Multi-site churches aren't a fad. While rare just a few years ago, over 8,000 multi-site churches in the United States now draw 5 million people to weekend worship services. While multi-site churches vary in size and number of locations, it's clear that they're here to stay.
Community Christian Church (COMMUNITY) is a pioneer of multi-site ministry. We launched our second location in 1997, just 8 years after the church began. Today we have 13 campuses across Chicagoland with 5,500 total attenders.
I oversee the small-group ministry at our Yellow Box location in Naperville, Illinois. I also serve as the champion for adult ministries for all 13 of our locations. As Champion, I coach the small-group director at each campus, on-ramp new staff, and provide consulting for those outside of COMMUNITY.
I've been involved with small-group ministry for 15 years as a campus minister working with college students, a church planter, and in my current role as small-group director and champion at COMMUNITY. I'm involved in small-group ministry because I believe this is where we see the Christian faith come alive. Small groups are the front lines of what God is doing in and through his people. If you want to see the raw power of God, you need to be in a small group. There's nothing more powerful than a community of people who are committed to Jesus and his mission.
The kingdom impact I've seen through small-group ministry is incredible. It's the heartbeat of the local church. If buildings, budgets, and church staff were no longer available, the mission would still move forward in small groups.
At COMMUNITY, our mission is to help people find their way back to God, and our small groups support that by connecting people into life-giving community where they can interact with God and his people. Our groups are where we connect the unconnected, engage mission in our local community, and reproduce the life and mission of Jesus in others. When we do this, people grow in their passion for God and love for each other.
Multi-Site Small-Group Strategy
Because we're a large, multi-site church spread across the city and suburbs of Chicago, we have a unique structure for small groups that allows us to keep our groups in line with our mission. As champion, I don't "oversee" groups in the sense of having authority. Authority over groups exists at each campus: the campus pastor oversees the small-group director, the director oversees the small-group coaches, and the coaches oversee the small-group leaders. Each campus, while aligned with the whole church vision, is unique, and we allow the campus pastors to lead and care for the leaders.
As champion, I provide influence, alignment, and best practices for our groups by investing primarily in the campus small-group directors. This happens through several annual huddles for directors, as well as one-on-one coaching meetings. We also have a Facebook group that has really helped with communication.
This means that it's vitally important that our campuses have healthy leadership structures in place, so coaches play a critical role within our small-group ministry. Our coaches provide relational care for our leaders as well as help our leaders reach their full potential. Small groups led by coached leaders experience far more life than our un-coached groups. Coaches are able to train, encourage, and identify issues—even recognizing ineffective leaders.
I know many churches only coach their newest leaders and feel that once leaders gain enough experience, they're self-sufficient. While this may be true in a practical sense, we feel that even our best leaders still need coaching to reach their full potential. Even Dave Ferguson, our lead pastor, still wants to be coached as he leads a small group because he recognizes the power of a skilled coach to enable him to grow in his small-group leadership.
Our coaches connect with up to five small-group leaders in their span of care. If a coach also leads a group, we only assign two or three leaders to his or her care. Coaches meet with their leaders at least once a month. In addition, they gather as a whole coaching group at our monthly Leadership Community gatherings.
New Leaders Through Apprenticing
Our most effective coaches become coaches by being small-group leaders and apprenticing a leader and continuing to meet with the leader as he or she starts a new group. Our small-group leaders are always actively looking to develop an apprentice.
To help small-group leaders find apprentices, we coach them to look for people who have three must-have qualities: spiritual velocity, teachability, and relational intelligence. Spiritual velocity refers to the direction in which a person is moving spiritually. We want to reproduce the velocity of a person moving toward Christ rather than that of a person who is in a slow fade away from Christ. Second, remaining in a posture of teachability is crucial for all of our leaders. We actively develop the teachability in our apprentices by asking for feedback and modeling how to receive feedback. Third, our leaders look for people who have the relational intelligence to lead. This shows up in a person who knows his or her strengths and weaknesses and owns his or her story. It also shows up in a person's ability to connect well with others and recognize others' potential.
When leaders see someone who has these three qualities, they pull the person aside to have what we call an "ICNU" (I see in you) conversation. The leader tells the person where he or she sees God at work in the person's life, and the potential leader is invited to a three-week experience called Explore Small Group Leadership. This is led by one of our directors, and we work through our book, Developing a Group Leader. Then the potential leader is invited to become an apprentice. Apprentices go through a process with their small-group leader that both develops them as disciples and trains them to lead a small group. We invite all of our leaders—including our apprentices—to our monthly Leadership Community gatherings where we provide a strong regimen of training.
In-House Group Studies
One of the ways we've made groups easy to reproduce is providing Big Idea Discussion Guides for small-group leaders. These are sermon-based studies that have an extra discussion guide that can be used for the development of an apprentice, or to go deeper with a group of two or three within a small group.
While we allow our leaders to choose their own study, the vast majority use the Big Idea Guides. We put a lot of time and effort into the guides, and we highly encourage new leaders to use them. We've found that the guides are helpful for several reasons.
First, we're able to drive application of the weekend message. It's one thing to hear great teaching and another to live it out. We believe Jesus is more concerned that we live out what we hear, so the Big Idea Discussion Guide is designed to give everyone an opportunity to wrestle with the teaching and apply it with accountability from group members. In addition, our Big Idea Discussion Guides are very reproducible and easy for new group leaders to take and run with, especially when a leader has an apprentice. Reproducing is a high value for us, so the Big Idea Guides help that happen more smoothly.
On Mission in the Local Community
Another reason we encourage leaders to use the Big Idea Guides is that we're making a missional shift with our groups, and this gives us the ability to build a missional focus in our groups. Study is just a portion of what our groups do to live out the mission of Jesus. It's a good starting place, but we really want to see groups getting out of the living room and into the world together to reach out to others. We are shifting to a more balanced focus that includes study as well as more incarnational living practices. When we create the Big Idea Guides, we're able to include information about being missional individually and as a group right in the handout.
Our groups have always been very missional with a focus on evangelism and reproducing the mission in others, but we haven't always done a great job of engaging issues of compassion and justice in our local community. In recent years, we have expressed the mission of Jesus this way: Reaching people far from God, reproducing the mission in others, and restoring God's dream for the world. To make this practical, we came up with five missional practices (BLESS) that can be done every day:
B—Begin With Prayer
S—Share Your Story
These practices help us get to know the people around us and their real needs. Rather than assume what others want or need, we learn to listen and get to know them by eating together. Then we encourage our groups to regularly ask the question, "Who did you BLESS this week?"
In addition to living out these missional practices on a regular basis, each small group identifies where and who God is calling them to BLESS. Groups may come to a consensus that God is calling them to have a centralized common mission for their group, or groups may choose to remain decentralized and have their group members BLESS others in their individual contexts.
Then, once a year, we have a commissioning service. Each campus gathers all of their small groups during weekend services and commissions them to go and BLESS the world. We call them up to the front, talk about their specific mission, and pray for them. It's a great way to reinforce the fact that we're sent on mission, and it can serve as a starting place for group members to begin intentionally living out their sentness. It's also a great way to inspire our attenders to join a group. When they see the missions that our groups are involved in, they want to join in. They want to help make a difference.
This shift has been challenging for us. It's tough to turn a ship! But it's also been incredibly rewarding. As it has become an important part of our small-group ministry, we're seeing more people find their way back to God, and that's the goal.
—John Wentz serves as Small Group Champion for all 13 campuses of Community Christian Church, and as the Small Group Director for their Yellow Box Campus in Naperville, Illinois.