Innovating Multiplication: A Fresh Approach to Fusing Assimilation with Disciple Multiplication (part 2)

By Dave Rhodes and Shane Stacey

Have you ever been lost; determined to get to a particular destination but found yourself confused about where you are and which direction to head next?

If so, you’re not alone. 

Apparently walking in circles is a natural phenomenon. In fact, scientific researchers studied what happens to people who get lost while walking in a forest or wilderness. In the study, people were instructed to do their very best to walk in a straight line from point A to point B and then were left on their own in a dense forest in Germany. Each person was tracked by GPS.

It turns out that lost people literally go around in circles, but they don’t realize it.

Even so, that is not what is most fascinating. 

The research revealed that lost people tend to feel confident that they are walking in a straight line all the while they are walking in circles. The study stated, “…participants were only able to keep a straight path when the sun or moon was visible. However, as soon as the sun disappeared behind some clouds, people started to walk in circles without even noticing it.” 1

It seems we are in continual need of a reliable point of reference to keep from walking in circles.

With the prevailing model of church in mind, our friend, Bill Allison, loves to ask this question:

When it comes to disciple-making, could it be that we have lost our point of reference and are spending a good deal of time confidently walking in circles —and we’re not even aware of it?2

If we’re honest, without a fixed point of reference, the simplicity of the Great Commission turns into the Great Confusion. Any multiplication innovations that move the church into the future must begin with a fixed point of reference.. 

The good news is we know where to locate that point of reference. In the four gospels we find that, through Jesus’ life, we have been given a definitive pattern for multiplication. Amazingly, Jesus is not only the Messiah and our message but also our model for life and ministry. 

The Great Confusion

In part one of this three-part series, we examined the prevailing disciple-making model found in the North American church. We described it as an Assimilation Funnel with a common three-step strategy: Attend → Connect → Serve. We did a deep dive to unpack both its benefits and limitations. 

If you were unaware of Jesus’ commission to His Church and tried to discern it by examining the prevailing discipleship model found in most churches today, it would probably sound something like this:  Go into all the world and make worship attenders, baptize them in the name of small groups and teach them how to serve a few times a month. 3

Of course, that is not the Great Commission that we find in Matthew 28:18-20. Yet, because this passage is so familiar to us, it may be helpful to step back and ask: How did the first disciples of Jesus hear the commission before Jesus ascended?

Could what they had heard sound to them more like this:

“You know the friendship I’ve shared with you for the last three-and-a-half years? Repeat that in the exact same way over and over again. Starting right now, go and do exactly what I did with you…with other friends….and help them do it with their friends without ever stopping. When you tell others in your life about me, some will believe and follow me. Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Be sure to pull them close–like I did with you—and show them how to love God, love people, and make disciples…who make more disciples…until every community in the world has disciple-making friends, who are making more disciple-making friends. As you live my disciple-making way of life you can have full assurance of my presence, power, and provision–for I am always with you.” 4

When we look at Jesus, not merely as our message but also as our model for life and ministry, we find that he has provided a repeatable pattern for a disciple-multiplying movement. We call what we see in Jesus’s life and ministry the  Multiplication Funnel.

Jesus’ Multiplication Funnel

This is called the Multiplication Funnel because it’s about disciples of Jesus who make disciples who make disciples. It’s not about addition by drawing more people into the church—it’s about multiplication by followers of Christ reproducing Jesus’ way of life in multiple other people who do the same in still others.

The stages of this funnel do not represent a sequence of programs but a succession of spiritual generations of disciples of Jesus. We label them with numbers that recall successive generations sent out on mission with Jesus.

While the best place to find Jesus’ multiplication strategy is by looking chronologically at the life of Christ as portrayed in the four gospels, Luke provides for us with a high-level “Cliff Notes” version. 

In the diagram above, Jesus is represented by the number one. In Luke 8:1-3, we find that Jesus is doing the ministry but bringing along men and women he’s pulled close to join Him on his mission. [It’s worth noting that the sequence really begins in chapter 6, where Luke highlights Jesus’ communion and dependence on the Father for who to invest in for the sake of multiplication.]

In Luke 9:1, we see that one becomes twelve as Jesus sends out the apostles to preach and engage in the spiritual battle with Christ’s authority. It is helpful to know that the word preach in that context simply means to “announce the presence of someone significant”. It’s not talking about what is done in a pulpit but rather what any herald of good news can do. 

