More Powerful than a Locomotive

An excerpt from Neil Cole's great book, Search & Rescue: Becoming a Disciple Who Makes a Difference

An excerpt from Neil Cole's great book, Search & Rescue: Becoming a Disciple Who Makes a Difference

I picked up Neil Cole's new book recently: Search & Rescue: Becoming a Disciple Who Makes a Difference. Great read. I especially like chapter on the power of multiplication and I asked Neil if I could pass it along to you.


Want some inspiring reading on the power of doubling groups? Read on:


I was not the first lifeguard in my family. My father watched the same beaches I did when he was in his twenties. Before that, even before Los Angeles County lifeguards were established, my grandfather watched the water nearby at a beach club. My kids have competed as junior lifeguards on the beaches of Southern California. We have four generations of lifesaving and surfing in my family.

The Coles first came to California in 1849 in search of gold, but what we found was in some ways better than gold; we found a home at the Pacific Ocean. The Coles swim, surf, scuba dive, kayak, and some have even been known to sail. We have salt water in our veins. We have passed our love of the ocean down through the generations, and I am confident that my grandchildren will long for the smell of salt water in a cool breeze off the grand Pacific.

Legacies are usually something special, which is why they get passed on. In these modern days we do not often see families passing a heritage down to succeeding generations. I am honored to have received and passed on the noble call of saving lives.

A Refresher Course in Basic Math

Paul wrote 2 Timothy at the end of his life. His primary concern was that the special power and transformation of the Good News be passed on through the generations and not end with his death.

He wrote: “You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:1–2). How many generations are in this verse? Paul, Timothy, faithful men, others also—there are four generations in this verse.

Multiplication is a popular topic in missions and churches today. Unfortunately, much of what people call multiplying is really just addition. When a small group is added, it is often called multiplying. When another worship service is added on Sunday morning, it is often called church multiplication, but it is merely addition. Adding a venue for worship in your church is not multiplying a church, it is merely adding. I am not against addition, but let’s not call addition multiplication.

Even if you add an additional church to your denomination, you are still not multiplying, at least not yet. In the early stage of multiplication, addition plays a part—for example, 2+2=4 and 2x2=4. The difference is found in the sum of succeeding generations. If you merely add two more, the sum is six, and you are adding by twos. But if you multiply, you get eight, then sixteen, and then you know you are multiplying.

It is true that addition has a role to play in multiplication. In fact, multiplication is when every part adds an equal part to the whole. I guess, in theory, you cannot have multiplication without addition. Addition is not a bad thing; in fact it is far better than subtraction or division (which many of our churches in the West are experiencing).

Addition is good, multiplication is better, way better. Addition produces incremental growth, but multiplication produces exponential growth. The difference is seen in the results of multiple generations. I have suggested to people: “Let’s not call it multiplication until we get to the fourth generation.” Until we get to the “others also,” we have not succeeded in multiplication. It is possible for a strong leader to attract other leaders who, because they are leaders, will have followers. You can have three generations of influence without really multiplying. But to get to the fourth generation, everyone must be investing all they have into the next generation, and that is when you have multiplication. When we have great-granddaughter or great-grandson disciples, leaders, or churches, then we are multiplying.

The thing about math is it is a world of absolutes; there is one right answer and many wrong answers to every equation. But if processes are mixed up, the solutions are screwed up. In Christendom today we have poor math skills, and our results are wrong in the end because of it.

Multiplication Is an Imperative

I remember it like it was yesterday. I went to the Urbana Missions Conference in 1987 as a young pastor of a college ministry. Many speakers from all over the world urged me to be concerned for the world. A seed was planted in my heart that continues to bear fruit to this day.

The biggest news of the conference was a world record of monumental proportions: for the first time in history, the population had passed five billion people. I remember hearing people say that the current population of the world had exceeded the population of all of history combined. Wow, what an amazing time to be alive! What an incredible task was before us!

