My optimism has been repeatedly challenged by group multiplication. I can, at least, give myself an 'A' for effort. It is not easy taking a tough position on this subject because the motivations and goals of encouraging the multiplication of small groups and small group leaders are all very good ones. I share the same heart, and I hope for the same outcome as group multiplication enthusiasts. However, I personally have been forced to find new how-tos. Maybe, as a fellow practitioner, you will benefit from some of my learning.
In my first small group ministry launch, I encouraged small group leaders to "birth" a new group out of their existing one within 12-18 months. I think one out of approximately seventy was successful in doing so at the time, but not long after, both 'halves' disbanded. The result was dozens of small group leaders who felt like they were failing because they had not reproduced a new group or a new leader!
This, of course, raised serious questions in our minds, since we were taught "group birthing" or "group multiplication" was a critical principle. We put a lot of emphasis on it, along with leadership development, through training and monthly "encouragement." In fact, group multiplication is a key principle in making various cell group systems (e.g. Neighbour to G-12) work well. If group birthing is not happening, the system stagnates, energy wanes, and the structure (along with everything else) slowly unravels as growth plateaus or even declines.
In 2000, I interviewed a long-standing division leader at a large, well-known, small-group-based church. She was a key staff person who had been there since the beginning and was, at the time, providing leadership for fifteen coaches. One of the subject matters I focused on was group birthing. I asked her the question: "In your history of serving as a leader in the small group ministry here, how many groups, on average, do you see birthing a new group out of their existing one?" She reflected on the question for a moment. Then I interjected, "Percentage-wise…" She looked back at me and said, "Probably less than 4%." I am sure one of my eyebrows rose, but I was not that surprised.
As I have talked with pastors and missionaries around the globe, I have discovered a general truth about group birthing that needs to be brought more into the open: Group birthing is a growth and outreach strategy that works better in non-Western cultures. For group birthing to work, it needs to be natural instead of prescribed. More importantly, it needs to harmonize with the culture and lifestyles of those within your ministry context.
There are three necessary elements to group birthing that make it challenging to practice for most of the American culture: Commitment, Longevity, and Sacrifice.
The American lifestyle is fast-paced, so people are commitment-wary, especially when it comes to new relationships. In fact, a belief has entered the social psyche of America that says that less commitment translates to more freedom (happiness) and security (power). The American modus operandi is now securing as many options as possible in a world full of choices and change in order to protect one's interests. It is a kind of 'hoarding of options' that can result in the paralysis of faith-full living.
In most cases, group birthing presupposes a healthy dose of time together, usually 12-18 months, for discipleship, apprenticeship, and the numerical growth of the group. This runs counter to the American culture because most families move every 2-3 years. Factor in a family settling after a move, finding a church to call 'home', and preparing to move again, and the window narrows dramatically for the average person to be an active part of a group birthing experience.
The fact is that we live in a world that is rapidly changing, with America being one of the countries leading the charge. Our society is a transitory one with changes in the market and technology redefining popular lifestyle every few months. The challenge is the people we are reaching (and arguably most of those who sit with us each weekend) respond to culture before the Church. This leads to the third 'requirement' for group birthing to work: Sacrifice.
Labor precedes natural birth. The labor of group birthing is participants building relationships they know they will have to "sacrifice" after 25 to 50 meetings so the system can work. Group birthing requires complete buy-in from a group. It requires submission to the birthing plan from the outset and trust in those leading the effort.
Group birthing works better within a pyramidal organization that maintains more control, and it presumes compounding growth. The problem is both of these do not fit well within the majority of urban / suburban American ministry contexts.
Unfortunately, people resist the perceived rigidity that can come with longer-term organizational goals, especially when they are being asked to do something that feels like you are deconstructing the community they have labored for so many months to build.
Furthermore, compounding growth in a small group ministry (and the exponential results from perpetual multiplication) is unrealistic. Mathematically, it works out on paper, but not in real life. For it to work out in real life, it would require all parts – commitment, longevity, and sacrifice – to work together equally for all people involved. This is highly unlikely because all of these parts are counter-intuitive culturally.
If you were to tell me these are all things that help in building community and that we should find a way to encourage them (especially the positive traits of commitment and sacrifice), I would politely respond back by saying, "You're preaching to the choir." I am simply presenting the reality I think most churches are facing. The more real we are with the challenges we are facing, the more effective we will be in grappling with them.
Another practical challenge of the birthing model is that it assumes existing small groups continue to grow at a near constant pace to facilitate ongoing division. It has been my experience that this just does not happen, despite our best efforts.
When I accepted that groups were struggling with the principle of group birthing and that people were resistant to joining existing groups, I knew I needed to change my paradigm so the small group ministry would grow and outreach could really occur. One of the first realizations that struck me is that people tend to like joining new groups, not existing ones.
All of the groups at our church are open; this is one of the core practices that we have built into the unwritten "covenant" of all our groups. We post profiles of all our existing groups at an area in our foyer called The Gathering Place. Still, the fewest number of people 'get connected' in a group by joining an existing one.
