Andy Stanley on new groups

Amazing-Power-FRONTA youth pastor in Georgia got a vision for doubling groups in a kind of accidental way. By that I mean that he did not sit down one day and ask God, “Give me a plan for reaching Atlanta for You!” It was more like this. Because he was a youth pastor, he spent all his time with the youth. He longed to have some adult contact. He enjoyed being with the youth, but he was with the youth in Sunday School and at fellowships. He had them in his home and he was around them all the time. He wanted to have some time somewhere when he could have an adult only fellowship time. So, he started a home group.

Because it was rooted out of his desire to want to enjoy some adult fellowship, it was a closed group. Once the original group of six couples was set, they didn’t invite anyone else to join. They wouldn’t even allow anyone else to come. But, they told their friends about it and their friends wanted to be involved in a group like that. So, after eighteen months, it seemed the kind thing to do to divide the group down the middle. Three couples went one way and invited three more couples. Three couples went the other way and invited three more couples. Now they had two groups. Eighteen months later they did this again. Andy saw this happen several more times so that when he stated his own church, he decided to make this a key component of how they were going to do church at Northpoint Community Church. They were going to give the ministry to laymen who live out church life at the cellular level and see those groups grow and divide, grow and divide, grow and divide.

Ten years later, they have 15,000 attending Northpoint Community Church. That is the amazing power of doubling groups. At my seminars, I share a video clip of Andy casting a vision for the importance of doubling groups. Let me transcribe the clip here:

“The most motivating thing of all for us. (This may not mean anything to you. This may be like a big, ‘so-what’ to you, but this is so huge to us.) We have been in group a long time now, and as I have evaluated our history, I am convinced of this, for me and for you, if you are in a group: I believe that being in a community group that is committed to meet for a year to eighteen months and dividing and a year to eighteen months and dividing, I am convinced that if we stay in community group, and keep leading groups, that group gives Sandra and I more potential to impact more people directly and indirectly than anything else we could do together or alone, including my preaching on Sunday morning

I believe that together by being involved in a group Sandra and I have the potential to impact more people directly and indirectly in their relationship with Christ than anything else we could do together, or that I could do by myself.

Let me explain it to you this way, let me ask you some questions. The first one, you do know the answer to. How many of you plan to be alive nine years from now–you think you will make it another nine years?

Here is the question you don’t have an answer to. Everybody is thinking, “I have a good nine years in me.”

Here are the next two questions. First question is this: how many people do you think you can impact for Christ in the next nine years? How many people? You go, “I don’t know, I never thought about it.”

OK, here is the next question you probably don’t have an answer to: what is your plan for impacting people for Christ in the next nine years? What is your plan? “Well, if somebody comes up and says, ‘How can I become a Christian I will tell them?’” Well, that is a plan! “Honk my horn and go down the neighborhood on Sunday morning and yell out, ‘we are going to church!’ I don’t have a plan. That is a silly question. That is a preacher question. I don’t have any numbers. I just try to live my life and be a good example. How about if I put a fish on the back of my car. I don’t have a plan, OK?” I understand that.

Let me share something with you. Until you come up with a plan, or, until you come up with a better plan, would you just consider this plan? This plan is simple. You don’t have to sing, dance, learn to play the guitar, speak in public, juggle. . . you don’t have to learn anything knew. If you will simply get in a community group and allow God to do what he wants to do in you and through you and at the end of a year or eighteen months, start a new group, and do that for another year or eighteen months and start a new group, did you know that in nine years you would have impacted directly or indirectly over six hundred and forty people?

Now, if you have a better nine-year plan, run your plan, share it with me, we will spend a weekend talking about it, but until you come up with plan, why not do this? Simply by being in the system you would have impacted six hundred and forty people. Just by being apart of the system–you have to do something, right?

And these are not just fictitious numbers to me because I have been doing this for over nine years. And as Sandra and I look at the leaders in groups and the hundreds of people that are in groups as a result of our first group, this is a reality to us.

Now, let me tell you something that will really blow your mind. If we could ever get our arms around this, we could make history together. You ready for this? Because of the number of people in our organization on all of our campuses that are already in small groups–just adults, not children, not college students, not high school students–if you just took the number of adults that we currently have in groups, if, over the next nine years we just continue to do group the way I have explained it, at the end of nine years we would have over half a million people in groups.

Andy Stanley started his church in 1995. Ten years later over fifteen-thousand people attend. The reason has much to do with giving the ministry to laymen who are using their gifts to grow their groups to double every two years or less. That is an amazing story, but it is not my best story.

