Cell Biology for the Church

Why small groups don't multiply

"Charles" is the pastor of a growing, mainline church near my home. I met with him this week to talk about his home fellowship groups. The goal of this church's small groups is to be evangelistic and multiply. The problem is, more than six years after the launch of the small group program, the groups have achieved neither. My job, if I choose to accept it, is to find out why, to offer some insights, and to, perhaps, provide some solutions.

In my experience, the three most common reasons small groups do not multiply are:

  1. Because they are a few genes short of a full DNA strand.

  2. Because of aberrations during mitosis (cell division).

  3. Because of an interphase interruption, resulting in insufficient chromatids.

Cellular biology 101 (and you thought you would never use this stuff when you finished high school!). Do not panic! Even if you do not know the difference between a chromosome and an end zone, Small Group Biology is not all that difficult. Trust me, everything will be explained, so let us look at why small groups do not multiply.

1. Some are a few genes short of a full DNA strand.

Every cell in your body contains a copy of your DNA, a double-stranded helix that is the genetic version of blueprints for your body. The genes in the DNA determine things like how tall you are, what color your hair is, and whether or not you will lose all that hair. Biologists believe there are approximately 25,000 genes embedded within our DNA.

Cell groups (small groups) carry their own DNA, but thankfully we have only identified five cell-group genes:

  • Mission
  • Vision
  • Values
  • Core Beliefs
  • Expected Behaviors

In biology, when a cell divides, the DNA is replicated in the new cell. The same is true when a cell group multiplies. Thus, if the DNA of a small group is malformed, the defective traits will be replicated in any group it births. Therefore, it is critical that all the genes are healthy in a small group's DNA before it multiplies.

Unfortunately, many small groups have DNA that is a few genes short of a full strand. Whenever I visit a group, I am looking for evidence of all five genes. In groups that are not multiplying, I tend to discover they are either missing key genes or the ones they have are malformed. Space will not allow an exploration of all five genes, but let me share two of the key issues: Missing Values and Malformed Mission.

Missing Values

Values are embodied beliefs. For instance, most small groups value fellowship and it shows. They spend time chatting together, sharing stories, etc. Most small groups value time, as in: "God-help-you if the gathering extends longer than it's scheduled for" kind of time.

However, there are some missing key values in small groups that do not multiply. For instance, most small groups claim to value prayer, and every small group prays, but groups that value prayer spend significant time praying. For example, there are other pray-ers than just the leader; there is more prayer than just the parentheses (prayer to open, prayer to close); and rather than a designated "prayer time," prayer is liberally sprinkled throughout the gathering. Someone mentions a need, and people practice on-the-spot prayer.

Secondly, almost every group says it values evangelism, but few groups talk about it much, let alone practice it. Groups that value evangelism pray weekly for Wanderers by name, out loud and together. They talk about ways to invite and include their unchurched friends and put their ideas into practice. Their Bible studies and small group activities are always relevant for Wanderers' interests rather than just their own.

Myopic Mission

Small groups generally gather for (1) Bible study, (2) prayer, or (3) some shared interest. However, these groups often suffer from a genetic abnormality—they have a myopic mission gene (short-sighted mission). Let me illustrate by sharing my visit to a local Bible study group.

I rang the doorbell at seven o'clock and was greeted by the host. After some small talk, we made ourselves comfortable in the living room. At seven minutes after the hour, the host called for a prayer (open parenthesis), and we bowed our heads for twenty seconds or so. Then, we opened our Bibles and began a lively discussion on Romans 12, which is a litany of Christian behaviors. To be fair, we discussed how we felt about these practices and which ones were difficult for us. By quarter-to-eight, we had finished, shared prayer requests, the host had asked one of the participants to pray (close parenthesis), and we adjourned for refreshments. The conversation turned to local events and an upcoming church event, and I was home by eight-thirty.

At first glance, there does not seem to be anything problematic here, but the group actually suffers from a myopic mission gene. They have subconsciously concluded that they exist for the group's sake. The church does not exist for itself, it exists to do the works of Jesus (Jn 14:12): to heal, cast out darkness, and share the gospel. When a group suffers from a myopic mission gene, they spend their time edifying and educating themselves to the exclusion of the ultimate purpose of the church.

