Why we believe the group setting creates the best environment for producing healthy followers of Jesus Christ
In early 2000, our leadership team began asking the question: What does a healthy follower of Christ look like? If we are to be successful in fulfilling Christ’s commission to make disciples, we need to define the term disciple. Through a series of meetings, we determined that such a follower of Christ is someone who is balancing the five biblical purposes in his or her heart and life. A healthy follower of Christ, therefore, is:
We understood that unless you know what the target is you cannot hit it, so we ade our target health through balance. As believers, when we reflect Christ and become more like Him, the focus of our lives shifts away from self-centeredness toward serving Him through every area of life. That is health and balance.
As a church, if we were to produce healthy followers of Christ, then our leadership team had to decide what the best tool, or delivery system, would be to produce that desired result. Eventually we agreed that small groups would create the best environment in which to produce health through balancing the biblical purposes in each person’s life.
Whenever you start a new approach to ministry, the question “Why?” always comes up: “Why should we do small groups?” “Why are small groups a good method for helping people develop these five things in their lives?” Over the last 15 years, we’ve realized there are several things about small groups that make them an effective strategy for helping people grow in the Lord:
Small groups are biblical. We see in the book of Acts that the early church knew the value of small groups. In Acts 5:42 we read: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah” (NIV). The early church met together for a large-group gathering in the temple courts because they knew the value of a corporate gathering of all the people. This is similar to what we do in churches today: The entire church gathers every weekend for large-group worship.
But the early church did not gather together just as a large group. They also met together in their homes for small-group fellowship. The early church knew they needed to grow bigger and smaller at the same time. They wanted to reach as many people as they could with the good news—as well as care for the needs of the people in the church and help them grow in relationship with God.
Small groups are convenient. One struggle many churches have is knowing how to get information out to their people in a way that everyone will hear it and be able to implement it in their lives. Weekend services help, but we know that people retain more when they interact with the information and ask questions. Since that approach isn’t a great option in a large gathering, small groups become a convenient place for disseminating information in a practical way that makes it more likely to be retained.
At Saddleback we learned the power of using video curriculum to launch our small groups. The group host doesn’t have to be a teacher, and the information being shared is consistent because we know what is being taught on the video. Because the host doesn’t have to teach, he or she feels more capable of leading a small group and is more open to hosting the group at home.
Small groups are economical and unlimited in size. The great part about groups is the fact that they are very affordable. Most churches run into budget problems, and the need for additional space is common. But everyone in your church has a facility they call their home.
When people open up their homes to host small groups, it eliminates the need for the church to build more facilities to reach people. Not only that, but small groups create the potential for unlimited growth, as more and more people in the church host groups in their homes. This allows the church to continue growing to the capacity of its attendees’ homes. It also provides a great way for congregants to go outside the church’s four walls and be in the community, instead of only seeing the church as a campus.
Small groups are unlimited in reach. The beauty of small groups is that they can happen anywhere and at any time, whenever the group wants to gather. This increases your ability to reach people.
With small groups, people can meet in the morning, the evening-—or even the middle of the night. Not only do small groups expand your church’s reach by offering a variety of meeting times, they also expand your reach through the different ways that groups gather together.
Small groups are not limited to meeting in people’s homes. Groups can gather online using Skype or some other software tool. They can meet in restaurants, subways, airplanes or businesses. When and how a group meets is limited only by the creativity of your people and their desire to reach out to people they know.
Small groups encourage accountability. Left on my own, I can fool myself into thinking I am growing in Christ. But something happens in my life when a friend who knows me and loves me takes the time to tell me about areas of my life in which I need to grow. When that happens, I am more likely to listen and make those changes, which in turn helps me grow as a follower of Christ.
Small groups provide a great setting for true accountability. When a member of a group is making a decision to do something that is wrong, they have to look each member of the group in the eye and explain why they’re doing it. That creates a natural accountability that can have a significant effect on the growth of everyone in the group.
Small groups provide a safe environment. Most people do not open up and share what truly is going on in their lives in a large group. The beauty of a small group setting is that it creates a safe place for people to share their struggles, successes and dreams and provides a built-in support system of people who will pray and be available to help at any time. It is also where people can try out their gifts and abilities in a safe place and discover where they might serve best.
Small groups provide focus. If directed correctly, a small group is a collection of people working on common goals—not just one person teaching while the others listen. The teaching method that requires listening and taking notes is good for helping people understand knowledge and learn new things.
