Missionaries often start their journey into ministry with high expectations. Chief among them is a hope for fruit from their labors. However, it doesn’t take long for some to realize their dreams may not instantly translate into reality. Cultural differences shock the system. Language learning is slow and can frustrate a family. Team dynamics may erode. Early in the process, any sort of positive results might feel distant and unattainable.

One of the first principles our family learned in missionary training school is that misplaced expectations can rob your joy and undermine your ministry. However, it seems some in the missions community are now contributing to greater missionary anxiety by promoting the idea that rapid growth is to be expected—that ministry done the right way produces predictable results beyond addition, all the way to rapid multiplication.

While the desire for God’s Word and his kingdom to advance is a good one (2 Thess. 3:1), we must be careful about burdening missionaries with unrealistic expectations. Current methodologies in missions such as Church Planting Movements (CPM) or Disciple Making Movements (DMM) are right to seek the expansive and exponential spread of the gospel. But strategies promoting rapid growth are sometimes built on faulty assumptions that create unhealthy expectations.

Rapid Growth Isn’t the Norm

Robert Morrison, a zealous pioneer missionary, set sail for China in 1807. Over the next 28 years, he saw 10 nationals trust in Christ. William Carey, two decades earlier, traveled to India and served seven years before he baptized his first convert. Given time, we could reference the same unhurried movement of God from numerous figures in missions history. In places of pioneer work, conversion tends to be slow, with incremental growth.

Whenever we assume swift expansion is the norm, we tend to bypass the normal means God uses to produce genuine fruit.

Thankfully, this isn’t always the case. God has and does continue to work in amazing ways to bring about sudden conversions and rapid multiplication. This is a wonderful grace.

However, it would be wrong to assume this is the standard. In fact, to do so tends toward chronological snobbery—as if the only reason for slow growth in the past was a lack of urgency or poor methodology. It also fails to reckon with the numerous instances in church history where expectations for rapid growth led to evangelistic manipulation and theological error.

Whenever we assume swift expansion is the norm, we tend to bypass the normal means God uses to produce genuine fruit.

Rapid Growth Isn’t Necessarily Rapid

When sudden growth does happen, it often follows years of preparation. To put it another way, rapid multiplication isn’t necessarily rapid. The explosive growth of the church happening today in places like China, India, Ethiopia, and Iran is in many cases the product of centuries-long witness in those lands. When workers enter such fields, they find them ripe for the harvest because they’ve entered into someone else’s labor (John 4:35–38). Sometimes—perhaps most of the time—rapid multiplication happens because of the arduous and patient efforts of previous generations.

Sometimes—perhaps most of the time—rapid multiplication happens because of the arduous and patient efforts of previous generations.

Even in Acts, exponential growth was, in many ways, the byproduct of centuries of pre-evangelism. The gospel advanced to and through the Jewish diaspora spread throughout the Roman empire. Mass conversions were predominantly Jews and proselytes, people already committed to following God and his Word. Jewish synagogues also supplied a convenient landing spot for evangelism. Even the initial Samaritan and Gentile believers tended to be God-fearers, or those already influenced by the Jewish religion. Lastly, a shared Greek language allowed Paul to enter a new area and immediately begin preaching. He didn’t have to spend years trying to learn another language. And Paul was also deeply conversant with the target culture—something that can take decades for some missionaries.

Proponents of CPM or DMM sometimes speak as if they’ve unlocked the key to the exponential growth seen in the early church. Yet such a view might overlook the unique historical factors that contributed to the growth of Christianity in the first century, not to mention other historical contexts where such expansion occurred.

Rapid Growth Isn’t Prescribed by Scripture

Some advocates of rapid multiplication have observed that Paul preached the gospel, founded churches, and appointed elders in relatively quick succession (Acts 13–14). His method is prescribed for us. For this argument, it follows that those who’ve recently come to faith can—and should—soon become teachers in the church. After all, where rapid growth happens, what else are they supposed to do?