That was only two decades ago, which may seem like a lot for a young person, but in the scheme of history, it is not even a blip on the radar. Today the population has passed six billion and is almost halfway to seven billion. What took multiple millennia to reach is now happening in mere decades, because the population of the world is multiplying. The church in the West, however, is not. We must find a way to get back to multiplying again.

In his book Disciples Are Made—Not Born, Walter Henrichsen described a display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago that featured a checkerboard with 1 grain of wheat on the first square, 2 on the second, 4 on the third, then 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, and so on. Somewhere down the board, there was so much grain of wheat that it was spilling over into neighboring squares¾so the display ended there. Above the demonstration was a question: At this rate of doubling each square, how much grain would you have on the checkerboard by the time you reached the sixty-fourth square? To find the answer to this riddle, you punched a button on the console in front of you, and the answer flashed on a screen above the board: Enough to cover the entire subcontinent of India, fifty feet deep!1 There would be 153 billion tons of rice¾more than the world rice harvest for the next one thousand years.2 Henrichsen concludes: “The reason that the church of Jesus Christ finds it so hard to stay on top of the Great Commission is that the population of the world is multiplying while the church is merely adding. Addition can never keep pace with multiplication.”3

You may have heard the fable of a father who offered his two sons a choice of either one dollar a week for fifty-two weeks, or one cent the first week with the amount doubling the next week to just two cents and continuing to double for fifty-two weeks. One son took the buck; the other took a chance and accepted the penny. We all know who wins. The son who took the dollar would have fifty-two dollars at the end of the year. The one who began with a penny would have enough money to pay off the national debt by the end of the year and still have plenty left over.4 That’s a father with some deep pockets!

Multiplication begins slower than addition, but like a car rolling down a steep hill, it builds up momentum as it goes. A penny can become millions, and then billions, and within a short time, trillions.

To illustrate this concept, Christian Schwarz and Christoph Schalk, in their Implementation Guide to Natural Church Development, give the following example: “Imagine a water lily growing on a pond with a surface of 14,000 square feet. The leaf of this species of water lily has a surface of 15.5 square inches. At the beginning of the year the water lily has exactly one leaf. After one week there are two leaves. A week later, four. After sixteen weeks half of the water surface is covered with leaves.”5 The authors then ask, “How long will it take until the second half of the pond will also be covered? Another sixteen weeks? No. It will take just a single week and the pond will be completely covered.”6

Multiplication may be costly, and in the initial stages slower than addition, but in the long run, it is the only way to fulfill the Great Commission in our generation.

Imagine what would happen in life if you got the two processes mixed up. What would happen if NASA engineers added when they should have multiplied? What would happen in your own household budget if you made the mistake of multiplying figures when you should have simply added? The results would be problematic at best, disastrous at worst. So why do we confuse the two when it comes to something as important as reaching the world for Christ?

Because addition is faster in the beginning and multiplication takes time, often we are content with addition growth. We choose the more immediate success and instant gratification of addition instead of waiting for the momentum that can build with multiplying. Don’t be content with addition. Stop applauding the pathetic success we see in addition and start longing again for the incredible power of multiplication. This would mean, in practical terms, not to look for immediate or large results in the early days. Christian leaders would need to invest in the few rather than in the multitudes, much like Jesus did. Growth would need to come from each part rather than from a single source or strong personality. We would need to think of ways to equip people to serve rather than simply serving people.

The Power of Multiplicative Momentum

Of course, in our current context, the success promised by addition is hard to turn down. It is so rare to have a church ministry grow at all that when one grows fast through addition, it is very desirable. It is hard for leaders to turn away from the crowds and invest in the few, but that is exactly what Jesus did.

Jesus knew the power of multiplication and he was willing to wait for it. He rejected the pressure of the crowds and chose instead to spend his life with the few that would multiply. We need leaders who are willing to do the same.

Small things can make a big difference. A tiny microscopic virus is devastating the largest continent on the earth, one life at a time. HIV has no bias toward color, creed, or culture, yet it is altering entire societies. Ultimately governments and economies will succumb to its destructive agenda.

