Why It’s Hard to Invest in Exponential Growth

by Ben Sternke on April 30, 2012

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You’ve probably heard most of the illustrations about the power of exponential growth vs. linear growth. For example, if you were able to keep folding a piece of paper in half indefinitely (essentially doubling its height every fold), it would only take you 42 folds to reach the moon. Or, if you started with one dollar and doubled your money every day, by the end of the first week you’d have $64. But by the end of the first month you’d have $268,435,456!

When you think about it, making disciples of Jesus could be like this. If I make, say, 8 disciples, and they all make 6 disciples each, and all of those people make 4 disciples each, you end up with 248 disciples of Jesus by the third generation. The exponential equation only gets more incredible after that. And all I have to do in the first generation is make 8 disciples. So why do we find it hard to invest our energy in making disciples who can make disciples? I can think of a couple reasons.

1. The gap between linear and exponential

The gap in the graph above is a clue as to one of the reasons. Investing in an exponential discipleship equation is a long-term endeavor that requires us to maintain focus and not get sidetracked by the short-term “lack of results.” Western church leaders are accustomed to quick return on investment and think that something must be wrong if we’re not seeing immediate results.

For example, in 2004 when Paul Maconochie took over leading St. Thomas’ Church in Sheffield, UK (after Mike Breen left), they saw almost no growth at all for three years (and the entire senior staff team left). I can imagine being tempted to panic, but as they continued to invest in the exponential equation of discipleship, the church has now more than doubled in size (and they only count disciples, not attendance).

Leaders need an immense amount of patience, focus, and faith to endure those kinds of seasons, because oftentimes the growth isn’t constant. We’re used the timelines of linear growth, not the exponential timelines of discipleship. Everyone loves an exponential equation once it reaches a tipping point, but at first it will always feel like you’re “not doing enough” and you’ll be tempted to take energy away from discipleship and put it into things that produce more short-term “results” (especially if you’re feeling pressure to “pay the bills” or impress those who are).

2. Relative anonymity

Another reason that it’s hard to invest in the exponential equation of discipleship is that we won’t get to take all the credit. Exponential growth means that you don’t personally get to invest in everyone. Good fruit may blossom a few generations out from you that you are completely unaware of, which means you can’t claim it or control it or directly benefit from it.

People who truly invest in the exponential equation of discipleship sacrifice most of the public accolades that could be theirs if they invested in “getting their name out there” or getting on the conference circuit. So that’s just a good gut-check for us: do you want to make disciples or do you just want to be famous? Our desires to control outcomes, manage our reputations, and be in the limelight are major hindrances to exponential growth.

What do you think? Are these accurate, in your view? Can you think of other reasons we don’t see more leaders investing in the exponential equation of discipleship?

22 comments
Drew Darnell
Drew Darnell

Spot. On. Article. Linear means visible results today. Exponential means having to have faith and patience.

jon
jon

Love it. Thanks for pointing the way out of "busy work" and back into ministry... which begs the question: Will there be another blog post about how I can become famous while maintaining the appearance of ministry... because I think that's what I'm shooting for;)

@deTheos
@deTheos

"Leaders need an immense amount of patience, focus, and faith to endure those kinds of seasons, because oftentimes the growth isn’t constant." Well said, Ben, those words and the whole post. I think this gets to the heart of what it means to be disciples of Jesus — who are making disciples of Jesus. His true followers spread His message through their words and lives, influencing everyone around them. If we are committed to "adding" followers (linear growth) that usually means divvying up access to our senior leaders, so everyone can have a piece of the expert disciples. And in that way people will live their spiritual lives vicariously through their leaders. When their slice of that leader gets too small for their liking they just may move on to a new church, not knowing that all the while much of their allegiance meant for their true King was misplaced at the feet of the leader/pastor. We're fickle people who tend to submit our suggestions to our leaders more than we submit our lives to our Savior King. In exponential growth every disciple is expected to be a member of the church, a minister of the saints, and also a missionary in the world. That's an unstoppable force when everyone's committed to living like missionaries as we together make disciples. Reminds me of the viral analogy (Jesus sneezed His virus on His followers and the Gospel went viral [per Alan Hirsch]). Of course, easier said than done. Thanks for laying out the reasons we don't like that "gap."

Nick
Nick

Ben, Thanks for the post. My personal failure in discipleship is not knowing how to do it. But, as Moody has been quoted as saying "Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it." I need to move from not doing to doing. A significant barrier to me has always been expectations. I set them far too high and am discouraged before I begin. Its foolishness I know, so the answer it seems to me, is to pick a good model (3DM, check) and plow ahead. God will move things as He wills. Nick

Paul S
Paul S

Personally, I think the word "disciple" is one of, if not the most misused and misunderstood words that Jesus, with very specific words, told us what it takes and how we would recognize "His disciples", not the Church's, not the teacher of the disciple, not organized religion's, etc.. Seriously, our Lord and Savior only spent a few years with the twelve and the majority of the Church makes it this lifetime of burdensome task of classes, studies, do's an don'ts, etc. The Church's focus on discipleship, again in my opinion, has probably led more people to miss out on their "true gift". It's like the Church is saying, as soon as you believe in Jesus, you are commanded to become a disciple! Hello, a disciple is just another part of the body of Christ. A disciple, in it's pure essence, is a student that by all accounts should aspire to become a teacher and not all were called to be teachers! And let us not forget, by this you will know His disciples...love! not as the world loves, but as Jesus loves! Peace and blessing to one and all!

