6 Great Studies for Outreach

finding your wayLooking for a study that will appeal to your friends and neighbors? As you know, it takes a special topic to spark an interest in unchurched friends and neighbors. Not just any topic will do. See also, Your Topic Determines Two Huge Outcomes and Does Your Topic Connect with Your True Customer?.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, I’ve put together a short list of what I think are some of the best outreach oriented studies. And by outreach, I don’t mean purely evangelistic. In some cases the real potential of these studies is simply to start a conversation.

Here are 6 studies that will make invitation easy and the conversation lively:


Freeway: A Not So Perfect Guide to Freedom is a powerful seven session study by Mike Foster and Garry Poole.  Built on God’s amazing grace, honest conversations with friends, and finding freedom from deepest pain and struggles, Freeway is way more than a study.  It’s an experience in the very best sense of the word.

I love this study.  If you’re looking for a study that will take people on a journey, a grace-filled journey, toward the life God dreams for them, you’ll love this study too.  Freeway is the kind of study that will cause you to see every other study in a new light.  Great stuff.  I loved it and I think you will too.

You can read my full review right here.

finding your way

Finding Your Way Back to God: Five Awakenings to Your New Life has the most powerful  outreach potential I’ve come across in a long time. If you’ve not had a chance to spend some time with the book yet, you need to make time!  This book is a game-changer!

I love the potential of this study.  Whether you do the study with a couple friends or use it in your small group, there is real potential for many, many people to find their way back to God.  I highly recommend that you take a look at Finding Your Way Back to God.

As the subtitle indicates, there are five awakenings “that almost always occur in a person’s journey back to God.”  I like the way the authors describe the awakenings: “Where people start and what motivates them to begin this journey are often different, but the stages they go through are remarkably similar.”  The book explores five different “God, if you are real” prayers that are intended to arouse the five awakenings.

You can read my full review of the book right here.

Craig Groeschel’s WEIRD: Because Normal Isn’t Working is based on the central idea that the “broad road leads to destruction” (normal) and the “narrow road” leads to life (weird). Inspired by Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:13-14, the study takes a look at a set of topics that will make sense to Christians and non-Christians alike.

The DVD sessions are a combination of key portions of Groeschel’s LifeChurch.TV weekend message series and special segments that introduce, enhance or summarize the topic.  One of the Church’s most dynamic and creative communicators, Craig Groeschel’s practice of looking right at the camera while preaching (making it easy for participants in one of 15 campuses and a  growing number of LifeChurch.TV Network churches around the world who use the teaching video).  The DVD is very compelling. You can read my full review right here.

Based on a 2013 message series by Andy Stanley, Follow is an 8 session DVD-driven study that will take your group “on a journey through the Gospels, tracing Jesus’ teaching on what it means to follow.” I found it particularly intriguing that Stanley pointed out numerous times that Jesus’ first followers were not yet believers.

Back when this series was being given at North Point, I downloaded these messages and listened to them multiple times.  Andy Stanley’s way of explaining what it means to follow Jesus is very easily understood and I shared it with many of my friends.  It might be my favorite Andy Stanley message series.

DVD-driven, each of the sessions is a 17 to 22 minute clip from an Andy Stanley message.  One of the most compelling communicators in America, this is must see TV.  Never flashy or fancy, Stanley is known for his ability to draw out life-changing truth and deliver it in a way that is both inspiring and very memorable.  Follow is an excellent example of his pattern of taking difficult or challenging ideas and presenting them in a way that leads to application.

You can read my full review right here.

what on earth am i here forWhat On Earth Am I Here For?, the 2013 revision of 40 Days of Purpose, definitely remains on my list. Everyone wonders if there is a reason or a purpose to life; if there’s more to it than we make of it. This study addresses questions that everyone has. An easy invite for neighbors and friends, this is a truly cross-cultural topic. In addition, Rick Warren and The Purpose Driven Life are both very familiar to many unchurched people.

I should note that this is a completely updated study.  Every component, even the Purpose Driven Life itself, has been completely retooled and updated to respond to today’s challenges.  For example, The Purpose Driven Life now includes video introductions and an online audio lesson at the end of each chapter as well as two new bonus chapters on the most common barriers to living the purpose driven life and access to an online community for feedback and support.

