Fixing the Church Scale Problem
Are you asking the right question?
Like many of you, I have sat in innumerable Christian leadership meetings over the past quarter century. We’ve discussed many issues, raised many questions, and identified and solved many problems. But one question remains curiously absent, regardless of church size or denomination. I have served in a variety of churches, yet have not heard the elephant in the room addressed— How do we build a church model that is scalable?
No matter how we package the metrics, the current model of the Church in the West is incapable of scaling Kingdom growth at a rate that can keep up with (let alone advancing beyond) population growth. In America, for example, the national percentage of people attending church is declining. Even if the American population grew by just one person each year, we would still be losing the battle.
Globally, a massive amount of money is invested yearly in supporting a methodology that is failing to do its job and is breeding unhealthy competition between leaders. The soaring costs are both financial and human—pastor compensation, insurance, building costs, an army of volunteers, and so forth. All this is before anyone walks through the door or turns on a smoke machine.
Contrast this against the model the early church employed. It was agile and decentralized; it could adapt quickly to cultures and contexts; and it empowered people to bring God’s presence right where they were. The people of the early church faced immense persecution and had no church-growth model to reference, yet they seemed to resolve the scalability conundrum with relative ease, and as a result, they grew exponentially.
In light of this, we need to ask new questions about our activity, approach, and attitude to the Great Commission mandate. Scalability is not an easy topic to bring up, especially when the majority of Church culture is holding conversations around survival. But, it is long overdue. We need to give scalability a seat at the table. My wife, Julie, and I have been looking scalability in the face for years, and we have found a way forward—a way that works, that makes sense and is capable of sustaining exponential growth.
In recent years, we have witnessed a growing movement of hunger in countries around the world. We believe this is the next move of God: a decentralized move of hunger for intimacy and the expansion of the Kingdom. This global awakening of hunger is forcing us to ask this same question, “Are our current methods scalable at a rate necessary to truly advance the Kingdom of God, considering the growing global population?” We are increasingly convinced that a tectonic strategy and structure shift needs to take place in the forms and functions of the Body of Christ. We believe this move will happen through what we call Kingdom Micro-Communities.
When God tore the temple curtain from top to bottom at the death of Jesus, God’s presence was forever let out of the confines of a religious structure. No longer would people be required to go to a centralized, geographic location at a particular time or perform rituals and make sacrifices to be close to God. Now, the proximity of God came to people through people. The new temple of God—built in the hearts of His people—became mobile.
In the new covenant, God created the possibility for exponential scalability when He filled His people with His Spirit. We get to make exponential scalability an actuality when we choose to become the traveling representation of His presence. Paul says, “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16 NKJV).
As His children, we now get to be His presence to the people who do not yet know His love. We get to be His presence anytime, anyplace, and with anyone. It is not dependent upon church board approval, a church budget or program, or a worship service timeslot. Paul also says, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16 NKJV). We get to be mobile temples, bringing encounters with God’s perfect love to people right where they are.
I believe groups of believers who live like this, decentralized as Kingdom Micro-Communities, are God’s strategy for revival. In Acts 2:42–47, we find a picture of a Kingdom Micro-Community, and it is very simple. That is what makes it scalable. In a Kingdom Micro-Community, God links people together in relationship with Himself and each other; people encounter God’s love through the celebration of the sacraments and worship; God activates a deeper belief in people’s hearts about who He is through prayer and the gifts of the Spirit; and people deliver God’s love to others. The result is daily, scalable growth.
Such Kingdom Micro-Communities are decentralized in strategy, form, and function. They operate as a robust framework of interconnected relationships in which they seek to empower one another into the fullness of their callings to release God’s love upon the earth. This relational structure is not built on power, control, or authority, but on empowering people to love in humble service toward others. As a result, they can jointly release the present sound of Heaven upon the earth anytime, anyplace, and with anyone. As Holy Spirit joins with their own spirits, they become the vehicle of divine communication between Heaven and earth.
If this seems impossible or improbable, you’re not alone. We thought it would be, too. We had to overcome internal obstacles in our hearts that could have paralyzed us with fear or cynicism—issues like finances, teaching, worship, and ministries for children and youth. But our biggest hurdle was control. How would this work if I was not able to control ministry outcomes? I had seen many such movements come and go, most not outlasting their first year, so the thought of lessening control left me feeling very insecure.
Our first step forward in addressing these obstacles required a clear directive from Jesus. He told us, “The primary metric of success will be an encounter with God’s love. Build a platform and system that is fast in its response, nimble in its approach, and very, very good in its execution.” This directive addressed the primary way I measured success prior to the shift toward Kingdom Micro-Communities: budgets and butts on seats. I would spiritualize it, of course, but ultimately, I sought to control outcomes for the sake of my own ego. The new metric Jesus gave me fueled the courage I needed to confront the remaining internal issues, and it became the genesis of Anothen Global Ministries, a network of these Kingdom Micro-Communities.
