Alan Danielson on how your church’s DNA impacts your Small Group Ministry.


Subscribe to the unSeminary Podcast: [iTunes] [RSS] [Stitcher] [TuneIn] //  [VIDEO iTunes] [VIDEO RSS]

alan_picAt it’s core every church has unique DNA that defines what it’s going to be like and the impact it’s going to have on it’s community. On today’s episode small group expert, Alan Danielson gives us some really helpful handles to understand our church’s DNA and the impact it has on our small group ministry. Alan challenges us to build a small group ministry that is custom tailored to our DNA rather than just “copy and pasting” from another church. It’s a great episode packed with lots of help for church’s looking to improve their small group ministry.

Alan Danielson // [Website]  [twitter]

Interview Highlights

00:52 // Alan describes his role at New Life Bible Church and former role at
02:34 // Alan explains the biggest reason churches have a a hard time getting people into groups.
03:25 // ‘A Cheetah does not hunt like an eagle.’
04:39 // Ways churches can understand their DNA
05:06 // 1. Growth or Control Bias
08:29 // How Newton’s Cradle relates to small group ministry
09:50 // Saddleback leans to the growth side and cleans up messes
12:14 // 2. Understanding the Senior Pastor
13:14 // If the Small Group Pastor is aligned with the Senior Pastor the ministry can explode
14:07 // 3. Understanding the Church’s Traditions
15:47 // Every church has traditions even if it is only a year old – anything you do consistently
17:32 // 4. Picking your Problems
17:55 // Err on the side of Growth Control Bias that has the problems you are best equipped to deal with
22:21 // Do the hard work of discovering your DNA

Lightning Round Highlights

Helpful Tech Tools //, Basecamp,

Book Worth Reading // David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Inspiring Ministries //, Seacoast Church, East Lake Church

Inspiring Leader // Rick Warren

What does he do for fun? // Star Wars addiction [info about next Star Wars movie!]

Interview Transcript //

Rich – Well welcome to the unSeminary Podcast everybody. My name’s Rich Birch, the host around these parts. Today we have Alan Danielson on the line. I’m super excited to have him. This is one of those interviews I have been waiting for a while…it’s a privilege to have Alan on the show. Thanks for being here today, Alan.

Alan – Thank very much Rich. I really appreciate it. It’s an honor to be here, man.

Rich – Nice. I’m looking forward to today’s conversation because I’m looking forward to leaning in and learning from you Alan. Why don’t you give us a sense of your background. What church are you at now? A bit about your background. Who is Alan?

Alan – Well, right now I am at New Life Bible Church in Norman Oklahoma, which is smaller church. We are kind of rebooting some things. It’s a church in transition and I’ve been there for about three years. We have more than doubled in size in three years running just over 300 people now. Some exciting things going on in the life of our church. Prior to that I was on staff at in Edmond, Oklahoma where I was in charge of small groups in all of their campuses and that was an insane ride. When I started at LifeChurch we had about 9000 people on the weekends, 5 campuses. When I left we were running about 28000 people on the weekends, and we had 13 campuses. I learned so much during that time about leadership and small groups and about delegating and working with people over vast geographical areas, about multisite ministry. It was like drinking from a fire hydrant for four years straight. One of the best experiences of my life. Prior to that, I have been in ministry, well, since I graduated high school. About 2 weeks after I graduated high school, I moved out of my parents home and moved to another state to intern at a church and I’ve never looked back. I’ve been working at churches now for 24 years.

Rich – Nice, that’s a great thing. I’m really looking forward to leaning in on the small groups side of things today. I know a lot of small group systems struggle at churches. They have a hard time. I think there are, I’ve heard from more than one church, ‘we can get people to show up on a weekend, but then what do we do with them? We have a hard time getting them plugged in.’ Why is that? Is there some common themes why you think that might be in churches?

Alan – I think one of the biggest problems in small group ministries that I have worked with, and after leaving LifeChurch I did a lot of consulting, and still do with churches, and what I’ve seen at many, many churches across the country, is this tendency to cut and paste their small group models. They’ll say, ‘Hey, we see something that works over here and we’ll try that. And we see something that works over here at this other church and we want to try that.’ So they just kind of cut and paste certain things and they smash them all together. So instead of having this kind of cohesive thing that really makes sense for their church, and their culture and their DNA, they wind up with this kind of mishmash of stuff from all kinds of other cultures, and other DNA’s and then it doesn’t work and sometimes they are stumped as to why it doesn’t work. Well the way I like to say it is, a cheetah does not hunt like an eagle, because they have totally different DNA. And if a cheetah saw the way that an eagle ate, and the way that the eagle took care of itself every day and said, ‘Oh my gosh,I want to do what the eagle does,’ it would starve and die because God didn’t create it to be an eagle. He created it to be a cheetah. And the opposite is also true. And what churches do is well God created them to be, let’s say a cheetah, and then they see an eagle over here, and then they see a spider over here, and they look at other animals of prey and they say ‘I want to hunt like those.’ And then they incorporate a whole bunch of that stuff and none of it works because God made them to be a cheetah. So what I tell people all the time is that you’ve got to find out who you are and really understand your DNA. And when you do that you can see what’s going to work, and what’s not going to work in other areas, and you are better equipped to choose some of those different approaches and models. And probably you are better equipped to create your own approach which is ultimately the best.

