The Myth of Multiplication, Part 1

If you’re as old as I am, you might remember this annoying TV commercial from the 1970’s.The executives who came up with this ad imagined that, if each satisfied customer convinced two of her friends to try the product, then sales would go viral, and soon every woman on the planet would be using Fabergé Organics shampoo.

Did that happen? Of course not. In retrospect, the idea that consumers would, simply by viewing this commercial, be transformed into an aggressive and unpaid sales force was preposterous. This ad may have sold a few bottles of shampoo to desperate young women who were willing to try anything to have hair like Farah Fawcett and Heather Locklear. But the brand didn’t experience anything like the exponential growth in sales that this commercial envisions.

Ever since my college days, I have heard a similar idea promoted as the best, indeed the only truly effective, strategy for evangelizing the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The idea is that we can carry out the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20) only if we put aside addition and intentionally strive for multiplication. Rather than trying to convert large numbers of people to become nominal Christians, we need to focus our efforts on making a small number of zealous disciples who will make more disciples, who will make more disciples, and so on. These disciples that we make cannot be those typical, average, low-level churchgoers (a.k.a. “cultural Christians” or
“Sunday Christians”) but an elite force of highly committed, well trained, well disciplined, self-replicating apostles. Then, in a few generations, voila! – the Great Commission has been fulfilled.

In his classic book The Master Plan of Evangelism (first printing in 1963), Robert E. Coleman makes a compelling case that this was the strategy envisioned by Jesus himself, his “master plan” for reaching the lost world. Over the course of Jesus’ three-year ministry, the gospel accounts show Jesus paying increasing attention to the twelve apostles. Among them, he places special emphasis on three (Peter, James and John), and among these three he shows special love and care to one (Peter). Jesus didn’t focus on a small number of apostles because he didn’t care about the world. Rather, he did it precisely because he loved the whole world and he knew that the strategy of multiplication was the surest and most effective way to evangelize the planet.

Yes, it is true that Jesus focused his efforts on a small number of highly committed disciples, and it was they who bore witness of his resurrection to the world. But does this fact canonize multiplication as the definitive, divinely mandated method by which Christ’s mission to the lost world will be accomplished?

A generation ago, many evangelicals would have said, “Yes.” Giving top priority to raising highly committed Christians who were passionate about sharing the gospel was the hallmark of 20th century parachurch ministries. The Navigators, for example, developed and practiced elaborate discipleship programs whose main purpose was to create self-replicating disciples. Dr. Samuel Lee, the founder of UBF (who credited the Navigators as one of his spiritual influences), emphasized one-to-one Bible study for the purpose of raising Bible teachers who would in turn raise more Bible teachers.

Ministries based on this idea did at first meet with some success. But most experienced a dramatic slowdown in growth during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and within the last decade those efforts virtually ground to a halt. Many disciples were made, and here and there a few still are being made. But the results have not come anywhere close to the wildly optimistic predictions of a generation ago.

Why didn’t the multiplication strategy pan out?

Here is one possible explanation: The present generation of Christians has lost its zeal. Ministry members became complacent, lazy, worldly, self-centered, and so on. If they just repent and recover the spirit of the ministry founders — their passion, dedication, boldness, and absolute obedience to Jesus’ world-mission command – then the multiplication strategy will surely succeed.

Perhaps that explanation has some merit. But many evangelicals are coming to believe that the basic idea of multiplication is unrealistic. My wife and I have been working through an excellent book published by NavPress called The Complete Book of Discipleship (2006). The author, Bill Hull, is a pastor and writer who was discipled by Navigators and Athletes in Action. Hull used to promote the multiplication doctrine. But on pp. 27-28, he writes:

As many writers and teachers have proclaimed, when all who become disciples make disciples through several spiritual generations, the result should not be reproduction (adding disciples one at a time) but multiplication (one disciple makes two, who make four, who make sixteen, and so on). I’ve heard sermons (in fact, I’ve preached a few) theorizing that if we just follow this multiplication plan, the entire world will be converted to Christianity in thirty years. That was more than thirty years ago.

In spite of how logical it sounds, this plan runs aground repeatedly on the rocks of human frailty and ignorance of how people really change. We must admit that this mathematical formula has never worked in any broad way. It might have limited success in controlled environments, but it would be wrong to claim that multiplication has worked to the extent of reaching whole cities, cultures or generations.

There’s nothing wrong with making disciples of Christ. In fact, Jesus commands us to do it. The key question is: What are these disciples supposed to be doing? Should they be singlemindedly devoted to making more disciples? Or should they be focused on something else?

In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

A disciple must be taught to do everything that Jesus commands. And Jesus commands us to do a whole lot more than just making disciples. Hull notes (pp. 29-30) that the New Testament records 212 commands of Jesus. These commands can be summarized in three simple principles:
1. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.
2. Love your neighbor as yourself.
3. Love your enemies.

