The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many in Groups

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Ever heard the stories about Saddleback's thousands of small groups and wondered what they're really doing? Maybe you heard the rumor that with Transformed they launched enough new groups to break 8,000 groups for the first time. Not 8,000 people in groups. 8,000 groups!

Want to know how they're doing it?

I hint at the reason in one of my most popular articles (The Top 10 Reasons Saddleback Has Connected Over 130% in Groups, written in 2009). But looking back at it, I really don't come right out and say what I believe is the real reason; the real number one reason that Saddleback connects so many in groups.

The Real Reason

It's actually pretty simple. The real reason Saddleback connects so many in groups is that their senior pastor is the small group champion. Rick Warren is the face of small groups at Saddleback. He's the one doing the talking. Ramping up for a church-wide campaign (like 40 Days of Purpose or 40 Days of Prayer), he's the one talking about the importance of small groups. At all of their Christmas Eve services, he's the one describing the benefits of a small group. Even when he's not in town, watch for him on video talking up the next opportunity to join a group.

The real reason Saddleback connects so many in groups is that their senior pastor is the small group champion. Click To Tweet

See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.

We had the opportunity to attend Saddleback for almost 2 years while I was on the Lifetogether team. Interesting factoid: Steve Gladen, Pastor of the Small Group Community, wasn't on the platform once talking about small groups. Want another? Ron Wilbur, then the Pastor of Small Group Operations, wasn't on the platform once talking about small groups. Who was doing the talking? Rick Warren. And seriously, when he was out of town on weekends they needed to say something important about small groups there would be a video of Rick Warren promoting it.

I've watched this for years and wanted to do a man-on-the-street piece interviewing people coming out of Saddleback's worship center, holding up a picture of Steve Gladen and asking them if they know who this is? Seriously! Why? Because you need to see that when it comes to talking about the importance of grouplife...they're pulling out the biggest gun they have!

And let me be quick to say, this is not about the fact that it's Rick Warren. He's no grand-stander. And it's not about Steve Gladen. He's one of the sharpest grouplife experts in the world. The real reason Saddleback connects so many in groups is that their senior pastor is the small group champion.


Two people need to read this and react to it.

  • Small Group Pastors and Directors (Paid and Unpaid): You may believe you're the most passionate about grouplife. You may be the one who's studied all the books and read all the articles. You might even have the seminary degree in spiritual formation. Here's the truth: You still need to know that when you are the face of small group ministry it cannot be a church with more people in groups than you have at the weekend service. And when your pastor asks you to be the face of small group ministry, you need to know that they are delegating away the role they were designed to play. Your senior pastor makes the best champion.
  • Senior Pastors: You may believe that you are simply relying on the strengths of the most passionate small group advocate, but you are really doing no one a favor when you delegate away the small group champion role. You may even believe it's biblical to appear to be on a team of equals and want to give visibility to others on your staff. No matter. When you're not the small group champion, you cannot expect to be a church of groups, where nobody stands alone.

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Question: What do you think? Does it make sense? Do you have your doubts? Use the comment section to put in your two cents. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  1. Ken Mercer on November 30, 2010 at 10:18 am

    When I was in seminary, back in the dark ages (1961-65), working toward a Religious Education degree, we were told “When you have done thorough preparation and the Pastor is vocal in support and promotion of …, it is more likely to succeed.” Rick and other pastors, who have earned the right to be heard, have proven that fact over the years. Thank you for this reminder. Ken Mercer

  2. Mark Howell on November 30, 2010 at 10:28 am

    Yes…that’s how it is. Steve Gladen, Ron Wilbur, and team do a great job getting ready for a wild ride…and then Rick Warren promotes it like few others. Thanks for jumping in Ken!


  3. jim zeilenga on November 30, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Mark – I certainly see your point Mark, but how many champions can a Senior Pastor be? As a former missions pastor, I saw the advantage of the Senior Pastor being a champion of missions. Is the axiom true that “if you are a champion of many, you are a champion of none”?

  4. Mark Howell on November 30, 2010 at 10:48 am

    You’re right on target Jim. The key is in choosing what to champion. An important Saddleback concept right now is to use the small group as a delivery system for missions. You can see how Rick Warren would champion grouplife knowing that through the groups there would be greater impact in mission efforts.


