There's a great quote from the movie Tommy Boy that I always think of when I encounter the subject of ministry growth. Brian Dennehy's character, the owner of a small auto parts manufacturer, says: "In auto parts, you're either growin' or you're dyin'—there ain't no third direction."
I think the same is true of a small-groups ministry.
Unfortunately, achieving sustainable growth in any kind of church ministry has been a tough job in recent years. And things certainly don't look to be getting easier! So how can churches increase the number of small groups in their ministry—and by extension increase the number of people benefiting from those groups? Let's take a look at how this training resource can help.
As the title suggests, this training resource is designed to help churches increase the total number of small groups in their ministry. That being the case, the content is targeted toward the leaders of the ministry—pastors, directors, and coaches. This resource was not designed primarily to increase the number of members in a single small group, which means it may not be particularly useful to individual small-group leaders.
I should also mention that the content in this resources applies mainly to "traditional" small-groups ministries—those that have (or want to have) a ministry point-person and some kind of coaching infrastructure. Even so, the main ideas and principles can be successfully applies to house churches and other organic structures of small-group ministry.
To "Birth" or Not To Birth
The first question that your church's small-groups leadership team will have to address is whether or not you want your ministry to expand through "multiplication." This practice has many names—from "birthing" to "cell division" to "splitting." But the basic idea is that a functioning small group grows to a certain level, then reproduces itself by dividing into two functioning small groups.
There are many pros and cons to the idea of small-group multiplication, and your leadership team can get a good overview of the issues by reading "The New Math" from Dan Lentz (p. 4–5) and "Why I Like 'Branching" Over Birthing" from Reid Smith (p. 6–7). In addition to these articles, you and your team will want to do a little research on the culture of your current small-groups ministry to see if the idea of multiplying groups would be received positively or negatively.
Building a Plan for Growth
If you leadership team decides to use group multiplication and birthing, the articles in the "Practical Ideas for Birthing Groups" section provide a rough plan for getting started. Rick Howerton provides some great suggestions for communicating the plan to the rest of the church (p. 8–9), and Bill Tenny-Brittian's article can help you with some troubleshooting (p. 14–15).
"How to Prepare for a Smooth Delivery" (p. 10–11) and "Cutting the Cord" (p. 12–13) are designed to help individual coaches and group leaders navigate the birthing process. It would be great to have your small-group leaders read this material, but even better to have them read and discuss with their coach, then set up a "birthing plan" that is specific to their individual groups.
If your church decides that multiplication is not the best way to go, then your task is a little more difficult moving forward. The articles in the section called "Other Ideas for Adding New Groups" will give you some practical principles and tips for small-group "addition"—that is, launching new small groups instead of dividing existing ones. For example, "Growing New Leaders as Apprentices" (p. 18–19) details a great way to raise up a new wave of group leaders that are fully trained.
There's not a structured plan for "group addition" like there is for "group multiplication." So to increase your groups, you'll need to create a broader plan by gleaning principles and methods from the "Practical Ideas for Birthing Groups" section. For example, Rick Howerton's article spells out a great way to cast a vision for any method of growing a small-groups ministry. And "Cutting the Cord" contains a lot of useful information for small groups that want to grow through apprentices.
Basically, you'll need to use the content in this training resource to answer these questions:
Will our small groups be open or closed? (Meaning, will they be open to new members?)
If our groups will be open, what will we do when they grow beyond 10 or 12 people?
Where will we find new leaders for our small groups? (Examples include using turbo groups or training apprentices.)
How will we connect those leaders with group members?
For what it's worth, here are a few of my own observations on the practice of increasing the number of small groups in a given church. These are just some of the things I've noticed or observed as I've done the research necessary to put this training resource together.
Be flexible. I highly recommend that you avoid rigidity in your quest to expand your small-groups ministry—especially when it comes to birthing new small groups. If you want to use the implement the multiplication model within your church, I think the chances are good that you will have success. But don't force an existing small group to birth, split, divide, or whatever you choose to call it. One healthy and functioning small group is infinitely better than two or more unhealthy groups.
Preach multiplication from the beginning. If you decide to use multiplication as the engine to drive your small-group growth, be sure to communicate that to your groups and group leaders before they get started. In order for birthing to work, it takes total buy-in from everyone in a small group. They have to be willing to work at creating a functioning group with the knowledge that a big change is coming down the pipe—it's not something you should drop on a group after they've been together for a year or more.
For that reason, it can be difficult to implement a multiplication strategy in churches that already have established groups. My advice? Take things slow and only multiply groups that are excited about the idea. If you've got 10 groups that have been together for a long time, encourage them to think about moving toward multiplying—but don't force them. Instead, spend your time and energy training new groups and new group leaders in the values and methods of multiplication.
Use apprentices. Whether your ministry grows through addition or multiplication, finding new group leaders can be a challenge. In my opinion, asking each group leader to identify and train an apprentice is the best way to ensure that you're growing a new crop of group leaders for the future.