by Dick Alexander
So what’s all the buzz about Exponential? What exactly is drawing more than 3,000 mostly young leaders to Orlando, Florida, each spring for three intense days?
What was known a few years ago as the National New Church Conference, drawing a few hundred church-planting zealots, has reinvented itself as Exponential and now attracts thousands. Its growth has been, well, exponential, and it’s attracting a lot of attention for good reasons.
FOCUS AND ENERGY
Exponential exists to facilitate church planting. It bills itself as the largest church-planting gathering in North America, with participants coming from dozens of different denominations. What sets it apart from many other types of conferences are its focus and energy level.
Similar to missions conferences, Exponential draws high-octane leaders. Many Exponential attendees are either about to plant a church or have recently done so.
Anxiety is a powerful motivator. This conference isn’t about fellowship—it’s about survival. The men and women who show up at Exponential are living on the edge and are hungry for help. This healthy fear fuels a high-energy conference.
If you noticed a marketing piece for Exponen-tial in your mail stack, you might not have realized it was for a conference put on by the Christian churches and churches of Christ. While the list of speakers includes some from this fellowship, the majority are a broad reflection of Christian leaders in America.
In fact, one of the things no doubt contributing to the rapid growth of Exponential has been its program of “A”-list speakers. The conference planners clearly have one objective in mind—to bring together the best possible collection of church planting leaders in North America, regardless of their denominational affiliation.
A result of the diverse personnel has not only been an outstanding program, but broad cross-denominational attendance. Exponential may not only be the largest church planting gathering on the continent, but it’s likely the best and most significant.
FUELING CHURCH PLANTING
I went with five of our ministry staff to Exponential ’09 in April. We found this year’s edition very stimulating, just as in prior years. Even in a hard economic period, we ponied up scarce leadership development dollars for this conference, and we weren’t disappointed.
The 2009 theme “The Art of Movements” captured the essence of Exponential, regardless of the year. It isn’t just about starting churches, but about fueling church planting movements.
In one sense, Exponential is a standard conference with a normal schedule of plenary sessions and workshop tracks. The uniqueness is the narrower focus, slightly edgier speakers, and an effort to make the event fun as well as purposeful. And an optional daylong smorgasbord of preconference “intensives” (offered at a modest extra cost) gave access to a wealth of church planting leaders and information.
Highlights? Erwin McManus, Craig Groeschel, and Francis Chan are can’t-miss speakers on any program. Their messages provided not only good content and strong motivation, but were also preaching clinics. Speakers in previous years have included Andy Stanley and Rick Warren.
The ethos of Exponential not only attracts speakers whom other leaders want to hear—it seems to draw out more from their souls than some other settings. The messages at this conference don’t always have the polish of some big-event messages. They seem more unfiltered. Maybe it’s the common bond of risk-takers.
A rich part of Exponential ’09 was the pairing in most general sessions of an American church leader with an overseas leader with whom they shared a ministry connection. (Ajai Lall and Derek Duncan were scheduled to share a session, but at the last minute, Ajai was unable to travel.)
While the international guests didn’t always communicate well with the largely American audience, their presence and their relationship with the American leaders made powerful statements in themselves, and stretched the church-planting community to think more globally.
The workshop tracks were loaded with nuts-and-bolts sessions—everything from leadership to marketing to small groups to facilitating multiethnic churches to engaging culture to leading movements. While the workshops (and the entire conference) are planned for church planters, the content is useful for anybody leading a church today.
Workshop leaders ranged from new leaders on the bleeding edge trying to figure out how to make church work to wizened veterans like Ed Stetzer, Larry Osborne, Jon Ferguson, and Alan Hirsch. The problem most hours wasn’t finding topics of interest, but choosing among the “A” options.
There are many serendipities at Exponential. It is a gathering swarming with frontline leaders who are doing things and trying things. Whether it’s a 10-minute hallway encounter or a spontaneous lunch, the connections made in a setting like this can produce encouragement, ministry-shaping ideas, and great resources.
Disappointments? Nothing major—our team thought Exponential ’09 well worth the investment.
But one thing noticeably absent was attention to the spiritual life of the church planters. This conference is clearly about doing, not being (except for a rare workshop, and a track for planters’ spouses). Given that church planters are predominately young, high-energy guys stepping into the crosshairs of the devil, more support for a balanced, spiritual life could be prudent.
Also, anyone looking for fresh, workable approaches to church planting that don’t require a quarter-million-dollar budget would have come away disappointed. Exponential brings together the best practitioners of prevailing approaches, but there is little hint of next-step methodologies that might respond to some deficiencies of today’s practices.
And like any conference, the seminars are hit or miss. Quality is uneven—some were as advertised, others not so much. But there were enough “hits” to be satisfying.
An aside—Exponential is one of the better examples of nondenominational ministry to come out of our fellowship of churches in a long time. It takes a discerning eye to realize the event is put on by Christian church/church of Christ leaders. While Stadia, Orchard Group, and New Thing Network give leadership to Exponential, none does so in a self-serving way. Insider talk is absent, and the program is not about “us,” but about reaching lost people. Exponential planners are living our nondenominational position in a way that makes this conference a gift to the body of Christ.
Overall, Exponential is a great combination of tools and passion—definitely for church planters, and for other church leaders as well. The spirit of Exponential is contagious!
Dick Alexander is senior minister at LifeSpring Christian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.