Multiplying Community: It Hurts, but You Can Do It

Multiplying our Missional Communities (MCs) seems counterintuitive - why split a community? - but it's part of growing as a community and a church. Nate Dunlevy shares about learning when it's time for your group to multiply and how to multiply well - we hope group leaders and group members alike will be more prepared to multiply through Nate's piece.

Also, if you're interested in leading within Soma's MCs, you should check out the MC Basics training we have coming up on Saturday, June 4!

You can’t believe you're saying the words out loud, but you lean over to your wife and whisper, “I really hope no one new is coming to MC tonight.”

Some of the richest moments of our lives take place in our homes with other believers. Soma calls them Missional Communities (other churches call them “small groups,” “cells,” “bible studies,” or a dozen other variations), but at their essence they represent the heartbeat of Christian community. The gathering together of believers in homes to worship God and serve one another is the most basic expression of church possible.

At Soma, we call them “missional” communities because there’s a purpose to our gatherings. MC isn’t just a social gathering, but a purposeful way for us to interact with one another as well as a “front door” between the church and our neighborhoods. MCs are genetically engineered to grow.

Because of that, every healthy MC will eventually hit that awkward moment when everyone realizes that there are more people than there is space to hold them.

Knowing when and how to multiply an MC is a tricky and sometimes thorny problem. Here are some guideposts to help you navigate an exciting but emotionally fraught time with your group.

PHASE ONE: One big happy family

The path to multiplication starts out in the happiest of places. It starts with vibrant community. You have a regular core group that loves to get together and is meeting faithfully, and it spills out beyond the borders of a weekly meeting. People are hanging out on weekends, having dinner, serving each other and the community together. Mutual discipleship and encouragement are happening.

As people’s lives start to become more intertwined, you begin looking around for help. There’s another couple in the group who are constantly serving others and always willing to help out. One week they even hosted when you had to cancel because of the flu.

You may not realize it yet, but you’ve just found a future MC leader.

Leadership development starts by identifying those who are willing to do the hard work of serving others. More than charisma or gifting or having a big living room, a servant’s heart is the most important quality of a community leader.

Things are going so well that you notice more and more people are “sticking.” It seems like everyone who visits your group comes back again and again. Phase Two is about to begin.

PHASE TWO: It’s only crazy sometimes

Life is busy, so not everyone comes to MC every time, but you start to notice that every once in a while there are almost too many people in your home. Maybe it’s that family of five who comes once a month that tips the scales from cozy to crazy, or that new couple that just moved to town, but every so often MC ends, and you realize you’re completely spent from managing 30 adults and kids for a couple hours.

Not only that, but as people become more committed, you find that you simply can’t take care of them all. Not that you’re complaining, really. It’s invigorating to see so many people every week, and honestly, you’re pretty proud of how well things are going.

It’s not a weekly problem yet. Sure, some nights are chaotic, but then just last week, there were only eight of you and it was great.

While denial can be comforting, it’s not a great life strategy. The truth is that your group is on a path to multiplication. It’s time to start asking yourself a few key questions:

  • Am I developing someone else who could be an MC leader?
  • Have I checked with the church to see what training is available for me to be more effective?
  • Are there pockets of stability in the group?
  • Is anyone planning on moving away soon?

PHASE THREE: Cope and Plan

Now it’s getting ridiculous.

Your MC is so crowded that no one goes there anymore. As a group grows, the environment becomes increasingly inhospitable to new people. Your get-togethers become more taxing than life-giving. The child care situation often becomes a crisis as the ratio of kids to adults watching them spirals past 10 to 1.

Sure, you can skate a little longer. Maybe summer is coming and there will be a break in your rhythm, or at least you can all meet outside. Maybe someone has a bigger living room than you do, allowing you to buy a few more months.

But your short-term survival strategy still doesn’t cover the logistics of caring for all those people. You have a small church meeting in your house each week, and there’s always someone who needs you.

It’s time to talk seriously about multiplication.

Here are some things you and the other leaders should consider as you have the conversation:

  • Have you spent time praying about this separately and together? If not, plan it out.
  • Do we have leaders and hosts who are willing and prepared?
  • Are there some natural geographic boundaries and divisions to consider?
  • Do we have a few mature people willing to form the core of a new group?
  • Have both the men and women talked through this together? (Guys, don’t go creating a roadmap for expansion without actively involving your wives in the conversation.)
  • Is there a natural time to launch a new group?
  • What potential pitfalls or hurt feelings could there be?
  • What’s the best way to communicate this to the group?
  • Have you communicated to the elders whether or not there might be other groups that a new group could draw from?

PHASE FOUR: Take the leap

It’s happening. Your group is multiplying.

Excitement and fear compete for your attention; but mostly, you are just at a loss about how to explain what’s happening and how to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.  Here are some tips:

  • Cast a vision for why this is necessary. Yes, you are a “community,” but you have a mission. Multiplication is part of the mandate for an MC. No one wants to be a weird little exclusive, insular community. The goal is reach out to people and draw them in. This is just what happens.
  • Let people decide for themselves which group to join. Yes, you can draw it up on paper based on relationships or gifts or geography or schedule; but in the end, people need to make their own choices. Let everyone decide for themselves which group they want. We are missional, but without the “community” part, there isn’t much of a mission. Let relationship lead.
  • Be clear and have a plan. Make sure you know when, what time and where the new group will be meeting. Nothing makes people more nervous than uncertainty.
  • Encourage the two groups to do things in common. Perhaps you can still do your service weeks or hospitality weeks together. Maybe you intermingle discipleship groups. There doesn’t have to be a clean break. Help everyone see how often you will still see each other.

PHASE FIVE: Rebuild

That was a lot harder than you expected.

It didn’t help that everyone called it “splitting.” It was already an emotional time. It’s exciting that the group is healthy, but the reality is that some really good friends, maybe even your best friends, are in a different MC now. You’re trying to bolster the confidence of the new leaders while trying not to take it personally that so many people decided to go with them rather than stay with you.  

I’ve been through this a few times now, and honestly, it’s always weird and hard, and sometimes it hurts for no good reason. A few things have helped me through:

  • Love the people you’ve got. Yeah, some awesome folks are in another MC, but that’s OK. You still have people that need you.
  • Don’t take it personally when people join the other group. There’s a small, crazy voice in your head that whispers to you that you’ve been rejected when people choose another MC. Kill it. Kill it with fire. Do not let your ego invade this situation. People choose an MC for a dozen reasons, and you are probably not one of them.
  • Be aggressive about recruiting new people. Hey, there’s room in your house now! Find people already at Soma that aren’t in an MC. Invite your neighbors over. Ask that coworker to come. All those people you wished you could reach, but were afraid they’d be put off by the hordes are back in play now.
  • Keep spending time with your friends that are part of the new MC. Multiplication isn’t a goodbye, no matter how much it might feel like it at the time.

All that being said, it’s natural and healthy to grieve a little bit. Just make sure your grief doesn’t overpower the joy that comes from seeing God do such an amazing work in drawing his body together only to send it out on mission all over again.

Then get back to the hard work of loving and caring for people. Before you know it, you’ll be one big, happy family again.

Image: "Cliff Dwellers," by George Bellows