Andy Stanley: circles are better than rows

deepAndWideSo right about now you’re thinking, Hmm. How do you program that?

You don’t.

You can create practical Bible teaching, but you can’t create a providential relationship.

Our team spent a lot of time discussing the church’s role in this important faith catalyst. Here’s what we concluded. While it’s beyond our ability to manufacture any type of relationship, much less one characterized as providential, what we can do is create environments that are conducive to the development of these types of relationships. So we determined to do just that. I’m not exaggerating when I say that may be the most significant decision we’ve made as a team. We determined to create a model that was relationship-centric. We began looking for ways to get people connected more quickly and to keep them connected longer. This had significant implications for the way we approached family ministry and adult groups.

In Creating Community, Bill Willits provides a full description of our adult group model. What’s relevant to our discussion here is that the value we placed on providential relationships was what drove us to build our model around closed rather than open groups. We decided not to leverage adult groups as a growth engine, but rather to do everything in our power to create authentic community. So our adult Community Groups are designed to stay together for two years. We were told this wouldn’t work. But then, we were told a lot of things wouldn’t work in those days. Our entire ministry model is designed to move people into groups. We believe circles are better than rows. And we know anecdotally that within the context of our adult groups, men and women who may otherwise have never met are being used in significant ways in each other’s lives. At least 90 percent of the adults we baptize thank specific individuals in their small groups for the roles they played in their coming to faith and their decisions to be baptized. They may not use the term providential to describe these relationships, but when they tell their faith stories, it’s obvious that they were.

On the family ministry side of the aisle, our commitment to create environments conducive to providential relationships caused us to make several strategic decisions. The most significant was our decision to keep group leaders with their small groups as long as possible. The longer a group leader was with a group of kids, the more likely it was that a relationship would develop — and thus the greater chance of God using a group leader in a significant way in the life of one of the kids in his or her group. So when adults volunteer to lead a group of first graders, they stay with that group of children (and their parents) all the way through fifth grade. Not only does this create the potential for long-term relationships, it creates a degree of accountability that goes way beyond the weekend experience. It’s not unusual for group leaders to stay with their groups as they transition into our middle school ministry. That provides them with eight years of influence during what is arguably the most important time for a child developmentally, spiritually, and relationally.

We’ve seen this pay huge dividends in our middle school and high school environments. You know as well as I do that to be assigned to a group of eleventh- or twelfth-grade boys or girls as their group leader would be a tough assignment. By the time you finally gain a little trust, the school year is over and they are gone. But imagine being a small group leader for eleventh-grade boys or girls whom you’ve been with since they were in eighth or ninth grade? That would make a big difference relationally, wouldn’t it? And it does. Year after year. We have large student ministries at all of our churches. As an outsider you might be tempted to think it’s the music and the energy in the room that draws the kids. But the kids, my kids, will tell you that it’s their group leaders who make the environment special. The middle school and high school kids at our churches wouldn’t use the term providential to describe their relationships with their leaders. But when you hear their stories, when you watch their baptism videos, when you hear parents talk about the difference the leaders have made in the lives of their students, there’s no doubt about it. These are providential relationships. When those kids are adults and they describe their faith journeys, you can rest assured their high school small group leaders will be part of their stories.

Stanley, A. (2012). Deep and wide: creating churches unchurched people love to attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Andy Stanley: should unbelievers lead small groups?

deepAndWideWe almost always involve unbelievers in our small groups. And we give them opportunities to lead the discussion. One of my most memorable small group experiences was the night John led. The first night we were together as a group, John announced that the only reason he was attending was to make his wife happy. Week two, he raised his hand as we were getting started and said something along the lines of, “Last week as we were finishing up, somebody prayed. Don’t expect me to ever do that.” We assured him that prayer would always be voluntary. But as the weeks progressed, God started softening John’s heart. In week eight I handed John the leader’s guide for the curriculum we were studying and asked him if he would lead the discussion the following week. He looked at me like I was crazy. Then he smiled and said, “Sure, I’ll lead” as if he was calling my bluff. But I was serious.

The following week John showed up thoroughly prepared. But the moment that made the entire night unforgettable was when he said, “Alright, the leader’s guide says we are supposed to open with prayer, and it says we are supposed to get on our knees. So let’s get on our knees and I’ll say the prayer.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. There was not a dry eye in the group as John prayed his first out loud prayer. Whew. It was simple. Heartfelt. Unforgettable. And John would be the first to tell you that he was not a Christian that night. That came later. But he was not about to let any of us out-lead him. And the process of preparing to lead our discussion that night was a faith-expanding experience for John. Heck, hearing him pray was a faith-expanding experience for our entire group! Was it risky handing an unbeliever the leader’s guide and asking him to lead our Bible study? Maybe. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

Ministry makes people’s faith bigger. If you want to increase someone’s confidence in God, put him in a ministry position before he feels fully equipped. With all that as a backdrop, here are a few things to consider before we look at the final two faith catalysts.

