waveUpdate: I wrote this article in 2009 and have updated it slightly to reflect subtle changes in strategy.


I’m regularly asked how Saddleback can have more adults in groups than they have in worship.  People everywhere scoff when they hear the numbers.  And I have to admit, it is pretty wild.  After all, during Transformed, their most recent church-wide campaign, they had over 8400 groups with over 59,000 people in them while their worship attendance was averaging 35,000 to 37,000!  (By the way, that’s not preacher talk.  Their database supported those numbers in September)

Ever looked at their numbers and shaken your head in disbelief…or amazement?  Here are my top 10  keys to understanding how they do it:

  1. Saddleback talks about groups all year long.  While there may be certain weeks where group life gets even more attention (early fall as they launch their annual church-wide campaign, first of the year to catch people who have just made commitments at a Christmas Eve service or want to start the new year fresh, just after Easter for the same reason), they talk about the importance of being in a group every weekend.
  2. It doesn’t matter who’s preaching (Rick Warren, Tom Holladay, etc.), they talk about groups every weekend.  They talk about the power of group life and they mention their own group.
  3. It doesn’t matter what message series they’re in, they talk about being in a group every weekend.  For example, during a 2007 message series on recovery they featured a different testimony each week on the power of being in a group (Celebrate Recovery, Divorce Care, Grief Care, etc.).
  4. They have systematically made it easier to start new groups.  “If you have a heart for unconnected people, are willing to open your home for 6 weeks, serve a few refreshments, and tell a few friends…you can be a host.”  In 2014 they began saying, “If you have a couple friends, you could host a group.”  This is a huge point because they’ve recognized that there will be problems, they acknowledge going in that not all of them will make it, and yet they are committed to helping as many begin as possible because they know that every host is the best person to reach certain people. See also, Saddleback Changed the Church-Wide Campaign Game…Again.
  5. They have systematically lowered the bar in terms of who can lead a group.  If you’re inviting your own friends and neighbors, why should you have to be Jesus Jr.?  They’ve provided great next steps for new hosts designed to help them get started and grow in Christ, but they’re not waiting until they have it all together.
  6. They regularly develop new DVD-driven small group curriculum that is easy to use and can be facilitated by new and inexperienced leaders.  Just-add-water and plug-and-play accurately describe the degree of difficulty.
  7. They immediately connect each of their newest leaders with a coach who can help them through the beginning stages.
  8. Their newest groups are given a follow-up curriculum that is equally easy to use.  They don’t wait until they ask what’s next.  They actually begin talking about what’s next before the first series is completed.
  9. Their topics for church-wide campaigns are carefully designed to appeal to the crowd.
  10. A regular strategy is to ask their existing small groups to consider taking a small group vacation during church-wide campaigns and instead of meeting together, step out and help start new groups.

I believe an underlying principle for Saddleback is that they are always looking for a better way, an angle, that will help them connect more people.  I remember when everyone thought the Connection idea was crazy even as it launched over 800 groups and connected over 7,000 people in them.  I remember when the HOST idea first began to be used and many people thought it was completely crazy to allow someone to sign up to open their home.  What will be next?  It’ll probably seem crazy.  It may or may not work.  And I’ll be holding my breath…because if it works who knows what could happen! See also, The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many in Groups.

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