I once heard Rick Warren say at a conference, “You can either structure for growth, or you can structure for control, but you can’t structure for both.” In my years as a small-group pastor, senior pastor, and small-group ministry consultant, I have learned that a more literal version of Rick’s sentiment is this: “You can structure for rapid growth, or you can structure for controlled growth, but you can’t structure for both.”
Think about it: When a church says they want to experience growth, they often hire staff members who are highly motivated to reach people fast. Those staff members start bringing in more people and the church feels excited—but then things get messy. The church needs to start more groups to accommodate the growth, so they recruit more leaders. Some of those leaders may be pretty new to the church and perhaps aren’t as spiritually mature as leaders should be. The results aren’t good: In one group, there’s poor teaching that leads some group members to believe incorrect doctrine. In another group, there are two singles who have started sleeping together. In yet another group, several group members have started fighting, and the group leader doesn’t know how to stop it. Suddenly the staff member in charge of groups is brought before the board and reprimanded for doing a poor job.
Nine times out of ten, the problem in this kind of scenario is not the staff person—it’s mindset. Church leaders want their churches to grow fast, but they don’t want things to feel messy and out of control. The reality is simply difficult to swallow: rapid growth and controlled growth are like oil and water; they don’t mix. Church leaders must determine which is of greater value: growth or control. Of course, we all want some of both, but your church must decide which of the two you value more.
Controlled Growth Strategy
We often hear the word “control” and attribute negative notions to it. For instance, we may associate it with being a control freak, or we may think control is unspiritual because it means we’re not trusting God. But control can be a good thing. For instance, it takes a level of control to effectively steward our ministry resources well. Shepherding others, too, takes a measure of control as we think strategically about how best to minister to people. Consider: You can’t protect the sheep against false teaching without monitoring what is being taught. You can’t ensure that trained leaders are in place without controlling how they’re trained. So controlled growth is not unspiritual or negative. It’s a very positive approach in small-group ministry. Having a controlled growth strategy simply means leading a small-group ministry to grow steadily over a long period of time while ensuring sound doctrine, leader training, leader care, and church members’ spiritual health.
Rapid Growth Strategy
Rapid growth often sounds really positive and exciting. After all, rapid growth is what gets written about in church leader magazines and websites. Rapid growth stories seem to go viral, and pastors of rapidly growing ministries often become ministry celebrities. Sounds exciting—like an amusement park ride.
But how excited would you be about a roller coaster, if halfway through the ride your harness suddenly failed? Even if the beginning of the ride was exhilarating, the remainder would be terrifying, and you’d be exhausted and traumatized by the end. That’s what it’s often like being part of a fast-growing ministry.
I know from experience how exciting and horrifying it can be. In the four years I worked at Life.Church in Edmond, Oklahoma, we grew from 9,000 people to 28,000 people and from 5 campuses in one state to 13 campuses in 5 states. In my first two years there, one campus grew from 181 small groups to 544 small groups! As exciting as it was, I’m pretty sure I aged about 28 years in those 4 years—but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. When you grow quickly, the amount of messy situations rises exponentially, and we needed to implement a plan so we could ensure the spiritual health of the flock without limiting the potential for more growth. Using a rapid growth strategy means leading a small-group ministry to grow exponentially, knowing that difficulties will likely arise in the areas of doctrine, leader training, leader care, and church members’ spiritual health.
Why They Don’t Work Together
Pastors all over the country have asked me: “Can’t we have a ministry that includes rapid growth and high control?" Every leader asks this because they all want their ministries to expand, but they don't want their number of problems to increase. But there are two main reasons this doesn’t work.
First of all, we live in a fallen world. The fact is that our world is messed up because of sin, so almost nothing is easy, especially things that are worthwhile. Do you really think for a minute that Satan is going to leave you and your ministry alone long enough for you to experience tremendous growth with no difficulties?
Second, they are diametrically opposed. Imagine you’re in a church of 400 people with 10 small groups. You want to have enough groups for your entire congregation, so you make a general call for new leaders at weekend services. At first, you might have 30 sign up to lead. The bar is low—they just have to email you. Every time you raise the bar, though, you’ll have less people interested. For instance, require a background check, a leader training event, or a one-on-one coaching session, and your number of interested leaders will drop. Your ministry will have to decide which one you want more: rapid growth or controlled growth. One way to do that is to consider the challenges of each strategy and decide which you’re better equipped to handle.
Rapid Growth Strategy Challenges
Imagine your church is seeing new people become believers every single day. Your senior pastor and church board would most likely want you to launch as many groups as possible, as quickly as possible, and get the maximum number of new people into the new groups. To accomplish this, you might plan for a massive campaign, asking for leaders by saying, “We will help you succeed in starting your group. All we want you to do is host a group in your home. We’ll provide the teaching on video, all you need to do is host the group.”
Rather than have a new leader orientation or a training event, you send a video link that walks them through how to get the teaching video, put their group info on your church website, use invite cards to invite friends and neighbors, set up their home, and guide the conversations that flow from the video teaching.
What could possibly go wrong? Plenty! Some of your hosts are likely brand-new believers. Some might actually not yet be believers! These spiritually immature people are probably not ready to guide others through conversations about morality or doctrine. What if one or more of your hosts are gay? What if a couple who lives together sign up to lead? What if some of your new leaders are spirit-filled Pentecostals and your church is traditional Baptist? Or what if your church is Pentecostal and you have a host who is traditional Baptist? What happens to a soft-spoken host when someone in their group dominates the conversation?
Is your heart rate elevated yet?
