Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Multiply Groups Out of Vision, Not Necessity

When I first started teaching seminars on small groups in the early 1990s, we put a heavy emphasis on multiplication of groups. The goal was to grow the group to 12-15 people and then multiply it into two groups. In many ways, this made a lot of sense. The logic goes this way:
  1. God wants all people to be saved.
  2. The most effective way to reach people is through relationships.
  3. Groups are founded upon relationships.
  4. As groups relate to people who don't know Christ, they will be exposed to the life and message of the Gospel and be drawn to it.
  5. Then they will be added to the group.
  6. The group will grow.
When the group grows, multiplication will be a natural outcome. So we focused our language on the importance of multiplication, thinking that if we emphasized this outcome that it would motivate people to relate to and reach people who don't know Christ.

The result, though, actually worked against our desire for multiplication. We communicated the goal of multiplication by using what I call "pastor-speak," that is the language that connects to the desires and goal of pastors who are held accountable for specific outcomes. Instead we needed to think about how we communicate this to everyday people, those who are not paid by the church.

Misty Forest Path Autumn Forest Mist Misty Morning Path TreesOn the journey, we tried to improve our communication. So we taught people the following principles:
  • Never use the word "split." To say "multiply" speaks to the positive. To say the group is splitting emphasizes the negative. 
  • Always communicate with groups up front that there is a vision for multiplication. Don't change the rules of the group in the middle.
  • Never, never multiply a group quickly. (We even offered a 7-step process for multiplying a group in a healthy way over a period of six weeks.)
  • Some strategies have adopted an approach of having the group closed for a season and then open for another, leading to multiplication.  
  • We challenged people to step up and catch the vision to reach the world.  
In all of this, I wonder if we have ever learned to talk about multiplication in "group member speak." When we focus on growing the group to reach certain size so that the group can multiply, we are multiplying the group out of necessity. We start new groups because we got big. Inadvertently, we are communicating to group members that we are supposed to build community and build relationships with others so that we can grow and then break up those relationships.

This does not make sense. I don't care how much we "buy into the vision." It's not the way we are wired as humans. It's not the way relationships work.

But some might argue that this is the way that groups grow and multiply all over the world. Just study the growing groups in El Salvador or South Korea. The difference is that these small group strategies have been developed in a cultural context that thinks in terms of group first. In relationships-oriented cultures, people know how to connect beyond official group life. But in the individualistic societies of the West, relationship rules are different. So when we start connecting with each other and then we are told to multiply because we got to big, we are actually undermining our ability to practice the kind of life that produces the beauty that would draw in those who don't know Christ.

The alternative to multiplication out of necessity is multiplication out of vision. I still believe in the basic principles listed in the bullet list above. But we don't talk about multiplication that must happen because a group gets to be a certain size. We talk about it in terms of a vision for multiplication. We don't start new churches because we have to, because we get to be too big. The best way to start a new church is out of the vision based of a leader and a team that sense the Spirit's leading. Why wouldn't the same apply to group life.

We don't start new groups because we have to. We don't start them because a potential leader has gone through the right leadership training classes. We start them because God is called and prepared a new leader and a team to venture out on a new journey.

The difference is subtle but monumental.

The emphasis then does not lie on the need to multiply. Instead, we emphasize the question: What is God's next step for me and us on the journey? As a community we need to be asking this of everyone, from the brand new Christian to those who have been in the church for 60 years. This is a question that goes beyond our small group strategies. It taps into the life of Christ in our midst, the king of the kingdom of God. After all, the kingdom is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all and it grows in surprising ways. The Spirit of God is at work and the next step for your group and for all members of your group will not look like what has been thus far.

The next step might include multiplication. If we are listening to the Spirit, then this is highly likely. But if we force multiplication out of necessity instead of listening to the Spirit we will get good efforts, but it may not be what the Spirit has for us.

We need ways to ask ourselves and talk about what the Spirit has for us next. This protects us from assuming that we know the next step and keeps us dependent upon the surprising ways that the Spirit grows the kingdom. I encourage groups to reflect on this question three times per year, right before the natural times of transition. The first would occur right after Thanksgiving leading up to the natural transition time of the New Year. The second would occur in early May. The last in early August. Notice that the time to talk about "What Next?" is not the end of December or the end of May. People need time to process this question, and if God is leading them into something new, the group needs time to go through the transition.


A Discussion Guide for Asking the Question: What's Next?

Read the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Matthew 13:31-33

  1. What do the "seed" and the "yeast" represent?
  2. Reflect on what you know about the ministry of Jesus. How did his ministry seem small and insignificant?
  3. What are some of the seemingly small, yet surprising ways that God has worked in your life over the last couple of months?
  4. What are some of the small, surprising ways that God has worked in our group over the last few months?
  5. How is the "seed" growing in you? Is there anything unexpected stirring you?
  6. What's next? What is God saying to you about your next step on the journey? (Notice: for some this might be something like marital counseling. Others might be sensing that they need to step out at work and love people. This is not just a question about future group leadership, although that is part of it.)
Photo Credit: Misty Forest Path Autumn 

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