The downside of it is, people have a difficult time applying that knowledge to their everyday lives. A small group setting enables people to work together and talk about what they are learning, which are practical actions that help them grow.
As mentioned previously, our church’s target is the five purposes of growth. We believe the more that a small group balances these five areas within the group, the healthier and more focused the group becomes. That health and focus then creates the right place for true growth to happen in the lives of each member of the group.
Saddleback’s strategy for making healthy followers of Christ (disciples) is small groups. We have no other plan; we have no other delivery system. We believe this is the most effective way to make disciples and lead people to live healthy and balanced lives. We are not a church with small groups; we are a church of small groups. The figures on this page illustrate how this strategy works.
Our small group ministry is not just another program. It’s an embedded, integrated piece of everything we do as a church. It is where care happens, and our delivery system for all spiritual formation. It is our method of balancing biblical purpose and creating healthy lives.
Steve Gladen has overseen the strategic launch and development of more than 4,000 adult small groups at Saddleback Church. He is the author of Small Groups With Purpose and Leading Small Groups with Purpose, and co-author of 250 Big Ideas for Purpose Driven Small Groups. For more information, go to smallgroups.net.
Growing a church doesn’t happen without first growing a person. Here are eight core principles we adhere to in our discipleship model at Saddleback Church.
The discipleship process at Saddleback Church is based on the belief that if we focus on building people, God will build the church. Through a study of how Jesus helped people grow spiritually, Saddleback senior pastor Rick Warren developed these eight laws for spiritual growth.
1. Spiritual growth is intentional.
Spiritual growth is not accidental. You must intend to grow; you must make a choice to grow. This means that we grow by making commitments. People in churches are at one of six levels of commitment: community, crowd, congregation, committed, core or commissioned.
The community is anyone within driving distance of Saddleback Church. There is no commitment at the community level. We want to get the community to come to a weekend service, and we want to move them from the community to the crowd. What’s required to be in the crowd? One commitment: show up at church.
Next, we want to move people from being an attender to being a member of the church—to move from the crowd to the congregation. At Saddleback, you do this by coming to know Jesus as your Savior, being baptized, attending our membership seminar (Class 101) and signing the membership covenant.
People then move from the congregation to committed. We do that with a course called Class 201, where we teach the habits for spiritual growth. The class doesn’t make you a mature person; it just shows you what it takes to become spiritually mature and ends with the opportunity to make a commitment to growth.
From the committed, people move into the core—serving Christ by serving others. They take Class 301, sign the ministry covenant, discover their S.H.A.P.E. (each person’s unique blend of Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality and Experiences) and start actively serving.
The commissioned are those who made it all the way into not just ministry but also mission. They have taken Class 401 and made a commitment to go into all the world as Jesus commanded.
2. Spiritual growth is incremental.
We know that incremental change is true in physical growth—so why not in spiritual growth? We know children grow in stages: They learn to breathe first; then to eat, to walk, to talk. No child has ever taken those steps out of order. They are developmental stages.
The same is true in your spiritual life. The order that we have here at Saddleback is all about helping people grow closer and closer to Christ. We want to see them know Christ, then love Christ, then grow in Christ, then serve Christ, then share Christ. Those are the systematic steps to spiritual growth.
3. Spiritual growth is personal.
You cannot mass-produce disciples because every person is different. There is no one-size-fits-all for spiritual growth.
To be a disciple is to be a learner. That’s the literal meaning of the word disciple. Because we all are different, we all learn differently. For instance, some learn best by listening, others by reading, some by discussing, others by doing a project.
One major tool we use to help people grow personally is our yearly growth campaign. For it, the entire church focuses together on some area of personal growth: 40 Days of Purpose, 40 Days in the Word, 40 Days of Love and so on. Our campaign for 2013 will be “What on Earth Am I Here For?” (To join us, go to saddlebackresources.com).
In these campaigns, the entire church studies the same thing for six weeks. We make use of all the different ways of learning so that everyone can grow. People hear it on Sundays, they read it in the book, they discuss it in a small group, they memorize a verse about it and they have a project to do for it.
4. Spiritual growth is practical.
God gives us practical ways to participate in the growth that He is causing. One of Saddleback’s goals is to help people grow by developing good spiritual habits. They’re called spiritual disciplines or devotional practices, but they’re really just habits.
For instance, we encourage the habit of spending time with God every day. Prayer is also a spiritual habit. Bible study is a spiritual habit. Tithing and attending a small group are spiritual habits.