Need more information? You can find out more in my full review.

Life-as-We-Know-It-300x300I have to say Life As We Know It is easily one of the most intriguing new small group experiencesI’ve seen in several years.  The powerful idea that makes this study so interesting is that everybody has a story.  Further, “sharing stories is foundational to community and the meaningful relationships we all long for.”

Because Life As We Know It is not a Bible study, it is well-suited for use with neighbors, friends and co-workers as well as small groups and ministry teams.  In my mind, the fact that it is designed to “facilitate gatherings where the art of storytelling is practiced and deeper relationships are forged” is one of the genius elements of the experience. You can read my full review right here.

I Dreamed I Was at the Southern Baptist Convention…

I dreamed I was at the Southern Baptist Convention…fighting for the rights of the spiritually unborn.

In my dream I was standing near a concession stand and suddenly realized there was a lady with a clipboard and she had just asked if I was Mark Howell.  She was an older lady with her hair in a bun and was wearing one of those dresses that button up the front, like a house dress.

Lady with the clipboard:  Are you Mark Howell?

Me: Yes.  Why?

Lady: You need to present this motion in the next session.

Me: What is it about?

Lady: It is a motion requiring people to be church members before they can host a small group.


And that’s about when I woke up.  It was kind of a “Noooooooooo!” moment. [quote]

It was a crazy dream.  It would never happen.  That’s not the way the Southern Baptist Convention rolls.  They are about evangelism!  (Plus, I was at the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this year and I didn’t see anyone that looked like that!)

And yet, I couldn’t go back to sleep!  I was still wrestling with the idea that someone would try to prevent the people with the strongest connections to the outside from hosting a group and inviting their seeking friends and neighbors to join the group!

And so today, I am announcing my campaign for the rights of the spiritually unborn.  As Mayor of Crowd’s Edge, I am asking you to never forget that the most connected people in your congregation almost always have the fewest connections in the community [click to tweet].

Nervous about what a less connected, less mature host might teach their group?  Use a customized approach to determine who the host will be able to invite.  Just don’t lose sight of the fact that the most connected people in your congregation almost always have the fewest connections in the community.  See also, Customized Leader Benefits and Requirements, Do You Know This Game-Changing Connection Secret? and 5 Honest Thoughts about Small Group Ministry.

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

GroupLife Agnostics and the Adjacent Possible

This might seem like a stretch today, but I really want you to come along with me for just a few minutes.  I want to talk with you about grouplife agnostics and the adjacent possible.

With me?  Here goes.

First a couple definitions:

GroupLife Agnostics: I use this term to describe small group ministry practitioners whose worldview keeps them from seeing anything other than the way they’ve seen grouplife work or the reality they are comfortable with.  For example, they’ve only seen an apprentice leader become a leader and because they’ve never seen it any other way, they can’t even imagine another scenario.

Adjacent Possible: A theory developed by scientist Stuart Kauffman, “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways the present can reinvent itself (p. 31, Where Good Ideas Come From).”  See Where Do You Want to Go with Your Small Group Ministry.

Second, a little meat to chew on:

One of my favorite Frederick Buechner quotes is from Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.  Describing an agnostic, Buechner writes:

An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t know for sure whether there really is a God.  That is some  people all of the time and all people some of the time.

There are some agnostics who don’t know simply because they’ve never taken pains to try to find out–like the bear who didn’t know what was on the other side of the mountain.

There are other agnostics who have taken many pains.  They have climbed over the mountain, and what do you think they saw?  Only the other side of the mountain.  At least that was all they could be sure of.  That faint glimmer on the far horizon could have been just Disneyland.

So…it follows that a grouplife agnostic might have just never taken pains to find out if there’s another way.  Or, they might have taken great pains and just can’t see it.  Instead…they wonder if that faint glimmer might just be Disneyland.

An application.

Somewhere, just on the edges of the present state of your small group ministry, there is an idea that might open the door to an entirely different outcome.  It is the adjacent possible.  It is where grouplink and the small group connection were found.  It is where video driven curriculum was found (by the way, it is also where easy-t0-use curriculum was found by Lyman Coleman).  It is where the church-wide campaign and the HOST strategy were discovered.

