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Dave Ferguson: An Unprecedented Opportunity

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Don’t miss Part 1 of the Outreach Interview with Dave Ferguson—president of Exponential, founder of the NewThing church-planting network, and pastor of Community Christian Church in the Chicago area—in which he describes the vision for multiplication God gave him at an early age, and how he strives to make “heroes” who lead the church in multiplying disciples. Here, in Part 2, 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.

Let’s shift gears and talk culture for a minute. We are in a time of historic changes in attitudes and demographics. Where do church multipliers fit in the modern milieu?

Some leaders are up in arms these days as faith is in cultural “decline.” I’m not. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity. People are searching more today than any time in my lifetime. Let’s throw a few numbers around: 89 percent of the U.S. population believes in God or some higher power, according to Gallup. Only about one-third says they’re in church on any given weekend. When asked about their religious affiliation, a growing percentage (1 in 5) say, “None.”

Everybody seems freaked out by that. But what’s really happened? I think in the last generation, you’ve seen people simply walk away from faith that wasn’t really faith to begin with—inherited, nominal faith. “My parents are Baptist so I’m Baptist.” More people now have an investigative faith. They’re searching. Those “nones”? Many of them are trying—actively—to find spiritual truth. To find God. We have to help people find their way back to him. They haven’t found what works for them yet. In business terms, there’s a huge market share out there saying that they’ll still buy the product if someone just shows them how it works in their life.

For leaders, multipliers, planters and networks, this is a time of truly unprecedented opportunity. It’s dramatically increased in the last 10 years. People are in tune with generic spirituality and transcendence, longing to find meaning and truth and wonder. We just have to find ways to help them find their way back to God. They haven’t given up.

In light of that opportunity, what ministry frontiers should we explore?

It’s pretty simple: We need to join people in their seasons of investigative faith.

I have a friend I’ve been praying for for three years. Our boys run cross-country and track together. He has a tragic childhood story of abuse and neglect; he basically raised himself. About 20 years ago, he was in an accident with his best friend, who died brutally. My friend ended up going to jail. When he got out, he moved far away and tried to escape his horrible guilt and pain. Today, he’s a pretty successful executive.

He asked me, over breakfast one day, “I’ve had executive coaches. Will you be my spiritual coach?” “Of course,” I said.

When we began meeting, he began coming to our small group and opening up for the first time about his past. In the process of telling his story and understanding that God could forgive him, he discovered freedom. “I had been carrying around a bag of bricks,” he said, “and I traded it for a bag of feathers.”

He sent me a text at one point that said, “I used to hear people talk about being ‘born again’ and I would call bull—-. But now I believe it.”

Amazing. I got the chance to baptize him several months ago. He found his way back to God, but it wasn’t because of any grand strategy—it was because I was present in his life as he was asking big questions. I was simply trying to be a blessing in his life. Stories like this happen on personal and small-group levels, where people find each other and love each other. It’s just a relational thing that anyone can do. And that’s exactly how God meant for the church to work. That’s how people find their way back to God.

I know that’s been your mission statement from the beginning: “Helping people find their way back to God.” If that’s unchanged, what are the areas you’ve grown in over the course of your ministry?

We’ve always kept it pretty simple: large gatherings to celebrate, small groups to connect and going out into the world to contribute. The “how” of those has changed, but the “what” really hasn’t.

In terms of how I have grown as a leader, two things come to mind. The first has to do with money—I simply had to learn how finances work and to exercise wisdom in that area.

The second is being more in touch with my inner life and health. There are a lot of opportunities God has given to me right now—conferences, networks, writing, speaking. But there are also a lot of opportunities for my life to go out of control.

There’s something that I do on almost a daily basis—what we call the RPMs. It’s a way to gauge my relational, physical and mental well-being. I journal frequently, reflecting on where I am in each of those areas. This is an area of self-leadership, and it’s so healthy. We leaders need to learn how to lead ourselves, every day.

One thing that happens to leaders is that we drift—not usually ending up in a ditch suddenly, but slowly drifting over the course of days, months, years, until we are doing things and becoming someone that we never intended. For me, the simple act of reflection keeps me on track. I give myself a 1-to-10 score in each of those areas, and I’ll put an arrow trending up or down, like the stock market, to show some pattern or direction It’s not a cure-all, but it makes me stop every day to ask the right questions. You have to start lying to yourself in a profound way to drift past a daily check-in.

