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When it comes to church growth and church planting, we routinely use common terms: “subtraction,” “addition,” “multiplication,” “growth,” and “reproduction.” 

We tend to adopt our own definitions based on our unique context for church. Our temptation might be to look at our success with addition and making Top 100 lists and incorrectly conclude that we are multiplying. Or to look at our church size and mistakenly determine we can’t be a multiplying church if we’re small.

Let’s start with a very simple and basic review of some mathematic concepts. 

In Level 1 Subtraction, every positive unit of input effort results in a loss or “subtraction” in the output number.

Think about the first 500 churches founded in the first century. None are still around today. One hundred percent of the early churches ultimately experienced subtraction, all the way to their death. But the Church is still around and vibrant today. Not because of the growth of churches, but rather because of the sending nature of churches.

When a church is in Level 2 – plateaued or surviving, the output result remains steady over time. Approximately 80 percent of churches in the U.S. are in Level 1, subtracting or Level 2, plateaued. The 80 percent statistic tells us that the vast majority of churches in the United States exist in a subtraction or survival culture. These churches are living in a culture that simply makes it hard for them to even think about multiplication. The average church in America plateaus below 100 members and struggles to grow. They are in survival mode, often experiencing subtraction. The lure and appeal of graduating to Level 3 addition is very strong and consumes their thinking. 

In Level 3, the addition growth culture, the output result increases with time. With each incremental increase in input effort, you see a positive output result. We instinctively want to see our effort produce fruit. Approximately 16 percent of U.S churches find themselves in Level 3 addition. In addition-growth churches, attendance is increasing. In the midst of their growth, key tensions inevitably arise: 

  •       Should we plant our first church before building?
  •       Should we plant our first church before doing our first site?
  •       Should we add a church planting intern/resident before our next staff hire?
  •       Should we tithe (give our first 10 percent) to church planting?

For these churches, releasing resources to multiplication directly competes with the very resources that fuel their addition strategies. And only one wins out.

These churches are at a crucial point in their development in terms of setting the course of their future relative to addition-growth culture versus multiplication-growth culture. 

In summary, our first three levels of multiplying churches are:

  •       Level 1 characterized by subtraction and scarcity thinking
  •       Level 2 characterized by plateau, survival, and tension between scarcity and growth
  •       Level 3 characterized by a strong addition-growth culture.

There is a movement waiting to be birthed in the DNA of each believer. The seeds can sprout forth even in spite of a local church’s lack of vision for multiplication. Multiplication can be birthed because of, or in spite of a local church. All churches have the capacity and the DNA for multiplication.

Level 4 reproducing churches have begun to reproduce themselves. They represent only about 7% of churches in the US. Level 4 leaders sense something new and fresh. Maybe because they’ve already embraced a different scorecard, or maybe because they simply feel a holy discontent that something needs to change. They desire and are willing to move to Level 5, and might be making progress, but the tensions and forces pulling them back to Level 3 limit their ability to move more fully into region 5. 

Level 5 multiplication is exponential or accelerated multiplication. Think about the idea of acceleration where an object just keeps increasing its rate of speed. In fact, our tagline at Exponential is “accelerating multiplication.” Scientists describe exponential growth as a chain reaction with increasing output on each successive cycle. .005% of U.S. churches experience a multiplication culture. Exponential’s dream and prayer is to see an increasing number of churches move into a radically multiplying (or exponential) culture. 

Churches with a multiplication culture have broken free from the bondage of Level 3 macro-addition thinking and have put practices in place that close the gap between multiplication behaviors and aspirations. They are courageous leaders who are more burdened by building Kingdom capacity than local church capacity. They plant churches as they value multiplication over addition.  

Pause and think again about the culture you’re creating. But this time, really press into the strategies, role models and methods that consume your time and thinking. Which culture are they really rooted in? Are you dwelling in a survival/subtraction culture, an addition culture, or a multiplication culture? 

View the recording of Office Hours with Todd Wilson and Peyton Jones around this topic below.

We are better together!

“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
John 17:22-23

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