The Disciple Dilemma: Insights from Fighter Pilot CEO Dennis Allen

Welcome back to the unSeminary podcast. We’re talking with Dennis Allen today, a former fighter pilot who became a six-time Turnaround CEO and now helps churches rethink discipleship.

The vast majority of younger people who were raised in the church are leaving at alarming rates. 80% of the people sitting in our churches are spiritually inert and disengaged. What’s the problem? Tune in as Dennis explores the symptoms and root causes of the disciple dilemma in our churches and how to move forward.

  • The dilemma in the pews. // Many people sitting in our churches today aren’t fully engaged in the mission. About 65% of millennials (age 45 and under) and 70-80% of Gen Z (age 25 and under) who were raised in the church are walking out because they say the church is intolerant, irrelevant, immoral, and irrational. In addition, 93% of evangelicals believe that talking about Jesus is not their job, it’s the pastor’s responsibility. 80% listen to sermons but have no small group, prayer, or bible study in their lives.
  • Mission versus institution. // The church, while being the body of Christ, is also an institution. Institutions, by nature, tend to prioritize the urgent over the important, often losing sight of their mission. This phenomenon, which Dennis refers to as “churchianity,” can lead to a focus on maintaining the organization rather than making disciples. If everything we do isn’t driven by the mission of our churches, the mission will slowly be subsumed by the institution.
  • Recognize the root causes. // Once you’ve identified the symptoms of a discipleship problem, it’s time to dig deeper and address the root causes. In his book The Disciple Dilemma, Dennis lays out six very old traditions that are not right, good, or biblical, but they’ve been around so long they are seen as normal and may be hindering true discipleship. The second half of The Disciple Dilemma lays out a path for how to biblically go after the problem.
  • The dynamic of power. // One of the root causes of disciple issues is the dynamic of power that began with Constantine. Modern Western Christianity thinks about power as a means to achieve the end of serving God. Because of our fallen nature, power infects the system and it becomes about dominating and being in control. Churches and the people who occupy them want their agendas to be picked up. However what we see in Jesus, and in discipleship, is a servant who connects with people in humility and builds relationships.
  • Discipleship over growth. // Dennis challenges the notion that numerical growth is the sole indicator of a healthy church. Growth is good, but when you start packing growth into the pews at a rate that exceeds your ability to disciple, you’ll have a problem. Assess whether your programs are fostering genuine discipleship or merely attracting attendees. Encourage personal relationships and mentorship within the church community.
  • Discipleship at the top. // One of the tell-tale signs of whether churches are discipling well is looking at the leadership team and asking if they have actually been discipled and who is walking alongside them right now. Church leaders must be actively involved in discipleship, modeling it for the congregation. Is the leadership doing what it wants the rest of the church to do? Is the church launching other churches? Does it have a structure that allows one-on-ones and one-on-twos of disciples on disciples to develop?
  • Help from The Disciple Dilemma. // By understanding the scale of the disciple problem, diagnosing the symptoms, and addressing the root causes, church leaders can cultivate a culture of discipleship that prioritizes the mission over mere institutional growth. For those interested in diving deeper into this topic, Dennis is offering a dozen free downloads of his book, The Disciple Dilemma. You can enter to win a free copy of the e-book here or pick up a physical copy.

Learn more about The Disciple Dilemma at thediscipledilemma.com and enter to win a free copy of the e-book. Twelve entries will be chosen at random on July 11, 2024.

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Thank You to This Episode’s Sponsor: Risepointe

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Episode Transcript

Rich Birch — Well hey, friends, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. Man, I’m really looking forward to today’s conversation. We’re so honored that you’ve decided to tune in. You know every week we try to bring you a leader who will inspire, equip you, and today I’m excited to have Dennis Allen with us. New friend, he’s a six-time turnaround CEO. That alone should get your attention. But he also would like flew fighter pilot was a fighter pilot at one point in life and has helped all kinds of you know people across the country, and has got a real passion for discipleship, and we’re really looking forward to diving in on this conversation. Dennis, welcome to the show today.