The adjacent possible.  You can ignore it.  You can overlook it.  You can even call it a pipe dream.  But if you want in on all that’s possible, you’ve got to be willing to work close the edges.

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

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 will 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.”

Measuring Post-Christianity: How Will It Impact Your Ministry?

There are signs everywhere…that American culture is becoming less Christian.  When I study the research and read the reports, I’m immediately an analyst myself, speculating how these trends are already impacting what we do.  If you are a ministry practitioner, volunteer or staff, you may already be having the same thoughts.  If you’re not there yet, it’s time to begin paying attention.

This week the Barna organization released findings that while “seven out of 10 adults describe themselves as ‘Christian’ and more than six out of 10 Americans say they are ‘deeply spiritual,'” America is becoming increasingly post-Christian.

Analyzing 42,855 interviews conducted in recent years, the research explores the emerging postChristian landscape of the nation by examining 15 different measures of non-religiosity.  To qualify as post-Christian, “individuals met nine or more out of 15 criteria. Highly post-Christian individuals met 12 or more of these 15 criteria.”  The measures they selected were:

  1. do not believe in God
  2. identify as atheist or agnostic
  3. disagree that faith is important in their lives
  4. have not prayed to God (in the last year)
  5. have never made a commitment to Jesus
  6. disagree the Bible is accurate
  7. have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
  8. have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
  9. agree that Jesus committed sins
  10. do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
  11. have not read the Bible (in the last week)
  12. have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
  13. have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
  14. have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
  15. do not participate in a house church (in the last year)

Here are the questions I’m asking when I see the research:

  • When we see the list of factors, are we seeing the faces of family, neighbors, friends, and co-workers?
  • Does our communication (website, messages, bulletin, sermon notes, etc.) recognize that 40% of our community might be operating from a post-Christian mindset?
  • Am we taking their worldview into consideration when we choose or create the small group studies that we’ll use to launch new groups in the community?

By the way, based on the same analysis, Barna identified the “most post-Christian cities in America.”  How did your city do?  Are you on the list?  What are you doing to tailor your ministry to function in a post-Christian culture?

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

Connect the Dots: Your Strategy and Post-Christianity

How does your strategy work in an increasingly post-Christian culture?  How much thinking are you doing to truly understand the implications of ministry leadership in the 21st century?  Are you sensing the connection between a rising degree of ministry difficulty and changes in the spiritual barometer itself?

Barna’s most recent report highlights again the shift happening in America as 37% of Americans are highly or moderately post-Christian. Are you having the conversations that lead to strategic shifts in ministry design?  See Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians for more.

James Emery White’s blog has been helpful in spotlighting a seismic shift in outreach strategy.  Have you begun wrestling with how ministry must adapt and change to be effective in the second decade of the 21st century?  See his book, The Church in an Age of Crisis for more.

I’ve been harping on this for several years.  It’s front of mind every day.  Are you there?  See also, Different, Not Better, Will Connect the Widening 60%.

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

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 will 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.”

Could Your Group Host an Easter Party?

I’ve been saying for a number of years that in post-Christian America it becomes more likely every day that the easier first step is “come on over.”  Although research still is cited that indicates a significant percentage of people will attend if you invite them to come to a service, we are clearly in a different era now than we were just 10 years ago (see Connecting the Widening 60% (Who Are Unreachable by the Attractional Model).

So…what now?  Is there an easier invite than, “Come with me to one of our Easter services?”

I believe that there is.  I believe the easier invite is, “Come on over!  We’re having our friends over for an Easter party.  We’re having our own Easter egg hunt.  We’re having a great meal.  And we’re watching the Saddleback Easter service online (or fill in the blank with your own online service or the flavor that matches your persuasion).”

Here’s a video that Saddleback is using to spread the idea.  Just imagine if half of their over 6000 small groups acted on the idea?  What if half of your groups acted on the idea?

Here’s a video that Saddleback has just posted for their small group hosts:

Can’t see the video?  You can watch it right here.  Saddleback is providing a little extra help right here.

