Rural areas in the U.S. may be the best places for rapid multiplication of disciples and churches!
By Doug Lucas
Over the past two decades, God has been working mightily through an approach commonly referred to as disciple-making movements (or DMMs. Some use the term CPM, short for church-planting movements, while others use T4T, meaning Training for Trainers. These three acronyms are, in many ways, synonymous, with only slight differences between them.)
David Garrison was the first to write a book about this phenomenon, and his definition has become somewhat of the standard. In Church Planting Movements (2004), he defined that term as “a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches planting churches that sweeps through a people group or population segment” (p. 21).
So, imagine a disciple-maker (like Paul) sharing his faith with a new disciple (like Timothy). Paul would then immediately train Timothy to share his faith with another individual. Timothy would proceed to train this new disciple to share his testimony with another, and so on. If this sounds a lot like 2 Timothy 2:2, you’ve captured it: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”
When these “generations” happen in fairly rapid succession, perhaps within a couple of years, it can go viral, resulting in amazingly rapid growth—say, 1,000 or more baptisms within a year or two. And just as nuclear scientists try to create a process that will reach critical mass in a nuclear energy plant, church multiplication trainers are constantly searching for the “secret sauce” to reach the tipping point in fostering a disciple-making movement.
Most movements seem to begin with some kind of training from outside. During this training, participants learn specific biblical paths for growth, discipleship processes that help new believers flourish along these biblical paths, and a spiritual posture of reliance on the Spirit of God to empower the process. (For more on this, see p. 2 of Steve Smith’s new book Spirit Walk.)
Exactly how these movements take root is still somewhat of a mystery. Researchers have noted that few movements, if any, get off the ground without extraordinary prayer and abundant sowing of the gospel. But even when those two factors are in place, there are no guarantees. God alone, it seems, brings about a true movement. One might even refer to these movements as miracles. They appear to be acts of God’s divine will.
As recently as 10 years ago, researchers were reporting about 100 such movements around the globe. But over the past few years, these movements have multiplied. Today, some researchers are reporting up to 600 or more worldwide. But how might such movements take place in decentralized rural churches in America? To this day, there appear to be few, if any, scholarly studies addressing that question. (Attention grad students: Here’s a possible topic for your thesis or dissertation.) But we can postulate some theories based on what we’re seeing globally.
Since movements of this type tend to travel along relational lines, and since many such relational networks tend to be broken in urban environments, some have theorized that DMMs are less likely to occur in cities than in rural areas.
David Garrison has studied movements around the world, written about them in his aforementioned book, and conducted training sessions at the organization I oversee (Team Expansion). Garrison said he studied one worker in Ethiopia who had managed to start 4 churches in 30 years. Then, after receiving training in DMM, he saw 65 churches form in just 9 months.
In Latin America, one stream of churches went from an active membership of 5,800 to 14,000 in one decade. At last count, attendance was running 38,000. In another region, not far away, a group of churches went from 129 congregations to 1,918 in just 10 years. Membership went from 7,000 to nearly 16,000.
In a movement in Asia, the church grew from 85 believers in 1991 to 55,000 believers in 1998, with the number of congregations increasing from a handful to more than 550. In roughly the same time period, in India, a stream of churches grew from 28 congregations to 2,000. During those 7 years, 55,000 local people came to Christ. And that same decade, a stream of churches among the Khmer of Cambodia grew from 600 to more than 60,000. Virtually all of these examples happened in rural areas, where well-established kinship lines form strong conduits for the flow of the gospel.
Garrison studied one movement in Southeast Asia that started with 3 churches and 85 believers among a population of 7 million. Four years later, God had established a movement with more than 550 churches and nearly 55,000 believers. Again, these were largely rural areas.
Garrison documented a case in North Africa in which an Arab Muslim cleric complained that more than 10,000 Muslims living in the surrounding mountains had left Islam and become Christians. And in a city in China, Garrison found that more than 20,000 people had come to faith in Christ over a four-year period (1993-97), resulting in more than 500 new churches. Latin America was no exception: A movement there grew from 235 churches in 1990 to more than 3,200 in 1998. And again in Central Asia, believers in one area grew from 200 to 15,000 in just one year.
Garrison continues to track these movements—20,000 conversions in just 4 years in a region of China, church launches doubling inside of 6 months in a Western European country, and 383 churches starting in just one state in Brazil. Again, in probably 90 percent of these cases, incredible growth is occurring in rural areas, not cities.
A friend told me about leading a one-month training session in Asia in 2000. Afterward, he said, a training participant launched 20 small groups in just a few weeks. My friend trained him some more, and 7 months later, the movement had grown to 327 new groups that were becoming “simple churches” that included some 4,000 baptized believers. My friend provided more training. By the end of the first year, there were 908 new house churches with more than 12,000 newly baptized members. And the following year, after still more training, there were 3,535 new churches with more than 50,000 baptisms.
At that point, researchers came to study the network and found that some of the new churches had reproduced themselves as many as 17 times in just 18 months. The astounding thing is that, by the end of that year, the movement had grown by another 104,000 baptisms and more than 9,000 new churches.