Rich – That’s a huge challenge for people…obviously understanding their own church DNA. How does the church do that? How does a church get their arms around what is unique about us, because you obviously have to understand yourself before you can even learn from other churches. What does that look like?

Alan – There are various churches that I have worked with, all sizes, all denominations, I’ve found that basically there are 4 areas that every church needs to look at and talk about and wrestle with before they decide what small group models they are going to take. And these 4 areas will help them understand who they are a little bit better. So these are what I call Factors for Understanding your own DNA.
Number one is your Growth or Control Bias. Rich Warren once said, and this stuck with me, ‘You can structure growth, or you can structure for control, but you can’t structure for both.’ And the spiritual guy in me says ooo, I like the growth word. That sounds really good. But the control word, that sounds a little anal retentive. That’s not very spiritual. God is in control. So I kind of lean towards the growth side of things and a lot of times we have a tendency to hear those two word and say growth is definitely better than control. I just want to kind of disarms this notion and bring a very spiritual side to the control half of that equation. Control is about stewardship. It’s about responsibility. So there’s a tension, and everybody in small group ministry understands this. There’s a tension in growing a bunch of groups fast, and then controlling what happens in those groups so you don’t have people wind up running, and having all kinds of crazy heresy and you find out about that one group that’s passing around a rattlesnake. You want to avoid those kinds of things. So we have this tension in ministry. You want it to grow, but we want to keep goofy stuff from happening. And everybody needs to recognize which one of those you have more of a bias towards. If you have, think about it like…let me back up. Let me give you some very broad illustrations about growth and control. These are really extreme and no one really builds their ministries like either one of these, but I will give you a real extreme example to kind of see the difference. On the growth side, you might have a church that says we are going to start 50 new groups this year, anybody in the church can start a grope and all you have to do is sign up online and we will send people to your house. Well that sounds great! You have removed all barriers to jump through, there’s no hurdles to jump over. And some people are like ‘Ya, I want to start a group!’ So you might get a lesbian-skinhead-nazi starting a group. And you get all kinds of different people starting groups in that kind of world. The good news is, you’ve started a ton of groups. The bad news is, well you know, there’s all kinds of chaos in the middle of this fast growth.
The opposite side of that, ‘All right, the way we are going to start groups is before you can become a group leader, you have to have gone through our 5 class church membership course. Then you have to be a member in the church for 2 years. Then you have to be an apprentice in a small group for one year. Then after that, then you can beta test a small group with 3 people for 6 months. And after that, if you’ve made every possible, passed our doctoral exams and personality tests, then we’ll let you be a small group leader.’ Now you can see there’s good on both sides. One side says we want tons of people to get connected and to disciple in Christian relationships. The other side says, we what people to get into those relationships and make sure they are good and healthy ones. So there is a tension. Churches need to understand which of those biases they lean towards, because on some level, whether we like it or not, we have to admit, those two things are like oil and water. Have you ever heard of Newton’s cradle?

Rich – Hmm, no.

Alan – Newton’s cradle. You have probably seen, there those little things that look like a swing-set and sat on everybody’s desk in the 80’s.

Rich – Oh yes, right.

Alan – So what happens when you grab a steel ball on one end and you let it go?

Rich – Ya it goes and the energy passes through all the other balls and one pops at the other end.

Alan – Ya, that’s right. The kinetic energy comes through, when there’s no place for it to go, it moves the other ball out and the ball comes back and you have this motions that happens over and over. You have this perpetual motion. It doesn’t matter which side you start with, does it?

Rich – No.

Alan – But what happens if you take both sides and start at the same time?

Rich – It just stops.

Alan – Ya the kinetic energy just crashes into each other and you have the equal an opposite effect, boom, boom, boom, boom, you get nothing. Well that’s what’s happening in a lot of churches because they are trying to have an equal bias for both, they are getting no momentum. But the churches that I’ve worked with that intentionally lean to one side or the other, and intentionally when it comes time to make a decision and they are stumped and they don’t know where to go, if they understand their Growth or Control BIas, they will almost always say, ‘Alright let’s choose on the side that we have our bias.’ And then they tend to have momentum.

