An Analysis of the Free Market Small Group System

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One of several popular small group systems is called Free Market.  Taking its name from one of the basic concepts of economics, a free market system allows and encourages leaders to choose the study (or activity) they’d like to do (as opposed to a controlled or regulated model where they’re told what to do).

Free Market is most commonly associated with Dog Training, Fly Fishing, and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century, by Ted Haggard.  In the book, Haggard describes a system of groups that are based on common interests.  For example, if you’re a dog trainer (or want to train your dog), you might look in the groups catalog and see an upcoming dog training group and join it.  Your common interests would provide the basis for a good fit.  Or if you like fly fishing…I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Although it may seem from the title that most groups are based on an activity or common interest, there are usually many groups that are more typical (meeting in homes, using a study guide, etc.).

Common distinctives:

When a Free Market system is most true to the original model described in Dog Training, Fly Fishing it has several other common characteristics:

  • It’s semester-based.  Typically two or three 8 to 12 week semesters are offered at prime times during the year.  Often fall, winter and spring with the summer off.
  • There’s typically a catalog that lists all the upcoming opportunities.
  • There’s often a small group fair associated with the beginning of a new semester.  Group leaders are at tables in the lobby or nearby and potential members cruise the tables looking for a group to join.

Suggested advantages of the Free Market system:

There is a short-list of advantages that are often listed by free market proponents.  For example:

  • Like every semester-based system, there are several opportunities a year to promote on-ramps into groups.
  • Like every semester-based system, potential members see the 8 to 12 week commitments as short enough to consider.
  • The definite off-ramp at the end of 8 to 12 weeks is reassuring to any first timer.

Groups based on common interests draw unconnected people who share the interest.

Disadvantages to be aware of:

Although I’m the first to acknowledge that there are no problem-free systems or strategies, in my experience, there are several disadvantages to at least be aware of with Free Market.  For example:

  • The catalog is always in the process of being updated for the next semester.
  • Must be constantly on the lookout for new leaders.
  • Counterintuitive, but difficult to truly deliver something for everyone and connect the number of unconnected people that most churches have.
  • If the goal is making disciples, interest based groups often struggle to make this happen naturally.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

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  1. Raul Cabrera on July 11, 2013 at 9:47 am

    The biggest advantage for us running a free market system is – it’s organic. This has opened up the door for us to validate and harvest Organic Community. What free market allows us to do is this: rather than constantly being on the lookout for new leaders, we simply recognize “influencers”, and empower them to do what God has called them to do, because in their wake, people experience belonging. It’s a win-win situation.

    It switched our department from being “program driven” (i.e., funnel people into small groups) to “organically driven” – empowering people right where they are. (termed Organic Order)

    Discipleship? Yes. Small groups should be missional, but it’s important that they are GREAT COM-missional too. Affinity groups lead to discipleship opportunities because relationships cannot be programmed. However, we can create opportunities (organically) where relationships (that lead to discipleship) happen naturally over the course of time.

    Great analysis Mark, hope all is well bro!

  2. markchowell on July 11, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    Thanks for jumping in here, Raul! Appreciate the insight of a practitioner!