As a small-group consultant and pastor, I talk to a lot of church leaders about their small-group models. There are many different approaches to small-group ministry, and choosing the right approach (or approaches) for your context can be challenging. With that in mind, I believe small-group ministry leaders can be lumped into three broad categories.
Many pastors and small-group point leaders are stumped because small-group ministry just isn't working at their church. They tell me about all the great models and strategies that they've adapted from other churches, but they feel like nothing they try seems to work. They can't seem to answer the question, "Why isn't my group ministry working right?"
These group ministry leaders feel confused because there are so many small-group models and strategies that they don't know which ones to implement. The sheer volume of choices and voices regarding small-group ministry approaches makes them freeze up. They can't seem to answer the question, "Which approaches should I implement?"
Some point leaders and pastors are content with the direction in which their group ministry is headed. While they have the drive and desire to accomplish more in their ministry, they have a calm demeanor about their ministry. They're able to make decisions about their ministry easily, and it seems like they intuitively make the right choices. The composed leaders are the envy of the frustrated and the paralyzed because the composed always seem to find the answer to the challenges their ministries face.
Why are some small-group pastors and ministry leaders composed while others are left frustrated or paralyzed? The answer is in knowing your church's DNA. Composed leaders have learned the secret: Think DNA first, leadership second, and models last.
Why DNA Matters
The greatest mistake that many pastors make is assuming that their problem is rooted in a model, system, or strategy. But the problems you're facing in your small-group ministry aren't actually model problems—they're DNA problems. The reason your group ministry is stalled or plateaued is most likely due to the fact that your approach to small groups doesn't match the DNA of your church.
Go ahead and finish this statement: "If it walks like a duck, sounds like a duck and looks like a duck, it's a …"
That's right! It's a hummingbird in a duck costume. Gotcha!
What does that have to do with small-group ministry and church DNA? It's entirely possible that the DNA of your church is that of a hummingbird, but you're using duck small-group models. Just because you dress up your ministry to look like the ministry at another church doesn't mean it will work. That church may have duck DNA. If that's the case, it doesn't matter how hard your ministry tries to walk like, sound like, or look like a duck, it will never successfully be a duck.
Church leaders have a tendency to cut and paste models they see working somewhere else. To build a strong and successful group ministry, quit trying to play dress up. Instead, seek to know and fully understand your own church's DNA.
Understand Your DNA
To discover the DNA of your church, you'll want to consider several factors:
The Senior Leader
Community Christian Church based in Naperville, Illinois, has a great system for apprenticing leaders and creating groups that multiply. I had an opportunity a few years ago to ask COMMUNITY's Lead Pastor, Dave Ferguson, why this model works so well at their church while other churches often flounder with the same approach. He said, "Because this church started as a small group in a dorm room with me and an apprentice leader." His answer had nothing do to with the model. Instead, it had everything to do with the church's DNA. Their model works because it reflects the nature of their church, and a church always reflects the nature of their senior leader (especially if the senior leader is the founding pastor).
In my four years at LifeChurch.tv, I learned that two things in small groups were important to my Senior Pastor, Craig Groeschel: friendships and further exploration of the weekend message. At the time, the church was running over 20,000 in weekly attendance, and Craig believed so much in these two values that he had two small groups that met in his home every week. As a result, we built our small-group ministry at LifeChurch.tv to revolve around getting as many people as possible into small groups where they could discover new spiritual friendships and use discussion materials that connected directly to the weekend's teaching.
One of the best things you can do to build a strong small-group ministry is understand the heart and mind of your church. Nine times out of ten, that can be done by understanding the heart and mind of your senior pastor. Thus, it's imperative to spend time listening to your church's senior leadership. Find out what really gets your pastor excited about biblical community. Then build a ministry that leans heavily in those directions.
Growth v. Control
In 2005 when I started as the LifeGroups pastor on LifeChurch.tv's biggest campus, we were running about 5,500 people at services and had 181 LifeGroups. Less than two years later, we were running about 6,000 people and had 544 LifeGroups. After that, I became the Executive Director of LifeGroups, and I was responsible for the group ministries on all 13 campuses. By 2009, the small-group ministry had grown to over 1,100 small groups across all campuses.
