Advice to a New Elder: Small Groups, Part 2

shepherd3In response to yesterday’s post, reader John asks,

What’s up with the failure of multiplying groups? Isn’t the point to keep them small so folks can keep up with each other (or isn’t that what the literature says)?

I’m totally open to new ideas: is the point that small groups can be any size as long as they are meeting a specific need or needs?

Thanks for the question. The short answer is: “Yes.” Let the size be determined by the gifts of the hosts and leaders and group — not theory. Let the groups grow and possibly (but not necessarily) multiply organically. That is, if they want to divide, help them work through the process. But the leadership of the small groups ministry should not impose this from on high.

I base this on my 20 years of experience leading small groups as a group leader, part of the small groups team, or an elder — and because Saddleback agrees and has more people in small groups than they have members.

First, in the business world, management experts tell us that the goal isn’t to make a profit. Except, of course, it is. But if we run our business just to be about profit, we’ll fail because profit doesn’t come from trying to make a profit. It comes from doing something profitable very well.

Suppose you’re in the cupcake retail business. Someone says your goal is to make a profit. (True.) Then they say that the more profit you make, the better. (Again, true.) Then they suggest selling each cupcake for $10,000. You can sell just one a week and make a fortune! (Still true.) They even draw a line chart projecting huge profits. They call the employees together to rally them with a 20-minute speech. They give out key chains and T-shirts and tracts about the wonders of the $10,000 cupcake. And they quickly go broke.

If you overly focus on profit, you fail — because profit comes from doing profitable things well, not from seeking profit.

In college football, Nick Saban calls this the “process.” That is, he wants his players focused on weight training, nutrition, learning the plays, practice, etc. — not winning championships. Championships don’t come from trying to win a championship. They come from doing the things that lead to championships.

In small groups, there are multiple goals. Evangelism. Fellowship. Assimilation of new members. Making disciples. Etc. And you don’t get there just by trying to do these things. You do the things that lead to the ultimate goals very well.

Hence, we need to be focused on opening homes up to fellow members. Hospitality. Friendliness. Caring for each other in both word and deed. Eating around a common table. Becoming a routine part of the members’ lives. Being people engaged in a ministry that is attractive both to fellow members and to visitors and friends. Commitment. Serving others.

Evangelism will then be a natural, organic byproduct of being spiritually formed into the image of Christ in community. So rather than focusing on evangelism, we must focus on spiritual formation — that is, becoming like Jesus — that is, living the Christian virtues.

Therefore, if evangelism gets in the way of spiritual formation, we do spiritual formation first. We don’t sell cupcakes for $10,000. We make our profit by selling excellent cupcakes.

Modern Christianity in the West is remarkably poor at spiritual formation — but that’s because we confuse it with Medieval mysticism, Pietism, and all sorts of other things. Therefore, we don’t get around to teaching things like hospitality, being willing to make a commitment, keeping our word (such as when we promise to bring the three-bean casserole), and serving others (such as by taking my turn sitting with the babies). Rather than teaching our members how to live like Jesus, we have charts and line graphs and calendars and systems.

So if my goal is to get all the members of the church in a small group, eating together and serving God in some way together, why do I care that a group has 30 members? If the hostess has a big enough house, and she wants to host 30 people, more power to her.

Here’s how Saddleback explains it.

Small groups need a simple mission. Too often small group “theory” dictates that groups should be constantly multiplying. These strategies often place too much pressure on an average leader to be a “church strategist” instead of a relationship builder. We help small group leaders relax and use their natural desire to serve in ways that help their group grow closer.

When John and Mary walk in the front door of a small group, they’re hoping that someone will be there who will greet them warmly, love them for who they are, pray for their challenges, encourage their growth in Christ, and praise their answered prayers. The last thing they want is those friends they are starting to trust, those people who they now feel ready to open up with, suddenly say, “OK, it was fun knowing you. Let’s all pray about the new small groups we are going to start!” Life on life takes time. One piece of iron doesn’t sharpen another piece of iron with one brush against it. Iron on iron has to happen many times in order for both to be sharpened. …

We have grown to more than 2,500 adult small groups at Saddleback Church because we use a campaign to launch new groups every year. Since 2002, campaigns have increased small group participation at our church from 30 percent to 110 percent. We now have more people in small groups than attend our weekend services (on average). And rather than taking energy from our small groups by forced division or multiplication, the campaign approach actually adds energy to groups. There’s an excitement to being involved in a church-wide effort. …

At Saddleback, we don’t penalize the people with the “gifts” of being able to gather people; instead, we encourage groups to become any size they wish to. Then we equip them for health in spite of their size. Through sub-grouping we help maintain ratios of attendees to leaders to optimum levels, so that participation and group health are not jeopardized. In other words, we say you can grow your group as big as you like and we’ll show you how to foster an environment for life changing community. In fact, subgroups are one part of a strategy we call “large group/small group.”

