I recently had the opportunity to tour a botanical garden. I enjoyed the beauty of the blooming flowers but also learned so much about the different trees and bushes along the way. As we passed a young pine tree our guide explained that this tree in particular had been through a pruning process called candling. When new branches begin to grow, before the pine needles emerge, they look like candles. Without pruning, at this stage, the pine tree will most likely grow tall and strong but with few branches. When a young pine is candled, those branches of new growth are broken off before the pine needles emerge. This causes those candles/branches to recreate themselves in multiples. More branches will grow from that site of brokenness, creating more dense growth. This is a way to create a more “full” growth in that young pine.
It always amazes me anew when I spend time in nature, how many significant lessons I can learn and apply to my life as I watch them unfold in the natural world. This process of candling made me specifically think about a hard conversation I had with some small group leaders in our ministry. We have a few small groups in particular that are growing and thriving. They have grown and have a consistent group of committed members that are engaged and active participants. They have been meeting together for several seasons and are enthusiastic enough about their group, that they also invite and add members. Although this is considered a success, the next step for this group is not to simply maintain their consistency.
As believers we are called to not only grow ourselves as Christ followers but to create disciples. Small groups are meant to provide community, encouragement and opportunities for discipleship. This discipleship model is meant to recreate itself. So the next step for this group is to be pruned for greater growth in much the same way as the young pine tree experiences candling. My conversation with those small group leaders included encouraging them to identify one or two members that are ready to lead their own small group. These might be individuals that are inviting friends to come to the small group, that participate in discussion and are consistently growing in their personal walk with the Lord.
Initially, doubling or breaking off to form a new group is not a popular concept. Small groups that are ready for this are normally very socially and emotionally connected. They don’t like the idea of starting over again or losing the intimacy they have worked so hard to develop in their current group. However, our role as disciples is not to simply create environments designed for our own comfort. Being obedient and sharing the hope of Christ is not always going to be easy or comfortable. So it is important to help them understand the honor it is to lead a new group and commission them to this new role. They will need support and encouragement as they step into leading and not attending. It is also helpful for their current small group leader to walk with them through the first few months of this transition. It can be such an exciting time of growth for these new leaders. An amazing opportunity for them to see the Lord answer prayers and allow them to pour into others they way they had leaders invest in them.
Pruning is not meant to be comfortable or painless. Growth requires change and often sacrifice. Most of us would never volunteer to be pruned, but the benefits are most definitely worth it. And just as the young pine tree has no idea of its own need for candling, most small groups will not see the need for a change on their own. That revelation and transition requires compassionate and caring leadership coupled with prayer.
Have you had success with small groups breaking off to form new groups due to size or growth? As you consider your current small group model is this something you have already cast vision for or perhaps could this be a next step for your Discipleship Ministry?