5 Honest Thoughts about Small Group Ministry

I am a natural born analyst.  Not a day goes by that I’m not analyzing what I’m reading, what I’m hearing, what I’m seeing.

As I analyze any small group system or aspect of a strategy, I always add a few important understandings and questions.  First, I am sure there are no problem-free solutions.  Second, I’m quick to add the great Roger Martin question, “What would have to be true for that approach to work?  Third, I asks the four questions that evaluate small group model effectiveness.  Finally, I do everything I can to cultivate an openness to new ideas.  See also, Supercharge Your Ministry with These 5 Questions and An Openness to New Ideas.

The result of most of my small group ministry analysis is the conclusion that lots of what is being touted as the best system, the most biblical strategy, the answer to all of our problems…is really good thinking mixed with neatly packaged sets of false dichotomies, overstatements, and sometimes includes a twist of smoke and mirrors.

Here are 5 of my honest conclusions right now:

  1. Pinning hopes of reaching unchurched people on the missional community strategy is very likely missing the point.  Granted, the missional community strategy does have answers for some situations (particularly for churches where the core, committed and congregation segments are large and there are high concentrations of Christians who associate almost entirely with other Christians).   Still, the strategy might actually be a counter-productive step in churches where the crowd segment is large (relative to the core and committed).  See also, Do You Know This Game-Changing Connection Secret?
  2. Pitting the desire to belong and the upside of connecting (come and see) against real discipleship (come and die) is a false dichotomy.  The assumption that a core-to-crowd approach was Jesus’ model or somehow more biblical simply doesn’t line up with the gospels.  Instead, Jesus’ standard approach was crowd-to-core; making it easy to begin following and progressively more challenging to continue.  See also, The 12 Were Not Chosen from the Core and Even a Lizard Can Respond to Come and See.
  3. Maintaining a high bar of leadership without acknowledging a low percentage of adults connected underestimates the jeopardy that unconnected adults face.  It is often the case that small group ministries that maintain very high standards (advance training, prerequisite participation as an apprentice, etc.) associate an inadequate supply of leader candidates with inability to connect unconnected people to groups.  Far better to acknowledge that ministry design determines results.  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults are Actually Connected? and What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?
  4. Lowering the leadership bar without implementing a leader development process is an inadequate strategy.  It is one thing to revel in the ability to identify an unlimited supply of leaders.  It is equally important to recognize the connection between the spiritual growth of the leader with spiritual growth of the member. See also, Steve Gladen on Saddleback’s Leadership Pathway.
  5. The assertion that coaching doesn’t work almost always means, “We haven’t invested the time and energy needed to make it work.”  It is true that building a coaching structure doesn’t work in the sense that a coaching structure bulging with high capacity personnel who are both fruitful and fulfilled will spontaneously generate.  But it is absolutely possible to build an effective coaching structure.  It just takes lots of work, patience, and a careful eye for the right people.  See also, How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure.

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

  • Rick Howerton

    Hi Mark. Love this blog post. As you know, I’ve been grappling with point number 2. I find myself longing to believe that this is true in every situation and in every person’s life but I struggle. I struggle for a couple of reasons… 1) Luke 14 beginning with verse 25 says, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Jesus then goes on to tell them what they must be willing to sacrifice if they are going to be one of His disciples and that they should count the cost BEFORE choosing to follow Him. The cost included giving up relationship with family if necessary and even one’s life. This wasn’t just the 12 or just those who had followed Jesus for long periods of time. The audience was made up of people in all stages of relationship with Jesus. 2) Jesus was a Rabbi and just as a Rabbi left everything so must any disciple of a Rabbi. In the book, Sitting at the Feet of Jesus the Rabbi, we find this description of Jesus, the Rabbi’s life. “… his calling was to serve God through the wandering life of a rabbi, walking from village to village to draw people into God’s kingdom. it was a difficult existence. Long days spent hiking up and down the hot, dusty hills of Galilee, preaching to whomever would listen, and depending on the hospitality of others for his basic needs.” (p. 57) This book goes on to speak of a Rabbi’s disciples/followers… “The disciples would have shared the difficult life of their rabbi.” Bottom line… The call to leave everything was an expectation of all rabbi’s of the time and any disciple of any rabbi would have known that this was the expectation BEFORE considering becoming a rabbi’s disciple. It seems that, when Jesus invited the 12 to be His disciples, they knew they would have to leave all if they were going to follow Him. There was no option to consider a “little follower” lifestyle until you grew to the point of being able to embrace greater expectations.

