Chapter OneSin One:
Unclear Ministry Objectives
Symptoms of Unclear Ministry Objectives
Leaders don't agree on the purpose for small groups
The church's road to ministry progress is blocked
Relationships are breaking down among those most committed to
Church members expect too much attention from the staff
Small groups have a myopic vision and don't know their role in the
overall church strategy
It was the meeting to end all meetings. I (Bill) still get a shudder
when I think of it. My son was in the Cub Scouts, and a meeting had
been called for boys and their parents to attend. We arrived on time
and took our place among the eleven boys and fifteen parents who were
able to attend.
"Okay, so let's get started," began Kevin, the forty-five-year-old
scoutmaster. "It is that time again when we should be thinking about
the annual Cub Scout campout. Does anyone have any thoughts?"
"We will need some trucks to carry the garbage out after the boys
leave," said one father.
"Why don't we have a different menu than last year?" asked Maria.
"I think the boys are getting tired of peanut butter!"
About thirty seconds of silence reigned among us as we gathered
in the cluttered church basement where these dreadful meetings were
endured. Then seven-year-old Bobby broke the silence.
"What if it rains again? I hate it when it rains."
"You're a wimp!" said Mark, an eight-year-old veteran of camping
life, whose speech was often laced with such encouraging words for his
fellow Scouts. Others chimed in with their cracks and jokes.
"Okay, calm down. Let's just stay with the program we did last
year," the scoutmaster suggested. "It seems like that worked fine."
Unless, that is, like our family, you were not involved last year. We
had no idea what to expect this year or what had taken place last year
as hundreds of young boys invaded the forests of Illinois.
"Last year was great ." started young Mike, pausing long enough
for Kevin and the parents to think this whole camping experience
might actually have some impact, ". if you like mosquitoes and mud!"
The room erupted in laughter. Little Mike pleaded, "Please don't make
us go to the same campground! That place was a swamp!" By now the
boys were roaring hysterically and parents were needed to help restore
"That's enough boys-settle down. Parents, we need your help
with this event. Who would like to volunteer to help this year?" asked
Kevin. "We'll need about ten people. Our troop is responsible for organizing
the sports equipment and games."
The response was unanimous: fifteen parents sat motionless as they
pondered why they had chosen scouting instead of swimming lessons.I could be lounging by the pool, getting a tan, watching my kids frolic in the
warm summer sun. Instead I will probably be trudging through a sweltering
forest, fending off insect attacks, and struggling to get three hours of sleep in
a tent with a group of second graders whose life ambition is to do exactly the
opposite of everything I say.
"What about skills? Will the boys learn any skills?" asked Harold.
At a Scout camp in 1967 Harold had learned to tie an assortment of
knots. "I want my boy to learn something while he's there. Won't they
learn to set up a tent, or carve something, or maybe build a fire?"
Harold's plea caught Kevin off guard. He was thinking logistics,
not skills. He had parents to recruit, not kids to train.
Harold's comment forced me to think. Isn't that what scouting is for?
Isn't scouting supposed to train young men in the fine art of frontier
survival-to impart skills for fending off wild animals without a weapon,
catching fish with their bare hands, and building a log home without an
axe? Scout camps should be raising up the next generation of Daniel Boones
and Davy Crockets!
"I don't want my son playing with fire," said Linda, who thinks the
Cub Scouts are a babysitting service with uniforms. "The last thing I
need is to spend all day in the emergency room! Oh, and my son Jimmy
has a question. He wants to know if the kids will be allowed to bring
video games along."
Sure. And why not a portable refrigerator, a mobile phone, and a laptop
computer so he and the boys can keep up with the latest trends in the stock
market? So much for developing the next King of the Wild Frontier.
"There will be plenty of safe things for the boys to do," assured a
frustrated scoutmaster. "But no video games are allowed. Now, as I was
saying, we will need people to plan the activities and supervise the boys
at each of the sporting events. Does anyone have a bow and arrow and
know how to shoot it?"
At this point in the meeting I wished I had brought one along. This
misery had to end, one way or another. Others seemed to share this
sentiment. (A few parents in the back of the room were contemplating
a game of Russian roulette, several mothers were angry that their
husbands were home watching baseball, and the boys-who had
crossed the boredom threshold long ago-were beginning to plot the
abduction of the scoutmaster one evening at camp.)