In the end, we will become whatever we do habitually. To try to be a disciple of Jesus without developing the habits of a disciple is simply impossible.
5. Spiritual growth is relational.
We only grow if we are in community with others. This is one of the most misunderstood facts of growth among American Christians. American Christians think you can grow on your own. If I have a Bible and I have Jesus, I don’t need anybody else, we tell ourselves.
That kind of thinking is wrong! You cannot grow without the church. The Bible says in Hebrews 10:24-25: “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another” (NLT).
6. Spiritual growth is multidimensional.
At Saddleback we have learned that in order for us to grow spiritually, five purposes all are needed: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and mission. We are to grow stronger through worship, warmer through fellowship, deeper through discipleship, broader through ministry and larger through mission.
If you go to a gym and get a trainer, you’re going to be required to work on the areas in which you are weakest. Do you have a weak shoulder? You’ll have to work on that shoulder. You have weak knees? Let’s work on your knees, your trainer will say. Spiritual growth is like physical therapy: God wants to strengthen us in all His purposes.
Of course, this means you can’t do the job alone as a church leader. But none of us are meant to do it alone! In Ephesians 4:12 we’re told to “equip” God’s people for works of service.
If I were starting a church again today, I’d get a volunteer leader to help me with each of these five purposes so he could grow as he helped the church to grow. At Saddleback, we now have entire staff teams dedicated to helping people grow in each of these five purposes.
7. Spiritual growth is seasonal.
You’ll relieve a lot of guilt in your people when you help them understand this one truth: that spiritual growth is seasonal. Nobody grows at a constant pace all the time. Plants don’t grow constantly; they grow in spring and summer and then are dormant in fall and winter. The same is true in our spiritual lives.
Some people are going through winter: “I just don’t feel like I’m growing much right now,” they say, “even though I’m doing the right things to grow.”
It will encourage them to know that’s OK. It’s part of life. In fact, there are some things that happen in winter that don’t happen in spring and summer. You deepen your roots in fall and winter for the next spring when you will have the next stage of growth and fruitfulness.
8. Spiritual growth is incarnational.
The final truth is that growth is not about what you can accomplish. Rather, it’s about the person of Jesus Christ living inside you. Galatians 2:20 says: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (NKJV).
The goal of the Christian life is to live like Jesus. But it won’t come from your trying to be like Jesus. It comes from trusting Jesus to live inside you. The secret of the Christian life is not imitation but incarnation—letting Christ live through you. Nobody can live like Jesus better than Jesus!
None of these eight principles for growth can be done in our own power. It’s God who works in us because of the cross. We need to remember that, for the sake of our own growth as well as the growth of the church. This frees us from the frustration of what we can’t seem to get done and releases us from the even more dangerous temptation to try to do it on our own power.
We get to be fellow builders. Under Jesus’ leadership, and by following biblical principles for spiritual growth, God will build His church!
Tom Holladay is associate senior pastor at Saddleback Church, where he has served for almost 21 years, and teaches at Purpose Driven conferences worldwide. He is the author of The Relationship Principles of Jesus (Zondervan). Hear his podcast, “Drivetime Devotions,” at drivetimedevotions.com.
You don’t have to be afraid of discovering God’s will. The process is always covered by His grace and the natural giftings He gives us.
As a little boy raised in the church, I was often confused by the words of certain songs. For instance, whenever the song “Bringing in the Sheaves” was sung, I thought we were singing about bringing in the “sheeps.” I always wondered where we would get these “sheeps” and why we wanted to bring them in anyway. Spiritual themes, whether spoken or sung, can easily confuse the simple mind of a child; and while I learned quite early that “sheeps” is not even a word, the topic of God’s will continued to be a point of confusion for a long time.
I remember another song we used to sing, usually after a missionary had told depressing stories about the hardships and toils of the mission field: “Jesus, use me / Oh, Lord, don’t refuse me / Surely there’s a work that I must do / And even though it’s humble, help my will to crumble / Though the cost be great, I’ll work for You.”
As wonderful as those words are in and of themselves, there was something about the combination of the lyrics, the music and the context that made me afraid of God’s will for my life. I thought He must have something simply dreadful for me to do. I just knew He was going to send me deep into the jungle where I would live in a mud hut, survive on a diet of grubs and wind up being eaten by cannibals.
Looking back, my naïveté is quite amusing now, but the reality is that many people—ministry leaders included—really are afraid to discover God’s will for their lives, even if subconsciously.
