Years ago, I read Alonzo L. McDonald’s chapter in the book No God but God where he introduced the idea of a ministry “life-cycle.” When I adapt McDonald’s life-cycle concept to teach about a ministry shelf life, I use five Ms: minister, ministry, movement, machine, and monument.
Gospel movements typically begin with an individual minister whom God calls. Through a communication gift and the clarity of a compelling vision, the leader catalyzes gospel activity. Like a tractor beam, people are drawn to him, and the individual multiplies himself. He plants or cultivates growth in a church. The minister has become a ministry—the person leads a people—and a unifying gospel cause inspires and coalesces their energy. Over time, that group’s synergy can even kindle a movement. A single church can birth a network, partnership, or denomination—a fresh, prophetic, future-oriented, and expanding ministry work that may stretch beyond the leader’s original vision.
But as this growth comes and time passes, the need to organize arises. Authority must be mapped, beliefs defined, and culture codified. Vital steps toward institutionalizing must be taken to protect the quality and sustainability of the movement. Sadly, if leaders don’t work hard to cultivate ongoing ministry life, the movement can become a machine and then finally a monument—a motionless statue fit only to be eulogized by those who remember its history.
What do leaders in churches and ministries need to be aware of to guard themselves against the slow death McDonald described? What means has God given network leaders for pursuing ongoing renewal?
Guard Against the Dangers of Institutionalism
Abraham Kuyper once called the church an “organized organism.” To organize, churches, and the networks who serve them, must institutionalize. The danger comes when institutionalizing becomes institutionalism. I call this the “machine” stage—when the organic is organized right out of ministry, when mechanization devours dynamic life. Institutionalism occurs whenever a ministry or organization begins to exist more for those it employs than for those it serves. Polity and policy exert supremacy over the movement dynamics that once energized the cause.
This sets the stage for the final M: monument. When a machine runs too long without the fuel of renewal, what was once a movement grinds to a halt and becomes a shrine to a former period in the organization’s life.
Don’t misunderstand me. The pursuit of organization and institutionalizing doesn’t automatically trigger the vice of institutionalism. Like people, ministries age. The older people, families, churches, or networks get, the more they need to organize to truly flourish. Embracing systems and policies doesn’t automatically send us from movement to machine. The question isn’t whether a movement will institutionalize but whether it will do so wisely.
Multiplication: Central Dynamic for Renewal
Renewal begins with remembering the gospel and depending upon God in prayer. But we can’t stop there. A key organizational habit that pushes partnerships toward renewal and away from institutionalism is multiplication.
Even in a fallen world, healthy organisms multiply. God designed it this way from the beginning. In Genesis 1, God multiplied his image by creating man and woman. Then he commanded our first parents to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.
It shouldn’t surprise us when we arrive in the New Testament that God calls the Twelve to multiply. Jesus commands multiplication in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). Then, in Acts, “the word of God increases and multiplies” (2:24)—believers multiply and churches multiply. In 2 Timothy 2:2, we’re called to multiply ministry to the next generation. It’s hard to read our Bibles and miss God’s commitment and call to multiplication.
Paul’s Commitment to Multiplication
It’s hard to read our Bible and miss God’s commitment and call to multiplication.
In Romans 15:19, the apostle Paul says, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” It’s as if Paul looks back at the last stage of his ministry and hangs up a “Mission Accomplished” banner. How can this be? Is the ministry of the gospel ever done?
Illyricum was the region above Macedonia that ran parallel to Italy. Paul says the ministry of the gospel had been fulfilled from Illyricum all the way back to Jerusalem. What created this sense of accomplishment? Paul’s extraordinary statement can only be assigned to one reality. Paul had planted churches from Jerusalem to Illyricum.
The churches Paul started were in strategic centers. Paul was confident people in each region would hear the name of Christ through the evangelistic efforts of the churches. For this reason, he could say the ministry of the gospel was complete. For the first apostles, pursuing renewal through church planting was the center point of Great Commission strategy. Multiplication should be our focus too.
Right now, there are pastors and leaders praying, “Lord, help our church and network to be on mission. Help us to put the Great Commission into action.” Friends, the way we do mission today is the same way it was done in the New Testament: We multiply. We plant local churches.
Megavitamin of Multiplication
Here’s where we return to the lifecycle. Multiplication is both a mission to the world and a megavitamin for renewing churches and networks. For a partnership to be truly healthy, it must exist for something outside itself. Multiplication catalyzes renewal. When we neglect multiplication, our churches bend inward and we’re unable to see beyond ourselves.
But when we pray and plan for multiplication, we enjoy the revitalizing nourishment that can only come from an outward push.
We’ve all seen it. Church planters start their work through the generosity and the sacrifices of others but once their church is established, they lose the burden to do the same for the next generation. Or local churches settle for community, care, and corporation but see the cause of mission as too costly. In both cases, there’s a larger undetected cost.
For a partnership to be truly healthy, it must exist for something outside itself. Multiplication catalyzes renewal.
Local churches settle for community, care, and corporation. What’s missing from that list is the cause of mission. The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are both fed from the same source, but the Sea of Galilee is teeming with life while the Dead Sea, aptly named, is dark and, well, dead. What makes the difference? Outlets. When life flows into and from the body, it’s sustained within the body.
The same is true for churches and the partnerships which unite them. Multiplication becomes the outlet allowing renewal nutrients to flow. When life flows into and from the body, churches multiply. Partnerships thrive. The lifecycle continues.
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