Growth leads to persecution
June 10, 2020
Movements are growth machines. They are “rapidly multiplying disciple-making movements” because (1) they make disciples ‘rapidly’, and (2) they multiply by enabling disciples to make more disciples.
The most common driver of growth is the small house group of disciples who regularly gather to (1) worship, (2) pray together, (3) read Bible stories and discuss what they mean and how to obey them, and (4) commit to share stories & the call to follow Jesus with others.
The Western church often urges disciples to read the Bible, pray (‘have a quiet time’) and be a witness/share their faith. But, most such churches usually do not expect that believers will. Many small groups’ are centered around discussing the Sunday sermon (cynically, ‘the trained guy is sharing, and you talk about what he shares’; optimistically, ‘attending to the teaching of the apostles’). Evangelistic efforts become organized programs where people are urged to invite their neighbors to a church program where the Gospel will be professionally shared. (Cynically, ‘you can’t do this/we can’; optimistically, ‘here’s the low bar of effort’).
While movements do not require disciples to be exhaustively or professionally trained in order to either read and apply Bible stories or to share the Gospel, they do expect and encourage their members to do so. Group functions and simple inductive Bible study questions (“What does this tell us about God? about people? what can we obey? who can we share it with?”) help bring the story to the bottom line of practical insights. Disciples can begin sharing with others immediately upon hearing the first story—even before becoming a believer (for a Biblical example, consider John 4).
This expectation of group application & individual sharing is intensely practical, transformative, and outward focus. It drives the outward growth of a movement. If a movement wants to measure how well it is doing, one of the obvious ways is by measuring the speed of this growth. Movements don’t have big evangelistic programs, campaigns, or budgets; they grow or fail to grow on the basis of what disciples are passionate about doing. If movements aren’t seeing increases in total believers, baptisms and small groups, it means disciples aren’t making disciples.
As a side note: growth obviously isn’t the only measure of ‘success.’ It should be balanced with health. A concern occasionally voiced about movements is the possibility of the exponential growth of heresy. The frequent comparison is to cancer: runaway growth of sick cells. Three factors address this: (1) in our current situation, most of the church is marked by an absence of any growth at all; (2) we all have a little bit of heresy in us, from someone else’s perspective; (3) the greatest amounts of heresy come from single high-personality leaders building audiences focused on esoteric aspects of doctrine. Such audiences are focused on the leader, not the outsiders, and thrill to knowledge that benefits me rather than obedience that blesses others. Movements focused on practical group-led Bible discussion (‘how will I obey this Scripture this week’ and ‘who can I share this with’) tend to find that narcissistic self-centered audience-builders are less inclined to show up.
Movements are generally measured as ‘growing rapidly’ if they add another ‘generation’ (the disciples a disciple makes) every 12 to 18 months (perhaps 2 years). Many movements grow faster than that. Some movements tell me “if a church hasn’t planted another church in 4 years, it won’t.” If one disciple is discipling 2 to 4 others, we can see how a movement can rapidly multiply: 1 disciple, reaches 4, who each reach 4, becoming 16, who each reach 4, becoming 64, and so on.
This kind of growth looks ‘small’ at first, but depending on how fast generations are added—and initial generations are often added very fast, indeed, far faster than 18 months—this represents massive growth that will rapidly outstrip the growth of the religious groups around them.
When that happens, a movement will become very different from surrounding churches. Most churches in the world get most of their growth from demographics (births minus deaths in Christian homes), and small amounts from conversion (converts minus defectors). These churches ‘take’ new converts from the surrounding communities but also ‘give’ defectors back. Movements, on the other hand, have most of their early growth in the form of converts without defectors. They will begin to ‘eat away’ at the religious blocks around them. Depending on what those religious blocks are, different movements can encounter different challenges.
Some movements will ‘take’ from surrounding churches. The stereotype of this is “sheep-stealing”; a somewhat more academic term might be “church swapping.” This effect is known all over the world. We might decry it, but it’s inevitable. Some of these believers will have been nominal believers in their original churches; others might be highly passionate leaders who want to be part of an apostolically-focused initiative. Their loss from the original churches to the movement may or may not be felt. Further, movements that grow this rapidly will quickly expand ‘out’ of the normal ‘church’ culture; an intentional outward focus on non-believers will only enhance this.
Some movements will begin to ‘take’ from surrounding secularized post-Christian populations. This rarely seems to be noticed or receive pushback unless the movement gets large enough to have a transformative influence on a place that damages political or economic powers.
Some movements will begin to ‘take’ from the other religious groupings. It is here, depending on the situation, that significant push back may be felt. Small numbers of converts will most likely feel the effect of family pressure, and in the worst cases some small town or village ‘mob’ effects. Larger numbers of converts will receive organized pressure from surrounding religious powers and in some cases, governments.
The success of movements will lead them into inevitable conflict with others. This kind of conflict cannot be resolved as a “we leave each other alone” sort of approach. Movements want to see everyone given the chance to follow Jesus; ideally, want to see everyone following Jesus. They need to prepare for the very real certainty that if they succeed, they will face pushback and potential persecution.