This is the time of year to plan for the long-term health, growth, and continual expansion of your small group ministry. Here are some tips for making that happen.
One of the most “reproductive” leaders I’ve ever known is Laura. I lost count of how many times her group multiplied. Since she was an expert, I asked her to conduct a training session for other leaders on how to multiply a group. Her response offers a clue to the secret of multiplication: “I have no idea what to teach others about this,” she told me. “It just keeps happening. I don’t even know how!”
A healthy apple sapling grows, becomes a strong tree, and produces fruit. Some of that fruit falls to the ground where its seeds can embed themselves to produce new apple seedlings. The same holds true for people: A healthy child grows, matures to adulthood, and starts his or her own family. A healthy cell—any kind of cell—naturally grows and reproduces itself. This is a life principle: healthy things grow and reproduce themselves. It’s the natural order of the way God created his world to operate: Be fruitful and increase in number . . . multiply.
Like any living organism, Laura’s group was healthy, so growth and multiplication occurred naturally.
In last month’s column, I shared how to prepare for a new small group season. Now that August is here, many groups will soon be starting or restarting, and first steps are vital. This is the time of year to plan for the long-term health, growth, and continual expansion of your small group ministry. Here are a few secrets for how to make that happen.
First, we must acknowledge another fundamental small group principle: healthy groups never focus solely on themselves; they live for the higher purpose of carrying out Christ’s mission and growing his kingdom.
Designed to Reproduce
God designed his church and every group in it to reproduce. The power for reproduction is already built into your group. You don’t need to design a human system or impose some outside multiplication strategy. It is already part of a healthy group’s DNA. You just need to learn how to tap into that power.
This should be as natural as human, animal, or vegetation reproduction, but that’s too easy and simple! So, unfortunately and unnecessarily, churches add programs and systems and, eventually, they spend so much time running the programs they are no longer reproducing anymore. E.M. Bounds said it succinctly, “Men are looking for better methods, God is looking for better men.”
Healthy small group multiplication begins with—you guessed it—a healthy group! Years ago I used to do lots of vision casting, goal setting, and arm twisting to get our groups to multiply. I’d share Scriptures with leaders that clearly articulated the need to reproduce. I prodded, rewarded, celebrated, shamed, urged, and manipulated . . . but none of these tactics ever produced great results.
Then I started focusing on the health of our groups. I was able to stop talking about multiplication because our healthy groups multiplied naturally, and they multiplied in healthy ways. (Do you really want an unhealthy group to reproduce itself?) It’s natural for healthy groups to reproduce themselves.
A Simple, Biblical Process
Do you want your group(s) to continually grow and multiply as a part of your long-term small group strategy? The secret is not a program or system, although I do believe there is a biblical process involved. That process involves cultivating the health of your group(s) in at least seven areas. Here are some diagnosis questions to get you started:
• Is the group Christ-centered?
• Does the group have a healthy, growing leader?
• Is the leader sharing leadership with a team?
• Is the group proactive? Does it have goals and plans?
• Is the group living in authentic community?
• Is the group ministering to others?
• Is the group a discipling environment?
I’ve provided a free online health assessment at www.touchusa.org/free-small-group-health-assessment that includes 42 questions to help you better evaluate the health of your group(s) in these seven areas. The assessment takes approximately 10 minutes for a leader to complete, and a link to the results will be e-mailed to the leader, who can then forward those results to a coach or church leaders. That web link will have a graphical view of your results and links to helpful resources online.
Several years ago, when we assessed our groups at Northeast Christian Church, we came to this surprising revelation: sharing leadership with a core team was by far the biggest catalyst for groups to grow and multiply.
Every small group ministry needs a mechanism for finding and then developing leaders, especially in the long term, and this can be an arduous, time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating task. I’ve learned over the years that when group leaders share leadership with a core team (no one ever leads alone), new leaders are never hard to find. This principle is the perfect mechanism for finding leaders and multiplying groups, but it must be envisioned, taught, coached, and retaught constantly.
Sharing leadership with a core team may be a new concept for many leaders who have always assumed that leadership is a solo endeavor, so for many leaders, this must be relearned. Core team leadership is similar in some ways to leader apprenticeship: potential leaders are placed in a position to learn how to lead and given opportunities to lead. The leader coaches and invests into the lives of the core team members.
When a core team member has the opportunity to lead—not just the meeting, but in discipling and shepherding group members—the leader provides lots of encouragement and feedback. But core team leadership is also different from apprenticeship: it’s not so much about the position or title as it is being a part of a leadership team. Equipping for leadership occurs in the natural rhythms of group life rather than feeling forced.
Think of it this way: Jesus had a core team of three men—Peter, James, and John—and within that team he apprenticed Peter.
The Mathematics of Growing Groups
To reach more people and expand God’s kingdom, we need to use both multiplication and addition (and try to avoid subtraction and division!). And, as in algebraic equations, multiplication always comes first in the order of operations. Many churches begin with addition, however. To get more people into groups, the church plans a connection campaign or event for the fall. The idea is to add more people into existing groups or to add new groups for new people. These are effective strategies if you have enough leaders ready and able to lead. God always begins a movement with prepared, called leaders.
Where do you find these leaders? If every group is led by a core team, your potential new leaders are developing in those existing groups. They are experiencing “on-the-job” training. Many are ready to step up to lead a new group, or as often happens, take on leadership of the existing group while the main leader steps out to lead a new group.
Next month I’ll share some secrets for how to use this strategy to help people get connected into small groups. Here’s a hint: focus on the short-term and plan strategically for the long-term.
Multiplication is the sweet fruit of a healthy small group. It also contains the seeds for an ongoing, growing small group ministry. Focus on health. Multiplication will result.
Michael Mack is the author of 14 small group books and discussion guides. He also leads church training events and consults with churches through his ministry, Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com).