Exponential Christianity

I’ve been thinking about how to make an impact on the world. I think we all want to affect our world. For most of us, it’s what drives our choices, maybe not day-by-day but at least over time. Naturally I want to have a large impact as quickly as possible. But I’ve begun to wonder if my impatience itself is keeping me from truly having an impact.

As David French said in a recent article on his blog TheDispatch.com, “We can have a large amount of influence over a small number of people and a small amount of influence over a large number of people.” His statement caught my attention, in light of my recent musings over my personal calling. More than just how to make an impact, I’ve actually been thinking about my expectations about that process. Am I trying to have more of an impact than I should? I wonder if I should be prioritizing a shallow but broad influence, or a very deep but focused impact.

I suppose a visualization of this principle would be helpful. Consider this illustration, showing that I might pick anywhere along that red line – but it’s not practically possible to be in that lower right corner, for deep and broad influence.

In his article, French was talking about “the wounds that politics cannot heal” in this Advent season, musing on politics and relationship, and how we survive our holidays and relationships together with those who disagree with us. I suppose I am feeling a different direction to that concept than he seems to have intended. I’m thinking a bit more specifically about the way that many of us tend to view our influence in our church spheres.


I was in my teens when the megachurch movement began to explode into the public awareness in the 1980s. Large churches had existed for generations – consider the size of massive medieval cathedrals, basically a city-wide church in any such location. But the recent megachurch movement began to develop and truly refine this praxis, and to attempt to collect believers into massive organizations. There was a sense that bigger organizations could do the work of the Kingdom faster and more efficiently than many small, intimate assemblies.

Although many Christian thinkers and leaders have decried these megachurches over the last 40 or so years, it’s my opinion that the rise of the megachurch nonetheless effectively drove some thinking about church structure across Western Christianity, even for those churches which did not (or could not) adopt the scale of megachurch.

Much has been written about the “right” size of a church. Some advocate strongly for the “house church” model, arguing that the New Testament descriptions of churches point solely to small groups of believers, and supposing that is the only proper size of an individual church. Others dispute these conclusions, and suggest that the best way to affect a community is a large church with far more resources available to it. Others, of course, simply work with what they have available, and usually wish they could influence more people with a larger congregation and more resources.

I’m not persuaded that house churches are a prescriptive model – that is, that the Bible commands small churches. However, at the same time I am persuaded that human dynamics in large churches or large groups of people tend to undercut how effectively we can carry out certain Biblical requirements.

It might appear that I am caught in the middle of these arguments – not necessarily small churches, but also not necessarily large churches – but I wonder if the question “what size should a church be” is the right question at all.

Scriptural Structures

Before I consider what the right question might be, I’d like to review what I see as the essential functions of Christian relationship.

Much has been said about the five-fold ministry described in Ephesians 4:11-16 (NASB), which says:

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

This ordering of Christ’s gifts to His people has long been used as a prescriptive model for ministry. There are certainly other roles understood to exist in church ministry, such as in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and Philippians 1, which spell out the qualifications of elders and deacons and overseers (bishops).

Note that some denominations believe that the roles of apostle and prophet ceased with the end of the writing of the Bible. Also note that Christ gave the five ministries, and the apostles implemented the other three in response to the natural challenges of handling large numbers of believers.

At any rate, to me the assumption seems to be that as long as these roles exist appropriately within a grouping of believers, the body will automatically build itself up in love.

As a consequence of this assumption, there is also an implicit assumption that these roles must be formalized and individuals assigned to – or anointed to – or recognized to function explicitly in – these roles.

As a further consequence of the assumed formality of these roles, it seems to me that there must be a formalization of a church structure along with the roles. It also seems to drive a certain size requirement – one must have enough people with these “giftings” within a body to be considered a church.


Contrast this with the Jewish model of a synagogue, as I discussed in “Small Groups and Synagogues.” No formal training for synagogue leadership or membership was necessary, just the minyan of at least 10 adult Jewish males coming together, usually in small settings and members’ houses to study and worship. I postulated that such a model was understood implicitly by the Jewish writers of the New Testament, even as they described how the nascent Church should function. And even as the five-fold ministry was identified and the added roles of bishop and elder and deacon were created, the description of meeting “house to house” implied that the apostles did not intend to upend this model of living in close community.

So it seems to me that there is a bit of a disconnect between our Western expectations of a formalization of church structure, and the expectations of the New Testament authors. I’m not arguing that formalization is wrong – just that it’s not necessarily required for the building up of the body.

