Imagine a world where growing groups was normal. Imagine a world where the normal thing for the normal group in the normal church under normal circumstances was to grow. It was not unusual or noteworthy; it was expected because that is what usually happened.

Imagine in this world some group leaders sit down to have lunch and swap stories. A young guy speaks up. He has just started leading a group and is a little nervous. “How do you guys do it?” he asks the more senior leaders. “I want my group to grow but I am not sure how.”

“Just work the plan.” A guy in his thirties says. “I have grown my group through parties. We have a party every month. I have some ladies who do a great job of putting everything together. There are some guys that do some calling for me. I try to help as well, but preparing the lesson each week keeps me busy, so I try to get as many people involved as I can.”

“It is real simple,” says a lady in the group. “We just go to Pizza Hut every Sunday after church—you know, the one right next door. I wander around the auditorium before the service starts looking for anyone I have not seen before. I invite them out for Pizza. We offer to buy. We have started like five groups in the last six years and all we do is invite people to pizza every week.”

“Our deal is Chinese food on Sunday night.” Another chimes in. “One a month we all go out for Chinese food. We all order off the menu, get one helping of what we order, set our plate on the table and then eat family style. We can all get a variety that way. We try to invite members who have been absent from the group, as well as recent visitors to the church. Nine times out of ten, if we get them in for Chinese, the show up for class. [Note: the essential fact in each of these cases is a true story.]

The conversation goes on and on like this. Imagine this is normal. That is my dream, my prayer, the guiding obsession of my life. Here is what I know about this dream: we won’t get there without pastors. Group leaders don’t get there on their own; they are lead by pastors. They don’t get there because they read books on What Makes Groups Grow. They are led by pastors. It can become normal in your church for groups to grow, but it will require leadership on the part of the pastors of your church.

Notice, I said, “pastors”—plural. Leading by example needs to be done by all of the pastors. Cheerleading is mostly done by the Senior pastor. Training and rewarding will most likely be done by the Small Group Pastor. Let’s talk about each one of these.


Lead by example

Bill Hybels says, “The leader must embody the vision.” Growing groups is not the only way to grow a church. But, if you are going to grow your church through growing groups, the leaders must embody the vision.

I have a friend, Lance Witt that was in charge of groups at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church until he moved in the Executive Pastor role. He has told me about how when Rick got in a group, group life skyrocketed. But just as important as Rick getting in a group was that Rick began to talk about his group in his messages. By doing so, he raised the value of group life and it began to get into the dna of the church life at Saddleback. People began to think, “if it’s important for someone as busy as Rick Warren, maybe it should be important for me.” As the leader embodies the vision of small groups, the people get it.

Andy Stanley champion closed groups. Once a group gets started, newcomers are not allowed to come. (I am not sure they have an armed guard at the door preventing them; perhaps I should say newcomers are not encouraged to attend.) They have grown a huge small group system on closed small groups. They have a publically stated goal of having 50,000 in closed small groups by 1010.

It is easy to see the success at Northpoint and think that closed groups are the answer. But, if you look around at other churches, you will soon find that their closed group system is the exception, not the rule. I have had quite a bit of experience with closed groups and I can’t figure out how they make it work. In my experience we start with 12 and 12 weeks later we have 5. That is OK because it was a 12 week class and we start over again next semester with 12 again. But, they have found a way to sustain these groups for 18 months to 2 years. Then they encourage the groups to multiply.

If you listen to Andy you will get the idea that closed groups are the key. He is persuasive in his argument that in closed group trust can develop, people really open up over time and people really get close. You listen for a while and you will be persuaded. But, just as great athletes don’t always really know what made them great, sometimes great churches don’t really know what made them great. I don’t think it is the closed group system at all.

I have caught Andy five times saying essentially the same thing that is a better explanation as to why their small groups are working. Five times I have heard Andy say something like, “I am in a group that is committed to doubling; I want you to be in a group that is committed to doubling.” I quoted one of these examples back on page ***********.

The reason groups are working at Northpoint is not because they are closed. It is because the Senior pastor stands up about twice a year in the pulpit and says, “I am in a group; I want you to be in a group.” The leader must embody the vision.

Johnny Hunt is another example of a pastor that leads by example. In a world where many pundits are claiming the day of the Sunday School is over, he has seen his Sunday School grow from **************. His Minister of Education has written a coupel of great books on group life including Sunday School in HD. At Woodstock, they live it you. Johnny Hunt’s example and cheerleading are a real key. He spoke at my home church last year and I heard him share about how he personally attends a Sunday School class every week. He has plenty of responsibilities that could provide and adequate excuse—including serving as the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, but he takes time to attend a group each week. His Minister of Education, Allan Taylor speaks of the importance of this: “How can the pastor champion the cause of Sunday School? I think it starts by joining and attending a Sunday School class himself. His example will send and unequivocal message to the entire congregation that Sunday School is important around here.”

