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Seeing Fresh Energy for American Christianity

May 10, 2011

Seeing Fresh Energy for American Christianity 


“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” 

— Theodore Roosevelt 

Twenty years ago in a private moment at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, my friend and mentor, Peter Drucker, provided one line that crystallized the vocation I had been discussing with him for several years. This one sentence became the central “work worth doing” of my subsequent life. He said, “It is your work to transform the latent energy in American Christianity into active energy.” By that time, Peter had laid the foundation for the practice of Management. He had also become certain that his discovery was equally useful to all domains of work — the fast growing nonprofit organizations as well as business. Peter had written that “Nonprofit institutions are central to American society and indeed its most distinguishing feature.”1 He said nonprofits would be America’s greatest export to the rest of the world – more than business, more than government. Surely a bold prediction. Ever since I have worked on the development of great leaders in nonprofits generally.2

But my special interest has been leadership development in the American megachurches that have grown from just about a hundred churches then with more than 1,000 attending to over seven thousand today! 

These large suburban churches are for the most part the product of one age cohort of leaders, now aging Baby Boomers. They have been the drivers of what can only be considered a historic movement, one that has been relatively invisible in the media. I’ve wondered a lot lately, ‘Is there a cadre of next generation leaders coming along? What will their churches look like?’ 

In search of answers, I flew last week to a conference called “Exponential” in Orlando. It was exhausting but very gratifying and hopeful. From Wednesday through Friday, I spent breakfast, lunch, dinner and all points in between with inspiring leaders who answered my questions and lit up my spirits. Here are some notes of what I saw – one man’s observation of what feels to me like the sort of paradigm shift I saw in American churches when I began Leadership Network 27 years ago:

1. Micro churches Growing within megachurches. As it turned out, I had the privilege of spending five hours in different circumstances with Rick Warren, one of the quintessential megachurch pastors. Rick is building his church with a bias towards an externally focused multiple church format. He has sent thousands of parishioners on global missions to the two-thirds world. He says they all come back transformed by seeing how the rest of the world lives. Rick told me that he is building on the idealism of a younger generation through reproducing churches that convert social needs to a variety of external ministries to communities around the world. Here is one amazing fact: Rick told me that he had baptized 500 people during his Easter service and an equal number – 500 people through his food bank. Orange County has 11% unemployment. Essentially he is building micro churches focused on different needs. The strength of his publishing and his megachurch are the launch platform for a multitude of social enterprises. Rick is a relentless mentor. 

2. Reproducing Churches. More than 4,000 people attended the Exponential Conference – all devoted to planting new churches. These churches begin not just by stockpiling Christians but with two major objectives: 

  • Transformed lives and transformed communities – a strong social justice theme. They release people to service, not just sitting. (“Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” James 1:22) 
  • Churches begin with the objective of reproducing themselves. For example, take a look at this intentional sequence on the back of a beverage napkin:

3. Peer to Peer Learning – from hierarchies to networks. For 27 years, I and my associates have developed a conviction that the best way for church leaders to learn the practice of church is through peer to peer networks sharing innovations and encouraging one another through best practice. An example is The Future Travelers Network, a group of 40-something pastors who build large central services through solid preaching and high quality music (95% contemporary), multiple sites, small groups, community-focused task forces and the like – all the stuff that Leadership Network has promoted for years. The napkin above shows how they develop leaders of churches and networks of like-minded entrepreneurs. One of them told me, “The only institution that can reproduce a church is a church.” 

4. From local to global. There is evidence of a global Renaissance all around. Recently I had lunch with author Philip Jenkins. I asked him what was the major trend he saw for churches going forward. He answered, “That’s easy. The world is turning upside down. There is more vitality in the southern hemisphere than the northern hemisphere.” Not long ago, I had lunch with an Anglican Bishop from Little Rock, who was commissioned for that role by Bishop John Rucyahana from Rwanda. Leadership Network is just completing the fifth year of building a European Church Planting Network that has thus far planted over 1,000 churches in that post Christian part of the world. 

5. Hi Tech/High touch. I flew back from Orlando to Dallas with two 30-something pastors of huge churches. Matt Chandler began with a church that had 160 members. He now leads a network of churches in Dallas with over 12,000 members. Several conventional churches have transformed themselves into multi-sites of Chandler’s Dallas network. Chandler uses DVD and broadband to deliver the message each week to multiple venues. This is part of a broad trend of churches that do everything but the central message “live” mostly through lay people. The message comes from a great teacher with all the proper theological training. The music is live. The pastoral care is high touch through relationships, small groups and close-to-the-customer locations. 

6. Back to the Bible. My other traveling mate to Dallas was Matt Carter, who heads Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas. Carter represents a strong trend in younger congregations (average age is 27) towards robust Biblical preaching. For example, Carter told me that he spent years going just though the Gospel of John!!! Younger people want two things: a very clear knowledge of Biblical examples and teaching. And they want their church to be like an aircraft carrier that launches them into idealistic social justice projects in the community and overseas. 



  1. What are the trends that you see?
  2. really want feedback on this Chapter. I am still exploring. 
  3. Does what you see make you an optimist or a pessimist for American Christianity? 

Recommended Reading: 

On the Verge: A Journey Into the Apostolic Future of the Church (Exponential Series), by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson. This is the book to read to stretch your imagination if you are interested in fleshing out what I saw at Exponential Conference 2011. 


Wise words

“The truly great companies of the 21st century will change within the context of their core ideologies while also adhering to a few timeless fundamentals.” – Jim Collins  




1  See Managing the Nonprofit Institution. 

2  In 1991, I was Founding Chairman of The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management in New York City (now Leader to Leader Institute and still led by the indefatigable Frances Hesselbein). I now chair The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. Doris Drucker, who turns 100 later this month, serves on the board! 

3  The napkin illustration is drawn from the book, Exponential: How You and Your Friends Can Start a Missional Church Movement (Exponential Series), which is part of The Exponential/Leadership Network Innovation Series (


As always, I welcome your thoughts. You can e-mail me personally at, 
or converse with the entire community at

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 11, 2011 3:52 PM

    First of all, I praise the report from the Exponential conference. It sounds exciting!

    I also want to say… Well known Christian leader Dallas Willard once said, if you don’t know what you are measuring, you will succumb by default to measuring with the ABC’s. (A=attendance, B= buildings, C=cash). We want to listen to these wise words in addition to Jesus cautioning the Pharisees (Luke 17) not to look for kingdom in “things that can be observed.”

    The kingdom is also happening in smaller places like house churches or places that are being pruned and renewed… where the ABC’s are not necessarily evident.

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