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Dave Ferguson: Making Heroes

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Dreaming Big, Starting Small and Multiplying Culture-Changing Leaders

Dave Ferguson is a man on a mission: to multiply a movement of reproducing leaders and churches. Well-known as the president of Exponential, a conference for church planters and multipliers, he also is a key founder (with his brother Jon) of the NewThing church-planting network, operating on four continents. Grounding all this work, Dave co-pastors, with Jon, Community Christian Church, a multisite church with 12 locations in the Chicago area. Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor sat down with Dave to discuss his key shaping influences, his commitment to being a multiplying “hero-maker” instead of clinging to platform, and the central mission that fuels it all.

Dave, take us back to the moment you knew you were called to ministry.

The passion first surfaced during the middle of my freshman year of college. I didn’t have any clear career direction, though I was thinking maybe I’d be an attorney or something. Politics intrigued me. But a question began to play on repeat in my mind: “What are you going to trade your life for?” It sounds kind of grandiose, but it pushed me. Whether the trade would come all at once, or over the next 60 years, I knew a trade would happen.

I began to think seriously about it. I didn’t have the language for it yet, but in essence, my heart wanted to trade my life to help people find their way back to God. I had grown up in a pastor’s home and had a very positive experience with church and ministry. But trading my life to help people find their way back to God? That was compelling to me in a new way. It wasn’t about seeking a pastorate; it was about living a passion.

I thought it through over the next few semesters of college and decided to start a new church that would start other churches. That, I thought, would help the most people find their way back to God—a process of multiplication.

So the vision for multiplying was there from the beginning?

Yes, though it grew. Part of this was the fact that when I was 4 and my brother Jon was 2, my parents moved from rural Missouri to Chicago to plant a church. I grew up in that, as part of a “restoration movement” church that sought to get back to New Testament Christianity. It grew to about 1,000, with people coming to faith and being baptized. They even went to multiple locations long before “multisite” was a word. Some of that was very formative. I saw church planting as good and natural. (And as an aside, my dad is one of our campus pastors now.)

Who in your life, mentors or otherwise, helped form you in that root passion?

Well, like most of us, my passion took a little while to find its feet. While still in college, I did some ridiculous but super-zealous things. [Laughs.] We started something called “The Soul-Winners Club.” [Groans.] I basically guilted every faculty member in the college to start doing door-to-door street evangelism. I just didn’t know anything else. We saw some people come to faith through it and get baptized, so I can’t knock that, but I had so much to learn.

But let’s talk people. One of the key, indispensable, there-from-the-very-beginning people is my brother Jon. He is one of the most important people in my life. We have done all of life together—from our D & J Lawn Service business as boys, to college roommates, to planting the church together 28 years ago, to founding NewThing, to writing books together in the present day. He is a remarkably accomplished leader, such a vital, integral player in my life and ministry.

My wife, Sue, is a forming influence as well. She’s a truth-teller, which I need, and has been the perfect complement with her drive and honesty, keeping me grounded and on track with home life as well as church life.

Dad, brother, wife … these close relationships have been so shaping. God has been extraordinarily kind through them. But I’ve often been in the right place at the right time for other strategic influences, too. Another key voice in my life is Carl George, founder of the metachurch model. Carl encouraged churches built on cell models that reproduce at every level. When I was just getting ready to plant, I basically pestered Carl to let me attend an exclusive conference where he was presenting, and even though I was a very green, yet-to-plant young pastor, it was formative.

Jon and I joke that Carl was our Obi-Wan Kenobi. If you read our book Exponential, in many ways it’s what I learned 20 years before, just applied. “Ah!” Carl said when he visited us in later years. “The unpainted version!” He presented this model of church that was about reproducing leaders, reproducing artists, reproducing at every level. He’d always say, “If you can reproduce micro, you can reproduce macro.” It all made sense. And we began to do it. Everyone on our team grabbed an apprentice leader, and we began trying to live out this idea that church could be its own reproductive model. And of course it worked—with leaders, small groups, large groups, everything.

Lyle Schaller was another vital influence. He was named the most influential Protestant leader in America in a 1988-89 survey, even ahead of Billy Graham. Well, Lyle lived in our area and came to our very first service at Naperville Central High School. We forged a real friendship.

Whenever I had a question about anything, I knew I could find him in our local library. He had this philosophy that if you gave him 40 hours in the library, he could write a book on anything. And he did—with over 50 books to his name. So I’d go with long lists of questions, and our relationship grew. He’d have me over to his house, and his wife, Agnes, would make brownies. What Peter Drucker was to church management, Lyle Schaller was to church life in North America, and I learned so much.

