Sometimes Big Things Start Small

Brett Eastman's story about the development of small groups at Saddleback church.

After five years of championing small groups at Willow Creek Community Church, Brett Eastman shuttled his family westward to Orange County, California. He was hired at Saddleback Church and figured he would pick up where he left off at Willow.

But Saddleback was not Willow. In this interview, Brett Eastman, founder and CEO of Lifetogether, talks about the difference between the churches and what he learned during his tenure at Saddleback, when the church connected more than 20,000 people into small groups. He also provides pastors with key principles for launching a healthy small group ministry—within the scope of their current budget!

You've been inside both churches. What's the difference between Saddleback and Willow Creek?

I get asked this all the time. And I summarize it in one word: Resources.

Bill Hybels and Rick Warren share a common passion for connecting every member in their congregation into community. However, Willow Creek is five years older than Saddleback and is located where land and housing costs are vastly different.

At Willow, we hired more than fifty small group staff members. The staff resources allowed us to put more than 10,000 people in small groups before I moved to California. Today the ministry is healthy, one of the most developed in the country. It's no surprise that they raised almost 80 million dollars for the 7,000-seat auditorium that they just built. Willow has resources, period.

It seems intuitive that so does Saddleback, right?

When I conveyed my vision to Rick Warren about small groups, he simply said that there was no way the church could hire a boatload of staff to launch the small group ministry. I was given a few administrative staff members and only one pastoral position. There were no deep pockets.

I was scared, overwhelmed, and, to be honest, discouraged at first. I left Willow because of my family and the special needs of my daughters. I didn't know what God was up to.

Then Rick said something I'll never forget: "Brett, you can count on me to not only help you but give you access to the weekend services." I told him that I was a trainer and not a teacher, but he said, "No problem. We'll do it together."

Unlimited resources couldn't compare with the opportunity that lay ahead. Of course, I didn't see that until later.

So what was the impetus that connected more than 20,000 people into small groups at Saddleback?

Necessity became the mother of invention. We tried many things, but one key moment came right after I joined the Saddleback staff.

Rick told me he had reserved seats for more than 750 men on 8 different 747's headed for Washington, D.C., for the Promise Keepers Event.

I suggested we recruit leaders from some of the existing men's groups to launch a few new groups from the 750 going to the Promise Keepers event. More than 300 men said they wanted to join a group. I had only a half dozen men to lead them.

Isn't that the story of a small group pastor's life? Everybody wants community, but nobody wants to be a leader of it.

The Saturday morning for the first small group meeting came, and on the fly, I tried something for the first time that became known as the "small group connection" process. The men gathered into pairs, then fours, and then groups of eight, according to where they lived. This process simply allowed people to traverse down a spiral of questions. The group moved from icebreaker questions to deeper spiritual conversations. It allowed each group to identify and select the relative spiritual shepherd and co-shepherd in the circle and have them host a 6 week starter group.

My prayer was simply, "Lord, let these men connect with one another. And by the way, don't let me lose my job. I have five kids to support; my wife will kill me."

Did it work?

That morning, we launched 32 groups, with almost 300 men, total. It wasn't all roses, but the process planted a seed for future campaigns. If you'd like more information on a free audio description of this process, click on

At first, only 50 percent of the men stayed connected to their groups. I felt terrible about that. But Rick said, "Hey, at least 50 percent stayed connected." I really needed the encouragement.

We kept at it, and developed a more sophisticated approach to the leadership training system. After only a few years, we connected almost 8,000 people into off-campus small groups. We kept working on the process and the Leadership Training system until we were able to successfully connect 72 percent of those who came to a connection event.

So the process worked for other affinity groups?

It worked for men's, women's, couples, and singles groups. The core idea was that leaders did not need to be recruited and trained before groups were launched. Instead, in essence, we trained leaders on the fly. So we didn't use the apprentice model. We asked people to host a group in their home for six weeks.

The breakthrough, though, came when we aligned the launching of new small groups with the weekend services at Saddleback. We added what we called the "Rick Factor."

Only one church has the Rick Factor!

The secret weapon in any church for recruiting new leaders is and always will be the Senior Pastor.

In one weekend, we signed up more than 1,500 people to join a small group. A year later it was 2,000, and then 2,500 the following year. From our past experience, we knew that up to 30 percent would not stay connected, and we discovered that "weekend alignment"—aligning the teaching of the weekend service with the launch of new small groups—was big. Very big.

How much does the senior pastor need to believe in small groups for them to succeed?

