To celebrate the release of Exponential Groups on February 1st, we’re happy to provide you with the introduction to this eye-opening book about expanding small group ministries. Readers of Exponential Groups will learn how to connect their “unconnected” members into community, recruit the group leaders needed to connect and grow their congregation, coach group leaders for a sustainable group structure that will serve their church for years to come, understand how to maintain current discipleship strategies, and implement new strategies without alienating their members or derailing their current systems.
Enjoy this little snippet, and don’t forget to check out the book on our website.
Everyone is already in a group.
When I say “group,” something from years of church Bible studies comes to mind. You might protest that there are plenty of people who aren’t in groups like this. But it’s true. Everyone is already in a group, it’s just not the group you have in mind. People are in groups called families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, soccer moms, and many others. If your question is how are these church groups? I want to suggest you change your question to what can these groups do intentionally about their spiritual growth?
When Pastor Troy Jones from New Life Church in Renton, Washington, stood up and invited his 2,500 adults to gather their friends for a six-week study, three hundred adults volunteered to lead a group. At first glance, hundreds and hundreds of people immediately “joined groups.” But the truth is, they were already in these groups. The additions were a sermon-aligned curriculum, on-the-job training, and a support structure to help them, but, overall, these groups weren’t strangers who became friends. They were friends becoming closer to each other and closer to God. I’ve seen this happen in churches of fifty members and churches of over twenty thousand, but I didn’t start out thinking about groups this way.
Over twenty years ago, when we first launched groups at New Life Christian Center in Turlock, California, I believed all of our “sheep” were lost without a “shepherd,” and there is definitely some truth to that. I looked out at our congregation of 250 or so adults and felt we needed to do something to get our people connected, since our church had rapidly grown from eighty-five to 250. As Rick Warren says, “Our church must always be growing larger and smaller at the same time. . . . there must be a balance between the large group celebrations and the small group cells.”
My senior pastor and I handpicked nine mature couples to join me and start groups. We invited our congregation to sign up for one of these groups for twelve months. Every group chose their own curriculum. I led a monthly huddle and, for the most part, was the sole coach. The groups went strong for twelve months, then all ten of them quit, including mine.
Not only was my method not multiplying groups, it wasn’t even adding. It was time to get serious about groups if they were ever going to work at our church.
I spent the summer of 1997 on sabbatical and studied churches and their groups. I attended fifteen different church services and interviewed a dozen pastors. I read about a dozen books. At the end of that research effort, our church set out to start groups in a different way from our previous attempt. We decided to start groups using the findings Carl George presents in Prepare Your Church for the Future, which were popularized by the small group model at Willow Creek Community Church. I recruited two mature leaders to coach and ten more leaders to lead, and we started a turbo group—a temporary group designed to give leaders a crash course in group life, then help them launch groups of their own. In the six weeks of the turbo group, we covered all of the basics of group life. (Well, at least as many basics as you can cover in six weeks.) Then we launched groups.
People filled out sign-up cards to join groups, and all of the groups started on the same study about building community. This time all of the groups were starting from the same DNA. All of our leaders were expected to identify apprentice leaders who would be trained, then eventually released to start their own groups. This time we were going to move from a group method that produced no new groups to a system that would give us new groups hand over fist. Our total number of groups would grow by double or better every year. We dreamed that in just five years all of our adults would be connected into groups.
But none of my leaders could find an apprentice.
I plugged along with a new turbo group every year. I would handpick the new recruits. Some years we launched ten new groups. Other years, we launched only two. A couple of years we launched none. After seven years of pounding this nail, we had 30 percent of our eight hundred adults in groups, but we were stuck.
The thought of connecting everybody in a group was my dream, but we weren’t growing past 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 had started greeting me on Sunday morning with “I’m working on my apprentice.” I thought, “Whatever happened to ‘Hello’?” (I didn’t consider how often, when I handpicked my new recruits, I was plucking potential apprentices from under the noses of my group leaders.) Only one guy, named Carlos, ever trained an apprentice and launched a new group in our church. It seemed that connecting everyone was only a pipe dream.
Then, a few months later, at a gathering of church leaders, I listened as Brett Eastman, from Lifetogether, and Kent Odor, from Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, shared how they had connected large numbers in their congregations in a relatively short period of time. I heard how groups could multiply without dividing. I learned how people overlooked in recruiting would actually start some of the best new groups.
I was intrigued, but unconvinced.
There were some decisions to make. On the 350-mile drive home, I began to think about what my senior pastor, David Larson, was the most passionate about. At the time, it was the approaching release of The Passion of the Christ, the Mel Gibson movie everyone was buzzing about. Dave had planned a message series and ordered a banner for our church sign on the highway. He was passionate about The Passion.
The light suddenly came on: Why not launch small groups based on The Passion?
And that’s exactly what we did. I asked Dave to invite anyone willing to open their hearts and their homes to a group of people for a six-week study to host a group. In one day, our church of eight hundred adults doubled the number of groups! After Easter, we added 50 percent more new groups in another campaign. Things were getting out of control in a very good way!
When fall hit, we started recruiting for the biggest launch of the year. Pastor Dave aligned his weekly messages with a video-based curriculum we had produced ourselves. We took fifty verses from the Bible and asked fifty members of the church to write a one-page devotional, which we then compiled into a book. When it was all said and done, we had enough groups for 125 percent of our average adult attendance and had given out 1,088 study guides. Well over 100 percent of our average adult attendance was plugged into a group!
We were all in awe. The pipe dream was suddenly a reality.
I realized the only reason the church had been stuck on that plateau was because of a mental block. It was like back in the 1950s when everyone said no man could ever run a four-minute mile. It was just a dream. Then, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4 minutes. After that, many runners broke that barrier. Four minutes wasn’t a physical barrier. It was a mental block.
Our church had just broken the four-minute mile. Churches could actually start groups that would involve the majority of the congregation and then reach their communities through community!
This wasn’t about numbers, though. One man named Ken invited his coworkers to join him for a study on The Passion. Two of them accepted Christ.
When one guy named David was asked, “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. But 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 toward God.
Our small groups began to reach out beyond the congregation. Groups served hot meals to the homeless every Friday night. One lady took the study to a local women’s shelter.
Groups met in coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, community rooms at apartment complexes, homes, and even on a commuter train. Once we gave our people the freedom to form groups in more flexible ways, they became very creative about the groups they would lead.
Connecting 100 percent of a congregation in 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 your community. In the pages that follow, you will read about principles that have unlocked amazing growth and community outreach for church after church. It can happen in your church too, if you are willing!