They think: What if God wants me to do something I don’t want to do? What if God wants me to do something I’m not good at? What if doing God’s will means I have to give up my hopes and dreams? I think sometimes people haven’t discovered God’s will simply because they are afraid to.
God’s Will Fits You
After I preached at a certain Bible college one of the students approached me. He was nearing graduation and had been seeking God’s will for many years but still had no direction. He asked me, “How can I figure out what God wants me to do with my life?”
We were standing next to a lamp, and I noticed that it had been unplugged. I pointed to the plug lying on the ground and said to him: “How do you know what that three-pronged contraption is for? Should I stick it in my ear or use it to comb my hair?”
“Of course not,” he replied. “It goes into the electric socket.”
How did he know that? Because of its shape. That plug fit so perfectly into that electric socket that there was no question that it was made for it. Even a child who had never seen a plug or socket before could figure out that they were made for each other.
This is one way you can know what God wants from you. Where do you fit? What do you enjoy? What brings you delight and satisfaction?
I have heard people teach that God’s will is always difficult and requires great sacrifice. But I have seen that the most effective people in any ministry or occupation, or just life in general, are not the ones forcing themselves to do some dreadful task because they feel it is God’s will. Rather it is the ones who are doing something they enjoy so much that they feel guilty taking a salary for it.
When you find something that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning, when you find something that challenges and thrills you, when you find something that you sense you were made to do, chances are you are getting close to discovering God’s will for your life.
This does not mean that obedience, death to self and sacrifice are never required or necessary. But when a person is doing what he or she was created to do, there is a taste of sweetness in the sacrifice, a sense of fulfillment in the obedience and an enduring hope in the suffering.
With Your Gift Comes His Gift
We often talk about the fivefold ministry gifts—apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher and evangelist—that are listed in Ephesians 4. But it is vital that we remember what it says in verse 7, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
Grace comes with every gift! Jesus is the fullest expression of all of the five ministries, but when He ascended He distributed 20 percent of His ministry to the apostles, 20 percent to the prophets, 20 percent to the pastors, 20 percent to the teachers and 20 percent to the evangelists. Not only did He give the gifts, He also gave grace according to the measure of the gift.
Did you ever receive some special gift for your birthday as a kid, then after you had torn open the package you realized it needed batteries to operate? When Jesus gives a gift, He also gives the batteries the gift requires to operate. The battery for “the gift of Christ” is grace. But He will give you only the measure of grace you need for the gift He has given.
I hear a lot of preachers talking about “burnout” these days, and it doesn’t surprise me. Imagine a pure pastor who is wonderfully gifted in his pastoral office. He is using 100 percent of his God-given ministry gift, yet his gift is only 20 percent of what his congregation needs. This precious pastor is working around the clock, attempting to provide 100 percent of what the church requires to be perfected and edified in the way Ephesians 4:12 describes, yet he has only 20 percent of the grace to do that job!
Anyone can see that this is a formula for disaster. If a person’s body has only 20 percent functionality, we would say that person is handicapped. If an airplane lost all but 20 percent of its mechanical capabilities, the pilot would bring it in for an emergency landing. If a business operated at only 20 percent output, it would soon go bankrupt.
In Philippians 1, Paul is talking to his ministry partners (the ones who were supporting him financially). In verse 5 he expresses his gratitude for their partnership in the work of the gospel, and then says in verse 7, “Ye all are partakers of my grace” (KJV). Do you realize that you can actually tap into the grace that is on someone else’s life? By partnering with Paul’s gift, the Ephesians became partakers of the grace on his life!
Let’s go back to my example of the pastor who is burning out. Rather than attempting to provide 100 percent of his church’s needs with 20 percent of the gift and grace, he should partner with others who are gifted in the areas he is not. When he partners with their gift, he will also become a partaker in their grace, and the whole church will benefit.
The principle is simple but profound, and Eph. 4:7 encapsulates it: “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The grace comes with the gift!
Although this verse is set in the context of the fivefold ministry gifts, it is not applicable just to those called into “full-time ministry.” The Bible says this grace is given to every one of us according to the measure of the gift of Christ.
Whenever God calls you to do something, He will always supply the perfect measure of grace so you will be able to operate in your gift. But whenever you try to operate outside your gift, you will find it difficult, burdensome and miserable because there will be no grace for it.
