The Myth of Multiplication, Part 2

In the first installment of this series, I challenged the popular notion that the church expands primarily through multiplication. Multiplication is the exponential growth that would be generated by highly committed, self-replicating followers of Christ. If every disciple were rigorously trained to make two or more disciples every few years, then the whole world could be evangelized in a few decades. Multiplication is a nice theory, but it doesn’t seem to work in practice. After a few years, the zeal for disciplemaking wanes; the enterprise sputters and runs out of gas. It is very difficult to find historical examples of intentional, self-replicating Christian discipleship successfully converting a city, generation, or culture.

If multiplication through discipleship training is not the primary engine of church growth, then what is?

Jesus commanded his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). Yet the biblical record shows that after Jesus issued this command, the apostles did not intentionally implement a program to convert nonbelievers. The first thing they did was to join together in worship and prayer to await the coming of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:52-53, Acts 1:14). On the day of Pentecost, the supernatural activity that accompanied the Spirit’s arrival caused a bewildered crowd to gather (Acts 2:6). In response to their questions, Peter stood up and began to preach the gospel (Acts 2:14). His listeners were cut to the heart and asked the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Three thousand were baptized that day (Acts 2:41). This rapid expansion of the church was not produced by Peter’s superior evangelistic methods, personal courage, charismatic presence or persuasive words. It can only be explained as a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

In the days immediately following Pentecost, church members did not focus their energies on deliberate evangelism. Rather, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). They shared their belongings and gave freely to anyone in need. They worshiped and prayed in the temple courts and ate together in their homes (Acts 2:43-46). This joyful, faithful, exhuberant community life in the presence of Christ caused the church to grow organically: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

On many occasions, the Holy Spirit led the apostles to preach to nonbelievers (Acts 3:11-26; 8:29; 10:1-48). The early Christians took advantage of God-given opportunities to proclaim Christ wherever they went (Acts 8:4). But a deliberate, systematic effort by the church to convert people to faith Christ seems noticeably absent until the Antioch church, under direct leading by the Holy Spirit, sent out Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2-3). The Apostle Paul proved to be a specially gifted evangelist and missionary, planting churches in key urban centers throughout the Roman Empire. Yet in none of his epistles does he ever issue a general call to any church to embark on evangelistic expansion or church planting. He recognized that God has called some individuals to be evangelists (Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 4:5 ). But in his writings to various churches, his main concern is not that the congregations multiply their numbers, but that believers maintain their devotion to Christ, love one another, and live good, productive, godly and holy lives in their communities (1 Timothy 2:2, 1 Thessalonians 4:11, Titus 3:14).

In The Rise of Christianity (HarperOne: 1996), sociologist Rodney Stark attempts to answer this question: “How did the obscure, marginal Jesus movement grow to be the dominant religious force in the Western world in just a few centuries?” Drawing upon all available historical records, he estimates that in the first three hundred years after Christ, the church expanded at an average rate of about 40 percent per decade, or just under 4 percent per year. Compared to other religious movements, this rate is not exceptional. (For example, Mormonism grew at approximately the same pace during its first century.) What is remarkable is that the early church was able to maintain this steady growth for such an extended length of time. If the Jesus movement comprised just 1,000 members in the year 40 A.D., an increase of 40 percent per decade would produce nearly 34 million Christians (about 56 percent of the entire population of the Roman Empire) by 350 A.D. This same rate could not continue indefinitely; it had to slow during the second half of the fourth century as the pool of potential converts dwindled. Growth at 40 percent per decade to 400 A.D. and beyond would have been mathematically impossible, as the number of Christians would have soon exceeded the population of the world.

How was Christianity able to sustain this growth? Writing as a sociologist, Rodney Stark does not attempt to construct theological explanations. Rather, he describes the empirically observable social processes by which the numbers of Christians increased. The picture that he paints is not of one disciple making another disciple in his own image, who in turn makes another disciple in his own image, and so on. Conversion and discipling of individuals did happen, of course. But religious movements — and Christianity is no exception — can only grow if they learn how to inhabit the complex webs of social relationships that exist among members of families and communities. He writes (p. 20):

The basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and interpersonal attachments. Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semiclosed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks, able to reach out and into new adjacent social networks. And herein lies the capacity of movements to sustain exponential rates of growth over a long period of time.

Imagine a fledgling, close-knit community of believers who, in sharing common life with one another, create such strong relationships with one another that their ties to the outside world become weakened. Suppose they develop their own cultural habits, speech patterns, standards of dress, etc. which clearly set them apart from the rest of society. As their community grows and develops, they build organizations and create their own institutions (e.g., schools) to perpetuate their beliefs and values. With vigorous and intentional effort, members reach out to non-members and attempt to bring them into the fold. But when the occasional newcomer arrives, he is trained and transformed so thoroughly that he can no longer strongly identify with his family or native community. Can such a movement succeed over the long term?

In short, the answer is, “No.” Social movements can sustain long-term growth only when they spread through preexisting social networks. Stark writes (p. 56):

Religious movements can grow because their members continue to form new relationships with outsiders. This is a frequent pattern observed in recruitment to religious movements in modern times, especially in large cities. Many new religions have become skilled in making attachments with newcomers and others deficient in interpersonal attachments… Movements can also recruit by spreading through preexisting social networks, as converts bring in their families and friends. This pattern has the potential for much faster growth than the one-by-one conversion of social isolates…

Sustained growth of Christianity over its first three centuries was possible because the living faith of the apostles was allowed to freely adapt and contextualize itself into the various people-groups of the Roman Empire. One description of how the early Christians lived is found in an ancient letter (Letter to Diognetus) written about the second century. It paints an amazing portrait of an incarnational people who live as citizens of God’s kingdom while remaining firmly grounded and connected to their native cultures:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life… With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in… And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through… Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… they live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.