Our first step was to establish a not-for-profit organization and a board. As we looked into decreasing our overheads to accommodate the new model, it became clear we no longer needed a building, so we sold it. We also realized our staffing needs would change. We switched from having salaried staff to contracting staff on a project basis. We set up online giving and decided, because every believer is responsible for the spread of the gospel, that each month each Kingdom Micro-Community would pray about how much of their tithe money they would keep in their group to use as a resource for delivering God’s love to those in their spheres of influence. The remaining tithe monies would come to the centralized not-for-profit.
The resources from the sale of the property enabled us to pivot our systems and structures and build on an existing App Platform to create high-quality, easy-to-access content. We developed a system for leadership reproduction, support, and span-of-care, and we also created online eLearning training material designed to raise up leaders to coach our Kingdom Micro-Community leaders. In this way, we created a system to support sustainable growth. When a new Kingdom Micro-Community began, we already had a training system in place to train up an emerging leader in that group. When the time was right to birth a new Kingdom Micro-Community, the leader with the Anothen DNA was ready.
We encouraged all groups in an area to gather corporately once every four to six weeks for celebration, encouragement, and corporate worship. All of this began to grow organically. We saw growth—spiritually, personally, and numerically— without all the trappings we had become used to and believed we needed. We were excited, because we felt we had addressed the elephant in the room—we had begun to answer the question of scalability.
But the big question of control remained. What would happen if someone went off the rails? What would happen when someone behaved in a way that required discipline ? How would we keep people in check? Our answer came while reading Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. We realized two things. First, Jesus knew Corinthian-style churches, where people sinned all over the place, would exist, but He gave the Great Commission anyway. Second, Paul addressed multiple problems within the Corinthian church, but we don’t have a record of those problems being resolved in Scripture. Some of those situations probably ended with people leaving the church in anger, even though Paul wanted to restore them. Despite that, the church survived. People still are not perfect, but Jesus isn’t afraid of people’s sin. Once we understood that, a genuine culture of freedom emerged.
As our structures, forms, and functions shifted, we realized that each Kingdom Micro-Community was distinctly different in expression, in meeting time and day, and in demographic. Some were started by our existing congregation; others were started by people we hardly knew. Interest from people in other nations began to pour in, and in the space of two years, we had established Kingdom Micro-Communities on three continents. We are now in the process of translating our leadership eLearning training into multiple languages, and the greatest discovery of all is that people are indeed encountering God’s love at depths we haven’t seen before.
I maintain regular contact with people in Kingdom Micro-Communities close to where I live, but I haven’t met the majority of people involved in Anothen around the world. Seeing people encounter God’s love in multiple contexts—without any effort from me to control outcomes—has shown me that building a culture of freedom in love, not control, empowers people to run. (I still have my days, of course; I haven’t worked this out perfectly.)
The beauty of Kingdom Micro-Communities is the simplicity of their process, which makes it possible to carry encounters with God’s love into any context. From homes, to offices, to farms, to cafes, they can function anywhere in any culture. They don’t require a celebrity to draw a crowd. They don’t need cash for a building. And they don’t breed an unhealthy culture of competition. They are fueled by a culture that empowers people to operate in the fullness of who God made them to be.
We are entering an important moment in history that will mirror, in part, the dynamics of past revivals. Whether it is the scattering of the early church under Roman persecution, the viral spread of the Protestant Reformation, or the impact of contemporary underground churches, we can see a pattern of organic and decentralized growth.
The Covid-19 Pandemic accelerated the change in this direction. Churches have adapted technology to facilitate connection. People no longer focus on large gatherings, but must seek connection in smaller, more intimate communities. This moment right now is providing a unique opportunity to ask a new question, “Is it scalable?” If you have the courage to allow it, this question will lead you toward the development of Kingdom Micro-Communities, in which common people, the mobile temples of God, begin to live in God’s love and release encounters with His love wherever they go.
What question are you asking? Does it address scalability? Don’t fool yourself: It will take courage to ask it. Now is the time for the Church to scatter into Kingdom Micro-Communities and trigger revival. This is history’s hinge moment for our generation. Here is my challenge: Make a place for the elephant in the room before it destroys the relevancy of your activity and the energy of your people. God’s people are hungry, desperately hungry. With or without you, their hunger will fuel an organic global revival that will change not only the Church, but also the world. God has made it possible; will you make it actual? The time for waiting is over.
Mark Appleyard’s passion for church growth and church planting began in his first ministry position at Townsville and District Baptist Church Queensland Australia in 1995, and has been honed and developed in over 20 years in five different ministry contexts including Worship Pastor at Townsville Baptist Church Queensland Australia, Worship Pastor of a Baptist Church Plant at Robina Queensland Australia, Senior Pastor of Village Church Melbourne Victoria Australia, Church Planting as Campus Pastor of Crossroads Church in Waxhaw North Carolina United States, and now Founder of Anothen Global Ministries Inc.
Learn More at www.anothen.co
Mark and Julie Appleyard / Rethinking God with Tacos PODCAST / Rethinking Church
Risk, trust, pioneering and a church built upon encounters with the transformative love of God, this podcast is an invitation to rethinking church.
From the traditional to a micro church model, Mark and Julie share their journey of pastoring.
Today, through Anothen Micro Church, they empower believers around the world to become influential spiritual leaders in their homes and communities.
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