Consistent messaging is the Saddleback secret to groups

By Ronald E. Keener

‘The real issue in starting groups is not small groups but what is it that you want to reproduce?’

Steve Gladen has been pastor of small groups at Saddleback Church since 1998, where he oversees more than 3,500 adult small groups. There he “loves seeing a big church become small through true community developed in group life,” says the flyleaf to his new book, Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities (Baker Books, 2011).

In managing the group program, Gladen uses software he developed with the church’s IT department, and one he plans to share with other churches. “I sat down with our CIO and white boarded what we needed and it was provided. We hope to have it available to the public in late 2012.”

Gladen was off to South Africa, where he was teaching a two-day small group training to pastors in Johannesburg, within hours of responding to questions about the Saddleback group program for Church Executive.

How did Saddleback go from seven people in Rick Warren’s living room to more than 3,500 adult small groups, despite the fact that “there’s no quick or easy answer” to developing groups?

Consistency would be my first thought. Rick has been steady and consistent with his messaging. He believes the delivery systems for the church are found in Acts 5:42 — Temple Courts (weekend services) and house to house (small groups). You need both to build the body of Christ. He has been doing that for 31 years. He loves to say you can grow a mushroom in six hours and an oak tree in 60 years; which do you want to be? Although it takes time if you are strategic and focused, you can see great progress.

What stumbles did the church have along the way in building the small group ministry?

I see a few different stages the church had over the past few years with small groups. During the early years (1980 to 1992) the church had no physical building so the small groups held the church together. From 1992 to 1997 groups were seen as Rick described in The Purpose Driven Church. We had groups in each of the purposes.

From 1998 to 2002 we used groups as our primary spiritual growth tool of holistic discipleship balancing each of the purposes in groups and individuals. 2002 to 2010 was the growth time through Campaigns, HOST
strategy, and formation of infrastructure.

2010 to the present is our growth in two primary places outside our decentralized and centralized groups on campus — Workplace Groups and Online Groups. Each of these stages we had to recalibrate from potential stumbles. One answer in each stage was clear:

Not having staff or finances helped us lean more into God and try things we thought we couldn’t do.

What common mistakes do many churches make in starting and managing small groups?

Language would be the number one thing. The real issue in starting groups is not small groups but what is it that you want to reproduce? Once you know that then you can ask, what will get us there? For Saddleback we want to reproduce people who are balancing the Great Commission and Great Commandment in their hearts. What gets us there is small groups. A common mistake in managing groups is trying to give equal care to all groups. We give care to groups based on four areas — whether they are new, seasoned, veteran or stubborn groups. Bottom line: pour your resources into the new and seasoned groups.

Which couple of the 10 foundational principles Saddleback uses do you think most important?

Leadership potential, not proven leaders — Our last line of defense is to plug somebody into an existing small group. What we would rather have is someone gather two of their friends and start a group. We will help them along the way. Much like Jesus took disciples from “come and see” to three years later “come and die.” We take people where they are and grow them to where they wish they could be. Is it messy? Sure. Is it fruitful?

Growth by campaign, not disrupting community — There is a ton is this statement, but let me take a piece of it. In small groups there will always be the tension between fellowship and evangelism. In so many small group systems, the principle is evangelism and the methodology is birthing groups or rapid cell multiplication. Our principle is evangelism, but our methodology is doing evangelism not through birthing or multiplication; but through letting groups do personal, local and global evangelism without disrupting community.

What content do your small groups use in their meetings — Sunday’s messages or choices of their own?

We feel the best person to know the spiritual temperature of the people in their group is the group leader — the closest person to the sheep. So we let the leader and groups pick their curriculum (except during a Campaign which happens once a year). We use tools such as Spiritual Health Assessment to help groups discover a curriculum path and also provide a list of good curriculums to choose.

Most group leaders don’t lead groups to take them astray. Where groups get into a problem is when the church doesn’t provide curriculums for them to get. I like to say the shepherd picks the next pasture for the sheep, not the sheep. When you don’t provide a “what’s next step” sheep have a chance to wander.

What do you ask of group leaders in reporting weekly or monthly?

Nothing in the way of reports. We ask groups to have a Group Plan and help everyone develop an Individual Spiritual Plan. If I can get those two things, everything else will follow.

What’s the short history of home groups in the past 40 years?

There are far better historians than me to answer this question. There have been great churches and leaders who have paved the way for us today to enjoy group life. The danger is to try to replicate a copy of their system into your culture. Get their learnings and if they fit, pay ‘n play; if they don’t, adapt them — just don’t lose the principle of what God is blessing.

What should churches with “faltering” groups be asking themselves?

What is it they are trying to reproduce. Once your leadership can answer that question the same, and know how to implement it, then you can figure how what delivery system works best for your church. Is it small groups? Is it Sunday school? Regardless of your delivery system, those leaders need to know what you want them to produce.

In your consulting, what do churches most often ask of you?

It tends to be “How do I get my small group ministry to be like yours?” — which probably isn’t the best place to start. What a church wants to do is begin with one person and what are you trying to do with them. Get measurables behind that that aren’t legalistic, but organic from people working in a framework but personalizing it to them.

Vision without implementation will produce hallucination. Helping churches figure out the “unit of one” and turning people into organic groups that work a spiritual plan in community will get the church where it needs to be.

What is the secret of getting groups to go from sitting to serving?

Something we call “crawl, walk, run.” People get paralyzed with fear and take no step. We want to help mobilize our people to take any step. Once they are successful with that step, we can help take them to the next. No group or individual step is too small. Getting people involved gives them value. When they feel valued, you can venture with them anywhere.


Stats on the Saddleback program

We are in five counties, in 183 cities, in 12 languages, venturing globally with 83 online small groups peppered around the globe. Last year (2010) we trained more people online than on our campus (55 percent to 45 percent). In the first half of this year (2011) we have trained 74 percent online and 26 percent on campus.
— SG


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