I realize that there are myriads of models, programs, and books for church growth—believe me; I’ve read many of them. However, rarely do these address the core of the issue—disciple-making—yet, we cannot make disciples if we can’t reach people.
As a former church planter, current planting mentor, and a pastor of a revitalized church, making disciples not only fulfills the great Commission (Matt. 28:19), but it grows families of God.
Here are five observations that growing disciple-making churches have in common.
Listening to the Holy Spirit
The early church intensely listened to the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Peter calls the Holy Spirit, “God” (Acts 5:4). Twice, the Scriptures warn the Church not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).
Jesus commanded his disciples not to move without the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4). He leads. He teaches. He opens eyes. No one comes to salvation without the Holy Spirit. If churches desire to grow and make disciples, it cannot be done without the Holy Spirit.
When Paul arrived in Athens, he went for a walk (Acts 17:16, 22–23). He discerned the Athenian culture.
Today, we learn to exegete Scripture. This means we can critically examine the Greek and Hebrew texts: the verbs, nouns, and imperatives. We can even interpret the Word and provide great application.
Meanwhile, we have no idea how to exegete a culture. What are people worshipping? How do they live? Where do they eat? What do they watch? What does the culture look like (ethnicity, economic, etc.)?
We cannot reach a people we do not know.
Bridging the Gap
Once in the gym, I used the movie Platoon to share the gospel with a guy. He had never been to church, didn’t know Jesus, or God. But he was going through numerous problems. Since he saw the movie, I explained a scene with Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe.
The young private, Sheen, was about to go into his first night’s “fire fight.” However, the private overloaded his pack. Dafoe, the veteran sergeant, saw him struggling—stopped him, unloaded the pack—pulling out all of the items weighing him down. Not only that, Dafoe sacrificially carried Sheen’s items throughout the night.
This is what Jesus does for us. He meets us struggling in our sin. Removes our sin. Takes it upon Himself. And then walks with us through the darkness.
The term “bridging the gap” is called, contextualization. After discerning the culture, we use it to reach people for Christ. [Read Acts 17:22-28 to see how Paul used contextualization]
The word gospel comes from “the Anglo-Saxon godspell denoting ‘glad tidings’ or ‘good news.’” In a world of suffering, pain, and anguish there is a great need for good news.
However, There is no good news without Jesus. A church that is gospel-centered is Christ-centered. They bring good news to a sin-laden and broken community.
But, some churches replace the gospel with entertainment, programs, or works. The gospel doesn’t need any of these. Churches that rely on the grace, truth, and sufficiency of the gospel will inevitably show it. How?
As Peter declared, if you have tasted the goodness of God, you will have a craving for God and a love for others (1 Peter 1:1-3).
The Word of God put on flesh and dwelt in community with humanity (John 1:14). Community is important. God created us to be relational and intimate. Believers are called to share the good news with others.
Sharing your life with others is discipleship. Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done” (John 13:15).
When a church is incarnational, it fleshes out what it means to be Jesus. Loving. Praying. Touching. Crying. Eating. —all of these are fleshing out Jesus within community.
Church growth is about discipleship. The command by Christ was to “go and make disciples” (Matt 28:19) —not—to put people in seats. Incarnational churches will make disciples because they live, eat, cry, and pray as Jesus did—with others. By default, incarnational churches disciple people.
 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 892.
Advent. I love this season of the year; things are festive, people once again visit their churches, songs are sung, and hearts are merry.
Advent, which means the arrival or coming, is in remembrance of Jesus Christ’s birth, God incarnate, the Savior of the world. Advent is one of those liturgical seasons which remind me of my upbringing, especially the lighting of the candles. I always had such great anticipation of waiting to go to church to see the next candle lit—it means we were one week closer!
However, the candles have meaning and I’m not sure that most believers know what each one means. Some churches utilize four purple and one white, or 3 purple, 1 pink, and one white—some now even use blue. Regardless, the names of the candles are all the same. So, allow me to give a brief explanation of each.