• How easy is it for new people and nonmembers to get involved in ministry in your model?

• Does your approach to equipping and training keep people out of ministry environments longer than necessary?

• Are there steps you could shorten or eliminate altogether?

• Are there areas where nonbelievers could be encouraged to serve?

Stanley, A. (2012). Deep and wide: creating churches unchurched people love to attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Andy Stanley: this is what it is all about

deepAndWideOne of the reasons I love our church is that I’ve gotten to see this catalyst play out in the lives of my kids. Part of our strategy for volunteering is to get our high school students involved in serving. All three of my kids were leading small groups as soon as they were old enough. Sandra and I are constantly amazed at their commitment to the kids in their groups. If it had just been our oldest, I would be tempted to chalk it up to birth order and personality. But all three plugged in early and have remained committed through a four-year cycle.

There’s one incident in particular that stands out to me. It took place early one Sunday morning when I was planning to skip church and sleep in. Yep, I do that from time to time. But on this particular Sunday morning, I had a good excuse. To begin with, I wasn’t scheduled to preach. No surprise there. But what made my justification ironclad were the events of the previous evening. We had invited my mom over for dinner. As she was getting her things together to leave, she had a seizure. This was the first time something like this had happened. Her mother had had a series of strokes before she died, and we were afraid that this might be the case with my mom. We called the paramedics. They arrived just as she was waking up. For precaution’s sake, they suggested that I let them take her to the hospital. I agreed. So off we went. The ER doctors quickly diagnosed her condition but decided to keep her overnight for observation.

Sandra and I didn’t get home until two in the morning. There was no way we were going to church. And if I wasn’t going, I sure wasn’t expecting my kids to go. They were seventeen, fifteen, and fourteen at the time. We went to bed expecting to sleep late. Guilt-free. So you can imagine how surprised we were to be awakened at eight by three showered and ready-for-church teenagers who popped in to tell us they were headed out. Don’t judge me too harshly for this, but all I could think to say was, “Really? Why?” Their response: “We don’t want to miss our groups.”

All I could think of was the series of illnesses I rotated through Sunday after Sunday in an effort to convince my parents I was too sick to go to church. My kids were going without me. And I’m the preacher. As the clatter of their footsteps faded down the hall, I turned to Sandra and said, “We may have just witnessed a miracle.”

Stanley, A. (2012). Deep and wide: creating churches unchurched people love to attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Andy Stanley: how to encourage people in private spiritual disciplines

deepAndWideFrom the beginning we have looked for ways to coax, bribe, bait, and equip everybody from kindergarten up to engage in some kind of private devotional exercise. I’m constantly telling people during the weekend services to go home and read their Bibles. The practical application for many of our messages is to go home and begin praying a specific prayer. Often, we will print the prayer on a card and hand it out at the end of a message or series. Occasionally, I will select four to eight passages that go along with a series and we will create memory verse cards to hand out to our congregants. Not an inexpensive endeavor. We encourage people to read ahead for the next week.

As mentioned earlier, one of our most important ministries, Starting Point, introduces seekers and returners to the importance of self-study and prayer. In that environment, attendees are given simple guides for reading the Bible on their own. In addition, they are given Bibles along with the curriculum.

On the giving side of things, we are very upfront with the importance of what I refer to as priority, progressive, percentage giving. Priority as in: give first, save second, and live on the rest. Percentage as in: choose a percentage and give it consistently. Progressive is a challenge to up the amount by a percentage every year. While I’m a big believer in tithing, people who have never given away a percentage of their incomes are not going to begin with 10 percent. Sure, some will. But if you are going to teach people to tithe, you may have to start with some baby steps.

On the family side, parents of elementary-age kids are given a Parent Card every month. This card is a simple guide to help parents lead their children in a daily devotion. Every year our middle school and high school divisions create a curriculum or weekend event around the importance of private spiritual disciplines. Recently, our high school ministry created an entire weekend experience around the theme To Hear God Speak … Hide and Seek. We build a gadget-free quiet time into the daily schedule of all our student camps. Each student is given a devotional to read and is required to sit alone for thirty minutes to read, reflect, and pray. One of the most emotional and memorable moments of my summer is standing on a hotel balcony and seeing eight or nine hundred high school students spread out along the beach reading their Bibles, scribbling notes, and praying. It gives me hope for our nation and our world. For many of those kids, that exercise jump-starts their devotional lives.