Dennis Allen — Rich, amped to be with you on unSeminary.

Rich Birch — This is going to be good. Fill in the picture, kind of give us the story, the Dennis Allen story. I know that’s hard to do, but kind of tell us a little bit about your background.

Dennis Allen — Yeah, well my background looks like an attention deficit disorder nightmare, if you take a look at my resume, right?

Rich Birch — Love it.

Dennis Allen — I’m just kind of tracking through. Um so I was raised in a Christian home. At the age of 8 my parents, exasperated with me, decided to drag me down to the pastor’s office to try to understand who Jesus really is and how broken my life really was. I became a believer at that point and then I went inert. That’s a conversation I’d like to carry on a little further today when we talk about discipleship. Off into the military, got to fly airplanes. That was crazy, wild ride. Um the Lord had some really interesting issues to throw out at me there which was basically I was told my heart is got the same problem that Pistol Pete Maravich’s heart had on the Boston Celtics…

Rich Birch — Oh no.

Dennis Allen — …and you’re going to die in a couple of years.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Dennis Allen — That didn’t happen but I couldn’t fly anymore…

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — …and that sent me reeling off into the business world. The business world I’m working on turning around companies that are either underperforming, struggling, or in just disaster mode. And along the way my bride, Karen, and I are living in lots of different places, and we’re in different churches as members, and we’re getting a chance to watch discipleship live, full and free. And that led me to think a lot about it. And then as I mentioned to you, we were chatting before the podcast, a bunch of theological thugs at gunpoint made me write a book, and that was The Disciple Dilemma. So, here we are.

Rich Birch — Ah, ah well one of those thugs was Os Guinness.

Dennis Allen — Yeah.

Rich Birch — And listen, when his recommendation on your book, like anybody who knows him, obviously is giant, has had so much influence. It’s definitely one of those quotes you want to lean forward and be like, ooh I should probably pay attention to what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about the disciple dilemma. And man, there are so many people, you talked about this inert people that are sitting in our pews or in our seats that are not engaged fully in the mission. They’re, you know, they’re kind of floating through life. But then you’ve got, you know, so many nones in our cultures, ex-evangelicals, deconverted, all that. But help us understand the problem, the scale of this problem. You’ve obviously seen it as a person in a lot of different churches across the country and are now obviously thinking about it. But let’s unpack that problem a little bit. What’s what’s actually happening here with discipleship, or and maybe not happening with discipleship across the country?

Dennis Allen — That’s a great way to set it up, Rich. So here’s here’s kind of the framework of this. I’m gonna I’m gonna lean to some statistics for a couple of minutes. And I’ll start with some of the more recent ones. If your folks are probably familiar with The Great Dechurching, Jim Davis, Michael Graham’s book. There’s work with Pew, there’s Barna, IPPR. Even The Humanist Society of the UK. And let me just lay some numbers out…

Rich Birch — Okay.

Dennis Allen — …so pastors can go, hey this really isn’t my fault; this really is going on all around us, right?

Rich Birch — Yes.

Dennis Allen — So what’s what’s happening in the world? About 65% of millennials, think sort of 45 down, and about 70 to 80% of Gen Z’s, think now 25 and down, who were raised in the church are walking out. They’re saying, this isn’t for me. The church is intolerant, irrelevant, immoral, irrational. I’m not a part of this anymore. I can be a part of a running club or whatever and go do that. So they’re walking out. Those people exit the church. That’s one problem.

Dennis Allen — Second problem that you face in the pews today: 93% of evangelicals would tell you that talking about Jesus is not my job – that belongs to, Rich, the pastor, the guy in the pulpit. He’s supposed to do the heavy lifts on this sort of thing. 80% of the people in those pews are spiritually inert. They have no bible study. They have no prayer life. They have no small group. They have nothing more than 1.7 times a month going to a sermon series. That’s Protestant, mainstream…

Rich Birch — Yep.