Mrs. Peters and her son Jeffrey, late arrivals to the meeting, suggested
that all the parents attend the camp and share a tent so they could all
"experience scouting firsthand." She was never seen again. Authorities are
still looking for her. Well, actually that's not true, but it got pretty close.
"Why don't we just skip this year? Nobody has time to take three
days off work in the middle of the week to help." A few others nodded.
"But then there would be no archery, BB guns, rope swings, or late-night
campfire stories" lamented the boys.
And no mosquitoes, no portable toilets, and no muscle cramps, thought
By this point even our beloved scoutmaster had had about all he
could take, so he raised his voice to get everyone's attention. "Look, we
have to do this camp-all the other troops will be there, and it will be
just fine! Now, who can help?"
Reluctantly parents began to volunteer, the boys agreed to quiet
down long enough for some order to be maintained, and another
summer scouting camp was on the calendar.
As I reflect on the experience, I realize it had all the makings of
disaster from the start. In some general sense everyone knows that
scouting is good for these boys and that camp is fun for them. But there
was no clear vision for the event, no understanding of how it fit into the
overall plan for developing these young kids, and no structure or
process for getting to the desired outcomes. Every parent has a different
definition of success for scouting and for the camp, so no consensus
can be reached. People were frustrated and angry with the leader and
with one another. Other than that, everything was just fine!
Small group ministries often suffer the same fate. There is a general
sense that building community in the church is the right thing to do and
that somehow small groups will help. But few understand or even agree
on what must be done to get there. The leadership has failed to provide
clarity-about God's call, the vision for their church, the purpose of
groups, and the role each member plays in achieving the God-given
vision. Other than that, every thing is just fine!
Why does this happen?
Because too many churches plunge into small group ministry without
an end in mind. They're like the college kid who happily studies art
and German poetry, works as a lifeguard each summer, then decides at
graduation that he really wants to be a rocket scientist when he grows
up. In church after church (Willow Creek included!), otherwise savvy
adults begin building small groups without deciding what they want
small group ministry to be "when it grows up."
In the excitement of starting groups, these churches might have great
discussions about ministry models, group types, and spiritual formation
objectives. But they never actually decide on the purpose of small groups
or define how small groups will fit into church life. Inevitably these small
group efforts reach an impasse. Church leaders who influence the
congregation's strategic direction say the road to ministry progress seems
blocked. Small group members, leaders, and coaches feel confused, angry,
or indifferent about their groups' role in the church.
Lost in the Soup?
If the following case study sounds familiar, then your church probably
suffers from unclear ministry objectives. We've changed the
names, but here's what happened in a real meeting at a real church-a
church that hasn't yet decided what it wants to be when it grows up.
This church never really chose a small group ministry structure or
analyzed the underlying values of different small group models.
Ten years ago this church started some groups, eventually assimilating
about 30 percent of its adults into the groups. The board wants
to grow the small groups ministry, so three months ago it unanimously
approved a new small group model presented by Jennifer, the small
Jennifer now gives the board an enthusiastic update: "Things are
going well. We have thirty-five groups, and I'm training coaches to
oversee small group leaders. This will free me to develop and train more
Suddenly Doug, a seasoned elder and board chairman, asks, "Bob,
how's your class going? I see more people each Sunday. Does it use
groups?" Jennifer pauses for Bob's response. Bob says the class doesn't
use groups, but he loves teaching, and more members join each week.
Doug says, "Classes are a great way to connect people that groups can't
reach. We've had groups here for ten years, but many people haven't
joined. We should beef up the classes."
Before Jennifer can jump in, Hank speaks. "What if we really
promoted the classes? We have gifted teachers. Our service attendance
is skyrocketing and we're bursting at the seams. If we don't get these
people into a class or something soon, we'll lose them."
"Let's put that on the next agenda," Doug says. "Thanks, Jennifer,
for spending a few minutes with us. You're doing fine work with small
groups. Keep it up." Jennifer doesn't bow out yet, because she wants
clarity. She says, "It was my understanding that our limited classroom
facilities made small groups an imperative. We said that if we promote
classes too much, we'll frustrate people." A few board members agree.
But then Mike says, "That's why we have to move even faster on
the facilities options. Sarah, did you get that report on prospective sites?"
(Not privy to these discussions, Jennifer is surprised to learn that two
weeks ago the board stepped up its land search.) Sarah, the building
committee chairperson, says, "We've got some viable options. If people
respond well, we could be in a new building in eighteen months!"
"Then we can really take a run at our space problem," Hank says.
