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Multiplying on the Micro Level by Neil Cole

Multiplying on the Micro level: We Each Began as a Zygote by Neil Cole

"When the solution is simple, God is answering." - Albert Einstein


American Christianity is dying. Our future is in serious jeapordy. We are deathly ill and don't even know it. Our illness has so saturated our institutions that we are not healthy enough to live beyond the present generation. Our only hope is to try to keep current organizations alive for as long as is possible by any means possible. And that is the mentality in Christian "churchianity". Many institutions are holding on to life-support, fearing that death is the end of us. Do you think I am overstating our condition? That is even more evidence of how bad off we are. Look at the facts.

The Southern Baptists have said that only 4% of the churches in America will plant a daughter church. That means that 96% of the conventional churches in America will never give birth. Based on experience I believe this statistic is true. Even worse, I suspect that a majority of the 4% who do give birth will do so with unwanted pregnancies which we call church splits.

Many people think this state of affairs is fine. I have heard people say, "We have plenty of churches. There are churches all over the place that sit empty,so why start new ones? We don't need more churches but better ones." Can you imagine making such a statement about people? "We have plenty of people. We don't need more people, just better ones. Why have more babies?" This short-range thinking is only interested in the here and now and does not think there are long-term consequences for living selfish lives. Realize that no matter how inflated you think the world population is, we are only one generation away from extinction if we do not have babies. This is an undeniable fact.

In response to a large population, China instituted a law that each family can only have one child. The Chinese people responded by desiring sons to carry on the family name, and so untold thousands of daughters were killed off by abortion and infanticide. This is the same short-range kind of thinking inherent in the question I get asked about the number of churches.

China has a crisis coming that will probably affect us all. It is scary to imagine a nation where the number of men outnumber the women by a ratio of 4:1. Now imagine an army of millions of men, without enough women, governed by a dominating dictatorial group that feels expansion of its ideology is sacred. Too much testosterone armed with modern weapons and an ideological cause is a scary thing. When I consider these things, I fear for the nations that are near China's borders. I fear for us all. Short-range thinking is stupid and the consequences are perilous.

Imagine the headlines if suddenly it was discovered that 96% of the women in America were no longer fertile and could not have babies. We would instantly know two things. First, this is not natural, so there is something wrong with their health. Secondly, we would also know that our future is in serious jeapordy. That is the state of the church in America right now. It is that serious, and we need to take heed.

We need a new form of church that can be fruitful and multiply. Many of our churches do not even want to multiply. For many in Christian leadership, "church planting" is a scary term. It connotes pain, hardship, and loss. The separation of relationships, the cost in resources, and the expense of starting churches like their own is too intimidating. This sort of thinking has kept the local church in bondage and fear.

The way church multiplication has been taught has scared people. It is often taught that when a group gets past 15 people, it is essential that it divide into two groups. No wonder reproduction is not attractive to church members. This feels more like a divorce than reproduction. Imagine if in order to reproduce, humans had to cut off a limb, plant it in soil, and hope that it sprouted into another body. Ouch! I suspect that if God had designed our reproduction in this manner, we would all choose extinction.

Actually, reproduction is not hard. It is natural. Dare I say, it is even pleasurable. In conferences I often ask people to raise their hands if they have children. I then wink and say, "See, you all already know how to reproduce!" Inbred in all living things is a desire to reproduce. It drives us. Today, you will be faced with advertising and images that appeal to our own desire to copulate, which is what causes reproduction. Sex is everywhere, because it is so important to us--granted, a little too important to us!

The fact that reproduction is thought to be so hard and painful for churches is evidence of how far removed we are from being healthy and natural. We don't have to buy books or attend seminars to learn how to reproduce humans. In high school we do have classes that teach sex education, but not so much to teach kids how to have babies as how not to. Reproduction comes from a natural desire inherent in all healthy living things. Do you think Adam and Eve knew what to do, or did God have to give them a seminar first?

Reproduction is the product of intimacy, and we are created to enjoy intimacy. Even among churches, reproduction is the product of intimacy--with Christ, His mission, His spiritual family, and the lost world.

