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Small Groups Deliver Fellowship, Love





f-Gladen-SmallGroups IStockphoto-lisegagneEditor’s Note: Daily during January and February, MinistryTodaymag.com will feature an article from pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren and his staff in conjunction with his new book, What on Earth Am I Here For? Warren is the guest editor for Charisma’s Ministry Today magazine for its January/February issue.

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: 

  • Surrendering his or her heart and life to Christ on an ongoing basis.
  • Experiencing fellowship with other Christians.
  • Growing in Christ through “being” and “action.”
  • Discovering and using his or her God-given gifts and abilities.
  • Reaching out and sharing the love of Christ with nonbelievers.

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.

Our Plan

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.

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