If it doesn’t bear fruit by this time next year, “cut it down.” These are the words Jesus said regarding an unfruitful tree (Luke 13:9). We see language like this throughout the New Testament; in God’s kingdom, there is an expectation of fruit and multiplication. In fact, the sign of God’s blessing is new life and new fruit.
In the most general terms, a healthy church is either multiplying or moving towards multiplication. However, the goal for our churches isn’t simply multiplication; the goal is healthy multiplication.
Here is the challenge: sometimes we feel this pressure in our churches to multiply at a certain rate. Why? Because other churches in our denomination or network are rapidly multiplying. Maybe our church is seven years old and we haven’t planted another church yet. So, we compare ourselves to the plant that’s only three years old and they’ve already planted a new church, or they’re already multisite. We feel like we’re behind or that we’re not keeping up with the expectations with what it means to be successful in the church planting world.
Then we hear the statistics that if we don’t plant another church in the first five years, the odds are we never will. This only adds more pressure.
To be sure, there is a time and a place to be pushed and stretched. If we wait until our church is completely healthy and everything in the universe lines up perfectly, we’ll never plant.
However, perhaps what’s worse than not planting churches is planting a church that’s not going to be healthy. This happens far too often. People get hurt. Planters get burned out. Churches fail.
There is a better way. We see an example of healthy multiplication with the church at Antioch (Acts 11:19-26; 13:1-3). At least three principles are worth noting.
1. Healthy multiplication is dependent upon prayer, fasting, and waiting.
In Acts 13:2–3 we read,
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (See also Acts 14:23)
We see this refrain throughout Acts and the early church’s multiplication: the centrality and necessity of prayer. Pastors, whatever we are strategizing in terms of moving forward with a plan for multiplication in our churches, nothing is more essential than prayer.
We need less strategic meetings and more prayer. We need less church planting manuals and more prayer. We need fewer books and seminars and more prayer. If we want healthy multiplication, we don’t simply need people, money, and strategies; what we really need is the power of God.
The early church waited until they had heard from God, and the way they heard from God often involved prayer. They prayed and they waited.
Healthy multiplication takes time. Healthy multiplication requires patience. It may slow things down. We may not “keep up” with the other churches in our networks. Yet, when we wait upon the Lord, we often receive clarity. This is where there is wisdom. This is where there is power and health.
2. Healthy Multiplication is Led by the Spirit.
Acts 13:2–4 teaches us about the Spirit’s role in the church of Antioch’s multiplication efforts:
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. (emphasis added)
As the church is multiplying in the book of Acts, the main character is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God was not a distant deity that was merely theoretical; the person of the Holy Spirit actively and decisively led the early church in all of their efforts to multiply.
There are so many helpful, practical, church planting resources, but we cannot underestimate the role of our pneumatology (our theology of the Spirit) driving our missiology. We’re not just after mission: we’re after Holy Spirit-led mission.
Yet because of all of the pressure we sometimes feel to plant and multiply, it’s so easy to get in front of the Holy Spirit. But church planting is too big; the stakes are too high; people’s marriages and families are on the line. The name and honor of Christ’s church in a city is what we’re talking about. We must not go into these deep waters unless we know the Spirit of God is leading us there—at the right time and with the right guy.
3. Healthy Multiplication Happens with Men Who are Called by God.
The Spirit of God didn’t just lead the early church to particular places; He led them to and raised up specific men who were called by God.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2)
What’s worse than not planting churches is planting a church with the wrong guy.
As one of my ministry coaches told me years ago, the church planting road is filled with a lot of dead bodies along the way. There’s any number of reasons why so many church plants don’t make it, but perhaps one of the reasons is that sometimes men are being sent out who are talented, charismatic, and ambitious, but they aren’t called by God.
Many of our churches will attract a number of men who want to plant a church. If we’re not careful, we’ll assume that just because a guy has the ambition, that means “he’s the man.” But just because he has the look, the talent, the theology, and can quote Keller, that does not mean he’s called by God.
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it in his book Preaching & Preachers,
We do not thrust forth labourers, [God] does so; and all we do is to pray to Him to send them forth. In our carnal zeal and enthusiasm we often deem it to be our business to call people to tasks in the Church, and we do so in different ways. We suggest to our men that they should enter the ministry, or preach or teach. How scandalous this is!
This doesn’t mean that we don’t try to identify men with giftedness. This doesn’t mean we don’t invest in specific guys in whom we sense the Lord is at work. Yet, at the same time, we have to remember that God tends to call the most unlikely of candidates, just as He does in the church more broadly (1 Cor 1:18–31).
The most gifted, bright, articulate guy in our church may be the last guy in our church that we need to send out. But the guy that’s in the background that’s not really standing out . . . he may be the man upon whom the Spirit of God is going to rest and give great power.
So we must answer the question: Is this our guy, or the Holy Spirit’s guy?
Again, this kind of discernment takes time. In this prayerful, discerning process, undoubtedly we should look for humility in the potential candidate. Is this a brother who often questions or stays frustrated with the elders because they’ve not sent him out yet? Sometimes we look for the most eager guy in the room that’s beating our door down wanting to plant, but Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt 23:12).
This certainly doesn’t mean it’s sinful for a guy to have ambition. Paul writes, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1, emphasis added). Yet there should be a humble ambition, a meek aspiration.
There are some things worth waiting for, and planting a healthy church is one of them.