Pushing Boundary-Free GroupLife

Celebrating 1900 Posts: My 19 Favorites

celebrateYesterday I published my 1900th post here at


I began blogging here in early 2008. Although I don’t have accurate stats on readers and pageviews until 2009, I know it was a slow beginning in terms of traffic. Today…well today is different.

Here is my best attempt at my 19 favorite posts. This was very tough.

  1. 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader (October, 2013)
  2. 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People (May 2013)
  3. What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People? (June 2012)
  4. 7 Practices for Developing and Discipling Your Small Group Coaches  (December, 2013)
  5. 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group System (August, 2012)
  6. 7 Assumptions that Shape My Small Group Strategy (June, 2013)
  7. 5 Habits I’d Look for If I Was Hiring a Small Group Pastor (January, 2014)
  8. 7 Things You Must Do TO and FOR Your Small Group Leaders (October, 2015)
  9. 6 Essential Questions about Making Disciples and Small Group Ministry (November, 2014)
  10. Four Obsessions of the Extraordinary Small Group Pastor (February, 2015)
  11. 5 Stupid Things Small Group Pastors Need to Stop Doing (September, 2015)
  12. Ten Ideas that Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry (December, 2012)
  13. Top 5 Reasons Small Group Leaders Quit (August, 2015)
  14. 8 Secrets for Discovering an Unlimited Number of Leaders (December, 2014)
  15. 5 Things that Used to Work in Small Group Ministry (January, 2016)
  16. 5 Things You Need to Know about 21st Century Small Group Ministry  (September, 2015)
  17. Foundational Teaching: Next Steps for Everyone (October, 2015)
  18. 10 Things Small Group Pastors Should Always Be Thinking (September, 2015)
  19. 5 Clues that Point to a Change in Small Group Ministry (October, 2015)

What do you think?  Is your favorite missing?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Shawn Nystrand

Quotebook: A Higher Standard than Jesus? (re:group Day Two)

quote marksThere are times every once in a great while when something a speaker says is so convicting it causes an audible gasp or sigh in the room. There was one of those times on Day Two of re:group in the session by Tim Cooper called Training Leaders to Engage Culture.

It was a statement that was not in the notes and I’m not sure if it was a quote. Here’s the line:

“If what someone is doing keeps you from ministering to them them, you have a higher standard than Jesus”

I hope I never forget that truth.

Community for Everyone (re:group Conference Day One)

everyoneI might be sharing key insights from re:group 16 for days. So good! I wish you had been there!

One of the two or three most powerful takeaways I came away with is a very good way of thinking about the importance of making community (available) for everyone.

To set the stage, here is the introductory paragraph in the session notes for Community for Everyone:

“If we want everyone to experience life-changing community, we need to make space in groups for people with a variety of lifestyles and theological beliefs. How do we create avenues for opportunities for dating couples living together? How do we help LGBT people experience a growing relationship with Jesus through community? In this breakout, we’ll explore what we’re learning as we try to move a diverse population from rows into circles.”

Think with me for a moment.

Like the North Point Ministries churches, our small group strategy is designed to form and launch groups for married couples, men (married and unmarried)  and women (married and unmarried). As a result, it is already more and more common for us to field questions from people who are trying to figure out if they fit or where they fit.

Are you answering those questions too?

Let me tell you, if you’re not yet wrestling with questions about “how can I/we participate or “I/we can participate” it is probably only a matter of time (a very brief time).

Again, I love the thinking behind North Point’s philosophy and strategy. Consider these three statements:

“Our mission as a church is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Check. That’s not how we say it but it is what we say. And you are probably the same.

“Our vision is to create churches that unchurched people want to attend.”

Check. I resonate with that vision and you probably do too.

Stop and think for one moment, through, before we continue.

Follow the thinking right here:

If you want unchurched people to attend and are praying that unchurched people to attend and God answers your prayer and unchurched people do attend…doesn’t it stand to reason that these same unchurched people will arrive with lifestyles and habits (and much more) that are consistent with and shaped by the culture?

How are you doing? Still with me?

Okay, so here’s the third statement:

“We believe for people to grow spiritually, they must be connected relationally.”

Check. I’m with you. We are with you.

And now, what must we do to make community available for everyone?

In our case, I’m certain we can’t easily fit everyone into our three categories. At least, not without a lot of forcing men and women to fit.

What do we need to do? What will we do?

We’re already on it. Stay tuned.

If you missed yesterday’s post, here it is: 18 Great Lines from Andy Stanley (re:group Conference Day One).

