and future.  This Church displays a wide range of structure and style, appropriately informed by, and interacting with, their local cultures.  There really is NO such thing as one perfect paradigm for the planting of new churches.  There is only the One Perfect Head of the Church who declared, "I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it."