How can you even ask such a thing?
Is growth good? What a strange question! In the realm of the church, growth is almost always assumed to be a good thing, if not the ultimate goal. In fact, “church growth” has become an industry, a movement, and even a genre of literature. Amazingly, while we would never encourage a human body to continue increasing in size, when it comes to the church and all its various ministries and extensions, “bigger is better.”
I don’t intend to evaluate this idea in depth here, but I would like to think about how it relates to small groups. Recently, over on Thom Rainer’s very helpful blog, Chuck Lawless gave a list of ten ways to grow a small group. It’s attracted some favorable attention, and it looks like he has given some excellent suggestions on growing a small group. But before rushing to implement these suggestions in toto, I have to ask, “Why would we want to do this?”
Why Grow a Small Group?
To me, this seems counterproductive. If we have small groups, then it is because we think there is something we ought to be doing that is best accomplished in small groups. That is, we believe there is a goal that can be better achieved when the group is small. (Can you tell where I’m going with this?) So, if we grow the group, it will be less small (most people would say “bigger”), and if it is less small, then won’t we be less able to achieve our goal? Won’t growing a small group defeat the purpose of having a small group? (Are you following this?)
I can think of only one reason why a church would want to grow its small groups, and that is when the purpose of the small groups is church growth. If a church believes that the best way to grow its body numerically is through small groups, then the small groups should grow! Of course, if they grow, then they are no longer small groups and will need to split and form new small groups that will grow ad infinitum. And this kind of multiplication forms the basis of many church growth strategies. Some would even argue that it’s Biblical.
The 1st Suggestion Was the Most Important
All this means that small groups must be absolutely clear on what their purpose is (which was #1 in the list of 10). If their purpose is church growth, then anything but growth ultimately misses the point. If they have a different purpose, then growth could actually be harmful.
I say this in full sympathy with those who want to grow their small groups. Many churches use small groups for evangelism. Some call it Sunday School or “Adult Bible Fellowships” and meet in the church building on Sunday. Others use different names and meet in different places at different times, but the purpose is the same, introducing people to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I sincerely hope that these kinds of groups grow! But there are other kinds of small groups…
…And There Are Other Kinds of Growth
The Lord’s Great Commission was not about growing a list of people who adhere to a creed or even belong to a church; it was about making disciples of the King who would grow in their ability to reflect his glory to the world. I’ll admit that this is not a necessary disjunction: disciples must adhere to a creed and should belong to a church, but there is so much more! The picture of the church in Ephesians 4 is of a body that grows, not in size but in strength.
Small groups should be growing, but the kind of progress that I have discussed here, here, here, and here has to do with health and maturity, not numbers. In fact, most people already know subconsciously that there is a limited number of people with whom they can enjoy the kind of relationship out of which such growth is born. Because of this, growth in size could actually weaken the progress of the group! (This shouldn’t be surprising when we consider that the human body itself tends to be weaker and more unhealthy the larger it gets.) When small groups, however, pursue strength instead of size they can experience growth of a different kind – they will grow to become more like Christ. And that can only result in making even more disciples!
Growth is Good!
Despite what you may be thinking, I am pro-evangelism, pro-church growth! But I happen to believe that mature Christians ought to be the best at making disciples for Christ, and I happen to believe that small groups of the kind that I have described here are a great way for Christians to grow in their maturity. Not for one second do I want my church or any Gospel-proclaiming church to remain small, if it means that they are not helping people receive the grace of God’s salvation in Christ.
If a church thinks that small groups are the best way of doing this, then those small groups should grow in size. If, however, small groups are supposed to do something else, to help Christians grow closer to God and to one another, then perhaps they ought to remain small in order to help the church, as a whole, experience the kind of growth that everyone already assumes is a good thing.