Skip content to go to the blog's navigation

« LiveBooking: "Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus" | Main | Video of the Week: Flying Solo »

December 2, 2009

Question of the Week: Multiplication

Does dividing a small group produce a blessing or a curse?


I've kept the Question of the Week on the lighter side recently. We've talked about Thanksgiving side dishes and Christian Buzzwords, for example. But now it's time to get serious.

It's time for a showdown for this Question of the Week—we're talking high noon at the OK Corrall, folks. I want to dig into the topic of multiplication. Specifically, the practice of dividing (or "branching" or "birthing" or whatever term you prefer) an existing small group in order to form two or more groups.

There are lots of diffrent angles and scenarios we can think up on this topic, but I want to keep the discussion focused on the people involved. So here's the question: Does dividing a small group help the attending group members, or does it harm them?

And if you want to get a little background information on this issue, there are two articles from that I would recommend (see if you can tell what each author thinks by the titles...):

--Why Dividing Small Groups Is a Dumb Idea, by Larry Osborne

--The Joys of Multiplication, by Randy Frazee

posted by Sam O'Neal on December 2, 2009 9:18 AM

Related Tags: Division, Multiplication


I'm going to have to side with Randy on this one. I know that dividing a small group can be painful for members--my small group is going through that right now. But it's necessary. Small groups are like pet reptiles (well, in one sense anyway) that only grow to the size of their aquariums. After you fill up your living room, coffee shop, etc. or reach an optimal size for intimacy, your growth will stop. In order to expand dividing small groups up is inevitable.

I once heard a discussion about small group multiplication in which the speaker took the analogy of "birthing" WAY too far. I mean he had analogies for placenta and birth canal and even umbilical cords. As a result, I don't like that terminology.

Instead, I prefer to think of what a small group does as "producing" another group. It can't be division if it's multiplication right? I guess if you want to use the cell or amoeba analogy then "cell division" causes growth, but I just get tired of all the analogies. So, healthy groups produce more healthy groups.

Another way I think of it is in terms of family. Okay, I can handle this analogy (maybe because I thought of it, though I'm sure I wasn't the first :). When our groups multiply it's like we are extending our family. For example, if our group has 15 people and we believe we have grown too large to really care for one another, then we produce another group. In that scenario, we aren't saying goodbye to our old group, we are simply extending our family. There were once 15 but now there are two groups of maybe 7 or 8 with the potential to grow and to expand and to multiply. Now, when I have a need and I share it with my family...some of whom I am in an "immediate" relationship with in my current small group, but others are there who are in my "extended" family that still know me and care for me.

Having said all of that, my answer to your question is that this can be a healthy or an unhealthy process. It depends on if you've carefully talked this through with your group leaders and if the group leaders have carefully and prayerfully talked this through with their small groups. There are a lot of factors that go into making groups multiply well but I think if it is done with careful planning, communication, and prayer, it's actually more harmful NOT to produce and multiply and it is extremely helpful when it is done in a healthy way.

I think many of us have seen the birthing analogy used a little too explicitly, Nathan. Great call. :)

A group of ten that doubles every eighteen months will reach 1000 people in 10 years. That ought to make any Spirit-led believer happy.

I come from a background where the buzz word was "cell ministry". We made a huge effort to champion multiplication and focused intently on the "vehicle" of how to multiply (often at the cost of our lesser championed values). I now serve at a different church with a very different history of how to increase participation in groups. Ultimately, we've chosen to emphasize VALUES over VEHICLES. As our vision becomes clearer in this area of ministry, I feel that we need to be VALUE driven rather than VEHICLE driven. For example, we emphasize a need for our groups to "gather, grow, give, and go". For some groups, multiplication might be the best vehicle to "go". For others, "go" might be lived out by an entirely different vehicle. As our ministry moves forward, I want to be highly disciplined about upholding certain values, but the vehicles must remain flexible. I want to spend more energy safeguarding values, less monitoring vehicles. Otherwise, the tail wags the dog.

Mark Howell added the following comment on the page for Larry's article:

To the question "Does dividing a small group help the attending group members, or does it harm them?" here are is my thinking. First, it really does matter what you've identified as a win for your group system. If a win is to build disciples...then remaining cocooned isn't the answer. On the other hand, if grouplife is simply about connecting and you accomplish the Phil. 2:4 aspect of development some other way...

Second, the question itself overlooks the primary underlying reason that the notion of cell division was conceived. It very pragmatically is a way to identify, recruit and deploy the additional leaders needed to connect everyone. In the sense that there is no problem-free solution, as long as you accept the problems that accompany this solution, a little discomfort to group members is just collateral reality. Personally, I've found other strategies to provide more effective leader identification and deployment...

I have just recently read Larry Osborne's book ("Sticky Church") and have to say that what he expresses there (I had already read the article you referenced from the website) is what I have always intuitively felt. I have been involved at the point leadership level in small groups ministry since at least 1992 and have always dealt with this tension: If the experience of being in a small group is going to be the life-changing thing (and life change is what we're after) we want it to be, how can we expect these close-knit groups to continually disband? It seems like the expectation to multiply in a relatively short period of time in itself would mitigate against the very thing we're hoping to achieve in small group ministry. (These aren't "topical Bible studies," after all.) I have used the "extended" family analogy myself to soften the blow, and I think it's valid to a point, but probably best combined with Osborne's "hiving off a leader" approach, which is analogous to a child reaching adulthood and starting their own family. Healthy groups virtually never want to be torn apart, and at best will tolerate it because they are "kingdom minded" enough to be willing to make room for more people. However, I think it is traumatic for many of them. In contrast, if Osborne's no-pressure approach is adopted, then the negative aspects of new group formation can be largely avoided. (If it hadn't worked for them for all these years, I would question whether it's possible to find enough leaders who are willing to be "hived off," but they are proof that it is possible.)

Experience has shown that multiplication not only helps the Kingdom, the groups ministry, but also the group members. Keeping our minds on those yet to get connected will help hinder the desire to become inward focused. Of course we have various ways to multiply and we increase the pressure as we see the group near three years together. Our experience at LifePoint Church shows a considerable turn inward if the group has not started a new group or taken on/over an on-going service project that causes them to look outward.

When I served as the Assoc. pastor of Education, I have had to make this decision many times for Sunday school classes and small groups. I would say that each situation is different, so sometimes multiplication is helpful, other times it isn't. Making a "here's how we do it" decision that applies to every group is rarely the best decision for all situations. I know everyone hates this answer, but "It depends," is often the right answer.

Post a comment:

Verification (needed to reduce spam):