Pastor Larry Osborn champions sermon based groups in this excellent book, Sticky Church. Groups are encouraged to get together and talk about the pastor. You might be thinking, “They do that at my church already!” In this case, what they mean is they encourage people to talk about how to apply the pastor’s sermons to their lives. While the idea of sermon-based groups is a good one, I don’t think you can attribute their success to sermon-based groups. Larry Osborne leads North Coast Church in Vista, CA. He is a pioneer in the multi-site movement, and as such, has led his church to have twenty weekend services with 7,000 attending. Much of the credit must go to Larry Osborn’s leading by example, not to the specific strategy of sermon-based groups. In an Outreach magazine article, he says, “Involve all key leaders. Our lay leadership and staff are expected to be in a Growth Group. If your key leaders are too busy to be in a small group, it sends the message that small groups are an extra credit offering for those with time on their hands.

Nelson Searcy is the pastor of The Journey in New York City. He believes in semester by semester groups. He has an excellent book on the subject called Activate. They have more people attending groups than they have attending worship. But, I don’t think the success can be attributed to the semester by semester approach so much as the success can be attributed to the pastor and staff leading by example. His words: “Most leader pastors share a common temptation when it comes to small groups: They want to turn the temptation over to someone else. They want to give it to a dedicated staff specialist so they don’t have to deal with it. We know! In theory this doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But the truth is, handing the system off too early is the worst thing a pastor can do for the small group system. As a matter of fact, when it comes to implementing a successful small group system, every single person has to be involved, starting with the top.”

Pastor, if you would lead your groups to grow, get in a group. Do what Bill Hybels says, “The leader must embody the vision.” But, being in a group is not enough. There are three more things the pastor and staff must do.



Which do you think would make more difference, the pastor attending a group, or the pastor cheerleading group life? I would have thought it would be the pastor attending the group, but again I would have been wrong. The pastor attending a group does matter. Churches where the pastor attends a group are more likely to be growing, but what really makes the difference is the pastor cheerleading groups. Churches where the pastor regularly cheerleads group life are nearly twice as likely (78%) to be growing as those where the pastor does not cheerlead group life.

As you might expect, where a pastor does both, we get the best results:

At Northpoint, they build this cheerleading into the calendar. Every January and May Andy Stanley recasts the vision for group life. Visions don’t stick. They have to be repeated continuously.



Training is a third thing that pastors can do to help groups grow. Churches that provide training for their group leaders are more likely to be growing.

What do teachers need to be trained in? I recommend training teachers in the things that predict growth:

•     Faith and confidence

•     Spiritual vibrancy

•     People skills

•     Team-building skills

•     Hospitality skills

•     Outreach strategies. (Could be visitation, hospitality, life-style evangelism or some other strategy.)

•     Teaching skills

As you can see, there are lots of areas in which group leaders need to be trained. Effective small group churches have an effective on-going training program. Andy Anderson said, “Sunday School leader training, in my estimation is the most important meeting in the church. If you use this meeting correctly, it will revolutionize the church.”

My friend, Dr. Steve Parr is head of Evangelism Ministries for the Georgia Baptist Convention and was formerly head of Open Groups for the Georgia Baptist Convetion. He has done a great deal of research on the Baptist churches in Georgia. He points out that 2/3s of Southern Baptist Sunday Schools are not growing, while 1/3 are growing. What makes the difference? Steve Parr’s research suggests that, “one of the crucial differences relates to training.”

What does Steve base this on? The Georgia Baptist Convention did a study of the fifty fastest growing churches in Georgia. All but one—98% reported a systematic approach to leader training. 58% of the churches I surveyed had training once a year or less. There is a good reason why many of our churches are not doing well. People do what we train them to do.

Allan Taylor basis his belief in the importance of training on his experience as a football coach. “When I coached High School football, I would not even entertain the idea that some of my players would miss practice. They were expected to be there, an only sickness or family death would excuse them.” Allan expects pretty much the same thing of his teachers.


Can training be overdone?

This is an area, however where balance and creativity are in order. People are busy. Larry Osborn talks about this in Sticky Church. He says the biggest mistake they made in their early days was to over-train. They wanted their small group leaders to be the best trained small group leaders anywhere. While that sounds good on the surface, their people had lives. They learned to get creative.

They still have a fall training event, but it is an evening instead of an all day event. They provide CDs for group leaders to listen to so they can get training on the run—while they are driving or doing dishes or, well, running. Here is their most creative idea. They do some of their training on Sunday morning during the worship service. Larry Osborn admits not being too excited about this at first, but he has come around to the idea. While he is preaching in one room, the teachers are in another room being trained. I have talked to a number of churches that do this on an annual basis. They all report the same thing. If they offer training, say, on a Friday night or Saturday morning, they are lucky to get half their leaders there. When they do it on Sunday morning, pretty much everyone shows up.

At Larry Osborn’s North Coast church, much of their training is need-based. That is, when a leader runs into a bump, they come up with a resource to help them get around it, or provide coaching to deal with it. Training is more on a need to know basis.

At Northpoint, Andy Stanley and Bill Willits recommend that we “train less for more.” “To train less for more” means we narrow the scope of what we train our leaders on, so we can say more about the things that matter most.” In the case of Northpoint, the things that matter most for small group leaders can be reduced to six things:

•     Think life change. The goal is not to make smarter sinners. The goal is to make disciples.

