‘Viral growth’ is a frequently-discussed topic today. This is true for several reasons. One obvious cause is the impact of Covid-19 over the past few months. But there are ‘ideas’ and ‘fads’ as well: Seth Godin wrote a notable book some time back about ‘ideaviruses’, and Malcolm Gladwell wrote his famous Tipping Point on the same idea.
‘Disciple-making movements’ (DMM) center around the ‘viral’ or ‘exponential’ growth of the church. The name ‘disciple-making movement’ or ‘DMM’ is new, but the theory isn’t. Jesus used the illustration of a seed falling into the ground, dying, and yielding exponential fruit. There have been many multiplying movements in history that have saturated whole peoples and countries.
In summary, for any sort of viral movement (good or bad) to take off, three things are required: (1) people (virus carriers), (2) the contagion (the virus itself, in whatever form we’re talking about), and (3) a context (a place or platform) in which carriers can mix with the not-yet-infected. Without any of these, you won’t have a viral movement—be it Covid-19, Facebook, political ads or a DMM.
The growth of the movement is driven by two factors: (1) how long a person is ‘infectious’ or able to pass the virus on to others, and (2) how easy it is to pass the virus. An easily-caught infection can still fail to multiply through a population if it is short-lived: if it only lasts in its host for a few minutes or an hour. (It doesn’t matter how excited a person is to share the Gospel if that only lasts for Sunday night, and the excitement disappears by, say, Monday morning.) A difficult-to-pass virus (for example, one that only passes through blood transfusions, or a discipling mechanism that requires a multi-year investment of time and money) will not rapidly spread even if it lives in the host for months or years.
If a virus is long-lived and easily-caught, it will spread through a local community—and the mobility of people through a context can widen the viral spread. We see this illustrated sharply in the case of Covid-19: carriers spread out from infected ‘hot zones’ via air travel and ‘seeded’ the virus into other locations. The same principle is at play when dealing with mobile diaspora populations (such as students or international business people).
Often, a virus will spread nearly invisibly in the early stages. When it is spreading from 1 person to 3, and then to 9, and then to 27, it is rapid but often unseen in the midst of larger populations. (This is particularly true of the ‘asymptomatic’ early infectious period of Covid-19: you could have it for as long as a week before symptoms show, and be passing it to many other people.) Suddenly, a virus will ‘go viral’ or ‘burst out into the open’—what this means is that lots of people have suddenly noticed it. By the time the virus has reached the stage where it is widely seen it is often far too late to be easily contained. (This is the point when governments, if they are opposed, will try to quash it—and have to do so ruthlessly.) This inability to ‘see’ viral multiplication well often makes it difficult to engineer its spread. Tech platforms often have an advantage because they know how many ‘infected’ people they have, and often who came to the platform as a result of who (e.g. they can see the contagiousness of the platform).
So, if one wants to see a viral movement happen, how can all these factors combine together for maximum effectiveness? We must start with a ‘virus’ that (a) can be passed on easily, and that (b) people are excited and continue to want to pass on for a long time. (One movement leader told me, for example, that if a church were going to multiply itself, it would do so in the first four years; after four years, it’s easier to start a new church or group than to try to get the existing one to multiply. This is the ‘infectious’ period.)
If you have such a ‘virus,’ the next thing to do is to ‘seed’ the virus into a context where there’s a lot of social interaction between people. An ideal context is one where people from other locations come in-and-out—where they can pick the ‘virus’ (idea, teaching, fad, whatever) up and then travel to other locations and pass it on. If you want to go viral, it’s vital to ‘seed’ the movement into a context with lots of local social interaction and outbound flow using super-spreaders. Repeated ‘spreadings’ will help catch new people moving in and out of the context.
Most Gospel exposures today have more in common with a restaurant than a viral fad. People are being given bread to eat, but not seeds to plant. To spread the Gospel using this model requires something more in line with corporate franchising—one installation trains a manager and sends them out to launch another franchise in another location. Or, to use another analogy, you can be a professional corporate farmer with a huge installation, training up interns and apprentices, or you can help start a movement of community gardens.
All of this has implications for multiplying the Gospel, evangelism, churches, and the Kingdom. If the method of ‘gospeling’ and ‘discipling’ is reproducible (e.g. infectious—can be easily passed on), we don’t need to work so hard at targeting every last neighborhood. Instead, we can choose ‘viral contexts’ with strong commercial and cultural linkages, and well-developed transport hubs. With a viral approach, to saturate a people group it may be more important to identify the most ideal places to ‘pick up’ the ‘Jesus fever’ than to try to systematically engineer where the individual ‘Gospel outposts’ are planted. If it’s infectious enough, it will organically spread to saturate the population.
Break down countries into provinces and districts.
Look at capitals of provinces, but also look for major economic centers.
Look for places with significant transportation hubs (airports, railways, etc) as well as colleges, medical centers, big cultural installations—things that attract people from other places.
Using this approach, you’ll need to watch for ‘flame-ups’ in nearby and distant places, however—because of the often unseen nature of viral spread, you might be surprised how far the Gospel can go from one location. (In fact, to fully saturate a place, it might be best to try to seed Gospel super-spreaders into two or three transport hubs that intersect the same territories.)