Doing Church as a Team

A radically simple model of discipleship for churches and small groups

Note: This article has been excerpted from the training tool called Building a Culture of Discipleship.

In 1994, Wayne Cordeiro founded New Hope Christian Fellowship on the un-extraordinary notion of people putting their natural gifts and passions to work for the kingdom of God. But the results have been extraordinary. Using the concept of "fractals," Cordeiro has devised a radical yet simple model of discipleship—he calls it "doing church as a team." Leadership Journal editors Marshall Shelley and Ed Gilbreath spoke to Cordeiro about his vision for building churches and disciples.

A core aspect of making disciples at New Hope is doing church as "fractal teams." Where did that come from?

I had been to many seminars on organizing church leadership, and much of it was borrowed from the marketplace, which generally implies you work with organizations until they run like a machine. The only problem, I found, is that machines don't grow; they operate. They require grease, but they don't mature. I wanted to have a church that I could grow with, that would grow beyond me, and that I did not have to worry about, because it would be in order.

The Lord uses the body as a metaphor for the church. And if he chose that as a metaphor, I think it behooves us to study that carefully. It's a brilliant metaphor. As I looked at human anatomy more closely, I noticed something: from brain cells down to your fingernails, the DNA structure is the same throughout your body. There are repeating patterns in certain cells that, if you look at them under a microscope, look like little triangular shapes or oblong rectangles that just continue to repeat again and again, up to infinity.

When I mentioned this to my friend Loren Cunningham, the founder of Youth with a Mission, he told me he had heard a speaker talk about something called fractal patterns. There's actually a mathematical equation for these repeating patterns. It's like a fern. You'll notice a fern has a stem and then singular leaves off the side, left and right. Now, if you take one of those singular leaves off the left or right, you'll notice there's a major stem with singular leaves off each of them. You see the same pattern repeated over and over. Likewise, your body has major arteries and smaller arteries off of those. Everything repeats.

I wondered how I might apply this fractal pattern to leadership. So I organized our church in a repeating pattern, where growth is downward like roots from a plant. We started building teams in groupings of five (up to ten if team members are married).

How do fractals work in a church?

Well, let's take children's ministry as an example. In doing church as a team, my first step is not to jump in and start working with the children. Instead, it's to build a team of four leaders, with whom I will serve. That gives us a team of five people with similar passions and gifts.

Each of these leaders will then do the same thing in whatever their specific area of children's ministry is. So, for instance, the nursery leader finds a team of four people with whom she can serve. The first- and second-grade leader finds his team of four. And the pattern goes on and on. As each leader does this, it just keeps multiplying. The leader disciples downward, but he or she is also being discipled from above. The growth continues, and it falls naturally into discipleship groups.

How has this changed your ministry?

Even now, at about 7,000 people, I have less stress overseeing that size of a church than I did when we were overseeing 300 and I was chaotically trying to control everything. Now we can grow. Everyone has a small group, and they're serving and being served; discipling and being discipled. And everybody has a place in ministry and the same DNA. What I do with my four, they do with their four, and so on. The DNA keeps filtering down.

Do you intentionally introduce specific content into the system? Or is what filters down generally intangible?

I will introduce intentional teaching in the area of discipleship and spiritual growth. But what's primarily inculcated are values—the core values that we hold as important to the church. You're going to have different tints and colorations of ministry, and you don't want to dictate or control that. That's just a natural part of what the Spirit is doing. But if you and I have the same core values, then you can have a whole different tint in your ministry, but the same DNA will be going through it.

Statistics show that most people think they're too busy. How do you get people who already feel overbooked and overcommitted to a point where they willingly offer their gifts to serve God's kingdom?

Yes, everyone is busy, even the kids. But you'll notice that if there's something that you really like to do—say, fishing—you make time for it. I play soccer. I still play in a Tuesday night league. I love soccer. I can be busy as can be, but I'm going to play soccer on Tuesday night.

So what we have to do as a church is increase the value of the kingdom in our people's hearts. And once an activity's value is increased, they'll make time for it.

How do you do that?

In the traditional way of doing church, it's "You just got to put in time" or "It's your duty." Well, in that model, church becomes one of the many responsibilities that I have to contend with every week. We can't do that anymore. That kind of leadership doesn't work in today's environment.

Instead, we have to find out how people are wired and then help them become what they want to be for the sake of the kingdom. Once you line up a person's gift with his or her ministry role, then you get people who love doing what they're doing. They'll want to make time for that.

Does this model translate to smaller churches?

It's really the same. We did it right out of the blocks when we were planting this church. We started with about 15, went to 30, and just kept people involved. You might not have the fractal pattern. That could come later on, but you can start with the same mindset of building leaders. You can do that with two people.

As it grows, you'll need more organizational structure, and that's when the fractal concept may be helpful. But before that, no matter how large or small the church is, it's the heart of the leader that says you are incredibly important to the kingdom of God and you've got gifts inside of you that need to be released.

So in a sense, the pastor is an interpreter of dreams, and a developer of teams that can fulfill those dreams.

That's it—for God's glory. Their dreams might be caged in through character flaws, insecurities, or maybe past wounds. But I've got to somehow untangle that web. That's why I'm called as a shepherd. That's my role—to untangle that mess so that their dreams and gifts can be released for the sake of the kingdom. And when people are moving in their area of giftedness, there's maximum effectiveness and minimum weariness.

Excerpted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, © 2000 by Christianity Today International. For more articles like this, visit


  1. What is our church's discipleship structure? What are the strengths and weaknesses of that structure?
  2. How does structuring ministry around people's passions contribute to a culture of discipleship? How would it impact discipleship in our church?
  3. What would it take to begin using fractals in our church?

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