Saddleback does not divide groups when they become “too big” for theory. Rather, they constantly form new groups using new members and old members not in small groups. I’m sure that people who wish to transfer to a newly formed group are welcome to do so. It’s not at all a rigid system.

Part of what the members and their friends are looking for — part of the “process” — is authenticity. And that means being completely honest. So what happens if you issue this invitation: “I am hosting a group at my home and I’d love for you to come. We’ll eat together, share some thoughts about Jesus, and grow very close as friends. I know that you are looking to make friends, and this will be a great way to do that. And then in about six months we’ll reorganize, forcibly evict you from the group, and then make you start all over making friends. And then we’ll keep doing that as long you as you’re a member here!”

Well, that’s a tough sell! But it’s the theory — because the theory instrumentalizes (uses) people to sell a product, rather like multi-tier marketing (AmWay). In AmWay, you turn your friends into sales people, and you make friends in order to create sales people. And it makes people angry to be used in the name of friendship.

Well, evangelism is much more noble than AmWay, but it’s just as wrong to use people to help us sell — and they’ll catch on and be angry at church, just like at AmWay. Far better to befriend people because we love them. And when our members love the people in their group, the members find “multiplying” painful and counter-productive — because there’s something very wrong with asking our members to be great, dear, loving friends — but only for six months.

Evangelism is important in the extreme. But it never justifies using people. And so when I invite my neighbor to join my small group, I need to be sincere about the invitation and my desire to be his friend. And since I really intend to be his friend, I can’t be making plans to split the group in six months or a year.

Now, we might grow a group so big that it has to divide (because we just won’t fit in the house). Or maybe we meet in different rooms. Or maybe we encourage a few members to join a newly formed group closer to their home. Or maybe we buy more chairs and deal with the size as best we can. But we don’t dangle the promise of friendship and then yank people away from their friends to satisfy small group theory.

Saddleback is simply letting their members do what they naturally want to do — rather than imposing a theoretical template on real people with real feelings. And as a result, by teaching hospitality, commitment, and how to care for one another, evangelism happens –as a natural consequence of being a Christ-shaped community.

On the other hand, for evangelism to happen, in small groups or anywhere else, we do have to build evangelism into our congregational DNA. If evangelism is never mentioned from the pulpit, if it’s not part of the church’s mission (not vision), if we never talk about it, then we likely have become overly inwardly focused. That is, I don’t think small groups will organically evangelize unless we have a church culture that thinks in terms of evangelism. But that’s a topic for another day.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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14 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: Small Groups, Part 2

  1. John says:

    Jay, your example by Nick Saban is an eye opener. It tells us how to focus our positive thinking. While goals are good, positive thinking empowers what we must do now, not the goal.

  2. Johnny says:

    Did part one disappear?

  3. Jay Guin says:


    Indeed it did. I’ve fixed. No idea what happened. Very weird. Thanks for letting me know.

  4. Alabama John says:

    The best advice to us all is to keep our free advice mouths shut and let the new Elder do the giving out the advice.
    After all, he is the one qualified to be one and that says a lot about his ability to tell us something we can use and need.
    If our advice is so great, why are we not an elder?

  5. dwight says:

    Jay, there is this concept in the church that form lead to success and that form is function. What we have done is not focused on function and in a way we don’t want to. If we focused on function we would also expect to see results. In the coC we often think that if we have a large congregation and do all of the things that we are supposed to do in the congregation…sing, pray, LS, sing, sermon, we will succeed as a church. This only creates people that know how to do things, not really be better Christians. The invitation system doesn’t convert people really any more than the sermon does. Sunday after Sunday we do the same thing and the saved don’t get more saved and the lost don’t get saved. We have great form, just not great function.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    Alabama John,
    Much of the reason that some men in Christ’s Kingdom are not Elders is because of politics. Not only politics but congregations do not want to have too many Elders because they believe the Elders are devoted to working only with the local congregation. It has nothing to do with the capabilities of a Godly man to offer advise. I do believe that the early church Elders served the complete city and even part of the country side. With that thought in mind how could there ever be too many Elders? Those in the early church did not worry about trivial things pertaining to the lives of the followers of Christ as Elders in the congregations are prone to do today. But, served very much like The Apostles. I believe that Elders then were just as much evangelists as we see in Stephen. As I hear the description of these small groups, just how much outside help would these groups really need. Looks to me like they are almost exactly like social groups organized by families of the world not even considering Christ as their savior. I would see that almost no one lives in this world as a hermit, everyone has a click to which they are attached. That is the object which many times has to be broken by the individual who sees the need to accept Christ and become a follower of him. We seem to believe that men cannot follow the instructions in scripture and apply them to their own lives and teach their friends about the message unless they are supervised by men who are picked by the very men who have endorsed their capabilities. Leadership is not always from a hierarchy, we can observe that in all fields of our lives. Leaders emerge within the rank and field of all occupations, whether approved by management or not. Sometimes, management has to intervene if these leaders are not promoting the goals of the business. With that in mind we see many leaders guiding followers who believe they are followers of Christianity which are not projecting the same concepts which Christ has instituted. Can Elders really control those leaders and followers? You should be able to notice that this communication is towards all Christianity rather than just a denomination. The only power which can intervene in many of these assemblies is The Sword of Christ, you know The Gospel. Sometimes it will produce results that even amaze the most faithful.
    I think many times about The Prophets in the OT they were Godly men living within an area, many times they were the outcast’s of the Israelites. Many were not able to have followers as as we see congregations and churches today. How much difference is there in their lives than Christians in many parts of the world today. Oh, but we are different here because we have to belong to a body of believers, with overseers to guide our actions. Where is that Spirit which was promised to be our guide? Where is that promise that God would write his laws on our heart? Was it only to our leaders?