Governments are attempting to destroy terrorism by aggressively attacking the leadership of Al-Qaeda and other movements. But we use addition defense against a multiplicative strategy and we do not make any dent in stopping the terror. When we strike down one leader, two take his place. Every time one Islamic extremist is dead on the street, two more take up arms. A decentralized, subversive, cell-based strategy is hard to stop, and the harder you fight against it with conventional strategies, the more it fuels the problem.

The idea behind nuclear bombs is that the smallest of particles, set on fire, can multiply the devastation in a fast and exponential manner, causing a combustible chain reaction resulting in huge destruction.

The devil understands the simple power of multiplying small things and creating extensive damage. It is time for us to counter our enemy with a strategy that works.

I have found that there are small things that can have a big impact in a positive way. Jesus referred to the kingdom of God as a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds known to man at the time. He went on to say that it would grow into a large tree that cast a shadow across the entire planet and down through the ages of human history. He also spoke about the kingdom of God being like leaven; add just a little to a lump of dough and through reproduction, soon the entire loaf is transformed. It is time for God’s kingdom to reawaken to the same principle: small things can make a big difference in this world. Whether it’s a seed, a neutron, an AIDS virus, or a disciple, a small thing can have huge implications via multiplication.

Still Haunted by My Times Tables

I was not a good math student, which makes it somewhat ironic that now I am teaching some principles of multiplication. As a boy, I found it difficult to memorize my times tables. I felt like I was being haunted by the numbers while trying to commit them to memory. I am still haunted by the math but in a far different manner. Today it is not the memorized answers that haunt me, but the new questions. There are some questions that have haunted me for several years.

These questions have led me to a simpler way of living for Christ and of functioning in the family of God. Let me share some of these questions with you: What would your church do if one hundred people came to Christ tomorrow? You would probably rejoice and find some new seats for your church auditorium. What would your church do if one thousand people came to Christ this week? You would probably have to start adding many more services and hiring new staff. What would your church do if ten thousand came to Christ this month? Now you are stretched beyond imagination, but it would be possible to rent a venue to handle that size group. What would your church do if one million people came to Christ this year? Now you are beyond the limits of your idea of church. But the real question is not What if? butHow? How can our churches be prepared for rapid expansion?

Now, let’s get more personal with these ideas. Take your current goals for your ministry and multiply them by one million. If you hope to reach one hundred people this next year and you multiply that sum by one million, you come up with one hundred million people who will come to Christ in a year. Does that sound farfetched to you? Of course it does. It is so far from any reality we have ever experienced. But, humor me, what if it could happen, would your current ministry methods be able to handle that amount of growth? The answer is more than likely no. Your buildings could not hold such numbers. Your staff could not accommodate the needs of that many people, and you couldn’t hire enough staff to do so. You couldn’t add enough worship services to your weekend or even your week to satisfy that number of people. Everything about the way you see and do church would have to alter remarkably.

The truth is, if you do not have the ministry structure or systems to reach that new goal in your lifetime, you do not have the systems that will multiply. If this isn’t possible, your ministry strategy is based on an addition model. You see, multiplication growth can reach exponential results and a momentum that is beyond anything we can imagine, based on all our addition-bound experience. We can talk about multiplication all we want, but if the only key on our calculator has a plus sign, we will never see multiplication happen.

You cannot use an addition strategy to produce a multiplicative result. This is just a reality. One thing that is always true in arithmetic is that it is always true. It makes sense and is absolute. Math is black and white, right and wrong. We cannot pretend that the methods of incremental growth we employ will result in exponential impact. That is fooling ourselves. And to think we can start with addition strategies and slowly adapt and evolve into a multiplicative method is also deluding ourselves. We are deceived in the same way that the United States was when we thought we could slowly adopt the metric system—inch by inch. You must die to the old to put on the new. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). If you are content with the results of addition and are unwilling to let go of the method to see exponential growth, you are foolish.

The Mishaps of Multigenerational Disciple Making

Getting to the fourth generation in reproduction is not easy. Much of our disciple-making materials today have the disciple following the one ahead of him or her. Of course this makes some sense, but without realizing it, this approach eventually sabotages itself.

Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher. . . . It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher” (Matt. 10:24–25). In other words, the best you can hope to do is match the character, skills, and knowledge of your instructor. The following diagram demonstrates that, as you progress to the next generation and the one after that, a noticeable depreciation in quality occurs:

Each generation is further removed from Christ and becomes more shallow in Christlikeness. It is much like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. As the examples below demonstrate, the farther you go down the photocopy path, the more corruption becomes obvious and every flaw is passed down to all succeeding copies.

The solution is to make every copy from the Master, like the copy on the left. In other words, we need to make every disciple a first disciple. Our commission is not to make disciples of us, but disciples of Christ, and there is a big difference. This is actually the only way that disciples can excel beyond their human teachers and maintain the purity of God’s kingdom through multiple generations of reproduction.

In the movie Pay It Forward,7 starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment, a middle school boy is challenged by his social studies teacher to do more than just remember a few facts for a test. The teacher challenges each student in the class to try to come up with an idea that can change the world for the better.

One boy, played by Osment, takes the challenge to heart and comes up with a brilliant idea. During his oral report for the project, he says, “That’s me,” and draws a small circle. Then he draws three other circles below connected to the first by three lines and says, “And that’s three other people, and I’m going to help them. But it has to be something real big, something they can’t do on their own.” He explains to his class that he doesn’t expect them to pay him back but rather to pay it forward by doing three big things for three other people. He draws three other smaller circles under the first three with lines connecting them and goes on to sketch a growing pyramid of circles grouped in threes, all connected to the ones above by three lines.

Then he goes on to put into practice his idea by helping three people, who end up helping three other people, and a movement is born. Eventually the movement spreads to other states and keeps on going. One day a reporter whose car gets smashed receives the keys to a brand-new Jaguar with no strings attached from a wealthy attorney. The attorney simply calls it generosity between two strangers. When the reporter queries why he would do such an unusual thing, he simply says, “Just pay it forward. Do three big things for three other people.”

The reporter starts hunting for a story only to find that a thief who was injured trying to escape from the law let the attorney’s asthmatic daughter go ahead of him for care at the emergency room of a local hospital. Why did a criminal exhibit such kindness for a stranger? Because a homeless woman in Vegas had helped him out when he was desperate and challenged him to do three things for three other people. The idea behind this is simple, and yet it is profound. It is a multiplication movement that is passed along by all whom it touches. It all started with a middle school kid from a broken home in Las Vegas.

Small, simple ideas are the kind of things that will change the world. But what makes this work and what separates it from some multilevel marketing scheme is the simple idea that the favor has to be something big that the person cannot do for him- or herself and is passed forward without expectation of anything in return. First the favor is received and then it sticks in the heart of the recipient to such an extent that he or she can’t help but pass it on to others. There isn’t an initial selfish motivation behind it. That is what makes the whole thing “sticky” and motivates the ongoing movement. You see, if it were something simple and not big, like helping a lady with her groceries or opening a door for someone carrying a child, it wouldn’t be remembered and it wouldn’t tap into people’s internal psyche. Because it is something big, they are motivated to return the favor by paying it forward.

The idea behind Pay It Forward has actually caught on, and some people have put the idea to work, starting a real movement of good deeds for others.8 But the idea of paying it forward did not originate with this movie or even the novel on which it was based.

Jesus was the first to come up with the idea. He brings to each of us something so big, so special, that it captures our hearts forever—our own redemption from all our failures replaced with an abundant life of intimate connection with God. He did this when we couldn’t do it ourselves. He gave us this big favor when we didn’t deserve it. All he asks in return is that we pay it forward. “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Your own changed life should be motivation enough to pass it forward to others.

It doesn’t matter if you are a high-powered attorney in LA or an awkward ninth grader from a broken home in Las Vegas. Anyone can be a part of the great bridge of life by passing forward the Good News of Jesus to others. You can play an important part in saving the lives of others and spreading the power of a movement that can change the world.

In the next chapter we will discern what sort of motivation can change the world