1st Sunday of Advent
This is a purple candle and the first one lit. The color purple is symbolic for majesty or royalty; the anticipation of the coming King. However, since the Lenten season also uses the color purple, some modern churches have switched to blue, but traditionally, it is purple. The candle is known as the prophecy candle; also called, the hope candle. This candle reminds us of the hope that was provided from ages past, concerning the coming Christ. He would come into the world to give hope to lost, hurting, afflicted, and those in bondage to sin (Psalm 62:5; Eph.1:12)
2nd Sunday of Advent
This candle is a second purple candle. The Second Advent candle represents love. What can we truly say about God’s everlasting love for people that are rebellious? Thank the LORD of heaven and earth that He loves us with such a great love. The love of Christ is greater and stronger than anything earthly, universal, or spiritually made or not made (Rom. 8:36-39).
3rd Sunday of Advent
The third Sunday of Advent is the pink candle or again a purple candle. This candle represents joy, it is pink to symbolize a rose—a celebratory event is coming! I may now be a Baptist pastor, but I was raised in the Anglican faith; I still love the traditional collect for this Sunday, which reminds me of joy: “…let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…” That is joy—joy that God delivers us from our sins and sets us free. God has abounding and amazing grace and mercy for people—we should be joyous and rejoice in Him.
4th Sunday in Advent
The fourth candle is the last purple candle, sometimes called the Angel candle due to the angelic messenger sent by God to proclaim His coming into the world, as man (Luke 1:26-33). This candle is also called the peace candle—for the Prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). Of course, Paul the Apostle states that Jesus, Himself, is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Ultimately, there is no peace without Christ.
Christmas Eve/Christmas Day
The white candle is called the Christ Candle; it only lit during the service that represents His arrival—this may be a Christmas Eve candle light service or a Christmas Day service. The color white signifies the purity and holiness of the Christ child—the sinless Savior born of the Virgin Mary.
Published in December 2015 Church Planter Magazine
“Why would I want to do that?”
That was the answer that I received when I asked a pastor if his church would support church planting.
Did he really just say that? Let me try this again, but this time I’ll rephrase it.
“Why wouldn’t your church want to be involved in the Great Commission?”
Now he had the same look that I had—confused. Bewildered. As if someone just stolen his lunch money. I was sort of in shock, but not really—I’m beginning to get used to this type of answer.
I won’t go into detail about how he justified his church’s involvement in the Great Commission by sending money to missionaries, feeding the homeless, and sending Christmas boxes (all good, by the way).
A Gospel Passion
The Apostle Paul proclaimed, “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16b)
People ask me, “Why are you so passionate about church planting?” I reply, “It is not church planting that I am passionate about, but the gospel.”
To be a disciple of Christ means, to desire to be more like Christ. Churches that plant churches that plant churches epitomize disciple-making and gospel-centered fruit.
In the beginning of this year, I founded a collaborative initiative here in Richmond called, Planting RVA (RVA stands for Richmond, VA). My goal is to see Richmond saturated with the gospel. With 121 countries, Richmond is ripe for the harvest—a diverse, cultural, and beautiful area, but one that desperately needs more churches planted. Richmond was one of the only cities on the eastern seaboard that was not affected by the Great Awakening—a spiritually darkened city.
With an original intention for a multipronged approach of house church movements, comprehensive and traditional church plants, satellite campuses, and revitalizations, it was an uphill battle from the get-go. I found that dozens of pastors were willing to talk about it, but very few were willing to get their hands dirty—to break up any fallow ground.
And so, my passion is not necessarily for churches, but for the gospel. Churches that plant churches that plant churches are gospel saturated. Their intention is outwardly revealed—to make Jesus known, to bring glory to God, and to make disciples. Church multiplication is the result of disciple-making, which is the command of the Great Commission (Matt 28:19-20).
The Harvest Is Ripe
Jesus declared, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road” (Luke 10:2-4).
This verse is sometimes misconstrued. Some pastors will exegete this passage as a call to prayer, but the context is Jesus sending out His disciples. He sends them out with nothing, other than His authority. Jesus was indeed telling these disciples to pray, but He ordered them to “Go.”