Dennis Allen — …and the evangelical traffic altogether. So when we think about the people walking out and the folks that we’ve got in the pews, the question that began to taunt me is, do we have a problem? And if so…

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Dennis Allen — …what’s the symptom and what’s the root cause? What’s going on here? That’s kind of the setup.

Rich Birch — Okay, that’s good. I love that. I you know, I know I wondered for a while, you know, if when we the the average church in the country is 75 people. That’s you know that number is super sticky. And you know, ah the the irony of that and, listen, we’re all friends here that are listening in, just a couple of friends sitting around having a coffee. You know, the irony of that in that number to me in other contexts I’ve wondered, I’d love for you to get your thoughts on this, 75 people is about the number of people that you need in a church to pay for one pastor. Um, and that may sound like a really cynical thing but I wonder if so many of our systems in the church really are kind of reinforcing the system, rather than making disciples, rather than making people who ultimately follow Jesus. We’re really, it’s like we’re building organizations. Ah, react to that. Am I just way too cynical? Is that too dark of a thought? Talk to me about that.

Dennis Allen — I love the way you’re setting this up, Rch. So when you think about the world of a church, I’m going to say some things that some of the people in the pews that would get really mad about.

Rich Birch — Sure.

Dennis Allen — But if you really really get angry and upset about this, it’s Rich’ a’s fault for let me on not mine. So.

Rich Birch — Sure, yes.

Dennis Allen — So here’s kind of the setup. The setup is that we have the body of Christ. We have the community of believers that gathers together to worship. But the flip side of that exact same entity is an organization. And when you have an organization, you have an institution. Now here’s where we get into the tension that you’re facing as a pastor and executive pastor. Institutions always want to strip away mission. Institution wants tyranny in the urgent, Charlie Hummel’s book, to take over. You need to fire fight, you need to work the crises, you need to work the budget, you need to work the PowerPoint decks that make all the elders or the board of directors or whoever really happy. You’ve got to churn out administrative, you got to crank out great sermons, you got to take care of the kids on Sundays, bury the in-laws, you got to do all this sort of stuff. That’s the institutional side of the church.

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.

Dennis Allen — And as a CEO in the turnaround space. What’s always killing businesses is they get lost in institutional world, in our terminology we might say churchianity. You get lost in the churchianity and you lose the Christianity. There’s a mission statement and if everything we’re doing doesn’t drive by the mission, the mission doesn’t drive everything we’re doing from the flavor of the donuts at the coffee break to the sermons that we’re teaching and the way we’re interacting with human beings. The mission will slowly be subsumed by the institution. And that’s something that in seminary I bet you don’t have a lot of conversations about.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that that is a that’s a really fresh idea there that you know institutions drive towards the tyranny of the urgent, that you know at the end of the day we we ignore the long-term is is the mission is why are we here? Why are we kind of driving, you know, why why are we doing all these things? And how are we aligning towards that. That’s that’s ah, that’s a bold idea.

Rich Birch — Well, let’s unpack this at a local level. How how does a church leader when, let’s say we’re looking around and it’s like you, you know, you go into a room and it’s like I feel like there’s like a piece of rotten, you know, tomato under the table and you can kind of smell it, but you’re not sure where that smell’s coming from. Let’s assume that we know we have a sense that something’s wrong, but how do we diagnose that? How do we find the root cause? What do we, in our own church, what do we how do we figure that out for us?

Dennis Allen — Well, the first thing that I would want to say is it’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.

Dennis Allen — If you’re a pastor. It’s not your fault. This problem ranges back, arguably 1800 years and more deep into the church.

Rich Birch — Wow, wow.

Dennis Allen — And in our book, The Disciple Dilemma, we tried to lay out six very, very old traditions that have been around us for so long we think of them as good, right, and normal, but they are not good. They are not right. They’re not biblical. They’re not normal. And so, shall I toss one or two out for fun?

Rich Birch — Yeah I was going to say, that’s a you we’ve got to unpack that. Because I feel like we often hear that like, oh things were so much better. But we talk about like that was like thirty years ago. You’re you’re saying we got an 1800 year old problem here. Let’s talk about those good, right things that are not actually good or right.