What do you think? Want to argue? Have a question? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Thomas Hawk

18 Great Lines from Andy Stanley (re:group Conference Day One)

quote marksAndy Stanley’s talk during the opening session of re:group ’16 was a serious collection of great groups one liners. Here are the ones I captured:

  1. After announcing that North Point Ministries has 72,000 people in groups. “20 years in people ask me, ‘What would you change if you started over?’ Our one numeric goal (to have 100,000 people in groups) has shaped everything. It has shaped everything including our budget. Your goals shape where the money goes. Groups is the best bet.”
  2. “People often come up to me and say, “I visited your church.” I tell them, “No you didn’t. You visited one of our worship services. Our church meets in circles.”
  3. “We wanted to build a community of Jesus followers who were in community.”
  4. “The most powerful form of evangelism is a community of Christians who love each other.”
  5. “The one another factor is the explanation of the first couple hundred years.”
  6. “Our kids think you’re supposed to be in a group and lead a group.”
  7. “The church doesn’t happen in rows. The church happens in circles.”
  8. “When people say, ‘I’m going to call the church,’ we should say, ‘no you’re not. You’re going to call somebody. The church meets in circles.'”
  9. “[Life-change] happens a little bit in rows and a lotta bit in circles.”
  10. Teaching on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, “When people are in circles, ‘the church’ automatically picks them up.”
  11. “Groups are like retirement savings. If people wait until they need it [to be picked up] they won’t have it when they need it.”
  12. “Groups are preventative. Somebody (in your group) can see what they can’t see. Somebody can always see it coming.”
  13. “Groups are preventative. You can’t measure prevention. You can measure what happens without it. There is way way more going on (in groups) than you can measure.”
  14. “Every marriage needs support now in order to avoid life support later.”
  15. “[Life-change] is cumulative. When you miss one time you don’t miss much. It happens over time.”
  16. “Your life would be better if the generation before you had been connected.”
  17. “The generation before us tells us that circles are better than rows.”
  18. “You can’t do in rows what you can do in circles.”

At the conference?  Have one to add? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

FAQ: What If My Senior Pastor Won’t…

what if my senior pastor wontFAQ: What If My Senior Pastor Won’t…

I get questions. A lot of questions.

My most frequently asked question? Probably has to do with “what if my senior pastor won’t…”

There are all sorts of these questions:

  • “What if my senior pastor won’t be the small group champion?”
  • “What if my senior pastor won’t narrow the focus, trim the belong and become menu, and prioritize now over then?”
  • “What if my senior will only preach expository sermons through books of the Bible?”
  • Etc.

As you can see, there are all sorts of these questions.

What if my senior pastor won’t be the small group champion?

Why don’t we start with this one: “What if my senior pastor won’t be the small group champion?”

First, it might help your senior pastor if they understood the role of the small group champion (what it is and what it isn’t).

Step One: Make sure your senior pastor knows that the role of the small group champion is simply to be the number one spokesperson for small groups: the optimal environment for life-change. Also, make sure they know the role of the small group pastor is to take care of the planning, the organization, the design, etc., making it easy for the senior pastor to simply focus on the champion role. See also, Essential Ingredients of Life-Change and Life-Change at the Member-Level.

Second, it might help you to determine the background for their reluctance. There may be several reasons why they won’t take on the mantle.

  • They may misunderstand what the small group champion does.
  • They may not understand why it is important for them to be the small group champion.
  • They may have been burned by a previous small group pastor who didn’t take care of their end of the bargain.
  • They may feel like their small group pastor is better qualified.
  • They may truly believe it is the small group pastor’s job.
  • They may not want to play favorites.
  • They may not want to seem to be playing favorites.
  • etc.

Step Two: Determine why, exactly why, they are reluctant to be the small group champion. How to go about this may require some gentle trial and error. Depending on your relationship with your senior pastor, your tenure on the staff, etc., determining the background for their reluctance may have to be learned over time. But…it is worth learning. See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #1: A Doubtful or Conflicted Senior Pastor.

Third, it may be that this is a game of inches, not yards (or miles). If every season is a step in the right direction, you will eventually arrive in about the right place.

Step Three: Be sure you are doing everything you need to do. Do the planning well in advance (i.e., What weekends could the small group launch be highlighted? What is the best sign-up method? How will the follow-up happen?) Fine tune the details (i.e., When must the sign-up form be printed? When will the names be entered into the database for follow-up? How will you be able to email sign-ups on behalf of your senior pastor? etc.). Script the ideal version of what you would like your senior pastor to say. See also, 6 Ways to Help Your Senior Pastor Make the Small Group Ask.

