By Mark Kelly
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New Life Christian Center in Turlock, California, was stuck on a plateau. For seven long years, Associate Pastor Allen White had been trying to develop a small group program that connected every member of the church in community. He knew an effective small group ministry was the key to taking the church to a level of ministry he had only dreamed of. But despite all his best efforts, they couldn’t get but about a third of the adults involved.
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“The thought of connecting everybody in a group was my dream,” Allen said, “but we were stuck at 30 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.
“I thought my senior pastor was in favor of small groups, but not enough. My small group leaders were stifled by the whole apprenticing-multiplication process. None of them could find an apprentice in their group. Some of them had started greeting me on Sunday morning with ‘I’m working on my apprentice.’ Whatever happened to ‘Hello’?”
“Only one guy named Carlos ever birthed anything in our church. I wanted to call the Guinness Book of World Records! It seemed that connecting everyone was only a pipe dream.”
Then, a few months later, at a gathering of church leaders, Allen listened as Kent Odor from Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas stood up to share how they had connected large numbers in their congregation in a relatively short period of time. Allen heard how groups could multiply without dividing. He learned how people overlooked in recruiting would actually start some of the best new groups.
Allen was intrigued, but unconvinced. He had some decisions to make.
On the drive home, he began to think about what his senior pastor, David Larson, was the most passionate about. At the time, it was the approaching release of “The Passion of the Christ,” the Mel Gibson movie everyone was buzzing about. Dave had planned a message series and ordered a banner for their church sign on the highway.
The light suddenly came on for Allen: Why not launch small groups based on the Passion?
And that’s exactly what they did. Allen asked his senior pastor to invite anyone who would open their hearts and their homes to a group of people for a 6-week study to host a group. In one day, that church of 800 adults doubled the number of their small groups! After Easter, they added 50 percent more new groups in another campaign. Things were getting out of control in a very good way!
When autumn hit, they started recruiting hosts for the biggest launch of the year. Pastor Dave aligned his weekly messages with a Lifetogether study. They took 50 verses from the Bible and asked 50 members of the church to write a one-page devotional, which they then compiled into a book. When it was all said and done, they had enough groups for 125 percent of their average adult attendance and had given out 1088 devotionals books. Well over 100 percent of their average adult attendance was plugged into a group!
“We were all in awe,” Allen now says. “The pipe dream was suddenly a reality.”
Allen realized the only reason the church had been stuck on that plateau was because of a mental block.
“It was like back in the 1950s when everyone said no man could ever run a four-minute mile. It was just a dream,” he says. “Then, on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister ran the mile in 3:59.4 minutes. After that, many runners broke that barrier. Four minutes wasn’t a physical barrier. It was a mental block.
“New Life Christian Center had just broken the four minute mile. Churches actually could start small groups that would involve the majority of the congregation and then reach their communities through community!”
This wasn’t about numbers, though. One man named Ken invited his co-workers to join him for a study on the Passion movie. Two of them accepted Christ.
When one host named David was asked, “What motivates you to continue your group?” he replied, “My dad showed up.” Because of a painful experience years before, David’s dad had turned his back on church. But though he refused to walk through the church doors, he was willing to attend a small group meeting at his son’s house. That was his first step back toward God.
New Life’s small groups began to reach out beyond the congregation. Groups served hot meals to the homeless every Friday night. One host took the study to a local women’s shelter. Another started a group on her commuter train. Another woman decided to do the study, because she and her friends went for coffee every Thursday morning at Starbucks anyway. Why not do the study too?
A guy named Rick picked up the study to do with his friends. Carlos, who was now a small group coach, called him to check in. He found that Rick was very passionate about his group – and the pastors didn’t even know who Rick was.
Connecting 100 percent of your congregation in small groups is far more than a sales pitch. Connecting 100 percent is the first step in reaching beyond the walls of your church and connecting your community. In the pages that follow, you will read about principles that have unlocked amazing growth and community outreach for church after church. It can happen in your church too!
I think the six week campaign is the best idea to come along in a decade.
It’s really the best way for people to experience groups for themselves. We can talk up groups until we’re blue in the face, but the “free trial” is the best way to get people hooked.
great article! gave me some ideas on small group implementation in the church planting process.
Awesome Doc! It’s been a long time, my friend. Hope you’re doing well.
Allen, you mention in the last paragraph, “in the pages to come”. Are you referring to future posts on your blog?
Good catch, Gary. This account from our church in California was excerpted from a larger project the writer was working on. Guess I should edit the last sentence.
Anything you’d like me fill you in in?
Inadvertently removed my post Allen, but yes. Is there a way to read the larger project? I recently started reading your blog and appreciate your contributions!
I just emailed you. Let’s continue the conversation “offline.”
I worshiped at another church in Turlock for six years before moving to Texas. I heard many great things about New Life and even found that after talking about God with some of my coworkers in Modesto they visited New Life (they found some much needed services at the big church that our church did not offer for their kids). Glad to hear that things went so well with the small groups connections. Nice work and praise God! Hopefully your ministry is still flourishing at New Life.
Christopher, I left New Life in 2006 after serving there for 15 years. God did amazing things there and still is!