How To Build a Church “Of” Rather Than Just “With” Small Groups

BUILDING A CHURCH OF SMALL GROUPS – Willow Creek Community Church: A Case Study

(These are notes I [DPC]  took from the excellent book pictured above – Building A Church of Small Groups co-authored by Bill Donahue & Russ Robinson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)

A PLACE WHERE NOBODY STANDS ALONE – By Bill Donahue & Russ Robinson

Willow Creek CC story –  “The people that we had worked with so hard to win to Christ were having an increasingly difficult time making the church a part of their life and making themselves a part of the church’s life. In many cases people couldn’t connect meaningfully to the church, but only about 10-15% of our congregation could get connected into one of those smaller settings (p. 11).”

Community – “It means first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.” ([Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Life Together, p.21] quoted on pp. 11-12)

New Vision for WCCC: “We began moving from a church where small groups were optional to a church where small groups defined the core organizational strategy (p. 12).”

Elder’s Comment: “We loved the movement of the HS, the changed lives, the catalytic energy, the sense of awe as we saw God at work; but we hated the disorderly organizational dynamics, burned-out staff and lay leadership, displaced people, and undisciplined masses (p. 13).”

The End Result:  “WCCC since 1992 (as of 2001) has gone from a church with small groups—that is, small groups being one of our programs—to being a church of small groups. Instead of 10-15% of the congregation connected into a small group, we have become a place where over 18,000 individuals are connected in 2,700 small groups (p. 14).”

 Part 1: Making the Case for Community

C1 – In the Beginning God: The Theological Evidence

  • “The Theological case for community depends on three basic ideas: First, God exists in community; He has forever existed as and will into eternity remain three persons in One. Second, God was incarnate in Jesus, whose transformational relationships offer a model you cannot ignore. Third, Jesus dreams of oneness for all Christians, which is why you must move your church toward His vision (P. 21).”
  • God is a plurality of oneness – “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…(Gen. 1:26).” And … “The LORD our God, the LORD is one (Deut. 6:4).”
  • The Small Group is a generic form of human community that is transcultural, trans-generational and even transcendent. The call to human gathering in groups is a God-created (ontological) and God-directed (theological) ministry, birthed out of the very nature and purpose of God’s being. God as Being exists in community. The natural and simple demonstration of God’s communal image for humanity is the gathering of the small group (p. 22 quoting Garth Icenogle, from Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry, p. 13)
  • True community is both horizontal and vertical – like the bars on the cross…they meet in the center, when we experience God and all of His fullness and His people in all their fullness.
  • The Importance of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-21, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they all may be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
  • “This concern for the survival of the church down through the ages provides the explanation for the anguished tones of Jesus’ prayer. He knew that if the church should fail to demonstrate community to the world. It would fail to accomplish its mission, because the world would have reason to disbelieve the gospel (vv. 21, 23). According to that prayer, the most convincing proof of the truth of the gospel is the perceptible oneness of his followers (Quoting from Gilbert Bilezekian’s, Community 101, p. 37 [p. 32])

C2 – Created for Community: The Sociological Evidence

1)   SG’s provide strength for life’s storms – Many of the heroes of the faith (e.g. David @ Jonathan) survived adversity through faith and community.

  • Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, “Two are better than one…if one falls down, his friend can pick him up.” ; John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble;” Romans 12:15, “Weep with those who weep;” Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ;” Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

2)    SG’s provide wisdom when we face important decisions.

  • Proverbs 15:22, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.”

3)   SG’s provide accountability and offer us acceptance while we change.

  • Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”

4)   SG’s provides acceptance that help heal our wounds.

  • Interesting point: “When you talk to people about their families, you’ll discover a startling truth few want to admit. Many people experience more pain than love and acceptance in their families (p. 42).”
  • John 15:12-13, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