We should acknowledge that answers won’t be simple. But the difficulties presented in missions should never be a permission slip to ignore Scripture’s clear commands. James states that not many people should be teachers in the church (James 3:1). But some missiological strategies seem designed in direct conflict with this imperative. They seek rapid reproduction by doing just this: foisting many young believers into leadership and teaching roles.

The difficulties presented in missions should never be a permission slip to ignore Scripture’s clear commands.

Moreover, Paul gives explicit instruction that an elder must not be a “new believer” (1 Tim. 3:6). Here the common hermeneutical principle of prioritizing prescriptive texts over descriptive ones is important. An event in Acts describing Paul’s early ministry shouldn’t override an ecclesial practice prescribed by Paul near the end of his life. We simply don’t know if Paul’s perspective changed over time in response to lessons learned on the field. We also don’t know the specific details that led to this method. What if the elders he appointed in Acts 14 were men like Timothy, those already well-versed in the Scriptures before their conversion? We could even imagine the possibility of some being believers before Paul arrived in southern Galatia, among those influenced by Pentecost pilgrims nearly a decade prior (Acts 2:5–11).

Most importantly, if we derive missionary practice from Paul’s example, we should account for the breadth of his ministry beyond his first missionary journey. For instance, Paul didn’t only prioritize travel to new fields, but also to reached regions. When persecution didn’t drive him away, he sometimes chose to stay. He was even willing to delay missionary expansion to deliver aid to the poor. We should also note his pattern of employing “stayers” in his mission, people like Timothy or Titus who shepherd God’s people, feeding them sound doctrine. Paul’s missionary strategy was strikingly holistic. When his ministry example is taken as a whole, it doesn’t convey an overriding need for speed.

Rapid Growth Isn’t Predictable

Proponents of rapid multiplication (CPM or DMM) are right to stress the urgency of our calling. They’re also correct to emphasize obedience in discipleship. Methods such as Training for Trainers (T4T) encourage obedience-based discipleship in response to an approach they consider to be Western, cognitive-focused, and knowledge-based. Many of these groups and their methods, however, are themselves extremely Western and formulaic. Rapid multiplication is often presented as the definite purpose of God and, using the right methodology, a predictable outcome is assured.

Right methodology doesn’t always produce fruit.

But this doesn’t square with Jesus’s teachings. While he did promise surprising fruitfulness, Jesus says it depends more on the soil than the sower (Mark 4:20). When he predicted the amazing expansion of the kingdom, Jesus emphasized its small beginnings and slow development (Mark 4:30–32). Those who grow rapidly often don’t endure (Mark 4:16), and genuine fruitfulness can happen in spite of or apart from human effort (Mark 4:26–29). Ultimately God gives the growth. And while the seed of his Word is powerful to accomplish its intended purpose, Jesus acknowledged it wasn’t always for the hearers’ conversion (Mark 4:11–12).

In other words, right methodology doesn’t always produce fruit. Jesus, the perfect teacher who communicated God’s Word perfectly, was spurned. This is why, when he sent his disciples to announce the kingdom, Jesus prepared them primarily for shame and rejection. He wanted them to have realistic expectations.

Strive with Urgency and Humility

We, too, should approach the task of missions with eyes wide open. Ultimately, in our pursuit of fruitful ministry, we must humble ourselves and realize our utter dependence on God in every endeavor. The desire for fruit, even rapid growth, is a noble one. Removing obstacles to multiplication is helpful. Christian piety doesn’t always equal slow plodding. Striving without urgency, or assuming God will not work, isn’t commendable. William Carey was right when he called us to attempt great things as we expect great things.

And yet, danger lurks when good desires become demands. We set ourselves up for disappointment when we have unhealthy expectations. In such cases we’re also tempted to manipulate people and results. Perhaps we should pump the brakes on models of rapid church multiplication, particularly if they’re based on these or other faulty assumptions.

Like Paul, we should be willing to work harder than anyone else while resting in God’s sovereign and good purpose, knowing that without him we can accomplish nothing that lasts.