From Groups to Gatherings

By Dean Fulks

There are so many ways to plant a church. Here's one method to ensure your church's multiplication DNA impacts each new step of the planting process.

Organically planting a church through small groups is one way to start a new church; however, it’s certainly not the only way to plant a church. The single greatest advantage of planting through this model is the ability to embed a culture of multiplying discipleship from a plant’s earliest days. Planting from small groups, through small groups to gatherings requires at least three things: a multiplying leader with a passion for multiplying discipleship through the vision of a multiplying church.

A Multiplying Leader

It’s no secret that the primary determining factor of the success or failure of a church plant is the emotional and spiritual health of a planter and spouse (if married). When planters are healthy, they multiply themselves. So, it makes sense to look for leaders who invest and multiply themselves into other leaders.

Some of my favorite parts of the New Testament epistles are the final chapters. Much like the well-worn joke about not wanting to be the third verse of a hymn that consistently gets skipped over, it’s easy to stop reading an epistle when the names get difficult at the end. Paul certainly possessed the gifting, calling, and capacity to plant churches by himself. However, the final chapter of most of his epistles reads like a contact list on a common cell phone—the names of women and men into whom he multiplied his life in the specific geographies where he planted churches.

Just like the chorus of a really great song, these final chapters of many epistles bring us back to the refrain of Paul’s multiplying leadership: Timothy’s youth, multiplying from one church planting team to two teams (perhaps unintentionally) through Barnabas, the work of Priscilla and Aquila, and the conversion and support of Lydia. From there, the beat goes on in the music of Paul’s ministry.

Multiplying Groups

Most multiplying leaders have a gift for gathering people. The number of people is not as important as the vision to multiply, and there are numerous structures and strategies for group multiplication. Our way at Lifepoint is not the way, but my hope is that all planters have a way. Whenever we plant, our hope is that we have planters who have multiplied themselves personally, as well as their small groups. If leaders have multiplied other leaders and groups, they have a much greater likelihood of planting a multiplying congregation.

Our group structure allows for consistent multiplication. We do three small-group terms per year so that there is a start and a stop. This allows groups to multiply and new people to join. We encourage our group leaders to talk about multiplying their groups at the beginning of every term. Prayerfully, multiplication is built into the mission of each group. Groups help our church manage ministry and span of care. Instead of adding more ministries to the church, we ask each of our groups to partner with a local ministry to help us engage our city in tangible ways.

In Matthew 16, Jesus established the “ekklesia,” or gathering. His gathering (at least early on) consisted of 12 would-be leaders in what most would consider a small group. I think one could make the argument that Jesus changed the world through a small group, one that would multiply hundreds of times over to give us a model for multiplying churches.

A Multiplying Church

A blessing of living inside of the SEND Network ecosystem is the exposure to the breadth and style of multiplying churches. There’s one thing that every multiplying leader, group, and congregation must face. You can multiply urban churches like Blueprint Church in Atlanta, suburban churches like Mile City in Detroit, or collegiate churches like Resonate in the Northwest. The common denominator in all of these multiplying conversations comes down to sacrifice.

We call it “sending,” and I’m glad we do. It’s biblical. However, the leader of the sending congregation must be prepared for his best leaders to live out the mission and vision through multiplying a new church. Translation: many—though sometimes it feels like all—of your best leaders will leave to plant new congregations. If you multiply well, there’s an emotional tax that comes with sending. I think you hear this idea in Paul’s epistles (like Romans 1, 1 Thessalonians 2, and 2 Timothy 4) through phrases like “How I long to see you…” Paul missed his ministry friends.

As we prepare to hit two decades of ministry at the same church plant, I can honestly say that I was not ready for this reality. I miss people, those healthy Christians who have embraced our vision and values. However, they listened to my sermons and had the audacity to do what I challenged them to do: leave and help start a new congregation. They are doing exactly what God wants them to do. I wouldn’t change it for anything. Yet, I miss them.

When I meet brothers and sisters in different parts of the world who are faithfully serving the kingdom, I sometimes walk away feeling guilty when comparing their levels of gospel sacrifice to my own ministry here in the West. Even still, something about sacrificing to send our best leaders to multiply new churches feels right.

In terms of strategy, three distinctives define each of our multiplying congregations: theological unity, ecclesiological similarity, and missiological affinity. First, churches must have a solid theological foundation. In our network, theological unity is gathered around the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). Our plants and planters must affirm it. Second, a new church plant needs an ecclesiological vision. There are several ways to view church governance. Some are congregationally led, some deacon led, while others are elder led. Most of the time, a church plant has a similar ecclesiology to its sending church. Third, a church plant must embrace the Great Commission. Its missiology must be gathered around reaching people locally and globally.

A great church planter will embed the DNA of multiplication into his plant’s earliest days. Ideally, a small group of people forms in the community in which they live, work, and play. This lends itself to group members inviting neighbors, friends, co-workers, fellow students, and teammates to join them. Prayerfully, normal New Testament Christianity takes over. Every day, garden-variety Christians multiply themselves into other would-be leaders, who create more groups that eventually become new congregations.

Published December 6, 2023

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Dean Fulks

Dean Fulks has been the lead pastor at Lifepoint since its beginning in 2004. He is the coordinator for SEND Columbus, an initiative to plant churches throughout Columbus, Ohio. Dean is married to Angie and they have three children — Sydney, Dillon, and Sylvia. He has a Master’s of Divinity from Mid-America Theological Seminary (Memphis, TN) with a minor in Memphis barbecue.