When I first started teaching seminars on small groups in the early 1990s, we put a heavy emphasis on multiplication of groups. The goal was to grow the group to 12-15 people and then multiply it into two groups. In many ways, this made a lot of sense. The logic goes this way:
- God wants all people to be saved.
- The most effective way to reach people is through relationships.
- Groups are founded upon relationships.
- As groups relate to people who don’t know Christ, they will be exposed to the life and message of the Gospel and be drawn to it.
- Then they will be added to the group.
- The group will grow.
When the group grows, multiplication will be a natural outcome. So we focused our language on the importance of multiplication, thinking that if we emphasized this outcome that it would motivate people to relate to and reach people who don’t know Christ.
The result, though, actually worked against our desire for multiplication. We communicated the goal of multiplication by using what I call “pastor-speak,” that is the language that connects to the desires and goal of pastors who are held accountable for specific outcomes. Instead we needed to think about how we communicate this to everyday people, those who are not paid by the church.
On the journey, we tried to improve our communication. So we taught people the following principles:
- Never use the word “split.” To say “multiply” speaks to the positive. To say the group is splitting emphasizes the negative.
- Always communicate with groups up front that there is a vision for multiplication. Don’t change the rules of the group in the middle.
- Never, never multiply a group quickly. (We even offered a 7-step process for multiplying a group in a healthy way over a period of six weeks.)
- Some strategies have adopted an approach of having the group closed for a season and then open for another, leading to multiplication.
- We challenged people to step up and catch the vision to reach the world.
In all of this, I wonder if we have ever learned to talk about multiplication in “group member speak.” When we focus on growing the group to reach certain size so that the group can multiply, we are multiplying the group out of necessity. We start new groups because we got big. Inadvertently, we are communicating to group members that we are supposed to build community and build relationships with others so that we can grow and then break up those relationships.
This does not make sense. I don’t care how much we “buy into the vision.” It’s not the way we are wired as humans. It’s not the way relationships work.
But some might argue that this is the way that groups grow and multiply all over the world. Just study the growing groups in El Salvador or South Korea. The difference is that these small group strategies have been developed in a cultural context that thinks in terms of group first. In relationships-oriented cultures, people know how to connect beyond official group life. But in the individualistic societies of the West, relationship rules are different. So when we start connecting with each other and then we are told to multiply because we got to big, we are actually undermining our ability to practice the kind of life that produces the beauty that would draw in those who don’t know Christ.