Tim O’Neill, Exec. Chair
Exponential Australia.

Wisdom from the Professor

The Professor shocked my wife and myself when he said that a recent decision of the leaders of the church was obscene and that what they were planning to do was obscene and an abomination!

I sat with my wife Sharon and a well known professor of a Theological Seminary in the USA. The Professor was regarded as a co-founder of one of the most influential churches in the world. The year was 1999.

What he had to say to us left a mark in my thinking that has lasted all the years since then.

He referred to Genesis 2:24 and explained that this verse gave insights into God’s model for the propagation of community; its multiplication and spread.

“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and unites with his wife, and they become a new family.” (Genesis 2:24 NET)
Then he referred to Ephesians 5:32 where Paul repeats this verse and goes on to say:
“This mystery is great – but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” (NET)

The Professor went on to say that this pattern should be normative for all aspects of Christian community whether it be small groups or even churches themselves. Healthy groups should multiply, and healthy churches should also multiply.

He was saying that multiplication should be in the DNA of Christian community and that Paul was specifically saying that this was a God given design for the church. This design to multiply was also reflected repeatedly in the early chapters of Genesis (ie in Genesis 1:28) where God instructed mankind to “Be fruitful and multiply …”
This church of significant international influence that he had helped start had changed it’s agenda and had dropped it’s plans to use it’s mighty resources to plant many new soul wining churches.

Why? Because they had decided instead to use the church’s resources to grow bigger; building a bigger auditorium (which cost approximately A$100 million) and extending its campus to grow in size and influence.

As a result, multiplication and the opportunity to spread the gospel far and wide through the planting of many new churches had been put aside in favour of the pursuit of the goal of growth.

My head started spinning as I listened to the Professor and processed what he was saying. He was challenging what I had understood was the normal direction. One course of action would feed growth; the other multiplication. I was challenged as I began to see that the growth direction wasn’t always the right one.

Sadly, attendance at that church has now declined significantly. The growth goal and plan may have worked for a while. But today we see a poor reflection of what was envisioned in the glory days; the vision that the Professor told my wife and I was an abomination and obscene.

So let’s go back to Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:32 and unpack five thoughts about what God wants us to know about propagating community.

1. We Need To Raise Our Kids To One Day Leave Home

Let me ask you a question. What do you call a family that doesn’t allow or encourage its children to leave home? Dysfunctional and controlling are some of the words that immediately jump to my mind.

One of the most critical tasks in parenting is to bring up our kids so that they mature and will be able to make their own way in the world; making their own decisions with wisdom, having children and raising their own families. We will never see this happen if we always treat them like children.

Now, what do you call a church that doesn’t allow or encourage its spiritual children to leave the nest? I’ll leave that question for you to answer!

Jesus was sent by His Father and He calls us to make disciples. He also showed us the way by sending His disciples out, telling them “…As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21 ESV). Jesus calls us to be multipliers; disciples who make more disciples, leaders who raise leaders and spiritual families that send out their children to start new spiritual families.

2. Our Kids Will Be Able To Reach People We Can’t

When my son’s friends used to come around for a hit of cricket or a kick of footy, I used to enjoy having a hit or a kick with them. We all got along well. But I knew that I wasn’t the person they were coming to have a good time with. My son was. He spoke their language, knew the music they liked, had experiences and friendships in common, and were at similar life stages. He could relate to them in a way that I couldn’t; even though I got on well with them.

Whilst my kids who are all grown up and married now have DNA that was sourced from my wife and myself, it’s different. Likewise their culture. It’s similar but different as it has been developed in a different age with different influences. And it needs to be that way. Understanding this I quickly realised that my kids could reach people I couldn’t.

The same parallels apply to churches. My wife and I planted a church nearly 30 years ago. I’d like to think that we can be a spiritual home for anyone and everyone, but I know that a church that was planted today by our church’s spiritual children would be able to reach people we can’t.

3. Their New Families Will Look Different To Ours

Like young families, young church plants are often vibrant but they can be messy. And they have to deal with messy issues with sometimes messy people who are struggling with issues people of my age may not have encountered. Before they want solutions, they want people who will listen to them and relate to them. Messy young churches are often better at this than tidy, clean older churches.

I have come across quite a few men and women who are gifted to pioneer and lead new churches, but the model of past years is a challenge to them; at times scaring them off. How we do church needs to evolve.

It always needs to evolve. Modern music and principles from the church growth era helped the church evolve, but we can’t park there thinking that we have arrived at the destination. We need to continue on the journey. Our kids are best placed to allow the new and radical, the experimental and the innovative to happen as they leave the family of origin to start a new family.

As parents we have such an important role to play in raising but then releasing our kids into a world that was different to the one we grew up in. And to do this successfully they will need to do things differently to us. So too with our spiritual children and their new families.

4. The Parents Have A Role To Play At The Centre Of Family Get Togethers

I love it when my kids and their wives, husband and grandchild (soon to be grandchildren!) come around for a meal or share a few days away together. It’s always a great time of connecting and listening, having robust conversations (because we are all very opinionated!), laughing a lot, catching up on what’s gone on, how each person is doing and basically loving each other.

Church leaders, we can do the same with the spiritual children who leave us to propagate community by forming their own families. When we relate with them like this, we see a relational network of leaders and their churches developed. We can be an apostolic network that encourages rather than controls our growing family as we relate lovingly to them.
It provides our children and in turn their families with the comfort and security that comes from knowing that they are loved, they are accepted and they are part of something bigger than themselves.

5. Parents Can Share Their Wisdom and Advice

As parents of grown children who have left home to started their own families, it’s a big mistake to exert our own expectations on them. Rather we should cheer them on, encourage them and work to bring out the best in them; not by telling them what to do but by encouraging and affirming them in what they have done and plan to do.

And we certainly shouldn’t seek to control them, to berate them or to put them on a performance track where they have to earn our approval. Spiritual parents should never do that to their children.

Years ago I was really impacted by Ephesians 4:29 which instructs us that our words shouldn’t be destructive should but be helpful in building others up according to their need. Let’s face it; not many of us will turn to a critic for advice, but we will turn to a wise person who will listen to us and encourage us.

But what we can do is be there to provide prayer and wisdom; the prayer bit all the time, the wisdom bit when it’s asked for. And we can cheer them on, giving them courage through our encouragement.

Where To Now?

I’m grateful for those few minutes where the Professor shared his insights with Sharon and I. Over time these insights have been life changing as we have wrestled with them and sought to see how and when we should apply them. And these insights have been reinforced by wisdom from some other amazing people in various countries. I have had the privilege of seeing church planting movements embrace multiplication principles like these and do what only God can do as He breathes on the church and fans the expansionary call for disciples and churches to multiply.

My prayer is that we will truly get this. Not to add something into what we already do. Doing the same will get not even the same but diminishing results because the world in which we live has changed. My hope is that we will shift what we do to embrace what the Professor talked to us all those years ago:
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31,32 NIV)

Tim O’Neill
14 August 2023