Dennis Allen — Let me start with the thing that we were just conversing about. It’s the sixth root cause that we talk about that kills discipleship. And we call it in the book “the not main thing”. It’s we’re chasing stuff, but it’s not the mission. It’s the stuff that’s on fire, screaming and yelling for attention.

Dennis Allen — And as you think about some of your churches that you were just setting up. You know we’ve got churches that are very small, churches that are very large. The dynamics of the urgent in a megachurch can be quite different from the poor, lonely pastor who doesn’t even have enough cash to keep the lights on in a church. However, comma, “the not main thing” is to fail in what Christ called us to be as leaders making disciples, to go after the symptoms instead of chasing the symptoms hoping that eliminates the problem, which it never ever does. So “the not main thing” is one. Let me let me park that one on the table. Let me put one other one on the table, just as ah as an example.

Rich Birch — Yeah, let’s have it.

Dennis Allen — It’s the dynamic of power. Modern Western Christianity thinks about power as a means to achieve the end of serving God. In other words, for Christendom’s sake, for the nationalists sake, for the ability to dominate the world for the Lord, I’m going to go out and conquer these people and beat them down and bring them into subjugation so that they will either by my logic, or by our social influence, surrender. They’ll fall; they’re gonna say oh, you beat me up, you’re right. I give up. I want to be a Jesus person. That power dynamic actually began with Constantine. It began with Constantine because Christianity used to be 5, 6, 7, 8 people meeting in a little barn somewhere and hoping that the soldiers didn’t come in and take them out and kill them or throw them in the arena.

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — Constantine switched that to a power dynamic that said, hey, it’s legit; I’m on board with it, and you better get on board with it too.

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — Now I’m all for leaders saying, I’m a believer and I’m really into this. However, there’s a problem. When you start packing growth into those pews at a rate that exceeds your ability to disciple, you’re about to have a problem, whether it’s a commercial business or a church. Growth can kill you.

Rich Birch — Um, okay, let’s talk about that. This is one of the the oddities of and this goes back to when I was school in school. It’s like we have lots of historical examples of when the the gospel, the good things of Jesus, the good news are fused with political power, like it’s not good long term. Like it’s like we got tons of examples of that. This is not good for the message of Jesus, but I feel like we just keep reliving that as as a movement. We keep coming back to this. We keep coming back to this place right back to Constantine. Ah, why is that why? What’s driving that?

Dennis Allen — Well I’d reach in first to Francis Schaefer and “the manishness of men”. It’s kind of in our recipe. You know we’re broken. We’re fallen and we like power. We want to be in control, and hey I love it when I walk into a room and I say, thus speaketh Dennis, here is my wisdom, and everybody goes, oh that is so cool. Oh that’s so profound.

Rich Birch — Yes.

Dennis Allen — Okay, that’s a little cynical. But the flip side of it is, churches and the people that occupy them want their agenda to be picked up. Some for the most noble of reasons: I’m following Jesus I want people to get to know Jesus. Some for some darker angel’s reasons which might be the idea of, I just want to get rid of those people over there. If we get them out of the way we have a lovely nation. We have a lovely government. We have a lovely church. Power is always infesting the system. And what we see in the Lord, in discipleship, is a servant who is connecting with people in humility, and reason, but building relationships. This this is that ethos. But power has told us you got to have a brand, you got to have a venue, you got to have growth, you got to have cash flow, you got to have people in the seats, you got to have baptisms…

Rich Birch — Oh that’s good.

Dennis Allen — You got to have great programs. We stole that from the commercial marketplace, Rich, and interestingly, they stole it from Constantine. So we’re in a “do” loop.

Rich Birch — Right, right. Okay. Now let’s kind of similar area but pivot to slightly different conversations. So you know, I think so many times when we when we hear the word “discipleship,” we think of like programs and products and um, like the, you know, the latest system or like some, you know, do these 12 steps, that that sort of thing. That’s not what you’re talking about, is it?

