There are some people in this world that love the concept of childbirth. I'm not one of them. Don't get me wrong. I love my three kids and can't imagine life without them. It's the birthing process that I have issues with. It's the moment after conception that I begin to struggle with the reproduction process.
I think it has to do with my beautiful bride being stretched and swollen for three-quarters of a year. It may have something to do with nine months of her being constantly fatigued and nauseated. This is followed by two years of sleep depravation. The actual birth is the least pleasant of all. All that pain, screaming and gnashing of teeth. The sight, the smell … it's tough to watch. It's glaringly obvious to me that childbirth is truly a result of the curse.
Some small group practitioners are also in love with the "birthing" metaphor to describe a philosophy of small group expansion and multiplication. I, again, am not one of them. Granted, some of my cynicism stems from reading and hearing from small group trainers whose illustrations, in my mind, parallel too closely with the actual childbirth process. For example, "the pregnant group" represents the group that grew larger by adding members before giving "birth". "Labor pains" describe the struggle and difficulty of a new group leaving the "mother." The "doctor" symbolizes a coach or pastor, who, with great care and expertise helped the group give birth.
At one training event I attended, a pastor, attempting to describe the need for care after a group gives birth, committed an incredible faux pas. He mistakenly used the term "afterbirth" rather than "postpartum." The illustration was received, as you can imagine, with a bit a cynicism from the feminine perspective in the room. Some laughed, while others cringed. Having observed the gruesome process of my wife giving birth, I just choked on my donut. Fortunately, the group was gracious. The moment passed with many laughs, some light hearted ribbing and a blush by the pastor. He handled it with humor and continued to make his point.
I, however, was left with the thought that perhaps, well, just maybe, we take that birthing metaphor a bit too far. At times, we make birthing the only viable means for group multiplication, instead of passionately engaging people with the idea of expanding and multiplying their ministry through multiple means of launching new groups.
Though, these may be views I may share with only a few, I'm finding myself wrestling not only with the metaphor but also with the overall principle. I'm asking if the birthing strategy is the most effective one. Can the small group ministry of a rapidly growing church reproduce enough leaders from within the small groups, fast enough? If they can, will the newborns be healthy or will they be born dangerously premature?
Let me give you a little glimpse of the church I serve. In the last decade, our church has grown from 100 to almost 2000 and we believe that we are currently growing 300 to 500 new attenders a year. We began the pursuit of being a church of small groups in the middle of our growth spurt. The process of changing how we "do church" takes time and as a result we have found ourselves perpetually behind in providing enough small groups for all who enter our doors. Our dilemma is to reproduce enough small group leaders to not only keep up with our Sunday attendance but also to allow us to catch up. I know this is a great problem. Please, don't hear a complaint. But we have a sense that our mission is incomplete and our "birthing" strategy has not worked well enough.
The birthing strategy championed by the "meta"-model has some inherent limitations that we don't always see in books or hear at conferences. Apprenticeship and birthing takes time and so it should. Time can help a prospective leader gain experience, maturity and confidence. But fast growing churches are forced to either push groups to split too soon or to wait for leaders to develop from within, building long waiting lists of people clamoring for a place in a small group.
My suggestion is that we don't throw the "baby" out with the bath water. There are too many benefits of apprenticeship and birthing to chuck the concept. The fact is it's incredibly healthy for a group to be raising up leaders and expanding their influence to new people. It is vital for the health of a group and for its individuals to develop and release leaders. But from our context, it's too slow for us to hold this strategy as our only method of growth.
Fast growing churches must find new ways to identify and develop the small group leaders that God has placed in our midst. I believe that God gives us all we need to accomplish the task he has given us to do. We need to be creative and willing to take some risks.
One such new way is called a "Church Wide Small Group Connection". Saddleback Church in California and others have championed this idea. "Connections" gathers a large group of unconnected people with the purpose of launching them into a new six-week group in one night. In one event, groups are formed and the group identifies their leader for this six-week group experience. Quality training and personal coaching becomes critical for those groups to not only survive, but to thrive beyond six weeks. (For a more detailed explanation of a Church Wide Small Group Connection see http://www.smallgroups.net/catalog.asp?SectionID=3&SubSection=2&HeadID=13). Saddleback and other churches around the country are experiencing great success with this approach. Creative ideas like these are beginning to catch our eye as an alternative to "birthing".
Do ideas like these scare you? They scare me, too! They are a significant shift in what we have known as the way to select leaders and start new groups. In Christ's strength, we ought to be creative and even take some risks to expand our small group community.