Church Shopping

"Church Shopping"

What makes a good church? Have you ever been "church shopping"? What do you look for? I have asked that question all across the country, and the answers are usually the same: good music, good preaching, good programs for my kids, friendly and welcoming people, beliefs that I share, etc..

Often, the mentality in modern churchianity is that the bigger the church, the better it must be. More disciples and more dollars are the standard of what is blessed by God in churchianity. (By these standards, the Mormon church must really be blessed by God.)

Christian Schwartz, in his breakthrough book Natural Church Development, conducted a global survey of the world-wide church and discovered seven important characteristics of a healthy church. One intriguing thing he also discovered is that smaller churches are actually "healthier" than the huge mega-churches. He says, "The evangelistic effectiveness of mini-churches is statistically 1,600 percent greater than that of the megachurches!" In their research, his team calculated 170 variables and determined which factors were the most negative in relation to health and growth. They found that a large size was the third most-negative factor, on par with factors such as "liberation theology" and "traditionalism". How sad it is that the pastors of small churches feel so inferior to the megachurch superstars. Someone once said, "God must like churches of 70 to 100 people because He made so many of them." Perhaps there is a little truth to that comment. Those who lead small, healthy churches need not feel inferior. We are now entering the day of the small, and the smaller we go, the bigger our impact on the world can be.

I went to a seminar on how to start a church where church planting was reduced to simply getting more people in the seats on Sunday. Personally, I want to give my life to something a little bigger than that. In this seminar, the secret to growing a church was explained as revolving around two very important things: clean bathrooms and plenty of parking spaces. Apparently, the Kingdom of God is held up by dirty toilets and poor parking. Jesus will have to wait for us to clean up our act.

My coworker and friend Brad Fieldhouse found an advertisement in a Christian publication that claimed a new digital sign on the front lawn was the secret to 100% of a church's growth. Oh how far we have wandered from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ! Do we really think that our great programs will impress the non-Christians in our community to such an extent that they will say, "Hey, that's a nice sign. And check out the parking lot. Wow, I want to be a Christian too!"

We cannot compete with Hollywood for the entertainment of people. The best preachers can not out-entertain Jay Leno and David Letterman with their teams of talented writers. The best worship band cannot put on a better show than the Rolling Stones. Our buildings are not as nice as the ones that corporate America is constructing; in fact, other religions and cults are outdoing us architecturally. Have you seen any Christian movies? Please! We are not able to come against the world, play its game, and win. That is a foolish and needless strategy.

Suppose for a moment, however, that this strategy actually worked. Imagine that hundreds of people came to us because they were impressed by our music, children's programs, clean toilets, and parking spaces. What if suddenly being a Christian was cool and the newest fad was to attend church. What have we done? Are we better off? I don't think so. We would have churches full of consumers looking for the church that offers the best "service" for them or their family. Wherever the next great show is, that is where the multitudes will flock. Does that sound familiar at all?

What we draw them with is what we draw them to. If they come expecting to be entertained, we better entertain them if we want to keep them coming back every week. This mentality creates a vicious circle of endless program upgrades, staff improvements, and building campaigns to feed the consumer monster. The monster is always hungry. Pastors are burned out. Members are marginalized and lost in the programs. The lost community gets a corrupted caricature of the Kingdom of God.

Imagine if we went "family shopping" and started looking for the best family to live with. What would happen if we asked these questions: Which family has a nicer house? Which offers better school programs to educate us? Which parents make us laugh and feel good about ourselves? Do we like the siblings in the Johnson family or the Roberts family better? How foolish sounds, and yet it is not very far from the reality today when we talk about "church shopping".

The reason that shopping for churches seems more reasonable than shopping for families is because church has been reduced to a once-a-week event that is aimed entirely at attracting people. Because we position people to be consumers, they respond like consumers. Advertising may work for business, but if we need to advertise to start a family we are really screwed up. Family is not a choice, we are born into it. Church is also meant to be a family that we are born into as well.

We must remind ourselves that there is something better than drawing multitudes to our services. Jesus often turned away from the multitudes and was even know to turn away the multitudes with hard words.

More people attending does not mean success. Nicer buildings does not mean your church is any better. The key to a healthy church is not better messages, better music, better methods, and more money. It is time to abandon those ideas and search for how the Kingdom is truly meant to expand.

