It’s not often that I come away from an event so enriched, so convicted and so full of hope and expectation of what God could do in the future all at the same time. But that is exactly how I felt on the return trip from the ADVANCE conference in Auckland a couple of weeks back.
What was it that made such a deep and lasting impression on me? Answer: two speakers. Two simple and humble men from different sides of the world – one from Africa and the other from Sydney, who at the beginning of their ministry put their energies into training labourers and planting churches. They are not big names, they have no worldwide following, and they do not come with bodyguards and request high-end hotels. They are just ordinary men who have accomplished extraordinary things because they have been faithful.
Paul Dale lives in Sydney and is Lead Pastor of Church on the Bridge. He started with a small group of people who believed in the power of the gospel and were keen on reaching lost people in their area. They now have multiple congregations in and around Sydney, with a preaching ministry that engages both the head and the heart and as a result, they are seeing people come to know Christ.
Oscar Muriu is from Kenya, Africa and pastors Nairobi Chapel. In 1991 it started as a small congregation of just 10 people. He now leads a network of over 200 churches with over 25,000 worshippers gathering weekly. The key to this great growth has been discipleship and training. It is an integral part of the DNA of his churches. It is remarkably simple and pretty much resembles exactly what Jesus did.
I’ve never really been a big promoter of church-planting. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a good idea – I do. And I support those who are committed to it. It’s just that I don’t think it’s for me. But now I’m having a serious rethink about that.
And it was what Oscar Muriu said that did it.
He began by telling us some things about Africa. For a start, it is the second most populated continent in the world with a population of 1.2 billion. Its birth rate outstrips just about every other country so that in the year 2050 one in every three people on the planet will be African. Furthermore, it has the largest church on the planet with over 600 million Christians. The church is vibrant and alive and is sending out missionaries all over the world. More than likely, you will see one come to your town soon.
Oscar shared with us four things that they have learned over the years as they watched their church planting network grow:
1. Don’t let the smallness of your vision limit the greatness of God.
Our vision for what God can do is often too small. The things we ask God for he could do without blinking. What we need to do is enlarge our vision. “Ask yourself,” Oscar said, “what am I praying for that is hard, that makes God sweat?” That stunned a few people in the audience! (including me). Some might read that and find it irreverent. But Oscar is far from irreverent. He’s just a man with a great heart and great faith which enables him to have a great vision for what God can do. He quoted from Isaiah 54:
“Enlarge the site of your tent, and let your tent curtains be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your ropes, and drive your pegs deep. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will dispossess nations and inhabit the desolate cities.” (Isaiah 54:2-3)
Now I have never considered that as applying to gospel mission but when you think about it, it fits. I thought about my own vision of Grace Church and saw a pup-tent. I’m not really asking God for anything big. And I get all hung up on the “how” – how are we going to do this and how are we going to do that. Oscar said, “leave the HOW for the WOW.” God will help you work out the how later.
2. Don’t send out church-planters; send out sons.
Our mindset here is the west is to seek out and recruit the “experts” in church planting; those who have the expertise . Don’t do that, said Oscar. Train those within your organization and send them. Paul referred to Timothy as his “dearly loved son” (2 Timothy 1:2). He’s speaking in spiritual, not natural terms. Timothy was his disciple. He personally trained him. Paul wanted to get to the church in Corinth, but he was prevented. So he sends Timothy instead – “He is my dearly loved and faithful child in the Lord. He will remind you about my ways in Christ Jesus, just as I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:17). That’s the kind of people we want heading up church planting teams. They will be faithful to the DNA of our churches and our mission.
This next one was my favourite:
3. Breed Rabbit churches, not Rhino’s.
This was an African analogy if ever there was one. But it worked. Rhino’s are big, REALLY big – everyone knows their presence. They consume a lot of food and need huge steel cages to contain them. Furthermore, Rhino’s give birth to one calf which takes 3 years to raise. And even then, many of them die. Rabbits are very different. Rabbits consume very little, move around the place very quickly and adapt to their environment. The average litter for a Rabbit is 12. Put a male and female rabbit together and within one year it is possible (with zero death rate) to produce 4 million offspring.
Oscar then applied the analogy to churches. We are all familiar with Rhino churches. They are big, they consume a lot of resources and they are expensive to run. Every now and then they might give birth to a new church which struggles to survive. Rabbit churches are small. They are quick to plant and are cheap to run and don’t consume a lot of resources. And they grow quickly, because new churches reach new people.
95% of the churches in the world are 100 or less. Anything over that and you are not the norm. Mega churches are a tiny minority on the world stage. Yet every church wants to be like one.
Our church is 250-300 in size and sees an average of 2-3 people come to Christ each year. I wonder how different things would be if instead we were a network of 3 or 4 churches spread around the Nelson area, sharing resources and instead of trying to keep a big machine going, we concentrated on wining people to Jesus. How many more could be entering the Kingdom of God – in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years?
4. Plant pregnant
This one was simple, yet ingenious. With every church-planting team they send out, they ensure that a trainee goes with them. This person works under the leader (the pastor), helps to get the work going and then after a period of time is sent out to lead the next church plant. That way, with every new church that is planted, there is the embryo of the next church that goes with it. They not only plant churches in Kenya; they plant churches that will plant more churches. It’s the 2 Timothy 2:2 principle applied to a church; not just an individual.
I came away from the ADVANCE conference with a lot to think about. And a week later, I’m still thinking about it. I guess that means something got through! Well done to the team at MULTIPLY (Dave Giesbers, Nick Duke and Rowan Hilsden) for making all this happen. It may bear fruit in our country down the road that will turn heads and inflame hearts. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.
Here’s hoping and praying – for the sake of this nation.