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Viral Churches – multiplying church growth through church planting networks

Many thanks to Wiley for providing me with a review copy of Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers by Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird.

The central argument of Viral Churches is that church planting alone is not enough to accomplish the mission of growing the church so that it reaches every people group and every slice of society in every country. We need “church multiplication movements,” movements capable of sweeping across entire countries.

Stetzer and Bird begin by explaining what they mean by “multiplication” and how it relates to church planting (chapters 1-3). According to them:

“A church multiplication movement is a rapid reproduction of churches planting churches, measured by a reproduction rate of 50 percent through the third generation of churches, with new churches having 50 percent new converts.” (5)

So, church multiplication is more than just church planting. It is church planting that is also intentional about building multiplication into the DNA of the new churches so that they go on to plant churches of their own. And, they argue that only this kind of aggressive multiplication will provide the growth that the church needs to be faithful to its mission.

“To achieve such momentum, churches would need to plant, on average, a new church every two years with each church reaching at least half of its attendees from the unchurched community.” (116)

And they point to examples demonstrating that such growth is possible. Church multiplication, then, is “the much-needed alternative to inward-focused or addition-based church planting”(6).

From here, Stetzer and Bird discuss successful church planting and building church-planting DNA into new churches (chapters 4-7). They argue that the best predictors of success in church planting lie in recruitment (attracting the best people), assessment (making sure they’re a good fit for church planting), and deployment (getting them to the right places). They also discuss the importance of quality training and effective networks/mentoring for church planters.

Chapters 8-10 focus on assessing several other strategies for building the church: house churches, multi-site churches, and big, rapidly-growing churches. They do a nice job identifying the strengths of each approach along with some significant weaknesses.

The last few chapters are a bit of a hodgepodge. Chapter 11 discusses the role of funding in church planting. According to them, the research suggests that networks and denominations should fund qualified church planters, but that too much funding creates dependency and undermines creativity. Chapter 12 argues that we need new “scorecards” for assessing church health, ones that emphasize spiritual vitality and church multiplication. And chapter 13 offers a nice assessment of obstacles to developing these kinds of church multiplication movements, along with proposed solutions.

Overall, the book is worth reading at least for its statistical information and for Stetzer and Bird’s familiarity with what significant churches and church planting networks are doing today. I also appreciated the emphasis on building missional DNA into churches from the very beginning. We tend to forget that what we teach first tends to stick best. When we focus on developing stability and maturity at the beginning of a church plan, we often communicate inadvertently that these are our highest values. And, they offer a number of good suggestions for what contributes to successful church planting.

I do have a few criticisms. First, I always find it annoying when someone claims that their approach to ministry is “just the way they did it in the Bible.” Stop it. We all say that. And we’re all wrong (to an extent). The first century church operated in an entirely different context. We cannot and should not try to do ministry exactly the way they did. We should learn from them, of course. But simple emulation is not going to cut it. And, Stetzer and Bird also miss the fact that church planting had to be the approach of the early church. There weren’t any churches. So, of course they went around planting them. We can’t simplistically move from they did X to we should do X. It’s going to take a bit more nuance than that.

I was also troubled by a subtle pragmatism throughout the book. They repeatedly referred to things we should do because they work, with little reflection on whether we should do them. For example, they emphasized the importance of planting churches in micro-groups (niche groups, slices of society, etc.) because socially focused church plants grow faster. But this, of course, bypasses a whole raft of concerns about whether this is the best way to be the church in the world. Pragmatism cannot be the driving force of ecclesiology, though it often is.

Third, they expressed an oddly ambivalent attitude toward educating church planters. They repeatedly emphasized the importance of training church planters and even stated at one point that “We need more seminary-trained church planters” (116). Yet, they routinely highlighted the accomplishments of “unpaid local amateurs” (53), who did not have “university degrees” (55), and they associated seminary training with the rise of stagnant institutionalization in the church (171). This ambiguity may stem from their argument that we need “two tracks” in church planting: the more established, well-funded, trained, and professional church planter and the amateur. They seem to think that the first is important, but they really went out of their way to highlight the success and importance of the latter.

Finally, I wasn’t excited about their approach to discipleship. They clearly believe that discipleship – or, more appropriately, leadership development – is a vital aspect of the church’s mission. But, they say very little about how we make sure that this happens in the context of a rapidly growing and highly decentralized movement. They seem to think that quality formation will simply happen if we’re preparing people to multiply new churches. But, that just isn’t the case. There’s far more to spiritual formation than just the leadership skills necessary to grow a movement. Evangelicalism will remain “a mile wide and an inch deep” as long as this is our exclusive focus for growing churches.

To conclude, then, Viral Churches is very helpful for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary church planting movement, offering some good thoughts for how and why we need to continue moving forward in accomplishing the church’s mission. Despite some significant drawbacks, it would definitely serve as a useful starting-point for a discussion on the nature and mission of the church in the world today.

(Wiley books are available at your local bookstore or by calling 1-800-225-5945. In Canada call 1-800-567-4797.) (They told me I had to say that.)