The Unexpected Twist in Saddleback’s Exponential Growth Formula

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Want to know the secret ingredient to Saddleback's Exponential Small Group Ministry Growth Formula? I've never written about this before...but this one ingredient is the unexpected twist in the formula.

I talk with people every week who want to know Saddleback's secrets of growing a small group ministry. They've read an article like Breaking the "Mythical" 150% Participation Barrier or How Can I Break the 50% in Groups Barrier?, and they want to believe it can be done...but what's happened so far in their ministry has them convinced that something unique to their situation is keeping them from reaching their goals.  Worse, they're certain that it's a permanent condition. Worst of all? They've often started to believe that at 50% or 66% of their adults in groups they're doing as much as possible.

Can I tell you something?  Can I shine a light on an unexpected twist in Saddleback's exponential growth formula?

Here it is:  Saddleback's small group ministry has been on an exponential track through several strategy transitions.

I've never written about this before...but you need to know this. This is an extremely important aspect in understanding how they've connected beyond 130% of their adults in groups.  A huge idea.

They started out with a very traditional grouplife strategy. Very much an ordinary concept.  Every group had a leader and an apprentice. They'd add a group now and then. Sometimes one would birth. An experienced small group leader would come along and join the church. It was all very ordinary.  And they were steadily falling behind in terms of percentage connected.

Then Brett Eastman came along and they tripped across the advantages of an idea they began to call a small group connection. Turned out to be a great idea. A great strategy. They went from about 70 groups to over 800 in just a few years. Exponential.

And this is where it gets interesting. At that point they had about 66% saturation (approximately 800 groups with 8,000 in groups and weekend attendance of about 12,000 by 2002. They had moved up rapidly for several years using the connection strategy. Very impressive growth. Exponential.

Here's today's diagnostic question: Would you have stayed pat with that strategy? It was working. They were growing every year in terms of the number of groups and the percentage of adults in groups. Would you have just kept doing what worked? I think you know the answer.

In the fall of 2002 Saddleback switched to the HOST strategy with the launch of 40 Days of Purpose and immediately went from 800 groups to over 2000.  They didn't switch because they were struggling. They didn't switch because they had to. They moved to a new strategy because they saw opportunity and...wait for it...they were led by a senior pastor who thinks exponentially. I've written about the story right here.

Since 2002 they've reconfigured the HOST strategy several times. For example, in their first several runs you had to be a member to host a group. Anyone could sign up to host, but you had to attend CLASS 101 to end up hosting. By the fall of 2009 and the launch of Life's Healing Choices anyone could host.

Update: With the launch of Transformed: How God Changes Us in early 2014 Saddleback made a slight tweak to the HOST ask that exponentially impacted the outcome.The tweak enabled them to have a record 8400 small groups involved in the Transformed campaign. What did they do? You can read about it right here.

What will happen next?  Will they keep using the HOST strategy?  Will they just tweak the idea from year to year?  Hardly. There's another idea. It'll come along. And when it does, they'll be the first to grab it and move to the next idea. Why? Because that's the unexpected twist in Saddleback's exponential growth formula. First of all, they're already looking for the next strategy. Second, when they find what's next they abandon what's working good enough and move on to what will work better.

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  1. Mike Mack on October 25, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Mark. Love seeing the big picture behind the strategy. This is something I can share with others to help them have a wide-angle understanding.

  2. Mark Howell on October 25, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Glad you found it helpful! It is completely out of character for many churches to abandon a “successful” strategy in favor of a timely innovation. But it is what makes possible sustained exponential growth.


  3. Mike Wagner on July 24, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Mark, as always you get my mind racing.

    Have you Martin’s book, the Design of Business? If not, I believe you’ll like it.

    One point Martin makes is that most organizations have a profound “reliability bias” — which means they are more committed to generating reliable, predictable results than they are to creating valid results.

    Which leads me to this statement you make within the post, “They didn’t switch because they were struggling.” i.e. Saddleback was getting reliable growth from their current small group strategy. But they were not blinded by reliability. They kept pursuing even more valid results and thus changed.

    Thanks for sharing and stirring things up here on a sleepy Sunday afternoon.

    Keep creating, Miike

  4. Anonymous on July 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Mike! I LOVE The Design of Business! A huge, HUGE book. Everyone…seriously, EVERYONE who is about making a difference ought to read it.

    You are dead on in catching that phrase. Killers do not stop. They never stop. They are always looking for a way to change the game. Saddleback is no more than days away from changing the game again.

    Love it!


  5. Mike Wagner on July 25, 2011 at 1:51 am

    Had to believe you already into Martin’s book! Just knowing you!

    I’ve been incorporating some of the models and suggestions in The Design of Business into The Creative Leader workshop. So many are stuck and have lost the taste creating world changing awesomeness!

    Have a great Sunday evening…and keep creating, Mike

  6. Bard Letsinger on April 7, 2012 at 6:28 am

    The “good” is often the biggest barrier to the “great” since most churches have the if it ain’t broke don’t fix it mindset. But that is also the attitude that I have seen take a church from great one decade and make it irrelevant the next.

  7. Anonymous on April 7, 2012 at 6:34 am

    So true! Thanks for jumping in here, Bard!


  8. SV777 on June 11, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    Hey Mark, thanks for sharing these insights. I was wondering what kind of studies (curriculum) do your small groups use? And do you monitor whats being taught and the spiritual growth in these 2000 groups? Just asking because right now we have 15 small groups but the fear is that not all groups are getting what they need for spiritual growth due to a lack of the leaders spiritual maturity.

  9. Anonymous on June 12, 2012 at 5:22 am

    Thanks for jumping in here! You’re asking a very good question. We provide direction for new groups and many of our leaders regularly ask for suggestions. At times we’ve provided a recommended list and at other times we’ve required our leaders to keep their coach informed of study choices. Developing an easy to follow process for your leaders isn’t hard. Sticking to it is never easy.