How Saddleback Started 3,000 Groups During Covid-19

how saddleback grows small groups

Rick Warren recently preached a sermon where he mentioned that Saddleback has added 3000 groups during Covid-19. Saddleback started the year with around 6000 groups. They now have about 9000 groups. Wow. (

I did a deep dive into all things Saddleback to see if I could discover how they did it. I listened to all the latest Saddleback podcasts, as well as all the latest Small Group Network podcasts. I read Steve Gladen’s latest book, Planning Small Groups with Purpose: A Field-Tested Guide to Design and Grow Your Ministry and re-listened to the much of Purpose-Driven Church. To top it off, Steve Gladen was willing to conduct a Zoom interview. Here is what I learned.

To quote Bobby Unser, “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” Saddleback’s story is a picture of that. They have been preparing for this moment for 30 years. When opportunity came, they were ready.

An optimistic, positive, faith-filled attitude

This was my first observation. Where most of us saw obstacles and problems, Saddleback saw opportunity. Both Rick Warren and Steve Gladen were quick to emphasize that the church tends to be at its best when the world is at its worst. The church grew in the aftermath of 9/11 as it often grows during tragedy. Thinking individually, people tend to turn to look up to God when life turns down.

A willingness to adapt, adjust, experiment and learn

I remember hearing Rick Warren speak years ago about why they call their small group leaders Lay Pastors. He was very emphatic about the idea that they wanted to lift up the position of the Lay Pastor. This seemed like the right thing to call them… until it wasn’t.

Then there were Shepherds. This was a disaster. No one in urban Southern California can relate to a Shepherd. 

Then there were Small Group Leaders. This was an improvement, but the real breakthrough came in the next iteration. “Leader” was a bit heavy. Most people didn’t know if they were ready to lead a group.

H.O.S.T.s.  Saddleback started experimenting with a video-based curriculum (somewhat novel at the time). This lowered the bar of entry into small group leadership. (Note they have a whole system in place to raise the bar over time.) The idea is to move from “come and see” to “come and die.” H.O.S.T.s are marked by four things:

  1. They have a Heart for people.
  2. They are willing to Open their homes (or other space).
  3. They are encouraged to Serve refreshments.
  4. They are asked to Turn on the television.

Purpose Driven Groups. All of Saddleback groups are not discipleship groups that balance the five purposes, but most of them are. This is considered the ideal. In these groups they have a champion for worship, fellowship, teaching/discipleship, service and evangelism. This framework forms the foundation of the Saddleback system of small groups.

Online Groups. Saddleback has been doing online church since about 2002 and online groups since about 2009. This decade of experience with online groups helped prepare them for the COVID-19 crisis.

Grab two friends. Steve Gladen says that every church has all the leaders it needs sitting in the pew. ( They regularly say to their people: If you have two friends, you can start a group. Saddleback provides these leaders with a starter kit that will help them move from where they are to where they need to be. Just grab two friends.

Campaigns. Everyone in small group world knows about the Purpose Driven Life Campaign. Fewer know that saddleback does a campaign nearly every year. (See Steve Gladen says that 95% or more of their new groups are started through campaigns. This is significant because, as every Small Group Point Person knows, you grow a small group ministry through creating new groups. You don’t grow a small group ministry my making each group bigger; you grow the ministry by starting new groups. One way to do this is by dividing existing groups. People are universally opposed to this and this strategy will meet much resistance. A better way is to start new groups out of all new people. Rick Warren will literally stand in front of the church and say, “How many of you have two friends?” Everyone will raise their hands. He continues, “Then you can do this.” If you have two friends, you can start a small group.

The Sovereign Hand of God

Rick opens The Purpose Driven Church with a metaphor about surfers and waves. Growing a church is like learning to ride the wave of what God is doing. We can do what we can do, but unless we are cooperating with what God is doing, it is wood, hay and stubble. We can learn to ride the wave; we can never learn to create a wave.

God’s hand was seen in this season in the timing of the COVID-19. It broke just when Saddleback had begun it’s latest campaign. When Rick said, “How many of you have two friends; then you can start a small group,” 3000 people raised their hands.


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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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