Gene Therapy

I wish I could tell you that the cure for these genetic maladies is simply to reeducate the group or the group leaders, but I am a realist. You can expend a lot of energy reeducating these groups, but the results are seldom satisfactory. About the best that can be done is to attempt a DNA splice by embedding new group members who have healthy DNA. However, in my experience, the small group either suffers biological rejection of these new members, or the healthy DNA mutates to fit in with the group. I believe it is more effective to start new groups with healthy DNA that multiply, than to put much energy into fixing the unfixable. Do not disband them, just leave them alone.

2. Some experience aberrations during mitosis (cell division).

Face it, mitosis is tough. Lots of bad things can happen when a cell divides. Indeed, many, if not most, cellular aberrations occur during this process. The same is true when small groups divide. Rather than spend time explaining how to encourage healthy cell division, let me share two examples that illustrate.

Aberrant Mitosis

The small home group began when Carl offered to lead a study on healing inner hurts. Using open discussion and transparency, the group grew close and together experienced significant spiritual healing. At first, there were only eight members of the group, but by the end of the three months it became standing-room-only with nineteen participants. By necessity, discussion waned. The numbers were untenable, so Carl asked Trent, one of the original group members, if he would lead another group and he agreed. The following week, they divided geographically between those living closest to Carl or closest to Trent. Two months later, both groups had dwindled, and by the end of the year, Trent's group had folded. Though Carl's group continues to this day, it never recovered and only six people attend.

Successful Mitosis

Tim led a Monday evening home group that had grown from six to seventeen and was in need of division. What follows is Tim's method of mitosis.

During the group's weekly study time, Tim broke everyone into "Groups of Four" (actually groups of three to five) to facilitate discussion. Steve lived twelve miles from Tim, so Tim began grouping Steve with four others who lived near him in a weekly "Group of Four". Tim also began asking Steve to help with other tasks like leading in prayer, serving refreshments, and preparing the Bible study. After four months, Tim took Steve aside and asked if he would be willing to lead a new group. At first, Steve balked, saying he was not qualified, but Tim pointed out how ready Steve actually was (since he had already been fully trained). Steve agreed, and Tim asked that he start his group on a different evening than Mondays. Two weeks later, Steve announced he would be starting a group in his home on Thursdays. He invited those who lived near him who were in the Monday night group, and they agreed to come. On Thursday, they began meeting, but on Monday, all of them were back with Tim's group. However, over time, the two-night a week commitment got too busy, so they began to come to the Monday night group less often. Six months later, they had stopped coming to the Monday group altogether. Today, both groups are growing, healthy, and multiplying leaders.

Ripping versus Replication

When Carl initiated mitosis, he literally ripped the group in two. When a small group is ripped apart, the chance of either group remaining healthy is reduced. Bonds between group members are torn, unresolved grief and resentment takes root, and group members seldom reinvest.

On the other hand, Tim did not sever anything. Steve's group emerged of its own free will, but his group members will tell you they have never left. Tim invested in Steve as a leader and successfully replicated his group's DNA. Which brings us to the third reason groups do not multiply:

3. Some experience interphase interruptions.

Interphase is the period before a chromosome divides. During interphase, the chromosome replicates itself. If interphase is interrupted, the chromosome does not replicate. No replication: no cell division. No cell division: no multiplication.

The same holds true in cell groups. If the group leader is not "replicated," it is unlikely the group will multiply because there will be a lack of new leaders. Carl and Tim, above, are cases in point. Tim replicated himself; Carl did not. Tim's group successfully multiplied; Carl's did not. For small group "interphase" to be successful, group leaders must replicate themselves. This process is called apprenticing.

Educating versus Apprenticing

We live in a society where education is king, even in church. Just look at all the classes, Bible studies, books, and articles on small groups. The problem is, just because we "know" all about something, does not mean we can put it into practice. Hence, the need for apprenticeship.

Tim apprenticed Steve. Steve did not read a book on small group leadership. He did small group leadership under Tim's watchful and encouraging eye. In Steve's case, he did not even realize he was being apprenticed because Tim apprentices everyone in his small group. Tim is regularly out of town on Monday nights, but the small group functions just as well without him because, over time, Tim has trained everyone in every task. When the church needs a small group leader, guess where they look? If you said Tim's group, you are only partly right. The church can look to almost any group Tim has multiplied because when Tim replicates himself, each leader carries his DNA, so each leader is busy replicating themselves by apprenticing everyone in their group.

Whether you study cellular biology or cell groups, their processes of replication and multiplication are similar. If the genetic code is flawed, the cells will mutate and probably (hopefully) will not multiply. However, healthy DNA produces healthy, multiplying cells. The key is embedding healthy DNA from the start.

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