Dennis Allen — Not at all, not at all. Let me let me set this on the table and you can um if you could just have somebody tell me I’m irrational and stupid and ridiculous. I can quit doing this and go back to the regular stuff I do in life.

Rich Birch — Sure.

Dennis Allen — Um, we tend to think of discipleship in the truncated view of the Old Testament. What I mean by that is the the Old Testament and the New Testament and Jesus’s model of discipleship showed three phases of a disciple’s life.

Rich Birch — Okay.

Dennis Allen — And here’s some terms I’ll be familiar to some of you guys, this, I’m talking to a bunch of theologians so I know you guys will get it…

Rich Birch — Sure.

Dennis Allen — …but let me just throw this out. There is the Bet Sefer S-E-F-E-R, the Bet Sefer which is kind of elementary school. Typically it was children learning about the Torah. It was children learning about being in synagogue. It was children learning about the community of believers they were around. That’s the Bet Sefer. And actually in the west we do that quite well. We have fantastic preaching. We have wonderful resources online, ministries like unSeminary. We’ve got these magnificent things going on in the Bet Sefer stage. The problem that we find statistically, Rich, is that most people don’t get part 2 and part 3.

Dennis Allen — Part 2, Bet Midrash. Think of that as vocational school for disciples. You know you might have a vo-tech school that’s going to teach you how to weld to repair cars or cook. Jesus’s model, the New Testament’s model, the Old Testament’s model was you’re going to come alongside a Rich and you’re going to learn how Rich thinks and how he talks and you’re going to start actually imitating him, using his phrases, using his style. And it may not ultimately and forever work for you. But you begin with the basis of somebody showing you the pragmatics in a laboratory environment. That is the Bet Midrash, that is this middle vo-tech phase that is so very rare. Statistics say 90% of your people have never been through this.

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — 80% of pastors have never been through this, so go the surveys.

Rich Birch — Right, right.

Dennis Allen — Then we get to the third phase, which is the Bet Talmud. And the Bet Talmud, T-A-L-M-U-D, Talmud, is where you become a practitioner. Now you’re walking out with your mentor, Rich, into the public square, into life. It might be at work. It might be in your community. It might be in recreation. It might be in church. You’re walking out amongst other people. And you’re watching Rich for a little while, but all of a sudden you notice Rich is a little quieter and you’re talking a little bit more. And pretty soon you’re looking around and Rich isn’t even there anymore, and he slid somebody up alongside you who needs to start learning how to imitate you. This is not a small group of 10, or a congregation of 75 or a 1000 or 10,000. This is one on one, maybe arguably one on two. Deep, infinite, transparent, intimate walking alongside somebody else. How’s that for a start?

Rich Birch — Oh, that’s great. I love what you’re pointing towards here. Um, because I I think ultimately I think within your bang on is that discipleship is ultimately about a culture. It’s about how, you know, there there isn’t it’s not step 1, step 2, step 3 – that can be a part of it. But it’s ah, really about how are we helping people transform their entire lives, to reform their entire lives in the way of Jesus, ultimately.

Rich Birch — The thing I find interesting is there is like a years ago, maybe 2, 3 years ago, I heard the CEO um, of a large company. They somebody asked them, it’s like off the top of their head. They said, hey, what are the three things you worry about all the time as a CEO? And I was a little struck by this. They said without hesitation they were revenue, culture, and vision. They said, you know, I I I’m the chief salesperson’s, it’s a big company, chief salesperson. Um, but then the other two culture and vision, I’m worrying about how we’re interacting with each other. And then I’m worrying about the vision, are we staying aligned to what we’re called to as an organization. I thought, man, there’s a lot of churches that aren’t doing that. There’s, you know, we’re not worrying about how we’re cultivating the culture. Talk to us more of on the culture side, maybe bringing in some of that CEO turnaround stuff. How does all that fit together in this thinking around the disciples dilemma?