Conclusion: You can only do what you can do. Remember, your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing. Make your plan. Run the strategy. Determine results. Evaluate your strategy and begin to plan the next attempt.

In my own experience, the best results are actually developed over multiple efforts after careful planning, best-case execution, and thorough evaluation to discover the steps that could be improved.

Stay Tuned: Heading to re:group

NP_regroupFinally! My team heads for Atlanta this weekend to attend the re:group conference at North Point’s Buckhead Church campus on Monday and Tuesday. Such a good conference…every time. Can’t wait!

If you’ll be there and you want to connect, I hope to have a meet up during the break from 2:15 to 2:45 on Monday. If you want to join us, email me ( or tweet me (@MarkCHowell) and let me know!

And stay tuned right here for updates! Both of the last two re:group conferences have been loaded with takeaways! Here are the five posts from 2014 and 2013



quote marks“A new perspective could be sitting In the seat next to you.” Andrea Lucado

Bad Idea #1: Let’s Call Everything a Group!

bad ideaIn yesterday’s post I wrote about 5 Stupid Things Churches Need to Stop Doing (in the name of small group ministry). In the post I pointed out that one of the stupidest things churches do is decide to call everything a group. Probably because I didn’t spend a lot of time explaining why it’s a stupid thing to do, I got a couple comments that deserve a response.

Why is calling everything a group a stupid idea? Why is it a bad idea?

Maybe we should examine the motivation first. There are several reasons churches decide to call everything a group.

  1. They have several belong and become options on their menu and they genuinely want to make it easy for unconnected people to find their next step. For example, they have adult Sunday school classes (or ABFs), a class like Precepts, and some off-campus small groups and they simply want unconnected people to choose one.
  2. They get complaints from their adult Sunday school classes when they only promote off-campus small groups as the best next step. They decide to call everything a “group” in the attempt to appease the guardians of the status quo.
  3. They have introduced new options but can’t bring themselves to eliminate options that no longer meet their objectives.

There are probably other reasons churches decide to call everything a group, but these are the most common reasons.

Here’s why calling everything a group is a bad idea:

First, calling everything a group is a bad idea because it lumps things together that don’t accomplish the same thing. For example, if your off-campus groups meet in circles, have rich discussions, are led by shepherd leaders who genuinely care for their members and do life together, while your adult Sunday school classes meet in rows, listen to master teachers, and mingle over a cup of coffee and a donut when their class dismisses at 10:15, but that is the extent of their experience…can you really call them the same thing?

What if they do accomplish the same thing? Then feel free to call them the same thing! See also, What’s the Difference Between a Sunday School Class and a Small Group? and Groups of All Kinds and the Essential Ingredients of Life-Change.

Second, calling everything a group is a bad idea when it simply puts off a necessary conversation. When your become and belong menu includes options that are no longer effective (or not the best way to do something), the wisest thing to do trim the menu. It is not the easiest thing to do, but it is the wisest thing to do. More options do not connect more people. More options make it harder to choose and harder decisions are procrastinated.

What if it’s a really hard conversation? Conversations like this are about stewardship. While stewarding resources (budget, facilities, promotional bandwidth, etc.) is important, nothing is more important than stewarding the opportunities we are given to make disciples. See also, Think Twice and Thing Again before You Approve the New Menu Item.

What do you think?  Want to ask a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Further Reading: What’s Better? Rows or Circles?

Image by Daniel Lobo


5 Stupid Things Churches Need to Stop Doing (in the Name of Small Group Ministry)

stupidLast year I wrote 5 Stupid Things Small Group Pastors Need to Stop Doing. What about the stupid things churches need to stop doing (in the name of small group ministry)?

5 Stupid Things Churches Need to Stop Doing (in the name of small group ministry):

Calling everything a group. The decision to call everything a group is usually the result of compromise. Rather than ruffle feathers and prioritize only the things that produce exactly what is hoped for, some churches blink and simply call everything a group. This puts rows and circles, learning and becoming, fellowship and discipleship all in the same category and further muddies an already muddy decision process.

Far better for churches to invest the time for a thorough evaluation of their belong and become menu and then call everything what it actually is. See also, Top 10 Signs Your Small Group Ministry Is Schizophrenic.

Naming small group involvement as essential but budgeting for it as if it is an elective. Calling members and attenders to make three (or four) commitments is a common practice. “Attend a worship service, serve in a ministry, and be involved in a small group” is an example of the way many churches talk about the things they believe are important.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that churches would budget accordingly? See also, Top 10 DNA Markers of Churches with Thriving Small Group Cultures and Budgeting for Your Preferred Future.