Our strategy for growth was nothing original to us. We leveraged the campaign method that Saddleback has innovated. Twice per year our pastor would teach a group-centric sermon series. We'd provide video curriculum for hosts and ask everyone to get in a group. It worked well for us.
Looking back, I realize that we structured our system for 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.
Structuring for growth means removing any obstacles that inhibit growth. Most notably, this means lowering the bar for leaders, allowing groups to grow large, and creating easy entry points for new people. The results are explosive numerical expansion—which is exciting, but messy. When churches structure for control, there are more leadership requirements, restrictions on the size and types of groups, and the growth is slower. On the other hand, there's less chaos.
No church swings 100 percent either way. Every pastor wants his or her ministry to grow, but there are some things that have to be controlled. Looking back at LifeChurch.tv and the other churches I've worked, however, I've seen that the most effective churches are those who intentionally choose predominantly to stick to one side or the other.
On one side of the equation we find Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois. They have one of the most tightly controlled small-group models anywhere, and they are very happy with it. The result is that after more than 25 years, they have a remarkably healthy and large group ministry. On the other side of this equation we find Saddleback who sticks to the side of growth, and they have more people in groups than they have in weekend worship attendance.
There are positive aspects about both biases, but in many ways, growth and control compete with one another. So every group ministry must decide which bias is more in step with their DNA. Small-group ministries that struggle are often trying too hard to mix the oil and water of growth and control. You can definitely have aspects of both, but healthy ministries will lean one way.
Think Leadership Second
In my conversations with small-group ministry leaders, I've seen a recurring theme: lack of leadership. It is, in my estimation, the greatest problem with small group ministries today.
In our culture, we look for quick fixes and short cuts. Many churches and pastors are looking for a new group model or approach that will yield faster results. Many are looking for a system that will run itself. Others are looking for ways to downplay the role of the "leader" in groups. The problem with all of these hopes and desires is that they neglect the one thing that makes every model or approach work: leadership.
I've talked to many churches that have clunky, inefficient models and their small-group ministries are thriving. I've also spoken with others who have slick, streamlined models and their small-group ministries are struggling. The principle is this: leadership trumps model every time.
It's fine if you want to call leaders "hosts" or "facilitators." Just don't think that by taking out the word "leader" you've somehow taken leadership out of it. As ministry leaders, it's fine to establish smooth running, machine-like systems for your small-group ministries. Just don't think for a minute that those systems won't require leadership. You must be a strong leader for the ministry, and you must find great leaders to lead in the ministry. Determine what you'll require of leaders and make it clear from the beginning. Then do what's needed to train and support them in their role.
Think Models Third
DNA will help you choose the right leadership and models for your context. As you consider the models that might be right for you, think through several questions. Each question below is followed by a subset of questions that will bring clarity. By answering the subsets you'll find your answers to the main questions.
1. What do you want groups to accomplish?
- Why does your church need groups?
- What is the biblical reasoning for this ministry?
- What defines a "win" for a small group in your context?
- What is the definition of "group" in your context, or what makes a group a group? (e.g., frequency of meeting, group size, mission, purpose)
2. What is the structure/control bias of your church?
- Should your church more often structure for growth or control?
- Is your senior pastor more "go with the flow" or more "I want to know every detail"?
- What do you desire more: A faster growing small-group ministry or highly trained small-group leaders? Which does your senior leadership prefer?
- Is your church better equipped to handle the problems associated with growth or control?
3. What is your vision for discipleship?
- How do you know someone is a disciple in your context?
- What is your mental picture of an ideal leader in your context?
- How realistic is that mental picture? Are you asking too much of people? Are you asking too little?
- How do you envision reproducing leaders and disciples? What systems, strategies, and models will help you best reproduce?
When you look at successful small-group ministries, you'll find that each of them is unique. They may have similarities, but each church's model has been custom built to fit their DNA. One of the greatest temptations of small-group ministry leaders is simply to take another church's model and insert it into their context. Resist that temptation! Do the hard work of understanding your church's DNA. Be committed to leading your ministry diligently. Then, and only then, will you be ready to discern between appropriate models.
—Alan Danielson is the Senior Pastor of New Life Bible Church in Norman, Oklahoma, and a small-group consultant; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.