Book Review: Exponential, by Dave and Jon Ferguson
Dave and Jon Ferguson dream big dreams and have great ambitions for Christ’s church. The Fergusons’ dream to reach the city of Chicago for Jesus started out as a sketch on a napkin and has now turned into a multi-site church in nine locations with more than 4,000 people in attendance every weekend. The Ferguson brothers have more than lived out the title of their influential new book, Exponential.
After beginning with the admonition, “You can do it,” Exponential is a methodical and passionate how-to guide for building churches that reproduce. As pioneers in the multi-site movement, the Fergusons are committed to challenging their readers to commit themselves to mentoring, taking risks, and dreaming big.
Exponential tells the story of Community Christian Church. Yet at every turn, the authors challenge their readers that this story can become their story, and Exponential provides guidance for making that happen.
This book has several noteworthy strengths.
Passion for the Church
First, Dave and Jon Ferguson love the church. The Ferguson brothers’ passion for their work jumps off the pages of this book. Full of energy and creativity, Exponential puts in print form what the Fergusons have labored to do in their own ministry. From going door to door to meet people in the community (23) to their desire to impact many who do not know Jesus (21), a deep love for the church and for non-Christians pervades this book.
Passion for Mentoring
A great weakness in the church today is the lack of discipleship between members. While the Fergusons use the label “apprentice,” the concept is the same, and they strongly encourage raising up leaders in the church (44-45). The Fergusons argue that “being Spirit-led is the most critical quality in the life of an apprentice of Jesus” (51). This commitment to mentoring has led many in their church to take risks for the cause of Christ that they never would have otherwise.
Willingness to Risk
Dave and Jon Ferguson consistently demonstrate that they are willing to risk for the church (54-55, 75-76, 98-99). Risking makes much of Jesus because it demonstrates that he is worthy of our trust and greatest efforts. Exponential is replete with exhortations to risk and encourage others to trust God in such a way that their life is filled with risk. A church characterized by such a culture will more deeply display the eternal worth of the gospel.
Helpful Advice About Small Groups
While they should never become mini-churches within themselves, small groups can be helpful tools for fostering relational connectivity, accountability, and encouragement, and for identifying future leaders in the church. Exponential offers helpful tips for a vital small group ministry in the church (87-102).
WEAKNESS: A PRAGMATIC APPROACH
Yet the book has a significant overarching weakness: pragmatism.
From the outset, the Fergusons state that the mission of Community Christian Church is “Helping people find their way back to God” (22). To achieve this, the authors declare they were never “content with growing one large church that would reach a lot of people” (21). Instead, they believed they could “reach more people by growing big as well as reproducing over and over again” (21, emphasis theirs). Their laudable desire to “reach more people” was part of their commendable, even larger desire “to have an impact far beyond the city of Chicago or even the United States” (22).
As stated, this is a good and right aim for any pastor who loves the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet should the goal of reaching more people be set against listening to God’s Word about how to pursue that goal?
Exponential offers as a goal reaching a lot of people to help them find their way back to God and yet then assumes that the Scriptures have not given any authoritative direction for attaining this goal. For example, the authors “reproduced another service because [they] believed that a new service would give more people more options” (26). Further, the authors relay the story of Donna, a biker who is passionate about helping her biker friends find God (112-113). In order to achieve this, the authors suggest “we must be willing to give people like Donna permission to skip our worship services to create their own alternatives that will help people find their way back to God” (113). Further, they assert that “too often we go into a situation or a community and presume to know the form that is most needed to release the functional power of the gospel. We first must plant the gospel in the hearts and lives of people and then see what form of ecclesia emerges from the transformed community” (113).
Yet, the Scriptures repeatedly reject the notion that God’s people are in a better position than God to make their own judgments about matters related to the worship of the one true and living God. Moreover, the preached Word is not only consistently presented as the means by which God has chosen to build up his people and to save sinners, but the Word is also necessary and sufficient for determining the “form of ecclesia” that emerges in society.
Pragmatism undergirds other ministry decisions offered in the book. The authors explain their decision to use video teaching in this way:
When it comes to teaching, you basically have three choices: video teaching, in-person teaching, or a combination of the two. I am convinced that as long as it is done well, any of the three approaches will work. Research backs this up and shows that the growth rates of multisite churches that use video teaching and those that use in-person teaching are almost exactly the same. (160)
Again, the authors offer a vision for ministry practice by grounding their rationale in the desired-end of “growth rates” instead of looking to Scriptural directives.
We should look to the Scriptures as the sufficient guide for method and practice in gospel ministry. While difficult for our performance-driven hearts, faithfulness to the revealed Word of God is the goal. The pastor can rest, trusting God for results. The God who seeks worshippers in Spirit and truth has revealed himself with sufficient clarity in all matters necessary for this aim to be accomplished.
Human wisdom often looks good in the short-term. You can count the numbers it produces: “polls show that…” Yet human wisdom doesn’t yield good fruit over the long-term. The “numbers” tend not to be so real after all. God’s wisdom, on the other hand, often sounds a little strange up front. But God knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s told us everything that we need to know for reaching people, and more.
In sum, from their passion for the church to their zeal for mentoring and willingness to take risks, there is much to be appreciated about Exponential. Yet the methods offered leave much to be desired, since they are largely undergirded by a pragmatic approach that is devoid of scriptural justification. Certainly reaching people for Christ, creating a culture of vitality in the church, engaging people through teaching, and creating an environment in which people feel welcome are all worthy aims of the church. Yet they must never come at the expense of faithfulness to Scripture.
 See the well-known account of the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) which follows the detailed prescriptions and regulations for the cultic life of Israel. Similarly, consider King Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12:25-33, in which Jeroboam’s actions are clearly portrayed as violating the revealed will of God. The same logic follows from the account of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6 and Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 6. Consider Jesus’ own admonition to the Samaritan woman in which he asserts that the Jews’ worship was not only historically rooted in knowledge but also that a time would be coming in which worship would be rooted in sprit and truth (John 4:21-24). Finally, consider Paul’s own regulation of worship in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:26-40). The Scriptures not only provide sufficient norms and warrants for worship but also reveal that the people of God suffer when they do not adhere to the express prescriptions God has given in his Word.