Meet Alan Danielson

Alan Danielson: Senior Pastor, New Life Bible Church, Norman, OK

By Ronald E. Keener

When Alan Danielson, 39, spoke to his congregation at New Life Bible Church for the first time as its senior pastor earlier this year, he included comments about small groups. By his third week he had his first small group campaign, and within his first six weeks at the church they had nearly 60 percent of the church in groups. “To me, groups are not a program, they are how we do church,” he says. If small groups are on a fast track at New Life, you might expect it of the pastor who had much to do with the groups strategy at in Oklahoma City, where he worked with Craig Groeschel for four years.

“When I started, was running 9,000 per week on five campuses, all in Oklahoma. During my four years there – I left in 2009 – the church grew to more than 25,000 on 13 campuses in six states, the largest in Oklahoma City with nearly 7,000 and the smallest in Albany, NY, at about 300,” he says.

In his first 18 months he was the LifeGroups pastor on the OKC campus, responsible for all aspects of the small group ministry on that campus. Then for six months the roles for groups and missions were combined, making him responsible for all groups and local mission efforts from the OKC campus. Then he became executive director of LifeGroups and was responsible for all group ministries on all 13 campuses of the church.

Are there foundational principles you worked from in groups development?

Our strategy for growth was nothing original to us. We leveraged the campaign method that Saddleback innovated during the 40 Days of Purpose craze. Twice per year Craig would have a group-centric series. We’d provide video curriculum for leaders, ask everyone to get in a group, and it worked well for us.

In terms of foundational principles: I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but looking back in hindsight, we structured the small group ministry for numerical growth rather than control. I once heard Rick Warren say: “You can structure for growth or you can structure for control, but you can’t structure for both.” That statement helped me recognize that we habitually structured for growth. Whenever growth would stall, it was because we were trying to structure for control.

Here’s what I mean: Structuring for growth means removing obstacles that inhibit growth. The results of such methods are explosive numerical expansion which is exciting, but messy. Structuring for control means putting some barriers in place that will slow numerical increase, but the trade off is less messy.

Do you have a knack for growing groups and campuses?

I don’t know that I have a knack for growing groups, campuses or churches. I have a knack for relationships. I have a gift for remembering lots of names and trying to make as many people as possible feel valued. As a result, lots of people will follow my leadership. It’s the abilities of those who I led and lead that grew the ministries I was a part of and that grow them now.

Can you apply the practices of managing and leading to growing small groups?

I sometimes get annoyed by the fuzzy “managing” and “leading” line. All leaders have to manage, and all managers have to lead. I believe that anyone in leadership has to at least be marginally capable in three areas: casting vision, executing strategy and fostering relationships. I don’t think these three areas can be compromised — ever! Few leaders/managers are going to be naturally gifted in all three areas, but all people in leadership must be able to do all three.

I explain this in detail in my eBook, Triple-Threat Leadership (only available on, but the gist is this: Every leader has strengths and weaknesses. Wise leaders play to their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. However, a weakness in casting vision, executing strategy or fostering relationships is not just a weakness: it’s a liability. Leaders do not have the luxury of playing to their strengths while ignoring their liabilities. Leaders must learn to implement all three basic leadership skills on some level.

I, for example, lean heavily on my abilities to foster relationships and cast vision. Yet no matter how well I do those two things, it is inexcusable if I don’t execute! Talking about the goal (vision) and having fun with people along the way (relationships) will never get things done (execution). The effective leader must do all three.

These facts of course apply to small group ministry all the way from the pastor down to the individual small group leader.

What might have been a fumble on your way to learning groups management?

After our first initial surge in small group growth at, I sort of panicked: “What if a Lesbian Skin Head decides to start a group? Before we do this again, I need to have some leadership training meetings to keep that from happening!” When I implemented those training events before someone could start a group, our ability to grow immediately halted! That’s when I realized that I needed to let go and structure for growth. Thankfully, we never had a Lesbian Skin Head start a group, but we had some pretty unqualified people start them. This was hard to address and sometimes a group had to be “put down,” but 99 percent of the time the right people self-selected for leadership.

