The Start-With-Twelve ‘Strategy’

Jesus-and-the-Apostles-by-Duccio-DiBuoninsegnacaIt’s a veritable fact of sociology: If you start with a crowd (50-100 people in church planting) you can build a bigger crowd with surprising speed (Most mega churches start with at least 50-100 people from another church). Because the 50-100 people bring with them already firmly ensconced expectations of what ‘church’ will be, what results will most probably be more of the same. But revolutions start in smaller intimate groups where people have a presence with each other. The conversations germinate something new and contextual. It takes longer. But it develops something truly interwoven and sustainable.

Jesus started with twelve. If we seek not to replicate more of the same, and to truly engage our changing context, we must go the way of Jesus in church planting. Wouldn’t you agree?

This also applies to changing the culture of an existing church. Often, when we are faced with a church in decline, a leader’s first move is to make the church somehow more relevant. Upgrade music, make worship more contemporary, have a sermon series on sex etc etc. We can then take the 50 people or so that are left and draw a new larger crowd. Again, this generally produces more of the same, just updated a bit. Often it fails. Instead, as we come alongside our churches in decline, I propose we should seek out a smaller group (I like the number twelve) and begin to cultivate a conversation, pray to together listening for the Spirit in our midst, begin to train in a mutual way of life where we spend most of our time in the daily rhythms of our neigbourhood context, and allow the Spirit to slowly ferment something new. This will take longer. This will take many cups of coffee calling people into this new exciting life together. But when you find twelve, together willing to submit to Jesus as Lord in this context, a truly beautiful manifestation of the Kingdom will erupt (eventually – give it 5 years). At the outset, this will not generate a buzz of excitement that a larger crowd does. But if cultivated well and consistently, I suggest it promises something new springing forth that no one could have predicted.

I call this the “start with twelve” strategy. What do you think? How have you experienced this dynamic? Why do we rarely try this in church turnarounds?

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Posted in Church Planting, Ecclesiology, Incarnational, Missional Leadership
13 comments on “The Start-With-Twelve ‘Strategy’
  1. Nathan Smith says:

    Helpful Dave. Been wrestling with this for along time. Missiologists will tell you that we need at least 2-3% of the population following Jesus in a country for there to be spontaneous and sustainable church growth. I’ve always wondered – is that true of any religion then? How does Kingdom faith – which is faith given by God for God’s purposes get understood when 2-3% represents a dynamic which can be true of Islam and Hinduism as much as Christianity. I dislike numbers at the end of the day.

  2. So what does (anabaptist) success look like? :-)

    And I do mean the word “success” with some quantitative hooks. While I love and live house/small church approaches… often these groups start small and remain small.

    Small may feel good, but what if small = little impact?

    And I think we would say: “*start* with 12″ not end there… but I’m not sure I have seen the growth curve (I hear shudders) from a highly relational 12 to a highly functional, high impact 300 be navigated well.

    Even a structure of 150 (if this is our invisible line) needs scaffolding that the 12 does not.

    Is it easy to talk about how to planting seedlings and more difficult to talk about tending forests?

    Them’s the honest questions.
    - CR

  3. David Fitch says:

    Chris …Anabaptist success? how many people we know and are present with weekly in our communities? How many disciples are being baptised knowing what they’re doing? How many people are entering the Kingdom over a ten year period? :) Hope this helps

  4. Dave – Good starts but maybe unsatisfying. Those are the same metrics the mega-church would use, yes?

    Since here you’re advocating one approach of church planting or re-planting (or revolution-building if we like) over another that is specifically set apart by a set of numbers (i.e. 12 over 50-100), I was asking what might be different in the ongoing metrics past that.

    I guess I have been wondering if the plea for “small” and “patient” ministry—which I’m sympathetic to—doesn’t typically wind up yielding churches like so many at an Exponential Conference that are spawning 6 venues around a city in 3 years, each at 200 ppl and heavy small group engagement. So I’m left with 2 conclusions:
    1. either we are committed a priori to method regardless of success,
    2. or we are trying to measure success differently

  5. JR Rozko says:

    Not at all the same as mega-church (read: communities guided by Christendom-shaped, American Protestant sensibilities). Here, the guiding metrics, by and large, are sheer numerical growth, hands raised/decisions counted, and territorial expansion.