The problems with a rapid growth small group approach are almost too many to realistically anticipate, but they generally fall into one of these categories:
1. Leader Readiness Problems
Fewer controls result in group hosts or leaders who don’t really know what they’re doing. Only a few group leaders will have the skills or experience to teach the Bible in their groups. The rest will need plenty of help. Furthermore, you might wind up with people who really shouldn’t be leaders. With few or no controls in place, the potential is real.
2. In-Group Problems
Because the group hosts or leaders are not well trained, the potential for issues during group meetings goes up. Interpersonal conflict, derailed conversations, and doctrinal misunderstandings are some of these issues.
3. Leader Retention Problems
Untrained leaders get frustrated. Ongoing frustration results in discouragement. Ongoing discouragement results in dropping out. Very few leadership casualties ever come back around and choose to lead again.
4. Frustrated Senior Leadership Problems
When senior leaders start seeing the above mentioned problems, they often come down hard on group pastors insisting that these problems get fixed quickly. The real difficulty here is that senior leaders often try to force high control solutions which are kryptonite for rapid growth group ministries.
Controlled Growth Strategy Challenges
Now imagine yourself leading the small-group ministry in a church where the senior leadership wants as many parishioners as possible to learn the Bible so thoroughly that it’s almost like they all have an associate’s degree in theology. Yes, I realize virtually no senior leader would verbalize their desires in such a way, but I’m using this extreme example to make the challenges very obvious. Anyway, back to the mini-Bible-college-church. How would you go about building a small group discipleship strategy to fulfill such a vision?
You’d probably start by thoroughly training a core group of leaders who you’d like to have train the next generation of group leaders. You’d likely host training classes and require attendance. You’d cast a vision for people to gain an insatiable desire for God’s Word. You’d challenge group leaders to find apprentices in whom to invest.
After things get rolling your group ministry process might look like this: every small group coach has led a group for two years. Each group leader has been an apprentice for at least 6 months. Every apprentice is a church member and must attend 5 training classes. Every church member has completed a membership class that lifts high the vision of knowing God’s Word intimately. Do you notice how many “controls” are necessary for such a model to work?
Here are some of the challenging issues with this kind of small group approach:
1. Unconnected People Problems
If you started this kind of small-group ministry in your church today, how many group leaders could you realistically recruit right away? Not many, right? So immediately you’d have a connectivity problem. New people to the church who want to get connected won’t have very many group options.
2. Realistic Numbers Problems
Your pastor’s desire may be to get everyone in the church to participate in this discipleship model. When have you ever led a group of people into something difficult where 100 percent of them bought in, though? There’s a reason few people become Navy Seals or members of Delta Force: not many have the drive to make it. The same can be said of high control group ministry. The more controls you have in your ministry, especially when it comes to who can lead, the less people you’ll have that qualify. The reality is that not everyone will make the cut, and that’s okay. Do Navy Seals and Delta Force members feel defeated when a recruit washes out? No. They know not everyone is right for the job. Listen, I’m all for setting the bar high. There is tremendous value in challenging people—they often rise to the challenge. But we must be realistic in our assessment of how many people will actually take part. Otherwise, we simply frustrate ourselves and set ourselves up for failure.
3. Comparison Problems
We live in a world where fast-growing ministries get all the attention. Many small-group conferences that I’ve been to have leaders of rapid-growth group models as the keynote speakers. It’s a whole lot more inspiring to hear a speaker say, “We now have more people attending groups than people who attend our weekend services” than it is to hear, “We have 23 percent of our weekend attendance in groups, but those 23 percent are really growing disciples.” This may sound a bit cynical, but in our action-packed, on-demand culture, quick solutions and big results sell conference tickets. It can be challenging for small-group pastors not to be enamored with the seeming flash and glamour of churches who are using rapid growth strategies. But if they Lord has led you down this path, don’t get distracted by what others are doing. The numbers will come in a controlled growth strategy, too, but only if you’re willing to stick with the plan for the long haul.
4. Frustrated Senior Leadership Problems
Just as in a rapid-growth model, senior leaders can also get frustrated with the problems in a controlled growth model. Picture this: your senior pastor’s neighbor comes to your church after being invited by your pastor many times over a couple of years. Your pastor is elated! But then the neighbor complains that there isn’t a small group that fits with his schedule. Because he didn’t feel connected, he stopped coming to church altogether. Immediately your pastor calls you asking why you haven’t started more groups so the ministry can accommodate a wider variety of schedules. The reality is that you want to launch new groups only when there’s a qualified and trained leader ready to start—and sometimes that means not being able to accommodate every person’s schedule.
Pick Your Problems
One of the best ways to choose which group approach is right for your church is to determine which problems you’re better equipped to handle. Ask yourself these question:
- Would our church rather deal with unconnected people or unequipped leaders?
- Would we rather clean up the messes in a rapid-growth approach or prevent messes using a controlled-growth approach?
- What defines success for us: more people connected quickly, or more people discipled deeply?
- Which set of problems is our church best suited to address?
- Which set of problems do I as the point person prefer?
- Which set of problems does my pastor prefer?
The key to answering these questions is knowing your church culture and goals, understanding the personality of your senior leader, and having self-awareness. One of the biggest issues related to conflicts around ministry strategy is the issue of misalignment that could have been avoided by simple awareness. If the church, the senior leaders, and the small-group pastor are all in alignment about strategy, success is likely. Both strategies can lead to success—you just have to choose the one that’s right for your context.
—Alan Danielson is the Senior Pastor of New Life Bible Church in Norman, Oklahoma.