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The Foundational Issue in Small Group Ministry

In 2005 when I started as the LifeGroups pastor on LifeChurch.tv’s biggest campus, we were running about 5500 people and had 181 LifeGroups.  Twenty-two months later, we were running about 6000 people and had 544 LifeGroups.  After that, I became the Executive Director of LifeGroups and was responsible for all group ministries on all 13 campuses.  By 2009, the small group ministry had grown on all campuses to over 1100 small groups.

Our strategy for growth was nothing original to us. We leveraged the campaign method that Saddleback innovated during the 40 Days of Purpose movement. Twice per year, our pastor, Craig Groeschel, would have a group-centric series.  We’d provide video curriculum for leaders, ask everyone to get in a group, and it worked well for us.

Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, looking back, I see one key principle that gave us the most success:  we structured the small group ministry for numerical growth rather than control.  I once heard Rick Warren say, “You can structure for growth, or you can structure for control, but you can’t structure for both.”  That statement helped me recognize that we habitually structured for growth.  Whenever growth would stall, it was because we were trying to structure for control.

Here’s what I mean: Structuring for growth means removing obstacles that inhibit growth.  The results of such methods are explosive numerical expansion, which is exciting, but messy.  Structuring for control means putting some barriers in place that will slow numerical increase, but the trade off is less chaos.

Here are some examples:

  • Structuring for growth: “Anyone can start a LifeGroup.  Just signup online, pick up your DVD, and press play.”  Tons of people will step up, but (as you can imagine) this is pretty chaotic.
  • Structuring for control: “Only people who are members of the church and have completed a 6-part training series may start a LifeGroup.”  Far fewer people can or will start a group, but the results are more stable.
  • Structure for growth: Setting the bar low on the front end and raising it relationally on the back end.  Anyone could start a group, but everyone was assigned a coach who would work with them for a season to help them succeed.  The “secret sauce” here is the relationships between coaches and new leaders.
  • Structure for control: Setting the bar high on the front end and maintaining it systematically.  Only the few who complete the necessary steps can start a group.  Then they are required to fill out attendance reports, go to annual training events, etc.  The “secret sauce” here is quality and attractive training methods.

No church swings 100% either way.  Every church wants to grow, but there are some things that have to be controlled (you MUST control who can work with children, for example).  However, looking back at LifeChurch.tv and looking at the other churches I’ve worked with in consulting, I’ve seen that the most effective churches are those who intentionally choose to err on one side or the other.

On one side of the equation, we find Community Christian Church in Chicago has one of the most tightly controlled small group models anywhere, and they are very happy with it.  The result is that after 25+ years, they have a remarkably healthy and large group ministry.  On the other side of this equation, we find Saddleback who errs on the side of growth, and they have more people in groups than they have in Sunday worship attendance.

There’s something positive about both approaches, but on some level, growth and control are what I call “competing values.”  The key for every group ministry is to decide which of those values is more in step with your church’s DNA and choose to err on that side.  Churches that struggle with their small group ministries are trying too hard to mix the oil and water of growth and control.  They need to pick which one fits them best and lean in that direction most often.  This does not mean that you should throw the baby out with the bath water!  Saddleback has controls in place, but they are very strategically selected and they are few.  More often than not, they choose growth.  CCC in Chicago has a growing small group ministry, but it’s taken them a quarter of a century to build it through a highly controlled approach.  More often than not, they choose control.  Both approaches work, but only when a church sells out to one side of the equation.

All that to say, at LifeChurch.tv, our small group ministry erred on the side of growth most often, and the result was quick numerical increase and a large number of people participating in groups.

Which side of the growth/control equation seems to jive best with your church?  How have you seen the two values of growth and control compete?

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Alan Danielson is the Lead Pastor of a church that’s probably a lot like yours. New Life Bible Church is a church of a few hundred people, but not long ago he was on the executive staff of Life.Church in Edmond, OK. Now, along with pastoring New Life, Alan is a consultant and has worked with many of America’s largest churches. Despite this, Alan has a passion for the small church. That’s why he lives by the personal conviction that no church is too small for him to work with. Alan founded Triple-Threat Solutions to help leaders of and churches of all sizes grow. Learn more from Alan at http://www.3Threat.net.