    I would venture to say that “success” under the ecclesiological paradigm Dave is advocating here can never be quantified – it can only be narrated. This is the logical implication of abandoning a pragmatic framework (what “works”) in favor of a theological one (what is faithful). Faithfulness can’t be counted, it has to be discerned and this requires the presence of a community that is close enough to understand the narrative being told.

    This might be obscured by the fact that Dave is still using the language of “how many” above, but I’d assume that the priority lies not there, but on what follows – “knowing and being with,” knowledgable baptisms,” and “entering the Kingdom.” Yes, we want these things in increasing measure, but we do not what (this is where the a priori thing enters the picture) these things at the expense of faithfulness.

  6. I see your point, and agree with some of it, & definitely affirm the value of small group dynamics as affording possibilities of building more important virtues into church life from the beginning. But, on the other hand, here is another thing-to-consider:
    the longer a group of twelve goes, the more unwilling they usually become to relinquish all that inherent exclusiveness and warm intimacy by sharing it with “outsiders.”

    Two obvious examples: one, more than HALF of all small groups fostered by churches fail to generate a second small group, even though most churches with deliberate small group organization encourage their groups to calve off (according to several books on the phenomenon I read, which corroborate my own observations over the past 30 years). Two (by my perhaps rogue interpretation of what Luke is subtly telling us in Acts 1 & 2), before the Spirit came in power, Peter looks around and says, “Hey guys, we used to be 12 and now we’re 11; we’ve got to restore the equilibrium, so let’s get our heads together and select someone to replace the one that’s missing.” They do, and everybody seems content now: we’re back to our original little group. . . . but what the Holy Spirit wants to do, and does, a few verses/days later, is blow open the doors and bring in THREE THOUSAND new people to their little band of 12 (or 120, depending on how you see the “core.”)

    So I’m not convinced that keeping the church-planting core at 12 for an extended period of time is maximally effective. It’s a good number for training leaders, and it’s a good number for sustaining and growing interpersonal ministry in the Body. But for church planting . . . ? I dunno.

    One last (maybe too personal) reference: you know that both your own folks and a group from College Church in Wheaton decided to transplant a cluster of folks to Hyde Park in Chicago over the past few years. They (College Church Wheaton) took from their deep pockets and overflowing population and seeded Hyde Park with lots and lots of both money and personnel to start & support their project. You know what the Alliance has done in Hyde Park. Are there any observations to be made from comparing these two quite differing methodologies or philosophies of church planting?

  7. David Fitch says:

    Gene …
    there are many reasons behind the history there in Hyde Park … which we could talk about and explore, but probably not in a public forum … And starting with 12 is about working with/training leaders and shaping a culture … Blessings DF

  8. JR –

    Yes, good thoughts, and your answer is the one I’d expect. Sorta my “#2″ above: talking about “success” in a different way, in your case, “narrating success.” So I’m very much attracted to that articulation, and in many ways I think the qualitative does teach us more than the quantitative.

    But…. :) that’s at the root of my question. What happens when and if “3000 are added” as Gene notes above. ASSUMMING (and this is key) the “theological faithfulness.” What then? Do we shake our hands and try to reverse it? Celebrate it publicly but secretly wish it never happened? Continue to try building leaders in a circle of 12 as if it didn’t happen? Or worst, assume it can’t and shouldn’t happen?

    My wondering is that it seems the stated approach is designed to work from the edges, the minorities, the startups, and the small groups. Love it. But if more people are baptized, if communities grow: if it “works” (forgive me—I’m not sure I can completely abandon that word!), how do we think about the centers, the majorities, the experienced communities and the large groups?

    Dave certainly isn’t trying to address all that here in a blog post. But his “start with 12″ thought is simply returning me to this gnawing thought that an missional anabaptist wouldn’t have any idea what to do with a community of 500 people.

