I love this book! First, because I agree with Pastor Ted Haggard (don't you love it when people agree with you!), and second because he says some things that not many are saying.
With a title like Dog Training, Fly Fishing, and Sharing Christ, you might not know this is a book on Small groups. It is, in fact a very interesting and insightful book on small groups.
Pastor Ted makes three points about small groups that are worth remembering.
What is important to the pastor is important to the people.
The value and priority of small groups is trumpeted from the top. Note these statements from New Life's web page:
Who we are:
It has been said that New Life Church is the smallest big church in the country.
Though we number 11,000, we are a close family. We don't just meet together on Sundays -- we spend the whole week together, too. Through small groups that meet all over the region, New Lifers get together each week to have meals, pray, study, play, and serve the city of Colorado Springs.
Our mission is to promote healthy relationships through small groups which empower people for ministry.
Groups are only as important as the pastor says they are. If the pastor is all about the worship service, people will not think groups are all that important. If the pastor, eats, breathes, sleeps, and thinks small groups, the people will as well. (By the way, a Sunday School class is a group that meets at the church building. I use the generic term group to include both home groups as well as Sunday School style groups.)
In many churches, Sunday School is one of many ministries of the church. As such, the church is not completely dependant on any one ministry. Any one ministry could come or go and the church would rock along just fine, thank you.
Not so at New Life. Groups are not a ministry of the church. They are the church expressed at the cell level. This is what Willowcreek is trying to communicate in the title of the book, Building a Church of Small Groups.
One of the primary ways this shows up is by way of example. If the pastor and top leadership of the church do not joyfully participate in groups, they will never, never, never persuade the church as a whole that groups are important. More than important--fun!
Group groups around interests
One of the perennial problems in growing churches is about how to create (a.k.a. divide) groups. It is a problem everywhere, and, quite frankly, should be a problem. If this is really a micro-church it is a problem. When people love each other they don't want to say good bye.
At New Life, there are no forced divisions of groups.
(By the way, one of the smartest things Rick Warren ever said is, "It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people." A mantra of growth is, "You grow by dividing." It is the "R" in the T.I.G.E.R. model. Yet, here is a church that is growing without the forced division of cells.)
Ted claims that groups will divide naturally if you do things the way they do them. And, they currently have 1000 groups that have been created just this way--naturally and without forced division from the outside.
How do they do it? The title of Ted's book says it all: Dog Training, Fly Fishing and Sharing Christ.
At New Life, they group groups around common interests. This is not so unlike the old school concept of age-grading, except on steroids. Sunday School leaders realized a long time ago that groups do better if they are grouped around common interests. Young couples had something in common. Middle adults had some things in common. Senior adults had some things to share. Thus, the concept of age grading was born.
New Life takes this concept to the next level. I have observed that age grading works through about decades. That is, it makes sense for me to attend a group with people in their 40s because I am 46. But, if you mandate to me that my class is in room 245 because I was born on December 21, 1957 and I can't go to room 246, that may not make a lot of sense to me. The group in 246 may be a lot of geeks that I relate to, where the group in 245 may be a bunch of out-doorsey types that I don't relate to. (My idea of camping is Camp Marriot!)
How does the church manage all these groups? They don't.
Free market small groups
Communism, says Ted Haggard, was the most efficient system ever devised. The government decides everything. Centralized command and control. They decide how many farmers we need, how many engineers, how many bakers and who will do what. Very efficient and organized. And, a huge disaster.
Free enterprise, on the other hand, sounds a bit risky. We turn everyone loose to do what they want to do, how they want to do it and hope that we have enough engineers to build the bridges we need, enough farmers to grow the food we need, and enough bakers to bake the bread. No one decides who does what. We just let the free market work it all out. It sounds pretty risky, but has produced the highest level of prosperity.
At New Life, they have free enterprise groups.
Everyone is encouraged to lead a group. They can lead a group on whatever they want. Many of the people who attend a New Life Group don't even know they are in a New Life Group. They think it is just a Fly Fishing Group, or a Movie Watching Group, or a Dog Training Group. Leaders are taught to move them one step closer to Christ each semester. "One step closer" is defined very specifically, using the Engle Scale. I described the Engle Scale in a previous article on Why Visitation Does Not Work. A modified version was recently developed by Thom Rainer and discussed in his new book, The Unchurched Next Door.
No mandated curriculum. They can meet when they want, meet where they want, study what they want, do or not do what they want. Free market.
I encourage you to read Ted Haggard's book. There is a lot here to think about. It may not be for everyone, but nearly everyone can learn from what they are discovering at New Life. If you are really interested, do what I did. Go online and order some of their tapes as well.