Based on that experience I’d say do some soul searching and decide whether growth or control resonates most with you. Then commit to the side you lean toward!

What have you learned from other churches when consulting; what couple issues do they often address with you, and how did you resolve them?

One of the biggest eye-openers for my clients is the growth/control question. Sometimes it takes me half a day to sell them on the idea because they want to be able to value both equally, but once they make up their minds to lean heavily in one direction or the other, suddenly they gain momentum.

In my consulting experience, church leaders often start with the wrong questions. They start out by asking questions like:

  • How do I double groups?
  • How can I recruit coaches/leaders?
  • How do I train leaders?
  • How do I know what curriculums to suggest/use?

It’s only natural, because these questions reveal their most urgent need/want. However, our most urgent need isn’t always the first thing to address. All of these questions are procedural questions, and when church leaders ask procedural questions, they tend to cut and paste the next “hot strategy” from some superstar church. If the strategy works, they are glad, but they don’t really know why it worked. Inevitably, when a cut-and-pasted strategy doesn’t work for them, they blame the process and move on to the next “hot strategy.” The root of the problem is that they are asking how instead of why questions. The questions they should start with should investigate their own church DNA and structure. They should ask questions like:

  • What’s keeping our group ministry from growing?
  • Why can’t we seem to hang on to coaches?
  • What are we doing in our ministry that runs against the cultural DNA of our organization?
  • If I were fired, what would my replacement do?
  • What do I know in my heart that I should be doing that I really don’t want to do, or I’m just not good at?

These questions don’t start with process. They start with self-evaluation. Understanding the nature of your own church culture, your own leadership strengths/weaknesses, and your own biases will explain a lot about the things that you are frustrated with and help you identify steps you need to take in order to gain momentum.

What is it about small groups [“the little church”] that is so important today in large and megachurches? Is it mostly about growth?

This is an interesting question. Sadly for many pastors the small group question is just about growth. They see small groups as a way to close the back door of the church or plug the drain in the bottom of the tub. This is tragic because what small group leader ever signed up just to keep people from leaving the church? Isn’t discipleship about much more than that? Inevitably, if groups are just a keep-people-from-leaving-tool in a church, that church will never have a thriving group ministry. I believe this is why many pastors are saying small groups don’t work; they tried it to keep people from leaving, the ministry never took off, people left, so groups must not work.

The problem is much deeper than small groups. It’s about discipleship. Are we really committed to getting people into Christian relationships? Discipleship in the New Testament never happens through programs; it always happens through relationships. Healthy small group ministries never have church growth as their main goal. Their main goal is personal, spiritual growth. This kind of growth doesn’t come in a vacuum and it certainly doesn’t come in a class. It comes when real people connect with other real people who are pushing each other to become like Christ.

How do you get groups to go from sitting to serving?

A key for us at was merging the groups and missions positions on staff. Our slogan became “Everyone in a LifeGroup, every LifeGroup on mission.” This caused us to set measurable goals regarding groups on mission. It caused us to start creating curriculums and resources about groups being on mission. And it caused us to talk about mission all the time to our groups!

Simply put, I tell my clients who want their groups to serve, “Mission has to be in your heart, on your lips and in your strategy.” By “heart” I mean the pastor or ministry leader must be passionate about mission. By “lips” I mean that the pastor or ministry leader must talk about mission to their groups all the time. By “strategy” I mean the ministry leader must create systems and set goals that facilitate mission.

You are new to your current church, so how will groups work into the strategy at New Life Bible and its outreach?

To me groups are not a program, they are how we do church. Missions are not “projects” in our group ministry; groups are how we do missions!  From moment one, the definition of a “group win” is for the group to identify its unique mission and act on it together. Of course, some groups understand this better than others, but all of our groups serve on mission at some point because it’s a clear expectation. So you could say that outreach is done through our groups.

A few of our small groups have taken on the task of building, running and maintaining a food pantry in our church. They are passionate about making this happen and I couldn’t be more proud of them! Another group organized an interview skills coaching event where they taught unemployed people how to improve their resumes and their interview skills. They’ve gone on to help several of those people find jobs. It’s been really exciting to watch.

