As a pastor, church planter, missionary, and missiologist, my life has been extremely full. But the salient concept that has taken shape throughout my years of ministry is saturation church planting. Many missionaries and ministries today are embracing this concept, but what is saturation church planting, and where did it come from?

During a series of conferences in the late 1800s, believers began asking how the church could finish the task of world evangelization. These conferences ran into the early 1960s, culminating in the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966 and developing into a more modern approach with the first International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974 by none other than Billy Graham.

Many strategies grew out of this desire to see the Great Commission fulfilled. One such effort was Kenneth Strachan’s Saturation Evangelism (also called Evangelism In Depth), begun in Costa Rica in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Strachan saw people being saved through the crusade evangelism (popular in the mid-twentieth century), but not being discipled and grown into mature believers afterward. Strachan concluded that, rather than depending on outside crusade workers, local church members needed to be mobilized to disciple new believers. “Someone came up with the label ‘saturation evangelism,’ and it stuck.” 

This concept of saturating areas with man-in-the-pew, indigenous Christ followers who lived out the gospel and shared it with those around them was not unique to Strachan. Dick Hillis of Overseas Crusades (OC; now called One Challenge), and other missiologists, were discovering and embracing this paradigm-shifting model during this time.

Discussion and research about people movements, unreached people groups, getting believers to take ownership of evangelization, and leadership development proliferated and led to the church planting movement in the 1970s. I was just a young man when these strategies were being explored.

In the early 1970s, Jim Montgomery, then Director of Research and Strategy at Overseas Crusades, developed a new strategy. It was not just church planting we needed, he said, but saturation church planting, with the goal of reaching whole nations. His goal was “the multiplication of local churches until a city, a region, a people, a country, even the whole world was filled with them.” Multiplication didn’t mean addition—one by one by one—but the proliferation of churches as each one naturally multiplied into many churches that would then likewise multiply. This goal would develop into what Jim later called the DAWN strategy (discipling a whole nation).

I was mentored in the DAWN strategy by Jim in the late 1970s and early ’80s. As a young missionary under his leadership at OC, Jim and I talked often about how to reach entire nations with the gospel. I had the opportunity to learn from him about his pioneering work in the Philippines in the early 1970s, “when about 75 church and mission leaders committed themselves to work toward the goal of a church in every barrio by AD 2000.” I took a small part in Jim’s expanding work in Guatemala, where church leaders had heard of the DAWN model and in 1984 “committed themselves to the goal of seeing evangelicals become 50 percent of the population of their country by 1990,” and I did some of the onsite early research for DAWN’s work in El Salvador in 1987. Jim also included me in his early efforts in Japan, and (with Bobby Gupta, now President of Hindustan Bible Institute in Chennai) invited me into the early days of the DAWN effort in India in 1987. This effort at national evangelization would involve the rest of my life.

In the early 1980s, Jim assigned me to work with Bob Waymire, a mutual friend of ours who would soon found the missions research organization Global Mapping (which he conceived by drawing maps on napkins!). Bob mentored me in the concept of saturation church planting. I worked directly under him, and day after day he taught me how to ask important questions about evangelizing the world.

Bob reinforced for me two issues in particular that have dominated most of my adult life.

One, whether the DAWN strategy is realistically achievable, at least in the short run, depends on the health of both existing and new churches in a given nation. In countries where DAWN was implemented and churches were not run on biblical lines, it didn’t succeed.

Two, those churches needed to be growing mature believers who would then live out the gospel as biblically healthy Christ followers in their communities and cities and thus gain a hearing with the people around them for sharing the gospel. The DAWN strategy of planting certain numbers of churches in a nation did not result in world evangelization in and of itself. Indeed, too many people miss the fact that Jim said the same thing. Rather, when the DAWN strategy has had its full impact, a body of Jesus followers is geographically placed in easy and understandable access to every man, woman, and child in a nation. It is from that point that a nation can then be fully evangelized as the church equips God’s people to do the work of ministry.

In other words, Bob challenged me with what kinds of churches were we planting, and what kinds of disciples were we growing? 

These concepts stirred my thoughts. While the DAWN strategy was powerful, without healthy Bible-taught leadership who would then disciple and mobilize believers in the churches, the gospel would not go out and reach the surrounding men, women, and children who needed to hear it. This idea of training leadership to equip God’s people for the work of ministry came to encapsulate much of my adult learning and commitments.

