5 Major Trends for Small Group Ministries in 2017

5 Major Trends for Small Group Ministries in 20175 Major Trends for Small Group Ministries in 2017

“What do you see trending in small group ministry?” Might be one my most frequently asked questions. Probably because everyone wants to be in on what’s working and no one wants to be left out, still driving their daddy’s model.

So what’s trending? Here’s what I’m seeing:

A more intentional discipleship pathway

A more intentional discipleship pathway. What at least for a season took a backseat to simply connecting people in groups (and providing a Bible study in an attempt to keep spiritual growth on the rails), is more and more in the front seat. While there are still many churches offering discipleship as a stand-alone option, a growing number are reimagining and redesigning a groups’ beginning and its pathway going forward (think Rooted, developed by Mariners Church).

A number of important ministry voices have weighed in on the need for more intentionality (including Rick Howerton, Eric Geiger, Ed Stetzer, David Platt, Robbie Gallaty, and others).

A subset of this trend may be a guided curriculum pathway. Encouraged by Eric Geiger and others, more intentionality is being designed-into the study selections offered or recommended to small groups and small group leaders.

A more organic beginning

A more organic beginning. While the majority of churches continue to offer regular onramps to small group participation (church-wide campaigns, small group connections, GroupLink, semester-based groups, etc.), a growing number are leveraging a more organic method of encouraging small group participation and engagement.

While for many churches this more organic approach is primarily leveraged during the ramp-up for a church-wide campaign (i.e., Saddleback’s HOST strategy and their more recent iteration, the “if you’ve got a couple friends” strategy), a growing number are inserting the language of more organic connection into their regular communication (bulletins, announcements, sermons, website, etc.).

Three is enough

Three is enough. While it can be a part of a more organic approach, there is also a growing acceptance of the smaller is better concept. Perhaps a combination of the triad arrangement emphasized in many intentional discipleship strategies and a more organic beginning being encouraged, smaller is at least more accepted and frequently commonplace.

As an example of this trend, note Saddleback’s website description of a group:

“A small group is a group of three or more people who gather each week in a home, workplace, or online. In a group you’ll hang out, study the Word, and pray together.”

Note: Most website descriptions still refer to a small group as “8 to 12 people…”

A heart for the community (and sometimes the crowd)

A heart for the community (and sometimes the crowd). Reimagining and reengineering small groups to begin and grow in the neighborhood (as opposed to beginning and remaining safe-houses that enable small group interaction away from the fortress), is trending on many fronts. What began idealistically with missional community identification of third place meeting spaces and the development of open house strategies to create and build community in communities, has become an increasingly ordinary ministry philosophy.

While cross-cultural small group studies and church-wide campaigns are being developed and implemented with growing effectiveness, an emerging emphasis being encouraged is simply to learn to be neighborly.

Serving together is built in

Serving together is built in. Integrating serving opportunities into the ordinary fabric of small group experience is increasingly the norm. Once something only rumored to be happening in exceptional small group ministries is more and more commonly an expectation that is encouraged and resourced.

Serving together as an ordinary part of the small group experience is being resourced in a number of ways. Embedding the concept in the fabric of group launching strategies (like Mariners Church’s Rooted) is growing in practice. Establishing a budget that encourages small group engagement with local mission opportunities (as Life.Church has done) and promoting small group engagement with mission trips (as Saddleback’s P.E.A.C.E. project has done) are two more examples of intentionality. Simply providing a printed list or web-access to local partner organizations with serving opportunities is also increasingly common (see Forest Hill Church’s example).

New from LifeWay: Disciples Path is a Series You Need to See

disciples-path-beginningI spent some time with a new resource from LifeWay that I think you’re going to want to know about. Disciples Path is a 6 study journey (a one-year intentional plan for discipleship, specifically designed to make disciples who make disciples).

“Created by disciple-makers for disciple-makers, fourteen disciple-making church leaders were brought together to think through how to instill biblical understandings, principles, and practices of discipleship with the end goal of making disciples who make disciples (from the introduction).”

Four discipleship distinctives are incorporated into the finished product. The Disciples Path is progressive (it takes you somewhere); it is relational (it is a journey taken alongside a disciple-maker); it is disciplined (what happens between meetings is more important than what happens in them); and it is replicable (the person who has been discipled then uses the series to disciple another).

