Monday, October 16, 2017

An Ordinary Unicorn: The Call for Medium-Size Multiplying Churches

The clever people say that only 5% of multi-site churches are under 1000 people in size.*  For obvious reasons, the vision to be a multiplying church (multi-siting and/or church planting) is generally a large church phenomena because it is such a resource rich vision. Generally, churches under 1000 in size have a vision for addition rather than multiplication, because multiplication feels like subtraction of their already limited resources. In the West, where the mega church looms large, it's easy for small or medium size churches to think, "Maybe one day when I'm big and have lots of margins  I'll think of multiplying, but for now I must grow by addition." That's why churches in the 5th percentile; those under 1000 in size that have a multiplying vision, are a bit like unicorns. But for multiple reasons, I don't think they should be so rare. In fact, despite the resource challenges, I believe medium size churches are better suited to multiplying than mega churches and I believe that figure of 5% will grow much higher in the future. Essentially, I'm calling for these unicorns to become more ordinary, but for that to happen we'll have to change the way we think.  

So, I want to suggest three ways of thinking that can catalyze a movement of medium size multiplying churches.

1. A willingness to let Jesus invade our margins

Southlands began multiplying under my watch in 2012 when we were around 500 adults and 100 kids in average attendance. We sent 3 pastors, 90 adults and 15 kids down the road to start our first multi-site community. It was a shock to the system to send just under 20% of our church to a neighboring city; so much so that after a month I asked one of the three pastors to come back! Four years later though, by God's grace, we've multiplied 4 times. One of those was an autonomous church plant into Thailand. The other two were multi-site communities into neighboring cities. It's been incredibly costly because every time we've multiplied we've had to yield our margins of leadership, people, finances and ministry. And in a medium-sized church, they are margins we can ill afford. It can leave you breathless. But to see Jesus' life in these new gospel communities is breathtakingly beautiful. We feel that we've been an integral part of Jesus' multiplying miracle of the 5 fish and 2 loaves. We've had to put the loaves and fish we have into His hands to be broken, but He's blessed that. It's then that subtraction begins to turn into multiplication. Isn't it interesting that Jesus used every bit of that little boy's lunch for his multiplication miracle? He could have left him with a loaf or a fish, but he used it all. Of course, it's easier for large churches to multiply without invading their margins too much, but apparently that's not the only way Jesus works.

2. A motive for mission not expansion

I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun to be growing and to have a footprint in four cities, not to mention a  church plant in a virtually unreached nation. But the kick we get out of expansion isn't worth the price, in all honesty. There are cheaper ways to build your brand if that's what you're trying to do. The thing that keeps us multiplying is a nail-hard conviction that the most Christ-like way to really reach people with the gospel is to go and dwell among them. The 50 or so cities in the region of the Southland are distinct and proud of it, so we believe planting smaller, more incarnate communities that feel more like their city is a better way to do mission than expecting them all to flock to one big vanilla-flavored church center. Having a multiplying dream means dying to a mega church dream, which requires eating a slice of humble pie with a side of obscurity. 

3.  A new definition of health  

While gospel mission is the main motive for multiplication, a serious side benefit is that people are less likely to fall between the cracks of church life. I've led in small, medium and large church contexts, and personally I prefer large. But I've found in churches that grow beyond 600 adults, it becomes more difficult to keep people feeling vitally connected and needed. They start to feel like the whole thing will keep running irrespective of their attending, serving, giving or praying. And when you feel less vital it's easy to act less vital, and so the vital signs of church health can easily decrease.  Because multiplication keeps invading the margins of leaders, givers, servers and prayers in a church, you are seldom at risk of people feeling comfortable. The down-side is that folk can begin to resent the constant calls for people to 'step up to the plate'  because we've just sent another crew out, but the up-side is that everyone feels vital to the mission, whether they go or stay. And that's healthy. 

The world needs many more healthy churches and I'm thankful for many large churches that use their resources to multiply them. But I'm calling for medium-size churches to stop dreaming about growing up to be mega-churches one day, and to begin dreaming about becoming multiplying churches now. The medium-size multiplying church doesn't have to be a unicorn. If we change our way of thinking, it can become something gloriously ordinary.  



  1. I read Willow Creeks announcement of a dual leadership scenario after Bill Hybels hands over with interest. How incredible to think it's a church of 8 sites with 25k people through their doors a weekend, 400 staff and a USD 77 million annual budget!

    My church experience for the last ten years has looked like the 90 people scenenario as stand alone congregations. And bigger certainly seems to look better than that experience.

    Also had the privilege of having a worship team up at church from One Life in Pietermaritzburg in South was amazing worship. To think they have 18 sites is incredible. To see the effects of resources, skills sets and a heart to reach out was encouraging.

    I think more is better. But we can't be something we're not. I pray for more Willow Creeks and more One Lifes. I think we need both.

    1. Absolutely. Thankful for mega churches who multiply. Steve Carter who is the new teaching pastor at Willow is a friend. I am simply calling medium size churches to step up to the plate too.

  2. Whatever we would naturally think or act or what would come natural and safe it seems to always be contrary to what Jesus is up to. I love the call to challenge our normal day at the office and act.