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.

Lifting the curtain on a spiritual battlefield

Our plans and hopes for moving forward were dashed by the stagflation of 1973. The project adviser explained why, and my stomach shut down. Four days later, I discovered I was in a fast, without knowing when it might end. My associate, Elmer Rund, retired USAF, and one of the most godly men I ever knew, said I could preach that weekend without breaking the fast.
After the last morning Service, I was called to my study, where one of the largest women I have ever known was waiting, with her husband. Staff had found her wandering about the campus, muttering and peeping, unresponsive to questions. She was known to me as a confessing Christian, and worked for a Christian day school as a bus driver. Now, semiconscious, we could all hear a conversation coming from her mouth, using several voices, alternatively cursing and threatening us. It was a scene worthy of “The Exorcist.” The voices responded to my questions with threats and taunts. We silenced them with the authority given to us by Christ, sent them away, and found a reasonable person controlling her body to complete the session.
That was the opening of a twelve month window that involved twenty different persons and a crash course in demonology and deliverance. Through hissing and screeching demon voices we learned that our work was being carefully watched and opposed in families and many neighborhoods. We learned that every passage in the Bible that described such experiences was helpful and needed. We found contemporary authors whose experiences were similar. The year came to a close only after a retired missionary from Japan observed our conflict and showed us how to escape the frequent entrapment.
It was a year of learning the usefulness of fasting, of the power of Christ over the evil, and the need for daily practice of prayers. It was a year of preparation for the much wider ministry that was soon to come, as we were called to Pasadena to undertake in-service training of thousands of pastors. The subject would be Church Growth. The reality would be beyond any set of propositions we might convey through lectures.

Truth is not enough; Endorsement required

As a young minister, unproven but zealous, I would wonder about claims my fellow ministers would make about Our Movement.

They referred to us as “the most effective church planting” group in our State. That claim was made so often, I began to wonder how they ever came up with that.  If it were so, if we were the best there was, our State really needed help.  If it were not so, we needed to amend our ways and become more intentional about sponsoring new churches.

Some of the numbers were close at hand.  We were a fellowship of nearly 120 churches.  We were currently sponsoring six church plants.  Therefore, it took 20 of our churches to start a new work?  If new churches were underwritten for three years, we should be able to count seven new works every year. But we had not started even one new work in nearly a year. Hmmm.

The data was not all easy to come by.  The Internet and Google were not available yet.  I travelled to repositories at phone companies and eventually had photocopied the yellow pages of every phone book in the State.  I counted every church similar to our kind that had listed a phone.  Obviously ethnic ones were counted as of their own type. The big denominations were tallied separately from the unaffiliated ones.  And, of course, our movement was there, as well.

And what about that big denomination against which we compared ourselves? They had nine hundred churches and over one hundred new church-type missions. It only took nine of them to produce a new church!  It would be really awkward to embrace data that said we were not even half as good as the people we said we were better than.

I conceived a plan for data sharing, that would not draw negative conclusions from the data, but just post the data, often in a crude infographic form.  I made up “fact sheets” that I duplicated and attempted to hand out at the door as our fellowship meetings began.

Few pastors would even take one from me.  I puzzled over their lack of curiosity, smiled at those who took them, and went undaunted into the next information search.

About six months into this apparently fruitless effort, the chairman, from the platform, unbeknownst to me, held up one of my earlier fact sheets and quoted from it, saying it had been prepared by “our fellowship statistician,” and that it was time we carefully considered its implications.

The next meeting, every pastor who came through the door reached for a fact sheet.  Some even smiled.  I was amazed.  Endorsement. Wow.

I did not realize it was the beginning of the end.  Within the year, I would be called to Fuller, where my next seventeen years of ministry to pastors and denominational leaders would build on interests and skills I did not realize had been already in use, in preparation in those local fellowship meetings.  I had begun before I started.