Tres
Tres

I've been taught; if a disciple is not teaching what they're learning, they are off the team. Kinda like trying to evangelize someone who is not ready. H.S. makes them ready, God gives the growth. We need only refine our methods of finding those God has prepared. Pass right by the 'no' or 'not yet' and find the 'yes'.

Eric Purcell
Eric Purcell

Great post. I'm one year in to planting a new community in Omaha and have often felt anxious when thinking about my average day this past year. I have DONE very little. Little more than be available, listen to my context, submerge in the neighborhood and start to invite new friends into deeper relationship. We have no regular gatherings, just dinner with new friends and monthly parties. It's so slow. We're starting to see some fruit of this and I'm daily tempted to jump ahead and start "something". Thanks for the reminder to take it slow and focus on the few disciples that are starting to gather around.

renewcc
renewcc

Hey Ben I just found your site a few days ago . . . it's great. I really enjoy reading what you write and appreciate the new insights you provide . . . may the Lord continue to strengthen you. I had one thought pop into my head as I was reading . . . I think another reason we don’t see more leaders investing in the exponential equation of discipleship is because we have so few models! I cannot provide empirical evidence here but viscerally speaking it seems like this current generation of western church planters are sort of pioneering the idea of discipleship being about equipping "regulars" to make disciples through a relationship characterized by information and imitation with the expectation that their disciples will turn and make disciples. I never had a multiplication model but desire to live and influence that way. I have chosen to connect with the gang from across the pond to be mentored in these things and am in the process of unlearning quite a bit. For me it's an exciting time of dissonance . . . the clashing of hope and lament. Prayerfully, the next generation will not have to look so far for working models. I am looking forward to your future posts . . . thanks for sharing your intellectual property!!! Press on my brother!

Worth
Worth

Fantastic post Ben. The graphic really helped me visualize your first point. These are good words of wisdom regarding perseverance.

Luke
Luke

I feel like we're really feeling the pressure of #1...from others and from my own internal thought-process. I think one thing that I realized in reflection from my first season of ministry is that "discipleship" often means that one person does bible study with or counsels their "disciple" with no real expectation/training for them to disciple others. I think that a major hindrance is our conception what it is to make disciples.

Aaron Thomas
Aaron Thomas

Great post Ben. I would add one more, at least, one that I wrestle with continually as we plant a church. It's the curse of the comfort zone. No matter how much I say, "I like change" there is still a part of me that wants to revert to certain habits of church leadership and culture because "that's the way we've always done it." Many of those ways aren't bad, but the post-christian context we are moving into in the U.S. requires leaders to plow the ground ahead of that movement. It requires true apostolic leadership. I'm apostolic, and still get a little gun-shy about moving in a direction that is still pretty new to me. My prayers lately have been asking the Holy Spirit to lead my decision-making and not my comfort zone and habits.

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Wow, thanks for the comment Jeff. There's some very good cultural analysis in there!

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Indeed Nick! On one hand, you just have to start, because, as G.K. Chesterton said, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."On the other hand, we oftentimes can't do for others what has never been done for us, so finding someone to imitate is often a necessary precursor to fruitful discipleship.Blessings as you start!

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Sounds like great teaching, Tres! Thanks for the comment.

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Thanks! I think you're exactly right about this reason. It was actually one of the reasons I was going to put in there but the post got too long ;)Essentially I think it is almost impossible to make this kind of investment in others if we've never been invested in like this. If we don't have a human to imitate, it's very difficult to get access to what it would actually look like to disciple people like this. It's why I'm grateful for 3DM's investment into my life - the people who have coached me have provided a concrete example of fruitful disciple-making that I have been able to imitate.

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Thanks Worth! Glad the visual was helpful. One of the things I'm learning is that information "sticks" much better when it's attached to a visual of some kind.

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Great thought, Luke. I've started telling those I disciple, "You are not the end-product or point of this process. If you aren't reproducing yourself, you've stopped participating in the mission of Christ."

Ben Sternke
Ben Sternke

Great addition, Aaron! Totally relate to that temptation myself, too.

Nick
Nick

Ben, God has blessed me with a great coaching huddle. Greg, James, Michael, and Mike. They've been speaking in to my life and encouraging me and helping me process. It's been huge for my life and my walk with Christ. Nick

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