Important Note: Every day a few dedicated small group ministry champions (staff and volunteers) find this post. Can I be honest? I hope this blog post (written in 2009) gives you an idea or two. My real hope? I hope you'll subscribe to MarkHowellLive.com so you can get the latest in small group ministry strategies, tips and ideas.
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Looking for a small group ministry system? You might want to check out Creating Community: Five Keys to Building a Small Group Culture for some insight into the way that North Point Community Church has structured and built their system. Written by Andy Stanley and Bill Willits, Creating Community provides a good look at some of the underlying principles that form the foundation. And let me just say...it is a great book. It's great because it is a very practical and fairly detailed illustration of the principles found in the 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, easily one of my favorite books in the last 10 years.
There are three distinctives that must be pointed out in any discussion of North Point's strategy: (1) the GroupLink strategy of forming groups, (2) the closed-group philosophy, and (3) the use of staff to care for group leaders (as opposed to identifying, recruiting and relying on volunteer "coaches"). Although any examination of their structure and strategy will unearth Meta Church and Willow Creek roots, these three distinctives are something that are important and shouldn't be minimized.
GroupLink: This is the North Point name for a strategy that is used several times a year to launch new small groups. In many ways GroupLink is similar to a Small Group Connection, popularized by Saddleback. As I've highlighted in other strategies, they choose very strategic moments throughout the year to promote and execute this strategy. Like everything at North Point it is done very creatively and with excellence (even to the extent of bringing in seating arrangements for the event). Essentially, GroupLink is an event that unconnected adults attend and once at the event are moved through a process that results in a very high percentage of connection.
You'll also find a GroupLink strategy kit available on the North Point Resources website right here.
An important key to their strategy is having a adequate number of pre-approved leaders at the event. This is one of the challenges of the system and what makes it so different than the Saddleback version (built on the idea that the group can choose a leader from amongst themselves). You can find out more about the Connection idea right here. Although there is a built-in way to accommodate the starting of groups without a pre-approved leader, it is a notch off the intended pattern.
Closed Groups: Another very important distinctive of the North Point strategy is that groups are launched as 12 to 18 month groups that are closed to new participants. Group members sign a covenant committing to the process. At the end of the commitment it is the expectation that the group will end and group members will return to a GroupLink, many as leaders, ready to help launch new groups.
Staff Provides Coaching: Rather than continuing to work with the challenge of using volunteer coaches, North Point's strategy uses staff "community leaders" who are responsible for approximately 75 small group leaders. It is their primary responsibility and there are serious expectations about the number of times they'll connect and what they'll do when they connect.
As I've written about throughout this series, the North Point system has advantages and disadvantages. There is no problem-free solution to anything. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they would rather have.
- Promoting several GroupLinks a year gives real focus to the importance of being a member of a small group.
- Pre-approved leaders gives some certainty that new group members will be well cared for.
- An event focused strategy requires the necessary commitment level from prospective members (as opposed to just signing up and not following through).
- Closed groups allow new group members to grow close over time, develop a lasting bond, and follow through on a commitment.
- Paid coaches makes it possible to get a lot accomplished. Expectations can be inspected and a high level of care delivered to group leaders.
- It is hard for churches to identify and develop an adequate number of pre-approved leaders. This disadvantage shouldn't be minimized. If your church has trouble identifying an adequate number of leaders now, GroupLink will not solve this issue.
- Closed groups cut off the friends and connections of the newest people to the crowd. If I'm a new attendee and I join a closed group it will be 12 to 18 months before I can encourage my friend to join my group.
- Few churches are in a position to allocate adequate budget to hire staff with the primary responsibility of caring for group leaders. Most churches will simply add this responsibility to an existing job description.
As with any strategy, there is more to it, but these are the three distinctives along with advantages and disadvantages. You can learn about other small group systems and strategies right here.