Today is the second day of my three day interview with Jeremy Linneman, the Pastor of Group Life, at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
While many churches have determined that multiplying groups is just too hard to do, Sojourn, a church made up of people mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, puts a high priority on group multiplication.
When Jeremey mentioned this to me, I had to ask him some important questions.
Rick: Jeremy, when the two of us got together for breakfast, you were telling me that Sojourn Church is hot on groups multiplying. I also know that Sojourn is huge on being theologically correct and biblically directed. What theological and/or biblical basis do you have for the multiplication of small groups?
Jeremy: Yes—all of our groups are open and multiplying. The biblical pattern of mission is this: God draws us in to send us out. He draws us in to know him, then he sends us out to make him known. I first heard this clearly articulated in a Tim Keller sermon and it changed everything for me. It’s everywhere in the Scriptures. God gave Abram an experience of his presence and promised to make him the father of many nations, then said, “Go, leave your people and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12). God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and Moses falls on his face in worship. Then God says, “Go, I am sending you to Pharaoh” (Exodus 3). Simon Peter reels in this massive catch of fish and realizes he is talking to the Messiah. When he reaches shore, Jesus says, “Leave your fish; from now on you’ll be a fisher of men” (Luke 5). The early church is praying and fasting in Antioch and God speaks by his Spirit, “Set apart Paul and Barnabas to go where I have called you” (Acts 13). God draws someone in to worship and new life, and then sends them out on mission.
So this is the clearest biblical pattern for us. Now, “going” can happen in different forms, but for us, being “open and multiplying” is crucial to our community. When we experience God, when we are changed by him, the first thing we want to do is go and tell others.
Rick: What percentage of your small groups actually multiply and are you happy with this percentage?
Jeremy: Annually, we have around a fourth of our groups multiply, and I’m pretty happy with that. We have four campuses, and all four are at different stages. At our Midtown and East campuses, we have between 55 and 70 groups each, whereas our J-Town and New Albany campuses are both around 20 groups. So I coach those groups directors in different ways and they’ll have different expectations. Percentage growth is not the only indicator of health we look at. We also measure leader retention, Sunday attendance to group participation ratios, pastor/coach to group leader ratios, membership growth, and other things.
But in terms of multiplication, I want to see groups multiplying faster than the rate of attendance growth. So if our church attendance is averaging, say 10 percent, then I want our groups multiplying at around 25 percent, assuming 5-10 percent of our groups will dissolve or be shut down. There are seasons where we can aggressively grow and multiply, followed by seasons of building into leaders and cleaning up messes we just made. Often, it’s two steps forward, one step backwards. I’m pretty content with all this.
Rick: When you get pushback from group leaders because they don’t want to multiply their group or their group doesn’t want to multiply, what do you say or do to get them seriously consider becoming a multiplying group?
Jeremy: I get it; it’s hard. I want to be clear that I want healthy multiplication. The goal is not multiplication but community. Multiplication enables community; the end goal is that our people are living deeply with Christ, in close relationships, and engaged in a meaningful, missional lifestyle. So, first I want to just listen and ask questions. Maybe this group shouldn’t multiply. If there are a lot of pastoral care needs, if there’s an unhealthy culture, if there are a lot of financial or physical needs… all this needs to be considered. Also, if the group has been together several years, hopefully they have really close relationships and feel the pain of multiplication. So you want to move really slowly and pastorally. I wrote a four-week guide called “Creating Space: A Guide to Healthy Group Multiplication” for this reason. It nuances these pressures and gives leaders some helpful questions and exercises. All in all, when someone doesn’t want to multiply, that’s not a problem as much as a pastoral opportunity.
Rick: What do you do with groups that are unwilling to carry out the church’s expectations of multiplying?
Jeremy: SHUT THEM DOWN!!! No, just kidding. We draw near and listen. Sometimes, multiplication isn’t the issue at all; there’s something deeper going on. Other times, it’s a misunderstanding of what we expect. Other times, they just need to be lovingly challenged. I remember coaching one group leader whose folks had been together for several years. When he first brought up multiplication, people started crying and felt like it was a terrible idea and Sojourn just didn’t care about their relationships. Because the group leaders hadn’t been discussing multiplication all along, it took a long time to really work through the groups’ needs, expectations, and objections. Over a year, if I remember right. But they ended up sending out a really qualified couple to lead and a few other members, and it was really healthy. They’re all still close friends and, like we recommend, still get together the groups a few times a year for big parties.
Rick: A lot of groups point people reading this blog post will be wondering, “What are the things that Sojourn does to make group leaders aware of the importance of multiplication and then getting them to multiply?” Would you please make a quick list for us, Jeremy?
Jeremy: You want to include multiplication every time you really talk about groups—whether it’s starting a new group, training new leaders, or coaching existing leaders. It needs to be part of the DNA of your community. Here are a few things I recommend:
- When you launch a new group, make a one-page group plan or covenant that includes the expectation of a future multiplication (in 12-18 months)
- Identify an apprentice in every group as soon as possible (ideally, when launching)
- Coaches should be asking leaders about multiplication plans fairly often—every few months or so
- Once group leaders identify apprentices, they should begin training them at least monthly—I like to have our apprentice couple stay after group for 5 or 10 minutes weekly to debrief
- Provide your groups with a multiplication guide and encourage them to spend several weeks multiplying so that everyone’s questions and concerns can be addressed
- Tell stories of healthy multiplications—whether in Sunday services, online, through groups, make sure you celebrate when a group multiplies!
Again, multiplication is critical to any community’s growth. We’ll grow too self-centered without a shared mission. It doesn’t mean we neglect spiritual formation and pastoral care; rather, we were created to participate in the mission of God and can’t find wholeness and flourishing without joining what he’s doing to restore lives.