Innovations in Starting Small Groups

Innovations in Starting Small Groups

Mark Howell is the Pastor of Engagement at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, Nevada

Mark, you have served some of the largest churches in America. You are a prolific blogger, a consultant, and a pastor. You were part of the original Life Together ministry team. You’ve seen many trends come and go. I’m grateful you’ve taken the time to share your wisdom and experience with us!

Before we launch into the innovation side of starting small groups, let’s talk a little history. What are some of the tried and true ways to form groups that you have found successful?

Okay, before anything else, let’s clarify what we’re going to call “successful,” and if we take the time to do that, it will help everyone understand what I’m about to say.

I’m going to call a group starting strategy successful if it is able to connect more unconnected people into groups than you have pre-qualified men and women ready* to lead. Defining success that way puts appropriate pressure on status quo satisfaction.

With that definition of success in mind, I think the three most successful strategies for starting new small groups are North Point’s GroupLink, Saddleback’s Small Group Connection, and Saddleback’s “if you’ve got a couple of friends you’d like to do the study with” strategy.

With the right promotion, all three of those strategies will connect more unconnected people and start more new groups than you have pre-qualified men and women ready* to lead.

A fourth strategy for success is North Coast’s version of a sermon-based semester model. It’s one issue that needs a workaround is identifying enough pre-qualified leaders. If you can do that, it can be very successful.

*The largest number of potential leaders in most churches have not yet been identified. They’re not currently in a group or serving on a serving team. In addition, they will not usually volunteer to lead. As a result, if your strategy for starting new groups doesn’t include a method of identifying potential leaders who are not pre-qualified, your strategy will struggle to succeed according to my definition of success.

Note: For more on this topic, see Mark’s blog post “Ranking the Most Powerful Strategies for Launching New Groups”.

Each church is its own ecosystem with its own culture, its own opportunities, and its own barriers. How would you coach a leader of the ministry to think outside of the box they currently live in?

Most of my coaching and consulting experience has been with churches whose senior pastors already know that the strategies, models, or systems they’ve tried in the past have not worked. They may not know why they didn’t work, but they know for sure what they’ve tried already failed.

First, with that in mind, I begin by making sure they understand that their strategy, model, or system “is perfectly designed to produce the results they are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley).” I call this brutal honesty about the present.

Second, I lead them to think and talk about their preferred future (i.e., what would it look like in 10 years if everything worked in their small group ministry). This is not a quick, simple answer. When it’s done right their preferred future will be richly described and paint a picture of a level of success that will require a steady effort over several years to achieve.

Third, I spend significant time thinking with them about this question: What will have to be true for the strategy you choose to be an excellent choice? Again, this is not a simple, quick answer. The complete answer will have to include some breakthrough thinking (or the preconceived barriers and limitations will strike again and hold them back).

Finally, I show them how to begin laying out a series of milestones that lead from where they are now to where they dream of arriving (the preferred future).

Some leaders are reluctant to try new methods and others hop on the newest trend. What advice would you offer each? Are there particular warnings you would share for each?

Before anything else, I would suggest being clear about what you are going to call success. And until you’ve landed on a strategy that is steadily gaining on the preferred future you’ve identified, you’ve got to remain open to new ideas. Remember, doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results is Einstein’s definition of insanity.

We are all stewards of ministries we lead. Every opportunity should be evaluated from a stewardship perspective. New methods must be evaluated if what we’re doing is not succeeding (according to my definition above). Hopping on the latest trend without wise evaluation can be reckless and should always take into consideration the needs of both unconnected people and unidentified, potential leaders.

Alright, let’s get into the brass tacks of innovation. First of all, where do you look for innovation? Not one church or movement has all the answers.

While no one church has a corner on the innovation market, there are a few that consistently come up with an interesting idea. Churches that consistently come up with interesting ideas have learned a few things that give them a competitive advantage:

First, they are keen students of the culture and unconnected people. Remember, if you want to connect unconnected people you have to understand their interests and their needs. What has worked in the past or with people who are already connected will often be completely unappealing and uninteresting to unconnected people.