Dennis Allen — Well, I mean I’m going to really tee up on what you just said because it’s really important. And the question that I want to ask everybody just to pause for a moment and think about is, what is the fungible currency, the revenue of the church of the most high God. And the answer to this actually is, I’m gonna I’m let you just pause on that for a second, just think about it.

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s good question.

Dennis Allen — But the answer to this is really quite fascinating.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Dennis Allen — I’m going to tell you that the fungible currency of the church of the most high God is not what’s in the offering plate. What it actually is, is it’s disciples who make disciples who make disciples. That’s capital formation. That’s the kind of stuff CEOs are really thinking about when they talk about revenue, they’re talking about how do I form capital at my bottom line after all my costs have been paid so that I can move forward more powerfully, more strongly, more…

Rich Birch — Yeah, that’s good.

Dennis Allen — …more deeply into the market to do more of what I do.

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Dennis Allen — That’s that’s the currency of disciples who make disciples who make disciples. Now, you brought up the idea of culture, which is so incredibly important. And a lot of people don’t get culture. And I bet your seminaries don’t talk an awful lot about church culture…

Rich Birch — No, no, no.

Dennis Allen — …other than you know, yeah you got to have one.

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Dennis Allen — I find that all of my turnarounds, it’s a common script. Number one, nobody knows why they’re there. They know they build widgets or they sell stuff, but they really don’t know why they’re there.

Rich Birch — That’s good.

Dennis Allen — If you want a Millennial or a Gen Z to get excited, tell them why. That amps people up when they know the why. My generation, it was a little different. It was like, tell Dennis to go do this, the what and the how. Don’t don’t talk to him about the why, we don’t have time to do that. Go out and produce stuff, right? But what we see in this generation today, and I suspect many of your exec pastors are in this role is, our people in the pews, and I don’t mean this to be an insult, but perhaps a lot of people in leadership don’t know the why that they’re actually there.

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — And I’m going to say that the mission of the, here’s where here’s where you can burn me at the stake, right – send your cards letters and ethanol to Dennis. And the mission of every single believer is the same mission as the church. It is to be and make disciples. That’s what a church is. It’s disciples. And that’s what we do as a church. And when you have disciples, as Jesus defined those disciples, the symptoms are worship, praise, ministries, missions, passion, evangelism, conversations, relationships, statesmanship in political dynamics and in civic spheres, this stuff goes wild when you really get what Jesus was doing with discipleship. That’s the kind of culture that we’re trying to build inside a church. If the mission is actually discipleship, if that’s really the mission and Matthew 28 got this assert if that assertion is right, that everything else we hear Jesus talking about is saying, disciples do these things, all these other things, then we’ve got this preeminent statement before us.

Dennis Allen — Leaders you got to go first. You got to eat your own dog food. You’ve got to disciple someone else, even if you’ve never been discipled…

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — …so that people can see you doing that and then you can turn around and say, and now my expectation, the culture, the atmosphere, the DNA of this community of believers, is we make disciples.

Rich Birch — Right? Yeah, I love that. So good. You know so you wrote this book, The Disciple Dilemma; let’s pivot and talk about it. You know, specifically to give people a bit of sense of that. Tell us a little bit about the story. What drove you to this point? What you know you got lots of other fish to fry in your life. What what got you to like, okay, I want to spend some time effort and energy you know pulling this together?

Dennis Allen — I kept noticing in churches, even when I wasn’t in leadership roles, I just kept looking around and seeing families going, my kids don’t believe. My kids are angry. My kids are walking out. My kids think we’re hypocrites. My kids have become X, Y, or Z other faiths, no faith, whatever. And of course as we all knows he mentioned a few minutes ago, we’re seeing the nones, the dones, the deconverts, the ex-vangelicals, the spiritually but not religious people, on and on it goes. And I’m watching this and I’m going this is interesting and it echoes in a way my commercial world. I walk into broken companies and people are leaving because they don’t know why they’re there.