Rabbis and Relationships

Moving beyond structure, I’d like to consider the expected scale or size of these groupings.

Jesus’ most basic command for evangelism began with the imperative to go and make disciples of all men, in Matthew 28:16-20. To the crowds that followed him, His language was often saying that “to be my disciple” required certain things. So at some level, Jesus’ discipleship language was inviting masses into following His teaching pragmatically. The term “disciple” was therefore broadly used to refer to anyone who followed Jesus’ teachings.

But what is a disciple? We certainly have a modern Western understanding, usually deeply steeped in our church traditions, usually involving small group ministry and Bible study efforts.

Consider that the model that Jesus chose to adopt in His time on the earth was as a rabbi, a trained and studied spiritual leader in Judaism, who became a rabbi specifically by ordination from another rabbi under whom he studied. Any given rabbi only had a handful of rabbinical students; it was considered a great honor to be a disciple of a rabbi.

Generally, there are six occurrences in the Old Testament of the word translated in Isaiah 50:4 as “disciple,” the Hebrew word “limmud,” other times translated as one who is taught, or one who learns, or one who is fully accustomed to something. A good and practical Biblical example of this intimate relationship is Elijah and Elisha, often cited by Jewish rabbis as a model for rabbinical discipleship – and interestingly, Jesus was specifically referred to or identified with Elijah. Other such examples might be Moses and Joshua, based on Jethro’s suggestions in Exodus 18, and Jeremiah and Baruch.

Similarly in the New Testament, we observe the intimate relationships between mentor and mentee such as Paul and Timothy, which is even typified as a father/son relationship. Paul consistently uses language regarding the replication of his own character in Timothy.


In other words, Jesus was living a model of self-reproduction, where those who become His disciples would be expected to have their own disciples, thus passing their full knowledge and character to their followers. “A disciple’s goal was to gain the rabbi’s knowledge, but even more importantly, to become like him in character. It was expected that when the disciple became mature, he would take his rabbi’s teaching to the community, add his own understanding, and raise up disciples of his own.” (Lois Tverberg, Listening to the Language of the Bible: Hearing It Through Jesus’ Ears.)

What’s interesting about this rabbinical model is that anyone in Jesus’ context hearing the word “disciple” would immediately have understood that a rabbi’s disciple would be expected to set aside the comforts of home, his position in city or town society, and all his plans and agendas, to go literally sit in the dust at the feet of the rabbi, live an itenerant life as the rabbi traveled from town to town teaching about Torah, and serving the rabbi’s physical needs. While undoubtedly a great honor, it was not some lofty position, and it was definitely not some purely book-learning exercise. It was total physical and mental devotion to becoming a disciple and learning everything possible from the rabbi, with an ultimate focus on reproducing the character and learning of that rabbi in due time.

It wasn’t pleasant, but it was a supreme honor to be accepted as a student of a rabbi.

So when Jesus said “come lay down your lives and follow me,” nobody missed the entirety of His meaning. Anyone that Jesus called “disciple”, or He invited to become a disciple, knew the level of commitment involved.

As Westerners, with 2,000 years of church language coloring our thinking, we don’t natively understand the importance or seriousness of the term “disciple.”

So Jesus played on this existing framework in calling people to follow His example. And among many other things, His demonstrated example of growing His Father’s kingdom was a deeply personal and intimate relationship with just a handful of men, who He instructed carefully in the right way to live. Clearly His goal was to completely reproduce His own character in them, so that they might do the same to their own followers. And Jesus would have fully expected His disciples to expand upon His own instruction, based on His encouragement to them in John 14 – “greater works than these will you do” and “the Holy Spirit… will teach you all things” and in John 16 “He will take of Mine and disclose it to you” indicating that Jesus very much expected the Holy Spirit and the Father to extend and further His own work via His disciples – just like a rabbi expected his disciples to go beyond his own understanding.

The Problem of Size

Thinking again about the church model and the megachurch trend, something that becomes particularly apparent is that the larger a church becomes, the more the “pastor” becomes a CEO of sorts, responsible for managing a large organization more than discipling a small intimate group of followers. His focus must be on operations, more than relationships. Similarly those jobs of elder or deacon or teacher become managerial in practice, overseeing the processes of passing down information and developing or maintaining programs and resolving disputes, and many things other than reproducing their character in the lives of an intimate group of disciples. He can still disciple a few, but only a few in the rabbinical sense, and his time must be split between managing and discipling.