Second, they are open to new ideas. They have the tendency to look beyond their peers and even outside of the church world. When they spot someone else doing something better, they adjust their own strategy. I particularly like something Craig Groeschel said, “If you want to reach people no one else is reaching, you’ve got to do things no one else is doing.” In other words, if you’re not open to new ideas you better get used to your current level of success.

Third, they are always evaluating against objectives and goals. When a strategy doesn’t work, they evaluate and look for flaws that explain the miss. When a strategy does work, they evaluate and look for ways to optimize. Evaluation leads to insight and insight often leads to breakthrough.

Once you spot something that interests you, how do you know if it really works? I’m not saying that some are prone toward exaggeration but we both have bumped into silver bullets that weren’t as effective as promised.

Two things come to mind.

First, I want to be crystal clear about the actual results achieved by the strategy I’m considering using. Asking the right questions and turning over the right rocks will usually get the real story.

Second, I make frequent use of Andy Stanley’s statement, “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing.” When a strategy I’m trying isn’t working as well as advertised, I always want to be sure I’m not skipping one or more key elements (i.e., marketing, senior pastor commitment, budget, etc.).

The Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020/21 has been a defining moment in modern history. What are the small group launching trends you’ve been intrigued with during the pandemic?

There have been three trends that I’ve been watching:

First, without a doubt, the deep longing to belong and the desire to connect has fueled a steady need for new groups as well as a willingness to connect online. While some existing groups have found connecting online (via Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet, etc.) tiresome or awkward, unconnected people have been highly motivated to join an online group.

Second, in many ways, the pandemic has prompted a growing awareness of actual neighbors. Whether a formal part of a church’s strategy or the informal prompting of individuals, the strategies developed in The Art of Neighboring and The Neighboring Church have many wondering if people will revert to their previous ways or remain interested in their neighbors.

Finally, it’s been interesting to see the use of Facebook Live as a gathering experience when hosted by well-connected people.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you to do a little forecasting. Don’t worry, we won’t hold you to it! But as you consider the post-Pandemic world which has introduced advanced technology to average, everyday people, what do you see poking around the corner? What are the innovations in small group formation we might see in the coming years?

One of the most important realities to understand is that the COVID-19 pandemic has not been an interruption followed by a return to normal. Instead, it has been a disruption that will lead to a new normal.

There is a growing sense that a new normal will look different than the old normal. For example, many regular attendees of the weekend service have discovered that watching online actually suits their lifestyle. Others have discovered that groups that meet online don’t need to find childcare and can easily join from wherever they are.

With the right emphasis, a neighborhood strategy could prove to have the greatest potential for starting new groups. A strategy developed that keeps the real interests and needs of unconnected neighbors could lead to the launch of a very large number of neighborhood groups.

Perhaps the greatest potential for starting new groups might actually be made possible by the internet. By loosening the definition of a “group” to include friends and acquaintances in a broader geographical sense, we are no longer limited to connecting with just those who can join in physically at a certain place. It’s been fascinating to watch my wife form a YouVersion group with friends and acquaintances from around the country.

Thanks, Mark, for sharing your wisdom and experience with us!

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Online Small Groups

Online Small Groups

Which option is right for your church?
Why Your Small-Group Ministry Needs Singles

Why Your Small-Group Ministry Needs Singles

And two strategies to include them.
Bring Structure to Your Ministry

Bring Structure to Your Ministry

Everything you need for the behind-the-scenes work of small-group ministry
Should We Structure for Rapid or Controlled Growth?

Should We Structure for Rapid or Controlled Growth?

Both models can bring incredible growth if you choose the right one for your church.
Should Our Small Groups Be Open or Closed?

Should Our Small Groups Be Open or Closed?

The arguments for both sides of this common debate.