C3 – What the Church Needs to Grow: The Organizational Evidence

  • Two Principles: 1) Your church will best meet each member’s needs by honoring each leaders “span of care” (i.e. this principle insures that everyone is cared for, but no one cares for too many people); 2) the church cannot function as God intends unless people see themselves as members of one body.
  • “Reorganizing your congregation into a church of small groups is hard work. You need to present the organizational case to every segment of your church, including your ministries to children and adults, couples and singles, men and women, jocks and computer geeks, the mature and the emotionally unstable, the leaders and the newly converted. But span of care  (Exodus 18) can help your church achieve reorganization.
  • “Coach” is the term that WCCC uses for their leaders of small groups…
  • “We at WC had no way to achieve this level of care until we put span of care to work by organizing everyone into small groups. We designated leaders to care for groups of children, women, men, couples, and families. Coaches care for leaders, and coaches receive care from staff leaders (p.49).”
  •  “As everyone works together, God transforms individual lives, creating the kind of oneness experienced in the Trinity, the kind of community Christ dreams for us (p. 49).” Two key passages: 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 & Ephesians 4:3-7, 11-16
  • “I can tell you this: sizzling services, extra ministry programs, or new curricula will not transform yours into a church where people really do build each other up in love, ‘as each part does its work.’ The churches that come closest to this ideal share a common vision and practice. Their leaders—senior pastor, staff, elders, key volunteers—our bold enough to imagine the seemingly impossible. They believe the church can experience oneness by transforming people through community. And these leaders have recognized that small groups are the key, the common practice, for realizing the vision. They have taken action (p. 51).”

Part 2: Pursuing Community in Small Groups

C4 – Small Groups Are Built on Authentic Relationships

  • “Small groups are microcosms of God’s creation community. Wherever two or more persons come together, they become an actual reflection of the image and likeness of God. Small groups are the basic arena for either imaging the redeeming presence of God or projecting destructive human systems. Every small or large gathering of humanity exists in this tension of manifesting an inhuman structure or embodying divinely redemptive relationships.” – Gareth Icenogle, Biblical Foundations of SG Ministry
  • Key elements of authenticity: Growing in community; Self-disclosure; Care-giving; humility; truth-telling; & affirmation

C5 – Small Groups Are Places Where Truth Meets Life

  • Truth-Focused Groups = Know the right answers to the right questions; Focus on information—“What does it mean? Reward members for being right; Community is built on the principle of agreement; the goal is a well-informed student.
  • Life-Focused Groups = Know the right answers to personal problems; focus on introspection—“How do I feel?” Reward members for being real; Community is built on the principle of acceptance; The goal is a well-understood self
  • Transformation-Focused Groups = Know the truth about God and me; Focus on transformation—How am I becoming like Christ? Reward members for being on honest with God and others; Community is built on the principle of authenticity; The goal is a well-ordered heart.

C6 – Small Groups Experience Healthy Conflict

  • Setting Boundaries for Managing Group Conflict:

1)   If it happens in the Group, Process it in the group.

2)   The Leader is responsible for Process, Not Outcomes

3)   Validate the conflict

4)   The conflict does not need to be resolved at this meeting

5)   Conflict Must be processed with trust and confidentiality

  • Confronting an individual:

1)   Start as soon as possible

2)   Meet face to face

3)   Affirm the relationship

4)   Make observations, not accusations

5)   Get the facts

6)   Promote resolution

  • The “A” Guidelines for Confession:

1)   Address everyone involved (Ps. 32:5; Luke 19:8; James 5:16)

2)   Avoid using “if,” “but,” and “maybe.” What excuses or blaming do you need to avoid?

3)   Admit specifically what was done or said (Ezra 9:5-15)

4)   Apologize: How might others feel as a result of your sin?

5)   Accept the consequences (Luke 15:9; 19:8)

6)   After your behavior. What changes do you intend to make, with God’s help, in the way you think, speak, and behave in the future? (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20)

7)   Ask for forgiveness and allow time. What might make the person whom you have wronged reluctant to forgive you?

C7 – Small Groups Provide Well-Balanced Shepherding

  • Bill Hybels, “Of all the things Jesus could have said concerning Peter’s ministry (referring to John 21:15-19), he said, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He told Peter to get some people and train them up in the school of life, to nurture them, and to guide them. Jesus made time in his life to tend a little flock. And if he were here today, above all else, he would make the time to tend a little flock. So, if you are a small group leader, or a leader of leaders, and you are making time to tend a little flock, you are doing Jesus’ work. Any time you wonder whether you are having any impact on the kingdom, remember that tending a flock reflects the very heart of God and his plan of redemption for the world (p. 109).”

