Seven things every pastor needs to know about the emergence of small group ministry.
by Brett Eastman, founder and president of Lifetogether
There is no simple solution to growing a healthy, balanced body of believers. However, a thriving small group ministry may be one of the best ways to fulfill the biblical purposes of the church—and solve many of the issues of evangelism and stewardship that can confound pastors. Here are seven reasons why every pastor should consider investing resources into building a healthy small group ministry:
1. Small group community is a primary felt need in America, let alone in our churches.
In South Orange County, there is a community known as one of the top 10 fastest growing developments in the country. For every new home construction, there are 10,000 applications from interested buyers.
Part of the appeal of this community is that it is built from the ground up for community. Its ads sell a return to “Mayberry” days, when everyone had a front porch, a true neighborhood community, and a sense of family among friends.
I met the Community Director for one of these kinds of neighborhoods and was fascinated to learn that her job is to create and cultivate a sense of community—where people feel loved, supported, needed, and have a true sense of belonging. She hires, trains, and manages cul-de-sac leaders, helping them launch social events, such as progressive dinners, costume parties, and charades nights. Her job includes a weekly trip to new and existing cul-de-sacs with a truck filled with fresh Starbucks and Krispy Kreme Donuts.
This model is very simple, effective, and transferable to any church. It can work for small groups or the entire church, and is easy to establish. Encourage your members to host a back-to-school picnic, end of the summer party, or a weekend barbeque—not for the purpose of selling homes, but to see their homes used for Christ.
For example, I did this last summer by renting a bounce house on our block. It cost me $75.00 for the day, and almost every family joined in the fun. I asked every adult who came if they would be open to participating in a 6-week Bible study on the topic of marriage, family, or relationships. It was a success.
This fall, instead of trying to get the community to come to your church, why not consider bringing your church to the community?
2. Significant life transformation can happen in small groups.
Most pastors and church leaders assume small groups are a great way to create a sense of community among the members of their congregation. It’s true. Small groups are a great tool for helping people transition from doing life alone to doing life together.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, says small groups provide a place for people to fulfill all five purposes of the church: 1) grow warmer through fellowship, 2) deeper through discipleship, 3) stronger through worship, 4) broader through ministry, 5) and larger through evangelism.
Other Christian leaders endorse small groups, as well. Bill Hybels says “life change happens best in small groups.” Rob Lacey says it’s a great place for people to “talk back” about the Bible and discuss the implications of its message, leading to greater application of truth in the lives of those who attend. Bob Buford, founder of the Leadership Network, said to me recently, “There is a definite shift in the church from just a procrastination model seen in churches all across America, to a greater demonstration model of Christianity that leads to greater transformation of our hearts.”
With the introduction of video teaching delivered directly into living rooms and classrooms in our churches, we can get the best of both worlds—proclamation and devotion. The churches we have had the privilege of coaching have had a positive response about our teaching and training materials from members who say they are glad not only to have more teaching, but more talking about teaching, as well. Talking about teaching leads to greater integration of truth in the lives of people—resulting in the transformation of the minds, hearts, and hands of believers for Christ!
3. Small groups can exponentially grow your church.
Most pastors deep down would love to grow their church. Rick Warren says, “Balancing the purpose in your church leads to growth and balance to health and that health ultimately leads to growth.” But how?
As your church grows larger in attendance, you need to counteract that by simultaneously growing it “smaller” through small groups ministry. I’ve had the privilege of serving at two megachurches with thousands in attendance, but I grew up in a small church of less than 100 members. I now know that if my pastor would have followed some of the simple steps we learned in the “40 Days of Purpose” campaign, he could have easily doubled or tripled the active attendance in our church.
In the early 1950s, Sunday school was designed as a tool for evangelism and assimilation, but over the years, its primary purpose is for education. Today, few churches have an extra Sunday school classroom available, and the average Sunday school class size is 12 people. It’s difficult to grow your church through Sunday school because brick and mortar limit growth, unless you keep building more educational space—which most churches can’t afford. Don’t miss the opportunity for growth through small groups community.
The beauty of off-campus groups is the potential for unlimited growth. An onsite Sunday school program is limited unless complemented with off-campus small groups. As Rick Warren says, “Don’t let the shoe tell the foot how big it can grow.”
Ironically, during the first 300 years of the church, people didn’t meet in temple courts; they met in homes. Since then, we’ve done just the opposite—moved from homes to church buildings. The truth is, we need more house-to-house ministry to grow our churches.
4. Small groups are not a program but a primary model for doing church.
I’ve talked with many senior pastors who say small group ministry is one of many programs in the church. But small group ministry is the primary model found in the New Testament.
The book of Acts teaches that the early church met as a church gathered and a church scattered. Somehow, we have forgotten the “scattered” church, and small group ministry can help us model the early church.
We must work together on what it takes to help our people do life together just like Jesus. And the best part about this is that Jesus didn’t just tell us to do it—he modeled it through his own life and ministry. How about your church? Are your members doing life in community with a few like Jesus did? Maybe it’s time.
