By Joel Comiskey
Appeared on the Small Group Network, April 2000.
My mother is a college professor in the discipline called Child Development. When our daughter Sarah was young, we would often call my mom with urgency in our voice, “Is it natural for Sarah to act like this?” “Yes, dear,” my mother responded. “In fact, you can expect her to manifest these characteristics.” Almost mystically, she would predict Sarah’s tendencies for her age period. My mother’s advice was founded in the scientifically based patterns of children that age. Certainly, there are exceptions, but the general rule is that children who are Sarah’s age will consistently act a certain way.
As a cell leader, you’ll benefit by knowing how small groups operate, the various stages. The experts in small group dynamics have analyzed these stages (called by a variety of names), and you can find reams of material on this subject. This condensed article will provide a starting point.
“Is this the type of group I want to get involved with?” Tom asks himself during the first few weeks of Jim’s cell group. Most of the members in Jim’s group are asking the same questions. Roberta Hestenes writes, “When a group first meets, each member tends to experience conflicting feelings of attraction and repulsion. While having chosen to be there, they are still testing the group to see if it can be a satisfying and worthwhile experience for them. Each wonders whether or not he will be accepted.” [i]
People really want to know if this group is the right fit for them. A young couple will be seeking like-minded fellowship. Take John and Mary. They are a yuppie couple looking for fellowship with other such couples. Yet, they notice that the cell group mainly consists of older couples and even a few older single divorcees who talk a lot. Even though John and Mary feel lots of love, they will have to weigh their options. Will they stay? Or is it better to look for another group?
During this first stage, the group members are looking to the leader for all direction and vision. The leaders must be outgoing, open, transparent, and provide non-threatening group building/relational activities. Effective leaders clarify purpose, direction, and goals of the group. Above all, leaders must model ministry and transparency.During the first stage, the group should focus on ice-breakers, testimonies, and close social times. The goal is relationship building, not Bible study, mission, or worship.
If stage one was characterized by getting to know each other, stage two is characterized by shock, patience, and grace. Conflict among group members often occurs during this stage, Conflict is a natural and healthy part of the group building process (within limits), especially as members become more comfortable with each other and risk sharing their own views.It’s during this stage that the group members take off the masks and their real personalities shine through. Doug Whallon writes, “They [group members] know they are accepted and therefore do not need to wear masks. . . Free to talk openly because they know they have been forgiven by God and come with the others as needy yet expectant people.” [ii] Members are more willing to test out their real opinions in front of the group to see how the group will react.
The leader, therefore, must displays empathy, understanding, openness, and flexibility. She must model ministry, while preparing members for greater involvement.
The end of this stage marks the beginning of group ownership. “The” group becomes “our” group. In short, the group is now ready for more serious commitment — to nurture, to community, to worship, and to mission. Those who are more committed will be your core group.
During the first two stages, members desire to explore each other’s personality, and communion is a high priority. Yet, this emphasis can easily wear thin, if the group doesn’t fully enter into the ministry stage. The danger is that group members will engage in “navel-gazing,” and fail to reach out to include new people in the group. When a cell group has been together for too long, it can become ingrown. Newcomers are viewed as intruders and seldom return.
A group that doesn’t reach out tends to die a painful death. Just as Jesus said, “. . unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (12:24).
A pastor friend recently took on a new small group assignment in a church. After a few months he wrote, “I am here trying to solve the North American cell riddle. The biggest challenge for groups here in the U.S. is getting evangelistic momentum. If they don’t get evangelism working they stagnate and then the pastors give up on cells.”
Fresh blood makes a cell group exciting, and the leader should encourage pro-active outreach during this stage. The leader must plan with the group the various outreach events. The leader must direct the group to pray for non-Christians, plan harvest events, and to invite new people to the group. In this stage, outreach is the priority. The leader must release others to minister, recruits leaders for training and deployment, and challenge others to risk for Jesus. The leader is less directive during this stage, encouraging others to lead parts of the group (e.g., icebreaker, worship, etc.).
Birthing—that is, multiplying—a new small group can be one of the most exciting events in the group. At the end of the Ministry phase, the successful group will multiply by sending out designated leaders to form a new group (or groups).Birthing should be seen as a celebration, not a separation. Remember, the Lord “added to their number daily” (Acts 2:47). The Lord has caused the growth we must respond by keeping his work going and starting new groups. Like cells in the human body, home cell groups must multiply or face stagnation, or a slow death.
Giving birth to new groups needs to be a core value. I believe that in the first meeting, the leader should say, “We hope the Lord adds to our group, and our goal is to celebrate the birth of a new group later on as well.” Groups that multiply must be rewarded and the leaders should be recognized.
However, some groups will never send out leaders and multiply. Many small group researchers refer to a termination stage. The prevailing wisdom is that small groups will close. I advise you to think in terms of multiplication. Small groups are born to multiply rather than born to die.
Small group stages should never slow down the leadership training process. Preparing the next leader should start at the very beginning of your cell group. It’s also wise to multiply when you have a trained leader, rather than waiting for a certain number of people in your cell group… When the new leader is ready, he or she can begin thinking about taking 1-3 people from the mother cell to form the new group.
On several occasions, my wife and I have felt like “empty nesters” after we’ve multiplied our Thursday night cell group. We longed for the former members, but realized that we needed to begin again. The knowledge of small group cycles helped guide us to the next step.
This is my prayer for you as you work your way through each stage in your present group. Knowing these stages and applying the leadership principles for each one, will fine tune your cell leadership and give you more confidence to hang tough for the long ride.
- Roberta Hestenes, Using the Bible in Groups (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983), p. 32.
- Doug Whallon, “Sharing Leadership,” in Good Things Come in Small Groups (Downers Grove, IL, 1985), p. 65.