Take, for instance, someone who is called to live a celibate life. The apostle Paul was called to this. In fact, he said in 1 Cor. 7 that remaining single was a good thing, and he went so far as to say: “I wish that all men were like I myself am [in this matter of self-control]. But each has his own special gift from God, one of this kind and one of another” (v. 7, AMP). Although Paul preferred singleness and wished everyone would remain single, as he was, he had the wisdom to recognize that his ability to lead a happy and full life without a spouse was a special gift from God.
Paul understood that without the gift, there would be no grace. This is why he warned against those who would forbid marriage (see 1 Tim. 4:3). We have seen in the modern Roman Catholic Church priests who have been forbidden to marry, though many neither have the gift nor the grace to remain single. The result has been an appalling international scandal that has shamed Christianity and landed many priests behind bars.
Paul’s singleness was a gift, and with the gift God gave him the grace. Without the grace Paul would have seen his singleness not as a gift but as a burden.
An interesting side note here is that because Paul was given the calling, gift and grace to lead a celibate life, he said, “I wish that all men were like I myself am.” I have noticed that when the gift and grace are on a person’s life to do something, it seems so natural and obvious to them that they think everyone else should be doing it as well.
Grace Makes All the Difference
There are two lessons to learn from this principle:
1. Don’t make the mistake of trying to force those around you to do what God has called you to do. And don’t look down on them for doing something other than what you think is so important! Recognize that, as Paul said, “Each has his own special gift from God, one of this kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7:7, AMP).
2. If you think everyone should be doing one particular thing, chances are that is what you are called to do! If you think everyone should be an evangelist, you are probably an evangelist. If you think everyone should be a political activist, then that is probably what God is calling you to do! When God’s gift and grace rest on a person for a certain task or calling, he is able to do with joy what seems difficult, or even impossible, to others.
It is interesting that as a boy I dreaded the thought of being sent into the jungle in obedience to the call, but today I often go to the “jungle,” preaching the gospel in Africa and around the world—and I don’t know of anything I would rather do. I love my life, and I love my calling as a missionary-evangelist.
What I had not taken into consideration as a child was this great truth: The grace comes with the gift, and the grace makes all the difference.
With this understanding, you never need to be afraid to discover God’s will for your life. If He calls you to do something, He will also give you the grace to do it. When you are in God’s will, covered by His grace, it is the most wonderful place to be in the whole world.
Daniel Kolenda is a missionary evangelist who has led more than 10 million people to Christ face-to-face through massive, open-air evangelistic campaigns in some of the most dangerous, difficult and remote locations on earth. He is president and CEO of Christ for All Nations and hosts an internationally syndicated television program.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which focuses on constitutional and human rights law, announced Wednesday it is representing the wife of an Iranian-American pastor who is being held in an Iranian prison because of his Christian faith.
Saeed Abedini, who converted to Christianity, has been indicted by an Iranian court and is facing formal charges that could result in a lengthy prison term or possibly even the death penalty. The ACLJ, which is providing legal representation for his U.S.-based family, is also launching an international campaign calling on the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and Congress to demand the release of Pastor Saeed.
“This is a very troubling pattern that we have seen inside Iran—Christian husbands and fathers who are punished for their religious beliefs,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the ACLJ. “What makes this particular case so much more disturbing is that Pastor Saeed, who was born and raised in Iran, has been granted U.S. citizenship. He's been in prison for nearly three months simply because of his Christian faith.
Jonathan Cahn was in the seventh grade when a friend spoke to him about Jesus, beginning a journey of fruitful searching for answers to his many questions about life and God. At age 20, after two near-death car accidents, he drove to the top of a mountain, knelt down in prayer and dedicated his life to the Lord. Not long after, Cahn responded to a request to teach a Bible study, which led to his first ministry mainly focused on the meeting the needs of the homeless and disabled. In 1988, he was asked to lead the Jerusalem Center/Beth Israel, in Wayne, N.J., a worship center that has grown to be one of the America’s largest Messianic congregations, drawing both Jews and Gentiles. There, he serves as pastor and rabbi. He also leads Hope of the World, an end-time ministry committed to fulfilling the Great Commission to the Jew, the Gentile and all the unreached nations and people of the earth.
Last year, Cahn released the game-changing book The Harbinger, which immediately placed on several best-seller charts, including The New York Times’. A fictional narrative, The Harbinger sounds a national wake-up call to America, reflecting Cahn’s teachings that reveal the deep truths and mysteries of God’s Word. In January, he released the in-depth follow-up, The Harbinger Companion With Study Guide. To learn more about our guest editor, go to HopeOfTheWorld.org. To get the full teachings behind The Harbinger, go to TheHarbingerWebsite.com.