At Willow Creek, it took ten years in one group model before we learned to apply the bandwidth concept to our small groups structure. For ten years we had a narrow small group bandwidth: we had only one kind of small group to help scads of new Christians take their first spiritual steps toward maturity. All our official small groups met often and focused on in-depth Bible study, prayer, and accountability. This limited definition of a small group didn’t offer nonthreatening entry into community life for people who desired basic fellowship or introductory spiritual information.
But after embracing the metachurch strategy in 1992, we widened our bandwidth. Because we wanted to introduce small group life to every Willow Creek department and ministry, we began experimenting with new kinds of groups. We created terminology to help volunteer teams and staff understand this new wide bandwidth. We adopted language from American higher education, which designates introductory classes as 101-level courses, more rigorous classes as 201- or 301-level courses, and senior-year classes as 401-level courses.
Thus we have informally designated our groups as 101, 201, 301, or 401 groups, depending on spiritual intensity and meeting frequency. The 101 entry groups focus on connecting people to one another and to the church, helping them discover basic fellowship and explore introductory spiritual development. Groups at the 201 level begin to introduce a regular curriculum or study and encourage members toward a moderate level of openness and accountability. Our 201 groups provide a net of care for people, a basic support system in times of need.
Our former one-type-fits-all “disciple making” groups were the prototypes for our current 301 groups. These groups meet regularly for in-depth Bible study, prayer, and accountability.
Members of these groups place increased importance on learning and see their groups as places of primary care and longer-term relationship. Finally, 401 groups take everything a step further, meeting weekly, connecting between meetings, pursuing intentional development and growth, and exploring leadership roles in the body. “Doing life deeply together” is a phrase we use to describe the community experienced in the 401-level group environment.
These are not hard and fast categories, and we do not use these labels publicly. (No one at the church would say, “I’m in a 301 group.”) Rather, these terms help us, area leaders, and division leaders to assess bandwidth within any ministry area. The greater the bandwidth, the greater the opportunity for people to enter community.
Donahue, B., & Robinson, R., Willow Creek Association. (2009). The seven deadly sins of small group ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.