When I rephrased this to my pastor friend, he didn’t understand that intrinsically church planters are disciple makers. This is why I am so passionate about planting churches that plant churches—it is fulfilling Christ’s command. We cannot plant churches without making disciples—it’s nearly impossible (unless you pay people or draw them in with false benefits, but that won’t last).
Living in Reality
The current model of Western Christianity is broken. I’ve written about this many times and will share it with you. Western Christianity is hemorrhaging! Seventy percent (70%) of the U.S. population reports a connection with Jesus Christ, yet according to David Olson, on any given Sunday less than 17.5% of the population actually attends an orthodox worship service. This number includes Roman Catholicism.
Even though Olson’s statistics display 17.5%, Doug Murren, of the Murren Group, declared that number to be too high and suggested Olson’s 2008 numbers were lagging behind. Murren’s ghastly number of 12% is staggering! Furthermore, Murren’s research indicated “20% of people leave their church every year, which would require a visitor rate of at least 30% of a church’s size per year, just to grow.”
Once again, Olson declared that American Christianity would need to plant 2,900 new churches a year, just to keep up with the current pace of population. However, with over 7,000 churches closing each year, and only 4,000 opening, an article in Outreach Magazine noted “15,000 new churches [are needed] every year to keep up with population.”
The Barna Group assessed that “more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice.” With a population of roughly two hundred forty million Americans, “one hundred seventy million of them (71%), either consider themselves as having no religious affiliation at all or Christian in name only.” As JR Woodward observed, “Functional Christendom has given way to a ‘spiritual,’ secular and pluralist society where a growing number view the church with suspicion and some with downright disdain.”
And so, with 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline, there is an urgent call for church revitalization and planting. For this reason, the church must re-engage the church planting apostolic call of the missio Dei. The Western world is officially a mission field and is in dire need of apostolic movement.
If these numbers do not cause you to see the vital need for church planting then nothing will—but perhaps you’re among the complacent crowd? My call to you today is not for you to get up on the soapbox and scream out for revival, but to begin revival within your own heart. Start living the life of Christ on mission within your home, neighborhood, and community—get engaged in the Great Commission by making disciples and helping plant churches that plant churches.
If evangelicalism is to re-engage the Western culture it will not be with political agendas, but with a true apostolic movement, where Christ is Lord and the Church is sent.
If you’d like to be a part of Planting RVA, either as a church planter or a supporting church, please feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org
 David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 181.
 Doug Murren, “De-Churching or Re-Gathering,” themurrengroup.com, March, 2015.
 Ibid, 5.
 Ibid, 181.
 Rebecca Barnes and Linda Lowry, “Special Report: The American Church in Crisis,” Outreach Magazine, June 2006, 1, accessed October 16, 2015, http://www.simplechurchathome.com/PDF&PowerPoint/AmericanChurchCrisis.pdf.
 George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014), 16.
 Aubrey Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches For the 21st Century: A Comprehensive Guide for New Churches and Those Desiring Renewal, 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 12.
 JR Woodward, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 30.
 Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 200.
I’ll say it … someone has to speak up. We should be ashamed at the actions of the Western Church.
For years I have been involved in church planting. However, it wasn’t until I became involved in finding financial support for planters and developing a collaborative initiative for church planting that I saw the ugly truth.
Before I begin, I want to shed light on some reality. Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with these numbers—and while numbers are data, they reveal the truth. With 80–85% of all American churches either plateauing or in decline, and only 10–15% of pastors equipped to turn around churches, we need to admit there’s a huge problem. An elephant in the room.
Only 26% of America is evangelical (I realize that some don’t like that terminology) and a staggering 71% of Americans are either nominal in their faith or have no religious affiliation at all. 96% of Americans have heard the name Jesus Christ, placing us in a post-Christendom society. Lastly, just to maintain the 26% evangelical rate (to keep up with population growth), we would need to plant 3–5,000 church per year!
But it’s never going to happen and I’ll tell you several reasons why.
Approximately one year ago I founded a collaborative initiative in Richmond, Virginia, called, Planting RVA. While I’m not promoting it, I’m using it as analogy. I believed (and still do) that if any city is to be saturated with the gospel, it must be a collaborative effort of gospel-centered churches, associations, and denominations. Biblical students understand that reaching cities (like Paul; Rom 15:20) is imperative for saturation. So, while many different associations were initially intrigued at the idea, the reality of collaboration became a farce.
