Four years ago, my wife and I leaped out of our comfort zone when we helped plant a church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Many others did the same, quitting their jobs, transferring schools, and leaving their home to be a part of a vision our pastor cast to make the gospel more clearly known in our city.
Helping plant a church was transformational for me on many levels. More than anything, it helped develop in me a seriousness about Kingdom multiplication. I wanted to see disciples make disciples who make more disciples. I wanted to see churches send their own people to support and plant new churches.
I love the way J. D. Greear describes this mentality. In the book Sending Capacity, Not Seating Capacity: Why a Church Gains the Most When It Sends Its Best, Greear and co-author Mike McDaniel write, “The real mission of the church isn’t merely gathering converts but making and sending disciples.” Greear and McDaniel encourage churches to embrace sending capacity, not seating capacity, as the true measure of a church’s success.
But multiplication must happen not only on an individual and a church level but also on a group level. This has been the most challenging for me by far in the way I seek to lead and multiply my own small group. All growing groups eventually reach a size when authentic discussion and community begin to diminish. In my own group’s environment this number starts at about 15 individuals. Some environments can handle more and some less. Beyond this magic number you’ll see a drop-off in your group’s ability to effectively disciple one another. Sure, the talkers in the group will fill the allotted time for discussion, but the bigger your group grows, the less vulnerable people become, and the more likely they are to fade into the background. At this point starting a new group is imperative.
I have found it helpful to compare starting a new group to planting a new church. Unhealthy churches split, but healthy churches plant healthy churches. In the same way, healthy groups plant healthy groups. But this task has not always been easy for me to embrace. I have learned that in the same way planting a church requires sacrifice, so too does planting a group. You’ll be tempted to hang on to the group you perceive that you’ve built. You’ll fear losing your best friends or your best leaders to new groups. But by developing a group-planting mindset and encouraging individuals in your group to do the same, you will influence multiplication within your group as you’ve never seen before.
Here are some helpful tips on how to develop this group-planting mindset. Yes, groups come in all sizes and in different environments, and the structure of your groups ministry may not encourage the creation of new groups on your own. but I hope these ideas will spark some conversations about how multiplication occurs on the group level at your church.
Be willing. A leader’s willingness to plant a group is perhaps the biggest hurdle. Ask God to remove your fears of letting go of people for the sake of advancing His church. Unlike in a church plant, you will see these people often.
Develop leaders. Be intentional from the very beginning to seek out one or two co-leaders in your group. Be clear about your intentions for them to be future leaders, and be willing to let them teach and lead discussions from time to time. The church and its groups ministry will gain the most when you are willing to send your best. Regularly meet with these new leaders and graciously coach them. Address questions, concerns, or fears they may have about planting new groups.
Cast a vision for your group. Don’t hide this vision from your group. Teach them to embrace this group-planting mindset. Be direct with your group about the likelihood of planting a future group and ask for their cooperation to that end. If the goal of a group leader is to grow a healthy group, to raise up new leaders, and to send them out to reach others, the group will likely catch that same vision.
Have a plan. Discuss with your co-leader the best possible time to plant and the ideal number of members for each group. (This information will likely need to be communicated to your church’s groups director.) Remember that when you’ve hit your magic number, authentic discussion and growth will likely plateau or decline. I have seen this happen on multiple occasions. The goal is not for the core group to stay intact while a few others leave to fend for themselves. Encourage your group to embrace the reality that both groups, the planted and the planter, will feel very new and different.
Adopting this group-planting mindset and encouraging your group to catch that same vision are healthy steps toward multiplication in your church.
Joel Polk is a writer and editor for the discipleship publishing team in the Groups Ministry Division at Lifeway. He lives in Murfreesboro, TN with his wife Jenna and two-year-old daughter Lynley. They attend City Church, where Joel serves as an elder and a community group leader. Find him on Twitter: @joelpolk.