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

FAQ: How Should We Respond to Objections about Who Can Host?

I get a lot of questions.  This one is so important I wanted to share at least part of it with you.

Here’s their situation:

We have been recruiting hosts using all of your suggestions, principles, scripts, etc.  We even said that a non-Christian could host a group.  We entirely dropped recruiting group “guides” (this is what we had been calling leaders already, to lower the bar).  Sunday, a couple came back to church after being out several months.  They are living together and she is pregnant.  They signed up to be hosts.

Here’s his questions:

So, how do we respond to people who will object to them hosting a group?  We do one-step signup.  We list the names of hosts on the back of the Connection Card.  All you need to do to signup for a group is check  the line beside the name of the host whose group you want to attend.  Should we include their names in the list of hosts for which people can signup?  What about when we ask hosts to stand in the service?  Should we ask them to stand at the group information table?

Those are some great questions!  Not problem-free.  Just good stuff to work through.  Let me start at the end and work my way back to the beginning:

First, every church makes their own determination about who can host a group and what the requirements to host should be.  My post on Customized Leader Requirements and Benefits is my attempt to fully work out these concerns, but the simple answer is that the circumstances of a new host should determine what level of promotion they receive.

For example, it has been my practice for the last few years to only allow hosts that have jumped through certain hoops to be listed online (attend host orientation, complete new leader questionnaire, etc.).  While anyone can pick up the host packet and fill their own group with their own friends, only those I’ve vetted can be included in the online finder.  But, can’t you imagine the friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers of the couple mentioned in the question?  Why wouldn’t you want to help them start a group and invite their own friends?  My post Do You Know This Game-Changing Connection Secret? takes a stab at explaining the potential of this idea.

If you haven’t been clear on this, you might have some hard work ahead to skillfully and sensitively explain what you can do for them, but even that can be done.

Second, can you see how your question about responding to objections about who can host a group would be influenced by the steps I list above?  Not to say that objections and concerns can be eliminated.  They can’t.  But they can definitely be limited.  For example, once I establish that only groups with a little more accountability are listed online (or in the catalog), I can add that we’ve chosen this study specifically to allow our attendees with the most friends outside our church to invite them to join their group.  Will that satisfy every objector?  No, probably not.  But it will help frame the conversation.

Note: This is a seriously complex issue.  Every church will have to work it out for themselves.  At the same time, I urge you to try and look at it with the perspective that Jesus had when he told the Gerasene demoniac to “go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”

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

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 will receive an affiliate commission. In addition, LifeWay has retained my services and I am under contract with LifeWay. 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.”

5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group System

MilleniumWant to build a small group ministry for the 21st century?  I think there are a few essential practices.  In fact, if you want to connect beyond the usual suspects, you need to:

  1. Look for leaders who are closer to the edge of your congregation.  If you want to connect beyond the usual suspects, you’ve got to find ways to identify, recruit and develop potential leaders from the outer edges of the congregation and inner edges of the crowd.  The small group connection strategy is an example of this and so is the host strategy coupled with a church-wide campaign.  Both strategies implemented correctly are designed to produce unexpected leaders.  See also The X Factor is Near the Edge
  2. Characterize connected in community as normal.  If you want to connect way beyond the average adult weekend attendance, you’ll need to leave behind the idea that small group involvement is somehow extracurricular, a menu choice, heroic or sacrificial.  Instead, grouplife must be seen as an ordinary part of the Christ-follower pattern.  See also Top 10 Reasons Saddleback Has Connected Over 130% in Small Groups
  3. Prioritize the needs and interests of unconnected people.  Too often we’re spending our energy trying to satisfy the interests of the already connected at the expense of the unconnected.  If you want what you’re doing in the 21st century to matter, you must develop an others first mentality.  See also Preoccupied with the Needs and Interests of the Right People
  4. Design grouplife to function as both next step and first step.  It becomes more likely every day that first steps will happen outside of the weekend service.  Come over for dinner is easier than come with me to church.  At the same time, since the optimal environment for life-change is a small group (not listening to the pastor’s sermon or Bible teaching in an ABF), next steps must be built into the life of the group I’m already in.  See also Next Steps for Everyone and First Steps for Their Friends
  5. Integrate discipleship into the ordinary grouplife experience.  Not a class or an elective, discipleship must become factory installed.  Not an add on.  Not an upgrade.  Built into the ordinary function of every small group.  See also Diagnosing Your Discipleship Strategy

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

Image by Kevin Dooley

What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?

