By Allen White
Everyone is already in a group.
When I say “group,” something from years of church Bible studies come to mind. You might protest that there are plenty of people who aren’t in groups like this. But it’s true. Everyone is already in a group, it’s just not the group you have in mind. People are in groups called families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, soccer moms, and many others. If your question is how are these church groups? I want to suggest you change your question to what can these groups do intentionally about their spiritual growth?
When Pastor Troy Jones from New Life Church, Renton, WA, stood up and invited his 2,500 adults to gather their friends for a six-week study, 300 adults responded to lead a group. At first glance, hundreds and hundreds of people immediately “joined groups.” But the truth is, they were already in these groups. The addition was a sermon-aligned curriculum, on-the-job training, and a support structure to help them, but, overall, these groups weren’t strangers who became friends. They were friends becoming closer to each other and closer to God.
I’ve seen this happen in churches of 50 members and churches of over 20,000, but I didn’t start thinking about groups this way.
Over twenty years ago, when we first launched groups at New Life Christian Center in Turlock, CA, I believed all of our “sheep” were lost without a “shepherd,” and there is definitely some truth to that. I looked out at our congregation of 250 or so adults and felt we needed to do something to get our people connected, as our church had rapidly grown from eighty-five to 250. As Rick Warren says, “Our church must always be growing larger and smaller at the same time. . . . there must be a balance between the large group celebrations and the small group cells.”
My senior pastor and I handpicked nine mature couples to join me and start groups. We invited our congregation to sign up for one of these groups for twelve months. Every group chose their own curriculum. I led a monthly huddle and, for the most part, was the sole coach. The groups went strong for twelve months, then all ten of them quit, including mine.
Not only was my method not multiplying groups, it wasn’t even adding. It was time to get serious about groups if they were ever going to work at our church.
I spent the summer of 1997 on sabbatical and studied churches and their groups. I attended fifteen different church services and interviewed a dozen pastors. I read about a dozen books. At the end of that research effort, our church set out to start groups in a dif-ferent way from our previous attempt. We decided to start groups using the findings Carl George presents in Prepare Your Church for the Future that were popularized by the small group model at Willow Creek Community Church. I recruited two mature lead-ers to coach and ten more leaders to lead, and we started a turbo group—a temporary group designed to give leaders a crash course in group life, then help them launch groups of their own. In the six weeks of the turbo group, we covered all of the basics of group life. (Well, at least as many basics as you can cover in six weeks.) Then we launched groups.
People filled out sign up cards to join groups, and all of the groups started on the same study about building community. This time all of the groups were starting from the same DNA. All of our leaders were expected to identify apprentice leaders who would be trained, then eventually released to start their own groups. This time we were going to move from a group method that produced no new groups to a system that would give us new groups hand over fist. Our total number of groups would grow by double or better every year. We dreamed that in just five years all of our adults would be connected into groups.
But none of my leaders could find an apprentice.
I plugged along with a new turbo group every year. I would handpick the new recruits. Some years we launched ten new groups. Other years, we launched only two. A couple of years we launched none. After seven years of pounding this nail, we had thirty percent of our eight hundred adults in groups, but we were stuck.
The thought of connecting everybody in a group was my dream, but we weren’t growing past thirty percent. We were slugging it out the old-fashioned way—raise up an apprentice, birth a group, and deal with the aftermath—but we were headed nowhere.
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