  7. Alabama John says:

    We belong by choice to a church that has elders, then by associating ourselves with that church we should give them respect, accept their leadership and overseeing and all that being a leader involves.
    If we do not want to be led by that person or any other leader then leave and depend on that Spirit to be your guide or the promised laws written on your heart.
    That is a decision no one can make for you and whatever you choose, which among us all may be a combination in different degrees, then live, die, live with it and be judged by it.
    Just don’t let your own decision be expressed as being the best way to go confuse or disrupt any others that may of made their decision from their beliefs and faith be hurt by you by giving advice if, and it most likely will, differ from yours.
    It would seem strange to me to not accept leaders but seek and think of yourself as one other folks should believe and follow.
    Pretty arrogant to me.

  8. dwight says:

    I am led by Christ and God. The elders, from what I understand the scriptures argue, do not lead to direct, but rather lead to keep the direction sure, meaning that they work on the problems, but don’t work to correct that which is not broken or that which God set up as a directive. People often go to church to be told to do things that they were and are supposed to be doing even before they are in a congregation. People have become dependent upon the institution and not the instituter, Christ and his word. The elders were to help guard against wolves, but not to get the people out to engage others, which was a natural progression of being a saint. When you find something life changing…you tell others and it shouldn’t have to be run through the elders to get approval. People are to be agents of Christ, while elders and deacons are to be agents for the people. They do not start the process of being a saint, but help people while in the process of.

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    Did we ever notice the Elders in the scriptures issuing commands or orders that were not already contained with in the the teachings of Christ and his Apostles? The Great Shepherd has already given us all instructions necessary to be accepted as his follower and guiding us all the way to the destination after death. Elders on earth have no authority to modify or add to his instructions. I have found that some Elders on earth need even more instruction in scriptures than those whom they are supposed to be guiding. I am sure all of you have also encountered similar circumstances, In fact if that was not true there possibly would only be one church on earth. No restoration movement. Leaders are always the individuals who cause church splits, the influence of followers will not reach that status. When followers see error they just remove themselves from the congregation. Sometimes they attach to other Christian assemblies, then sometimes they are so disgusted with the churches they abandon assemblies all together. From what I have encountered there is a huge number of individuals in this category. They will discuss scriptures and confirm their belief and faith in God but, will not return to the assemblies where they have tested the atmosphere. These individuals need building and fellowship up just as much as who are attending assembling. Most Elders and church leaders will claim that those who have abandoned these assemblies are lost with no hope, and there was a time I would have been shouting that to them also, but as I have learned through studies guided by Jay unless they have “renounced Christ and lost their faith and belief in him” they are not outside the kingdom. They still belong to Christ and most are still being a reflection of Christ to their associates.
    Am I wrong, are they really condemned?

  10. Alabama John says:

    Most of our churches today don’t have elders? The apostles went about appointing elders in every church.
    What was the difference in the members attitude from then and now?
    Do we have authority to start or even continue a church unless it has elders? Lose the elders for some reason, close the church and move the members to one that does.
    Where is the NT example of one without elders in existence? Paul wrote to elders.

  11. Alabama John says:

    Where’s Jeff when I need him?

  12. Dwight says:

    I heard a person say the other day about another couple that they knew, “They had left the church”. What they meant, of course, was that they had gone rogue or gone to another denomination or left the coC grid, so to speak, or it is possible that they meant that they had just stopped observing Christ, which is not usually what is meant. But what I find strange now is that we are able to make the designation of who is in or who is out of the “church”. I thought only God added to the church and if true then God subtracts as well.