In the next installment, I will describe some other unexpected processes by which the early church grew.


  1. Joe, I hope this is a many-part series; it is quite good reading. And it is related to something God has been showing me the past 8 years: dialogue and relationships are critical to the church. My walk of faith became stagnant and nearly non-existent here in Detroit, except for a few visits to conferences now and then. I can see a major factor is that I no longer had a dialogue. Other people put up walls; I myself started building walls around my life.

    God, however, has been opening many dialogues in the past 4 months. It has been a most exciting time for me. My personal journey of faith has suddenly “turned a corner”, so I can begin to see the abundant riches of God. I see that I must also “dialogue” with the faithful authors and preachers who came before me, through their writings.

    I see dialogue as a powerful element of Jesus’ life, conversing with God in personal time away in prayer, conversing with the authorities of the time and with the crowds, disciples and even the outcast people.

    • Thanks, Brian. I too experienced rebirth when I began to dialogue with intelligent Christians outside of our immediate ministry. Much of that dialogue took place through reading books and articles and discussing them with my wife. I also participated in discussions on various Christian blog sites. I used to think that it was more productive to just spend most of my time reading and studying the Bible on my own. But ironically, when I deliberately put aside my own way of studying the Bible and engaged in lively, intelligent discussion with other believers, my Bible study was greatly refreshed. The Body of Christ is a living organism, and the parts need to connect with one another. No part can survive for very long without receiving and giving nourishment to the rest.

    • I too am putting aside the methods I’ve used to study the Bible for 24 years. Not because they are poor, but because my soul demands more nourishment. One example is that I am learning how to study a Bible passage without a question sheet. (Yes I know I am a heretic, but Amen!)

  2. GerardoR

    This is very fascinating. It would make sense with many of the efforts of the new world missionaries who often went straight to the village chiefs to get their permission to live among them. Very pragmatic.

    That letter by Diognetus is wonderful. Wonderful window into the work of the the Holy Spirit in the early Church.

    • GerardoR

      So going off from this article, what practical advice can you give to missionaries?

    • Yes, the Letter to Diognetus seems to describe my grandparents! They always seem to be just like everybody else, yet there is something extraordinary about them.

    • Gerardo, you probably are asking Joe, but my primary advice to any missionary would be this: Learn the incarnation of Jesus. Learn the reasons why Jesus adamantly demanded his disciples to not tell people he was the Christ, yet clearly answered when asked. Learn the way he engaged the Jewish society by attending a wedding, giving them wine when they needed it.

    • Based on these insights, this is what I would say to anyone engaged in same-culture and cross-culture discipleship: Help disciples to follow Jesus in their own natural environment, rather than trying to pull them out of that environment. Train disciples and help them to find their identity in Christ, but don’t over-train them so much that their previous identity is lost and their family/community ties are severed. Disciples must come out of lifestyles that are truly sinful, but we mustn’t try to change them in ways that are unnecessary and not clearly mandated by the New Testament. Overtraining disciples makes them weird and severely limits their influence in the world, and in the long run it inhibits church growth,

  3. Joe,
    I’m loving this series so far, and I feel that it is especially poignant for me, where am I am in my life.

    I used to be a firm proponent of the ‘multiplication’ principle, and I don’t mean to brag, but I’m pretty sure I was the “model second gen”. I went fishing every week, woke up at 4AM for daily bread and prayer, and wrote weekly testimonies, the whole she-bang. But I had no ‘sheep’, no disciples. I thought the problem was that people were not receptive to the word of God. The fields were not ripe for harvest. Never did I question the ‘multiplication myth’.

    Fast-forward to the present: I am currently travelling and studying in the Middle East–alone. Travelling alone has taught me many things. But most important are: 1. be open 2. trust God. I’ve been in so many situations where I’ve just had absolutely no idea what to do. I never would’ve gotten out of those situations if I hadn’t been open-minded, trusted God, and taking leaps of faith. Cases in point: impromptu trips to Cairo (12 hours in a van with 2 strange Egyptians and 2 strange Mexicans), and to Hebron (with a girl I had just met at the bus stop). And I believe I’ve touched many more people this summer than I may have in my entire active life in the ministry, simply by being open-minded and trusting God. Those 2 ‘strange Egyptians’ turned out to be struggling Christians, who were amazed that I was not afraid of travelling alone in Egypt. The 2 Mexicans turned out to be seminary students who were scared sh*tless about travelling in the Middle East, and who were headed to Istanbul. I put them in contact with some of my friends in Istanbul, and I believe this made a huge difference in their travels. The girl I met at the bus-stop and went to Hebron with? We had a long conversation over lunch about Truth–much more candid than any conversation I’ve had with any student while ‘fishing’.

    I’m not telling these stories to show off. I’m just amazed because whereas it once seemed there was a lack of potential ‘sheep’, now that I have changed MY attitude it seems like there are people EVERYWHERE who are just waiting to be touched by the love and light of Christ.

    And it’s not just here. I’ve met more Canadians and more people from Toronto (my home city) who have shown genuine interest in studying the Bible here in Israel than I had back in Toronto! I now find sharing my faith a natural step after simply loving people with the love of Christ. Doors are opening up everywhere, and I feel like all I’m doing is living my life.

    My key verse going into this trip was Galatians 5:25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” People often ask me, “Isn’t Christianity so restrictive? There are so many rules!” And I reply, “Nope, it’s all about freedom.”