By J.D. Greear
We are poised today for a gospel expansion as great as anything ever experienced in Christian history.
In the final episode of The Office, character Andy Bernard says something I’ve always thought profound.
As the characters begin to realize their nine years together in the office are coming to a close, Andy turns to the camera and says, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in ‘the good old days’ before you’ve actually left them.”
Pay attention in church, and you’ll hear Christian leaders talk about the “good ol’ days” of the church when Peter and Paul preached with breathtaking boldness.
Small groups prayed all night. Martyrs cheerfully sacrificed their lives. Peter’s hankies healed people and impostors got struck dead during the offering.
Drowsy people who dozed during sermons fell out of windows and died, only to be resurrected by the long-winded preachers who put them to sleep. The church was an unstoppable movement.
The only problem, historian Rodney Stark notes, is that if you had been alive during this period, most of the time it wouldn’t have felt like you were part of an unstoppable movement.
Here’s why I say that: the best demographic estimates point to a grand total of only 7,500 believers worldwide at the end of the first century.
We imagine Peter and Paul conducting huge, Billy-Graham-style evangelistic rallies with thousands of conversions daily. Not exactly.
The growth of Christianity was numerically rather unimpressive throughout that first century.
In fact, Origen (b. 184–d. 254 A.D.) described the Christian movement in his day as still a few scattered communities, geographically broad but numerically insignificant.
At his death, they still amounted to less than 2% of the Roman Empire’s population!
Yet, by 312 A.D., Christians had become so numerous that the emperor, Constantine, decided to convert to Christianity for political reasons. Over half of the Roman Empire now identified as Christian!
What happened between the end of the 1st century and 312 A.D.? What made this group of scattered and politically insignificant believers so numerous that the most powerful man in the world had to take note?
Stark attributes it to the power of multiplication.
Remember this annoying math riddle from middle school?
If you have a choice between receiving $10,000 a day for 30 days, or getting $0.01 doubled each day, which would you choose?
I was like most middle school students. I chose the $10K daily without skipping a beat.
I mean, think about it. How much could one do with $10,000? In 30 days, I’d have $300,000. How could someone even spend that much money?
After getting an Atari—shoot, ten Ataris—a brand new, enormous, 32-inch technicolor TV, and the fanciest car on the market—a 1982 DeLorean, just like Marty McFly, I’d still have $200,000 left.
But then my math teacher explained that I should have started with the penny. Sure, after the first week, I’d only have a couple of bucks, but by the end of the month, I’d have $10,737,418.23. That’s a whole fleet of DeLoreans!
That’s the power of multiplication.
You see, the early church had very little compared to what we have today: No grand auditoriums. No publishing presses, book contracts, TV stations, or political power. No Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. Virtually no money.
What they did have, though, was an ingrained understanding that each Christian was called to multiply and that God himself was in them empowering them to do it.
Every disciple was expected, therefore, to make disciples. Every new church was planted with the expectation that it would reproduce.
And that produced a greater worldwide impact than we do today with all of our stuff.
Albert Einstein was reportedly once asked, “What is the most powerful force in the universe?” His reply? “Compound interest.” So it is with churches.
The power of multiplication far exceeds the impact of great preaching, professional worship bands, and impressive facilities.
Over the last 100 years, we’ve witnessed the building of some of the largest, most impressive megachurches in Christian history.
We’ve seen Billy Graham gather crowds of epic proportions. These things were awesome and we need more of them.
And yet, despite all this, the percentage of people going to church each weekend in America has gone down.
The early church had none of what we have, yet was able to do what we haven’t been able to do!
What if God was using our missional frustration to call us back to our New Testament roots?
What if the current obstacles we face in the church—like funding shortages, a decline in political influence, and increasing cultural opposition—were designed by God to return us to the one thing that has propelled the church forward in every generation?
Today, there are more Southern Baptist churches in the United States—just Southern Baptist—than either Starbucks, Subways, or McDonald’s.
What if each of these churches committed themselves to multiplying?
What if they began to measure their success by sending capacity rather than seating capacity?
What if each believer saw the Great Commission as their responsibility?
Might not our great grandchildren look back on this time period and see these as “the good ol’ days”?
This will only happen when ordinary believers see themselves as called to ministry.
Francis Chan said it well:
“Long gone are the days when we should be content with a bunch of people who sing out loud, don’t divorce, and give to missions. I now want to know I can drop off any member of my church in a city, and that person could grow in Jesus, make disciples, and help start a church.”
It starts with you. God has called you to multiply. To bring forth fruit that will abide for eternity (John 15:16).
That sounds daunting, I know. But, as Jesus explains, it’s not something you have to do on your own. It’s something he does through you when you put your yes on the table.
It’s not about you for him, it’s about him in you.
J.D. GREEAR (@jdgreear) is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and lead pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina. He’s the author of several books, including What Are You Going to Do with Your Life?, from which this article was excerpted and used with permission from B&H Publishing.