    AJ, while it is true that the apostles went about appointing elders in every church, what is left out is Titus 1:5 “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.”
    What we think of as church has to do with a group, but what the scripture thinks of as church is both larger (city or town) and smaller (in homes) at the same time. The elders were appointed in every town so as to consult with the people, much like the Jewish system already did. While the saints met in homes, they were seen to by the elders, or rather when they had issues they went to the elders as logistically not every household had an eldership. There is no sense in that the elders had to be plural as they probably were spread over the town and had to handle issues as they came. Only as seen in the OT when the word of God was to be spread among the people were the elders called together and given the information so they could go back and spread the information among the people.

    Did Paul write to elders? And if so where are the elders addressed in the reception of the letters.
    Rom.1 “To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints:”
    I and II Cor. “To the congregation (church) of God which is at Corinth”…the saints in Corinth.
    Gal. 1 “To the churches of Galatia…”
    Eph. 1 “To the saints who are in Ephesus,…”
    Well anyways you get my point.
    John in his letters starts off with calling himself “the elders”, but the letters are addressed to “the elect lady and her children.”

    The apostles wrote to the congregations or the people, which may or may not have had elders in their area. One thing is true is that elders were a good thing, but also that the church was dependent upon elders being present, otherwise there was no church before the appointments came years down the road.
    In this vein, when we see the many gifts mentioned in Corinthians, towards the body of Christ, elders and even deacons are not mentioned.

  13. Larry Cheek says:

    There was also another reason for the Elders in the early church. Written documents were not distributed than as they are now. The writings of the New Covenant were in preparation. Even if the documents were available there was much illiteracy in the early church. Very few could read, most of the women and children had no schooling. The appointment of Elders was also followed by the laying on of hands to give gifts to the appointed. Well, what kind of gifts would you expect would be needed in an area where knowledge was scarce? The gifts of the Spirit are defined by scripture, but who was going to receive the gifts. Were the recipients just randomly picked by an Apostle or their representative? No that is why the qualification are given as a prerequisite. If we understand the living environment of the early church we can more easily understand the scripture procedures which were applied to compensate for deficiencies.

    It is not hard to realize there is a huge difference between the makeup of the early church and the procedures in place then and what we see in the church of today. Today in our part of the world almost everyone has been schooled and has the ability to read and have a pretty good understanding of the message read. We have access to many translations of scriptures, commentaries, dictionaries for reading and proof texting. Then we also have easy access to communications which the world has never even dreamed of to inform us of The Words of God and the interpretation by multiple men of their concept of the written Word. We see and have to evaluate these messages from men as to how closely their opinions parallel with God’s Word. Adjustments must be made not only because no man or group of men can be totally accurate with their opinions, but we must always be alert for the false prophets who are serving their god in attempting to distort God’s Words. It started in the garden, it was applied in attempting to tempt Jesus and will not end until Christ comes again. I praise God that individuals will be judged individually rather than being judged by groups or assemblies of men. I will not be judged by your interpretations and you will not be judged by mine, otherwise an individual would not be in control of his own destiny. We would have to search the globe to find the correct assembly, church to become associated with to guarantee our salvation. Jesus stated that, Joh 18:36 ESV Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” A dear friend of mine made a statement one day about a passage in Romans. Paraphrased he said, Paul said it and I believe it. That is my sediments about this statement of Jesus. In other words if anyone finds what they believe to be Christs kingdom upon this earth. I would have to ask do they not believe Jesus? But, then I believe that God added me and others who have accepted Christ as their Savior into Christ’s Kingdom which is not upon this earth (not physical) but Spiritual. So where is it! Jesus again answers.
    Luk 17:20-21 ESV Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, (21) nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
    Luk 17:20-21 KJV And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: (21) Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
    The Kingdom of God is not visible because it is not part of this earth.
    Paul also makes these statements, to which I would apply, he said it and I believe it.
    Eph 2:4-7 ESV But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, (5) even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— (6) and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (7) so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
    Eph 3:8-10 ESV To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, (9) and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, (10) so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
    This show was not for rulers and authorities on earth.
    Eph 6:11-12 ESV Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. (12) For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
    We are not wrestling with physical powers but spiritual powers.
    Can these messages be only in the future when Jesus and Paul places them in the present tense?

    This blog of Jay’s is allowing us to be able to test the messages in a magnitude that has never been available within any assemblies which I am aware. I have never known of a man regardless of an appointment who could provide Biblical answers to every concept which has been discussed on this blog. It literally takes all of us and all our resources to even come close.

  14. Dwight says:

    Larry, you are right. Often times we read where the elders were gathered together to another place, which kind of implies that they were initially apart, and then given information, which they took back and gave to the people they were among. The elders weren’t supposed to filter the information, but rather pass it along.
    And yet when we see the letters, they were written to the people. Why? Well that is where the information was supposed to go.

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