Faithfulness to the Great Commission requires a kind of discipleship whose primary goal is spiritual formation that produces the inner fruit of the Spirit manifested in loving relationships. When Christ and his love are present, the church sees growth that is natural and contagious. Hull writes (p. 28):

The principle behind discipleship does involve one person influencing another, which does result in a change in heart and mind. The success of discipleship doesn’t depend on soldiering forward in a mechanical strategy of reproduction and multiplication. And discipleship doesn’t involve developing a well-trained, elite sales force. Rather discipleship occurs when a transformed person radiates Christ to those around her. It happens when people so experience God’s love that they can do nothing other than affect those around them.

The heart of being a disciple involves living in intimate union and daily contact with Christ. Discipleship – the effort both to be a disciple and to make other disciples – is about the immense value of God at work in one individual’s life and the resulting impact on other lives.

In the next installment, I will describe some truly surprising, unexpected means by which the early church grew over the first three centuries. Stay tuned.


  1. I’m looking forward to this series of articles. Have you ever read “The Fuel and the Flame?” It’s being taught to students in my fellowship. I myself have not read it, but I’ve heard the presentation on it a few times already. One of the main focuses of the book is duplication. However, given that the duplication model isn’t nearly as effective as it used to be, I wonder if a book that stresses duplication isn’t becoming obsolete. I wonder how receptive one who was teaching from “The Fuel and the Flame” would be to alternative methods of evangelism. It always did seem to me that there had to be more to it than just cranking-our disciples, who will in turn crank-out more disciples.

    • Hi Oscar. No, I haven’t yet read The Fuel and the Flame. Looking at a few pages on, it seems that this book lies squarely in the tradition of classic (20th century) discipleship literature, rooted in the modernist evangelical missions tradition. Although there is much good in this, there are many faithful Christians from other times and traditions who have viewed missions from very different angles.

      The problem with multiplication/duplication is that our world and our culture are now changing at a very rapid pace. One generation may figure out how to contextualize the gospel and raise disciples in a particular time and place. Having some success, they proceed to develop systems, formulas and programs to churn out disciples in the familiar mold. But by the time those systems are in place, the culture has changed and the mold has become obsolete. We really, really need to develop our personal relationships with Christ and learn how to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit afresh in each generation.

      But even in earlier times, multiplication/duplication was not the main mechanism by which the church grew. Scripture and ancient church history tell a different story.

  2. Emily Francis

    Yes, yes, yes.
    I have serious problems with pyramid scheme evangelism.

    It does not work as even a get-rich-quick scheme. Why would we apply it to our spiritual life and work?

    The problem with pyramid scheme evangelism (you raise 12 disciples and they each raise 12 disciples) is the same problem with pyramid schemes. Your success is dependent on the success of the people beneath you. So raising disciples becomes a high-stakes gamble.

    Is this person the one? The one who will stay? Who will accept mission? Who will grow? Who will marry? Who will devote their lives to doing this too?

    Which eventually becomes…is this person worth this amount of time? I don’t think they will stay. I don’t think they will be bible teachers. This isn’t what they want. And along with this is enormous pressure to find new disciples who will work in your chain of discipleship.

    It stops being about teaching people who Christ is, how to love and worship Him with your life, how to love each other. The results can’t be the work. It can’t be in numbers. When God wants the world evangelized, it will be. Is there any spiritual benefit in praying to raise up 120 disciples versus raising up one person to know, love, trust Christ and to live a Christ-centered life each day? One that is full of meaning and joy?

    And what if you never raise up a disciple? Do you just not love Christ enough? What if that is not God’s role for you in His great plan? What if you have planted seeds in thousands of people that take root later on in their lives? Is your spiritual life a failure?

    While I see the passion and desire to serve God with great numbers, I also see the human thinking behind those kinds of thoughts. If that is how God thinks, it seems to me that Jesus’ ministry would have looked a lot different.

    • Wise words from Emily. This is one of the reasons why the man=mission idea can lead us astray. If people are for mission — nothing more, nothing less — then why have a relationship with anyone who doesn’t contribute to the mission goal and strategy? Gospel mission must be motivated by love. And the object of real love must be a person, not an idea or cause.

    • Emily, thanks for your comment. I think another thing that’s wrong with duplication, at least as I’ve experienced it, is the notion that my experiences must mirror that of the person who is trying to form or “shepard” me. This “cookie cutter” phenomenom is very stressful, in my experiences anyway. I was constantly made to feel that I had to do such and such this and that way and any deviation from that either wasn’t genuine or good enough. When one focuses so much on one way of duplicating then they become blind to other methods that may be more effective for that particular individual. Also, it doesn’t take into account that God just may not have that thing planned for that particular indivdual. 1 Corinthians 12:28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? This method of duplication focuses on just making people teachers, when not everyone is meant to be one.
      In all honesty I’ve never fished and taught, so I speak out of ignorace of the experience of actually teaching someone in this way.

    • Thank you for commenting Emily! I am so happy to hear from articulate Christians such as yourself.