Doing life together is a biblical model, not a fancy program.
5. Small groups ministry will become the primary means to lifestyle evangelism in the future.
Building relationships is the most non-threatening, natural way to connect authentically with an unchurched person. And your home is the best place on earth to hear the most important message in eternity. Fifty percent of people invited by a friend will say yes to a short six-week Bible study in your home. Fifty percent!
If you simply challenge your people to follow God’s call to do life together, it will have a positive impact on your church. Ask church members to write down names of 6-10 people with whom they would enjoy doing life together and challenge them to call those people on that list this week. Then, create a video table they can check out after each Sunday service. Provide DVD/Video curriculum with a few study guides for the week so they can have the tools they need to be able to host Bible studies in their homes with their friends. Challenge them with the value of community.
Here is the best part! We’ve found that in at least 40 percent of the churches we work with, when people jot down the names of friends to invite to their group, most don’t worry if those friends are Christian or not. They just ask, “Is this someone I’d like to do life together with or hang out with for six weeks?” So they end up inviting people who do not know Christ, are new in their relationship with Christ, are not growing in their relationship with Christ, have never been in a small group, or haven’t made spiritual life decisions in a long time.
6. Small groups are the crock-pot for training unlimited leaders.
Bill Hybels said at the Leadership Summit that small groups were one of the top performance drivers in the church of tomorrow. Rick Warren said they are a “Leadership Engine or Factory of the Future.” Either way, don’t underestimate the power of community to train and develop the leaders of the future.
I call it the crock-pot method, because mobilizing small-group leaders is getting easy. The real challenge is developing leaders who don’t just launch a group for six weeks, but leaders who continue on for a lifetime. Here are a few ideas that can work right away for you.
First, challenge all groups to de-emphasize apprenticeship and focus on rotating and sharing leadership. The best way to learn how to lead is to experience it. This will grow every member into a leader … not overnight but over time. When you rotate leadership in the groups, ultimately people are being better prepared than if they were to participate in a 10-week small group leadership training course. Each person gets a turn to lead and passes the curriculum on to the next person to facilitate the next time.
Second, use campaigns two or three times a year to align the weekend with the small group study to create an excuse to ask all existing groups to take a six-week vacation to host a short-term group in their community for their church community. Thirty percent of the Saddleback groups did this during our first 40 Day Campaign. But you could do this every fall, even if you have done it before in the past. The Beginning Lifetogether DVD is an excellent resource for our first small group campaign. You could launch 20-40 percent of your church into groups. It comes with live weekly teaching (from Bruce Wilkenson, John Ortberg, Henry Cloud, Joe Stowell, etc.), live leader training, live testimonial, and live small group worship. It’s the first plug-and-play curriculum on the market with a built-in small group leader “GPS” system for your leaders. Do it again every fall, even if you have done 40 Days before. Each week, a new teacher shares about one of the five purposes, helping bring back the vision and momentum gained from the previous campaign. It will amaze you as it did us at Saddleback!
Third, give them plug-and-play DVD/video curriculum. Not everyone is called to be a teacher or a leader, but some are called to be shepherds of a few. Simply get one DVD and study guide for each leader as a gift or recommend the series in your weekend services using bulletin inserts.
7. Small groups will help to increase weekly giving and the response to any capital campaign.
Glen Kruen, the executive pastor at Saddleback, said that giving increased well over 25 percent during the “40 Days of Purpose” campaign. This was true across the country. Not only will a church’s weekly giving rise, but when they have a capital campaign, they will see a significant return on their investment.
I have seen this work with every church we have coached. Many of these churches postponed their campaigns until after they connected another 25-75 percent of their church into groups. This is critical not only because it will improve the overall financial health of the church, but the spiritual health, as well—and it is the spiritual benefits that are vital to factor in when considering church finances.
Willow Creek’s executive pastor Greg Hawkins, who ran its capital campaign, said that over 60 percent of the people who gave to the capital campaign to raise over $75 million for their new facility came from people in small groups. Overall, the water level in any church’s giving goes up. When people are cared for and feel loved, there’s a tendency for them to give more. One pastor likened it to when Peter was fishing all day on one side of the boat and then Jesus instructed him to toss his nets on the other side.
Well, how about you? If you consider all these ideas that have worked in other churches, I promise that you won’t come home empty. Instead, the people in your community will be more likely to come home where they belong!
Brett served as the small group champion at Saddleback Church for six years and at Willow Creek for five years prior to that. He is the author of the Gold-medallion finalist curriculum, Doing Life Together, the first Purpose Driven curriculum. Brett, along with Steve Gladen from Saddleback Church co-host The Small Group Show for pastors and small group leaders. Brett is the founder and president of Lifetogether Ministries which specializes in helping churches produce custom curriculum, create church-wide campaigns, and connect their congregations into community. He is married to Dee Eastman, Director of The Daniel Plan at Saddleback Church. To contact Brett: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit lifetogether.com for more information.