E.M.Bounds once wrote, "Men are looking for better methods, God is looking for better men." One of the driving convictions of our movement is summarized in the statement: A church is only as good as her disciples. Healthy disciples make up a healthy church. Reproducing disciples will make a reproducing church.

Life Begins at the Molecular level.

Reproduction of all kinds begins on a molecular level. We each began life as a zygote. A zygote is a cell formed by the union of a male seed and a female egg. Life multiplies from there. Below is a picture of a zygote. This is Day One of a human life...


All of us started in the same way. Julia Roberts (the movie star) and Julia Childs (the late popular chef) both looked like this for a moment. The differences could only be discovered deeper, at a more molecular level. We would have to examine the chromosomes of the DNA strands in each zygote to see the very subtle differences. But even then, the vast majority would be exactly the same. Julia Roberts got the good looking genes and Julia Childs got the good taste genes (Which explains Roberts' marriage to Lyle Lovette; who, also once looked like the above zygote).

All reproduction begins at the molecular level and develops from the micro to the macro, from the simple to the complex. It is the same in the Kingdom of God.

The Parable of Starting Small and Growing Large (Mark 4:30-32)

The third organic parable Jesus presents in the fourth chapter of Mark's Gospel is the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus said:

"How shall we picture the Kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade."

The growth of the Kingdom of God must start at the smallest of levels. Jesus is instructing us that the Kingdom of God must start small and grow via multiplication to have great and expansive influence.

There is much discussion these days about church multiplication. This is my passion and life. But no matter how committed we are, we will never see church multiplication if that is all we speak of. Trying to multiply churches is starting at the wrong place. Churches are more complex entities with multiple cells. We must go further down microscopically to the smallest unit of Kingdom life if we want to start the multiplication process.

If we cannot multiply churches, we will never see a movement. If we cannot multiply leaders we will never multiply churches. If we cannot multiply disciples, we will never multiply leaders. The way to see a true church multiplication movement is to multiply healthy disciples, then leaders, then churches, and finally movements...in that order.

As passionate as I am about church planting, I found it very perplexing that the Bible never instructs us to start churches. There is not a single command in all of the Bible to initiate churches. The reason is quite clear: we are not to start churches, but to make disciples who make disciples. That is actually the way churches are started, at least in the New Testament. Many today teach that the best way to make disciples is to start churches. This is backwards; in fact, it is upside down. The best way to start churches is to make disciples. Jesus gave us instruction that is on the molecular level of Kingdom life for a very good reason. It works. Trying to multiply large, highly-complex organisms without multiplying on the micro level is impossible.

Ladies, imagine if you had to give birth to full-grown adults. We should be grateful that we reproduce on a simpler level. But even a newborn infant is complex...and a painful delivery. Life did not begin at birth; it began as a zygote. The moment that conception occurred all the DNA necessary for the formation, growth, and development of a mature person was intact. The DNA never changes--it just leads the multiplication process within every tiny cell into the formation of the complete body.

We have determined that the basic unit of Kingdom life is a follower of Christ in relationship with another follower of Christ. The micro form of church life is a unit of two or three believers in relationship. This is where we must begin to see multiplication occur. Let's face it, if we can't multiply a group of two or three, then we should forget about multiplying a group of fifteen to twenty. By focusing on the simple, we actually can see dramatic results in the complex. A virus is a small microscopic entity, but it can dramatically affect an entire continent in a single generation. At the time of this writing, AIDS is the fourth leading cause of death globally and the first major cause of death in most of Africa today. At the end of 2003, 38 million people were infected with the HIV virus. The start of every epidemic is molecular, and the solution for every epidemic will be molecular.

The Basic Unit of Church Life

In a worthy attempt to expand the church via multiplication, many have taken the plunge into either cell churches or house churches. This is a move toward relational community. It is a step in the right direction, but in order to see multiplication, we must go even smaller-to the most basic unit of church life. If we can infuse that church unit with the DNA of healthy church life and reproduction, then the influence will spread throughout the entire Kingdom.

