All around the world, single churches are planting dozens and even hundreds of new churches.

With this mega-trend in the global church, we may be seeing the beginnings of one of the most significant movements in church history since the Reformation. Multiple churches have established church planting centers staffed with a full-time person in charge of raising up church planters who will develop their own church planting centers. The goal of these churches is not just planting churches, but planting churches that will become church planting centers themselves.

There are churches that plant dozens of churches each year; they are the grandparent churches of hundreds of congregations. One such church has a goal of planting 100 churches in the next ten years. At the end of the decade, the church hopes to bring together all the people who belong to its extended family of church plants and planters for a great celebration.

We are seeing similarly high church multiplication within the RCA. By planting multi-site congregations, a growing number of high-capacity parent churches are establishing dozens of new RCA churches. Other churches have each started six to 36 new RCA congregations in less than 15 years, most of them cross-cultural plants compared to the parent.

But history has not been overly kind to most movements. Just reflect on what happened to the civil rights movement after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. It lost much of its momentum. Movements need a strong, charismatic leader. When a leader dies, many movements wane. If we want the church planting movement to have a lasting impact, it is imperative that we avoid going the way of most other movements. Mapping out the patterns movements often follow will help us steer clear of the problems that cause them to lose momentum.

We’ve split the anatomy of a typical movement into four phases: a spark and explosion, fire in the fireplace, a cautionary tale, and double trouble.

Phase one: A spark and explosion

A vision for church planting is born in the heart of a leader or group of leaders. In time, a “leader of leaders” emerges to lead the movement. This leader gains authority—not by position or power, but by his or her passion and dedication to the vision. Because of the passion, innovation, persuasiveness, and ability of this individual to attract other leaders of leaders, the movement catches fire and rapidly spreads—much like an out-of-control wildfire spreads through a forest.

Phase two: Fire in the fireplace

In the early stages of the movement, church planters have direct contact with the founder of the planting movement. But phase two brings a new twist. Over time, the leader of leaders becomes less available to the core leaders due to the growing number of church plants and increasing organizational demands. Therefore, church planters begin to be aligned around the DNA of the movement more than the passion of the leader of the movement. Church planters emerge who do not know the founder. They know the stories, but they missed the passion that ignited the movement. At this point, the person in charge of the church planting attempts to fill the void and convey the passion of the founder.

Somewhere between phase one and phase two, it is not unusual for the founder to assume the mantle of apostle, and begin to spend less and less time at the mother church. Such a response is both natural and necessary in order to keep the passion of the founder at the heart of the movement.

Phase three: A cautionary tale

No matter how hard the founder tries, the decentralization of his or her passion continues to grow as the movement explodes. Because of the exponential multiplication of congregations and church planting centers, the movement can no longer rely on the intense presence and passion of the founder, or even the point person from the original church planting vision, to model the DNA to the core group of church planters. At this point, the leaders can no longer assume that all of the church plants will live out that DNA.

The movement begins to break down. Sometimes people respond to the breakdown by establishing a centralized board with paid staff in an attempt to ensure predictable corporate behavior among the church plants. At the very best, the board is for policy governance. At worst, it is dedicated to the management of both the planting DNA and the individual churches. Either way, the establishment of a board signals the beginning of the decline for the movement and also the beginning of an institution. Because of this shift from mission to maintenance, church planters begin to focus more on planting churches than establishing churches that develop church planting centers within them.

If the leaders are not careful, management replaces mission as both the leader of leaders and the board are drawn increasingly into the management of the movement. More time is spent managing the movement than fueling the movement. What were once free-wheeling “mission outposts” with a common DNA have now become disconnected “management silos.” Even more deadly, boards and institutions require standardization and often shun innovation. Management silos require predictability, and the movement loses its edge. At this point, the movement responds by developing quality control systems and attempting to centralize authority. Now, instead of authority arising out of the passion of the leader, it is required by the board. The quest for quality now fills the void once occupied by innovation, thus encouraging standardization of methodology. Staff behaves more like professionals than artists.

Phase four: Double trouble

Centralized and removed from the field, executive management becomes paralyzed. It lacks credibility and is not sensitive to the rapidly changing mission field; survival of the organization or institution becomes the goal. Now church planters are building churches rather than being part of a movement, and church planting slows to a trickle. Executives at the top or center feel isolated, and the movement is virtually dead.

The big question for the leaders of church planting movements is, “What are you doing to avoid moving from phase two to phase three or, better yet, to remain in phase one?” In other words, “What are you going to do to ensure the continuation of the movement?” The fear is that the third and fourth generations of church planters are most likely going to focus on building a church rather than facilitating a movement. This shift cannot be allowed to happen! Too much is at stake.

To answer this question, we turn to the first church planting movement—the missionary trips of Paul. What did he do to ensure the movement would continue? First, he stayed in close contact with the churches he planted. This was a chore in his day. What avenues are you using to personally stay in touch with all of the leaders of leaders in your movement? In many areas of the world, staying connected is simpler than ever, thanks to technology.

Second, he visited and revisited the church plants. There is nothing that can compare to experiencing the passion of the leader of leaders.

How will you achieve these first two points? Let us suggest that you focus on planting churches that agree to establish a church planting system as part of their DNA. Then bring these leaders of leaders together every year to spend a week or month with the founder. Paul continually gathered a core team around him and trained them to be leaders of leaders.

Who is among your leaders of leaders? Are you raising them up for that purpose? This is your primary task. Imprint the DNA in the lives of those who are leading church planting centers. Focus on them, not on the planting of churches. In time, one of them will replace you.

The movement does not need a board; it needs a group of leaders to form an “apostolic team.” This is the team that becomes the leaders of leaders. Instead of the movement depending on the passion of a leader of leaders, a core group of passionate vision casters of the movement’s DNA are scattered about, so that every plant receives an annual visit. This is the primary way to deal with the loss of the movement’s founder.

Are you reproducing yourself? Doing so is more important to your movement than the planting of churches.