Do Good Small Groups Really Grow and Birth?

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Good groups grow and birth.

If you’re a student of group life, you’ve heard that line.  It’s shorthand for two of the key concepts of the Meta-church Model; the ideas that every leader should have an apprentice and that healthy groups grow over time and at about 12 members are “pregnant” and ready to birth.

The question today is, are these true “truths” of group life?  Or are they axiomatic beliefs that may be somehow holding us hostage to assumptions that aren’t really always true?

I want to suggest that there really isn’t anything about 14 members that says “this group ought to birth.”  In fact, I’ve seen plenty of larger groups that worked great and I’ve seen groups of 6 or 8 that really needed the fresh start of a birth.  I’ve also seen groups of 12 to 14 that were forced to birth only to end up with two anemic or dead groups instead of one healthy group.  So there’s nothing hard and fast that makes a group “pregnant” at 14.

That said, let’s unpack the idea of growing and birthing as indicators of health.  First, it is true that healthy groups are attractive and you’d expect group members to want their unconnected friends to get in on it.  Right?  Doesn’t that make sense?  Admittedly, there are people who would not want to share what they have with unconnected friends, but that wouldn’t normally be seen as an indicator of health.

At the same time, a group can grow too fast.  Get the right leader, add a few really attractive folks who are connectors and you could end up very quickly with a group of 20.  Not necessarily bad…but you might not end up with the kind of interaction and sense of belonging that you hope for.  We’ll talk about a few strategies in a moment.  For now, let’s just say that healthy growth probably should be expected.

The second question is “what about birthing?”  Should that be built in as an expectation for “good” groups?  Put another way, should that be seen as a win?  I think not.  I believe there are a few diagnostic questions that should be used to determine whether a group “ought” to birth.  Here they are:

  • Is there another potential leader within the group that can’t possibly play the part God has for them if they remain a participant (as opposed to stepping out)?
  • Is there another potential leader within the group that could actually hold a group together?  I’ve often found that the principle “good groups grow and birth” causes some premature births and end up with fatalities when the “apprentice” is not really a person that can hold a new group together.
  • Are there natural connections within the group that lend themselves to birthing?  In other words, can the members sort themselves into two groups?
  • Is there an easier way to end up with a new group?

In my mind there are three main factors at work in the idea that good groups birth.

  1. A smaller span of care is desirable.  That is, if you’ve got 8 people in the group, the leader cares for 8.  If you’ve got 20 people in the group, the leader cares for 20.  That’s an important factor.
  2. Too easy for some who ought to be leading a group to hide out in a larger group.
  3. More groups offers more points of connection.

All true.  But all three are better managed another way.  You know how they say, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat?”  After years of working at it, I’ve found that this is a cat that is much easier skinned another way.  And in part two of this article I’ll talk about a better strategy.

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