A Task Too Big for Loners (Pt. 2): Scaling the Great Commission

In this series, Justin Long equips you with ideas for building apostolic networks—what some may call pioneer missionary startups, or swarms. This will be your “band of believers” who will make a difference in the world.


Over 4 billion people profess to be non-Christians. At least half of those are estimated by researchers to have no knowledge of Christ, Christianity or the Gospel. Some 86% of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not personally know a Christian. As we noted in the last issue—“The Great Commission is too big for anyone to accomplish alone and too important not to try to do together.”

With the enormity of the Great Commission before us, we need ways to get the Gospel to lots of people.

With modern mass media tools, it’s not that difficult to do. But it’s not enough to get the Gospel to everyone living today. We have to look to the future, too. Every day, tens of thousands of babies are born among the unevangelized. The Gospel given today will not help them, it will be years before they are old enough to hear and understand. We have to create an evangelistic and discipling presence that can reach everyone in a place both now and in the future.

Tweet this: It’s not enough to get the Gospel to everyone today. We must look to the future, too. @justindlong @vergenations

To reach everyone in a particular place—not just the people we know, but also the children of the future—is a problem of scale.

Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and co-founder of Y Combinator, describes this problem:

For a company to grow really big, it must (a) make something lots of people want, and (b) reach and serve all those people. Barbershops are doing fine in the (a) department. Almost everyone needs their hair cut. The problem for a barbershop, as for any retail establishment, is (b). A barbershop serves customers in person, and few will travel far for a haircut. And even if they did the barbershop couldn’t accommodate them. Writing software is a great way to solve (b), but you can still end up constrained in (a). If you write software to teach Tibetan to Hungarian speakers, you’ll be able to reach most of the people who want it, but there won’t be many of them. If you make software to teach English to Chinese speakers, however, you’re in startup territory.

A single church, like a barbershop, has a maximum capacity. In some churches, you can even see “maximum capacity” printed on a sign in the auditorium. When a church is regularly exceeding this capacity in its services, it starts talking about needing a new building. The problem with this thinking was outlined for me by Roy Moran in a conversation we had about the Shoal Creek Movement:

We were praying for the 300,000 people living within 30 minutes of us. We wanted to make it hard for them to go to hell. We felt responsible for seeing those people connect with the Gospel, for putting the genuine story of God in front of them. Our building, which seats 1,000, wasn’t a viable model for the 300,000. In fact, if you put all the seats in all the churches together, they wouldn’t hold 300,000. If your strategy doesn’t meet Jesus’ dreams, you need to change the strategy.

Tweet this: If your strategy doesn’t meet Jesus’ dreams, you need to change the strategy. @roymoran @justindlong @vergenations

To get an idea of the challenges of scale, estimate in your mind the number of people who attend your own church. How many digits are in the number? 

  • If there is one digit (e.g. 9), you can probably meet in a house, and everyone will know everyone.
  • If there are two digits (e.g. if you grow to 15), you might be meeting in two houses (somewhere along the way, the group might “divide.”).
  • Add yet another digit (e.g. 153), and now you’re facing choices about buildings or movements.
  • Now, let’s add one more digit (e.g. 1,532) and you have exceeded the size of most church buildings.
  • Another digit (15,320) and you’re one of the biggest churches in the world, with very special needs.
  • Yet one more digit (153,203) and you have reached your population of 100,000 (and you’re certainly outside of any single congregation).
  • Now . . . what if you add one more digit?

In the world of business, a startup is designed to scale up fast through these orders of magnitude.

Only a tiny number of companies are startups. There is a difference, Paul Graham wrote, between a barbershop and Google. Likewise, there is a difference between a church and a church planting movement.

Startups and movements are engineered to rapidly reach a six- or seven-digit user base, and as a result must act in a different way than businesses and churches designed to reach four digits (e.g. 1,532):

  • If you engineer to reach four digits, you will optimize the processes required to reach and maintain a building, programs, and a megachurch population.
  • If you engineer to reach six digits, you will optimize the processes designed to exist in multiple sites, or mainly through house churches, as a decentralized network.
  • If you engineer to reach seven or eight digits, you will be optimizing for maximum multiplication, personal accountability, and the use of a few, very sticky, very Biblical discipleship models.

Readers of a photographer’s blog might number in the hundreds or thousands. Users of Instagram, a photo sharing platform, number more than 200 million.

Shakira, arguably one of the top Facebook Fan Pages (for the musician), has 102 million followers. But Facebook, as a whole, has more than 1.6 billion users.