Most of the language that my work has helped get out there probably came from Lyle Schaller in his living room. I remember mentioning to Lyle that we were thinking of starting a second site. He said, “There are two things people want to know when they walk into a church: who’s in charge, and who can answer their questions. Oh, and you should call leaders who are the face of the place ‘campus pastors.’” “OK,” I said. “That works for me.” And we took that and went with it.

Now, I love church like I love the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Bulls. It’s like recreation. It’s fun. I love the organization, the leadership elements, all of it. In fact, I have to be careful that I don’t love it more than Jesus. So for me to have access to a brilliant futurist like Lyle, who loved church as much as me but knew so much more, was an incredible gift that God gave me.

I also have to mention Todd Wilson. He deserves a lot of kudos. While I’m the president of Exponential, Todd is the guy who makes the magic happen. He’s the wizard behind the curtain, pulling the strings, and has been important in my life.

One last name: Alan Hirsch. He has been a huge influence. Forgotten Ways helped give language to so much that we were feeling. So much of what we do at NewThing either came from Carl George or Alan Hirsch.

Tell us about your early days of planting.

The early days were so fun. Jon and I and our friends were the team, and though none of us made jack, there was such energy and passion. We had 465 people that came to our first service. That was awesome. But by the summer, it had shrunk to 135 or so.

Every church planter goes through the birth, whether it’s big or not, and then the onset of reality. Carl had observed that we’d only grow to the number of people we could properly take care of. So we decided to build small groups, add a second service, etc. We’ve grown almost every year since then—no real surges of dramatic growth, just stair steps at Community. There were disappointments, though—early decline in numbers, and then, within three years, the fact that only Jon and I were left of the original planting team. That was sad, a death of part of the dream as the others moved on. But overall, God has been very kind to our ministry from the beginning.

“Multiplying” has been a key word for you from the beginning. Trace it through the years and ministry that followed your plant.

Even before we had a public service, we had small groups and apprentices. Our leadership team would go to each other’s small groups to support each other and pretend like it was all fresh—even though we were even doing the same icebreakers at that point.

In retrospect, though, apprenticing leaders was the key thing that we did. We didn’t have nearly as much intention as instinct, but it was so the right thing. And the principles we learned in those early groups and apprentice relationships, we kept applying in different-sized groups. When we got ready to go multisite, we were able to say to the church, “All of you have been in small groups that have reproduced. Why do we reproduce? Because we have a leader who is ready to go out and reach new people.” And it made sense to people. It was already part of our culture.

We started reproducing leaders, small groups, services and locations. But it was 11 or 12 years before we planted a new church. Our youth pastor felt called to Denver, raised incredible support and we sent him out with about 35 key people from our church who moved from Chicago to Denver—quitting jobs, selling homes, transferring schools—to help him start the new church.

That’s a moment I look back on that gives me continued confidence in our strategy of multiplying at every level. In that moment I felt like I was losing a really key staff person, a bunch of wonderful families. That loss is real for a church. But it was the right thing to do. That ended up being the first church plant for NewThing. So in exchange for that “loss,” God began to birth a whole movement. There are about 1,200 churches that are part of NewThing now. Though every “trade” looks different, this kind of exchange is something that we all experience as we reproduce. Every loss brings gains.

That brings up a tough reality: Every multiplication involves a process of letting go. What have you learned about doing that?

Bob Buford has a saying that I love: “My fruit grows on other people’s trees.” I’ve tried to take that posture. We’re using language like “hero-maker” in our ministry. I’m not trying to be the hero of the story—I’m trying to make other people heroes. How can I, over and over again, invest in all kinds of leaders in God’s unfolding story?

But still—sending heroes means you say a lot of goodbyes.

Well, at first it was really hard. But once you’ve done it, there’s this principle: Your influence grows in exchange. We “lose” a beloved staff member and key members of our church. But in exchange? They began a whole network of churches that aren’t just influencing the United States, but the world. In God’s economy, you reap what you sow. And that actually happens. So, sometimes I get credit for sending people out in a humble or unselfish way, but the reality is that I benefit from that, too. It makes the process easier when you see the fruit of that for the larger mission.

In Part 2 of the interview, Dave Ferguson talks culture, helping people find their way back to God, and how he stays grounded and keeps his love for ministry from becoming idolatry.

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large for Outreach magazine, and author of The Listening Day: Meditations on the Way (Zeal Books). PaulJPastor.com