Exponential Small Group Growth in a Post-Covid World


Church small group growth can be exponential… even at your church! Find out from some of the experts on how to grow your small groups in a big way!

Part 1: Exponential Thinking by Rick Warren

Part 2: Exponential Growth from the SGN Virtual Lobby Gathering

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By Rick Warren

There are many different principles behind the 40 Days of Purpose that make it effective and make it powerful and successful, not only here at Saddleback, but in a lot of churches.  But there is one principle that I believe is more important than all the others when doing a campaign like 40 Days of Purpose.  It is the principle of Exponential Thinking.  The principles behind exponential growth will stretch your faith; will make you uncomfortable, but you may have heard me say this before – when you do the possible, God takes care of the impossible.  And if you want God to do something really big in your church during 40 Days of Purpose, you’re going to have to apply the principles of exponential thinking as taught in the Bible.  So let me just take a few minutes to share with you 10 principles behind exponential thinking.

This occurred one day in my quiet time many, many months before we did our first 40 Days of Purpose.  The Lord clearly put an idea in my mind.  It was about five days before I was able to preach 13 Easter services, which were coming up and God spoke to me that my faith was not big enough.  This thought kept going over and over in my mind – we must think exponentially.  We must think exponentially.  God wants to do far more than just add a few members to our church;  He wants to multiple them.  As I began to think of that, I did a study of the word “multiply” throughout the scriptures.  And I discovered 10 principles of exponential thinking.


First – exponential growth is possible.

We find this in the Book of Genesis.  In Genesis 47:27 it says, “Thus Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen, and they gained possession and they were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly”.  That phrase “multiplied exceedingly” is exponential growth.  In Exodus 1 we’re told, “But their descendants had many children and grandchildren.  In fact, they multiplied so quickly, that they soon filled the land”.  That’s multiply, exponential growth.  Everything around us has this possibility for exponential growth.  Starbucks did it with coffee.  Krispy Kreme did it with donuts.  They took a normal thing and multiplied it exceedingly.  So it is possible.


Second – exponential growth is the New Testament model.

In Acts 6:7 it says, “The word of God increased and the number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly”.  They just didn’t add people every week – they multiplied greatly.  So it’s biblical.


Third – exponential growth brings honor to God.

In Isaiah 26:15 it says, “Lord, you multiplied the number of your people.  You multiplied them and brought honor to Yourself”.  You know, I believe we limit God when we think “in addition” instead of “multiplication”.  We think of adding members, adding classes, adding services.  But God wants us to think in multiplication terms.  He says “that’s what brings Me honor.  That’s what brings Me glory”.


Fourth – exponential growth captures the attention of the unbelieving world. 

You see a good example of this in the Book of Exodus.  In Exodus 1:12 it says, “but the more the Egyptians suppressed them (talking about the Israelites), the more quickly the Israelites multiplied and the Egyptians soon became alarmed”.  Wouldn’t you like people in your community to be alarmed about your church because it was growing so fast, you were multiplying members, multiplying groups, multiplying Sunday school classes so much that everybody took notice?  That’s what happened in the New Testament in Acts 5:48.  They said, “You filled all Jerusalem with Your teaching”.  And in Acts 17:6 they said, “You’ve turned the world upside down”.  Why?  Because of exponential growth.


Fifth – exponential growth is caused by God.

It is not a human thing.  Only God can do this.  In Deuteronomy 1:10 it says, “The Lord your God has multiplied you and behold you are this day as the stars of the Heaven from multitudes”.  It comes because God gets a hold of your church.


Sixth – exponential growth is the result of God’s blessing on your life. 

The best example of this, of course, is Abraham.  In Isaiah 51:2 it says, “Ponder Abraham your father, and Sarah who bore you.  Think of it all; one solitary man when I called him.  But once I blessed him, he multiplied”.  Now think about that – once God puts His blessing on your church, you’re not just going to just see additional growth of one at a time.  You’re going to see multiplication.  Exponential growth taking place in your church.  Another example is Genesis 26:12.  It says, “That year Isaac’s crops were tremendous.  He harvested hundred times more grain than he planted for the Lord blessed him”.  And that’s what we’re praying that God will do during 40 Days of Purpose in your church.  That God will bless your church so much, that it will be multiplied with the number of people coming to Christ.  Multiplied with the number of people joining your choice; being baptized; getting into a small group; multiply the number of people getting involved in ministry and being sent out to share the Good News and do their mission in the world.


Seventh – exponential growth makes God smile…in fact, He rewards it. 

This is the principle we find in the parable of the talents.  The Bible says, “The first servant reported a tremendous gain.  Ten times as much as the original amount.  Well done, the king explained.  You are a trustworthy servant.  You have been faithful with the little I entrusted to you, so you will be governor of ten cities as your reward”.  The reward for exponential growth is greater service in Heaven and greater reward in Heaven.


Eighth – the only barrier to exponential growth is our own unbelief.

