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.