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — There’s no purpose to it, right? We sing songs and we speak words up into the air and hope that somebody or something hears us, and then we have this TED Talk and, you know the music is awesome, but it’s not exactly doing anything for me. And so I’m watching these people leave, and I’m going, that’s fascinating. What’s what’s the root cause underneath this? What’s going on? And…

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — …it drove it drove me to start giving some talks about this. And eventually I gave the talk in the wrong place and a bunch of theological thugs made me write a book about it.

Rich Birch — Love it. Love it. What what are you hoping for? What’s the kind of target that you’re like when I, so taking a look at the book, getting a sense a little bit about it, to me it strikes me as this would be a great conversation with my leadership team. Like let’s let’s pull this together, read this book maybe over the summertime, and you know and really try to you know, reflect on, Okay, how do what should we shift about what we do our own behavior based on this. But what were you kind of hoping for, what kind of church were you hoping to impact, that sort of thing.

Dennis Allen — The goal that we set when we got the book out was we’re going for 3000 churches to actually scrimmage this issue. Now there’s 300,000 protestant churches-ish…

Rich Birch — Yeah.

Dennis Allen — …in the in sort of the North American space of which, you know, if you if you look at the numbers you can you can kind of debate how the the people of the world all flow into. But about half the people that go to church go to a megachurch. And the rest go to the 75 that you were just talking about that’s kind of sort of the starkness of this thing. I wanted 3000 churches—small ones, mid-size, large, and megas—I wanted them to start look at this and go like we do have a problem. Maybe we don’t have their problems, but we have problems. What’s going on here? And is it really at the root a discipleship problem, or is it just we need to preach harder, teach better, have more programs, which I think statistically and historically have proven, they don’t work. You could just keep plowing them and you get one generation of a disciple and then they leave or they quit and then it’s done.

Dennis Allen — So the book is really trying to say, there’s a deeper root cause, a historical set of root causes, and you’ve got to evaluate which of those six belong to you. And then start scrimmaging as a leadership team. Do you want to take the second half of the book which says here’s how you take a path forward out of this, biblically, to go after the problem. That’s really what we were aiming for with with the book.

Rich Birch — That’s cool. When you think about churches ah that are doing this well that is like our, you know, beacons of hope for you. What are some of the telltale signs of that that are like, oh here’s here’s a church that’s actually discipling, kind of regardless of size and all that. What is what does that look like for you? What are some of those kind of like oh that that’s when it’s actually working well?

Dennis Allen — Well some of the first symptoms that you can pick up on is when you look at the leadership team and you ask the question, have you ever been discipled, and who’s walking alongside you right now as a follower Christ in your life? I don’t mean like the amazed student who’s looking up and going, Oh gosh you know, Rich, you’re so awesome, so cool. But who actually can look at you and go, you’re not doing very well, Rich. I’m looking at you. Or Rich, it looks like things are going really well. I know you really well, that’s that’s sort of piece one for me as I walk in as a turnaround guy and I look at an organization. Ah is the leadership actually doing what the leadership wants the people to do.

Dennis Allen — The second thing, which are interesting symptoms, is not growth. Growth is a really poorly understood concept and the church tends to run for it saying growth, growth, growth. If you’re not growing, we need to fire the pastor and find somebody else. And heavens, how many pastors I’ve interviewed that are in despair over the way they’re being banged about because you haven’t delivered the numbers, like some stockholders report, right?

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — So challenging. So the second piece that I look at is is this a church which is launching other churches and has structure that allows one on ones and one on twos to develop. Small groups are wonderful. Big worship is wonderful. And we need all that and we want all that and God encourages to have all that. But do we see disciples on disciples…

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — …moving and working together? And so that gets to be a much narrower slice of our “market”. When you start saying leadership is in it, and the people in this world, some percentage of them, are actually engaged dynamically in disciples. Living as disciples who make disciples who make disciples.

Rich Birch — Okay, let’s talk about that growth thing. You’ve cut you you’ve tapped that a couple times. So one of the one of the I think ah personally I think it’s a false dichotomy is that there’s like a you know real churches that we comfort ourselves with like, oh real churches that are really discipling people, like they don’t worry about growth at all. Like you know that’s not, you know, there if we really were doing what we would we do and it doesn’t matter whether we grow, which I know is not what you’re saying. But unpack that a little bit more. You know, you know you talk about growth being poorly understood, a poorly understood dynamic in the church. Talk to us about that a little bit.