Why? I think it is because it takes a lot of felt-need and courage to compel a person to search out a group, call a small group leader they do not know (I have tried doing this on their behalf and found it does not really help the process, not to mention being very time consuming), go to somebody's house they do not know, and put themselves in the position of being "the new kid on the block." Top this off with not knowing if they will really enjoy the experience once they are there and then wondering if they will feel awkward if they do not come back, and one can understand why some people cringe at the prospect of "joining an existing small group."
I needed to accelerate the generation of new groups. This created the challenge of identifying who would work well together in a small group. Even using affinity-grouping techniques, it is almost a role of the dice whether the people that are brought together can create a long-term, functional small group. This is why I like Stanley & Willits' approach of starting small groups by providing an eight-week dating period. You are inviting people to experience a group that has an ending point.
This is advantageous because people know they have a way out if for some reason they are not enjoying the group. Another reason this is helpful is because most people like to know what they are getting into. When they decide to commit to something, they really do want to follow through on the commitment they have made. There are just too many unknowns that surface when somebody is contemplating participation in a group that has an unknown ending point and is made up of people they do not know. Many will pursue relationships in more 'natural' ways elsewhere before risking participation in a group where they might decide to back out.
Bringing all this information together, my coaching team and I decided in 2002 that we needed to launch new waves of six-week small groups, two to three times a year. These groups would begin by using the Doing Life Together series from Lifetogether. We referred to this as 'branching' new groups off of our existing small group ministry, combining the idea of the "host home" strategy (Eastman) with the "living room" concept (Stanley & Willits).
The focus of 'branching' is to ADD new groups rather than divide existing ones. You are achieving the desired result of multiplication by giving preference to addition over division.
If an existing small group is working (i.e. people are growing in their relationship with God, one another, and reaching out to those beyond their group), we leave it alone.
Envision a church's small group ministry as a tree. The root system is the coaching team. The trunk is the first wave of trained small group leaders who are continuing to lead their groups after the first year. The supporting limbs are also made up of these leaders and other leaders from groups that have stabilized and are healthy. The branches are the new leaders being added two to three times a year.
Technically, we are grafting in these new leaders. During the first season of a newly-formed group, a coach is assigned to work with the appointed facilitator of that group. After the first month, he begins to help them bridge into the second season. If a group decides to continue meeting after a 6-8 week 'test drive,' then we assimilate the leaders into our larger small group leadership community. They may stay with the same coach who worked with them during their first season, or we may direct them to a coach who is working with the affinity category in which their group best fits.
Offering new groups with each new season results in successive waves of small groups being launched in late-Sept/early-Oct, late-Jan/early-Feb, and late-Apr/early-May. We do not attempt to do anything during the summer. Instead, we encourage the groups that want to continue meeting to do so but to mix up their typical meeting format.
We break down a small group's life into seasons and introduce breaks in between. Unbeknownst to us at the time, we implemented a plan that resembled Haggard's free-market small group model. We are still finding our rhythm, but we no longer feel like we are working against the grain of the American culture in which we live.
Looking more toward the addition of groups has resulted in the sought-after multiplication of groups. Growth is coming from multiplying entry points for people into our community of small groups.
As we multiply entry points for people to connect, we are, in effect, multiplying opportunities for people to invite and include others. We do not multiply so we can have more of an evangelistic impact. We add so our evangelistic impact can be multiplied.
- Haggard provides some insight into why birthing is so difficult in Dog Training, Fly Fishing, & Sharing Christ in the Twenty-First Century (Thomas Nelson, 2002). In chapters 12-13, he evaluates small group models popular in the U.S. and discusses advantages and disadvantages of each in our culture. See also pp. 41-43.
- Offering the step of "test driving" the small group experience is beneficial to doing small groups in America because of the 'change rate' within our society. Also, this reduces anxiety about the unknowns that weigh on people's minds when they are contemplating participation in a small group. One of the ways this manifests itself is resistance to planning ahead because that limits future options. People realize that three months down the road, their lives might look drastically different and they don't want to feel 'locked into' any commitment. The basic idea being: "How can I commit to something today when I don't know what tomorrow will look like?" This is in contrast to how we're suppose to do the good we know we ought do today as we live our lives in submission to the Lord's will (James 4:13-16).
- www.lifetogether.com (see the Experiencing Christ Together series also)
- For more on the "host home" strategy see www.christianitytoday.com/smallgroups/features/faq.html and ch. 10 of Creating Community by Andy Stanley & Bill Willits (Multnomah, 2004, pp. 118-119) explains the "living room" concept.
- Interestingly, I ran across the term 'branching' in a February 2005 article from Church Executive Magazine called "Small groups may be overrated" written by Blair Carlstrom who states the point very well:
"Branching is especially tricky, and I'm convinced that it's not for everyone. But if you want to use your energy wisely, then have a support structure in place and find a way to spend your energy on starting new groups rather than managing existing ones. People prefer to join a new group rather than an existing one. Identify new leaders creatively instead of waiting passively for leaders to appear from the existing groups."
- The "small group calendar" in America is influenced by such things as the public school schedule, weather, and the general family calendar. It's important to be sensitive to all of these factors in order to make connection opportunities available to the maximum number of people. I've found the optimal time for launching new groups is in the fall and also the winter. In spring it becomes more difficult and during summertime it's ill-advised to do so.