This fall we had another groups campaign and we partnered with to produce a four week curriculum about discovering, developing, living out and passing on your family’s vision, mission and values. We’re the first church in history to use this material for a church-wide campaign encompassing Sunday messages, groups and family ministry. I think every church in the world needs to do this kind of campaign.

Family ID is a powerful tool for making the family the primary discipleship engine of the church rather than the children’s ministry. At New Life, our goal is to have a dynamic family ministry rather than a children’s ministry. Again, tons of people stepped up, started groups, joined groups and lives were changed! This created lots of crossover between our groups ministry and our family ministry, as well as lots of synergy. From now on Family ID will be a cornerstone in our family ministry as well as our small group ministry!

You’re commented about “the pain I felt for many of my client small group pastors.” What is their frustration?

The biggest frustration for thousands of small group pastors is the fact that their senior pastor doesn’t truly buy in to groups. Their senior pastors see groups as a way to keep people from leaving the church, so it’s just another church program. I’m passionate about telling senior pastors that they should expect nothing from their group ministries until they themselves completely commit to them.

The senior pastor sets the tone. Our church in six weeks launched groups and got nearly 60 percent of our people in groups! This is because I’m the person who has most bought into our group ministry. I lead a group. I talk about them all the time. I depend on my group. I love my group. As a result our people are following my lead. You might say I’m the Senior Pastor of Small Groups in
our church.


Small groups at Lifechurch.TV

At I was responsible for providing direction, support, and resources for the overall small group ministry. Each campus had a LifeGroup/Mission Pastor (LGMP) and it was my job to set the overall course for all 13 campus group ministries, support the campus LGMPs, and give them the resources (curriculum, videos, print materials, etc.) that they needed to succeed.

We had more than 1,000 groups and we provided weekly downloadable curriculum that aligned with Craig Groeschel’s sermons, as well as video curriculum every week. The downloadable print curriculum always aligned with Craig’s messages, but the video curriculum didn’t always align with his weekend talks.

The point of both resources was to make it easy for a leader to facilitate discussion in their groups. The .pdf discussion guides were easy to use because they related directly to the previous weekend’s teaching. The videos made it easy for leaders who were reluctant to “teach,” so the video did the teaching for them.    — AD


‘Neighborhood model’ for small groups

Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, AZ is an interesting case study. They are using the “Neighborhood Model” that Randy Frazee wrote about in his book, The Connecting Church. The Neighborhood Model sometimes gets a bad rap because it didn’t work for Willow Creek. Since so many have looked to Willow for years regarding groups, they immediately throw out what didn’t work there.

This is truly sad because the Neighborhood Model is ideal for churches with the right DNA. When I was working with CCV they had decided that their church did two things: The weekend and neighborhood groups. They used the New Testament and Frazee’s book as their blueprints, and the results were great.

I was excited to see this under-utilized approach gaining such traction. CCV didn’t come to me with process questions (how questions), instead they came with DNA and evaluation questions (why questions). It was one of the healthiest and most fun exchanges I’ve ever had with a client.  — AD


Keeping track of the groups

The software my church uses is ChurchTeams. It’s the tool I’ve found churches are most satisfied with for group management. Unlike many group management tools, it allows you to track attendance without it feeling like you’re implementing some kind of control.

Attendance reporting happens via a weekly email to leaders, but the reason they fill out the reports is not primarily attendance.

Instead it is a communication tool from the leader to the entire group. They share prayer needs, communicate about mission opportunities, note the next meeting’s activities, and then send it to the entire group. Those group communications are then copied to the person who leads the small group ministry. The system automatically gathers attendance information from the emails and reports that monthly to the small group ministry point person.

ChurchTeams reporting is a system that provides a simple platform for the group to communicate regularly. This makes the group leaders feel that the main benefit of the software is for them rather than the church. The side benefit of this is that the church gets the attendance data without it feeling like a burden to the small group leader.   — AD


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