Dennis Allen — One of the quickest ways you can wreck a business is to grow it too fast.

Rich Birch — okay.

Dennis Allen — You’re not prepared to take on either the client load or the production load or the marketing load. Growth kills businesses and it kills it rapidly, if you think about it. 75% of all businesses at startup die in the first five years because they overgrew.

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — Churches are equally susceptible to that because there is an organization there. And as people begin to load up, one, you have to ask yourself the dynamic is this a cash rich area that I’m living in so I’ll have plenty of cash resources. It can build lots of buildings…

Rich Birch — Yep.

Dennis Allen — …hire lots of staff. Or am I in a cash poor region where I don’t have enough resource to be able to build and scale on this sort of thing and and get running with that. But I would wager that the growth paradigm is pitched both in seminary and I’ve talked to the seminary professors about this. I’ve had a lot of pastor talk about this. If you ain’t growing, you ain’t going. And that’s the falsity. What’s actually true, I think biblically, is if you ain’t discipling the rest of it doesn’t matter. But if you are discipling, some of you are going to grow numerically. Some of you are going to spin off numerically, launch other ventures…

Rich Birch — Right.

Dennis Allen — …and some of you aren’t going to grow an awful lot for a long time but you’re going to start replicating disciples and your growth’s coming. It may take you years, but your growth is coming. And then you got to decide how you allocate that capital formation we were talking about, the revenue of disciples who make disciples who make disciples.

Rich Birch — Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. I…

Dennis Allen — We are looking at ah there’s there’s a book called the great evangelical recession. And the great evangelical recession is an economist theologian who is saying today that by the year 2040 30% percent of our churches in North America will not be able to afford the facilities that they’re in.

Rich Birch — Right. Yeah, absolutely.

Dennis Allen — Growth has its lovely side and it has its challenges. Growth’s not a strategy.

Rich Birch — Yeah, no I get that. You know there’s some stats of there that show that 94% of the churches in the country are losing ground against the growth of the communities they’re in. So there you know there’s there’s the more encouraging statistic that 80% of churches are plateaued are in decline. But actually there’s a whole percentage of churches that are growing that aren’t growing as quickly as their communities. So the problem with that long term is we’re losing influence. Now I agree with you that um you know there’s we have a there’s a discipleship sublayer for sure in this issue that we’re not actually converting people to actually follow Christ. We’re just making more you know Christianitians and not necessarily Christians, you know people who are followers of our organizations, but not necessarily followers of Jesus.

Rich Birch — Yeah, this has been this has been a great conversation. Well where do we want to send people if they’re if they want to pick up copies of The Disciple Dilemma. This is Rethinking and Reforming How the Church Does Discipleship. Where do we want to send them to pick those up?

Dennis Allen — Well, all the usual places. If you want to pick them up and if if it’s at all worthwhile to you, Rich, I’d be happy to toss 25 copies of Kindle, Ebook, Nook codes out for people to get a free download if you got folks who would like that. Um.

Rich Birch — Oh that’d be great. Yeah, that’d be amazing. Yeah, that’d be great.

Dennis Allen — So you can find all that stuff. You can also check us out at www.thediscipledilemma.com…

Rich Birch — Love it.

Dennis Allen — …or Youtube or Linkedin or Instagram or Rumbly or Facebook – we’re out there @thediscipledilemma.

Rich Birch — All that stuff. That’s great. Good stuff. Well, Dennis, this has been a great conversation I really appreciate you being on today, and and love your book. And I really would encourage you listeners to pick up a copy I think. A great time of year to be thinking about you know staff training that sort of thing and I think Dennis’s work here would really help us think about and ultimately take some new steps as a church. So Dennis, thank you for being here sir appreciate being on the show today.

Dennis Allen — Thanks for your ministry, Rich.

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.