Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Church Planting

Last Saturday I was at the Cardiff Men’s Convention, a day for Christian men. Great day, excellent talks, good worship etc. There were also some interesting round table sessions, where we got to speak with people running churches and missions. The one that intrigued me was the radical church planters. One of those threw out the provocative claim to challenge our thinking: “More church growth comes through church planting than any other form of mission”.

Now no evidence was offered to back this statement up. That is the point of a provocative claim! It is there to make us think of the evidence for or against. I can think of anecdotal evidence.
  • My friends in Uganda plant churches in un-churched areas. In a 3-week mission they saw about 1000 people become Christians of who at least 500 have stuck the course in 3 new church plants.
  • A missionary to the Congo once told me that when he returned to an area where there had previously been very few Christians, they found around 100,000 new Christians spread between many churches, all desperate for Bibles, training for pastors, and teaching.
  • Then there are all the churches that have been planted along the Amazon River, which the Vineyard church documented during the 1990’s.

Clearly church planting can give large scale growth in the Christian church. How does it compare with other forms of growth?

A year ago a student of mine attempted a model of church planting using the limited enthusiasm principle, inspired by a prior visit to Uganda where we saw first hand church planting in action. The resulting patterns of growth gave significant support to the provocative claim. This is a follow-on from the result that revival like growth happens when the reproduction potential of the enthusiasts exceeds a threshold. That threshold is lower if the proportion of susceptibles is higher.

Firstly, a church plant will contain the most enthusiastic members of a church, including people gifted in evangelism. Thus the average reproduction potential is higher and thus growth in the church more likely.

Secondly, there is a higher proportion of enthusiasts in a church plant. This is because such a church is not easy to manage and thus not a good home for those who want to free-ride. If the number of enthusiasts is high enough then a critical mass is achieved which encourages renewal in the church and can bring rapid growth.

Thirdly, as new churches are planted, the susceptible pool keeps widening and thus periodically keeps dropping the revival growth threshold. This again sustains revival growth over a longer period.

Fourthly, if churches keep being planted then they keep themselves fresh and free from institutionalism. According to the congregational lifecycle model, this means there is a longer period of growth before the maintenance plateau kicks in.

One result of church planting is that although, like revival growth, the pattern of growth can be fast, it differs in that the growth is more steady and sustained for longer. Revival growth will burn out quicker, and have less long-term effect. Clearly I have to do further work on this but I think that the provocative claim may be true and more church growth comes from church planting than any other form of mission.

When dealing with the issue of church decline it is so tempting to say “all we need is revival – people on fire for God”. But the work of the Spirit does not exclude strategy. Instead we should say that we need revival AND church planting to save the church (and the nation!). This is the lesson of the Methodist revival. Wesley had the Holy Spirit. There was revival growth and revival was experienced. But they also planted churches, through that generation and later generations. It is the combination of the Spirit and strategy that saw the nation changed and I suspect must be the way forward again.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Mexican Wave

There is nothing like a conference to inspire your thinking and I have just come back from a great one in London, the annual gathering of the UK System Dynamics society. System Dynamics is the main methodology I use in my church growth models as it attempts to understand how change happens by looking at how different bits of a system relate to each other. It is all about cause and effect. The theme of this conference was climate change, how the human system and the earth’s climate interconnect.

One of the analogies of a system used in the conference was the Mexican wave that often occurs in a sport’s crowd, e.g. at a cricket match. At first it is tempting to describe it in terms of a simple rule: If the person next to you stands up then you stand up. If each person obeys this rule then a Mexican wave is generated.

However this does not explain why a Mexican wave builds up and stops, in fact it does not explain much at all. Why do people stand up? After all the person next to you may have stood to go and buy a drink, or just to stretch. That alone does not make you stand up.

The Mexican wave cannot be understood unless it is thought of as an interrelated system. Thus the following are also important.


You do not just look at the person next to you but at the whole crowd, particularly those opposite you. It is this that tells you a Mexican wave is happening, it changes the context from an “ordinary” crowd to a “Mexican wave” crowd. This change gives you permission to stand up in a regular fashion when those on one side do; something you would not do ordinarily.


You observe the wave getting closer so you are now anticipating the action you must take. Indeed you would now be so focused on the approaching wave, the sport’s match is ignored. Of course the first few waves have more sense of anticipation than the later ones. We quickly get bored with it.


There are people in the crowd who do not want to participate, you may be one of them, but you feel you must stand up not to be seen to be the one who spoils the fun. But on repeats of the wave you are now looking for the first signs of dissension. There is always someone brave enough to buck the trend. Then others see it and eventually you feel it is “safe” not to participate. Once there are sufficient dissenters a tipping point is reached and the wave then quickly comes to the end.

The Mexican wave is a complex system of individuals with different attributes reacting to a number of elements of the system.

In some ways revivals behave like Mexican waves. Outside of times of revival enthusiast in the church are often repressed, they do not feel they have permission to stand out, enthusing about the faith, seeking conversions and expressing spiritual experiences publicly. But when the Spirit moves in some of them so that they break the mould, then it gives permission for other latent enthusiasts to come out and exercise their enthusiasm. The context changes.

As the revival spreads there is a tremendous sense of anticipation, thus more hidden enthusiasts emerge in addition to all those converted and renewed by the move.

Once the revival is widespread there may become an element of “coercion”, not deliberate, but people who are less enthusiastic for the stricter parts of the revival but do not want to be the odd ones out. They join in, but hoping that it can in time be moderated. The effect of this is to dilute the enthusiasts with people who do not really want the revival to continue. Once the some of the more diluted enthusiast start scaling down their activity it gives permission for others to follow, leaving the hard-core enthusiasts once again in minority. The revival ends, true spirituality is stifled again.

This is only a theory but there is some evidence for it. The move of God known as the charismatic movement started in the 1950’s and has spread through traditional denominations and spawned new churches ever since. It had some notable peaks in the 60’s, the 70’s and especially the 80’s. But since the Toronto Blessing of 1994, charismatic renewal has become mainstream and lost much of its original cutting edge. It has become diluted to the point that the original enthusiasts would look extreme, and few would now emulate them. Arthur Wallis described it in his book The Radical Christian:

“In the early days people talked about ‘the charismatic movement’. It then became ‘the charismatic renewal’. Now people seem content with calling it “the renewal”. Along the way we seem to have lost the two words ‘charismatic’ and ‘movement’, the two words we had at the start. Just coincidence? A mere change of terminology? Or something more significant?” (p.7)

Wallis then goes on to show how the dilution of the original movement took place and he gave a plea for it to be reversed. The “Mexican wave” of the movement was dying as the dissenters were watering it down. Wallis quotes an example about how someone received a blessing in the Spirit:

“He received the Spirit so quietly, without any emotion, …. Just as it should be” (p.66)

But Wallis takes issue with this, because that is not how it was at the beginning of the movement, and, he argues, not as it should be at all. The central doctrine of the movement had been toned down to be acceptable to a wider audience. They had reduced the “Mexican wave” of renewal to a whimper.

Now there appears to be a new move of God taking place, wild and challenging to the wider church, will it turn to a revival? Will the enthusiasts be powerful enough to produce that “Mexican wave” of blessing? It will be interesting to watch. But like a sport’s crowd we are also part of a system, and by watching it we become part of it and respond to it. What will be that response?