Rich – Right.

Alan – Saddleback Church, one of everybody’s most favorite examples, is definitely on the growth side of the things. Saddleback has more people in small groups than they have show up on Sunday mornings. Anybody can start a group. Now what that means is, they have some messes to clean up afterwards. Does that mean they are not controlling things? Are they letting some lesbian, skinhead nazi start a group? No. They step in and make sure you have a bit of experience, but they are leaning on the growth side heavily. Then there’s Community Christian Church, a multisite church in Chicago, Dave Ferguson is the senior pastor, and they have one of the most tightly controlled systems that I have every seen. A lot of people have tried to copy and paste what they are doing and it hasn’t worked for them. So I got to meet with Dave one day, and we were standing in the hall, and I said, ‘Why is it that your approach to small groups works for you and it doesn’t work for so many others?’ And he said, ‘Because our church started with small group, with an apprentice, in a dorm room. And that’s the way our church started and we’ve done everything that way ever since.’ So, it really is who they are. Now over the decades they’ve grown to have over 60% or so of their people plugged into groups consistently. That’s really great for them. Saddleback has doubled that percentage by going on the growth side. Now is one side better than the other because they are more people connected? That all depends on what you decide is a win. Growth Control Bias will help you define what is a win for your group ministry. Is a win about getting more people connected? Or is a win about creating more reliable, consistent small group environments that grow slowly over time? Both sides can have growth and control, but you have to make an intentional choice to pick your bias.

Rich – Right. I appreciate that.

Alan – That’s a long answer.

Rich – No, I appreciate that because that really is at the heart. I would tend to be more on the growth side of that bias, but I think probably sometime, if I am completely honest I just feel some guilt about the control side. I’m just like, ahhhhh! Maybe we really just need to worry about quality or control with those groups. And I can see that when we are sitting in the middle of those two, and we are making decisions that really aren’t one way or the other, that’s when we lose momentum. So that’s the first of four. What were the others that you listed out?

Alan – Alright, the second DNA factor is the Senior Pastor, period. Whoever your senior pastor is, you’ve got to understand his Growth Control Bias. You’ve got to understand his doctoral preferences. You’ve got to understand what he wants to see come of groups. And this is where some of the greatest tension in small group comes, because the senior pastor often times, is so busy focusing on other things, and I understand this because I am a senior pastor, that he doesn’t want to mess with having to chose between growth and control and understanding all that stuff. He’s just telling his small group guy, I want a bunch of new groups, and I want my group leaders to be solid. Well that senior pastor doesn’t understand that he is setting his guy up for failure, if the senior pastor and the ministry specialist guy, whatever you want to call him…if they are not on the same page…..When I am consulting small groups pastor, I say, ‘we’ve got to have a conversation with your senior pastor.’ I’ll have a conversation with him so he’ll understand what to create as a win. There’s a great client that I worked with in SanAntonio Texas. A huge Assemblies of God church and the pastor leaned heavily on the growth side. The small group pastor definitely leaned over on the control side.

Rich – Why aren’t we getting together?

Alan – Ya, they couldn’t understand. We had this conversation and it was like this massive ‘ah-ha moment’ and the small group guy said, ‘To align myself with my senior pastor and the DNA of my church I need to swing over the growth side no matter how uncomfortable I am with that.’ So he did that, and all of a sudden their small group ministry exploded.

Rich – Interesting.

Alan – So understanding your senior pastor and communicating very clearly with your senior pastor. Making sure that your senior pastor understands you and the Growth Control thing is critical in understanding your church DNA.
Third one….and we don’t like this, especially guys like you and me and the kinds of churches that we are in, we don’t like this word ‘Traditions’. Traditions speak volumes in the life of churches. In churches that have existed for a long time, the church that I’m in has been around for over 30 years and we do have some traditions and those are very meaningful to the people in the church, they really do kind of shape how the people in the church and how your church does things. If you ignore traditions just for the sake of what you want to do for small group ministry, you are going to shoot yourself in the foot and you are going to get fired. So practically speaking, understand the traditions of your church. Whether is denominational traditions, approaches to small group models, or teaching models like ‘Hey, we are a King James only church’ and in your small groups you are saying every body should use the NLT and be buddies. All of a sudden you are going to have some serious tensions there. So you have to understand your traditions regarding your church and your denominational background and how that plays into the kind of small groups that you want to build.

