Small group success isn’t just for mega churches.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. I had only been on staff at Saddleback Church for a few weeks when I learned that over 800 men from our congregation were planning to attend the Promise Keepers rally in Washington, DC. I suggested we try to launch some new small groups among the men going to the event. Over 300 said they were interested, but I only had half a dozen men to lead them—the story of a small group pastor’s life.
I got to game day, where everybody showed up to get into a group, and I tried something called the “small group connection” process. People gather into pairs, then fours, and then groups of eight according to where they live. The process simply allows people to traverse down a spiral of questions. The group moves from icebreaker-like questions into deeper spiritual conversation. This allows them to discern the relative spiritual shepherd (not leader) in the circle. This model follows the Acts 6 example, where the disciples encouraged the people to select from among the church seven people to serve tables.
We launched 32 groups that day with almost 300 people. We saw some disasters, but we also had a seed of an idea that helped to serve the church-wide small group campaigns for years to come. No longer did we have a problem finding leaders. We were providing the living rooms of every ministry with pre-qualified leaders.
We refined the process with training, coaching, and raising up co-leaders. And the big addition to this was adding what we called the “Rick Factor.” The secret weapon in any church for recruiting new leaders is and always will be the Senior Pastor. In one weekend we signed up over 1,500 people wanting to get into a group. The biggest piece came, though, when Rick agreed to videotape himself teaching a Bible study on the book of James. Finally, ordinary members could be leaders because they didn’t need the same skills for teaching, facilitation and knowledge of the Scripture as Rick had.
So we had the number one recruiter on our side, along with video curriculum, but we still had only 50 percent of average weekend attendance connected in a group. Progress had been made, but we still had eight to twelve thousand people to go before we felt we were fulfilling what God had called us to do. Then the idea came to us on the eve of the 40 Days Campaign at Saddleback.
With the new video curriculum we were able to simply say, “If you have a VCR, you can be a star.” Anybody can host a group like this! And they did. Our team trained over 2,000 new hosts and launched another 2,300 groups with over 20,000 people going through a six-week study on The Purpose Driven Life. It truly “was exceedingly abundantly beyond what we asked or thought,” as Paul says.
Ok, Brett, that was because it was Saddleback, right? I thought so, too, until I had the opportunity to talk with literally thousands of other churches using our new Doing Lifetogether™ curriculum. Over the last few years, I’ve seen with my own eyes that any church of any size could do the same thing we have done.
The bottom line is you have to ask a very basic question: “What is the point of 40 Days of Purpose—or any spiritual or small group campaign for that matter?” It should be to help the people in the church live healthy, balanced Purpose Driven lives. It’s not about connecting people into community for the sake of community, but about changing community through community in order to convert our culture for the sake of Christ. That’s what Jesus came to do, after all—not just in the upper room but also at the cross, so that we might do our lives together with Him and one another.
6 tips for keeping your new groups healthy
- Reload and re-fire. The number one mistake several of my closest pastor friends have made is to get enamored with the small group harvest and then let every one settle back into those cozy couches and chairs. Now they are like traditional small groups that exist primarily for the purpose of fellowship and Bible study. Instead, expect every existing group to not just do life together but to give life. The two best ways to do this are to constantly rotate leadership and to develop an unlimited army of leaders over time.
- Curriculum is the second most important tool. Many churches I have consulted did “40 Days of Purpose Campaigns” in what I call old country-western style. Launch them, love them and leave them—way before they were ready. Groups that have a DVD/video-driven launch need a similar resource in the next few series they do.
- Realize that reformation could be coming. Most churches had no idea what was coming. Church life will from this day forward never be the same. One person asked a Saddleback staff member, “Have we become a cell or home church?” Another said, “What impact will this have on our midweek services?” Please, even as you read this, don’t close your fist, but open your palms, because greater implications are in the works. Churches all around the country will struggle with these questions, especially when they get into the second and third phase of their small group efforts. The sooner you see it, the sooner you can help others process it.
- Focus on what really matters. Recruiting new hosts is ten times more vital than connecting members. It’s the difference between spiritual addition and multiplication. Leadership rallies, end of the year small group staff lunches, celebrations and retreats all build community among the leadership. Best of all it gives you one of 100 reasons to get your senior staff in the game.
- Begin with the end in mind. The end is to build healthy, balanced churches, groups and lives. Whatever it takes to first get them in is key. Then turn the temperature of the group way up. Use a survey to have them self assess their own health. And do it with the entire church as well. (Download a free assessment on our site.) Also, remember that connecting people is only the first step. Cultivating health is the ultimate goal. That’s why a balance of the curriculum, preaching on the weekend, weekly group agenda and seasonal group alignment is critical.
- Recruit and develop a senior leader of leaders. Return to a bi-vocational model of staff. Many times, the typical person drawn to small group ministry has gifts of shepherding, and encouragement, but not leadership and administration. They are caregivers, not campaign managers. I know this one is a bit scary, but it’s just the truth. Three of the small group pastors in the 40-Day churches have been let go. Why? It’s not that they weren’t good people, or that they weren’t capable. They just didn’t have leadership gifts. Those who do have these gifts may not be on your staff or your current team, but they are in your church. Ask for the senior pastor’s help to recruit the best set of gifts your church has.