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Why rapid growth declines as movements grow in size

26 Jun Posted by in | Comments

When they are small, movements
tend to experience very rapid growth— they might double in size multiple times
in a given year. Over time, as
movements get larger, this growth tends to plateau.
Why? Is it because, as
time passes, evangelists get less enthusiastic? The case studies of movements I
have collected don’t suggest this is the case. There’s a simpler and, I think,
inevitable cause that actually hallmarks a success, not a failure.

1. Movements begin due
to abundant Gospel-spreading activity.

Especially among the unreached,
this activity is usually conducted by people with missionary or evangelistic
giftings. Much of this activity could be termed “abundant sowing” (to use a
Biblical term) or “super-spreading” (to use an epidemiological term that many
have become familiar with). One example of this kind of event was the Day of
Pentecost when Peter preached and saw 3,000 come to faith on that day. Other
examples include Paul’s activities in various cities and places, where he
evangelized large portions of the population in a relatively short period of
time.

“Abundant sowing” is marked by
large numbers of people being added through “conversion” growth. This growth
can be explosively fast and can lead to rapid doublings and expansions of size.
It can be exhilarating, especially if it happens in places where there has been
no fruit for some time.

2. Movements continue to
expand through the combination of two different kinds of growth: “abundant
sowing” and “personal witness.”

The first Gospel-spreaders often
(1) abundantly share the gospel, (2) make disciples, and (3) from this early
harvest raise up additional new “super-spreaders”–people who are gifted
apostles and evangelists, who almost immediately begin sharing widely and
making disciples themselves. This cyclical process can lead to sustained
multiplication that can bring a movement very rapidly to four generations and
one thousand believers or more. (This process is outlined in the Heart
and Four Fields
).

As the movement grows, however,
some portion of the growth will begin to come from “demographic” growth. Here I
am referring to the everyday witness of the typical believer, especially to
their discipling of family members. If you think about it, most believers don’t
come to faith as a result of a missionary or passionate evangelist–they come to
faith because of their parents, friends, or co-workers.

While all believers are
commanded to be ready to share their faith, not all are gifted evangelists
(just as not all are gifted pastors, or teachers, or prophets, or apostles).
Further, passionate evangelists–“super-spreaders”–seem to be even rarer. DMM
trainer David Watson once told me, “The person who shares the Gospel with 1,000
other people is pretty rare. Most people don’t do anything at all. The few who
do typically just disciple their families.” Other DMM practitioners agree: of
those trained in DMM principles, somewhere between 2 and 10% (more typically on
the 2% side) actually do anything with the training.

So while it’s true that
passionate evangelists find and activate other passionate evangelists, it seems
there are only so many to find. Eventually, there are just far more parents and
friends than there are super-spreading evangelists. Therefore:

  • In the early days, most growth in movements
    comes from 10s of evangelists who win 1,000s each, and also find other
    evangelists who do the same.
  • In later days, most growth in movements comes
    from 1,000s of households who win 10s each, and find other households who do
    the same.

Still, this is not the cause of
the plateau. In fact, discipling activities from “typical” believers can lead
to significant fruit and rapidly growing expansion (see
this analysis
).

3. The real decline in growth happens when a movement saturates a
place or people group.

Any growth faster than a
population’s overall growth will eventually run up against a hard barrier—the
total size of the population they are working among. As more people in a place
decide to follow Jesus, others—the remainder—will have made their
decision not to follow.
Places may not be majority-Christian, but they can still be majority-decided. Once this point is reached, the
rate of growth will drop rapidly: the “ripe fruit” has already been harvested,
and at best you are waiting for more fruit to ripen.

4. Reaching the plateau of saturation is not a failure—it is the
inevitable result of successful, rapid multiplication.

Ephesus was an example of
saturation: “This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who
lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (Acts 19:10). The
Scripture doesn’t say they all believed, but it does say they’d all heard.

This plateau brings with it a
new challenge. Once the area has been saturated with the gospel and future
growth depends mostly on personal discipleship, we must ask: Are we done? Is
this the end of the movement? If not, what’s next?

To reach this point, disciples
have gotten good at making disciples, churches have gotten good at making
churches, and leaders have gotten good at making leaders. To transition past this point, movements
must now get good at making movements.
They have learned how to “pass on
what they know” (2 Timothy 2:2). They must now appoint people to be sent out
for the sake of the Gospel (Acts 13:2). New growth must be sought by
intentionally crossing borders. This will require movements to build the
capacity to send its apostolic types to new, unsaturated places.

This is the same challenge
everyone faces: will we choose to contribute to the completion of the Great
Commission, or will we be content in our own little niche of the world?
Everyone begins by focusing on their own “Judea and Samaria,” but eventually,
if we are to obey Jesus completely, we must go to the uttermost parts of the
earth. This is not just the domain of Western mission agencies—it is the
natural next step to which movements, too, must aspire.

By Justin D. Long.

Originally posted
Jun 24, 2020 at www.justinlong.org

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