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The Power and Potential of Small Groups

By Brett Eastman

New Life Christian Center in Turlock, California, had plateaued. For 7 years, Associate Pastor Allen White had been trying to develop a small-group program that connected every member of the church. He knew an effective small-group ministry was the key to taking the church to the level of ministry he dreamed about. But despite his best efforts, they could only get a third of the adults involved.

“The thought of connecting everybody in a group was my dream,” White said, “but we were stuck at 30 percent. We were slugging it out the old-fashioned way — raise up an apprentice, birth a group, and deal with the aftermath. But, we were headed nowhere.

“I thought my senior pastor was in favor of small groups, but not enough. My small-group leaders were stifled by the whole apprenticing-multiplication process. None of them could find an apprentice in their group. Some of them were greeting me on Sunday morning with ‘I’m working on my apprentice.’ Whatever happened to ‘Hello’?

“Only one guy, Carlos, ever birthed anything in our church. It seemed that connecting everyone was only a dream.”

A few months later, at a gathering of church leaders, White listened to Kent Odor from Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada. Odor shared how his church had connected large numbers in the congregation in a short time. White heard how groups could multiply without dividing. He learned how people overlooked in recruiting could start some of the best new groups.

White was intrigued, but unconvinced. He had some decisions to make.

On the drive home he began to think about what his senior pastor, David Larson, was most passionate about. At the time, Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, was soon to be released. Larson had planned a message series and ordered a banner for the church sign by the highway.

The light suddenly came on for White: Why not launch small groups based on The Passion of the Christ? And that is what they did.

White asked his senior pastor to invite people to open their homes and host a small group for a 6-week study. In one day, the 800-member church doubled the number of its small groups. After Easter, the church added 50 percent more new groups in another campaign. Things were getting out of control in a good way.

When autumn came the church started recruiting hosts for its biggest launch of the year. Larson aligned his weekly messages with a Lifetogether™ study. The leaders selected 50 Bible verses and asked 50 church members to write a one-page devotional. The leaders then compiled these devotions into a book. When it was over, small group attendance was 125 percent of their average adult attendance. They had also given out 1,088 devotionals books.

“We were all in awe,” White says. “The dream was suddenly a reality.”

A Spiritual 4-Minute Mile

White realized that the only reason the church had plateaued was because of a mental block. “In the 1950s everyone said no man could ever run a 4-minute mile. It was just a dream,” he says. “Then, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4 minutes. After that, several runners broke that barrier. Four minutes wasn’t a physical barrier; it was a mental block.

“New Life Christian Center had just broken the 4-minute mile. Churches could start small groups that would involve the majority of the congregation, and then reach their communities through community.”

This was not about numbers, though. One man named Ken invited his coworkers to join him for a study on The Passion of the Christ. Two of them accepted Christ.

We asked David, the host of another small group, “What motivates you to continue your group?”

He replied, “My dad showed up.”

Because of a painful experience years before, David’s dad had turned his back on church. Even though he refused to walk through the church doors, he was willing to attend a small-group meeting at his son’s house. That was his first step back to God.

New Life’s small groups began to reach out beyond the congregation. Groups served hot meals to the homeless every Friday night. One host took the study to a local women’s shelter. Another started a group on her commuter train. Another woman decided to attend a study because she and her friends went to Starbucks for coffee every Thursday morning anyway. Why not attend the study too?

Rick picked up the study to do with his friends. Carlos, who was now a small-group coach, called him to check in. He found that Rick was passionate about his group — and the pastors did not even know who Rick was.

Connecting 100 percent of your congregation in small groups is far more than a sales pitch. Connecting 100 percent is the first step in reaching beyond the walls of your church and connecting with your community. Following are the principles that have unlocked amazing growth and community outreach for church after church. It can happen in your church, too.

The Saddleback Small-group Story

When I first arrived at Saddleback Church, weekly attendance was around 15,000, but only about 700 people were in small groups. Pastor Rick Warren assigned me and my team the task of getting the other 95 percent connected into groups. Tackling that challenge forged the strategies that not only helped Saddleback connect its congregation, but also helped thousands of other churches of every size across North America.

The first success at Saddleback came after I was on staff for only a few weeks. Warren told me he had reserved seats for more than 800 men on seven different airplanes headed for Washington, D.C., for a Promise Keepers event. I had a bright idea — what if we recruited leaders from the existing men’s groups to launch a few more groups from the 800-plus men going to the event? More than 300 men said they wanted to join a group, but I only had a half dozen volunteers to lead them.

The next Saturday morning the men came to join a group. I tried what I call the small-group connection process. We grouped the men by where they lived, first into pairs, then in fours, and then in groups of eight. The men were then asked to traverse a spiral of questions, moving from icebreaker questions into deeper spiritual conversation. This allowed them to discern the spiritual leader of their group rather than having one assigned by the pastor. We got this idea from Acts 6, where the disciples encouraged the people to select from among themselves seven people to serve tables.

We launched 32 groups that day — connecting almost 300 men. While a few of those groups did not last, we came away with an idea that would serve the church-wide small-group ministry for years to come. The 50 percent group success rate we began with grew to a 72 percent rate. The success rate continued to improve until, over a 2 1/2-year period, we had connected almost 800 more people in groups. We refined the process with training, coaching, and raising up coleaders instead of apprentices.