There’s nothing wrong with managing a corporation or leading a large organization through the natural challenges of the association of hundreds or thousands of congregants. However, I question whether these managerial roles can ever truly be a practical expression of the five-fold gifts.

For example, even if the lead pastor preaches every Sunday, it’s unlikely that this would constitute “teaching.” If you ask an actual school teacher what is required to teach, it always involves some element of direct dialog with the student, understanding their needs and limitations and comprehension, and then adjusting the teaching at an individual level. This can never take place on a Sunday morning.

Or even if the head of the organization is called the senior pastor, how feasible is it for this person to act as a shepherd who is truly meeting the needs of every single person in their care? With hundreds of “sheep”, can a shepherd even know their needs intimately enough to fulfill that role?


But thinking about expectations, for those of us who grew up into the Western church model, where the average church size is well over 100 people, we nonetheless consider the CEO to be our pastor and teacher. We certainly don’t usually consider ourselves true disciples of that person. In fact we often avoid that, because it feels like hero worship. Instead, we consider ourselves disciples of Jesus Himself.

But Jesus told His own disciples to “make disciples of all men.” I’d maintain that Jesus wasn’t calling them to make them HIS disciples. Instead, I suggest that He meant for them to make their OWN disciples.

More succinctly, Jesus was expecting His disciples to invite others to follow THEIR example, even as they followed Jesus.

Practically, I think we humans really need someone to follow, not just something to follow. It’s great to idealize the Scriptures about how to behave and think – but we need a model to show us what it actually looks like. It’s just how we humans work.

It’s Not Idolatry

I’m not arguing that anyone should claim the honor of having disciples of their own. Ultimately, I think we correctly call those disciples OF the disciples to be disciples of Jesus. After all, our goal as Christians is to fully and accurately model the character and nature of Jesus Himself, so if others become like us, they should become like Jesus as well. Our ultimate standard is Jesus, and our own lives are supposed to put on display in the earth the very nature of the Father.

So at some level, this is purely semantics. But I think it’s important semantics, in this sense: if we’re going to create disciples, I don’t think we can do any less than Jesus did, basically living and sleeping and eating with our disciples, knowing them intimately, and letting them know us intimately. They need a standard that they can reproduce, and trying to reproduce a book is far inferior to trying to reproduce a life that we see lived before us.

From this perspective, I don’t think that the leader of any sizable group of people can ever truly make disciples of all of their followers. I don’t think it’s possible to have more than a handful of true disciples. Even Jesus, the perfect man, only did it with twelve men. On that example, I have a hard time believing that any imperfect follower of Jesus could ever do a good job of discipling more than three or four others at one time.

And I don’t think the process can be fast. Jesus accomplished it in three years, and I have a hard time believing that any follower of Jesus could pull that off with excellence.

Scaling Back – and Expanding – Our Expectations

The problem that this creates becomes immediately obvious: it’s slow and laborious. If any given disciple can only create a few disciples at a time, and each relationship requires years, it’s going to take a long time to create any significant number of disciples.

But is it really that slow?

The earth presently has about 8 billion humans living on it.

If each disciple really truly creates four disciples every five years, that fully demonstrate the character and nature of Christ, and if each of those four disciples does the same with four of their own disciples, all 8 billion humans would be true disciples in just – get this – 90 years. Less than one century.

So what’s the roadblock?

True Discipleship Is Hard

The rabbinical model was HARD. A disciple of a rabbi was knowingly committing to living an itinerant lifestyle, basically living and sleeping with his master as he moved around the region, teaching and leading as they went. It was a full-on commitment. It was not like the early years of Jewish religious education, which were more like traditional Western grade schooling.

But we really would prefer an easy way out of the hard work – either as disciple or rabbi.

I think many Western Christians have largely adopted what I call “McDonalds Christianity,” where we want to pay someone $6 for a burger and fries. We don’t want to raise and kill the cow, or plant and dig up the potatoes; we want someone else to handle the hard dirty work for us, while we simply pay them out of our salary. In Christian terms, too many people say to the church leadership “you pursue the Lord about what we’re supposed to learn this week, you tell me if you see me sinning, you oversee the charity work and missionaries, and I’ll pay my tithes and feel good about doing my Christian duty for the week.”