The Bible says in Mark 6:52, “they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the multiplied loaves for their hearts were hard and they did not believe”.  Now listen to that verse – it says there that when Jesus did that miracle of multiplying the loaves…remember of multiple growths.  He just didn’t add a loaf just here and there.  He did exponential growth of the loaves and fishes.  It said, “They didn’t understand the significance of the miracle, for their hearts were hard and they did not believe”.  In fact, the Bible tells us, “because of their unbelief, He could not do any mighty miracles among them, except to place His hand on a few sick people and heal them and He was amazed at their unbelief.  Now think about that…in Mark 6, Jesus is amazed at their unbelief, cause all He’s able to do is heal people.  He doesn’t consider that to be a big miracle.  But the miracle of exponential growth is something more magnificent.


Ninth – the secret of exponential growth is believing God for big things.

The Bible says, “according to your faith it will be done unto you” in Matthew 9:29.  James tells us in his Book, James 5:16 – “when a believing person prays, great things happen”.  It happens because we believe.


Finally, Tenth – exponential growth begins with exponential thinking.

Listen to this verse, “enlarge the place of your tent.  Stretch your tent curtains wide (He’s talking about stretching).  Do not hold back.  Lengthen your cords. Straighten your stakes.  For you will spread out to the right and to the left” (Isaiah 4:2-3).  That’s exponential thinking.  Here’s another verse, Habakkuk 3:2, “Lord, I’ve heard the news about you and I’m amazed at what You’ve done.  Now Lord, do great things once again in our time and make those things happen again in our days”.  Habakkuk 3:2 is the verse I’m praying for your church.

God did amazing things during 40 Days of Purpose here at Saddleback.  Hundreds were saved.  Over a thousand were baptized.  Many, many people came to Christ. 25,000 got into small groups.  It was a miracle.  And then we watched it happen again, just a few weeks later in hundreds and hundreds of other churches.  And now I’m asking God to do it again in our church.  2 Thessalonians 3:1 says this, “Pray that the Master’s word will simply take off and race through the country to a ground-swell of response, just as it did among you”.  I love that Message paraphrase.  It says “pray that it will just be like wildfire”.

Now, how do you think exponentially? Well, you put a zero behind the number.  In the Spring of 2002, our original goal was simply to fill our Worship Center for a Purpose Driven Life seminar.  Well that would be about 3,000 people.  But then God said, “Your thinking is not big enough.  You’ve got to think exponentially”.  And I thought, what if we added a zero.  What if we took the message to 30,000 people in our valley, not 3,000?  Well that would require an entirely different delivery system.  When we did our first simulcast of the Purpose Driven Life, our original goal was to broadcast to 50,000 people.  And I asked, “What if we added a zero to that number?  What would it take to reach 500,000 people instead of 50,000?  What would it take to reach a half million people?”  Well, that number was so big; we knew that we could never do it on our own.  God would have to show up.  It would require faith.  It would force us to think in ways we never thought before.  Now, that is the second value of exponential thinking.  Exponential thinking keeps you from making the mistake of setting up a system that won’t work as you get bigger.  Now listen to this, pastor, most of us set up programs for what the size we’ve got right now.  As a result, the church gets stuck.  It’s in a shoe that won’t allow the foot to get any bigger and it keeps you from thinking exponentially.  You think addition.  Let’s add a few more.  But exponential thinking forces you to think multiplication.  For instance, as I began to think – what would it take to get 30,000 Saddleback Valley residents to hear about the purposes of God?  Well obviously, I just couldn’t do a seminar.  We couldn’t do it either in our Worship Center, which wouldn’t hold them.  Or even in Sunday school classes on campus.  There simply wouldn’t be enough space.  So the number forced us to think of a new way.  To use the homes of our members.  I would have to ask 3,000 of our members to open their homes to an average of ten neighbors each.  Then I had to think – well, how would we get the teaching to all those people?  You certainly couldn’t count on finding 3,000 great teachers or even people willing to teach.  There just aren’t that many.  So one idea was to first show it on a local cable station.  But then there were time and price considerations and all the groups that would have to start at the same time and that wasn’t going to work.  So we came up with the idea of me teaching the sessions on video tape and just asking the people to host a group and just put the tape in and push the button on the VCR.  Now, we began to get excited about reaching more people than we’ve ever reached before in the history of our church.  Because exponential thinking forced us to think in new ways.  What were the results?  Well, we didn’t get 3,000 homes and we didn’t get 30,000 participants.  But we did get 2,400 small groups started that ministered to 25,000 people.  You think that we would have reached that many people if we hadn’t done exponential thinking?  Absolutely not.  No way.  God honored our faith.

Now let me just get real personable.  Pastors and Leaders let me be honest with you.  It may just be possible that you are limiting the growth of your church because you haven’t set a goal for Sunday school classes or your small groups that would force you to think out-of-the-box and do it in new ways.  If we only think in terms of what we think we can handle in our current approach, or in our current building – we may be limiting God’s will for our churches.  If we hold back because we are afraid of being overwhelmed by the follow up…what would we do with all those people if we had 50 more, 100 more or 200 more?  That just means the way we are planning is not exponential thinking.  There’s too much control and too little faith.  Faith stretches us.  Faith works in the realm of the impossible.  The Bible says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God”.  The Bible says, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin”.  And Jesus said, “According to your faith, it will be done unto you”.  So, I want to personally challenge you to use the 40 Days of Purpose to not only teach the purposes of God to your people, but to try exponential thinking in faith.  Now, it’s true that you probably won’t reach the goals you set.  In fact, if you do, it may indicate that you didn’t take a big enough risk.  You set the goal too low.  But you will reach far more people than you would ever if you didn’t set a faith goal.


