People have a lot of associations when they think about Saddleback Church. In recent years Saddleback has become synonymous with Rick Warren, the word purpose, the P.E.A.C.E plan, and more. But it's no exaggeration to say that Saddleback is also synonymous with small groups. Indeed, the church is known for having more people attend small groups during the week than worship services on the weekend.
That's why I've been waiting for a couple years now to see a practical book on small-group ministry written by Steve Gladen, who is Pastor of the Small Group Community at Saddleback Church. Thankfully, now that that Small Groups with a Purpose has hit the shelves, I can report that I am not disappointed.
You won't be, either, regardless of your model for small-group ministry.
That's an important word to keep in mind as you explore this book: model. Because Small Groups with a Purpose is unashamedly connected to the purpose-driven model of small-group ministry. No surprise there. But the book does have important and helpful information and ideas for churches that are not part of that model (more on that below).
The first few chapters of the book are a review of the Saddleback way of doing small groups. That includes Steve's journey as a pastor, as well as "The ten foundations of Saddleback's small-group ministry" (chapter 2). Examples of these foundations include: groups that focus on the five purposes of fellowship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism, and worship; a low bar for qualifying as a group leader (host); and the use of all-church campaigns to spur growth.
The next section takes a deeper look at these distinctives to show how they actually play out in the everyday world of ministry. I really liked chapter 5, for example, which explains how to build a balanced foundation for individual small groups by promoting shared ownership, growth through conflict, common mission, social interaction, and more. It's a very practical chapter and gives an excellent goal for churches and group leaders to shoot for. And chapter 8 is an important look at how to expand a church's small-group ministry beyond its own walls—how to leverage that ministry for both fellowship and evangelism.
The remainder of the book is a step-by-step look at how to construct a ministry similar to what Saddleback has achieved. Those familiar with the purpose-driven strategy will recognize elements like the Spiritual Health Assessment, the H.O.S.T. Strategy (and other acronyms), developing pathways for training small-group leaders, and so on. Gladen also tackles the relationship between small groups and Sunday school, as well as delving deeper into achieving an effective campaign strategy.
One of the main strengths of this book is the sheer amount of practical content it provides. Steve Gladen is evidently not a fan of fluff, because he packs things very tightly into all 230 pages.
The other primary strength of this book is that it provides practical and helpful information on a ministry strategy that has been successful for decades, rather than a couple years (or even months). So many books and models in the world of small groups are reactive—a church sees a tremendous spike in its small-group ministry, and within a year it is leading conferences and producing materials about a ministry strategy that is still new and only lightly tested.
Not so with the purpose-driven approach to small groups. It has produced amazing results at Saddleback, yes, but it has been successfully adapted and reproduced in thousands of churches around the world for many years now. The result is a polished and highly practical book that serves as a roadmap (or a pathway, in Saddleback lingo) just about any church can follow.
A final strength of the book is that pastors and church leaders can glean helpful and useful information from its pages even if they do not follow the purpose-driven approach. Much of what Gladen advocates is universal, and many of the practical tips and strategies he writes about can be grafted into other methods of ministry. Chapter 9, for example, delivers an exploration of worship within small groups that will be beneficial to anyone who reads it.
I have said that Small Groups with a Purpose is unashamedly purpose-driven, and that means there will be readers who disagree with some of the specific philosophies of ministry that Gladen and Saddleback have adopted. That's not a weakness of the book, really, but I do recognize it can be frustrating to purchase a resource and then discover you disagree with some of its core ideologies.
The other potential weakness of this resource is that much of it has been outlined and discussed in other places—such as the small-group conferences run by Saddleback staff over the past five years. This is a natural consequence of an approach to ministry that is as polished and public as Saddleback's has been. (Having heard Gladen use the phrase "Vision without implementation is hallucination" about 10 times at difference conferences, for example, I cracked a smile when I saw it in the book.)
In other words, if you are already familiar with the purpose-driven approach to small groups, you may not find a lot of new information in Gladen's book. Still, it becomes a textbook that you can refer back to for regular guidance, and it is quite a bit cheaper than bringing members of your staff to another conference or training event.
One final point: Gladen's approach to small groups does assume that churches have a high level of infrastructure in place when it comes to staff involvement in the ministry, the presence of capable lay leaders, and the availability of resources. If you are part of a smaller church with a new or struggling small-group ministry, reading through this book may seem like drinking through a fire hose.
If you are the point person of a small-group ministry or the pastor of a church that values small groups, you need to read Small Groups with a Purpose. Plain and simple. I believe you will find it helpful regardless of your specific approach to small groups, and I believe your ministry will improve if you take seriously what Steve Gladen has to say.