The New Life Way

Ted Haggard's free market approach to small groups













I have long been a fan of Ted Haggard and his free market approach to small groups. I was thrilled that Ted agreed to answer a few of my questions about his approach.

Ted is the pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He also serves on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals as President as well as on the Boards of Colorado Springs Association of Evangelicals, and the Center For Christian-Jewish Dialogue. He is the President of The World Prayer Center and The World Prayer Team. Haggard is Senior Editorial Advisor for Ministries Today, a monthly magazine directed to pastors and ministry leaders.

Ted Haggard


Josh Hunt: Let's start with the title of your book: Dog Training, Fly Fishing and Sharing Christ. That is unusual. What does the title mean? What do dog training and fly fishing have to do with sharing Christ?

Ted Haggard: I believe God can use everything in our lives, except our sin, to minister positively to others. People connect with one another in various ways. Some connect because of common experience, interest, stage of life, or task. People who are interested in training their dogs or going fly fishing will connect with one another while doing these things. My advice for every local church: utilize the interests of the people in your congregation to build your small groups. Certainly, some will connect around a Bible study, a book study, or a study of the pastor's sermons, but these groups will be unnecessarily limited. Certainly use these, but add to them. People's lives are so diverse and dynamic, we need to group people every way we can so we can build relationships with them. Once relationships are built, we can lead them, and when we can lead them, our opportunity to bring them to Christ is greatly increased.

Josh Hunt: So, let's say I show up at a fly fishing meeting. Well, I guess it wouldn't be a meeting. I guess I would go fly fishing with a bunch of guys. What happens next? I work with a lot of Southern Baptists and they are going to wonder, "How are you going to get the WORD to them, Brother Ted?"

Ted Haggard: Research shows that 70% of those we bring to church who stay and become part of the church are a friend or a relative. Relationships come first, then the Word. The assumption is that you are using things like Fly Fishing, etc. to attract people who don't necessarily want the Word, but are willing to come to another type of activity. Then, once relationships are built, life will provide an opportunity to get the Word into them. Also, for many, once relationships are built, they want to do a specific Bible study, etc. after they have some friends who are interested in spiritual things.

Josh Hunt: So, do you encourage your people to be in a weekly Bible study group of some kind?

Ted Haggard: Church is a weekly Bible study, and the vast majority of our people daily read their Bibles. Because of the way life works, in some stages people want to be in a small group Bible study, and other times they want to be with other soccer moms, businesspeople, etc. Small group systems within a church need to be as flexible as the lives of the people in the church. It's relationships that hold people accountable and provide support in time of need, not necessarily a small group Bible study.

Josh Hunt: Do you see this approach modeled in Jesus' ministry?

Ted Haggard: No doubt, the Bible is not written as a study, but as the stories of people who knew God and their relationships discipled others. The same is true today. We disciple with our lives first and our words second. But I don't want to minimize the importance of Bible study. We all need the Word, but we also need living Words. Thus, the role of relationships between people. We donít find Jesus sitting down with his disciples and saying, ďLetís do a Bible study together.Ē

Josh Hunt: A key theme in the book is "Free Market" groups. Tell me your story. How did you come to discover and embrace the concept of free market groups? What do you mean by the term?

Ted Haggard: Free Markets [from an economic viewpoint] provide the right amount of the goods and services people need at the price and quality they desire. I wanted a system that would self-regulate and would capitalize on the creativity and innovation of the people within the church rather than just the leadership of the church. It struck me that most small group systems actually use the failed system of central command of the old Soviet Union, North Korea and Cuba. Because of the central command system, there were excesses in some things, shortages in others, and a constant message from the central command for people to believe in and participate in the program that was "so" good for them. And of course, the central command systems do provide security for those who have suffered or are in the midst of conflict, but as a long term practice, they make people unhappy.

Free Markets, on the other hand, use the government to provide a framework for the people themselves to be creative and innovative and to determine the needs and wants within the community, and supply and demand insure that there is the right amount of each product and service, at the right price. As a result, we have 1,300 small groups that I don't have to coerce people to attend, and we naturally have the right number of Bible Study groups, sermon cells, women's and men's groups, youth groups, and Christian book study groups. It's incredible! We have the right number of task groups, etc.

The wonderful thing about Free Market Small Groups is that when people in the church have a suggestion, my default answer is yes and there is a framework for them to begin the ministry they have suggested.  It's easy and produces. And, as in free market systems, if there is no demand, the small group goes away and the leader has to find a ministry that has demand. As a result, the quality of our small groups is self-policing. It's wonderful! They have to get better on their own because there is no centralized system artificially propping up attendance by obedient surfs. This system requires that the central command believes that people know what they need, which I do. I trust people more than I trust a central command system, rather it be in a civil government or a church. As a result, this system works great with me.

Oh, about people being happy. We have people from the churches all around participating in our small group system. More people attend small groups each week than attend our church on weekends. We grow every week from people who have developed relationships with New Lifers through our small groups. So, just as central command systems make people unhappy, free market systems make people happy. How can you tell which governments are good or bad? One word: immigration. Everywhere in the world where a central command small group system is in operation near a free market small group system, immigration tells which is most effective. Free markets win every time.

Josh Hunt: I love it! I agree with you, but I hear a host of people saying, "But how do you control it?"