Truly designed as a journey, “each session of the journey offers a mix of group discussion, personal study, and practical application.” Each session begins with group discussion, engaging the Bible through both story and teaching. An individual discovery section includes content for individual use during the time between group gatherings (incorporating worship, personal study and application.

I like the design of the group discussion material. A combination of reading and questions for discussion, it should produce a good conversation that prepares the individual or group for application. The content assumes very little prior Bible knowledge and is well-written, making it easy to use regardless of background.

The weekly activities are enough to require commitment and discipline, but not so much as to be oppressive. Along with a daily Bible reading plan, additional activities are to be selected from a checklist by the disciple and discipler to “match personal preferences and available time (an interesting idea).”

You can learn more and sign up for a free preview right here.

I like the format and plan and can see it being used in a variety of situations and settings. The writing and design definitely make Disciples Path accessible regardless of spiritual background. While there is challenge built into the content and pace, it isn’t overwhelming. Enough to require commitment. Not so much as to be a deterrent.

If you’re looking for a discipleship toolkit, spend some time with Disciples Path. I found it to be really engaging and well-designed. I think you will too.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

How Discipleship Really Happens

missional communityHow Discipleship Really Happens

Ever buckle down and come up with your firm opinion about how discipleship really happens? Four years ago I put my thoughts together in an article called Top 10 Things I Need to Know about Discipleship. That title wasn’t a misprint or a mistake. They really were 10 things I needed to know.

In some ways the article was prescient. Over the last several years I’ve found myself more than once cautioning against what I believe are misunderstandings of how discipleship happens and how disciples are made.

A few days ago I had a comment on an article I wrote a couple years ago. In 10 of the Most Overused Small Group Ministry Buzzwords I listed 10 of the phrases that I think are used in a way that betrays a misunderstanding of an underlying truth. For example, the first buzzword I list is the phrase “disciples who make disciples.” Ever used that phrase? I included the phrase because as I understand the meaning of that word, you’re probably not actually a disciple if you’re not making disciples.

Another buzzword that I included in my list two years ago was “missional community.” Why include it? Because the way it was being used betrayed a misunderstanding of an underlying truth. Missional community was never used in its origin to describe the size of the group or convey that the group met somewhere in the community. Instead, missional community was used in its origin to describe the function and primary activity of a group.

I love a paragraph from The End of Discipleship As We Know It, a recent article by Hugh Halter:

“From my experience, the best leadership development happens in a missional community. A missional community is a group of friends who intentionally band together around a certain mission, who live in close proximity and who rhythm their lives together around kingdom life.”

That, to me, is the actual meaning of missional community. Not the size of a group or where it meets. Instead, it’s about the purpose of a group and the way they “rhythm their lives.”

That is also how I think virtually all small groups should function. Not just those groups that desire to go further or are ready to go further.

Why? Because it is how discipleship really happens. Just like Jesus taught His disciples to do everything He did. He didn’t use a classroom approach. He spent time with them and taught them by observation and practice how to do effortlessly what He would do if He were them.

Further Reading:

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Top 10 Posts on Discipleship and Making Disciples in Groups

2700962871_38d1bc8800_zA fundamental question about small group ministry is, “What have you designed your small groups to do?” or “What have you designed your small groups to make?

I have always believed that small group ministries with the right design (a) make it easy for unconnected people to get connected and (b) nearly automatic that they enter an environment designed for life-change. Neither design element happens without intentionality. Both design elements require deep empathy for the needs of the customer (both expressed and unexpressed needs). See also, 5 Things I Wish You Knew As You Build Your Small Group Ministry.

Here are my top 10 posts on discipleship and making disciples in groups:

  1. Top 10 Things I Need to Know about Discipleship
  2. 6 Reasons Our Discipleship Strategies Miss the Mark
  3. How to Make Disciples in Small Groups
  4. 6 Essential Questions about Making Disciples and Small Group Ministry
  5. 5 Signs You May Have a Bad Disciple-Making Strategy
  6. 4 Leading Indicators of Small Group Ministries that Make Disciples
  7. Lagging Indicators of Effective Disciple-Making Small Group Ministries
  8. Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Leaders
  9. 7 Practices for Developing and Discipling Your Coaches
  10. 8 Things I Know for Sure about Making Disciples in Small Groups

Image by Russell Yarwood

8 Things I Know For Sure about Making Disciples in Groups

9074800823_0dd89868b7_zThere were several great comments on yesterday’s post about the 5 Things I Wish You Knew as You Build Your Small Group Ministry. All of the comments were focused on #5: “You must focus on making disciples as you connect unconnected people.”

