Many years ago, David Garrison identified rapid multiplication as one of the universal characteristics of a church planting movement. Since that time, the rapid advance of the gospel has been a key value for many in the missionary enterprise, both in terms of many people coming to faith quickly and in terms of churches reproducing other churches quickly.
Some have gone so far as to consider rapid multiplication a normative expectation in mission work. Others have feared that the stress on rapidity would lead to a focus on quantity over quality, even to the point that those pursuing rapid movements may neglect biblical elements in discipleship and church formation for the sake of speed. So we need to ask ourselves what we should think about rapid multiplication in the spread of the gospel.
“Rapid multiplication is never promised in the Bible. The fact that something is possible does not make it normative.”
Rapid Multiplication Is Biblically Possible
First, we must be clear that rapid multiplication of believers and churches is biblically possible. In Acts 1, the company of believers in Jerusalem numbered 120. By the end of Acts 2, God had added 3,000 to their ranks (a growth rate of 2,500 percent in one day). Steady growth of the church in Jerusalem is noted on several occasions (Acts 4:4; 5:14; 6:7). Although the evidence is ambiguous for subsequent church planting movements in the cities evangelized by the apostles in the book of Acts, it is still clear that the gospel advanced in a remarkable way in the first generation after Pentecost. Certainly, nothing in the New Testament rules out the possibility of rapid growth. It may get uncomfortably messy, but rapid multiplication is not unbiblical.
Rapid Multiplication Is Not Normative
On the other hand, rapid multiplication is also never promised in the Bible. The fact that something is possible does not make it normative. There is no promise anywhere in Scripture that if we do things right, or if we have enough faith, God will grant that people come to faith quickly or that churches will reproduce quickly.
Furthermore, rapid growth was not the consistent experience of the apostles in the book of Acts. Think, for example, of Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16–34). Paul may well have left behind only one church in some or all of cities he evangelized. In his letters, after all, he wrote to the churches in Galatia (which was a region, not a city—Gal 1:2), but to the church (singular) in Corinth and in Thessalonica (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). The letters themselves read most naturally as addressed to a single church in each city.
Furthermore, after Acts 4:4, actual numbers of new believers are not given. As most New Testament churches met in homes, it is likely that these initial churches were not large. Indeed, the picture we get of early church history is one of steady, rather than dramatic, growth over a period of three centuries before Christianity overthrew the pagan order of the Roman world.
Nothing in the Bible or in church history guarantees that we will see speed in the growth and reproduction of churches.
“Nothing in the Bible or in church history guarantees rapid multiplication, but it is something we should desire.”
Rapid Multiplication Is Something We Should Desire
However, gospel urgency makes rapid multiplication something we should desire. We believe that all people everywhere need salvation. We believe that everyone in the world is justly condemned before God because of their rebellion against him. Left in their sin, everyone is headed toward eternity in hell separated from him. We believe the only way of salvation comes through hearing (or reading, or seeing signed) the gospel of Jesus Christ and responding in repentance and faith. There is no other way.
Furthermore, we recognize there are literally billions of people in the world today who have no access to this gospel. They have no hope unless those who know the gospel get it to them. We are convinced that the best way to get the good news to those who have never heard it is for new or established believers and churches to reproduce themselves through gospel witness and faithful disciple making. Our passion for the glory of God in the gospel and our love for our lost global neighbor compels our desire for the gospel to advance as rapidly as God will bless.
In practical terms, then, what does this mean? On the one hand, we must avoid any extrabiblical practices that impede the advance of the gospel. We will pray, mobilize, send, and work to get the good news to as many people as we can, as quickly as we can with biblical integrity.
On the other hand, we trust that God knows best how he wants his message to advance, so we must never compromise any biblical command or standard in the interest of speed. In particular, we must never water down or soften the content of the gospel itself, or offer worldly substitutes (such as any form of prosperity teaching), simply to get a bigger response.
Additionally, we must never reduce discipleship to training in reproduction. We must never value evangelistic or leadership gifts over the other spiritual gifts that God has given his body. And we must never neglect or postpone any of the biblical structures or functions of the church (see “The 12 Characteristics of a Healthy Church”) for the sake of rapid reproduction.
When we faithfully do the right thing but do not see rapid results (which is often the case in many parts of the world), we must persevere in working hard, working smart, and trusting God. When it comes to the speed of the advance of the gospel and the multiplication of churches, we must marry urgency with integrity and not sacrifice either for the sake of the other.
Zane Pratt is the vice president of global training for the IMB.