One counter-intuitive aspect of disciple making movements and simple churches is that the process is non sequential. There’s nothing wrong with sequential thinking, in its proper place, it’s a very powerful way to think, but it’s not the best way to think for every kind of process.

The kind of multiplicative, church planting, and disciple making, that we’re talking about is not an area where it’s the best way to think. We need to learn to think more organically, more holistically in a systems fashion, rather than a linear sequential fashion.

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For example, we might be tempted to think of this process as going something like this: first there’s prayer; then pre-evangelism; then evangelism; then discipleship; then church planting; then leadership development; then reproduction or something along those lines.

There’s a very well known mission agency that coaches its people in a process that looks almost exactly like that. They have a checklist at each phase that they’re supposed to complete and then advance to the next phase of work.

The problem is, that moves along fine until they get to the church planting phase, and then there’s a bottleneck. It stacks up in more and more and more of their teams get stuck on that phase without ever getting to the leadership development and reproduction.

I could talk a lot of time explaining why that’s the case and showing specific examples of it from them. Suffice it to say, that you just create barriers you later have to overcome if you insist on doing things in a sequential fashion strictly.

For example, how might it happen in a different sequence. In many places there are a lot of oral learners in the world, and one approach with oral learners is to get them into groups that follow this 3/3 format that we’ve talked about. In those groups, they study the Bible together even as non-Christians. It’s a good idea in those groups to have it be a rule that you can’t come hear a new story until you have shared the previous story.

In other words, the participants (the non-Christians), participating in this storying group are already serving as leaders. They’re being developed as leaders in forming new groups, second-generation groups, and then often those are forming new groups, all of non-Christians. Though they’re not churches, they are multiplying groups, reproducing groups, developing leaders, and then they are discipled through that process into evangelism.

They study the Bible together even as non-Christians.

It’s almost backwards from the sequence that we originally talked about and in a very real sense you can start anywhere in the process. The point is you realize that all of it needs to be done and you’re doing all of it in a way that’s consistent with the end product that you want to see. You want to see these groups that have close relational ties, that are reproducing in other groups, developing leaders, disciple, and so on.

It doesn’t have to happen in a specific order, in fact, there’s a rather famous example in western Christianity of this. John Wesley was a missionary from England to North America and he did not come to Christ until he was on his way back to England. On the ship back to England, he was led to Christ by some Moravian missionaries on the same ship. He catalyzed an entire movement of Christians before he himself was converted. There’s no reason that it has to happen in a specific order.

spiritual generation diagram
Spiritual Generation Diagram

There are some other ways that we can look at this too. In this diagram, for example, you see these three different lines, all of them cover the timeline from a person’s birth till death.

(1) On each of them, there is a (1) and that (1) indicates when they first hear of Christ, or they first hear the gospel.

(✝) The cross indicates when they come to faith, when they submit themselves to the Lord.

(m) Then the (m) indicates when they start engaging in ministry.

In the first line, that’s something like we might view as normal in most of our churches. Someone hears about the gospel and sometime later they convert, then sometime later they start engaging in ministry when they’re fully mature.

What we’ve talked about with the duckling principle is that we can always move that point of multiplication (m) right up next to the conversion (✝). As soon as someone is converted, immediately they start doing ministry. We have complete control over doing this, over making this the expectation, over equipping and training people to do this, holding them accountable for that. That greatly shortens the timeline because in a very real sense.

The length of time from the first time they hear (1) to the point they first multiply (m) determines the average length of a spiritual generation. That is roughly speaking the length of a spiritual generation.

We can significantly shorten that timeline from the first line to the second line and you’ll remember the chart over 10 years for average reproduction rate. That same thing would apply to a disciple as to a church. If we can change from 18 months to 4 months in 10 years, that’s the difference between 64 disciples or a billion disciples. It makes a huge difference. Moving that (m) right up next to the conversion (✝) has a huge impact.

In some cases — not in every case — it’s possible to move the first point of multiplication (m) before conversion (✝).

For example, in these storying groups I talked about, you can get non-Christians doing ministry before they’re converted. If we can do that, that even shortens the average spiritual generation even further, so they may have multiple generations of people that they are in a sense discipling before they ever come to faith. It’s kind of like the situation with Wesley.

If we’re not trapped by this sequential thinking we’re looking for every opportunity possible to shorten that average generational length. It has a huge impact. This can even happen in places where the soil is very hard. Every culture is different in terms of how easy it is to lead someone to faith … that is the distance between the one and the cross.

If we’re not trapped by this sequential thinking we’re looking for every opportunity possible to shorten that average generational length.

We can’t do a whole lot to impact that issue, but if we can move the (m) right up after the one then the average spiritual generation can be greatly reduced even in places that have hard soil.

This is a really important concept, we can always, because of the duckling discipleship, move the (m) up to the (✝). In some cases, we may even be able to move it up right after the (1) through seekers Bible studies and so on.

A lot of people just really resist the idea of this happening so fast. They’ll say, “Jesus spent three years with his disciples.”

Yeah, but he didn’t wait three years till he was sending them out doing ministry!

Very shortly after he called them, he was already sending them out to do ministry. He modeled and assisted and then he entered the watch phase very early in his ministry. Most of his ministry time, he was watching them.

Jesus didn’t wait three years till he was sending them out doing ministry!

Of course, he was continuing to teach them new things. The process continues after they start doing ministry. Ministry isn’t graduation, it’s initiation in a sense. Most of his three-year time was watching them. At the end of the three years, he left. That’s when he was in the leave phase.

This involving people in ministry from the very beginning, that’s exactly how Jesus did it, that’s how Paul did it. He would appoint elders and leave right after they came to Christ.

On that first missionary journey, Paul appointed elders from the brand-new converts. There’s no waiting to do that. Paul writes to Timothy later and says don’t appoint a new convert as a leader, but he’s saying that in the context of Ephesus where Timothy was at the time — the best trained church.

But in pioneer areas where everyone is a new believer, in a new house church where everyone is a new believer, it’s absolutely appropriate to have new believers already doing ministry … already leading others in whatever they already know. That being one step ahead in that duckling process.

We need to break our pattern of restricting ourselves to a linear sequential process as we pursue this goal.

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More Multiplication Concepts

This concept is part of the “Multiplication Concepts” series by Curtis Sergeant. Consider working through the entire series and challenging someone you know to do it with you. See an entire list of the concepts in the article titled “Multiplication Concepts”.

This same concept is taught in the Zúme Training course using video animation and is translated into 40 languages. This concept is taught in “Expect Non-sequential Growth” in session 9.

Zúme Training is an on-line and in-life learning experience designed for small groups who follow Jesus to learn how to obey His Great Commission and make disciples who multiply.