According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian population is growing at the rate of 1.5% per year, whereas church attendance is in significant decline. It is true that in some areas (e.g. the Anglican Diocese of Sydney) attendance is so far keeping pace with population growth, however, this is mostly due to what I call the ‘Transferee Mirage’. This is the fact that growth is actually transfer growth, not the result of missional effectiveness because of fruitful obedience to Jesus command to “Go and make disciples’” i.e. conversion growth. This transfer growth is particularly from immigration, in fact it is immigrant congregations that are growing the most.
The only way to reverse the overall trend of church decline is for there to be a rapid rate of increase in the number of new converts.This will require a corresponding increase in the number of Christian fellowships. If this is not achieved then the church will continue on its rapid journey, ever fading towards irrelevancy, retreating to an ever expanding periphery of Australian society. Such a rapid increase in the number of Christian fellowships simply cannot be achieved by ‘Classic’ church planting using a strategy of ‘adding’ largely standard size congregations (i.e. 50 plus) because it cannot be done fast enough and in any case it is not affordable.
Multiplication by Cloning
A mathematical analysis of the National Church Life Survey data clearly indicates that an overall ‘Multipication’ strategy is essential, for it is the only way that the negative trends can be reversed. Such multiplication can only be achieved by the expansion of small inexpensive missional communities.
An example of a basic ‘multiplication by cloning’ strategy is ‘CrossNet’, a network south of Sydney which started with one very small group meeting in a coffee shop. Over a period of three or so years this multiplied by cloning to create similar cells meeting in other coffee shops but also in clubs and pubs. Basically the new groups were similar to the original except for differences in the type of location.
Another example is Sorted. This is an Anglican missional community in Bradford, England that started and developed in a Skateboard park and then multiplied itself several times.
When it happens that we can’t find an existing word for what we wish to communicate there is always the option of inventing one. Hence ‘Mutiplication’. I doubt whether this word will ever appear in the Oxford Dictionary let alone be the ‘word of the year’ but I think it describes something essential for future mission, and which I would argue can only take place when the church is set free (Unbound) from its current forms, thinking and strategies for mission to the Australian culture.
The multiplication argued for above is essential but it does not necessarily mean cloning as is often assumed. Rather what is needed for at least part of the multiplication strategy is ‘Mutiplication’ , that is multiplication by Mutation.
The reason for this is that Australian society is not like the largely ethnically homogenous, single language, all available for ‘church on Sundays’ European societies that the contemporary church model was developed in and designed for. Rather it is a shimmering mosaic of ethnically, linguistically, frequently working or playing on Sundays, ‘live work and play’ micro communities.
Given that our modern society is such a mosaic, a matrix of tribes all defined and shaped very differently from one another, there is a need for a kaleidoscope of designer missional communities to penetrate and embed themselves in the varying pieces of the mosaic. A strategy that multiplies only one particular type of new missional community will be little more effective than our current one size fits all type of ‘church’. Thus the essential multiplication of ‘Unbound Church’ communities, in order to embed gospel seeds in the mosaic of micro-communities, must be by mutating gospel inserts-hence not just ‘Multiplcation’ but ‘Mutiplication’ is required i.e. giving rise to a wide variety of new Christian community forms.
‘Mutiplication’ happens when some members leave one type of ‘Unbounded Church’ expression e.g. in a coffee shop and form a mutated expression of a completely different type, a Playgroup or a group that which was established not long ago in a Melbourne Smash Repairer’s Yard for example. Again, multiplication does not have to mean by cloning, the possible range of spiritual mutations is only limited by our imaginations.
As argued above both multiplication by cloning and by mutation strategies are necessary in order to create an increase in the number and variety of new Christian fellowships required to penetrate the mosaic of tribes. However, there is a third option that is already being employed with significant success, and that is Modification. Essentially this involves the re-engineering of the DNA of an existing activity or group, which may be a secular group or a current non-missionally fruitful church activity. Two examples may help illustrate.
One example again is CrossNet where, in addition to its cloned multiplication, some of its ‘Unbounded’-type communities were formed by ‘Modification’ of existing groups and activities. This occurred when previous members of cell groups imported ‘Unbounded Church’ DNA into an existing 30 person strong playgroup causing it to be re-engineered into a ‘Playgroup’ that was a ‘Church for those who come’. This included Christian songs, a bible reading and talk, prayer times and pastoral care for members. About 80% of the attendees were non-church members.
A similar process occurred in the (spiritual) genetic re-engineering of a standard youth group by the importation of ‘Unbounded Church’ DNA. This turned it into ‘The Hub’ a ‘Youth, Children and Adults Unbounded Church Community’. Clearly neither of the above examples looked anything like the coffee shop type cells but were shaped by exactly the same New Testament-voiced DNA for Christian community.
More recently another Sydney Anglican church has begun to use a similar DNA ‘Modification’ approach to apply ‘Unbounded Church’ principles to an existing Playgroup.
A fourth way of developing and growing an ‘Unbounded Church’ network is by what might be called ‘ModelConstruction. This means the specific construction of a wide variety of designer missional community models for specific pieces of the mosaic. Multiplication occurs by ‘constructing’ an expanding range of models and targets of missional groups. This does not mean however that any of the model constructs once established cannot then begin to multiply by cloning or mutation strategies.
An example of a “Model Construction’ strategy is an Anglican Parish in Shrewsbury, England. Their network now includes an original type ‘Messy Church’, with up to 100 people on mid-week afternoons; a mini-‘Messy Church’ for under 5s one weekday morning; a ‘Youth Community’ of about 60 non-church young people; a ‘Walking Community; a ‘Coffee’ fellowship in conjunction with a local medical practice; a ‘Seniors’ Lunch’ community with hymns, prayers and a talk. Membership of the whole network grew from 200 to 500 in four years.
All the evidence is that current largely ‘Classic’ church planting strategies continue to fail to increase the number of Christian fellowships at anything like the rate required for mission to a rapidly growing population. To rely on such a strategy only will condemn the church to increasing irrelevance.
All the above described strategies are the outworking of the intrinsic spiritual DNA of the ‘Unbounded Church’ concept, expressions of which are defined by their New Testament DNA NOT by any particular form. It is about creating new forms of Christian fellowships that are culturally accessible to the non-churched members of society, an accessibility defined by-
‘Their place, their style, their language, their way’
Such an approach is intentionally specifically designed for mission and, in virtually all characteristics, is as far as it can be from the commonly used missional strategies of the standard Sunday-Centric, In-Drag, Christendom-form church model.
In order for the church to achieve significant missional fruitfulness, rather than continuing to be a declining influence in Australian society, there is need for a ‘Multiplication’ of new fellowships strategy. This does not however just mean ‘cloning’ as many take it to be. Rather to release the full potential of the ‘Unbounded Church’ concept requires that the missional community networks grow not just by cloning ‘Multiplication’ but also by ‘Mutiplication’ and/or Modification’, and/or ‘Model Construction’ strategies that will vastly increase the number of cultural contexts in which new missional fellowships can be embedded.
As stated at the beginning of this article, failure to achieve this, (and yes colossally difficult it will be) will mean that-
“the church will continue on its rapid journey towards an ever fading irrelevancy retreating to an ever expanding periphery of Australian society”.
Our prayer must be, and our wholehearted efforts must be concentrated such, that by God’s grace this will not be so.