Two weeks ago Wednesday I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Tom Haren of NewSpring Church for about 90 minutes on the phone about small groups. Tom is one of their Home Groups Pastors, overseeing roughly half of the church’s small groups. If you are not familiar with them, NewSpring Church is located in Anderson, SC and has grown since started in 1999 to over 8000 people every Sunday. This church is doing some great things, so I wanted to learn from them how they are making small groups work.

My conversation with Tom was primarily me asking a question, and him responding, then us both chasing those thoughts down a few rabbit trails. Since I didn’t record our exact conversation, rather took notes, I will just summarize my thoughts and the responses given by Tom. I do have Tom’s permission to blog on this. Tom actually contacted me after I had sent a note to Perry Noble asking if I could talk with his staff about small groups.

From the NewSpring web site:

What are Home Groups?

Home Groups are an important part of our ministry at NewSpring. Our groups are made up of adults of all ages, stages of life and spiritual maturity. These groups take part in fellowship, Bible study, prayer and accountability. Each group consists of six to seven married couples or 10-12 individuals that meet on a regular basis in someone’s home.

It is our belief that connecting with other members and attendees will allow each person the opportunity to experience the fullness of Jesus Christ. By participating in a group, you will not only build lasting friendships with other believers, you will also experience community as described in Acts 2. To join a group, come and check out our next GroupLink.

I started with 3 key questions for Tom, and then lots of follow up questions. I emailed my questions to Tom ahead of time, so that he could look at them as we talked.
1. First, how have you been dealing with rapid growth and getting people into small groups?
2. Second, on a day to day basis, how do you get people matched up with groups?
3. Third, could you describe your leadership structure of your Small Groups?

On the first question, Tom started by giving me a bit of background on NewSpring and their Home Groups. NewSpring is currently running around 8000 (and growing!) people for weekend services. They have over 1250 people plugged into their groups, and were having an opportunity for hundreds more to get into a group last week (I’ll explain this later). NewSpring is intentionally a church with small groups, not a church of small groups for those who understand that nuance. NewSpring divides their groups between singles and married people, generally not mixing the two groups.

NewSpring has recently changed the way they get people into their Home Groups. Until about 6 months ago they were struggling with this, but they seem to have found a system that works well for them. They call this system Group Link.

from the NewSpring web site:

What is GroupLink?

At GroupLink, you will have the opportunity to meet people who are at the same stage of life as you and who live in the same general area. GroupLink is the event where you can get connected with a Home Group. You can sign up closer the next GroupLink online or at the info kiosk.

Group Link (GL) is a quarterly event for NewSpring, and they shoot for early fall, early December and early Spring to space them out to fit their needs and church calender. Group link is an evening event (with child care!) where people wanting to get into a Home Group have a chance to hear from the leadership of the church, and then the group leaders. The event has a catered meal provided at no cost to the participants (this past one was catered by Olive Garden with salad, entree and desert!) as an additional draw for perspective group members. The catering comes directly out of the Home Groups budget.

NewSpring clearly make GL a big deal, and invest considerable resources into making sure it is a success. They expected to have nearly 400 people at their last Group Link! From that, their experience tells them that roughly 70% of the people will find their way into groups. During the GL, the people are divided into groups, and the various leaders come to each group and talk about their particular Home Group. They have recently switched to this system, and have found that people are connecting better through this system. Previously the people had to go around and talk with the leaders, and they found that was frustrating both the leaders and the people looking for groups. This simple transition has moved their GL events from being viewed negatively by staff and leaders to a real positive for all involved.

The promotion for Group Link is done in a number of ways, but the primary and most effective way of getting the word out is that Senior Pastor Perry Noble (or whoever is preaching that week) will give it a plug from stage in the week(s) leading up to the event. With the endorsement of the pastor from stage there is a boost of credibility and importance lent to this type of event.

The week before a GL event, there is a training called Synergy for all the new group leaders. This gets everyone on the same page, and up to speed on how the Group Link event will go down. To be a Home Group leader, NewSpring requires that all leaders have gone through Synergy and are members of the church. The Home Groups pastors also do brief interviews with prospective leaders, going through testimonies and some other questions to make sure this person is equipped and ready to be a leader in their church.

The first 8 weeks following the Group Link, all of the Home Groups follow the same curriculum – Willow Creek’s Fully Devoted and then Willow Creeks Groups: The Life-Giving Power of Community. This establishes a solid understanding for the participants in what the church views as the roles for their Home Groups. It is also a good curriculum to begin to build a cohesive group. It helps break the ice and get discussions flowing.

This is just the tip of the iceberg on my interview with Tom Haren. I’ll post more as I continue to process my thoughts and have time. Huge Kudos to Perry Noble for making his staff available for this, and to Tom Haren for taking time out of his busy life and ministry to talk with me about this. Tom and Perry you’ve both been a huge blessing to me!

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