The Bible often elevates a group of two or three to significance. Both the Old and New Testaments mention the number of "two or three". It is interesting that at least ten times "two or three" is mentioned for an ideal size in which to conduct ministry. It is not ever "two" or "three" alone but always "two or three". The Bible also does not say "two or more" or "two to five", but "two or three." Perhaps it is good to have flexibility but not too many options. When looking for witnesses in a criminal trial, we are to have two or three witnesses, not more and not less. This is not to be a mob trial, but a single witness--one person's word against the other's--is not enough.

Below are a few reasons why I believe two or three is the ideal size for effective fellowship and ministry that will penetrate the rest of the church and ultimately the Kingdom.

1. Communitry is stronger with two or three. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

Solomon writes, "Two are better than one...and a strand of three cords is not easily broken." (Ecc. 4:9-12) There is a sense in which a group of two or three is indeed stronger for community than any other size. Why? Not only do they share effort, or as Solomon says, "they have a good return for their labor," but also they can encourage one another well. Solomon writes, "If either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion." It is possible for one to fall ina crowd and not be noticed. But in a group of two or three, everyone is noticed and a single absence cannot be ignored.

It may seem obvious, but it is easier to meet one another's needs when the group size is only two or three. It is also easier to resist the enemy as two or three. As Solomon wrote: "...if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart." All of us need this kind of community strength as we take on the devil and his cohorts.

2. Accountability is stronger with two or three. (1 Timothy 5:19)

According to Levitical law, no one could bring a case to trial without two or three witnesses. Moses explains why this is important in Deuteronomy 19:15 "on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed." Paul carries on that idea of strict accountability when dealing with sin in 1 Timothy 5. He is addressing accusations brought against church leaders, and he says, "Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses." In other words, our information is held more accountable with two or three people than with only one. This size of a group is better for holding one another more accountable. In a group of five, it is easier for a person to hide and not speak up, but in a group of two or three, all are forced to participate.

3. Confidentiality is stronger with two or three (Matthew 18:15-17).

Jesus instructs us that if a brother sins we should reprove him in private. If he listens to us, we have won him back, but if not, we are to take two or three others with us. This is further application of the idea of accountability in a group of two or three. Jesus goes on to say, "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church." It appears that Jesus is showing us the balance between accountability and maintaining confidentiality. The bridge between these important concepts is made of two or three others. A group of two or three is indeed the best context to blend and balance confidentiality and accountability.

It is far easier to give account of our hidden thoughts and foolish mistakes made in secret to two other people than it is to a larger group. This is especially true if all in the group are sharing equally, and all wrestle with their own honest issues.

4. Flexibility is stronger with two or three. (Matthew 18:20)

Jesus went on (in the passage previously examined on discipline for an errant brother) to say these famous words, "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." Many believe that these words are the most basic description of church found in the Bible.

Many of us have found that coordinating the calendars for a small group of 10-15 busy people is a real challenge. It is far easier to coordinate two or three calendars. The larger the group, the fewer the options for meeting times and places. Finding a place where 15 people can meet comfortably is certainly easier than for a larger church of 100 or 1,000 people. The options for a group of two or three are vast, almost limitless.

A group of two or three can meet at a coffeehouse in the marketplace or a cooler in the workplace. I have heard of two or three ladies meeting at a local park while their small children play together on the jungle gym. I have also heard of two or three men meeting together at the grown-up gym for accountability while they lift weights together.

5. Communication is stronger with two or three. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33)

It is certainly easier to communicate with fewer people. The more voices you add to the equation, the more confusion results and breakdowns occur. Paul counsels the Corinthian church that they should limit the number of people speaking to two or three at a time, with clear interpretation.

Our attention span is not that great. We have technological gadgets that do so much thinking for us today. I have to look down at my wrist now to know what day of the week or month it is. With short attention spans, it is hard for us to receive more than two or three messages at one time. In a context that was challenged by a lack of order, Paul recommended that we limit our intake to two or three messages at a time.

6. Direction is stronger with two or three. (2 Corinthians 13:1)

Paul wrote at least three letters to the Corinthian church because of its problems; we have two of these letters recorded in the New Testament. He used the Old Testament principle of "two or three witnesses" to verify the direction he was giving to the church and to affirm the authrority by which it came.

It is useful when trying to find God's direction to wait for two or three witnesses to confirm that direction. This is not a Biblical command, by any means. Frankly, God should only have to say things once. But if you are uncertain and torn between more than one path, the counsel of two or three may bear weight.