Despite persecution, disease, a difficult political situation, and many spiritual attacks, the movement has continued its remarkable growth. By 2008, researchers found that nearly 2 million baptisms had been added to the kingdom through this one movement—all in less than a decade—and more than 80,000 new churches had been established. This growth happened largely in rural areas.
Rural vs. Urban: Some Theories
In addition to the idea that kinship lines are a key to unlocking DMMs, people have other theories for this remarkable growth. But keep in mind that these are theories and that little, if any, scholarly work has sought answers to these questions. We know, for example, that values can vary widely across the urban/rural spectrum. Consider, for example, the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans that found nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those of people who live in big cities. (Read more at https://kaiserf.am/2L3Ax9f.) If these respondents are correct, maybe traditional rural values come alive when empowered by DMM training.
In the United States, at least, poverty is higher in rural areas (see “The Conversation” website charts at https://bit.ly/2ivze2h). Maybe these individuals experience greater struggles and are therefore searching for spiritual answers more so than their more-satisfied counterparts in cities. Surprisingly, the same report indicated there seem to be more entrepreneurs in rural areas than in cities. If this is true, maybe residents in rural regions are more accustomed to launching new models and processes, perhaps partly because they’ve had to learn to do so just to survive.
A 2013 study by a University of Kentucky professor found that both trust and social interaction can be substantially higher in rural areas than in cities. (Learn more at https://bit.ly/2uJjoH2.) Perhaps this social “presence” provides a better network for gospel growth.
Trying This Approach in Your Town
The first step in implementing a disciple-making movement outreach in your town is to pray—and recruit others to join you in doing so. Ask God to knock down obstacles and prepare the way for disciple-making for you and your entire church.
Second, read some background material on disciple-making movements. Team Expansion is in the process of preparing a very practical guidebook, but in the meantime, you can read:
• “Discovering the Fruitful Practices of Movements,” Mission Frontiers, November-December 2017; the edition was titled, “Movements Make All the Difference in the World” (accessible online at https://bit.ly/2L91c4N).
• Contagious Disciple-Making by David Watson and Paul D. Watson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014).
And for more information about a “live” training in DMM, go to https://teamexpansion.org/dmm/.
Third, begin implementing disciple-making processes in your own life. Don’t think of these as a program or formula for the church to follow. Think of them as personal life principles and practices. As you implement them, we hope and trust others will be inspired to follow. A live training event is the ideal way to start (contact Team Expansion or another agency that conducts such training), or use a free, online approach pioneered by Zume (go to https://zumeproject.com).
May God bless the implementation in your rural or urban area!
Doug Lucas is founder and president of Team Expansion, which seeks to multiply disciples and churches among the unreached. Learn more at www.TeamExpansion.org. Contact Doug to learn more about his efforts to launch disciple-making movements at DLucas@TeamExpansion.org.
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Taking Disciple-Making Movements to Rural Churches
Here is a listing of some of the sources referenced in this article:
• Church Planting Movements by David Garrison (Monument: WIGTake Resources, 2004).
• Spirit Walk by Steve Smith (Oakdale: 2414 Ventures, 2018).
• “The Kaiser Family Foundation/Washington Post Survey on Political Rallygoing and Activism” by Bianca DiJulio, et al., Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, April 4, 2018; accessible at https://kaiserf.am/2L3Ax9f. (This article supports the author’s statement that values held by rural folk differ from those who live in urban environments.)
• “Six Charts that Illustrate the Divide Between Rural and Urban America,” The Conversation, March 6, 2017; accessible at https://bit.ly/2ivze2h.
• “A Comparison of Social Capital in Rural and Urban Settings,” by David L. Debertin, University of Kentucky; accessible at https://bit.ly/2uJjoH2. (This research study found that both trust and social interaction can be substantially higher in rural areas than in cities.)
• “Discovering the Fruitful Practices of Movements,” Mission Frontiers, November-December 2017; the issue was titled, “Movements Make All the Difference In The World”; accessible online at https://bit.ly/2L91c4N. (This article provides background material on disciple-making movements.)
• Contagious Disciple-Making by David Watson and Paul D. Watson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014). (This book provides background material on disciple-making movements.)
• “What Is a Disciple-Making Movement?” Team Expansion; accessible at https://teamexpansion.org/dmm/. (This web page provides information about DMMs as well as information about a “live” training event.)
• The best path for learning more about disciple-making movements might be “live training.” To schedule such training, you can contact Team Expansion or any other agency involved in conducting such training. An alternative is to use a web approach pioneered in February 2017. Several ministries cooperated to build this approach; the result is a tool called Zume (pronounced ZOO-may). You can begin training at any time (you don’t have to wait for a certain date). Learn more at https://zumeproject.com/.
Zume training occurs in groups of 4 to 12. There is no need for an outside facilitator to start a group (although it can be helpful to launch the first Zume course with a coach, just to make sure the process starts correctly). Zume is online and free—there is no book to buy.