Rick had done spiritual growth campaigns for years, but we began to realize that small groups were vital, if not the driving component, in helping to transform lives and motivate one's next spiritual steps. If the senior pastor believes in small groups, that ripples throughout the congregation.

How did Rick support the small group process?

Rick agreed to be videotaped as he taught a Bible study on the book of James. The congregation loved it. We used that as the basis for the small group curriculum. People viewed the taped and discussed it in their small groups. Finally, ordinary members could be leaders because they didn't need to possess the teaching and facilitation skills and knowledge of Scripture that Rick did.

(The only complaint was by those who asked if Rick was ever going to change his shirt; we shot the entire video series in one day!)

So what percentage of the weekend attendance did you connect into small groups?

In less than three years, using the tools we discussed above, we had connected about half of the church in small groups.

When did the 40 Days of Purpose Campaign kick in?

That was the tidal wave. That campaign connected more than 15,000 people into groups.

When I arrived at Saddleback, I tried recruiting "host houses" with a simple Bible study that Lyman Coleman, the editor of the Serendipity Bible, had given me. I was able to recruit the hosts but couldn't launch the groups. Leaders were scarce.

But with the new video curriculum by Rick Warren, we were able to simply say, "If you have a VCR, you can be a star." That enabled ordinary people to say, "Yes, I can host a small group in my home. Where's the video?" It really lowered the bar on who could lead a small group.

At one weekend of services, about 3,000 people said yes to opening their homes for 6-8 weeks. I was half overjoyed and overwhelmed.

Were these first-timers? That is, for most of them, was this their first experience in a small group?

Glen Kruen and Tom Holladay helped us create a survey, which showed that those who had signed up to be hosts had been, on average, Christians for 14 years and attended Saddleback for 10 years; many had attended small groups or even led groups before. We calculated that some of these people had heard more than 500 messages from Rick.

When the dust settled, our team trained more than 2,000 new hosts and launched another 2,300 groups with more than 20,000 people going through Rick's six week study on the Purpose Driven Life called "40 Days of Purpose."

How many extra staff did you need to guide these people through training?

We hired more than 50 part-time staff members who served as coaches. Each coach served 25-50 groups. This was a big help as you might imagine. Some churches, though, don't have the resources even to hire part-time staff. In our consulting with Lifetogether, we help church leaders coach and train these "leader of leaders."

Can an ordinary church pull off small groups well?

We've consulted with hundreds of churches of all sizes, using our Purpose Driven Group™ curriculum, Doing Lifetogether™. It's one thing to get a taste of the purposes through the "40 Days of Purpose" campaign; I have yet to meet a church or even a small group that hasn't been affected by it.

But Day 41 can be traumatic, if the church small group leadership is not prepared for what's next. Saddleback is in the process of writing and releasing numerous curriculum series for this specific reason.

So what were some of the ministry-altering principles you learned through the process?

You can launch a small group ministry overnight during a small group campaign, but sustaining those groups and developing those leaders are completely different issues. That's where it all can break down.

One discovery came when we had to train, literally, thousands of new leaders. We couldn't do that in classroom. So we came up with the "just in time" leadership training for new hosts in an off-campus, decentralized format. In essence, the training is in the video or DVD curriculum. In both Saddleback's curriculum and the Doing Lifetogether electronic curriculum, there are additional clips of training—just when you need it.

Another critical piece is small group supervision. We don't advocate the traditional coaching model.

Where was it most messy?

If you take the risk to launch new small groups, it always ends up a little messy. One new small group leader once told that he and his live-in girlfriend were so excited about the 20 people they had coming to their group. We had no idea that she was his girlfriend and not his wife until he told us.

I ended up marrying the couple in a break-out room at Saddleback filled with their small group cheering them on. The couple was the most mature of the entire small group, so once I married them, we let them continue to lead the group. That same group had a baptism, with six of them being baptized by their spiritual shepherd. That group is still meeting almost seven years later. God is good!

The key question is, "What is the point of "40 Days of Purpose"? Or any spiritual or small group campaign for that matter? It's simply an organizing principle, program, and process to help the people in your church live healthy, balanced, Purpose Driven Lives.

It's not just about connecting people into community for the sake of community, but changing community through community in order to convert our culture for the sake of Christ.

Brett Eastman is CEO and founder of Lifetogether, Inc. Receive a free enewsletter by going to, the leading resource on small groups, with more than a hundred articles for pastors, church leaders, and, especially, small group leaders.

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