Focus-on-Fruit Brief Overview 2021
– By Trevor Larsen –
I came to the Lord as I entered college, and grew spiritually during my college years. The Lord kept giving me roommates from different cultures, which piqued my interest in the world. I later became a math teacher and wrestling coach. I found that coaching really influenced my ministry. A coach asks the question: How do you help other people become as effective as possible at what they’re doing? What I’m doing now is helping local movement catalysts in my SE Asian context become as effective as possible, in church planting and leadership. After teaching and coaching, I went to seminary, where I ministered to many Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian refugees who had just arrived after the Killing Fields, with stories of multiple millions killed. These refugees were placed in 10 cities in America, including the city where I attended seminary.
I recruited and formed teams with 15 other seminarians, according to the language groups on which we were focusing. I found it was a good fit for me to also mobilize local Southeast Asians to disciple others. We were stunned by the fact that some of those we were training (who we thought of as receiving our ministry) actually turned around and started other churches – both in their city, and also in Cambodia, through their relatives. We began at that time to do multiple-generation thinking, which has continued up to this day. I was a pastor in California for seven years and then have been teaching in an Asian seminary since 1993 – for 28 years. I teach at the Doctoral and Masters’ level, in a set of 15 linked seminaries. That’s my visa reason for being in the country. But we moved into UPG work about 22 years ago, focusing on majority-religion UPGs. I developed an organization of local church planters who reach the UPGs of our country. It has become a bigger part of my life than the seminary teaching, though I continue to do both.
Some may struggle to accept the unconventional church I talk about. Keep in mind: As a seminary professor, I’m strongly connected with conventional churches, and the denominational leaders here tell me about their challenges. When I first moved here, the conventional churches were very fruitful. But during this 20-year period, the conventional churches that had been very fruitful have declined in their fruitfulness, and they are getting more and more frustrated. Conditions changed in our context when fundamentalism increased in 2000, and conventional churches have been very slow to adapt their methods to new conditions. They are talking to me more and more about their frustrations.
Conventional churches had not been fruitful among UPGs, so in 1998 we started quietly experimenting with four young seminary graduates, trying to develop a different model – aiming for better results in a UPG. The graph of fruit reported by this small ministry team kept increasing, while the conventional church leaders were telling me stories of how their fruitfulness kept declining. I found myself in quite an interesting juxtaposition of two worlds: two sets of people serving the Lord with different models and having very different results. That’s my background. I understand the stories of both kinds of ministry models: the conventional churches, and the “church without walls” our team was developing.
To make a long story short, I started with local evangelists who I thought were good at evangelism among people of the majority religion. I then coached four full-time local evangelists who were developing our experiment. We decided we would only count people of the majority religion who were being reached, because we didn’t want to slide back into the easier-to-reach portions of the country. It took us three years to get to our first small group of five believers. Then it took us four more years of struggle to get to 22 groups, while we learned about what worked and what didn’t work. Most of those groups were first generation groups that our church planters led; the ministry had not yet become rooted with local leaders. It took another three years to get to 52 groups, while we were discovering other fruitful practices. Then in just two more years, the ministry had grown to 110 groups. At that time, we were stunned to find that believer groups were doubling more quickly, and surprised when we found our first third generation groups. It was starting to get rooted in local culture and local leaders!
I was counting these 110 groups on a plane to the U.S., to present a case study in a conference. I began crying on the plane, as I added up all the little handwritten notes I’d been given at the airport, when I realized we were picking up our doubling speed. The number of years it took us to double had decreased quite a bit from 2006 to 2008, as compared to what it had been before that. I started thinking, “Wow, if we can get to the third generation of groups, what’s keeping us from getting to the eighth generation? Can this become a continuously expandable system? What are the obstacles to continuous expansion?”
From that first group in 2000, this movement has become thousands of groups, a family of movements. There are movements of 1,000 believers or more, in at least six generations of groups, in many different UPGs, and in many other countries, reached by movement catalysts from an Asian country. It’s amazing that I’m saying this, because my initial goal, my lifetime career goal, was 200 groups, which at the time seemed nearly impossible. I think the Lord gives you a number to begin with, at the limits of what you dare to imagine. And while pursuing that first smaller target, you can set up a system that is expandable. We use the term “scalable” to describe this: a system with fruitful-practice DNA which supports continuous expansion.