  5. Steve Gladen on November 30, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Mark, you are right on. Rick get’s the wave, but what’s sustains groups is another piece. Here is my book on Saddleback’s journey, strategy and learnings: Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities.

  6. Mark Howell on November 30, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Thanks for jumping in Steve! And I can tell you, we’re all really looking forward to your new book!


  7. Joe Donaldson on December 2, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    I love how some of the most profound truths are so simple! What I’m coming to understand better is that all ministries are strengthened when small groups are championed! So many of the nuts-and-bolts ministries will be taken care of when small groups are functioning as they should. It’s the only way for a growing or larger church to effectively minister to the community that gathers inside its walls and the community that exists outside its walls. Great post!

  8. Mark Howell on December 2, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Thanks for jumping in Joe! You’re on the right track. It is all about championing the one thing that can be a delivery system for every other essential. Appreciate your response!


  9. Amy Cole on December 3, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Hi Mark. Although I believe what you say is true, I have to echo the concerns that Jim brings to the table. Without even discussing this w/ anyone else in our church I can assure you they agree w/ this as well, b/c every active ministry w/in our church wants our senior pastor to ‘plug’ what’s happening and for people to get involved. So how exactly does Rick lead the charge for small groups? Does he make announcements or work it into his sermons or what? I’ve seen his passion through his studies that we’ve done, but how does he reach his congregation? I’ve never had the opportunity to attend any of his services so am unsure of how he goes about it.

  10. Mark Howell on December 3, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Hi Amy! Thanks for jumping in here!

    I’ve written about this many times over the past three years. You’re on the right track. It is a combination of working the grouplife plug into sermons and announcements. The key for Saddleback and Rick Warren’s role as champion is prioritization and frequency. If you follow the comment thread and note my response to Jim and then Steve Gladen’s response to mine…you’ll see that what I’m saying is confirmed by Saddleback’s Pastor of the Small Group Community.

    As to how it happens there, three of my most popular articles on the subject have been Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups, An Open Letter to Senior Pastors, and my four part series, The Role of the Senior Pastor.

    Remember, what I’m really talking about is the real reason Saddleback connects so many in small groups. Their methodology will not make everyone happy. Only churches that are focused on one mission (and where every ministry sees their role in the one mission) can do what Saddleback is doing. Connecting beyond 130% of your weekend adult attendance in groups happens in part when grouplife becomes the delivery system for other essential ministries (like missions).

    Hope this helps!

  11. Eric on December 6, 2010 at 8:26 am


    I am currently a small groups director, and I agree with all the points you are making about the need for the senior minister to be the champions of small groups. What if the senior minister refuses to fill that role? The attitude is I am paid to do that, and any mention or promotion of groups comes from me. Obviously this limits the effectiveness because people know the small groups guy is going to want you in a small group.

  12. Mark Howell on December 6, 2010 at 8:36 am

    I feel you Eric! I’ve been in that situation myself in the past. One reason I wrote An Open Letter to Senior Pastors and Your Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups (part of my Top 10 Fantasies of Churches with Small Groups series) is that sometimes about the only thing you can do is forward them an article.

    One reason I love Steve Gladen’s comment on this article is that he knows who champions groups at Saddleback. And the reason they’ve connected so many is that it’s a priority to Rick Warren.

    Don’t give up! Keep trying! One thing I’ve done in the past is constantly feed my pastor stories about life-change in groups. To the extent that they made it into sermons…my pastor became a champion.


  13. Rainy on April 23, 2017 at 5:16 am

    And now… The REAL real reason small groups are created. Being in a small group makes one feel more obligated to give financially to the church. Pastors know this. Their sheep usually don’t.

  14. Mark Howell on April 23, 2017 at 5:53 am

    Sorry Rainy. Sounds like you may have had a bad experience. However, this is not a post about Saddleback’s motivation to connect people in groups, rather it is about the reason they have been able to connect so many.

    To your comment, while “obligation” is not the word or the sentiment used throughout the Bible to teach the biblical reasons for giving, it is true that studies have shown group members are more responsible stewards and do give at about double what the average attender does.

  15. Rainy on April 23, 2017 at 11:15 am

    I haven’t had a bad experience. I’m just speaking the truth as you have in the second paragraph. Have a blessed new week.