•     Cultivate relationships. Small groups are all about creating community.

•     Promote participation. Leaders are to be navigators of discussion, not teachers of curriculum.

•     Replace yourself. Northpoint encourages every group to have an apprentice.

•     Provide care. The primary way they provide care at Northpoint is not through a team of professionals so much as through small groups.

•     Multiply influence. Group multiplication allows leaders to impact lives than they could any other way. Imagine a group that multiplies every 18 months. Consider the following chart:

Year # of people
Now 12
1.5 24
3 48
4.5 96
6 192
7.5 384
9 768
10.5 1536


Having identified these main 6 things they want small group leaders to know, they say them over and over and over again. In training meetings and personal conversations with group leaders they hammer away at these six things, year after year.

Nelson Searcy agrees with this “less is more” approach. “We’ve found that a shorter training session can actually be significantly more effective than a longer session.” They do half-day training sessions at the beginning of each semester and supplement that with electronic training each week.

Finding a way to train effectively is difficult. These are busy days. Still, people need it and effective churches find a way to get it done. There is one more thing that group leaders desperately need from their leaders.



Michael Leboeuf wrote a business classic called, The Greatest Management Principle in the World. What was the greatest management principle in the world? Here it is in a sentence: whatever gets rewarded gets done. We don’t get what we want, what we ask for, or what we hope for. Whatever gets rewarded gets done.

John Maxwell talks about this in The 360 Degree Leader. “It doesn’t matter if the thing that gets rewarded is positive or negative. Whatever actions leaders reward will be repeated.”

Extensive research bears this out. Healthstream Research conducted over 200,000 interviews over ten years with managers and their employees around the world. Here are a few of their findings:

•     In response to the question, “My organization recognizes excellence,” the organizations that scored in the lowest fourth overall had an average return on equity (ROE) of 2.4% whereas those that scored in the top fourth had an average ROE of 8.7%.

•     The teams and offices rated most highly by employees in response to, “My manager does a good job of recognizing employee contributions,” also typically place in the top scores for customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and retention.

•     Of the people who report the highest moral at work, 94.4% agree that the managers at effective in recognition. In contrast, 56% of employees who report low morale give their manager a failing grade on recognition, and only 2.4% of have low morale say they have a boss who is great at recognition.


How to rewarding group leaders

I saw a great example of rewarding group leaders through recognition at a Leadership Appreciation Dinner in Louisville, KY. Hal Pettigrew had me in to speak at this annual event. Hal had really done it right. They had awards for just about everyone. Everyone whose group grew any at all got a certificate. If you had 10.1 last year and 10.2 this year you received an award.

They had awards for the fastest growing groups, for the groups that sent out the most workers, and for the groups that saw the most people accept Christ. (Children’s groups tended to do the best at this.) And, Hal didn’t recognize just the leaders, the whole team received recognition. They were given a bag a candy and told to celebrate with the entire group. The idea was to create lots of winners.

One award really got my attention. It was the teachers’ award—nominated and elected by the teachers themselves. The lady who won was and elderly lady who had been teaching forever. I was sitting nearby and watched her as she sat down from receiving the award. She rubbed her hand slowly back and forth across the piece of paper that read, “Teacher of the Year.” I could hear her repeat quietly, “I can’t believe they did this for me. I just can’t believe it. No one has ever done anything like this before.”

She kept saying this over and over softly to herself, rubbing her hand back and forth across the piece of paper.

I have a guess. It is only a guess; I can’t prove it. When she dies and her kids rummage through her belongings, they are going to find that piece of paper. She will keep it the rest of her life.

It was just a piece of paper—and acknowledgement of work well done. But, she will keep it the rest of her life.

Such is the value of acknowledgement, and it is one of the primary things we do to reward.

An annual appreciation banquet is just one way to reward your leaders. There are a million ways. Richard King, Minister of Education at First Baptist, Las Cruces, NM is fond of passing out Dairy Queen gift cards. They are fairly inexpensive and he passes out lots of them.

A well-worded email, a pat on the back, or some tangible gift can all be used to reward.

Some reward ought to be for everyone—an acknowledgment of work well done. We need to say thank you to everyone for the work they do.

Some rewards are more specialized—for work really well done. Reward the groups that are growing. Get em on the stage. Give em an atta boy!

Some rewards are for behavior, while others can be for results. If a group has a party and invites every member and every prospect, acknowledge and thank them even if they didn’t get any new comers this time. This is the time they especially need acknowledgement. When the party goes really well, the success of the party is its own reward. When no one shows up, it is a good idea to say, “Thank for putting in the effort; hang in there, the fruit will come.”

All this talk of reward might strike you as a bit secular or worldly. It is not. God rewards. We will talk about this more later. You might dig it out for yourself. There are a lot of verses that speak to the idea that God rewards.



If you are a pastor, there are four things you can do to help your groups grow:

• Lead by example. Model what you want to see done.

• Be your groups’ biggest cheerleader

• Provide training that equips teachers in the skills discussed in this book.

• Reward. Remember: whatever gets rewarded gets done.


We turn now to some final thoughts and applications for teachers.