Ted Haggard: This is the same questions governments have asked for six thousand years. If you put control on a 1 to 10 scale, a 1 would be no control, or chaos and a 10 would be total control from the central command. Most churches do operate with a stiff control system, which is incredible to me. I think they do it out of concern to control the integrity of teaching. But we know from the lessons of the 20th century that if you control thought too tightly, you end up with rebellion, lack of ownership and innovation, and unhappy people. When people are too controlled, they will do anything they can to get some additional freedom.

As a result, I recommend enough control to ensure theological conformity to the teaching of the church, and a few other basic items, but that's about it. It's maybe a 4 or 5. As a result, people must exercise personal responsibility, but they have the opportunity to be innovative and creative, while at the same time they own what they are doing. I think fundamentally I would ask: why is control a virtue? We have 1,300 small groups right now. In all of our years, we've not had one group split off and hurt the church or try to be rebellious against the church. I think people know that we offer freedom and as a result they want to be honorable.

Now don't get me wrong. We do have section leaders that oversee each group, and the leaders of each group are trained in their responsibility as an agent of the church. So we do have oversight and control, we just don't exercise it unless we absolutely have to.

Josh Hunt: Not one group in all these years. That is amazing. That is pretty much how I ran a Sunday School, with similar results. I found people were not near as interested in teaching heresy as I was taught to believe. Still, some safe-guards are warranted. You mentioned training. Let's talk about that. If I were a group leader at your church, what training would you have for me? Is it required? You do some conferences available to the public, don't you? You might mention where people could get more information on that

Ted Haggard: The Book, Dog Training, Fly Fishing and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century talks about this philosophy. It's a book that I wrote a few years ago that helps people understand. We ask all potential small group leaders to read the book. In addition, they are all required to attend a Sunday afternoon training meeting where we review legal obligations, chain-of-command, the creed of the church that they must all agree to teach if a pertinent question arises, and then some practical issues about leadership: prayer, commitment, godly living, etc. At the end of that meeting, they meet their section leader who begins the personal assistance and oversight they need to be successful. From then on, if their section leader approves, they are ready to begin the next semester. From time to time we do conferences on this at New Life. Every summer we have a life-giving leadership conference that includes these principles.

Josh Hunt: How big should a small group be?

Ted Haggard: The term small group is a misnomer. In a free market system, there is no ceiling put on size. The number in each group is left up to the ability of the leader and the interests of the people. In the free market system, people vote with their feet. Multiplication happens naturally and only when the size of the ministry warrants it.

Josh Hunt: How do leaders get started?

Ted Haggard: The entry point for someone who wants to be a small group leader is a Sunday afternoon orientation event. I explain the role of the small group leader and the philosophy of free market groups. We conclude the orientation by having each potential small group leader fill out an application with references. They take a personality test and a spiritual gift inventory. They participate in a short interview with a zone leader. We call references, as well as conduct a Colorado State Background check. If everything checks out, they become a small group leader.

Josh Hunt: How do you train small group leaders?

Ted Haggard: Leadership training events are offered the first and third Sunday evening of each month during the semester. In these meetings there is a message from a pastor, fellowship time, and a time for section huddles where group leaders can voice concerns about their small group.

Josh Hunt: How is the overall system organized?

Ted Haggard: We have five levels of leadership: Small group leader, Section leader, Zone leader, District leader, and District Pastor. We have separated Colorado Springs into three districts and have one pastor on staff over each district. Everyone else is a volunteer. Section leaders visit each small group one time each semester and keep in contact with them regularly.

Josh Hunt: How do people in the church plug in?

Ted Haggard: We have a big rally the first week of each semester where we really promote groups and encourage everyone to plug in.

Josh Hunt: Is each group encouraged to be balanced and do all of the functions of the church?

Ted Haggard: No. Discipleship groups that study Experiencing God are better at discipleship. Volleyball groups are better at evangelism. Every group doesnít have to do everything.

Josh Hunt: How did you transition your church into the free market system?

Ted Haggard: Rather than eliminate any of our existing programs, we decided to slowly birth the new beside the old. This was not threatening to anyone because we werenít changing anything that was already in place. We didnít impose the new system on the church; we offered it.

Josh Hunt: What has been the tangible, measurable result of adopting the free market system?

Ted Haggard: Before adopting the free market approach our back door was losing about 20%. After one year of this model, our back door losses shrunk to .7%

Josh Hunt: Do you think this free market system is for everyone?

Ted Haggard: No. Let me speak in DISC terms. If you are a high C this wonít work for you. I am an ID and it works great for me.

Josh Hunt: I am about to wind down here. Just a couple of more questions. You rub shoulders with a lot of pastors. What are some of the most common mistakes you see pastors make regarding their small group ministries?

Ted Haggard: They work too hard at it. They over-plan, over-control, over-manage. Anytime we govern anything, we have to decide the competency level of those who are going to participate and whether or not we need to control all or which aspects of their work. I lean toward a high level of trust with a great deal of liberty. That's why each pastor needs to evaluate the level of responsibility his own church members possess and then decide how much he should control the small group ministry. We've had great success with trust.

Josh Hunt: Any other words of wisdom to small group leaders and those who lead them?

Ted Haggard: With freedom comes responsibility. Do a good job and God will give more freedom. If people do a bad job, then the church government will have to tighten up and provide more structure. If every small group leader will build the body and think of the overall work of God through their church, they will be a great leader. If they think only of their own ministry, then they will be of no more good than a hand without an arm attached to the body. By using wisdom their ministries will be success and their churches will grow.