Then, several months later, we see in Luke 10:1 that the 12 has become 72. They also are sent out on Jesus’ mission into their relational spheres of influence. It’s worth noting that, as Jesus sends them out, he reminds them not merely to make converts but to be praying for the Lord of the Harvest to raise up more “workers”–a.k.a. disciple-makers who will also be sent on mission together. He sends the 72 with a multiplication mindset. 

Finally, in Acts 1:15, Luke identifies that there are 120 disciples gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem, poised for Pentecost (Acts 1:15). This 120 become the Spirit-filled force for good that launches the expansion of the church. 

We can also symbolically associate these stages with the four generations of disciples implied in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things you have heard me [first generation] say in the presence of many witnesses [second generation] entrust to reliable people [third generation] who will also be qualified to teach others [fourth generation].” 

The multiplication funnel is sort of like a family tree on its side showing disciple-making friends and their spiritual children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. To perpetuate multiplication beyond the walls of the church, disciples need more than to attend, connect, and serve. They also need to be called, trained and sent.

Called…into special assignment 

Every disciple of Jesus has been called. God called each of us “out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). Just as Paul tells the disciples in Rome and in Corinth that we are “called to be his holy people” and as he also tells Timothy that we are ”called to a holy life” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:9). God has summoned each of us to be someone and do something that we otherwise wouldn’t if we didn’t belong to him. 

Much of what God has called us to be and do we share in common with everyone God has called. Such as, he’s called all of us to be his children, his servants, and his temple. Likewise, he’s called all of us to glorify him, to love our neighbor, and to make disciples. 

However, he hasn’t called all of us to be and do these things in the same way. He has given us a diversity of gifts and positioned us in a diversity of places. He’s instilled in us a diversity of passions. He’s fashioned for us different bodies, and he’s embedded us in different situations with different webs of relationships. 

In this light, when we say that people need to be called, we mean that if leaders are going to develop a multiplication funnel, they have to help individuals know and name their special calling from God. We are talking about their Ephesians 2:10 calling, their holy assignment from God. Most Christians know what they have been saved from (see Ephesians 2:1-9), but they don’t know what they have been saved for.

When a person knows their special calling, they grasp as they never have before the value they have to contribute to the world around them in all venues at all times. Special calling breaks down the false distinction between sacred activity and secular activity in a person’s life.

As Paul says, “To the pure, all things are pure” (Titus 1:15); special calling helps disciples recognize that they are God’s sacred people wherever they are who sacralize every ordinary thing they do just by doing it (see Colossians 3:23). They start to see themselves as living their divine calling when they’re on the job as much as when they’re in a worship service.

Trained…to do the Jesus “stuff”

Once someone comes to see that Jesus has chosen them to be and make disciples of Him by living out their special calling among the unique people and places He’s sent them, they still have to learn how to live like him. Dallas Willard famously wrote of discipleship being “learning from Jesus to live my life if he were I.” It’s doing what Jesus would do if he lived your life today—if he worked your job, had your family and friends and lived in your neighborhood.

Most people who go to church are not equipped for this kind of living despite leaders’ good intentions. The attend-connect-serve assimilation model does a decent job of convincing people they should live like Jesus; it connects them with other people who want to live like Jesus; it even creates supportive spaces for people to celebrate how they’re living like Jesus and to confess how they aren’t. But it rarely trains people to develop the competencies and skills we see Jesus doing in the power of the Spirit. 

In fact, we’ve found that what most people call training, is really more teaching. We highly value teaching. Indeed, if you’re building a disciple-multiplying culture, we believe it is not less important but more important. Even so, teaching always has to be balanced with training if you are going to get multiplication. 

To stretch our minds to see some generalized differences between teaching (preaching & speaking) and training, consider the chart below:

Classroom/ Auditorium SpaceLab/Life Space
Content & Curriculum to CompleteCharacter/Competence to Develop
Stimulate the head & stir the heartEquip the hands and activate the heels
Information & InspirationImitation and Innovation
“Tell How” learning“Show How” learning
Mitigates failure with clarity & expertiseIntroduces failure with practice & feedback
Low relationshipHigh relationship
Creates a culture of dependenceCreates a culture of empowerment

Take a moment to reflect on this question: How are we doing as a leadership team in cultivating a culture of training–not just a culture of teaching? 

Our dream is that over the next 40 years, church leaders would put as much imagination, creativity and effort into training as they have into teaching the last 40 years. 

Regrettably, if disciples are not equipped to not only grasp the teachings of Jesus but also put them into practice in every aspect of their lives throughout the entire week—be it their profession, family, hobbies, or any other facet—then the process of multiplication halts way before it ever reaches the fourth generation.

