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Ed Stetzer and Warren Bird’s new book, Viral Churches: Helping Church Planters Become Movement Makers, packs a punch like no other church planting book I’ve read.  Stetzer and Bird, both experienced church planters turned missional researchers, deliver compelling examples of real churches engaged in church multiplication strategies.  These networks of church planters are reshaping the theology, philosophy, and execution of sustainable church planting in ways not seen since the Baptists and Methodists struck out across America in the 1800’s planting congregations.

Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, and Warren Bird, director of the research division of Leadership Network, teamed up to study over 200 church-planting churches, 100-leaders, 45 church planting networks, 84 organic church leaders, 12 church planting experts, 53 colleges and seminaries, 54 doctoral dissertations, 41-journal articles, and 100+ church planting books and manuals — all with the goal of understanding this new surge of church planting multiplication that is sweeping America.

The premise of the book is church planting must shift from growth by addition to break-out surges through church multiplication.  In other words, Stetzer and Bird contend that churches-planting- churches is the winning strategy to meet the Great Commission challenge in America.

Chapter titles give clues to the emphases in Viral Churches:

  • One:  Introduction:  National Awakening
  • Two:  Church Planting
  • Three:  Growth by Multiplication
  • Four:  New Players
  • Five:  KIngdom Cooperation
  • Six:  Predictors of Success
  • Seven:  Thriving
  • Eight:  House Churches
  • Nine:  Multi-Site Strategy
  • Ten:  Rapid Growth
  • Eleven:  Funding
  • Twelve:  The New Scorecard
  • Thirteen:  Obstacles to Missional Replication
  • Fourteen:  Conclusion:  We Need to Take Another Approach

I particularly like the emphasis that Stetzer and Bird give to the concept of “small.”  Here’s what they say —

  • “In reality a church grows bigger by doing small better.”
  • “Simple, small replicable units are how the kingdom is best advanced.”
  • ‘”Big” produces more consumers in church, but small produces more contributors.’
  • “Small is often the place of the kingdom’s agenda, the place to plant the mustard seed and permeate the yeast.”
  • “Movements occur through small units that are readily reproducible.”

The authors point out that they are advocating churches that produce a “50% conversion rate (new believers) at a 50% reproduction rate (new churches) through three generations.”  In their chapter on “The New Scorecard” the authors advocate counting “sending capacity” rather than “seating capacity.”  But even seating capacity comes into play, as they demonstrate that mathematically over 94-million Americans would be turned away from church if all 310-million of us decided to attend on any given Sunday.

Another dramatic chart illustrates that a church that adds 20 members a year will have 400 members at the end of 20 years.  But through multiplication a church that plants 1 church of 20 people, which the next year plants another church of 20 people, and so on for 20-years,  will have reached over 10-million in the same period of time!  Of course, this kind of church Ponzi-scheme is a theoretical example, but there is no doubt that new churches grow faster, reach more people, baptize more new believers, and create more new ministries than established churches.

The book is not without its faults, like the definition of missional is to “act like a missionary.”  Missional encompasses far more than that, but the book succeeds in giving the view from 10,000 feet of the whats, whys, and hows of the viral church movement.  Other books can provide the detail, but Stetzer and Bird draw the big picture.

In short, get this book, read it, study it, look at the endnotes and the bibliography, take it to heart, and see if God isn’t saying something to us about how to reach our nation with the gospel.  You can get the Kindle edition now (which is the version I downloaded for this review), and the print edition will come out on April 26.  This is an important book, chock full of hard data, impressive examples, compelling stories, and a rock-solid argument:  plant churches that plant churches that plant churches to reach America.

Disclaimer: I purchased my own copy of the Kindle edition, and received no inducement to purchase or review this book.