Last week I had the privilege of visiting with the small groups pastors at Saddleback in sunny Southern California. I sat in on their weekly staff meeting and invested a couple of hours with them discussing the similarities and differences between Saddleback's culture and the cultures of cell-based churches around the world I have visited or researched.
As I suspected, Saddleback and Rick Warren have created a very powerful church culture where most anything is possible, and far easier to implement and expand because of that strong culture.
For example, they have a "crawl-walk-run" mentality about small group leadership that seems to work for them (I say "seems" because I did not have the time to visit groups, interview group leaders, and do a proper job of investigating their small group system fully.) Most anyone faithful to Christ and the vision of Saddleback can start a group if they have a personal desire to do so. They do so without a lot of training, experience in small group life, or completing a discipleship process, although all three of these things are available to Saddleback members. The idea is to get people serving others by opening their homes and to start thinking like a shepherd, then give them the training they need to be successful when they're anxious to receive training.
This has been attempted elsewhere around the US with limited success. Even with excited leaders, churches have not succeeded with giving someone a group before they have become a disciple of Christ and enjoyed a year or more as a contributing group member. I truly believe a lot of this failure has to do with the church's culture being weak or just so different from Saddleback's that they are unable to emulate their process.
Take a good look at your church's culture. What does it naturally cultivate? Personal growth? Passive activity? Relational evangelism? Building-centered activity? Mentor-based discipleship? A combination of these and/or others?
A church can easily add groups where spiritual health and vitality exist and effectively lower the bar for leadership. I have seen numerous cell-based churches do this overseas with great success. However, if a church's culture is one where a passion for more of God and sharing Christ do not currently exist, groups by any name and launched with experienced or inexperienced leaders will make no headway.
Glad you were able to take a look at Saddleback Randall! You make some good points. In order for this (or any) small group model to work, a healthy church culture is a requirement. Without it, grouplife simply emulates what's happening in the larger setting.
I've actually found many churches have succeeded in using the Saddleback group model. As you know, it isn't a problem-free solution, so these other churches have simply determined that they prefer these problems to the ones associated with other models.
Randall, you offer some good insights here. What difference do you see between leading a group and discipling another? Are the requirements different?
Mark, what I'd like to research isn't whether a church has made the Saddleback model "work" or function smoothly, but the fruit that it is producing.
A bunch of churches do small groups and think they're being successful, yet little to no conversion growth comes from relational evangelism in the groups and discipleship is non-existent.
In these churches, they define small groups as "working" because a majority of the membership is involved in group attendance.
Allen, if the small group members were unemployed and following the small group leader around for three years (a la Jesus' small group) I would say small group leadership and discipleship are one in the same.
However, that's not the case. Everyone's too busy to take a sabbatical from work and family to be discipled or disciple others.
Small group leaders (in my experience and opinion) should be the ring-leader for a number of disciplemakers in their group to mentor new Christians they have reached with net fishing.
This is where the American small group movement is seriously hurting. So few churches have mentor-fueled discipleship in place in their small group ministries, and it shows up in the form of a lack of passion for Christ, a desire to be a group leader sooner than later, and be the church, not just attend it.
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