By Michael C. Mack
The mere mention of “small group multiplication” makes some group members squirm. “I finally found a great group of friends,” they protest, “and now you want to split us up?”
In last month’s issue, I dared to bring up the subject. I pointed out a “secret” to small group multiplication: healthy groups reproduce naturally. In fact, group multiplication happens best and more often, I’ve found, when it isn’t forced.
To carry out the Great Commission, we must continually develop new groups, new churches, and new ministries. But where do we find leaders? I think the best place to find them is inside existing groups, churches, and ministries, where their spiritual growth and skill development has been intentional.
The Great Commission begins with the command to go. Groups serious about carrying out Christ’s purposes have a vision for raising up Christ followers who will be sent like missionaries to others with the gospel. That’s our mission and challenge.
Missional and Maturing
Genae Denver, alumni director at Manhattan (Kansas) Christian College, who has led groups for the past 16 years, talked about the frustration she and her husband felt at the church they attended, which encouraged groups to birth every two years. “The most challenging thing for me has been the lack of spiritual depth that can happen in small groups,” she said. “I’ve often felt frustrated over not being able to dig deeper in the Word.”
She’s right, of course. Quite often more mature Christians feel they are not growing in their faith in small groups in which new people are constantly being added and other members are leaving to start new groups.
So how can we be missional (“go and make disciples”) and maturing (“teaching them to obey”) at the same time? Here are three principles to consider:
• Spiritual growth is a personal responsibility.
People grow best when they are devoted to their personal times with God. If the only time they open their Bibles is when the group meets, that’s not enough. That’s not healthy. That’s not real discipleship. But when individuals are spending time with God daily, they arrive at group meetings ready for God to overflow through them into the lives of others. Imagine the growth potential when everyone shows up not to be fed (because they’re feeding themselves through the week) but ready to build up others (see Ephesians 4:16).
Denver figured this out. “God has helped me understand that everyone is at a different level, and [in] my personal time [I] can go deeper so that I can have what I need to grow and enjoy each moment of doing life together with my small group,” she said. When individual group members are feeding themselves all week long, group meetings can be focused on being the body of Christ, living out the New Testament one-another passages. “God has blessed us abundantly with wonderful people, each with our challenges and full of grace toward each other to help carry one another’s burdens,” Denver said. “Our most recent small group has grown spiritually together and seen the Lord do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine!”
• Small groups are an environment, not the agent, for spiritual growth.
Small groups have no more chance of transforming people’s lives than an empty fireplace has of starting a fire. Your small group should be a fireplace—an environment where God will do what only he can do in changing people’s lives. But the group is not the fire, or even a match.
I sense that people often expect too much of small groups, as if they have some magical power to change lives. Small groups do not themselves bring transformation, but they are an environment where God can work.
• Spiritual growth happens best when we count the cost and step out of our comfort zones.
Last month I addressed the importance of sharing leadership. When several group members share leadership roles, especially helping shepherd and disciple other group members, these coleaders grow even more and are equipped to lead their own groups in the future. People tend to grow more as they step up to help others grow.
Where Leaders Come From
If you lead the small groups ministry in your church, it’s likely one of your biggest challenges is how and where to find new leaders. The lack or abundance of leaders is not a recruiting issue, however. I believe at its core it’s a discipling issue. If a leader is intentionally investing in one or more disciples, helping them grow spiritually, and sharing leadership with them, then many of them will eventually step up to lead others in new groups.
Andy Baker, preaching minister at River Valley Church of Christ in Fisher, Illinois, says he has seen leadership “feasts” and “famines” at churches. There are fewer times of famine, he says, “if discipleship is a priority. Leaders tend to rise up from the congregation as they mature in Christ.”
Chris Lawler, minister with Waynetown (Indiana) Christian Church, says the importance of discipling is not limited to leadership. “Every area of deficiency we’ve identified in our church is directly linked to our own failure to disciple,” he said. “We have been reaping the rewards of neglecting the ‘make disciples’ part of the Great Commission.”
In order to make disciples, we must be willing to “go,” to be sent from our groups to reach those not yet being reached. Who are you investing in, so that the Great Commission can be carried out?
Michael Mack is the author of 14 small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? (Standard Publishing, www.standardpub.com). He also leads church training events and consults with churches through his ministry, Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com).
A Strategy for Starting New Groups
Focus on short-term, plan long-term
Many people are reluctant to join a long-term group, especially with people they don’t already know. Perhaps this is why so many small group events and campaigns fail. But people will try a short-term group (four to six weeks, maximum) that meets a specific felt need. Once they have made some friends in the group and experience life change (and this does not always take long to occur), they’ll stick with it. Here’s a strategy you can try:
Plan a short-term (four- to six-week) group experience in which people naturally want to participate. These are often all-church campaigns tied into a sermon series. Find the best time(s) of year (fall, beginning of the new year, or after Easter, for instance) for these campaigns. Some churches do these short-term groups one night of the week in a big room with round tables.
Recruit the leaders for these short-term groups from your existing groups, especially those who are already sharing leadership. Often, the group leader from an existing group steps up to lead a short-term group with the expectation of returning to the original group at the end. The original group is led by one of the core team members. (Short-term group leaders can also be recruited from among staff members, elders, and ex-group leaders.)
Begin every new group with a core team that shares leadership. The mistake many leaders make is launching new groups with one leader, which then limits the reproducibility of the group.
Plan for the long-term from the start. What will these short-term groups do after the initial group commitment ends? What will they study next? I provided several options for each type of group. I wanted these studies to lead to spiritual growth and be relatively easy to lead. I’ve found video-based curriculum usually works best.
Be certain in those initial weeks that every person is shepherded. Every person should be invested into. Each core team member should take responsibility for two or three others whom they call, send e-mails, meet with for coffee, pray with, and so forth.
Get everyone involved. Share ownership with everyone. Ask group members to bring food, read aloud, look up answers, ask the icebreaker question, etc.
A couple of weeks into the initial group experience, begin to ask new group members what they think about the group. Would they be interested in continuing? We’ve found that most people say yes. (Those who don’t say yes usually have other plans, but they’d be willing to join another group later on.)
Communicate often with leaders and those who share leadership about upcoming plans. Would they be willing to continue leading this group for a while? Is there someone in the group who can become part of the core team? Will the leaders stay in the group for, say, six more weeks? What’s the process for continuing the group long-term, and who will lead it?
Make specific plans to continue meeting. At this point, don’t be afraid to ask for a commitment. Decide on all the particulars: where and when you’ll meet, who will lead, what roles others will take, etc.
Coach. Ask the original short-term group leader to slowly hand over leadership of the group (if necessary) and then continue to coach the new leader(s) to help the group to be healthy and grow.