Exponential East 2017 – my first exposure.

When my long time collaborator, Warren Bird, insisted we should both participate, I was willing. Warren’s advice on books has carried us through six titles and helped countless pastors. The late April 2017 event would be in Orlando just a couple of weeks after Baker Books released our new edition of “How to Break Growth Barriers.”
With Exponential.org on my radar, information began trickling in. Their web site told part of their remarkable story, and phone interviews with the leadership filled in more.
Exponential is led by Dave Ferguson and Todd Wilson. A multi-site church planter and a former nuclear submarine engineer teamed to reset the bar for church planting efforts everywhere. Together, they intend to move the current level (estimated at 4%) of congregations involved in new church planting to above 10%. And they are very effectively doing what must be done to make it so.
Their strategy is straightforward: engage as many church leaders as possible in a conversation that leads to an inescapable conclusion. Since congregations have a predictable life span, and age and die, more and more new churches must be planted or the Christian faith will be hard to find within a very few generations.
In my experience, the engagement in Exponential began with the web site visit. Those who opened the site were offered free short books on conference themes going back several years, with access to well written and illustrated papers.
A walk around the display areas during the event exposed one to an impressive array of organizations and publishers who support church planting efforts.
Every attendee was invited to participate in five main sessions with two or three inspirational speakers and contemporary worship music in each, and five workshop sessions, chosen from a menu of 150.  More than five thousand attended the event. The range of topics and quality of the presentations was excellent. The schedule, though rich, was time limited, so that participants could take evenings for family outings at nearby attractions if they chose. And the final session included an altar time for anointing and prayers that benefited hundreds of church planter leaders.
Two main conferences and several regional ones put the Exponential emphasis within reach of much of the nation. The free downloads and modest enrollment fee make participation an easy decision. Exponential’s teams of staff and volunteers facilitated every aspect of the event very impressively. Good seminar design, well executed by highly motivated and capable teams, made the experience a delight, from bonus preconference sessions to the main event.

The God of Samuel spoke again

Dave and Louise Okken just celebrated another wedding anniversary on Facebook. They were in our church in Gainesville, Florida. His father, Paul, returned from Rwanda for medical treatment. Since missionaries are heroes in my family, meeting him was high on my agenda. He told of a twenty five year career, operating a trade school for the black citizens of Rwanda, followed by a recent burst of church planting activity.

How does a missionary work for more than two decades and suddenly, in the past five years, plant fifty churches?
I wondered if he had become Pentecostal, but as he was a Baptist, might be unwilling to admit it.
His story went back further than Pentecost, to a young Jewish understudy to ancient Israel’s high priest, Samuel. He heard the voice of God and received instruction he would follow to great success.

Okken, alive in our time, told of a day when he was driving on a mountain road, overlooking a valley filled with cooking fires from resettled refugees from the civil war in the Congo. He groaned in his spirit, with a burden that an evangelist would feel: “What’s to become of all those people?” He heard a voice from the empty front seat: “Ask Me for them.” Startled, he tried to ignore what he thought he might have heard, and drove on down the road.
At another curve, he once again caught sight of the valley with it’s scattered villages. Once again he questioned himself, wondering what was to happen to all those he could see. And once again he heard. very clearly, the Voice, instructing him to ask for their souls. Unsure of exactly how to proceed, Paul Okken prayed, then made a pledge: “Lord, in case this is You, I’ll go down and preach in that valley. If anyone responds, I’ll take it as guidance to return there to preach the Gospel further.”
He drove to the nearest village, preached Jesus, and saw eleven adults ask Christ to save them. Return visits followed, taking him from village to village, discovering pastors to train, until over fifty pastors were coming for training each week and returning to their villages to preach and lead village congregations. Eventually, his successors told me, over 200 churches were to be founded in that valley.
My response to Okken’s story was to experience a complete loss of peace. For weeks that followed, my wife would watch me pace the floor in our bedroom. She finally asked, “Why are you pacing the floor again? If you were doing what God has gifted and called you to do, besides leading and teaching this church, what would you be doing? My response surprised me more than her. “I’d be a church growth consultant!”
She asked what a next step would look like. I replied that I had no idea whatever, but that we could start by getting on our knees and telling God that I had heard Him, and that the next move was His. We didn’t know what to do next. “Show us the way, and we’ll follow it,” I promised.
The next day, just ten hours later, I was invited to Pasadena by Peter Wagner and John Wimber, to lead the Church Growth Department of the Fuller Evangelistic Association. I would spend the next 17 years teaching and consulting and coaching pastors in over a hundred denominations.
The God of Samuel, and of Paul Okken, was still speaking, and could be relied on to clarify a call and give guidance where needed.