Part 3: Developing Leaders of Small Groups

C8 – Enlisting Small Group Leaders

  • Look at who they ARE: Affections; Reputation; & Expectations
  • Affections: People suited to leadership love God, people, truth, and the church. The greatest gifts a leader can give to a small group are a relationship with Christ and the passion to be more like Him.
  • Reputation: A person’s reputation offers clues to that person’s preparation for leadership. Make it a point to meet people close to the potential leader. Inquire what they think of the person’s character, trustworthiness, and way of relating to others. Ask people to assess a candidate’s leadership potential. Do they believe the person could grow toward leadership? Why or why not? Have they served others or the church in ways that produce effective fruits of ministry?
  • Expectations: Make sure candidates understand and support expectations for service. As you discuss what senior staff, elders, or other key lay leaders expect form a small group leader, look especially for people who commit themselves to participating in membership, respect spiritual authority, and pursue life-long learning.
  • Where do you look for leaders? This is a trick question. Rather than look for leaders, we encourage churches to look for people. There’s always a greater supply of people than of obvious leaders. Some of these people will eventually emerge as leaders.

C9 – Training Small Group Leaders

During Meetings:           Between Meetings:

Gather – invite current or potential members into community Build intimacy, transparency, and authentic relationships in the group Build friends with existing group members and seek to invite new ones
Develop – Take each person the next step in spiritual growth or leadership Create a place where truth meets life Shepherd members and develop apprentice leaders
Serve – Complete ministry tasks together Plan and prepare for strategic serving opportunities Serve personally outside the group or serve together as a group

C10 – Coaching and Supporting Leaders

The Role of the Coach



Visiting the Group


Leadership Development:

  • Vision casting
  • Skills
  • Apprentices




Pastoral Care:

  • Spiritual
  • Relational
  • Personal




Ministry Support & Expansion:

  • Prayer
  • Affirmation
  • Resources




C11 – Make Decisions

5 Questions that Must Be Asked in order to Become a Church of Small Groups:

1)   Will we become a church of small groups?

2)   Who will be the point leader?

3)   What will be our long-term structure?

4)   How will we develop enough leaders?

5)   From where are we starting?

Regardless of your design, you will find that you need a number of leaders equal to 25-30% of the number of people connected in groups. That high percentage includes those who are apprentices or rising apprentices, people who are intentionally being developed as emerging leaders. Thus, a group of 10 will have a leader, an apprentice, and maybe one or two others the leader hopes to develop as future leaders.

  • A church built on SG’s will need a lot of volunteers.
  • You need to invest in many volunteer leaders.
  • You will give away ministry to an increasing corps of lay ministers.
  • There is good news: the ownership of the congregation’s life will expand.

What Are Our Core Values?

  • Building relationships: How much do parishioners naturally care for each other?
  • Loving lost people: Are people inclined toward outsiders?
  • Truth telling: Does your congregation acknowledge and deal with conflict?
  • Mutual ministry: What is the current lay ministry quotient?
  • Accountability: Is there enough vulnerability and submission to grow?
  • Commitment: Do people own the church’s mission and act like it? 

Five Major Types of Small Groups:

Disciple-Making Groups Community Groups Service Groups Seeker Groups Support Groups
Members Believers in a structured discipleship process Believers & non-believers Believers & non-believers Predominantly nonbelievers Believers & non-believers
Curriculum A set curriculum Leaders work with Coaches to choose curriculum Leaders work with Coaches to choose curriculum Determined by questions from the group Determined by the ministry leaders
Open Chair Used at breaks in curriculum Used regularly to add members Used regularly to add members Always has an open chair Used primarily to form new groups
Emphasis Develop spiritual disciplines, memorize Scripture, disciple others Build community, invite new members Complete the task, invite new members Lead people to Christ, disciple new converts To support members as they work through personal difficulties
Multiplication Apprentice leads new disciple-making group Groups grow and birth after 24 to 36 months Groups grow and birth at variable rates depending on the task Apprentice leads new seeker group or new believers group Apprentices are trained to form new groups
Duration 18 to 24 months Continue to grow and birth Continue to grow and birth Average length is about one year Varies depending on personal needs and the purpose of the group
  • “In SG ministry, your strategy must account for span of care. Open groups will aid your journey. Varied entry points will give everyone ways to connect in an aligned ministry. A self-perpetuating leadership corps will grow into shepherding the whole flock effectively, especially as you intentionally cultivate spiritual growth and contextualize your growth model (p. 193).” 

C12 – Choose a Strategy

Stephen Bartman, Hyperculture, “When we come home at the end of the day, it may not be just work we bring with us, but also our high-speed frustrations and electronic expectations. In short, we may come to expect the imperfect human beings in our lives to operate as efficiently as our equipment, quickly losing patience with those we might otherwise love because they do not answer as swiftly, or respond as rapidly, or obey as readily as the machines we know.

