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Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen

Reviewed By Allen White

When you look at the success of groups at Saddleback Church, it would be easy, though cynical, to assume that you can only achieve that number of groups if they are an inch deep and a mile wide. After observing and participating in the ministry of Saddleback for the last 18 years, I have discovered that Saddleback is both deep and wide.

They cast a broad net to recruit small group H.O.S.T.s and to connect their members into groups. Today, Saddleback has over 3,500 small groups with more folks in groups than in their weekend services. This is due in large part to their small group champion, Rick Warren, the founding pastor of Saddleback Church. A God-given idea and Pastor Rick’s influence produced 2,000 new group hosts in their first 40 Days of Purpose campaign. His influence is huge in connecting people into groups. But, connecting and sustaining are two different animals.

Steve Gladen in Small Groups with Purpose outlines a success story not just for retaining numbers, but for life transformation and leadership development. Having run many successful church-wide campaigns myself, I know that it’s easy to create a spike in groups during a campaign, but helping those groups to continue is another animal. In this book, Steve Gladen outlines a powerful strategy for gaining and maintaining momentum.

Coaching and training are Saddleback’s keys to effective group leaders. Steve presents a unique coaching strategy. Community Leaders, rather than coaches, serve 20-25 groups leaders. This system works due to a key insight: not every group leader needs the same level of coaching. By determining whether the group is new, growing, mature or stubborn, community leaders offer an appropriate level of care. This is good news for churches who have yet to develop a healthy coaching structure, in that, existing groups have learned how to get along good enough without a coach. New coaches can focus on new leaders, and essentially serve existing leaders by benign neglect.

In the book, Steve Gladen articulates a proven strategy for starting and sustaining new leaders. At Saddleback, H.O.S.T.s start with the experience of leading a group for six weeks, then they are introduced to training. After leading for a few weeks, the training is more meaningful to the new leaders and can be directly applied to their group. Churches often make the mistake of over-training before a leader even starts to lead. If the prospective leader can survive the training, then they can lead a group. In my opinion, over-training actually reflects more of the small group pastor’s insecurity and need for control rather than adequately preparing members to lead. Community Leaders provide the help that new leaders need at Saddleback. Having someone in the new leader’s life is far more significant than endless hours of training up front.

Another outstanding strength of Saddleback’s training system is the intentional, on-going training pathway. Once leaders have completed Leadership Training 1, they receive care from their Community Leader and are offered on-going training that is appropriate to their skills and experience. The genius of this system is that all of the leaders start Leadership Training 2 with the third module, Health, then proceed to future modules based on their needs and experience as a leader. Custom, just-in-time training is key to serving new leaders and keeping their interest and participation in training. Cookie cutter, “one size fits all” training is a relic of the past. No small group pastor should blame their leaders for not attending training. If you’re not scratching where they itch, it’s on you.

Balancing the five biblical purposes produces healthy group members. While many churches develop groups that specialize in fellowship or Bible study, these types of groups focus on meeting the needs of the group members, but don’t necessarily produce well-rounded disciples. Then, you wonder why groups are unwilling to help in starting new groups or won’t reach out to others. It’s all about them. Why do they need to create any discomfort for themselves?

The Health Assessment helps both groups and individuals to identify their strengths and growth areas. More importantly, the Health Plan helps them create appropriate next steps for their growth. Whether the members are ready to crawl, walk or run, growth is determined at their own place and pace. No one expects a baby to get up and start running. No one should expect a mature adult to revert to crawling either.

Balancing the five biblical purposes is key. While most groups and group members will be strong in fellowship and discipleship, they will more than likely be weak in worship, ministry and evangelism. Rather than creating a group of comfortable, Bible eggheads, balancing the purposes challenges the group to think beyond itself and to get everyone’s gifts in the game of reaching out and serving others. Groups that grow inward will cease to grow both numerically and spiritually. The mere accumulation of knowledge is actually a waste of everyone’s time if they don’t seek to apply God’s Word in practical ways and to support each other in the transition.

The best part of Small Groups with Purpose is that the model Steve Gladen presents is scalable. The system that helps Saddleback effectively care for thousands of groups and tens of thousands of group members will also help a church with a handful of groups and a few dozen members. In my work at Lifetogether and Purpose-Driven coaching hundreds of pastors across the country, I have seen these principles work in churches of all sizes, in all regions of North America, and in practically every Christian denomination. Whether your church has 40 members or 40,000, the principles offered in this book will help your church grow both numerically and spiritually.

Purchase your copy of Small Groups with Purpose here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and Baker Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Related Books:

Connecting In Communities by Eddie Mosley

Leading Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen

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How Can We Find Good Small Group Studies?

By Allen White

Back in the day, good studies were few and far between. Today, the problem is out of so many great studies, which do you choose? Here are a few resources that might help:

Overwhelmed

1.       View Samples Online.

Online Booksellers like Amazon.com or Christianbookdistributors.com sometimes offer samples of study guides and often video content. If they don’t , then the publisher might offer these samples. A quick review of a sample lesson or video might give you a sense of whether the study would work for your group. Often you can print out a sample lesson for your group to review. At a minimum, point them to the website

2.       Connect with Your Coach.

Your coach is an experienced small group leader who has led quite a number of studies over the years. Since coaches work with groups that are similar to yours, they will have suggestions based on what other groups have enjoyed. They can also help you in evaluating a study that is outside of the norm for the church

3.       Check This Study Review Site.

The Small Group Studies site is a place where small group leaders can find information for the DVD-based studies currently available in the Small Group Library. You will find reviews from other small group leaders along with links to online curriculum samples.

4.       Use a Message Discussion Guide.

A Message Discussion Guide is a great way to help people take their weekend into their week. The Discussion Guide gives group members an opportunity to take the truths learned on Sunday morning and apply them to their lives. There is no advance preparation apart from attending the Sunday morning service or viewing it online prior to the group meeting.

5.       Follow a Church-wide Series.

At least once a year, the church will align a message series with a small group study. Like the Message Discussion Guide, this offers an opportunity to discuss and apply the teaching from Sunday morning. Usually the small group study will involve a teaching DVD. The DVD allows the opportunity for multiple members of your group to facilitate a lesson, since the pressure of teaching is relieved by the DVD.

These are just a few ways to choose a study. There are many more. The key is to find a study that your entire group is interested in. If there’s a difference opinion, then plan out the next two or three studies to incorporate everyone’s good ideas.

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