Detroit was once synonymous with wealth, power, ingenuity and expansion, but that eventually changed.
“It’s also a city that saw its wealth and influence erode into utter ruin and bankruptcy. Once thriving neighborhoods fell abandoned to decay and despair,” said Michael Forney, the Southern Michigan Conference’s assistant superintendent of leadership and multiplication, who added that Detroit’s story hasn’t ended with decline. “Detroit has grit. Detroit is a comeback city. Detroit has spirit. It is determined that from the ashes, it will rise again.”
Forney, who also serves as the chief executive officer and the lead strategist of Gravitational Leadership, said Detroit was a fitting city to host the Multiply Conference on March 8–9. He pointed to “The Spirit of Detroit” city monument that has an inscription from 2 Corinthians 3:17 (KJV): “Now the Lord is that Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
Like Detroit and many other U.S. cities, much of the American church also needs a comeback from decline.
“On any given weekend, less than 18 percent of Americans are in church, and that’s dropping at a rate of half a percent a year. We’re not keeping up with the population growth in most places,” said Forney at the beginning of the conference, which the Free Methodist Church – USA and Gravitational Leadership sponsored to help churches and disciples multiply.
“The church is meant to multiply,” said Larry Walkemeyer, the lead pastor of Light & Life Christian Fellowship in Long Beach, California, that has planted 22 U.S. churches serving a total of 8,000 people. “The reason Methodism spread across America is multiplication.”
Walkemeyer shared how John Wesley asked for English volunteers to spread the gospel in America, and “a 26-year-old, a school dropout, an assistant blacksmith, a guy named Francis Asbury said, ‘I’ll go,’ and when Asbury landed in Philadelphia, there were only 600 Methodists in America; 45 years later when Asbury died, there were 200,000 Methodists with 4,000 ordained pastors, which soon gave rise to 1.5 million Methodists. Folks, that didn’t happen through addition. That’s the power of multiplication.”
But Walkemeyer said we sometimes rely on plans more than prayer even though “prayer is the air that multiplication breathes.” He also said many churches fail to train disciples to make other disciples, and they offer the “volunteership of all believers” instead of the priesthood of all believers. “In America, we teach our church members to pass out bulletins when Jesus taught His followers to cast out demons.”
One of the churches planted by Light & Life Christian Fellowship is Chapel of Change, which now has four campuses in Southern California and a calling to expand into other cities and states. Brian Warth, the lead pastor of Chapel of Change, said the Lord has given a vision to the multiethnic congregation to launch 1,000 churches.
“Over and over in the Scripture, I see this compelling, prophetic call to multiply,” said Warth, who finds insight for the church in God’s promise to Israel in Isaiah 54:3 (NLT): “For you will soon be bursting at the seams.” Warth added that the church needs to follow the same steps that God gave to Israel in Isaiah 54: Prepare for multiplication. Embrace the tension of multiplication. Sacrifice for multiplication. “The fruit that Chapel of Change is bearing today happened because another church sacrificed to position us to serve the Lord.”
The Multiply Conference served as a homecoming for prolific author and scholar Leonard Sweet, who noted his father was Free Methodist. Sweet said we must learn “to speak the language of this culture, and it’s increasingly a global language” even as we retain our tribal language of “holiness unto the Lord.” Citing hymn writer Fanny Crosby’s “Blessed Assurance” statement of “this is my story, this is my song,” Sweet emphasized the importance of story and song in our culture. He interspersed his talk with video clips from commercials and a viral video of a rehearsal for the song “This Is Me” from the movie “The Greatest Showman.”
“It’s time for us to find our voice. It’s time for us to say to this culture, ‘This is us; this is me —followers of Jesus,’ and to say it in a way in which this world can understand it,” said Sweet, who later prayed, “Lord, let us find new ways to sing that story that this culture can hear.”
Ben Sigman — the lead pastor of Timberlake Church with campuses in Redmond, Issaquah, Duvall and Castle Rock, Washington — said 41 percent of the people in the Seattle area have never had a credible connection with a Christian church, and “we are radically committed to the 41 percent.” He warned church leaders not to focus on limitations and say they don’t have enough money, leaders or children’s workers, because “the Bible says you have everything you need to do all the work God’s called you to do.”
Sigman offered practical lessons he’s learned in ministry, and he said each church needs a creative vision and resources. “If you’re looking for resources, you need to become a developer of people.”
Along with six general session messages, the conference featured six hours of breakout sessions divided into four separate learning tracks — discipleship, leadership, churches and superintendents.
In one discipleship workshop, pharmacist and human resources consultant Ron Kuest — who developed the state of Washington’s crime laboratory system — shared how he eventually used his scientific training to study the church. He found that many discipleship efforts are missing three key questions: Who is God? Who am I? Why does it matter?
The conference also included two question-and-answer panel discussions featuring many of the general and breakout session speakers.
“When grace is extended beyond your cultural allegiance, a disruptive work of God is initiated,” said Michael Traylor — the River Conference’s superintendent-elect, the director of the denomination’s African Heritage Network, and a medical doctor — during one of the discussions. Traylor added that the ministries of Multiply speakers such as Walkemeyer and Warth reflect the multiethnic growth of the church in the book of Acts and more modern revival movements. “These are courageous and bold moves that shared the gospel — the whole gospel — beyond their cultural allegiances.”
Sheila Houston — a Free Methodist elder, the president of Rare Coins Ministries, and a leading authority about working with victims of sex trafficking — questioned why churches primarily meet on Sunday mornings. “When I was not a Christian, I was not getting up on Sunday and going to church that time of day,” Houston said. “When I was out there and lost and needed some help, I used to try to find a church open at night.”
Forney agreed and noted that Sunday morning is when many families have children playing in soccer games. “We’re also asking people who have no knowledge or allegiance to God to choose between their kids and church.”
Gravitational Leadership Executive Director Annie Roberts said churches sometimes alienate younger people by confusing message with method even if method is not linked to doctrine. “There are so many young people that don’t really understand why the corporate church holds onto some things so dogmatically,” Roberts said. “We have to allow and create space for creativity.”
Bishop Matthew Thomas delivered the closing message of the conference. He discussed the rapid growth of the church around the world despite small growth in the United States. In the United States, “we refuse to acknowledge the fact that Jesus is the only answer for the brokenness in our society,” Thomas said.
While American Christians worry about potential persecution for their faith, churches grow in other nations despite or because of persecution.
“We’re praying for incredible movement in these times that are challenging,” Thomas said. “These are great days. I sense that, in my lifetime, the church is going to be tenfold at what it is right now in America.”3