    But the most difficult obstacle for me to get over when I consider point #2 is that, in so many cultures, including the culture of Christians in the book of Acts, believers realized that BEFORE becoming a Christian that they might have to die for their faith. Throughout much of Acts we find a persecuted church. They didn’t have the luxury of a slow start then higher and higher levels of expectation being unveiled for them. They had to answer the question, as have many believers/martyrs from then on, “Am I willing to become a Christian even if it costs me my life… tomorrow?” And their life could be taken from them that day or the next. In many, many cultures one considering following Jesus has to determine if they are willing to give their life for Him BEFORE becoming a follower of His. And yes, I put the last sentence in the present tense as there are so many places on planet earth today where martyrdom is routine.

    Here’s where I’ve landed at present.

    1) The culture we were born into does make a difference. If I am not born into a culture of Christian martyrdom, the progressive expectation idea you espouse makes sense. But…

    2) In the culture in which we live in the United States today, it might be wise to speak of some of these expectations when sharing the Gospel with someone. In our culture, if the average believer lives for and speaks about Christ, they will most likely be emotionally martyred by peers at work, school, etc…

    My greatest concern is that those churches who choose to live by point #2 have no plans to, at a moment in time, point out the biblical expectations of disciple of Jesus Christ. Sure, the seemingly outlandish expectations of a disciple of Jesus will come up in a sermon or a Bible study, but there’s no real face to face, one on one conversation with a believer where they have to truly consider these expectations. And so, many believers continue to think the Gospel is all about them and their happiness rather than Jesus and His Kingdom.

  • markchowell

    Thank you for jumping in on this, Rick. I know this has been an area of great interest and concern for some time now. You make many good points worth consideration and I don’t want to minimize in any way your personal investment in the quest to get this right. At the same time, when I read the gospels I do see a sequence that moves from come and see to come and die. For example, most scholars believe that the incidents of Luke 14:25 happened in the final 3 months of Jesus’ public ministry. Were there people there that day who had just joined the crowd following him? Certainly. Still, most of the crowd had been delighting in His teaching already, observed first hand His power to heal, etc. When Jesus spoke the words of v. 25ff, those who were closest in line to Him had a choice to make.

    I share your concern that many churches only ever get around to proclaim come and see. They do a disservice to their members and rarely produce disciples who make disciples. On the flip side though, I believe there are churches and ministries that lead with “come and die” that miss out on the multitudes that need to taste and see that the Lord is good.

    mark

  • brian phipps

    Love the post Mark! Very balanced and well analyzed. I see most of the missional guys saying exactly what you say… they just believe the blue water (the pockets of people who are “reachable” through the attractional model) is shrinking. We don’t see that reality here in Kansas City, but I don’t doubt its validity. I do, however, find myself caught somewhere in the middle of the conversation with Rick below. Jesus’ invitation was to come on mission… not to come and see (at least with the disciples). I agree strategically with the progression from come and see to come and die. I am having a harder time reconciling it with the words Jesus used, and therefore not yet discerning how to offer the early invites. This discussion is helpful. Appreciat eyou and Rick a TON!