Not many people want to undertake true discipleship. Sitting at the feet of the Rabbi, living in the wilderness, living on the charity of those the Rabbi serves, surrendering everything personal for the chance to study under the honored one and become like him… it’s costly, involving ones’ entire life. For this reason, Jesus was not exaggerating at all when He said in Luke 9:23 (NIV) “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”


This challenges me at many levels.

For one thing, I realize that I’ve never been a disciple. Not of Jesus. Not of any living human who accurately represents Jesus themselves.

For another, it’s scary. I find that I cannot imagine giving up everything for the sake of such a calling. No wonder Jesus said in Matthew 19:24 that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

For another, I inherently rebel at the idea that bringing others into the Kingdom requires this level of sacrifice. One cannot be a discipler if we’re not being a disciple ourselves. No rabbi ever became a rabbi without first becoming a disciple himself, and going through this process in full. There simply wasn’t a shortcut.

It’s interesting that Hebrews 5:8 records that “although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” We’re not given any context about this statement, and the Bible is very quiet on what happened from age 12 (when He demonstrated His wisdom and knowledge about the scriptures to a group of teachers at the temple) and when He appears again at age 30. There are 18 silent years there. But Jesus was acknowledged by many different people and levels of His society as a rabbi. This implies that he went through this full process of being a disciple of a rabbi himself, and I consider it very likely that some significant part of those 18 years was as a disciple.

Small Scale, Big Impact

So when I think about the impact of what has happened in Christianity over a couple thousand years of church history, it’s pretty clear to me – especially observing the last couple years – that we haven’t successfully reproduced all that many true disciples of Christ.

The model that we have – collecting hundreds of people into large organizations, weekly feeding them en masse but generally not affecting their lives the rest of the week – isn’t really working.

And perhaps it was never meant to work. Because perhaps it wasn’t what Jesus meant when He said “make disciples of all men.”

Ironically, if we’d fully adopted the model that Jesus demonstrated, it’s likely that the work of making disciples of all men alive at that time could have been completed well before the book of Revelation was even written in AD 95 or 96. When Jesus told His followers to be ready, that the end could come at any moment, it was still within the realm of possibility that the end of all things could occur within their own physical lifespan.

I am sure God knew this wouldn’t happen. There were many things that needed to be shown to principalities and powers, as mankind wrestled with its sin and against our enemy.

But that doesn’t change the math – we can still literally make disciples of all men in the lifetime of any single human! But it will require quite a different model than we’ve tried to use for the past twenty centuries.

Five Fold Service

Church, at least as we’ve tried to frame it and manage it, doesn’t seem to be working to create an accurate representation of the Father in time and space. And maybe the issue is that the five-fold gifts are not all that is necessary to become disciples in the deep sense that I’ve described above.

To reiterate, Ephesians 4 says the gifts were “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

What “work of service” is being discussed here? Is it to serve fellow (unsaved) man? Or to serve God? Given what’s we see about the rabbinical model of discipleship, and given the commission to make disciples of all men, I suspect it wasn’t about altruistically serving man or society, and it wasn’t about generically serving God. Rather, I believe it was about service specifically leading to discipleship. So the five-fold gifts are intended to under-gird the disciple-making process, and critically, they are “for the equipping” “until we all attain” – they are not presented as “all that we need to attain.” They’re support gifts, not the entire answer.

To put a slightly sharper point on it, those five-fold gifts, and by extension the roles of pastor and teacher and bishop or overseer, are designed to serve those intimate relationships. As I explored in my previous blog post “Small Groups and Synagogues,” the institution of church ought to serve discipleship, not the other way around.

Remember that Jesus’ own brother said in James 3:1 “don’t be so eager to become a teacher in the church.” The point of James’ entire letter was about service, about not aspiring to high position, but undertaking the hard work of maturing.


So I come back to this. “Church” won’t work, at least as it’s been done so far. It can temporarily spiritually feed and nudge people closer to God, but it won’t likely make many true disciples.

The only real answer to growing the Kingdom of Heaven is becoming disciples, putting the character of the Father on display in all its fullness, and then laboriously, and one-by-one, reproducing ourselves and thus His character in the lives of those intimate relationships that He gives us.

It sounds like hard work, and it will be.

But it will be far more efficient and productive than the 2,000 year slog that we’ve been trying so far. And it will truly result in a “harvest of righteousness” as the “fullness of Christ” appears in His Body.

Additional reading

Discipleship Lessons from the Old Testament

Discipleship in the Context of Judaism in Jesus’ Time

History of medieval religious practices

History of megachurches

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