There are tons of theories out there on how to structure small groups, the ideal number of members, and what sorts of content the members should engage in. However, something that is often overlooked in these discussions is what it will take to reproduce in a healthy way. If the goal is to reproduce disciples, small groups, and ultimately churches, then what is it going to take to move 8 to 10 people from mere acquaintances to spiritual warriors on a mission together? What will it take for one group of warriors to become two groups?
There are at least four qualities that these small groups must possess if they are going to reproduce in a healthy way.
1. Healthy Small Groups Establish Trust
Trust must be established early on in the life of the group. Some churches throw random people together in a group. Others let groups form on their own. Others have a sort of speed dating type event to get people connected into groups. Some methods are more effective than others and this post isn’t about the pros and cons of each.
The point is, when a group meets for the first time, the members are probably feeling some inhibitions. It’s not clear at first if they can truly open up to everyone about their concerns or their faith. This is where love plays the biggest role. If we truly love God and love others then we will learn how to trust one another. It’s in every group members best interest to invite trust. If members don’t feel that they can trust one another then they will always be superficial when they are together.
2. Healthy Small Groups Experience Transformation
Small group members who are beginning to establish trust will naturally begin to experience transformation in their own lives and in the life of the group. More importantly, as they are encouraging one another to be and make disciples they will see transformation happening in others as well.
What this looks like practically is God using community for each members sanctification. When a group really starts to trust one another, there will be times when a member confronts another member in love because they’ve spotted a behavior or an attitude that is not in conformity with Jesus. Once confronted, the member repents and turns from that destructive pattern and becomes that much more like Jesus. Over time, as each member recognizes his or her role in the lives of the other members, these victories begin happening more and more.
Transformation happens in the context of relationships and community. It has it’s outward expression when those members go into the world and begin sharing the gospel with others. As group members become more like Jesus they begin to see more transformation in their own lives and in the lives of those around them.
3. Healthy Small Groups Engage in Mission
If the group doesn’t have a purpose or a mission then it will get boring fast. No one wants to just meet every week and hear the same 3 people talk while the shy ones in the group shut down. Worse, if your small group is simply a support group for nominal Christians then you need to give up and start over.
Again, there are different theories and methods and purposes that people give for small groups. But if the point isn’t to make disciple-making disciples then it’s not really accomplishing anything. These disciples who are gathering in a small group will study the Word to see how to pattern their lives after Jesus. They pray for one another that they might bring glory to God and reach the nations with the gospel. They show concern for the one in the group who is enduring a particularly intense spiritual battle. These are things battle-hardened spiritual warriors do when they get together. Because they are on a mission.
The alternative is for members to get together every other week for two hours. The first thirty minutes is “social time”. Then the members will spend the bulk of the time doing Bible trivia through a book of the Bible. They parse Greek verbs and ask lots of “what does this mean to you” questions. Since that took almost the whole time, the group leader will cut everyone off and say, “well, does anyone have any prayer requests.” At that point, the 3 talkative members of the group will gossip about other members in the church or ask for prayer for health for someone no one else in the group knows.
The above does not describe spiritual warriors engaging in a spiritual battle together.
4. Healthy Small Groups Expand Through Multiplication
Finally, small groups gain momentum when they reproduce. I sat in on a small group once that had been together for 15 years. There wasn’t much transformation or trust that had been established in all that time. I think part of the problem was they didn’t really have a defined mission.
I’ve also seen small groups that were jarringly broken up and re-formed every semester. This doesn’t really give enough time for the group to marinate. I don’t have a suggestion as to how long a group should meet before it reproduces itself but I can tell you that if trust hasn’t been established, if there isn’t a clear mission, and if they aren’t experiencing transformation together then it isn’t time to reproduce.
I don’t see how all of that can possibly happen in 4 or 5 months but at the same time, if it has been more than a couple of years then something isn’t healthy. Groups need to multiply or they will stagnate. In fact, the lack of multiplication can actually lead to division. When groups become ends in and of themselves, they become mini-churches that are in many ways separate from the life of the rest of the body.
Multiplying new groups is like extending your family. When a man marries a woman and they start their own family they don’t stop relating to their parents and siblings. Actually, they continue to lean on them for support and encouragement and advice. In the same way, when a group reproduces, they are simply extending their family. This is healthy and natural and it should be baked in to the mission and values of the small group.
The above qualities I’m suggesting small groups must have for healthy reproduction build on each other. Each quality coincides with a phase of group life. Members must establish trust before they will begin experiencing transformation. It’s natural that they will really gain momentum as they pursue the mission together. Obviously, multiplication or reproduction of the group will be the final phase.
On the other hand, each of these qualities must be present from the very beginning. The group needs to talk about them and share these values from the start. For example, one group should pray and work towards the day when they will become two and those two will become four. Also, trust needs to be established early on but building and keeping trust is an ongoing struggle.
If making disciples is the goal of the small group then it cannot be treated like a Bible study or a social hour. There will be some aspect of both of those things but in order for a small group to grow and multiply, the members need to be committed to a life-changing mission and committed to helping one another obey all that Jesus has commanded.
Which of these qualities is your small group struggling with right now? Would you add any qualities that I’m missing?