  • Todd Engstrom

    Mark,
    You’re not pulling any punches on this one :). I’d love to hear you expand on your first point a bit more so I can respond appropriately. I want to ensure that I don’t presume upon your understanding of the deficiencies of the MC model, and also want to respond in a kind and thoughtful way.
    Todd

  • markchowell

    Thanks for jumping in on this, Brian! I boil down Jesus’ invitation to follow with these few questions. First, if you had asked Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael what they were doing when they accepted Jesus’ invitation to “come and see,” (John 1), what would they have said? This is their first recorded interaction with Jesus and probably happened about a year earlier than the later invitation to fish for men (Mark 1, Matthew 4, Luke 5). Admittedly, in response to the invitation, they abandoned their nets and followed. Here’s the second question, If you had asked Peter and Andrew, James and John what they were leaving their nets to do?” what would they have said? The Luke 9 conversation happens amongst the twelve disciples after the feeding of the 5000. This is probably another 6 to 12 months after being invited to fish for men. Here He tells the twelve, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Now, perhaps 18 to 24 months into their journey, they hear “come and die.” Even then, did they hear that and really understand? I’m not sure I can answer that. I just know they followed and ultimately died for their cause. I do know this, though. Their first response was to “come and see” and their second was to fish for men.

    mark

  • markchowell

    Hey Todd, thanks for jumping in here. Here’s a little more detail:

    I’ve found that there are churches that should take advantage of the MC model as a way of helping their congregation begin building relationships in the community. If asked, the members and attendees of these churches would report that their best friends (strong ties) are also deeply involved in the church. Ministry only becomes incarnational when we get out of the church and into the community (I’m completely out of my depth when I use that term).

    At the same time, there are many churches where the majority of regular attendees would report that their best friends (strongest ties) have never been to their church. Moving to a MC model for these churches would in many ways be redundant and miss the point. On the flip side, many of these churches find that when they recruit small group hosts, encouraging them to open up their homes for 6 weeks, serve a few refreshments, and tell a few of their friends…they’re actually connecting deeply into the community (this is one of the explanations for Saddleback’s 6200 small groups during their recent 40 Days of Purpose campaign).

    I do see the value of the MC model for certain kinds of churches* and in certain kinds of sub-cultures (Austin might very well be one where it makes the most sense).

    Does that help? Or hurt?

    mark

  • Todd Engstrom

    It’s helpful in that it clarifies your perspective on the primary reason for pursuing MCs is evangelistic engagement. From my perspective, that’s only part of the story, although an important one. I think MCs are built off two basic premises – 1.) cultivating all the rhythms for discipleship (gospel, community, mission) in a small community and 2.) building the church for multiplication of disciples at every level.

    I think the missional community is an excellent tool to engage in the making of new disciples as a community (http://toddengstrom.com/2013/03/04/a-theological-reason-for-missional-community/), but also is an excellent way to continue the formation of disciples towards Christ-likeness, both in internal affections for God and external obedience to His commands while challenging our consumeristic culture (http://toddengstrom.com/2013/03/06/a-philosophical-reason-for-missional-communities/).

    For me, missional community is the launchpad for a movement of multiplying disciples who are self-feeding from God’s word, self-forming through repentance and faith, and self-replicating through sharing the gospel and teaching people to obey all the commands of Jesus.

    I guess where I would see distinction is that missional community principles are generally transferrable to any culture, whereas the Sunday + Small Group campaign model is effective now in some Western countries, but is far less transferrable, and therefore prohibitive for movement.

    Does that add any clarity, or just muddy the water?

  • Todd Engstrom

    Mark,
    I’d say my only critique to your thinking there is that you presume the Sunday pulpit is the only place the “come and see” idea is happening. There is a theological distinction for those of us in the “come and die” camp that the Sunday expression is primarily the gathering of the saints, and the people of God in it’s entirety are to be an inviting people who share the gospel often in their everyday lives.

    Therefore, we embed the “come and see” into our communities primarily, and the “come and die” talk resides in our pulpit because we are preaching and teaching to believers on Sundays.

    I don’t think this discussion is just about effectiveness, but also about the theological identify of the church.