Promoting small group involvement once a year. Many churches have an annual groups push or campaign. Many churches only promote small group involvement during their annual groups push or campaign. And many of those same churches underestimate the damage of limiting promotion to once a year. These same churches frequently misdiagnose the reason their small group ministry is struggling.

Doesn’t it make sense that churches should talk about things that are truly important all year long? Churches that are building thriving small group ministries never stop talking about the importance of small groups, integrating life-change stories and references to upcoming opportunities to get involved every week and all year long, using every medium possible (sermon references, announcements and bulletins, website, email, etc.). See also, 5 Simple Mistakes that Sink Small Group Ministries.

Delegating the small group champion role to the small group pastor. One of the most important characteristics of churches that are building thriving small group ministries is that their senior pastors serve as the small group champion. As the most influential and visible person in the congregation, it only makes sense that they leverage their influence and visibility to draw attention to the critical importance of being in a small group.

“Then why do we have a small group pastor?!!” is the cry of senior pastors who seek to delegate away the role of the small group champion. This rarely has roots anywhere other than a misunderstanding of the true role (and the greatest contributions) of the small group pastor. See also, Rethinking the Role of the Small Group Pastor.

Failing to connect design and results. Love is blind and falling in love with a model, system or strategy is stupid. Churches should never lose sight of the fact that results are directly connected to design. “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley) is never more true than when it comes to the connection between the design of your small group ministry and the results you are experiencing.

Churches that are building thriving small group ministries are keeping a steady eye on a dashboard and fine-tuning their approach as they go. See also, 5 Signs Your Small Group Ministry Design Is Inadequate.

What do you think?  Want to ask a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Matt Hollingsworth

FAQ: What If a New “Leader” Doesn’t Meet Leadership Standards?

high standards

FAQ: What If a New “Leader” Doesn’t Meet Leadership Standards?

I get questions. A lot of questions. Sometimes they come in by email. Other times as a comment to a blog post.

I try hard to answer them all. When it’s a question many are asking, I try to answer them here on the blog.

I bet I’ve answered today’s question about a hundred times a year for the last 10 years. No  joke.

Here’s the question:

“In order to be a leader at our church, you have to be a member. What do I do if someone who doesn’t meet our leadership standards ends up being chosen as a group leader in a small group connection (or volunteers to invite a couple friends to do the study that goes along with our church-wide campaign)?”

Here’s how I answer the question:

Important Note: There are at least two parts to my answer and I always encourage churches to consider both parts at the same time. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” This is not quite the same thing and I realize this is asking a lot, but it is important. Stick with me.

First, every church must determine for themselves the standards a person must meet in order to be considered a “leader.” At the same time, and at the risk of an unintended offense, every church ought to be open to carefully re-examining the standards a person must meet in order to be considered a “leader.” Let me explain what I mean.

While there are clear biblical standards for certain leadership roles (elders and deacons are an example), other roles are much less clearly defined (for example, Sunday school teachers and small group leaders). Can the same standards be applied across the board, regardless of role? While the same standards could be applied, should they be applied?

If the same standards need not be applied, what should the standard be for a small group “leader”?

While every church must determine for themselves the standards a person must meet in order to be considered a small group “leader,” it is my contention that every church ought to open to carefully re-examining the standards they have determined.

Second, I believe the best way to connect the largest number of people is to make it easy as possible to take first steps into leadership and nearly automatic to take the steps that lead to becoming an authentic shepherd.  I believe the same principle applies whether being chosen at a small group connection or inviting a couple friends to do a study.

I’ve referred to this idea many times as lowering the bar in terms of who can be a “leader” and simultaneously raising the bar in terms of the coaching and development the leader receives.

So…are there times when a person chosen to be the leader at a small group connection or who volunteers to invite a couple friends to do the study turns out to have some potentially disqualifying characteristic? Absolutely. And when they do, it makes necessary (and possible) a challenging conversation. Remember. There is no problem-free strategy or solution. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.

My Summary:

Do the hard work of re-examining your church’s standards for leadership. It is good to have standards. It is also good to realistically assess the appropriateness (and the consequences) of the arbitrary standards you have chosen.

Remember: “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley).” If you don’t like the results (trouble identifying enough leaders or difficulty starting enough new groups), you must see the connection between design and results. The standards you have set for leadership are part of the design.

Further Reading:

What do you think? Want to argue? Have a question? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by janheuninck

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