7. Leadership is stronger with two or three. (1 Corinthians 14:29)

Paul suggests that two or three prophetic voices should provide leadership to a spiritual community at any one time. The others are to pass judgement on the messages. There is wisdom in a plurality of leaders. But too many leaders can also be a problem. If the children of Israel had been led by a committee, they'd still be in Egypt. A team of leaders, two or three working together, is a powerful enterprise--safer than a solo leader yet more powerful than a committee.

In a group of two or three, leaders are accountable to one another, community is stronger among them, and there are four to six ears listening to God's voice.

It seems that God has ordained two or three to be a perfect size group for life. Marriage is between two. God Himself exists in a community of three.

If one can reduce the church to its smallest, most irreducible minimum, it would have to be two or three. If we can instill a healthy DNA here in each group of two or three, the entire church body will have health throughout.

Reproduction is also easier at this level. If you have a group of three and you want to multiply groups of two or three, all you need is to find one other person to multiply. By reducing multiplication to this simplest level, reproduction can be part of the genetic fabric of the entire body of Christ.

Multiplication and Death

Reproduction always occurs at the microscopic level, even in your own body right now. The hand that is holding this book is made of up millions of cells, and each is multiplying. Your entire body is replaced by new cells all the time--that is health. Every few months there is a new you! Imagine what would happen if the cells in your hand decided to stop multiplying. The moment your cells stop multiplying, you have a serious problem on your hands (pardon the pun). Your hand will shrivel up and die.

Multiplication of cells will continue until you die. Without cells multiplying, the body will die. Multiplication stops when death occurs. At the same time, death occurs when multiplication stops. Both statements are true.

While it may sound paradoxical, there is also a spiritual truth that multiplication starts with death. There is a cost involved with multiplication. For the salmon the cost is death. It swims upstream, lays its eggs in the sand, and then dies.

Grain also dies to reproduce. Jesus said,

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal." (John 12:24)

As disciples, we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Christ. This is all about surrender. This is about confession and repentance. This is about obedience. Where these things exist there is a dying of self, and reproduction will come.

We've got to be willing to give up more than our time, talents, and treasure?we've got to start by giving up our lives for the sake of His Kingdom. If we are willing to pay the price?if we are willing to die to follow Christ?then we can see an abundant harvest of souls for the Kingdom of God. The Christians of the first century were willing to give their lives for the expansion of the Kingdom, and they were able to reach the entire known world with the Gospel. Every church throughout history whose members were willing to surrender their lives for the sake of Christ witnessed dramatic and spontaneous growth. This is one reason why churches thrive under persecution?the people of God are forced to decide what really matters most. They count the cost and pay the price. They die to themselves, their spiritual lives reproduce, and church growth occurs through multiplication.

I have heard that scientific and statistical probabilities demonstrate that if a single shaft of wheat is left undamaged and allowed to freely reproduce and grow, it will multiply into a crop large enough to feed the entire world population?for an entire year--within only eight years! It only takes a single apple seed to grow a tree. Yet a single apple tree produces enough seed to plant an entire orchard. Multiplication must start small and seemingly insignificantly, but with time and generational reproduction, it will reach global levels of influence.

How long will it take to reach the world through multiplication? If every Christian were to lead just one person to Christ every year and disciple that person so that he would, in turn, do the same the next year, it would only take about thirty-five years to reach the entire world for Christ!

Has the thought ever occurred to you that we are only one generation away from extinction? If we all failed to reproduce ourselves and pass the torch of life into the hands of the next generation, Christianity would be over in just one generation. Yet, because of the POWER of multiplication, we are also just one generation away from worldwide fulfillment of the Great Commission--the choice is ours.

© 2005 Neil Cole

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The concepts in this article are more fully developed in the book Organic Church

To find out about Life Transformation Groups which are disciplemaking groups of two or three read Cultivating a Life for God by Neil Cole.



See also the articles:

The Networking of Groups by Neil Cole
The Power of Two or Three by CMA
Multiplying on the Micro Level by Neil Cole
The Secret Source of Unlimited Leaders
Constantine & the Institutionalization of the Church

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