Now, before we move on to the third catalyst, there’s an important facet of this one I don’t want you to miss. The sooner we can get unbelievers reading their Bibles and praying, the better. You don’t need to be shy about pushing them to do so. But for it to work, you’ve got to put the cookies on the bottom shelf. The way you talk about the Bible on the weekend will determine their interest in the Bible during the week. You’ve got to make it accessible. You’ve got to give them permission to read it before they believe it. As I mentioned during the discussion of the first catalyst, if you present the Scriptures in helpful terms, you’ve just removed an obstacle.

This is another reason we print prayers and hand them out. People who don’t normally pray often don’t know where to begin. It may be second nature for you. It’s terrifying for some of them. Terrifying. They need printed prayers to prime the pump. Now, I’ve been around long enough to know that somebody out there in reader world is thinking: But does God hear the prayers of unbelievers? I’m inclined to think God hears whatever he wants to hear. Based on what Luke tells us in Acts 10 about Cornelius, the Roman centurion, we know God hears sincere prayers. Heck, Cornelius got a visit from an angel. I’ve never had one of those and I have a master’s in theology. So I wouldn’t worry too much about encouraging the seekers, skeptics, and Roman centurions in your church to start praying.

Here are a few other things to ponder:


• In your model, at what age do you begin teaching the importance of private spiritual disciplines?

• How and how often is this value reinforced with your students?

• What devotional and personal Bible study resources do you make available, and how accessible are they?

• How difficult is it for people in your church to get a Bible?

• When is the last time you did a weekend message on spiritual disciplines?

• How could you use the weekend to reinforce this value on a regular basis?

• What could you do to prioritize this in the mix of everything else you are doing?

• Are spiritual disciplines a priority in your life?

Stanley, A. (2012). Deep and wide: creating churches unchurched people love to attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Andy Stanley: the secret side of growing as a disciple

deepAndWideThe secret side of the Christian experience is a really big deal to me. I’m not sure I would be doing what I’m doing today if it weren’t for something God whispered to me during a quiet time in college. I’ve shared this story in a prior book. So I’ll spare you the details. Bottom line, when I was a junior in college, I was in my closet praying. Literally, in my closet praying. Since I “wrestle with” so much of what Jesus taught, this seemed like a reasonable trade-off.

So during college I created a prayer closet under the stairs in the basement of my parents’ house. One morning, as I was praying, I told God how committed I was and how I would do anything and go anywhere and marry anybody. Okay, go anywhere and do anything. I just wanted to be used. Right in the middle of my sign-me-up-for-anything diatribe, a thought popped into my mind that was so strong it was like a voice. The thought went something like this: You cheated on two exams your freshman year and … The “and” related to a prank that went terribly wrong and resulted in a terrifying evening for a family I knew—still makes my stomach churn to think about it. Bottom line, I had never owned up to it. Honestly, I was afraid I might be arrested. Besides, I was in high school when the incident took place. These memories were so shocking I literally stopped praying and looked around the closet. Sure that it was the devil trying to distract me, I closed my eyes and went right back to it. But all I could think about were those two dishonest grades and the family that I had sinned against.

Gee, I hope my kids don’t read this … like my kids would actually read one of my books.

For the next several months … yes months … every time I got on my knees to pray, I couldn’t pray. I’ve never heard God’s voice. But the message was unmistakably clear. Before we go forward, we have to go back. Overactive conscience? Nope. I’ve never struggled with that. It got to the point where I felt that my potential for future ministry hung in the balance of how I would respond to that not-so-still, not-so-quiet voice screaming in my head. So I retook both college freshman classes during my junior year. There was no point confessing. There was nobody to confess to. I retook the classes and paid for them myself. And eventually I drove over to the office of the man whose family I had terrorized and confessed. Hardest thing I’ve ever done. All because of a quiet time. Some reward, huh?

Actually, the entire episode did wonders for my faith. God saw me praying. He loved me enough not to lead me forward until I first went back. That’s a lot of love.

I bet you have your own story, don’t you? I bet you’ve heard that not-so-still, not-so-quiet voice as well. And as disturbing as it was, acting on what God told you did wonders for your faith, didn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if all the teenagers, college students, and single and married adults in your congregation had devotional lives that put them in a position to hear from God? Imagine what would happen in our churches. If that level of personal discipline and focus is to become the rule rather than the exception, we must weave this value into the fabric of everything we do organizationally. Here are some ways we’ve attempted to do just that.



Stanley, A. (2012). Deep and wide: creating churches unchurched people love to attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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