In the February 2020 Lobby Conference hosted by Small Group Network, Saddleback pastors Steve Gladen and Dave Alford tag teamed and tackled one of the most anticipated topics of the event: Exponential Growth in Small Group Ministry. Here, let us review three of the key takeaways from this momentous presentation by Steve and Dave.

Choosing Growth over Control
The Book of Acts is one of the best resources we have to understand the growth of the church during its formative years. A brief read through of this section of Scripture can quickly show us that the church preferred growth over control as they would preach to thousands and then baptize them shortly afterward. As witnessed throughout Acts, explosive growth was a good problem to have, for it established a foundation upon which its teachings could stand upon. Similarly, we too must be okay with the mess that new small groups may create. Instead of focusing primarily on if a new small group leader is maintaining sound theological discourse within their very first meeting, we are challenged to celebrate the fact that Jesus is being discussed at all and that members are coming together to form community. But doesn’t bad theology and misinformed teaching create more complication for the kingdom of God? Yes, however just as we see in the Bible, doctrine and teaching was provided shortly after Acts through the writings of the Epistles. Just as how Paul conducted “on-the-job” training via letters to the churches he was mentoring, we too can choose growth first and then later practice the approach of surgically addressing any theological concerns through a consistent roll-out of bite-size trainings.

A Culture of Groups
While we all wish our congregants would be fully devoted followers of Christ who are consistently serving, attending a small group, and in-the-know of the church calendar at all times, the reality is that many of our churchgoers only step foot onto church grounds for Sunday service (or online for virtual Sunday service). In other words, Sunday morning may in fact be the only shot we have to help promote small groups and/or explain the benefits of small groups. If our churches only mention small groups twice a year at the times when there are coordinated group launches, then this means that the typical church attendee only will hear about small groups 4% of the year (even less if they miss one or both of those two services!). If the church’s leadership agrees that small groups are one of the most important ministries within the community, then we become challenged to display the fact that small groups are indeed a part of our church’s DNA. To help execute this, some strategies can include: (1) head pastor buy-in (where the senior pastor becomes one of the most vocal proponents of small group ministry and even attends a group themselves); (2) Church calendar events that strategically funnel individuals into newly created groups (and/or church events that don’t interfere with the weekdays on which small groups typically meet); or (3) Consistent small group promotion from the pulpit (Not every message needs to be a small group sermon, but every message can contain a shout-out or a 30 second tie-in to small groups).

Lowering the Barriers
In a post-Covid world, small group ministries have found themselves challenged to embrace new methods in facilitating and nurturing community. While meeting in-person will always be the ideal method of meeting in groups, what we do know is that the concept of virtual groups is here to stay. During this time that we find ourselves in, what type of group is easy to duplicate, is able to meet both online and in-person, is easily sustainable, and also is easy to lead? As we arrive on the other side of the widespread disruption that Covid-19 had brought with it, sermon discussion groups may very well be the perfect type of “growth over control” group to launch within our church’s small group ministry. A sermon discussion guide is not only able to empower anyone to host a group and facilitate engaging conversation, but it also allows what Steve and Dave encouraged us all to practice during last year’s Lobby: rather than simply telling our groups what to do, we instead provide for our groups the destination we want them to reach while utilizing the values we want them to use in order to arrive there. Even though a model of sermon discussion groups chooses growth over control, it does so within a framework that provides its groups a set of guardrails within which to operate. In other words, groups are not grown without oversight, but instead are grown within a model that becomes quite appealing to a post-Covid world where both in-person and online groups are meeting on a regular basis.

While Dave and Steve’s presentation alone was well-worth the cost of the event, the Lobby Conference was packed with an immense amount of information that was applicable and highly relevant for any church’s small group ministry. This year, due to Covid-19, Small Group Network’s 2021 Lobby is going digital, and it will be opened up to even more attendees and also offered at a fraction of the cost it usually takes to attend. In addition to receiving wisdom from some of the biggest names in small group ministry, attendees will be able to choose from over 40 breakout sessions to attend that are being offered by additional voices within small group ministry (including yours truly). To help kick off 2021, this conference will be one of the best events to attend as a small group point person, and I hope that you’ll consider signing up and joining us on February 23-24!



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Daniel Thomas

Connections Director



Daniel serves as Executive Pastor at Community Church of Mountain City, TN.  Daniel and his family are on a mission to establish roots within their community, fight for peace and serve well.  He serves as our Connections Director in laying the groundwork for Circles. He loves great coffee and traveling with his wife Tia and two children, Deklan and Aden



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