  9. JR Rozko says:

    Oooh, I see what you are after. That is a great question to engage. Let’s see what Dave has to say…

  10. David Fitch says:

    Huh? how do we deal with the 3000? first of all, as I understand it, the 3000 were dispersed from Pentecost. It was a gigantic feast day gathering of Jews, many of who were from all over the Mediteranean and the returned home to their synagogues, and began to gather in their homes on Sundays, in celebration of the resurrection morning. If churches grow, whcih I expect they will, we split? and the arhitechture for me has always been split somewhere between 120-and 200. But that’s just me, and it’s no hard and fast rule. We must discern. Having said that I have found that dynamics change and create various issues around 200+ . I wrote about this once here: http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/?p=3687
    You and I have talked about Dunbar’s Number. What do you think?

    • Jason Evans says:

      I think the basis of success, maybe not anabaptist totally, is development of community. If you have 1000, 3000, etc. meeting together on Sunday morning for a service, it is up to the individual to maintain throughout the week. If, on the other hand, you have 12-50 living in the same mile radius, getting together regularly though the week around the neighborhood, sharing life and recognizing where God is at work, we have a greater oppertunity for the rest to happen. If we are all separated by 8, 10 or more miles, then how do we make the oppertunities happen when many of us have families, work and whatever? Just my thought, hopefully it helps?

  11. Steven Tomberlin says:

    I am very new to the “missional” concept and forum. So please forgive my ignorance in my discussions. What I am seeing from my perspective is a desire to identify the principles of God that He uses in growing His body and fulfilling His mission until the return of Christ. Jesus taught the principles of God through the applications of parables and ministry. He constantly referred to His ministry as simply saying what the Father was saying to him and doing the works that the Father was doing. Dave, your strategy of “starting with twelve” is a viable application that Jesus used in spreading his ministry. There were many more that followed him during those three years that came and went. It seems that his “church membership” would experience a lot of roller coaster effects in numbers. However, that did not seem to bother Jesus. He expected that many would choose the pleasures and cares of the world over the ways of God. God has always worked with a remnant of faithful followers to impact the masses. Multiplying that group of twelve successfully will occur in the same manner as in Acts, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, not by man. I think we fail when we forget this principle, the Spirit of God is our Source. And it is Him that chooses the right time for multiplying the twelve.

  12. Kelly says:

    Hi Dave. I don’t know if this will help but here is what I have experienced.
    I love the idea of starting with 12 but to answer your two last questions, most people don’t have the patience or time to “give it 5 years”.
    I have tried to “turnaround” two different churches in the last 5 years. Both had 2 Elders and in each situation the Elders were on board with the turnaround. One church was 40 and the other 85. At the church with 40 in small town Texas I lasted about 5 months. There were a number of factors that lead to this church not making it, like being terribly unhealthy to begin with but ultimately since numbers weren’t up and giving down, they gave up and within 4 months of my leaving that church closed its doors. At the church of 85, which again was an unhealthy place to begin with, I was able to invest 2 years. We did a lot of cool transformational stuff but in the end because of money and a belief within the church that success means bigger numbers, which we weren’t generating, we married a local mega church. I’m no longer there and neither are those who we were reaching but the 50 or so church folk are as pleased as pie.
    If I had just found 10 or 12, began to pray, listen, study and implement a more missional mindset slowly while doing “church” for the other 70, maybe things would have been different but I didn’t have the luxury of time. Both churches had buildings that required a certain amount of money to sustain them. I was working to try to make both places more user friendly as a community resource center where we rented out space, used it as office space and whatever else we could think of to generate money apart from a weekly tithe. In the end though, people just couldn’t get around not having “church” on the building, or renting space to someone who doesn’t go to church there, or allowing a wedding where people could drink, or that I had started a pub style outreach in a redecorated room on the back of the building, etc.
    So, if I had to do it all over again, I would get 12 or so and begin to pray and listen but I would also immediately do what I could to remove the pressure of building costs and I would do it in such a way, if even possible, to take that pressure off of the regular church goers. At my last church when they new we needed $5000 a month and were only pulling in $3500, they always seemed to think that the end wasn’t far off and instead of the place feeling alive with possibility and new faces, it would begin feel like a hospice facility and the new faces would say, “Whats wrong with these people”.
    Kelly

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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