Organizations, denominations, and associations will only get involved if there’s an asset for them or perhaps to find out what someone else is doing, but not for support. Don’t fool yourself. I quickly found out one truth—the American church is very self-centered.
One local Baptist seminary (President) advised me that they are only involved in events and programs that benefit them. I humbly asked if they’d like to help sponsor a collaborative church planting conference, if they had any students that may be interested in church planting, or professors—I was shot down:
“We basically ‘sponsor’ the events, programs and worthy causes which arrise out of our own work, ministry and budget” (cut and pasted).
I asked for a one on one meeting to discuss the fact that Planting RVA works with their “primary denominational partners: the BGAV …”
I was shot down again. Even from sharing coffee! (The blasphemy!)
Anyway, what I find abhorrent about the response is the revelation as to why certain churches in our area decline to help collaboratively plant churches and to see kingdom growth—because they’re taught to be empire builders—to align only with theological and doctrinal presuppositions. How do I know that? His last email response:
“As I am sure you know, even though we live in a postdenominational age[,] most connect with the church planting enterprise through denominational networks of one kind or another. This is primarily true because one’s theological perspective and church starting methods must be compatible. Consequently, as the seminary has needs for church starting expertise we will seek those resources through our partner organizations.”
This leads into the next point….
Lack of Unified Love
Lack of unity, self-centeredness, and greed will never help grow Christ’s kingdom. This ‘every man for himself’ mentality is not Christian love, nor can it reach an unchurched, unreached, and starving culture.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that seminaries should indeed teach theology, doctrine, and align themselves with the agencies that support them—but to what extent? I love hearing about Together For the Gospel and these types of conferences, but when it comes to the actual aspects of working together—we’re all going down in separate ships because of our self-centered way of doing things.
Let me give you an example. Ever see a McDonalds? I bet next to it you’ll see a Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, or other food dive. But, drive five miles out of town; do you see a McD’s, Chick-fil-A, or one of those grab-and-go places? No, you don’t. Why is it that they all stack up on top of each other? Why don’t they build in small town USA, the projects, crack allies, or low-rent districts—that’s easy—it’s called revenue. It’s business 101. You go where the money is and don’t allow your competitor to reap all the profits. Don’t allow them to be the only game in town.
However, with this same model that denominations (and even non-denominations) desire to plant churches with and how they view the Christian faith. It’s a business—it’s greed and it’s also arrogance—it’s the mentality that we do it better, more hip, more missional, more liturgical, more traditional, more conservative, more blah, blah, blah.
Let me ask you this: Do you think starving people care about where they get a meal? Oh, but why don’t you make sure they get the fat steak cooked perfectly, right?
Read on …
Forget The Empire—Think Kingdom
Recently, I was invited to speak about church planting at a local conference. While I already knew how things behind the curtains of church denominations and associations worked, one message rang loud and clear—the American church is empire building. The motto: How can your church grow and become large?
I agree. Churches need revitalization. Here’s a secret about church planting. When churches plant churches the kingdom grows. If a church is in decline, one sure-fire way to grow is to plant or support a church plant. Why do I have the idea that you’re scratching your head?
Here’s the deal, if a church plateaus at 200 people (average church in US) and they plant another church, as they grow to 200 people, the mother/sending church has doubled in size. And, as the next generation (3rd church plant) is sent out, there is a potential of growing the kingdom even larger, to 600. This is first-century church growth.
But, that stands against the current model of empire building—of, I want ‘my’ church to be large (*as if it were yours!*). I hope this is convicting someone? But I bet it’s only angered some to justify their positions.
The reality: As long as the American church desires to “go it alone” and not work together, we will never see a Jesus movement occur and gospel saturation happen. We’re too busy with our own agendas.
I leave you with this to think about; the words of Jesus when the Disciples confront him:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (Mark 9:38-41 ESV).
 This number varies depending upon the data. Mainly due to the addition of 1,800 churches closing per year—this adds to numerical figure, from 3,000 to approximately 5,000.