North Point Community Church developed an organizational model which the Left can adopt.
Elsewhere I’ve written about how creating networks of human relationships, independent of circumventing group figureheads, creates both membership retention and the potential for genuine democracy in organizations and societies.
However I haven’t touched much on organizational techniques for actually fostering this mesh network of relationships. Most organizations hope pure spontaneity will take care of this, but it doesn’t; that only tends to reinforce the “star network” tendency of figureheads to be connected to everyone, and nobody to be connected to anyone else.
One unconventional strategy is to make socializing itself an organization’s entire political strategy and political work. This approach, though, often creates large social spaces where the initiative is still largely upon each individual to integrate themselves, and in reality a lot of people won’t break through of their own initiative. They need an environment that more prompts them to interact.
The North Point Community Church Model
An organization called North Point Community Church has used its closed small group model to grow from 3,000 to 36,000 members from 1995 to 2017.
(The logo of North Point Resources on the book’s cover is a hexagon so I knew it was divinely ordained.)
They form small groups of 6 couples or 8 individuals, essentially 8-12 people, which are not public branches where new people come in and out, but closed.
These closed groups have an 8-week trial period to test out whether they’re a good fit. The vote is secret and must be unanimous, in case of incompatible personalities. If the vote fails, the group dissolves, and is recycled back into the group formation process (explained below) for a new group to form.
After the 18-24 month period, the group “multiplies,” (probably a Biblical reference to go forth and multiply in Genesis). It cuts in half, lets new people in, has another 8-week trial period and vote to see if it will last or try a new batch, and begins another 18-24 week lifespan.
How are these groups formed in the first place?
North Point Community Church has a feeder process summarized by the flowchart below.
To cut through the jargon,
- “NPCC Attendees” = Sunday church services
- “Living rooms” = social events catered to various specific demographics
- “Starting Point” = a Bible study program, for new, returned, or refreshing Christians
- “GroupLink” is the special event at which people are plugged into the small group system
As the flowchart indicates, most outreach events have someone there announcing or directing people toward the small group setup program.
The Left has its equivalents to these types of events. We have public meetings about political issues instead of church services. We have reading groups on political books instead of Bible study. We have our own social events. We just need our own “GroupLink,” or ongoing program of sessions forming closed small groups.
So what is GroupLink like? I’ll quote the testimony of “Stephen and Jana”:
“We were encouraged by a friend to attend North Point. After visiting for just six weeks, we jumped into the NPCC experience. We never saw the same faces during Sunday services, but that was okay – we had plenty of friends and didn’t really need any more. Then one Sunday morning, Andy echoed those same exact thoughts. He went on to speak about community groups and something called a GroupLink. We decided to take one more step of commitment at North Point by signing up that Sunday.
Andy had mentioned that the emotions of attending GroupLink were similar to a dating experience, and he was right! We were sure no one there would live near us. The Attic (our student ministry room) was filled with other couples in their thirties and forties, none of whom we knew. When we were told to stand up and mingle, we stood up, turned around, and started talking to the three couples beside us. Two more couples walked over, and before we knew it, God had formed a community group with other people in our area without us even taking a step. We went home that Saturday night feeling slightly amazed. It was all so easy.”
–Creating Community: 5 Keys to Building a Small Group Culture, Andy Stanley and Bill Willits
If the process seems to have snags, Creating Community claims that 90% of the people who attend these group-forming sessions end up in a group at the first group-forming event they attend. Furthermore, about 90% of starter groups in their 8-week trial period form into long term 18-24 month groups, and don’t end up with their members getting recycled back into the “GroupLink” group formation process.
Why closed groups instead of public branches?
On the Left we are used to public branches where people come in and out.
It doesn’t have to stay this way. The socialist movement is now growing large enough that we can integrate large numbers of people in a closed branch environment out of our increasingly large hall-filling public meetings on basic socialist introductory politics.
But relationships are the key to membership retention and democracy, and relationships can only form over time in a non-disruptive environment of trust, allowing community to develop among a specific and continually present people rather than a shifting population, without interruptions to the group dynamic. This also allows reliable expectations, insofar as people can be more accountable and predictable when it’s the same people.
What do these groups do?
North Point lists group functions as
- Decentralizing church leadership and care
- Enabling more people to serve
- Developing authentic community
- Offering scheduling flexibility
- Allowing use of private residences instead of requiring rental/public spaces
- Remove limits to growth by allowing scaleability
For leftists, they could serve the following functions:
- Political education
- Protest/demonstration after-assessments, activity recap
- Group therapy and whining about the grievances of work/life in capitalism, which can lead to organizing-brainstorming depending on context
- Centers of democracy – discussing various proposals and affairs in the organization
However, we badly need to get away from the religion of constant action as the justification for a socialist group’s existence. To simply rally, gather, grow, and maintain the socialist/leftist faction in society is the core and critical function of any socialist, anarchist, or leftist organization or party. We don’t need to “do” anything other than that. Simply existing as an organization with a political identity is our primary job. The closed small group model fulfills this role most powerfully.
Socializing itself could be a core purpose of the closed small groups, though. We possibly might also just consider hanging out and becoming friends.
Be forced to hang out with each other? Preposterous!
The NPCC model presumes a Christian culture that we are all human beings on a spiritual journey together, and even further, all family together as God’s children. As such it is quite natural to stick strangers together, and force them to encounter each other. Having a human connection makes sense.
This assumption might not be shared on the Left. The idea on the Left might be that our connection is more like a professional or workplace connection – we have a common vested interest in achieving liberation, but there is no real obligation to have a human encounter of souls, see each other personally, socially, etc.
This is going to have to be overcome for our movement to succeed. It is precisely all the very human barriers to cooperation that frequently end up dividing and tearing our movements apart. These may be political debates like the infamous class vs. identity or Democratic Party debate. Or it may be instead the process of members developing the social proficiency to find skilled, mature, and non-dramatic negotiation of personal boundaries, expectations, involvements, and disagreements. It is only through forcing ourselves to actually confront and embrace each other in a human environment that we will be forced to work these differences out, smooth out these rough edges, and see each other as human beings.
If we gather literally for the sole sake of learning and practicing how to coexist without ripping each other apart, that is a perfect justification, because at the moment, this is currently something the Left is very bad at. We have used action as a distraction to avoid and delay facing the problems of coexistence. Let’s address them for real and learn how to stabilize ourselves.