You mentioned an “unprecedented opportunity” for mission and ministry earlier. What is it that pastors and planters need to really own for themselves as we press forward?

I want us to change what “success” looks like in ministry. In my ministry lifetime, success has been largely measured by size. “Grow something really large.” I have nothing bad to say about large churches. I lead one. But I would love for our definition of success to be determined not just by size, but by multiplication. “Grow and multiply.”

Now we’re back to the question we started with: “What are you going to trade your life for?” If you, as a leader, want to leverage your life for impact, it will be by being that hero-maker—the person who raises and empowers others, the leader who multiplies leaders who can multiply. Are you finding younger leaders you can invest in? Can you make heroes out of them? Will you be able to use your growing platform to step right off it and put others on? How do you become the bow and someone else becomes the arrow? How do you invest in others?

I’m a big fan of large churches, because large churches have the opportunity to have tremendous influence for phenomenal multiplication. And what we’re trying to do at Exponential and NewThing and our other efforts is to put people on the stage who may have a significant measurable impact, but have done it through multiplication. We know that as young leaders see different people on a platform like that, they’ll want to mimic the multipliers.

One speaker we had at Exponential last year was Ralph Moore of Hope Chapel. He’ll tell you upfront that he struggles with some self-esteem issues, that he’s not the most compelling communicator from the stage. But his ministry has planted more than 1,000 churches. When he starts doing the math, there are hundreds of thousands of people he’s impacting. Which, if you think about impact just by the numbers, is X-times the influence of some of the largest churches in North America. Looking at a guy like Ralph, who may not exactly fit the polished, articulate, confident conference-speaker mold, it’s possible to glance past this incredible impact he’s having. He becomes an example of true success. Pointing to him is an example of what it means to leave a tremendous legacy. Hero-makers can impact not only thousands or tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of people over the course of a lifetime.

You mentioned that your love for church is so strong that you have to be careful not to love it more than Jesus. Other leaders will relate. How do you nourish your spirit in the midst of service?

For me, a few things keep my focus where it needs to be. One is the daily discipline of journaling. Corporate worship holds me there as well—saying that feels like a cheesy sermon point but it’s true. Truly seeking to worship in our gatherings does great things for me.

But you know what else helps me? When I hear other people’s stories of how they found their way back to God. That makes it real. It reignites the original passion. We have—all churches have—the most incredible people, with the most incredible stories—simple stories, tragic stories, even funny stories. As they found their way back to God, they overcame trauma, addiction, loss. They all remind me of what I am trading my life for. To make heroes, to follow this mission, we all share in helping people find their way back to God. That’s what keeps my attention where it should be, reminding me that this is about Jesus, not just leadership development or organizational designs, or all those things (that I love!) that can distract me. Watching people encounter God—that does it for me.

We recently had a dinner with about a dozen emerging leaders in our church, people we want to really invest in. We brought them all together and asked them to tell the story of how they joined our church and team. And several of them found their way back to God at Community. I could feel emotion well up inside me when they each told their story.

What advice would you give the “hero-makers” reading this?

First, dream big. When we started Community, we were a bunch of college friends who had a breakfast meeting to determine what we wanted this church to be. We basically outlined a threefold vision. Phase 1: We wanted to be an impact church, making a neighborhood impact wherever we go. We wanted to be a church that, if we left, the neighborhood would ask what they needed to do to get us back. Phase 2: We wanted to be a reproducing church. Phase 3: We wanted to be a movement. [Laughs.] I mean, I was 25, Jon was 23, and my buddy was 21. You almost have to be that young to dream that way.

But that’s how we talked and how we prayed—that God would bless us to catalyze a movement. Even when we started NewThing and we had all of about seven church planters sitting in a room here at Community, we’d ask things like, “How can we reach a billion people?” Ridiculous. But don’t hesitate to dream that way. Read Acts 1:8—Jesus’ dream for the church is the “ends of the earth.” That is a very big dream. We have to grab that big dream.

That brings me to the second point: Start small. The way you do that is simply finding one or two people to apprentice. No matter what you’re doing, invest in them. Then, when they think they’re ready and you think you’re ready (there’s no secret formula for this), they are ready. Bring people along with you. Let them hang out with you. Rub off on people. Help them any way you can. Be available. That’s what shaped me in the early days, and what is driving my ministry to multipliers. It is small things that can make heroes, and heroes can change the world.

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