By Michael C. Mack
Question: How do you kill an unhealthy group?
Answer: I believe this question begins with a faulty premise. I agree that some small groups are unhealthy, but I don’t think that warrants killing them off.
Perhaps the person who asked this question read Brian Jones’s controversial column in the January 23, 2011, Christian Standard titled, “Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups.” “Modern-day small groups are led, for the most part,” Jones wrote, “by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves.”*
Many churches have lowered the bar of small group leadership to an absurd level, says Jones. I agree with him that hosts or facilitators cannot reproduce life and bring about spiritual transformation. Nondisciples cannot produce disciples. Yes, some small groups are unhealthy. They may have unhealthy leaders or unhealthy dynamics, or perhaps they have developed some unhealthy patterns.
Because some groups are unhealthy, Jones said he believes churches should kill off their small groups. I would like to offer a second opinion. I don’t believe churches should euthanize their small groups!
I think church leaders should start by diagnosing the health of their groups (as any good doctor would do for an unhealthy patient). That’s what we did at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, through our Small Groups Health Assessment (the free 42-question assessment is available at www.touchusa.org/free-small-group-health-assessment). Once you have diagnosed the health of your group(s), you can make a prognosis. What needs to happen to help the group(s) become healthy? Good training and coaching are major parts of the treatment program for unhealthy groups. Be sure the small groups under your care are led by disciples with shepherd hearts who love God and his people.
I wrote my book, Small Group Vital Signs, to help churches and groups diagnose and then improve the health of their groups. If you think your group is unhealthy, or if you are a church leader who wonders about the health of the groups under your care, perhaps this book can help you. So put away the sterile needles and let’s work on some positive remedies!
Question: How do you split a group and keep both healthy?
Answer: First, let’s talk about terminology. Words like split or divide are negative and conjure up images that will not help group members embrace group multiplication. Also, this is not so much about dividing up groups as reproducing leaders. Healthy small groups that share leadership and ownership naturally grow and eventually multiply. Here’s how I’ve seen this work:
A group leader shares leadership with a core team. These core team members share the load of leading meetings, shepherding members, and discipling one another. They grow in their capacity to lead as they are empowered to do so.
The healthy, growing leader invests primarily into the core team who, in turn, invest into other members of the group. The ratio for shepherding and discipleship is a healthy 1:3 or 1:4 rather than 1:8 to 1:12. Jesus is our model for this “fractaling” pattern of ministry. His inner circle of Peter, John, and James were his core team. Jesus invested predominantly into these three, and they became the primary leaders in the early church.
A healthy group grows naturally because real disciples naturally invite their friends, and people want to be a part of a healthy community (Acts 2:47).
A healthy, growing group subgroups during parts of the meeting, especially for prayer. Core team members lead these subgroups. Tighter relationships within the group grow naturally.
A core team member who is growing in her faith and leadership skills eventually hears and responds to God’s call to step up and lead. Perhaps she has a passion for a specific group of people and wants to start a group. Or maybe as the group grows numerically, she sees the need, along with God’s call, to move forward with a group of close friends.
I’ve seen this pattern happen over and over again. Sheila stepped out of a woman’s group to start a single mom’s group. Chris and Tiffany were part of a core team and started leading the group when the original leader stepped out to start a group for parents of teens. Jon and Jenny started a group for young married couples after being in a newly married couples group for about a year. And tomorrow morning, I will not be able to attend the men’s group I lead, so David, who has been part of our core team, will lead the meeting. Soon he’ll step out with two or three other guys from our group to lead a new group. I didn’t “call” any of these people to split, divide, or even birth new groups. God called them.
Healthy, disciple-making small groups are leader breeders. In fact, the measure for discipleship success is leader reproduction. Focus on healthy groups, including an emphasis on healthy discipleship, and groups will multiply!
*Find Brian Jones’s article at https://christianstandard.com/2011/01/why-churches-should-euthanize-small-groups.
Michael Mack is the author of a dozen small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? How to Guide an Effective Small Group (Standard Publishing) and his latest book, Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish (Touch Publications). E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.