Around 1984 I left OC to help plant a church with several other couples, including Jim and Lyn Montgomery. One evening my wife, Patti, and I sat with Jim and Lyn in their front room along with Chuck Holsinger, Vice President at that time of OC, and Rich Cotarelo, Founding Elder of the church. The topic of the evening was whether to birth DAWN Ministries International. Ultimately, Rich and I were tasked to do the legal work, and DAWN Ministries was born. The goal of DAWN was to “help entire countries implement a nation-wide strategy for saturation church planting, through clear goal setting and finding the key person [the John Knoxer] for each region. This kind of thinking helped millions of churches get started, first in the Philippines, and then globally.”

But the questions planted in me by Bob had been stirring in my heart for several years. Despite an invitation by Jim to join him at DAWN, I felt that God had something else for me involving saturation church planting. I wanted to back up and start with the local church, training leadership regarding their God-given functions (as given in Ephesians 4:11–12) that would lead to healthy churches that could successfully live out the DAWN strategy. 

Soon after DAWN’s founding, the Montgomerys, along with two other friends of ours from our new church plant, moved to Pasadena, California, to base their work at the US Center for World Mission. Shortly after that, in 1988, Patti and I moved to Florida to take up the leadership mantle of United World Mission (UWM) in the hopes of growing a missions agency built upon saturation church planting and committed to the DAWN strategy through the building of healthy local churches. In the next year, we moved the mission to North Carolina and added an international leadership training center that trained missionaries. 

I had much more to learn about saturation church planting than I realized. Anyone interested in church planting during the 1980s and ’90s understood the history of evangelization research, unreached people groups, leadership development, Strachan’s saturation evangelism, and the church-planting movement. A host of good missionaries were doing great work in what today has been dubbed multiplication church planting. But saturation church planting? Exactly what was it?

I did not grow up as a missiologist. It was my missionary calling and field experience and my later missiological training that built Patti’s and my lifelong commitment to and involvement with global evangelization. My evolving understanding of saturation church planting, however, came ultimately from my father’s convictions and his teaching as a local church pastor during my boyhood, as well as my early Bible college training and pastoral experience. These formed me into a biblically literate, theologically faithful, local-church-focused servant, and my original biblical convictions were never far from my mind as I grew in my missiological understanding. All my thinking about saturation church planting was tightly related to my thoughts about the biblical model for the local church. 

Missiologically I was a child of Jim Montgomery, Bob Waymire, Donald McGavran, Ralph Winter of the US Center for World Mission, and others like them, but theologically I was a child of my father. As I pondered saturation church planting, I went back to the scriptural foundations my father had instilled in me. As I did, I came to see that saturation church planting was not a strategy. It was divine design—God’s original intent in the book of Genesis for people to have relationship with Him and to represent Him in the world. The fundamentals for the church were all in Scripture, and when godly leadership applied those—equipping the saints for the work of service by maturing believers to know Christ and live fully surrendered to Him—saturation church planting would be a natural result. Believers under biblical leadership would mature spiritually and become gospel-carrying disciples in their communities, and the multiplication of healthy churches would be the result.

In each experience I encountered along the way, I discovered more that I needed to ponder. One such experience became a pivotal event in my calling. While in the leadership of UWM, Jim Montgomery asked me to help with a project conceived by Luis Bush and the AD2000 and Beyond Movement in Riga, Latvia. DAWN, the World Evangelical Fellowship, World Team, and other missions organizations were working together to host this conference, called The Nations for Christ, of 1,000 delegates from every country in the former Soviet Union, in order to bring unity to the church and create a vision to saturate every former Soviet nation with the gospel.

The need for follow up for the attendees after the conference was evident, and I was asked to head up an effort to meet this need. This led to the formation, with a few leaders from other missionary sending agencies and US churches, of the Alliance for Saturation Church Planting. Through this alliance we sent people in teams to help facilitate church planting in the 27 countries of post-communist Eurasia. We placed alliance-related facilitation teams in 14 of those countries in order to identify, impart vision to, train, and mobilize the leadership of existing and emerging churches to plant new churches and facilitate church multiplication.