    I’m thankful that you provoke thoughts in me, and am glad to call you a friend bro!
    Todd

  • brian phipps

    Thanks for this. John 1. For some reason did not have this in the front lobes when considering Jesus’ invite. Feel a bit more at peace now with that language, but not completely. There is still the very significant concern I have about overselling community on the front end. Notice, I am not saying oversell dying on the front end… Which is what happens so much in more traditional settings. The maxim, “what you reach them with you must maintain to keep them with” is haunting. Obviously Jesus said “come and see” and that began a progression that led to come and die, (and even come and share what you gained in the dying, but that can wait for when we talk further) BUT, there was something more happening in Jesus’ invite beyond the words. There was an anticipation of something. There was a built in sense of expectation about what they would see. Was it community? Was it social status because of the invite of a Rabbi? Was it a God-given longing to serve Him? Was it greed? I believe there is much more integrity with a “come and see what God has for you and your life” than touting community in the invite… At least to the degree the American Church has done that in my experience. Overselling community sets the bar/expectation for the purpose of groups which will need to be undone later.

  • markchowell

    This is very helpful, Todd! Thanks for adding your perspective. I definitely agree that the MC model is transferable (and probably necessary) in most other cultures. And it may be splitting hairs, but I’m hopeful that the design of our small group ministries includes in the DNA making disciples who make disciples. Do they? Probably not. That in part is why I do what I do.

  • markchowell

    Good distinction! And I’d say that generally speaking the churches that emphasize “come and see” on the weekend would hope (and need to do more than hope) that “come and die” happens over time in grouplife. Whether it does or not is a matter of design and intentionality. It really is a mix though, I think in fairness. Hopefully, both the weekend service and the group experience would be about moving people in the direction of following Jesus.

    I’m thankful for you too, Todd. Our conversations always stretch me, and that’s a very good thing.

  • markchowell

    You’re arriving at some good clarifying thinking. What was the expectation of those first followers? Probably all of the things you mention. And over time, Jesus steered the conversation and the experience toward Kingdom life. As He did that, His followers continually had to choose if they were in or out.

    How should we make the invite? I think in a way that makes it easy to respond. And, since the number one hope that people have is belonging…it makes sense to include that ingredient in the invitation. Should it be the only thing? I think not. In fact, I like some version of what you’re saying!

    mark

  • Rick Howerton

    I do wonder, even if you’re right about the slow move toward greater expectations (although, as you noted, the Luke 14 crowd did have people in it who had not been following Jesus for weeks and months), if the western church is more concerned with numbers than maturity, keeping church members than making disciples, and being successful in the eyes of the world than in the eyes of God. And so… we’d rather have a full church building during weekend worship services than a smaller crowd who are willing to live the life of and take the stands that Jesus declared were to be markers of one of His disciples. Bottom line… Many churches and church leaders may not really care what kind of people the church is full of… disciples who are fully devoted to the cause of Christ or really devoted to a church that makes them happy, embarrassed to speak the name of Jesus or courageous in making His name known, learning and living the Word of God or simply claiming the promises of God that benefit them in hard times. I believe we would agree Mark that these practices come with maturity, but how many churches truly do purposefully and strategically make the responsibilities and expectations of a disciple known… ever? I don’t believe we can talk about there being a point when people are to fully commit to those expectations if they are never made known in a setting where the disciple has to count the cost or continue to be a half-hearted follower of Christ.

    Some of this conversation with me actually regained ground with me at The Lobby in CA. One of the young ladies in one of my breakout sessions made a statement something like this, “I wonder how differently Christianity would be viewed by the world if those who attended church in the western world committed to and lived like a biblical disciple of Jesus?” Great question!

    Thanks for bringing this conversation to the forefront.

  • markchowell

    Rick, could it be that our high priority assignment ought to be helping churches “purposefully and strategically make the responsibilities and expectations of a disciple known?” I believe one of my most important Kingdom assignments is to help churches build small group ministries that move people beyond connection.

    Thank you for your investment in this conversation. I know it is important to you. Thanks for sharing your insights!

    mark