5 Keys to Saddleback’s Amazing GroupLife Run

By Mark Howell
Small Group

image credit: Creation Swap User Stacey Lewis

If building a small group ministry is your personal mission, you’ve probably made it your business to know about the small group ministries in churches that are hitting home runs.  If that’s you,  you’ve read Building a Church of Small Groups and attended the Willow Creek GroupLife conferences back in the day.  You’ve also read Creating Community by Bill Willits and you’re getting ready to check out North Point’s first ever small group ministry conference.  And, you probably attended Twelve and have a dog-eared copy of Steve Gladen’s Small Groups with Purpose.

You’ve done your homework.  You probably know that Saddleback has gone from 70 groups to over 4,500 in about 15 years, but you might not have figured out the 5 keys to Saddleback’s amazing grouplife run:

  1. They are consistent on their mission but flexible on the methods.  Just when you think that a particular strategy is the very best way to start groups or train leaders…they’ve moved to a new and improved idea.  (See also, The Unexpected Twist in Saddleback’s Exponential Growth Formula)
  2. They relentlessly push the flywheel of the annual church-wide campaign.  Not an afterthought or a foregone conclusion, the annual church-wide campaign is an anticipated growth engine.  Budgeted (allowing them to make group materials available at no cost), prioritized (launching with no competition), marketed (it’s not unusual to begin hearing about the fall campaign months in advance), and leveraged (the fall campaign is a ministry momentum accelerator).  See also Church-Wide Campaign Driven Small Groups.
  3. Church-wide  initiatives are launched through small groups.  This is a very important key.  While it’s very common for most churches to shift emphasis from season to season and year to year (for example, “this is the year that everyone will learn to be on mission”), at Saddleback, most important initiatives are launched within small groups.  A great example is the P.E.A.C.E. plan.  Instead of creating a competing effort, the P.E.A.C.E. plan was launched through the small group ministry.
  4. They are solution centered.  Need more leaders?  Make it easy to put a toe in the water by offering short-term test drive opportunities (see also, HOST: What Does It Mean?).  Want to leverage the relationships your newest attendees have in their neighborhoods?  Create church-wide studies that are easy to invite friends and neighbors to attend (think 40 Days of Purpose, Life’s Healing Choices, and Decade of Destiny).
  5. Senior Pastor as small group champion.  There’s a video that is shown at many Saddleback conferences that catches Rick Warren promoting small groups over the years.  Seriously over the years.  There’s thin Rick with wire frame glasses.  There’s heavy set Rick with a hawaiian shirt.  Long hair. Spikey hair.  Receding hairline.  Full head of hair.  I wish I could show it to you.  The point?  It’s not a passing fad or an emphasis that shifts over time.  Year in, year out, Rick Warren has been the small group champion at Saddleback.  By the way, in the two years we attended Saddleback I never once saw Steve Gladen (Saddleback’s Pastor of the Small Group Community) on the platform.  It’s not that Steve isn’t good in public.  He does conferences on a regular basis.  It’s that the most influential person at Saddleback is the senior pastor. Who’s the most influential person at your church?  See also Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups and 5 Things Senior Pastors Need to Know about Small Group Ministry.

There are certainly others, but these are my 5 keys.  Need more?  The Top 10 Reasons Saddleback Has Connected Over 130% in Groups is one of my most popular articles and has many clues.  The Real Reason Saddleback Has Connected So Many in Groups is another.

Mark Howell

Mark Howell is the founder of SmallGroupResources.net, committed to helping churches launch, build, and sustain healthy small group ministries. He's also the Pastor of Discipleship Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church.  Having served as small group pastor at Woodlands Church and Lake Avenue Church, Mark is a seasoned veteran with experience in both the contemporary and the traditional church. In addition, he served as a consultant with Lifetogether and as a host for the Purpose Driven Campaign Coaching programs. You can read Mark's blog at www.markhowelllive.com or follow him on twitter.