Upsetting the Equilibrium
Tim Ahlen was blessed to be part of what some called “the most significant evangelistic and missionary strategy that Southern Baptists ever came up with.” The Key Church Strategy inserted a highly trained “minister of missions” into struggling churches such that they could double market penetration in three years. A well motivated minister of missions could start as many as 30-35 churches, but, nobody ever did any better than that.
“Looking back on it now we see that there was a glass ceiling, which was the limitations put on a human being by the Lord when he said, ‘Six day you shall work, and on the 7th you shall rest.’”
Still, it was a beautiful glass ceiling for the 1990's … thirty to thirty-five churches planted by each minister of missions! Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Tim, God was breaking through the glass in unimagined ways through unknown missionaries, like Curtis Sergeant, over in Asia.
As Tim first heard Curtis and his crew sharing and teaching about all these incredible things that God was doing in every place in the world — except in North America — Tim thought to himself, “How in the world did we miss this? And why isn’t it happening in North America?”
Exploring the Depth of the Problem
“We had no idea God was moving that powerfully overseas,” Tim confessed, “And we didn’t know anything about exponential growth. We were basking in the glory of our incremental growth, but we didn’t see anything close to exponential growth.”
“When that (group of 17 strategists) came back to the States,” Tim confided, “we determined that we needed to find out what’s going on, and what’s wrong with the North American church that it doesn’t multiply, and what can we do about it!”
Their research and contemplation led them to articulate a number of widespread deficiencies in the North American Evangelical church which included:
- A deficiency in our understanding of the Great Commission
- A deficiency in our ecclesiology
- A deficiency in our missiology
- A deficiency in the way we communicate the gospel, and
- A deficiency in our strategic thinking.
“We were not prepared. If God ever gave us a movement like that, we knew that there was nobody in North America to handle it.”
Having sought out what the issues were at home, they turned to look at what was happening oversees. About a half dozen of them gathered around an ethnographer for the International Mission Board, Jim Slack, and began to articulate the Biblical principles they were seeing employed, and how to contextualize them for fruit in North America. By addressing these deficiencies, they began to see some results.
Discovering the Clues
Two illustrations helped Tim count the cost. The goal of a Cadillac DeVille is to provide the passengers with a luxurious ride. The goal of a drag racing car is to go fast and keep the driver safe. The engine of each furnishes both vehicles with the same horse power, but because the drag car is stripped down to the bare essentials, it can go significantly faster.
Consider also the elephant and the rabbit.
Elephants take 18 years to mature, and 22 months of gestation to produce 1 baby elephant. Rabbits mature in 4 months, and 1 month of gestation for a litter of up to 7 baby rabbits. In three years two elephants become three, but two rabbits could become 476 million.
“Maybe we don’t see disciples multiplying like that here in North America because the gestation period is way too long. Maybe we take so long because of our own selfishness, greed and ego, building our little ‘k’ kingdoms, serving Christians who are content to be consumer passengers in a luxury automobile.”
Experiencing the Gospel
While these analogies stirred the pot, these scriptures changed Tim’s paradigm:
- Rapid Reproduction is okay to shoot for. 2 Thessalonians 3:2 “As for other matters brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honoured, just as it was with you.” In Paul’s first letter, we learn that the Thessalonians became transformed and tenacious disciples, and their testimony spread through the entire region. In this second letter we learn that this happened rapidly. Amongst them, and around them, the message spread and was honoured, rapidly. Paul was asking them to pray this rapid pattern might occur repeatedly.
- Reproduction is more important than growing big. In Acts 8 persecution scattered the church in Jerusalem (v1). Those scattered proclaimed the Gospel everywhere they went (v4). That resulted in many beautiful things including the planting of the church in Antioch (11:19-21). The church in Antioch matured so rapidly under the teaching of Barnabas and Saul (vv22-30) that not only were the disciples first called Christians (“little-Christs”) in Antioch, but after only one year they were ready to send off their top teachers to make disciples and plant churches elsewhere (13:1-3). God had to scatter the big church in Jerusalem to spread the Gospel, while in Antioch they willingly followed the Spirit’s inspiration to expand Christ’s Kingdom after only one year.
- Luxury lags but minimalist multiplies. Jesus warns in the parable of the soils that “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful” but the one who hears the word and understands it, “This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (Matthew 13:22-23). Paul didn’t reach all of Asia by building a luxury cathedral in Ephesus with adequate parking, a hip café and worship theatre. Instead, he spent his energy and time building into disciples daily in Tyrannus Hall such that he could later hear about a church being planted in Colossae through Epaphras (Colossians 1:7).
As Tim began to implement these and many more newly discovered principles and strategies, most of which can be traced back to Curtis and his merry band of missionaries, low and behold it began to gain some traction.
Anticipating the Results
Over the next eleven years of disciplined perseverance, “Out of our little Baptist church that was averaging maybe fifty or sixty in attendance, we saw multiplication happening several generations deep, made up of 165 congregations across the country and around the world, made up of around 10,000 people.” By 2014 Tim gave up keeping track of the expanding network, but it continues to this day through ordinary servants ranging across the U.S.A., into Canada, and leapfrogging around the world.
The lessons he passes along to these ordinary folks is the same he would pass along to other North American pastors (as shared in a recent interview with Mission Frontiers online magazine):
- Learn to listen to God. Pray!
- Do what God says. Do!
- Minimize the distinction between evangelism and discipleship.
- Develop your own model, don’t copy someone else’s!
- Your principles should come from three Bible passages:
- Great Commission — make disciples of all nations.
- Great Commandment — love God, love others as yourself
- 2 Timothy 2:2 — make disciples who make disciples.
- Sacrifice whatever is not mandated biblically to get the job done. Travel light.
- If you are not hearing from God, go back to the last thing you heard Him say, and do that!
Tim is now 68. Eighteen years ago he humbly allowed himself to shed the old wineskins of incremental growth strategies, to be remade by Jesus’ principles for multiplying disciples and churches, bearing much fruit. May his story inspire more.