What’s your urgency level when it comes to connecting people?  If you described your urgency level like  Homeland Security’s advisory system, what would your urgency level be when it comes to connecting unconnected people?  Maybe it comes down to what you think is an acceptable percentage connection level.

What do you think is an acceptable percentage connection level?  Is it okay that only 50% of your weekend adult attendance is connected?  What if only 35% of your weekend adult attendance is connected?  What if 85% of your actual adult attendance is…unconnected?

To determine your urgency level you need to know how to gage it.  Try this understanding on for size:

Percentage Connected: If you take the number of adults who are connected and divide it by your Easter adult attendance, what number do you get?  (Example: 185 divided by 1000 equals .185 or 18.5%)  This is your percentage connected.  Note: Many churches use the number of adults who are connected divided by average adult worship attendance.  This is an inaccurate number.   You must realize that your average adult worship attendance includes a different group of people every weekend.  If you want to know what percentage of your congregation is connected…you need to use the real number.

Percentage Unconnected: Now take your Easter adult attendance and subtract the number of adults who are connected.  Divide that number by your Easter adult attendance.  This is your percentage unconnected. (Example: 1000 – 185 = 815.  815 / 1000 = .815 or 81.5%)  In the example, 81.5% are unconnected!

Unconnected people are one tough thing away from not being at your church [click to tweet]. Loss of a job.  Divorce or separation.  A devastating diagnosis.  A child in trouble.

One tough thing.

We live in a world where one tough thing is always close by.

Unconnected people rarely call the church for help.  It’s much more common for unconnected people to simply stop coming.

What’s your urgency level?  Can you afford to put off connecting people?

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

Ever Noticed Reveal’s Crowd-to-Core Wrinkle?

I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the Reveal study from this angle…but it turns out there’s a significant crowd-to-core wrinkle.  I  don’t know how many times I’d looked at it before I saw it, but once I noticed it…it’s very hard to miss.  Here’s what I saw:

As you probably know, Willow Creek’s Reveal study identifies four distinct stages within congregations.  Exploring, Growing in Christ, Close to Christ and Christ-Centered.  The first two are fairly straightforward.  Exploring is the category for those attendees who haven’t yet crossed the line of faith.  Growing in Christ is the category for those attendees who have crossed the line of faith and are growing, but not yet mature (both of these first two are oversimplifications, but you get the idea).

I heard Bill Hybels make two interesting observations some time ago about the third and fourth stages.  First he defined them essentially like this.  When someone reaches the Close to Christ stage, they know God loves them, they know He’s for them, and they believe God wants to bless their endeavors.  In describing Christ Centered, he said that there is one difference.  They know God loves them.  They know He’s for them.  But they believe God wants them to join Him in what He wants to do in the world.

Fascinating.  It’s the difference between a consumer and a contributor.  See it?

The second observation was stunning by comparison.  Hybels observed that while he had long believed the biggest chasm to be crossed was moving from Exploring to Growing in Christ, he had come to believe that the chasm between Close to Christ and Christ Centered was actually the toughest to cross.

See it?  It’s the challenging gap between the belief that God wants to bless me in my endeavors and the willingness to set aside my own interests to join God in what He’s doing in the world.  It’s the difference between a consumer and a contributor.

Where’s the Crowd-to-Core Wrinkle?

Here’s what I noticed.  It’s in the question, “Where will my efforts make the biggest difference?  Will I have more impact by focusing on helping attendees move from Close to Christ to Christ Centered?  Or, will I have a greater impact by focusing on the Growing in Christ stage, helping them become Close to Christ?

Admittedly, there needs to be effort at every transition.  But…when it comes to emphasis…where should it be?

I know where it is for me.  Do you?

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