Our next step forward came when we decided to align small-group study topics with weekend services. Warren made a videotape of himself teaching from the Book of James. The congregation loved it — and so did our small-group leaders. Finally, ordinary members could be leaders because they did not need the same teaching skills or Bible knowledge our pastor had. In one weekend, we signed up more than 1,500 people into small groups. The only complaint was about whether Warren was ever going to change his shirt (because we shot the entire series in one day).

We had discovered what we called the Rick Factor. The secret weapon for recruiting new leaders in any church is the senior pastor. Now we had the No. 1 recruiter on our side, plus a video curriculum, as well as small-group and service alignment. We had made progress but we still had only 50 percent of our average weekend attendance connected in a group. We still had between 8,000 to 12,000 people to go before we felt like we were fulfilling what God had called us to do: Connect the entire congregation under the care of a shepherd.

On the eve of the first 40 Days of Purpose campaign at Saddleback, we had another idea: What if we invited people to host, rather than lead, a group? It seems like such a small change in terminology, but it proved to be a phenomenal factor in rapidly growing our groups.

With the new video curriculum we told our people: “If you have a VCR/DVD, you can be a star.” Anybody can host a group. More than 3,000 people opened their homes for 6 to 8 weeks. I was overjoyed and overwhelmed. Who were these people, and where did they come from?

The elders and I thought these people must be living in their cars. How long had those people been Christians? Were they Christians? Had they been in a small group? Had they even attended our church?

Glen Kruen, Saddleback’s executive pastor, and Tom Holladay, our teaching pastor, helped me create a survey. It showed us that something amazing had happened. The new hosts had, on average, been Christians for 14 or more years. They had attended Saddleback for 10 or more years, and many had attended small groups before. On average they had heard more than 500 of Warren’s messages. They were definitely capable of hosting a video-led study and asking a few questions.

When the dust settled, our team had trained more than 2,000 new hosts and launched another 2,300 groups. Well over 20,000 people joined in a 6-week study of The Purpose Driven Life, taught by Warren. Virtually every Christian in our church family was aligned in reading the book and participating in the 40-Days study.

Preparing for What’s Next

At first, these results may seem possible only in a megachurch like Saddleback. But I have helped hundreds of other churches duplicate similar results in their own congregations — small and large, urban and rural, regardless of denomination. We have seen thousands of churches use our Purpose Driven Group™ curriculum, Doing Lifetogether.™ These congregations are not just getting a taste of the purposes through 40 Days, but are being transformed.

I have yet to hear of a church or even a small group that was not impacted by a 40-Days campaign. Day 41, though, can be traumatic if the church small-group leadership is not prepared for what is next. You can launch a small-group ministry overnight during a small-group campaign, but sustaining those groups and developing those leaders is another issue.

How do you train and develop leaders for a large number of new small groups? Not in a classroom. We discovered that the best way is to deliver just-in-time leadership training through a video curriculum. We conducted orientation training for new hosts and put our basic leader training in a decentralized off-campus format. Every week, small-group leaders received another 20 minutes of training, just when they needed it.

There is more to training effective small-group leaders, however, than watching a video. They still need a personal touch. The intentional development of a small-group supervision system is crucial to supporting and retaining group leaders. New hosts need someone to encourage them and back them up. This does not necessarily require additional staff, however. It can be accomplished with bivocational leaders and even volunteers.

Curriculum is the key to starting and sustaining groups after a campaign. The deciding factor for up to 50 percent of groups is what curriculum to use, when to use it, and how to introduce it to groups. The right curriculum is especially significant after a campaign, during a launch season, and in aligning with leadership training and a weekend sermon series.

Recruiting an unlimited number of leaders is possible in any church at any time of the year, especially in late September, January, and after Easter. The problem is that most pastors and church leaders think only in terms of one 40-Days campaign, a fall emphasis, or one sermon series. You need to take a long-term view to successfully connect 100 percent of your congregation in community and sustain those relationships so they transform your community through community.

Leaders are best trained and developed in living rooms, not in the 6- or 16-week training classes. I had thought these training classes were the reason our groups did so well. I am ashamed to admit it now, but when we launched 200 new groups and I had no coaches. I thought, I will train them all in a half-day class. They came, but I did not have one coach or division leader in place, and no infrastructure. A year later, 80 percent of those groups were still rolling along. Can I claim that the reason for their success was my 3-hour class? Forgive me, Lord, if I try to take credit for it. Shame on anybody else who tries to. With the right training at the right time, new hosts will succeed because God is backing them up.

We have had our share of blowups. One man told me he and his live-in girlfriend were excited about the 20 people who were coming to their group. Then there was the member who asked if it was okay to study the new book, Embracing the Light, instead of the Bible. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. (I married that live-in couple a few weeks later in a break-out room at Saddleback Church, with their small group cheering them on. We allowed them to carry on because they were the most mature members of their seeker group and because of their act of obedience when they were confronted with the truth about their relationship. You should have seen the water baptism service that day — more than 10 new believers from that group were baptized by their spiritual shepherd.)The point of any spiritual growth or small-group campaign is to organize a principle, a program, and a process to help people in the church live healthy, balanced lives. Your campaign is not just about connecting people into community for the sake of community. Your goal should be changing your community through community to draw family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers to Christ.

That is what Jesus came to do — draw everyone to himself — not just in the Upper Room, but also at the foot of the Cross, so we might have life together with Him and one another.

BRETT EASTMAN, founder of http://www.Lifetogether.com, Eastman Productions, and Lifetogether Publishing; and former small group champion from Willow Creek Community Church with Bill Hybels and Saddleback Church with Rick Warren. Eastman lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, California.

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