This happens because, without a culture of training, discipleship efforts tend to center around spiritual activities that Christians prefer. These activities often seem, at best, indirectly related to the real-life challenges faced by outsiders. The whole endeavor moves to become insider-focused very quickly. Spiritual reproduction is never activated.

Sent…into all of life

Moreover, once a disciple is called and trained, they still have to be sent. Similar to calling, sentness isn’t something we manufacture for people but something God has already granted them. When Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you,” he wasn’t just talking to the disciples in Jerusalem the day he rose but to all disciples everywhere for all time (John 20:21).

Practically, disciples often don’t realize they’ve been sent until they discern the specific place and people they’re meant to serve and understand what they need to do with them.

For example, imagine a basketball coach who’s had hundreds of people come through her program. She may have a general notion that she should positively influence her players, but it may never have crossed her mind that she’s actually been discipling them all along. What if she added some gospel intentionality to these relationships?

Imagine if her eyes open to the reality that as she’s been discipling them in basketball, she starts to see what a short step it is to say to her players, “I’ve been teaching you to play offense and defense on the basketball court; now follow me, and I’ll show you how to play offense and defense with your life.”

Or imagine a banker who’s climbed well up the corporate ladder and realizes that he’s been helping younger employees learn banking for years. Once he realizes that is how disciple-making works, he then sees that he has the opportunity not only to make a new generation of bankers but also to make the kind of bankers who bank the way Jesus would bank if Jesus were a banker. 

Or imagine a woman with a disability who is homebound and isn’t able to work a steady job, but she’s known to the neighborhood as the friendly face on the front porch who will share a cookie and talk with anyone.

Imagine if she realized that her ultimate contribution in life was to be the person who everyone in that little neighborhood felt safe to share their story with. She could then recognize her opportunity to point people to Jesus as the truest comforter who hears all stories, and she could teach some of them how to listen to others the way Jesus does. 

If people’s eyes open up to their sentness just one time, they see it everywhere. They may already be doing it accidentally, but they can learn to do it intentionally. The possibilities are endless; there is no limit to how they can multiply their life.

Forging the Two Funnels

Can you imagine the possibilities for multiplication if a growing core of people in your church were able to name callings, commitments, and aspirations like these and were getting equipped by their church to reach them? 

For most churches, the answer to moving with greater disciple-making intentionality into the future is not simply to throw away the Assimilation Funnel of attend-connect-serve for Jesus’ Multiplication Funnel of called-trained-sent. What is required, however, is a forging of the two funnels together. 

These two funnels are forged with heat and hammering over time. Heat represents leaders’ courageous conviction that comes from God’s Word and consistent dissatisfaction with the status quo of the prevailing model alone.

At the end of the day, this must be driven by more than an idea you read in an article. It has to be your own certainty that God has spoken and planted in you a discontent and a desire to change things.

Hammering is the result of persevering through repeated deliberate actions. It doesn’t happen overnight; instead, it evolves through a series of intentional steps taken by individual disciple-making leaders, the core leadership team, and ultimately, everyday followers of Jesus.

These collective efforts reshape the culture of the entire church over time. In the process of forging funnel fusion, it’s important to remember that progress should take precedence over perfection every time.

Many leaders wait to get things perfect before they start working, so they never start. Others start with what they think will be the perfect model only to find that it doesn’t work perfectly in real life causing them to give up and conclude that funnel fusion doesn’t work at all.

The truth is that there are no perfect models for doing this, and even churches that have been working on this for a long time would tell you that their multiplication funnel doesn’t function perfectly. 

In Part 3 of this series, we’ll highlight a few practical keys we’ve been learning as we’ve worked with over 50 churches in the last couple of years who are seeking to innovate multiplication by forging these two funnels together.

This article is a modified excerpt from Dave Rhodes’ forthcoming book, Forging the Future Church. All rights reserved.


  1. Souman, Dr Jan. Walking in Circles. Max-Plank-Gesellschaft. August 20, 2009. Posted at
  2. Allison, Bill. The Disciplemaking Genius of Jesus. Cadre Missionaries, 2018.
  3. Will Mancini and Cory Hartman, Future Church: Seven Laws of Real Chuch Growth. Baker Books, 2020.
  4. Allison, Bill. The Disciplemaking Genius of Jesus.

At Clarity House, we love being a safe place for leaders to wrestle with these sorts of questions. We specialize in assisting church teams in discerning a shared vision that is coupled with disciple-making clarity. Let’s build a disciple-making future you can believe in!