We often think of the early church as experiencing incredible, explosive, growth, and it did. But, this growth was limited to the Mediterranean basin and later to Europe. If it were not for the obedience of Paul in pursuing God’s missionary calling on his life, the church may not have expanded that much. Paul was the first missionary. He was also pretty much the last missionary until William Carey birthed the modern missions movement in the nineteenth century. There were a few isolated attempts at missions, but no sustained mission work until the 19th century.
At first, we were not very good at missions. The struggle has always been around exporting the gospel, without exporting all the stuff and style of the way we do missions–making the church on foreign fields indigenous to its local setting. We have been getting gradually better and better at this.
At first, it went kind of like this. We would send a missionary over who would win someone to Christ. Then a few more people and after we got a group together, we talked to them about forming a church. Since they didn’t know what a church was, they got all their ideas from us. To us, a church was a congregational-sized organization with a professional, seminary-trained pastor and a building. We had a youth group and Awanas and a choir and a budget and a constitution and a building. On the American scene, it is not a real church unless it has a building. We wouldn’t define a church in exactly that way, but that is what they normally looked like. Before long, we started creating churches in the image of North American churches.
They couldn’t afford church buildings, so we built them for them. At first, we thought we were doing this just temporarily to get them started, but it turned out to be a bad habit to break. And when we built church buildings for them, what did they look like? Did they look like the nepa or thatched buildings that their buildings looked like? Of course not, they looked like our buildings–red bricks with white pillars and a tall lighted steeple on top. If it is good enough for Georgia, it is good enough for any place around the world.
We not only built church buildings for them, we built a whole denominational structure that mirrored our denominational structure. We formed Associations and State Conventions and National Conventions and publishing houses and seminaries and so forth.
Well, gradually, we have been getting better and better at exporting only the gospel itself and the most basic form of organization.
The church exists at three levels. It exists as an invisible, world-wide church level. This is represented by–though it goes beyond–the denomination. This is the Kingdom of God. At this level, Billy Graham and James Dobson serve on staff. Then, it exists as we classically think at the local church level. But, much of what it really means to be the church happens in, though, and around small groups. Most of the loving one another, serving one another, and so forth happens in through around the lowest level of church organization, the small group level.
In this new missionary era, all of the concentration is at this lowest level of organization. The emphasis is called church planting movements.
When I first started reading about church planting movements, I thought of a church like you probably think of a church: a professionally-led, congregational-size organization that usually has several hundred members and, one or more paid leaders and a building. I think of Sunday School and choirs and youth groups and Awanas on Wednesday night. The more I read, the more I realized these church plants were not like that at all. They seemed to be more like our Sunday School classes than they are like we think of as a church.
I was in Richmond several months ago and had an International Mission Board representative attend one of my meetings. I asked him about the church planting movements. “These churches in these church planting movements. . . it seems they are more like small group or Sunday School classes than they are like we think of as churches. These aren’t professionally-led, congregational-style groups, are they?” “No,” he replied. “In fact, we try to keep them small.”
So, when you read what God is doing through church planting movements in a moment, I want to invite you to think about doubling small groups, not professionally-led organizations with church buildings. These are house churches. These are small groups. These are doubling micro-churches.
The International Mission Board tries to lead leaders to think lateral growth, not vertical growth. That is, they try to lead people to think, “grow and divide, grow and divide, grow and divide,” rather than thinking about starting one huge organization. They have found that by encouraging people to think about reproducing small organizations they reach far more than they would ever reach by building one big organization. Think lateral growth; not vertical growth.
Let me quote directly from the International Mission Board’s web page to demonstrate the amazing power of doubling groups as is being experienced in many places around the world.
From every corner of the globe the reports are coming in. Only a few at first, but now more and more frequently, reinforcing one another with their startling accounts of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands coming to faith in Christ, forming into churches and spreading their new-found faith.