Starting before I began…

When my mentor, Peter Wagner, discovered Dr. Houts’ article about spiritual gifts in a 1976 Eternity magazine article, which included an inventory or test to identify ones gifts, he immediately saw its usefulness. Based on a simple premise, Dr. Houts had asked readers to report their previous experiences, arranged under topics called out in the New Testament as “spiritual gifts.” To the extent they reported positive experiences, readers were asked to examine those areas closely, because what they experiences was the result of unrealized giftedness. Peter Wagner added a few more of the gifts listed by St. Paul, and the Wagner-Houts Questionnaire was born, and with it a host of look alike inventories.
Before we begin to use our gifts, which we recognize to be from God, we have already started using them, consciously or not. My experience with church consulting and racial reconciliation were found working together even before I was conscious of either.
While still in post grad studies at the University of Florida, as a sociology student, I was approached by a black pastor from Ocala, who led a study group of black pastors while he worked on a degree in sociology. Since my church had high visibility, this pastor asked that he be allowed to bring his study group for a time to understand how to lead their congregations more effectively. One of my professors at UF heard of it and strongly endorsed my participating in this way. I took my staff intern, Ross Juneau, and we embarked on a voyage of discovery. We conducted group sessions and also went into the field with these pastors. We had become church growth consultants and racial reconciliation advocates before we knew we were. Those themes continue forty years later. We had stumbled into ministry, unsure of ourselves, but the fruit was good.
Now, using this knowledge – that many gifts of the spirit are experienced before they are recognized – I continually seek to affirm gifted behaviors in rising leaders, knowing that such affirmations can encourage them to become aware of and therefore to utilize their gifts more intentionally in ministering.

Two profound questions that help leaders

I was early in my appointment as Director of the Church Growth Department at Fuller Evangelistic Association. Travel to all parts of North American by airplane was frequent. Occasionally, due to overselling of seats, airlines would move passengers to suit their purposes. I always booked tourist fares, walking past first class seats to find my more economical place.
But on one flight, heading into Hartford, CT, I was placed in First Class, next to a large man in an obviously expensive white shirt.
He was open to conversation, and my interest in him and his work opened a window on his world. He traveled to develop the most promising salesmen in his insurance firm into top producers. He and they were very effective.
When I wondered, out loud, how he achieved such outstanding results, he offered to share his secrets, since I viewed my work with pastors in a similar light. With his permission, I opened my notepad and recorded his two most persistently used questions. These have been profoundly helpful questions that have enriched my coaching of leaders for nearly four decades.
“First,” he said, “I ask them repeatedly to tell me what they were trying to do.” After a time, after asking the question in a variety of ways, he explained that the question helps to focus the sellers. Then he moved to question two. “I then ask them to explain to me how they are getting in their own way, as they try to do what they say they are wanting to do.”
The genius of these two questions has helped many church leaders and group leaders, wherever I have been able to use them.
They even help me, when I remember to use them myself, on myself.

Exponential East 2017 in Orlando FL April 25–27

Over the past five years, one organization has called church planting leaders from many denominations to any of five annual events.  The largest such event is set for April 25-27 in Orlando. The purpose of these gatherings is to energize church planting efforts. They encourage the planting of churches that will commit to plant churches! One of their keynoters, Ralph Moore, has stimulated the planting of 2300 churches!
I have agreed to participate as a workshop presenter for two topics: one to explore the challenges of church plants based on four decades of observing them and their leaders, and the other to offer a glimpse of some powerful tools that are useful in healing the shattered souls of church planters so as to overcome their spiritual handicaps and increase their effectiveness. See my page at www.exponential.org for details.

How to Break Growth Barriers, useful for a generation, gets an update

In the early years when teachers in the Church Growth Movement trained pastors for effective leadership, I organized a series of seminars that focused on the issues faced by lead pastors at each size they would encounter on their growth path. We produced “Breaking the 200 Barrier,” then “…the 400 Barrier,” then “…the 800 Barrier.”
(Along the way we wrote the ultimate barrier clearing books “Prepare Your Church for the Future,” and “The Coming Church Revolution,” followed by a how-to manual for group leader development “Nine Keys to Effective Small Group Leadership.”)
We recorded my presentations at these seminars and Warren Bird transcribed and edited them into a book. That book.”How to Break Growth Barriers,” has been in print for over two decades, and the publisher, acknowledging the continuing benefit it was to leaders in the churches, asked us to revisit it and release an updated version for 2017.
Much had changed over the twenty two years, including the widespread appearance of megachurches, video venues, multi-site churches, the World Wide Web, email, smartphones, ebooks, Google, eBay, PayPal, Amazon, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the social media scene. Yet, in spite of the marvelous tools technology has made available, the challenges faced by church leaders continued to haunt them at each scale of congregation size. Baker Books will formally release the 2017 version on April 4. It will be announced on twitter feeds of our friends and acquaintances. And, yes, it will be available in paperback and ebook. [book page]