Church Multiplication that Works, and… Doesn’t!

I’m writing this in Japan while on my way home from teaching for a week about church multiplication in Columbo, Sri Lanka.

Actually, teaching pretty much the same material in both places. I’m interested in the overwhelming success of the group in Sri Lanka compared with the United States as we increasingly turn away from Christianity.

The group there number more than 18,000 people worshipping each week in just over 2,000 microchurches. Do the math, these churches average just nine people in membership. But that’s not the whole story. The original church now numbers 2,100 people meeting in multiple services on any Sunday. They generated a network of churches planted by church members who A. Maintain their jobs and careers. B. Serve as freelance church planters, with little or no pay. C. Plant churches among some of the poorest people in the country—some of whom are now planting churches. This is all about serious church multiplication and the “priesthood of every believer.”

What’s cool is that microchurch works in a Buddhist nation where the dominant religion actively persecutes both Christians and Muslims.

A Tale of Two Churches

Contrast Sri Lanka to Japan for a minute. Japanese pastors are the most highly educated and the best paid in the world. In roughly the same time as the group in Sri Lanka has been in existence (from the early 1980s) church attendance in Japan fell from 3 percent of the population to just over ½ a percent. Something is amiss.

While the Japanese copied the American church (beginning with the post World War 2 missionaries) the Sri Lankans did something that approximates the Antioch church and its network in Acts. The one model works, even under persecution and religious tension. The other has failed miserably. That’s why I’m in Japan this week—we’re planting microchurches.

The Times They are a-Changing

That prophet, Bob Dylan, once warned that “The times They are a-changing.” Many disbelieved him, but American culture shifted radically away from God during the 1970s. It’s been downhill ever since.

The U.S. church would do well to learn from people like this. Our culture is rapidly secularizing, even generating hostility to the gospel and Christ-followers. The church population is aging, as is the age of existing clergy. Our future will be different from our past and present. The age of the megachurch will prove itself a blip in history. Millennials are turned off to church in general and the expense of super-size Christianity in particular. They want intimate relationships and a church that cares for starving people in Africa.

So, do we try to stick to business—as is? Or, do we crack open our Bibles and try to re-learn how to do church as a minority force in a hostile culture? Whatever we do, we ought to think it through while the choice is still ours. So, what do you think—am I an alarmist or is there a viable tidal shift requiring some serious consideration? Sound off in the Comments Box below.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash





9 thoughts on “Church Multiplication that Works, and… Doesn’t!”

  1. Ralph, I think you are prophetically leading the way back to a New Testament future. I am an aging pastor leading an aging church. I now spend most of my energy discipling millennials as they become leaders of micro churches and missional groups. Thanks for your visionary leadership.

  2. Great comparisons – Sri Lanka and Japan! For many years, we also planted churches among the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and saw tremendous fruit using a “community church” model, planting each church within 5-10 miles with the goal of saturation of an area.

    My take on micro-church vs. mega-church (and everything in between) is an issue of capacity. There is room for both (or all) in every nation, but we must vigorously resist the idea that the mega-church is the ultimate ideal and goal to which emerging leaders should aspire. The temptation to make this the measure is insidious.

    By contrast, the power of smaller models (including micro-church) is there ability to quickly multiply leadership. THAT should be the norm. Mega-churches have their place, but to brag “We are in the top 1% of all churches in our nation” because of the size of the congregation is actually a statement about your oddity, not your success. The “brag” (if there is one) should be based on how many leaders – of varying capacity – we have empowered to go out and start new churches that in turn multiply themselves.

  3. Ralph,

    Your post is very timely. I have a friend who is a church planting strategist in Taiwan. He is heavy hearted because a church-planting movement in a city of 30 million that was starting 120 churches per year is now only starting 1 church per year. He feels that the American church’s fear of losing control and wanting to manage new churches has quenched the work of the Spirit and God’s people. I have sent this article to him. He may contact you.

    In addition, I have another friend who is now the church-planting pastor for another church here in Billings. They have evaluated themselves and have decided to become a level 5 church. On Tuesday nights, they are using the building our micro-church meets in to start an affinity church. Their attendance has grown significantly over the last year. They have already eclipsed us and may need to become the primary church in our location.

    As the church planter of our micro-church, I am trying to process all of this. The first question I am asking myself is, “Do I need to decrease so the Kingdom of God can increase in our neighborhood?” The second question I am asking is, “God, are you preparing me for another location and/or another ministry?” I want God’s will to be done.

    Please keep ll of us in your prayers.

  4. I think the move away from Christianity is partly because there are so many immigrants from nonChristian areas. Now, missions is local is we see it that way. I worked with the Cell Church Movement in Asia and many, many cells were planted It will work here I think.

    1. Lots of immigrants are Christ-followers. Among Middle Eastern and African people 3 Christians for every 2 Muslim immigrants. Also Latin America sends many Catholics and Pentecostals. I live in a neighborhood of mostly people from Iraq and Syria. Every person I’ve met is a Christian. They take it very seriously. There is good news that never gets on TV or in the papers.

  5. Especially in our larger churches the last 3 or 4 decades we’ve focused on growing a big Worship. We follow that with a lecture (sermon) which educators tell us is a very poor way to teach, especially teach behavior. Jesus told us to love God and defined that as obeying God including loving our neighbor. I remember telling a church leader friend that it’s a lot easier to have “great worship” than to have great love. I believe Jesus wants us to have great love.
    You can’t do a good job of loving someone while looking at the back of their head and you can’t do a good job of loving someone in a large group. There’s a reason Jesus had a group of 12 plus himself. The churches in Sri Lanka are just about the perfect size for doing a good job of loving one another and their neighbor.
    We need to start looking at disciple multiplication movements and how we can either integrate that into what we’re doing or replace what we’re doing. Roy Moran is doing that. see his book, Spent Matches.

  6. Yes. Micro or simple churches are the future. What method or training are you advising people to grasp in order to do this work? is one way. Are there others? Is it possible to have a Unified effort among believers who plant micro churches or will method become the new denomination?

  7. For some good news about the church in Japan, read John Mehn’s new book “Multiplying Churches in Japanese Soil,” published by William Carey Library.

  8. Laban Ssewanyana

    Hello Pastor Ralph Moore.
    Its a pleasure to meet you here from Wakiso Uganda the pearl of Africa.

    I feel humbled for this divine program the Almighty father and God has put on your life for making disciples and planting churches and multiplication of church everywhere.

    As long as God lives I am zealous to have this same divine program in my country and community. I am surrounded by the Moslem community I need your ministry to work with local independent congregation to promote and preach the good news of the Kingdom of God.

    Only by his grace.
    Laban Ssewanyana
    Lead Pastor Seek the Lord Bible Church.

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