What will we do in our generation to reach 187 million people?
Across America, growing numbers of national church leaders are starting to voice what they describe as a “holy discontent.” The idea of growing their church larger and larger is no longer appealing, they say, especially as they face the truth that no matter how large their church gets, they’ll still miss an estimated 60 percent of people in the U.S. (187 million) who won’t set foot in a church.
A Missionary Problem
Today’s church has a strategic problem and a missionary problem, say Dave Ferguson and Alan Hirsch, authors of On the Verge: A Journey Into the Future of the Apostolic Church.
“Most churches are built on a model of people coming to our churches and us offering a positive church experience,” Ferguson says. “The good news is that about 40 to 50 percent of the population still wants that. The bad news is that the other 60 percent are not looking for that at all.”
Until recently, the church retained a significant cultural connection with the society around it. Most people were within the cultural orbit of the church and open to being influenced by the ideas that energized the church. Most church leaders know that’s not the case anymore. The prevailing, contemporary church-growth approach will have significant appeal to only about an estimated 40 percent of the American population.
“Because we’ve been stuck in this model for so long, we’ve forgotten that we are meant to be a missionary people, a sending people,” Ferguson says. “We are meant to go outside the walls of the church and be the church. We are designed to go into the world and bring Good News to the 60 percent.
Hirsch adds: “What we face now in the West is a fundamental shift. What got us here will not get us where we want and need to be.”
Rob Wegner, pastor of life mission for Granger Community Church, stresses that the current model has also affected the people in our churches: “If God were to pour out His Spirit like He did during some of the great historical spiritual movements of the past, we wouldn’t have the right container because we haven’t equipped our people to realize and embrace the idea that they’re on mission.”
A Holy Discontent
“I planted my church, and God grew it big. We’ve done externally focused, church planting and multi-site, and we’ll keep doing them,” says Steve Andrews, lead pastor of Kensington Community Church in Troy, Mich. “But there are not enough years left in my life to simply keep growing this thing bigger. I’m interested in something more viral. I’m interested in changing the conversation from ‘where is our next one’ to ‘how do we release 250 of our members to take our city?’”
Andrews’ statement captures what leaders like Ferguson, Hirsch, Wegner, Mark Beeson, Greg Surratt, Dave Ferguson, Greg Nettle and more are sensing and thinking as they process a similar discontent and look toward the “what’s next” for their ministry, the church at large and ultimately God’s kingdom.
Wegner points to Granger’s engagement in India that has set in motion a quiet revolution of “missionaries” living out the Gospel, planting churches and missional communities. “Seeing what has happened in India created a huge discontent in me,” Wegner says. “I have a longing in my heart to see that happen here. What’s happening in India is what God wants to do everywhere.”
Missiologist and native Australian Alan Hirsch voices his discontent that continues to drive his passion for keeping the U.S. church from going the way of the abandoned church of Western Europe: “I just don’t think that we are close to getting the job done—both in terms of saturation of the Gospel throughout society and quality of discipleship,” he shares.
“History is predicated on the assumption that we can always do it better, that no matter how good we think we are, we have not yet arrived at perfection. If the church we currently have (even the best ones) is what heaven is like, then I have to admit that I am somewhat disappointed. I long for the fullness of the Kingdom of God. We all need this holydiscontent.”
The church has a window of opportunity, says Bill Cochenour who as CEO of Cogun Inc. has worked with churches for the last 30 years. “I firmly believe the next 20 years is an inflection point for the U.S. church,” he says. “We’re perhaps in the most significant time in the history of the church. We’ll either go the way of Western Europe into a slow fade or make what I believe will be a significant, world-transforming difference.”
But as Ferguson points out, “If leaders don’t change the paradigm, change won’t happen.”
As the leaders (referenced above) came together and voiced their discontent, they quickly realized they were not alone in their thoughts and feelings and sensing the next era of the church. From those conversations, new ideas began to emerge—ideas that wouldn’t require them to “blow up” their current church but instead leverage them to pioneer new pathways to reach the 60 percent:
- What if the church could grow exponentially through multiplication rather than linearly through addition?