The normal small business, corporation, church, or blog is a relationship of some kind between one entity and their audience. A startup is designed to be used as a platform by the audience to achieve certain goals.

If you want to start a church and serve people, that will require one set of skills (which I won’t address here). But if you want to reach everyone in an area—if you want to reach tens of thousands of people—you’ll be building a movement that inspires, equips and empowers disciples (Christ-followers) to make disciples who make disciples, in multiple generations.

But scaling up is not without its challenges.

To begin with, movements take a long time to start. In the business world, startups often talk about seeking the “viral product” and “pivoting” until they find their “takeoff moment.” Aspiring movements can spend years seeking their first “person of peace” who will introduce the Gospel to their friends and family, starting the multiplication process.

In our eagerness to get started, some with a certain force of personality will try to use their charisma to gather believers—but this will usually only get you as far as the 1st or 2nd generation (four-digit church sizes). Even if you’re not particularly charismatic, if and when a movement does seem to start, excitement about the 1st and 2nd generation can lead to activities that prevent us from reaching 4th generation and beyond.

One of the big challenges is in being willing to fade into the background. Once the movement is beyond 4th generation, many in the later generations will not even know the founders (how many people personally know the founders of Instagram or Facebook, for example?). To build this kind of sustainable movement means building leaders, sharing leadership roles, and being willing to forego the “credit.” It also requires finding people who truly “own” the movement—those who aren’t in it for the money, but who have a passion for the people in the area.

As a movement gains traction, it becomes more visible, and more people from the outside will want in on “the great thing God is doing.” Unfortunately a lot of people (especially Westerners, to our shame) get “in” through funding models. Many mean well, some seek influence or credit. What we have seen most often is that the injection of money most often causes dependency and kills a movement. When the money goes away, the activity of people will dry up when they are no longer being paid.

Moreover, as a movement gains traction, others will begin trying to tell those in the movement “how church ought to be done.” But things that work elsewhere will probably not work where the movement is, and could in fact introduce ideas that are not scalable. Extra-Biblical ideas may very well be good, and may be great elsewhere, but could kill the growth of a movement.

If all this seems complicated and difficult—maybe near impossible—it is.

Building a movement is not like building a church:

  • It takes the extraordinary commitment of John Knox, who desperately prayed, “Give me Scotland, or I die!”
  • It takes the vision and courage of Patrick, who returned to the people who enslaved him because he loved them so much.
  • It takes the willingness to endure years of seemingly fruitless work, like Adoniram Judson in Burma, where the church grew only after his death.
  • It takes a commitment knowing that some disciples in the movement will be persecuted, and possibly even martyred.
  • It takes a willingness to build something that may not be readily visible, for the larger a movement is, often the less it can be measured, known and seen.

Tweet this: Building a movement is not like building a church. @justindlong @vergenations

Yet the simple truth is that only mission efforts that scale will ever stand in the promise-stream of Matthew 24: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world . . . and then the end will come.” Because new children are coming into the world every day, the Gospel must be preached now, and in the “new world” borne every minute.

Planting individual churches is of course important—it’s an indispensable part of a movement. But just as a forest is greater than any one tree, so a movement is greater than any one church. Individual churches live, grow and die, but the movement lives on, just as a forest outlives trees cut down and fires that rage.

Tweet this: As a forest is greater than one tree, so a movement is greater than one church. @justindlong @vergenations

Tweet this: Movements that scale up depend on activities which can be done by everyone. @justindlong @vergenations

Apostolic teams that focus on starting movements that scale up must seek out those kinds of activities which can be done by everyone:

  • Not everyone can rent a building and gather hundreds of seekers, but most (all?) can open their homes for a Bible study.
  • Not everyone can speak publicly to thousands, but all can share their heart over coffee at a cafe.
  • Not everyone can buy the curriculum for a well-known Bible study, but all can recount a Bible story to friends and ask, “What is there in this story that we ought to obey?”
  • Not everyone can carry out a mass vaccination campaign, but anyone can ask their neighbor, “How can I pray for you?”

Gospel movements are focused on making disciples who make disciples who make disciples—scaling up—and together we can be the Body of Christ, caring for one another and reaching out to be a blessing to those around us. Hard work done not for credit or glory, and not merely for the sake of serving a “remnant,” but in order that everyone in a place has the chance to call on the name of the Lord and be saved.

Photo Credit: Riley Briggs [CC0] via unsplash.com