This past week our family gathered for Thanksgiving. The celebration included our two sons and their families (they’ve blessed us with six grandchildren), as well as our daughter and son-in-law. Our daughter has been married a few years and is approaching 30, so the question occasionally asked (and more frequently thought) was “Are you planning to have children?”
In our Midwestern culture there is an expectation that marriage includes children and there is anticipation (especially among grandparents) of when that day will come.
In early November I attended Multiplication Summit 2015 in West Michigan, my “pastoral stomping grounds” for 30 years. I was attending, along with our Director of Admissions’ Aaron Wilkinson, because Wesley Seminary’s number one priority for “signature service” to the Church is to equip leaders for church multiplication. Over a couple of days we toured a variety of church plants and sites, and learned from a diversity of leaders. Kingdom creativity is truly inspiring!
As the name of the event implies, it was featuring ministries who are multiplying. In fact, this was the challenge issued repeatedly throughout the Summit:
- Multiplying “disciple-making-disciple” disciples. What that statement lacks in verbal precision it more than makes up for in missional Jesus challenged His own disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Disciples making disciples is at the heart of the Great Commission.
- Multiplying churches that multiply churches. Local church leaders were asked to prayerfully and courageously commit their church to planting 5, 10 or 30 churches or sites in the days ahead.
In other words, the Summit seemed to be asking this question to both individuals and churches – “Planning to have children?”
Time for a reality check. Most disciples do not make disciples, and most churches do not reproduce other churches. I recently read the book Becoming a Level Five Multiplying Church by Todd Wilson and Dave Ferguson. It provides a fascinating framework for considering where most churches in North America find themselves:
Levels 1 & 2 – these churches are either shrinking or surviving, which has developed “scarcity” thinking. The authors estimate this is true of 80% of churches.
Level 3 – these churches are adding attendees through disciple-making and transfer growth, and exhibit “growth” thinking. The authors estimate 15% of churches would fit this category.
Levels 4 & 5 – these churches are multiplying, and are characterized by “movement” thinking. This would apply to less than 5% of local churches.
So a very small percentage of churches are “planning to have children.” It may also be true that a small percentage of disciples who are intentional about making disciples. The vast majority of disciples and churches will never reproduce, at least intentionally (a number do so through an unplanned and unwanted method – church splits).
Why (speaking now of churches)?
- Some don’t plan to have children because of the personal sacrifices involved. Multiplying seems like “losing people” rather than “fulfilling a purpose” which brings glory to God and growth to His Kingdom.
- Some fear the risk…which is real. Church reproduction has an infant mortality rate that seems all too high. But a financial axiom that applies to many forms of investment is also true here – “little risk, little reward.”
- There is not vision-casting or strategic planning for it. Intentionality is needed because church reproduction is not currently happening as naturally as God intended.
- With age comes fading fertility. Most churches who reproduce do so early in their life cycle. The longer they wait, the less likely it becomes.
- The church multiplication roles have been marginalized in many denominations. Books like The Permanent Revolution – Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church by Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim highlight the five roles articulated in Ephesians 4 – Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, Teachers (often referred to in the abbreviated form of APEST). Churches (and unfortunately, Seminaries – something we’d like to help change at Wesley Seminary) have placed the emphasis on Shepherds and Teachers to the neglect of the other roles (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists) which often fuel disciple-making and church multiplication movements.
This list is not exhaustive, but illustrative. And I don’t believe it is the final word. In the week leading up writing this article, I interacted with leaders of three churches who are multiplying (with visions of dozens of plants and sites) and are raising up home-grown leaders who are Kingdom entrepreneurs. They are planning to have children!
Is your church expecting?