Today I want to tease out a few things about a few things I know for sure about making disciples in groups. But first, take a moment to consider this statement:

One advantage of working on the same endeavor for many years is that you sometimes develop a well-reasoned understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Let me make two important notes about this statement. First, working on an endeavor is different than working in an endeavor. See also, Working On vs Working In…Your Ministry.

Second, I say “sometimes” because it is also true that there are people who work on the same endeavor for many years and never try anything new. They use the same approach again and again even though it doesn’t work. There are three reasons they don’t try a new approach:

  1. Some of them do the same thing again and again and never evaluate their results. Without evaluation they use the same program or strategy year after year and never even think about improving. See also, Four Questions that Evaluate Small Group Model Effectiveness.
  2. Some of them do the same thing again and again and expect different results. Albert Einstein would say that is the definition of insanity.
  3. Some of them do the same thing again and again, knowing it hasn’t worked before, but are unaware of any other way to do what needs to be done. See also, Innovation Step #1: Acknowledge What Isn’t Working and  Innovation Step #2: Become a Student, Not a Critic.

8 things I know for sure about making disciples in groups:

  1. Your definition of a disciple is important. I like Dallas Willard’s definition of a mature disciple: “A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”
  2. “Come and see” precedes “come and die.” Jesus invited his disciples to come and see and then over an extended period of time (18 months?) He taught them how to “effortlessly do what He would do.” See also, Moving from “Come and See” to “Come and Die.”
  3. The disciple-making efforts of the New Testament happened in groups. The idea of one-to-one discipling method isn’t found in the practice of Jesus or Paul.
  4. Disciples are rarely made in rows. A class to attend or curriculum to complete misses the point. Disciples make disciples.
  5. There is more than one way to make disciples in groups. A number of strategies have been proposed and implemented over many years.
  6. There are no problem-free strategies for making disciples in groups. Every strategy comes with a set of problems. Wise leaders choose the set of problems they’d rather have.
  7. Your disciple-making strategy should be evaluated regularly. Forging ahead without evaluation is not wise. Continuing to do what has been determined to be ineffective will not hear “well done.”
  8. “Whatever you want to happen at the member level, will have to happen to the leader first.” Therefore, making mature disciples in groups requires an intentional leadership development effort (i.e., what you do TO and FOR the leaders of your groups determines what may happen in the lives of the members of your groups).

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

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Foundational Teaching: Next Steps for EVERYONE

next steps

An important aspect of my ministry strategy is that there needs to be next steps for every Ridger and first steps for their friends. This informs an analysis of the menu of available programs, events, classes and studies for every church (noticeable gaps will need to be filled). Another important aspect is my conviction that whatever you want to happen at the member level, will have to happen to the leader first. See also, Life-Change at the Member Level and How to Design Next Steps and First Steps.

In an effort to cast this vision, I handed out a version of the following at a recent leader development session:

________________________________________________________________

What’s Your Next Step Now?

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul wrote these words:

“I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” Philippians 3:12-14 (NLT)

“Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on.”

Like Paul, we each have some distance ahead in our journey as we press on to reach the end of the race. And as important as it is to know we have not yet arrived and have a journey ahead, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It’s one thing to take a step. It’s another thing entirely to take the right next step. In order to take the right next step you have to know two important things:

  • Where you are going.
  • Where you are.

Where are you going?

 In order to take the right next step, you need to know where you are going. In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul expressed his hope for them with a phrase that is unmistakable:

“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Colossians 1:28 (ESV)

“Mature in Christ.” Some translations read “fully mature” and others read “perfect” or “complete.” You get the idea. Where we are going is a long way off for most of us.

Mature in Christ. When Dallas Willard described maturity he said, “A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”

How are you doing? Are you effortlessly doing what Jesus would do if He were you?

Where are you now?

Knowing where you are going is important. Knowing where you are is also very important. Taking time on a regular basis to reflect on your spiritual development is an essential habit.

Where are you now? Or put another way, what would need to change for you to effortlessly do what Jesus would do if He were you?

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

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Quotebook: Receiving Feedback and Effective Discipleship

feedbackYou may have never thought of discipleship quite this way, but effective discipleship really has to do with the disciple’s ability to receive feedback. This important idea switched on for me at the Global Leadership Summit listening to Sheila Heen talk about feedback (you can read my key takeaways from her talk right here).