  3. Thanks, Joe, for the article. I realize that my mindset as a Christian for several decades has been predominantly mission, multiplication, duplication, and numbers. My inner state of mind as a Christian totally fluctuated like a yo-yo based on the number of those who came (and participated) or didn’t come: to church, conferences, fellowship meetings, weddings, events, number of 1:1 Bible studies carried out, etc. I felt/thought like a businessman, a conquering (or defeated) warrior, or a successful (or failing) CEO of a small company. It was really such an “unhappy Christian life,” which is an oxymoron.

    Alan Hirsch, an Australian missiologist, in his book, The Forgotten Ways, speaks of the early church in Acts and why she exploded, and explains why the gospel is expanding in China, Asia, S. America, but not in the U.S., Europe and the “civilized” world. Looking forward to your subsequent articles.

  4. Andy Stumpf

    I recently spoke on Hosea 2 at a conference in Kingston, and I tried to address a similar theme in the message. If anyone is interested in looking it over and giving feedback, here’s a link to it:

    • Andy, I just read your message on Hosea. I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged to see you and your thought process in the message. We need to see more of this kind of preaching. How was it received in Canada?

      Truly, we are married to God, and then called to His service in specific contexts, not the other way around.

      Oh, and I definitely say “I do!”.

    • Hi Brian, I think it was received well overall. Some initial reservations as it does not follow a typical message pattern used in our ministry, but everyone who spoke to me said it was refreshing (obviously going by the people who spoke to me is a pretty biased sample though). I was really glad to give this message as I have observed many people who are in a spiritual desert because we don’t know how to have real intimacy with God (including very much so myself) and I think it’s time to radically change this and go deep in pursuit of a vibrant living heart to heart connection with a God who longs to be with us. I want to live my life out of the power of the presence of the Living God, not out of habit or routine, tossed around by this or that demand. I want to learn to gaze on the beauty of the Lord (Ps 27:4) and live fascinated with this truly utterly fascinating One who by His grace has called us in Christ.

    • Andy, I say AMEN and AMEN to all of that! We really need to explore new ways of delivering sermons. We need radical change. I’ve been studying sermons from my grandparents’ pastor. He is out in a country village in Ohio, but he preaches with such fervor and love for God and for people.

  5. James Kim

    I agree with Joe that gospel mission must be motivated by love. Evangelism and numerical growth should not be mechanical response to God’s grace. Indeed it is God who has heart desire to call everyone to come to him in repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”. But the problem is with us when we respond poorly to his mission, not knowing his mind and heart of God. David Bosch said in his book, “Transforming mission” that “Numerical growth is nothing more than a byproduct when the Church is true to its deepest calling. Of greater importance is organic and incarnational growth”

    • Dr. Bill

      As I perused this article and comments, it occurred to me that God does think in terms of numbers, but not necessarily the way I might :). For example, God wants “all men to be saved”, which clearly is a numerical statement. :) In another place we read “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.” Here we see numbers too, in this case “the full number” (not “all”). So I do not think it is wrong, or somehow unscriptural to think in terms of numbers – clearly God (and we!) want everyone to be saved. If you accept this as the goal, then the question of “how” becomes important – how do we go about evangelizing “all men”. Much discussion in ubfriends has centered on this question from a constructive perspective, which is a good thing.

      My 2 cents. :)

    • James Kim

      Hi Bill. You must be very proud of Jessica, of her great job in yb and her going to nk.

    • dr. bill, just met your daughter in NK. Seems like she’s doing a good job teaching students there!

  6. I had not considered disciple-making in light of a multiplication or addition theory, but it is most helpful to consider. Did Jesus intend his disciples to multiply or to add? In one sense, it is a bit confusing, because the word “multiply” exists in Genesis 9:7. I can see though, that the direction to be fruitful and multiply is a different concept altogether. Scripture seems to most often use multiplication in regard to what God does, as in Mark 4:8.

    Acts 2:41, Acts 2:47 and Acts 5:14 speaks of people being added to the number of believers. Even this was done by the Lord.

    The quote above is so telling: “…if we just follow this multiplication plan, the entire world will be converted to Christianity in thirty years. That was more than thirty years ago.”

    If a church wants to follow the multiplication/pyramid approach to making disciples, I think that church will have to become a lot like the Cybermen in Dr. Who!

    “Cybermen were originally a wholly organic species of humanoids originating on Earth’s twin planet Mondas that began to implant more and more artificial parts into their bodies as a means of self-preservation. This led to the race becoming coldly logical and calculating, with every emotion all but deleted from their minds.”

  7. This article was a helpful series to me in our ubfriends discussions. I just want to point out two quick updates.

    1. ubf has always approached discipleship with the multiplication-pyramid ideas. It never works. So the leaders in the pyramid end up resorting to severe guilt-tripping or obedience-pushing. Here is a slide from the 2010 ubf training material:

    2. Here is proof that the multiplication approach didn’t work. Over 50 years, ubf is about 8,657 members in total worldwide. And I really shouldn’t say “members”. The official member shepherds probably total far less than 1,000. Everyone else is just attending.

  8. This post deserves much more discussion, since ubf teaches multiplication as a justification of their performance-based culture.