In response to yesterday’s post, reader John asks,
What’s up with the failure of multiplying groups? Isn’t the point to keep them small so folks can keep up with each other (or isn’t that what the literature says)?
I’m totally open to new ideas: is the point that small groups can be any size as long as they are meeting a specific need or needs?
Thanks for the question. The short answer is: “Yes.” Let the size be determined by the gifts of the hosts and leaders and group — not theory. Let the groups grow and possibly (but not necessarily) multiply organically. That is, if they want to divide, help them work through the process. But the leadership of the small groups ministry should not impose this from on high.
I base this on my 20 years of experience leading small groups as a group leader, part of the small groups team, or an elder — and because Saddleback agrees and has more people in small groups than they have members.
First, in the business world, management experts tell us that the goal isn’t to make a profit. Except, of course, it is. But if we run our business just to be about profit, we’ll fail because profit doesn’t come from trying to make a profit. It comes from doing something profitable very well.
Suppose you’re in the cupcake retail business. Someone says your goal is to make a profit. (True.) Then they say that the more profit you make, the better. (Again, true.) Then they suggest selling each cupcake for $10,000. You can sell just one a week and make a fortune! (Still true.) They even draw a line chart projecting huge profits. They call the employees together to rally them with a 20-minute speech. They give out key chains and T-shirts and tracts about the wonders of the $10,000 cupcake. And they quickly go broke.
If you overly focus on profit, you fail — because profit comes from doing profitable things well, not from seeking profit.
In college football, Nick Saban calls this the “process.” That is, he wants his players focused on weight training, nutrition, learning the plays, practice, etc. — not winning championships. Championships don’t come from trying to win a championship. They come from doing the things that lead to championships.
In small groups, there are multiple goals. Evangelism. Fellowship. Assimilation of new members. Making disciples. Etc. And you don’t get there just by trying to do these things. You do the things that lead to the ultimate goals very well.
Hence, we need to be focused on opening homes up to fellow members. Hospitality. Friendliness. Caring for each other in both word and deed. Eating around a common table. Becoming a routine part of the members’ lives. Being people engaged in a ministry that is attractive both to fellow members and to visitors and friends. Commitment. Serving others.
Evangelism will then be a natural, organic byproduct of being spiritually formed into the image of Christ in community. So rather than focusing on evangelism, we must focus on spiritual formation — that is, becoming like Jesus — that is, living the Christian virtues.
Therefore, if evangelism gets in the way of spiritual formation, we do spiritual formation first. We don’t sell cupcakes for $10,000. We make our profit by selling excellent cupcakes.
Modern Christianity in the West is remarkably poor at spiritual formation — but that’s because we confuse it with Medieval mysticism, Pietism, and all sorts of other things. Therefore, we don’t get around to teaching things like hospitality, being willing to make a commitment, keeping our word (such as when we promise to bring the three-bean casserole), and serving others (such as by taking my turn sitting with the babies). Rather than teaching our members how to live like Jesus, we have charts and line graphs and calendars and systems.
So if my goal is to get all the members of the church in a small group, eating together and serving God in some way together, why do I care that a group has 30 members? If the hostess has a big enough house, and she wants to host 30 people, more power to her.
Here’s how Saddleback explains it.
Small groups need a simple mission. Too often small group “theory” dictates that groups should be constantly multiplying. These strategies often place too much pressure on an average leader to be a “church strategist” instead of a relationship builder. We help small group leaders relax and use their natural desire to serve in ways that help their group grow closer.
When John and Mary walk in the front door of a small group, they’re hoping that someone will be there who will greet them warmly, love them for who they are, pray for their challenges, encourage their growth in Christ, and praise their answered prayers. The last thing they want is those friends they are starting to trust, those people who they now feel ready to open up with, suddenly say, “OK, it was fun knowing you. Let’s all pray about the new small groups we are going to start!” Life on life takes time. One piece of iron doesn’t sharpen another piece of iron with one brush against it. Iron on iron has to happen many times in order for both to be sharpened. …
We have grown to more than 2,500 adult small groups at Saddleback Church because we use a campaign to launch new groups every year. Since 2002, campaigns have increased small group participation at our church from 30 percent to 110 percent. We now have more people in small groups than attend our weekend services (on average). And rather than taking energy from our small groups by forced division or multiplication, the campaign approach actually adds energy to groups. There’s an excitement to being involved in a church-wide effort. …
At Saddleback, we don’t penalize the people with the “gifts” of being able to gather people; instead, we encourage groups to become any size they wish to. Then we equip them for health in spite of their size. Through sub-grouping we help maintain ratios of attendees to leaders to optimum levels, so that participation and group health are not jeopardized. In other words, we say you can grow your group as big as you like and we’ll show you how to foster an environment for life changing community. In fact, subgroups are one part of a strategy we call “large group/small group.”
Saddleback does not divide groups when they become “too big” for theory. Rather, they constantly form new groups using new members and old members not in small groups. I’m sure that people who wish to transfer to a newly formed group are welcome to do so. It’s not at all a rigid system.
Part of what the members and their friends are looking for — part of the “process” — is authenticity. And that means being completely honest. So what happens if you issue this invitation: “I am hosting a group at my home and I’d love for you to come. We’ll eat together, share some thoughts about Jesus, and grow very close as friends. I know that you are looking to make friends, and this will be a great way to do that. And then in about six months we’ll reorganize, forcibly evict you from the group, and then make you start all over making friends. And then we’ll keep doing that as long you as you’re a member here!”
Well, that’s a tough sell! But it’s the theory — because the theory instrumentalizes (uses) people to sell a product, rather like multi-tier marketing (AmWay). In AmWay, you turn your friends into sales people, and you make friends in order to create sales people. And it makes people angry to be used in the name of friendship.
Well, evangelism is much more noble than AmWay, but it’s just as wrong to use people to help us sell — and they’ll catch on and be angry at church, just like at AmWay. Far better to befriend people because we love them. And when our members love the people in their group, the members find “multiplying” painful and counter-productive — because there’s something very wrong with asking our members to be great, dear, loving friends — but only for six months.
Evangelism is important in the extreme. But it never justifies using people. And so when I invite my neighbor to join my small group, I need to be sincere about the invitation and my desire to be his friend. And since I really intend to be his friend, I can’t be making plans to split the group in six months or a year.
Now, we might grow a group so big that it has to divide (because we just won’t fit in the house). Or maybe we meet in different rooms. Or maybe we encourage a few members to join a newly formed group closer to their home. Or maybe we buy more chairs and deal with the size as best we can. But we don’t dangle the promise of friendship and then yank people away from their friends to satisfy small group theory.
Saddleback is simply letting their members do what they naturally want to do — rather than imposing a theoretical template on real people with real feelings. And as a result, by teaching hospitality, commitment, and how to care for one another, evangelism happens –as a natural consequence of being a Christ-shaped community.
On the other hand, for evangelism to happen, in small groups or anywhere else, we do have to build evangelism into our congregational DNA. If evangelism is never mentioned from the pulpit, if it’s not part of the church’s mission (not vision), if we never talk about it, then we likely have become overly inwardly focused. That is, I don’t think small groups will organically evangelize unless we have a church culture that thinks in terms of evangelism. But that’s a topic for another day.