"Let's be sure to include six to ten new adult classrooms. That should
accommodate the jump in attendance and help everyone find a place
in the church. Let's take a look at possible locations right now."
Doug gracefully dismisses Jennifer. "Sorry, Jennifer, but we'll have
to continue this discussion at another meeting. Now we need to jump
on those potential properties, and it's confidential financial business.
Thanks, again, for your input."
Jennifer leaves dejected. Why build a group model, she wonders, that
won't be supported or promoted? Why was the board so excited about groups
three months ago but now appears ambivalent? Don't they see how groups
and classes can work together to build community?
When churches fail to choose a small group ministry model and
define its underlying values, staff members become disillusioned,
people remain unconnected, and the cause of Christ limps along
instead of running at full throttle.
Small Group Models
Visionary leaders such as Ralph Neighbour, Carl George, Lyman
Coleman, Roberta Hestenes, and Gareth Icenogle have provided great
ideas for building transformational community through small groups.
Together, their ideas comprise a continuum of small group models.
Though each small group model is different, most fall into one of three
categories along the continuum. We admit these categories risk oversimplification
but believe they'll help you determine a direction and
purpose for small groups in your church.
At one end of the continuum is the "church with small groups"
category. In this model, small groups form a department, one of many in
the church. At the continuum's other end is the "church is small groups"
category. This model views each cell group as a little church. The "churchof small groups" category views each group as a little community within
the larger church. This church's staff and ministries are all built on a small
groups skeleton, so that every member is connected through community
to the church.
As we say repeatedly in public settings, Willow Creek Community
Church has elected to be a church of small groups. But that model
might not be best for your church. The deadly sin here isn't choosing
a different model than we did. The sin is failing to wrestle this issue to
the ground and make a clear statement of intent so that everyone in
your church understands where small groups fit in your overall vision
The telltale symptom of unclear ministry objectives is relationship
breakdown among those people most committed to community. In the
beginning everything is rosy. People discover a powerful vision for
community-rooted in God's very nature. They see God using small
groups to change lives. Leaders hone their leadership skills, shepherd
people with intention, and develop the next generation of rising
leaders. More people ask to get connected to groups.
But soon tough questions mount. "How do small groups work in
the church? What happens to Sunday school? What are the implications
for staff, volunteers, and current ministry initiatives?" As the
church struggles to manage the tension, conflict rises. People ask why
the senior pastor and board won't "get on board." Staff members
wonder about their roles and job security and have trouble sustaining
leaders and support systems. Meanwhile, senior leaders wonder why
small groups won't get with the existing program. Some fear that
renegade groups, flush with success, may spin off to form a new church.
It's ironic how much trouble could be avoided if churches first
analyzed, then chose, from among the small group ministry models
described in the following chart. We suggest you immerse yourself
in the current literature about small groups. Remember, it's fine to
pick and choose the values and strategies that best fit your ministry
philosophy. You can use the chart to avoid mixing and matching
Church with Small Groups
In the church with small groups model, everyone sees the purpose
of small groups as one way for an interested person to connect with
others. Other ministries are seen as equally valid ways to connect.
Typical comments in such a church would be: "Hey, it's great you're in
a group. Oh, you're in a class and not in a group? That's great too. Oh,
you're on a committee, but you're not in a group or a class? That's great
too." In other words, it's a choice, a way to connect. As long as you are
connected somewhere, you're "in."
Turf wars are an inherent risk in churches with small groups, because
the small group ministry competes with all other departments for leaders,
financial support, meeting space, and visibility. Turf wars can get
nasty every year at budget time: "How can you drop my guest speaker
funding before you cut the brochure budget?" "Who needs a new church
sign anyway?" "Let the youth bring their own furniture and food!"
Church of Small Groups
As you examine the chart of small group models, you could draw a
heavy vertical line between the church with and church of models. Everything
to the right of church with assumes that the whole church will be
involved in groups. Crossing that line requires a total shift in church
philosophy, the gravity of which must be weighed seriously.
The purpose of small groups in the church of model is to build the
church as community. This model sees the larger community as a network
of smaller communities that develop people in Christ. Therefore,
the small groups concept penetrates every area of the church. Ministry
leaders and congregation members become accustomed to designing
and building ministry around a small group infrastructure. Small
groups are not limited to any one department or subministry. But
neither do they become the full expression of local church community
life. In this philosophy you will hear neither "we have a small groups
department" nor "the group is our church."