When a strategy coordinator began his assignment in 1993, there were only three churches and 85 believers among a population of more than 7 million lost souls. Four years later there were more than 550 churches and nearly 55,000 believers.
In his weekly Friday sermon, an Arab Muslim cleric complained that more than 10,000 Muslims living in the surrounding mountains had apostatized from Islam and become Christians.
City in China
Over a four-year period (1993-1997), more than 20,000 people came to faith in Christ, resulting in more than 500 new churches.
Two Baptist unions overcame significant government persecution to grow from 235 churches in 1990 to more than 3,200 in 1998.
A strategy coordinator reports: “Around the end of 1996, we called around to the various churches in the area and got their count on how many had come to faith in that one year. When they were all added up, it came to 15,000 in one year. The previous year we estimated only 200 believers altogether.”
A missionary in Europe reports: “Last year (1998), my wife and I started 15 new church cell groups. As we left for a six-month stateside assignment last July, we wondered what we’d find when we returned. It’s wild! We can verify at least 30 churches now, but I believe that it could be two or even three times that many.”
A missionary strategist commented, “It took us 30 years to plant four churches in this country. We’ve started 65 cell churches in the last nine months.”
Every region of the world now pulsates with some kind of Church Planting Movement. Sometimes we see only the numbers, but often they are accompanied by lively descriptions such as this recently received e-mail message: “All of our cell churches have lay pastors/leaders because we turn over the work so fast that the missionary seldom leads as many as two or three Bible studies before God raises at least one leader. The new leader seems to be both saved and called to lead at the same time, so we baptize him and give him a Bible. After the new believers/leaders are baptized, they are so on fire that we simply cannot hold them back. They fan out all over the country starting Bible studies, and a few weeks later we begin to get word back how many have started. It’s the craziest thing we ever saw! We did not start it, and we couldn’t stop it if we tried.”
In their promotional video on Church Planting movements, the International Mission Board tells the story of Bruce Carlton who emerged from language school in 1991. Instead of starting a church himself, he gathered six Cambodian believers together and cast a vision for them about a group growing and dividing, growing and dividing, growing and dividing. Six believers. Picture it. Bruce Carlton and six Cambodian believers sitting around a table, each with a bowl of rice in front of them, which they are eating with some chopsticks. While they eat, Bruce is talking to them about 2 Timothy 2.2 and casting a vision about groups that grow and divide, grow and divide, grow and divide. They are sitting around a table in the hot Cambodian sun.
The next year, they started six groups. The groups began to grow and divide, grow and divide, grow and divide. Note the following chart:
1992 6 churches
1993 10 churches
1994 20 churches
1995 43 churches
1996 78 churches
1997 123 churches
2000 220 churches
By 2001, the total number of believers in Cambodia had risen to 100,000. Six guys and a dream in 1992. By 2001, 100,000 believers.
Bruce Carlton says, “To me, it is like living in the middle of the book of Acts. Christians are going, and they are preaching the gospel, they are planting house churches, they are coming up against persecution, there are signs and wonders that are happening, and the church is spreading in places where it hadn’t ever spread before.”
Whatever the difference between doubling and non-doubling groups is, it is a difference that makes a huge difference. It is the difference between faithfully caring for a small, static group of ten or twenty or maybe fifty people, or being a part of an exploding movement of growth for the kingdom.
Imagine two Sunday School teachers. One could take a class of ten and grow it to a hundred in a year. Then, the group tops out and stops growing. Another teacher embraces the dream. He doesn’t grow near as rapidly, only ten to fifteen in a year. In another six months he divides his group, and infects his disciple with a vision for 2 Timothy 2.2. They grow and divide, grow and divide, grow and divide. Who would you rather have on your team? The first will reach a hundred in a year. The second will reach a thousand in ten years. The second ten years gets really exciting. But, my point is this. During the first year to two, it doesn’t look like much. But, the power of doubling groups will produce amazing results in its time.