Sometimes Big Things Start Small

Saddleback's Small Group Ministry wasn't always a bed of roses.
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After five years of championing small groups at Willow Creek Community Church, Brett Eastman shuttled his family westward to Orange County, California. He was hired at Saddleback Church and figured he would pick up where he left off at Willow.

But Saddleback was not Willow. In this interview, Brett Eastman, founder and CEO of Lifetogether, talks about the difference between the churches and what he learned during his tenure at Saddleback, when the church connected more than 20,000 people into small groups. He also provides pastors with key principles for launching a healthy small group ministry—within the scope of their current budget!

You've been inside both churches. What's the difference between Saddleback and Willow Creek?

I get asked this all the time. And I summarize it in one word: Resources.

Bill Hybels and Rick Warren share a common passion for connecting every member in their congregation into community. However, Willow Creek is five years older than Saddleback and is located where land and housing costs are vastly different.

At Willow, we hired more than fifty small group staff members. The staff resources allowed us to put more than 10,000 people in small groups before I moved to California. Today the ministry is healthy, one of the most developed in the country. It's no surprise that they raised almost 80 million dollars for the 7,000-seat auditorium that they just built. Willow has resources, period.

It seems intuitive that so does Saddleback, right?

When I conveyed my vision to Rick Warren about small groups, he simply said that there was no way the church could hire a boatload of staff to launch the small group ministry. I was given a few administrative staff members and only one pastoral position. There were no deep pockets.

I was scared, overwhelmed, and, to be honest, discouraged at first. I left Willow because of my family and the special needs of my daughters. I didn't know what God was up to.

Then Rick said something I'll never forget: "Brett, you can count on me to not only help you but give you access to the weekend services." I told him that I was a trainer and not a teacher, but he said, "No problem. We'll do it together."

Unlimited resources couldn't compare with the opportunity that lay ahead. Of course, I didn't see that until later.

So what was the impetus that connected more than 20,000 people into small groups at Saddleback?

Necessity became the mother of invention. We tried many things, but one key moment came right after I joined the Saddleback staff.

Rick told me he had reserved seats for more than 750 men on 8 different 747's headed for Washington, D.C., for the Promise Keepers Event.

I suggested we recruit leaders from some of the existing men's groups to launch a few new groups from the 750 going to the Promise Keepers event. More than 300 men said they wanted to join a group. I had only a half dozen men to lead them.

Isn't that the story of a small group pastor's life? Everybody wants community, but nobody wants to be a leader of it.

The Saturday morning for the first small group meeting came, and on the fly, I tried something for the first time that became known as the "small group connection" process. The men gathered into pairs, then fours, and then groups of eight, according to where they lived. This process simply allowed people to traverse down a spiral of questions. The group moved from icebreaker questions to deeper spiritual conversations. It allowed each group to identify and select the relative spiritual shepherd and co-shepherd in the circle and have them host a 6 week starter group.

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