- What if God has uniquely positioned the prevailing church (megachurch and multi-site) as a key sending platform for reaching the 60 percent?
- What if we were to celebrate and catalyze its incredible capacity to release and deploy believers on mission in a more viral way than we’ve ever seen in North America?
- What if the prevailing megachurch/multi-site church models could become the major launching pad for new missional movements of the future?
- What if we were to celebrate and catalyze the megachurch/multi-site church’s incredible capacity to propel the missional movements forward in a more viral way than we’ve ever seen in North America?
- What if we have a “sleeping giant” in today’s church? The unrealized sending capacity of God’s family is profound. Imagine releasing this capacity—even a small percentage of it. Consider the impact of each believer reproducing themselves and becoming “go” leaders. Think about the impact of every healthy church reproducing itself. Imagine the impact of our churches changing their scorecards from “catching” to “sending.”
- What if we are being called to serve as catalysts and stewards of this next movement of God?
“I believe we are on the leading edge of a catalytic, viral movement,” says Exponential Futurist Todd Wilson. “The time has come to ignite missional movements again in the West.”
This idea of ‘both/and (both mega/multi and missional communities; both missional and attractional) resonates with Hirsch who sees great potential in prevailing church paradigms becoming the launch pad for missional movements. ‘Clearly, the megachurch is a major forum—the leading edge church growth movement of our time simply cannot, not should be, ignored. The leadership and resources in a megachurch place a church in a great position to launch movements that can truly transform society.”
What the megachurch generally has lacked is a vision of the church as missional/apostolic movement, Hirsch says. “Once the megachurch movement became aware that it had not reached perfection and that to really engage and transform whole societies, it needed to change the rules of the game itself, and then all kinds of possibilities began breaking loose.”
Beginnings of Movements
This common feeling of holy discontent and common belief in the potential for kingdom expansion has groups of national church leaders regularly coming together to talk and think about the future church.
For the last three years, pastors from large churches throughout the United States have met together in peer-to-peer learning communities called Cohorts as part of Future Travelers—a ministry of Exponential founded by Dave Ferguson, Alan Hirsch and Todd Wilson. All three are part of the Future Travelers leadership team (as well as Rob Wegner, Bill Cochenour and Ed Bahler). Many of these Future Travelers are now piloting missional communities in various phases and are committing to adding new, missional metrics to measure church effectiveness (drops in local suicide rates; decreases in alcohol-related violence; numbers of church plants). These leaders are thinking about church as movement.
“When I think about what it would look like when a church embraces what it means to be and make disciples, I think we would see every resource, every skill, every talent used to build the kingdom, partnering with God in what He’s already doing,” Cochenour says.
“We’re asking, ‘How do we measure people’s impact where they are? How do we canvas our entire region so there’s a church planted in every neighborhood and workplace? How do we reclaim this identity we see in Acts?’” says Granger’s Rob Wegner. Granger, he says, is replanting the church. The church plans to launch 300 domestic missional communities and 1,700 new churches by 2016. He’s encouraged to see other churches making similar shifts and missional goals.
Hirsch sees the same: “We are actually seeing movement happen! All begin in different places and take somewhat different strategies to get there, but the beginnings of movements are definitely there. It’s a shift from contemporary church growth models of church to that of apostolic movement—and it is a total game changer!”
He is equally emphatic about the ramifications for the U.S. church if it doesn’t shift:
“If we refuse to change paradigms, then we will continue to see the decline of the church throughout the Western world. As uncomfortable as it might feel at first, we must learn to think and act differently or else be responsible for not having the guts to make the strategic (and yes sometimes risky) decisions in a time when they were most needed. History will judge us badly if we fail at this juncture; we will have had more money, resources, platform and people than at any other time in history. Fear is not an option.
Cohorts are forming now for senior pastors of large churches; and national leaders of networks and denominations. Space is limited to 12 leaders per group (plus one additional leader from each church/organization). To learn more about Future Travelers and opportunities to be part of a Future Travelers cohort, click here.