In outlining and carrying out training for these missionaries who were sent all over the former Russian empire to facilitate saturation church planting, I had to document, for the first time, what I thought saturation church planting was all about. I traveled throughout Eastern Europe for two years with the alliance, always working to define saturation church planting and hone my understanding of it. 

The alliance field leadership was full of highly gifted, experienced missionaries who worked hard at placing facilitation teams in every one of the nations in the former Russian empire. These teams trained national church leaders and imparted vision to them to multiply the church in the hopes of seeing a DAWN effort—the discipleship of whole nations—result in every country. Much good resulted from the efforts of the alliance; many confessing Christians and churches were birthed. But from my point of view, the strategy of the alliance fell short in several respects. 

The default mentality of most of the people of the alliance was traditional church planting. Yes, this movement was focused on multiplying churches, but it did not foster the kind of multiplication the alliance had hoped for. Instead, we discovered several problems: churches didn’t multiply naturally, according to God’s design, but rather according to a program; leadership wasn’t trained as to the true nature of the church, but rather as top-down authority structures that modeled too much of the world’s businesses; and God’s people were being trained to take the gospel to those around them, but not being mobilized by leadership to live out the gospel incarnationally. In fact, only in one nation, Ukraine, did the alliance efforts even come close to a national DAWN.

Two years after starting the Alliance for Saturation Church Planting, I resigned from the board. I also left UWM. Patti and I, with a board of likeminded leaders, launched Saturation Church Planting International (SCPI) in 1996, committed to deepening our understanding of the nature of the church as God designed and enabled it to multiply naturally. Our goal was to articulate and expand the concept of saturation church planting.

Church multiplication is not merely a strategy. It is rather the result of God’s people, leadership first, correctly understanding the nature of the church as God designed it and then cooperating with it. As such, leadership holds the key as to how any one church, whether already existing or newly planted, views itself. Leadership, biblically understood according to Ephesians 4, is a central force that the Holy Spirit uses to unlock the nature of the church and mobilize God’s people. If we cannot mobilize Christ’s people to live lives of incarnated righteousness, both saturation church planting and the DAWN strategy of discipling a whole nation become almost impossible. Thus, the type of gospel message introduced at the beginning of a church-planting effort will either facilitate the work of God in a geographical region, or become simply an instrument of nominal Christian living.

Early on in its existence, SCPI was asked by national church leadership in the UK and Spain to follow up DAWN efforts. As we carried out those efforts, I noticed several things about the DAWN strategy that initial euphoria can ignore. A few important criteria affect whether the discipleship of a whole nation is realistically achievable in the short run, and these principles became embedded in my philosophy of saturation church planting.

First, national church unity around the evangelization of a nation must exist. If the church at large across denominational lines does not see eye to eye on the goal to reach the nation, the work cannot be successful.

Second, the many para-church organizations in a nation must be willing to bend their particular strategies to work together with churches and other ministries for the intended outcome of the DAWN outreach.

Third, a nation must already have churches in it that have shown that they know how to multiply, not just plant an individual church. Such churches are effectively reaching some portion of their circle of accountability. These churches may be unable to verbalize what they are doing, but they are effectively reaching the people around them and multiplying. These churches become reproducible models within the nation.

Fourth, a nation must be receptive to the gospel message. We must discern the will of the Holy Spirit regarding a nation to the best of our ability before we attempt a DAWN effort in that place. Many nations will never be fully discipled or even come close to being so. Many people in a nation can be won to Christ and many churches planted even while most people in a nation reject the gospel outright. It may not be realistic or necessary to address such places with the DAWN strategy as the first effort.

And fifth, a trained and experienced facilitation team in a nation must be available to serve the effort full-time on an ongoing basis. Such a team is created and supported by one or more supporting missions and churches, and then sent to the nation to help impart vision as broadly as they can, identify those churches with the greatest level of response, work closely with these church’s leaders, and help these leaders build evangelization strategies for their circles of accountability and create larger coalitions of churches to join them. Such a team should be willing to commit to the DAWN effort and, more importantly, to both the daily and decadal time needed to address each issue.

The degree to which any one of these is missing, or low on a barometer of measurement, will impact the results. Not having one or more of these doesn’t mean that the DAWN strategy should be dismissed. But each of these issues needs to be realistically addressed in order for the DAWN strategy to fulfill its purpose of making the gospel available to every man, woman, and child in every area of a nation.