As Dallas Willard pointed out, “a mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.” And how will a mature disciple learn to do what Jesus would do if Jesus were him? Isn’t the answer “feedback”?

“It doesn’t matter how much authority or power a feedback giver has; the receivers are in control of what they do and don’t let in, how they make sense of what they’re hearing, and whether they choose to change.” Thanks for the Feedback, p. 5

Image by Ken Bosma

Quotebook: The Essence of Discipleship

starting lineWhat is a disciple and how is a disciple made? When does it begin? What does it look like to begin? All good questions and should be driving our thinking as we set out to build a thriving small group ministry. After all, if you don’t know what you’re trying to make, how will you know if you’ve arrived at your preferred future? See also, How to Build a Thriving Small Group Ministry and Start with the End in Mind.

I’m finding Bill Hull’s, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ to be a rich resource and very thought-provoking. I came across this line in chapter 7:

“We don’t try to become like Jesus; instead we make a commitment to train to become the kind of person who naturally does what Jesus would do.”

You can hear the words of Dallas Willard in the line, but I love the clarity here. “We make a commitment to train to become the kind of person who naturally does what Jesus would do.”

In the preceding paragraph Hull points out that this “marks the starting line and represents the essence of discipleship. We make following Jesus our life’s goal and intention.”

Are your small groups designed to help members make a commitment to train to become the kind of people who naturally do what Jesus would do?

Could it be that if the commitment to train is implied in joining a group, today’s question might be, [ctt title=”Do your groups train members to become the kind of people who naturally do what Jesus would do?” tweet=”Do your groups train members to become the kind of people who naturally do what Jesus would do? http://ctt.ec/6UaZ6+ via @markchowell” coverup=”6UaZ6″]

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Quotebook: How to Become Like Jesus

transformationI am discovering so much from Bill Hull’s, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ. When you’re determining what you need to make when you’re making disciples, the first task is to figure out what the preferred future actually looks like.

Can you see how this concept might figure in to your scheme?

“Based on the life of Jesus, I believe becoming like him includes six issues of transformation. Living this way leads to being formed then conformed, and that leads to transformation:

  1. transformed mind
  2. transformed character
  3. transformed relationships
  4. transformed habits
  5. transformed service
  6. transformed influence

Image by Johan J. Ingles-Le Nobel

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Defining a Disciple

disciple makingMuch of my work is about helping churches accurately diagnose where they are and then skillfully determine and describe where they’d like to go. If you want to get to the preferred future, you must know where you are right now. See also, Start with the End in Mind.

This same line of thinking comes into play when diagnosing a discipleship pathway. You must accurately diagnose where you are and then skillfully determine and describe where you’d like participants to end up.

Clearly, accurately diagnosing where you are is no easy task. An accurate diagnosis requires a willingness to understand on the part of senior leadership along with brutal honesty about reality, and that is a difficult tension to manage. It is one of the reasons I’ve joined the the team at Intentional Churches and am beginning to facilitate a more robust growth planning process.

Which brings me to the challenging process of designing an effective discipleship pathway. There are a number of pieces, but just like every other diagnosis, you must figure out both where you are and where you’d like to go.

When it comes to where you’d like to go (i.e., what you’d like to produce or what you will call a mature disciple), I have long preferred something Dallas Willard wrote when describing a follower or disciple of Jesus::

Disciples of Jesus are those who are with him, learning to be like him. That is, they are learning to lead their life, their actual existence, as he would lead their life if he were they.” (Renovation of the Heart, 241)

Willard went on to write:

A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”

 This begins to give me a helpful way of understanding where I need to go, what I need to figure out how to produce. I know (and you should too) that you must know where you are going. It is not optional. As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

Which leads me to a recent rediscovery from Bill Hull’s, The Complete Book of Discipleship: On Being and Making Followers of Christ. When describing what a disciple should be, Hull notes the following essential elements:

  1. A disciple submits to a teacher who teaches her how to follow Jesus.
  2. A disciple learns Jesus’ words.
  3. A disciple learns Jesus’ way of ministry.
  4. A disciple imitates Jesus’ life and character.
  5. A disciple finds and teaches other disciples who also follow Jesus.

Ready for a little brutal honesty? Is that what your discipleship pathway is making? To what extent? Are you making the number and the quality of disciples you’d like to make? Or are you settling? See also, 6 Essential Questions about Making Disciples and Small Group Ministry.

Image by K.H. Reichert

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