Rich – Just before you jump off the Traditions thing there…what would you say…’cause I agree. I think that’s a significant issue, what’s happened in the past in your church. What would you say to a church, or a church leader who says ‘I don’t really have any traditions, (they do) how do you help them mine those out to help them understand what are those traditions or rhythms or patterns in the past that they have had that might impact their small group ministry.

Alan – I would say if you think your church doesn’t have traditions, even if your church is a year old, you have traditions. Wake up and smell the coffee. Admit it. So maybe your traditions are, every year around February we do a sex series because it fits great with Valentine’s Day. Or you have traditions like at my church every January we do a small group push. That’s as much a tradition as it is anything else for us. Every summer at our church we do a series about movies because that’s a fun exciting traditional thing for us. Now it doesn’t seem traditional, because when we hear that word we think pipe organs and hymns. But whatever your church does consistently, and kind of celebration, any kind of system approach to ministry. That is your tradition. I like to push back on guys that are in ver contemporary churches and say ‘temporary for you is the new traditional’. That is the new tradition. Look at what you do consistently. Look at what you do regularly. What do you come back to? What are the things in your church that seem very, very important to you and that is a tradition. And a lot of young, new church plants through Acts 29 and what not are very big into reform theology, that’s part of their tradition. They need to understand that and those churches when the do resonate with reform theology they need to see how that tradition gist into their small group ministry, their small group ministry is more able to excel. So anyway.

Rich – Very cool. What’s the fourth area that we need to consider?

Alan – The fourth area…this is my favorite. Picking Your Problems. A lot of times in ministry we pick and approach because of all the upsides to it. But the reality is that each of us in ministry, we bring certain skill sets to the table, each of our churches has certain strengths and certain weaknesses. And the better approach is to pick our problems from the models, the problems that we are best equipped to deal with, the problems that we are ready to face, rather than pick just the upsides. So I say it this way, this is not original to me and I don’t know where I heard it but I say it all the time, so I’m giving credit to some person out there, every system has it’s problems. So it’s not so much about picking the right system as it is about picking your problems. For us a, we know that we were going to have to lean on the growth side of the thing and so that was going to result in some problems. But we admitted to ourselves we are going to be better at cleaning up messes on the back end, than we are going to be a providing lots of training events on the front end to avoid messes. So we chose to air on the side of growth. That meant that there were messes to clean up. In the four years that I was there leading small groups, I can count the number of times on one hand where it was really, really bad, a mess that had to be fixed. But most of the time it was small little things. And so, we had to implement systems of small group coaching where the coaches were continually coming back and touching base. Not hounding and acting as the Life Church Gestapo. Checking in and ‘Are you doing small group correctly?’ Nothing like that. It was just them calling ‘Hey, how can we pray for you? What’s going on in your life?’ Very relational and in doing so the small group leaders would reveal the things that they needed prayer about in their groups. Kind of make us aware of pastoral conversations that may need to happen. So one time we had a couple that was living together that started a group. One time we had a guy start a group who was a militant pacifist. Every conversation this guy had was about antiwar and at the time George Bush was the president and everything was about evil George Bush was. I don’t care what the subject was. The subject could have been marriage and he pull in politics and military. So one day a marine showed up to his group not knowing what this group was like and the marine just about punched this guy out. So we had to have some conversations about this. It was difficult from time to time, but we knew we had picked the problems we were best able to deal with. I tell churches that all the time. Would you rather in small group ministry, when you are considering this growth and control stuff, would you rather have more groups faster and the messes and chaos that comes with that? Or would you rather have more groups slower and the pain of slow growth? Which of problems would you want to have?

Rich – Very cool. This has been fantastic. This is like drinking from a fire hose. Lots to think about today. Is there anything else you would like to say before we jump into the Lightning Round, just about this DNA, just digging in and learning more about your church’s DNA?

Alan – This information doesn’t just come from my experience at my own church. It comes from consulting lost of churches all over the country. So I saw some of this at play at Life Church. When I left Life Church and started doing some consulting, I really saw them in play all over the place. And so I get a lot of push back from senior pastors saying ‘You haven’t convinced me. I still want Growth and Control.’ My answer to them is I could sit and argue with you until you are blue in the face but I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to waste your time or mine. All I want to do is tell you is what I am talking about today doesn’t just come from Alan Danielson’s opinion. It comes from what I’ve witnessed in a massive number of churches all across the country whether I have gone and visited with them, or had Skype chats with them or teleconferences with them, or whatever the case. This is very, very real. It’s very, very prevalent. If you sit down and do the hard work of discovering the DNA of your church it will help you pick and choose the small group models that work best for you. And it will help you created the small group model that works best in your context.

Leave a Response

Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.