Saddleback outgrew me a long time ago. If Saddleback were limited to the number of people I could personally care for, we would be stuck at 300. Early in the life of Saddleback, I realized that my role was to equip the congregation for ministry, not do all the ministry myself.
I simply can’t minister to everyone’s needs at the church. It’s impossible in a church the size of Saddleback. I can’t counsel all the people who come to our church for counseling. I can’t pray specifically for every prayer request that comes into the church. I can’t. But I’ve learned that God never meant for me to meet everyone’s needs. And He didn’t mean for you to do that either. We’re not Atlas holding our churches up! I found that when I resigned as general manager of the universe, my ministry was a lot more effective.
While there are lots of reasons to involve your congregation in small groups, sharing the shepherding duties was one of the original reasons we started small groups at Saddleback. In the 32 years of Saddleback’s history, the church has grown larger by growing smaller.
We have four different types of small groups that people can be a part of at our church. Each has its own strengths. Some involve group members for ministry. Some help church members develop a relationship with non-Christians – and others try to help believers deal with the overwhelming crises of life. Yet all of them have one thing in common – they connect people with others at the church. Each is connected to a different purpose of the church.
- Membership: These groups focus on the crises of life – addictions, victimizations, terminal illness, etc. These are our care groups and Celebrate Recovery groups.
- Maturity: These are what most people think of when they think of small groups. Our maturity groups focus on all the purposes – worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. They meet in homes and study a biblical topic or a book of the Bible.
- Ministry: These groups are built around ministries in the church. You may not think of them as small groups, but they are. Your ushers are in a group. Your music ministry is a group. Your greeters are a group. They’re not only serving the church, but they’re building relationships in the group. These relationships make your church feel smaller.
- Missions: The whole focus of these groups is reaching people who aren’t Christians. These are what we used to call “seeker” Bible studies. They allow people who have questions about the Bible to come and explore it in a safe environment. They could be outreach Bible studies held in local businesses. They could be mission teams that don’t meet together to study anything; they meet to do missions together. Nothing ties a group of people together better than a common purpose, particularly when that purpose is reaching people with the gospel.
We hope all small groups in our church have missions and evangelism as a core purposes. Our P.E.A.C.E. Plan is built around the idea that missions and evangelism are best done in the context of small groups. But mission groups are brought together around the main purpose of evangelism.
You may already have many of these groups in your own church. Think about other ways you can help your congregation become smaller to encourage connection and ministry even as your congregation grows larger.