Four Lessons for Ministry Alignment (p. 186):

First, communication is critical. “We failed to communicate adequately with leaders of the “church with” version of small groups. We didn’t explain often enough or deeply enough about how they would fit within the new infrastructure. Instead of building on our strong foundation, we alienated a key audience—then we had to win them back.”

Second, stay flexible. “Whatever strategy you choose needs a ‘loose-tight balance.’ You need a uniform set of standards and definite understanding of what constitutes group life and what does not. Yet, the ministry-by-ministry expression of groups must permit increased variety in meeting every person’s need and readiness for community.”

Third, balance patience with restlessness. “It took us seven years to organize every part of the church on a full small groups foundation. Sometimes we made partial gains, backed off until change was accepted, then returned to chip away again. As one minister observed: ‘We are in year twelve of a twenty-year vision, and we are going to have to extend it beyond that.’ Alignment takes time.”

Fourth, Confrontation is essential. Speak the truth in love.

C13 – Phasing in the Small Group Ministry 

The Model Phase: The best way to embed community values into a small group ministry is to model them yourself. If your church is just beginning small groups, start with a few model groups, led (ideally) by the senior pastor and/or other key church leaders.

Turbo Groups: ratchet up the model group concept. Turbo groups are SG’s filled with apprentice leaders. In other words, everyone in the group is expected to someday lead his or her own group. Thus a turbo group functions as both a real small group and a training group. 

The following will help your turbo groups succeed:

  • Turbo groups must build authentic community. This is not simply a training group. These people must understand and practice community or they will never reproduce it in their own groups.
  • Turbo groups must experience all components of a regular group. They need to practice the open chair, identify apprentice leaders, create places where truth meets life, build authentic relationships, and appropriately handle conflict—so that the same things will take place in the next set of groups.
  • Turbo groups must seize teachable moments. In these groups, leadership lessons are often caught, not taught. It is appropriate in the context of a turbo group to pause and say, “Let’s talk about what just happened—and why—in the last ten minutes.” Or, leaders might ask, “Why did I do this? What did you see me doing that was good or needs improving?”
  • Turbo groups take time. Turbo groups probably need at least 9-12 months to appropriately train new leaders. It can happen more quickly if the group meets weekly or if leaders have prior small group experience. However, brand new leaders may need as long as eighteen to twenty-four months of preparation.

The Pilot Phase: After firmly establishing your core values and clarifying your small group development model, you are ready for the pilot group phase. This is a learning phase for a limited number of groups. New to the nature and meaning of small group community, many people will be wary of long-term commitments. During this phase, you start a limited number of small groups that last just 9-12 months. The time limit is a safety net; it gives everyone a chance to pause, evaluate, and redesign.

The Start-Up Group Phase: Your leaders have modeled appropriate values during the model/turbo group phase. You’ve run new groups through a pilot phase to discover difficulties. Now you can give the “green light” to starting small groups throughout the church. The start-up group phase is the final phase before going public. You are now giving permission for interested people to develop groups and explore leadership.

  • During the start-up phase, you will need a training strategy so emerging groups and leaders can learn more skills. You will need regular leadership gatherings and an annual retreat. But this is still not the time to go public. It’s too soon for weekly pulpit exhortations about joining small groups, because your structure isn’t ready for the potential response.

Going Public:

  • Don’t go public until you have enough leaders and infrastructure in place to handle the response.
  • For the traditional groups transition from big groups to more communal and relationally oriented groups.

Author: lifecoach4God

I am the Lead Pastor of Valley Baptist Church (Bay Area), born and raised in Huntington Beach, Ca,, and currently living in Novato, California. I am married to my best friend of 27 years - Dana - and have five adult children; and six grand children. I have been a Teaching Pastor for over thirty years. I was privileged to study at Multnomah University (B.S. - 1988); Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. - 1991); Westminster Theological Seminary & Northwest Graduate School (D. Min. - 2003). I founded Vertical Living Ministries in 2008 with the goal of encouraging Christian Disciples and Leaders to be more intentionally Christ-Centered in how they live by bringing glory to God in nine key areas of life: (1) Intimacy with God, (2) marriage, (3) family, (4) friendship, (5) vocationally/ministry , (6) emotional and physical health, (7) stewardship, (8) discipleship, and (9) mentoring.

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