Not long after our work in the UK and Spain, the national church in Ukraine invited SCPI to assist them in church multiplication. Ultimately, we put a full-time facilitation team in the nation, and we built vision in and trained thousands of church leaders in saturation church planting principles. Much good resulted over the years in that nation. Tens of thousands of people confessed Christ, and tens of thousands of churches were planted. The effort came close to what we could call DAWN, or the full discipleship of a nation, but this was largely built upon the facts that the people were highly receptive to the gospel, a facilitation team was put in place, and there was apparent national church unity regarding the evangelization of the nation.

The DAWN effort wasn’t fully completed in Ukraine, however, because of what today I would call a corrupted church multiplication model. This model is corrupted for several reasons. Two reasons that we saw in Ukraine is that it was obsessed with buildings as the sign of a true church, and it was based on an autocratic style of pastoral leadership. Because of this, ultimately, churches in Ukraine did not multiply. The high receptivity of people to the good news and large numbers of willing young leaders allowed for lots of singular church plants to occur, but the growth remained within those local churches and did not extend into the communities in which they were planted.

Over time these weaknesses were exposed. Moral and financial failure in the national denominational leadership structures, the infusion of too much indiscriminately spread foreign money, and the building-obsessed ecclesiology exposed a church that was not discipling people well in the life of faith and had no real way of training thousands of necessary grassroots leaders. We in SCPI learned much through all of these activities.

Chief among them is this: saturation church planting must be part of the DAWN effort to disciple a whole nation. Without saturation church planting—planting churches in the first place with right teaching—the DAWN effort is unsustainable.

Saturation church planting must be part of DAWN because it is built upon God’s design for the nature of the church: interdependent leadership teams equipping God’s people to be on mission with God by living out the gospel among the people in their places. Thus, it fits into any geography. It begins in any and every local church. It can be applied to neighborhoods, cities, counties, regions, people groups, states, and, of course, where appropriate, nations—at which point DAWN is actually accomplished.

Saturation church planting must be part of DAWN because it starts not with the church but with the target—the individuals around the church that God has called His people to reach. In other words, it is missional. All the strategies that result from saturation church planting are developed from the most important piece of our theological convictions: that God is on mission in our day. The church and the people in it are the instruments God will use to take the gospel to every man, woman, and child in every place in the world. 

Missiologists will continue to develop new strategies, and many methods of reaching people with gospel can be effective. As I like to say in definition of evangelization and the development of strategy, if a method is not immoral, illegal, unethical, or against the Bible, then God’s people are free to use it—or discard it as well. But of chief importance, as Bob Waymire first planted in my mind, is this: what kind of disciples are we making, and what kind of churches are we planting?

In Ukraine we saw the wrong kind of disciples made and churches planted. The new churches had a minimal understanding of how to grow people in living out the gospel incarnationally in order to be on mission with God. As a result, much of the church growth was built upon “professionals!” This brought great numerical growth, but the churches did not multiply. At best, the work created an addition model—one plus one plus one. Non-reproducing churches were the result.

Patti and I have been involved in India for 30 years, from the ground level of the DAWN effort in 1987 to today. Millions of people have come to faith in that country, and hundreds of thousands of churches have been planted through the DAWN effort. But SCPI became more actively involved in India once again about 10 years ago. Why? Because national leaders asked us to help them address their primary challenge, which came in the form of a question: “We have lots of confessing Christians, but how many of them are really followers of Christ?”

There it was again. What kinds of churches have we planted? What kinds of Christians have we made? And, more importantly to us, what kind of gospel have we declared?

Now, many decades later, these issues no longer catch us unawares. SCPI has experienced true saturation church planting. A focus on decentralized structures and on mobilizing believers in their calling and testimony has constituted spiritual growth and new churches organized. In West Bengal, India, for example, we have witnessed a church of 120 believers in one location transformed over four years into a network of 47 branch churches across 28 major towns with 320 house groups representing more than 3,500 believers. SCPI has thought out the biblical issues, found interested leaders, and is now seeing churches on multiple continents that have built churches and equipped people who are looking more like Jesus and, depending upon the receptivity to the gospel in their local contexts, multiplying. 

These churches don’t add one plus one plus one—they multiply by the tens, hundreds, and thousands. We have seen not only that saturation church planting is vital to discipling a whole nation, but that saturation church planting is God’s design for His church!