10 of the Most Overused Small Group Ministry Buzzwords

buzzwordsEver heard someone use a word or a phrase and there was something about the way they said it that made you realize…they didn’t know what it meant?  I remember when a friend of mine kept talking about the long tail (a business term) and ecosystem (or some other buzzword, I don’t remember) and it was so obvious to everyone else that he had no clue what either of the words actually meant!  To use a now ancient buzzword…it was emperor’s new clothes obvious.

Think there are buzzwords that we use and sometimes don’t actually know what they mean?  Or sometimes use in a way that is significantly different than everyone else?  I think there’s more than you might think!

Here are 10 of the most overused small group ministry buzzwords:

  1. Disciples who make disciples.  This actually might be the most overused small group ministry buzzword right now.  Not because it’s pretentious or anything.  Mostly because you’re probably not actually a disciple if you’re not making disciples.
  2. Spiritual formation.  If it’s complicated…it’s probably not legit.  I like what Dallas Willard said in Renovation of the Heart“Spiritual formation…is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite form or character. It is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of a spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. Period.”  Thank you Dallas.  See also, What Have You Designed Your Groups to Make.
  3. Life-change.  As in, “the optimal environment for life-change is a small group.”  I don’t know about you, but I’ve run across more than a few groups where there is very little change of any kind going on.  It is to be desired and designed into every group.  See also, Skill Training: Design Your Group Meeting for Life-Change and 10 Ideas that Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry.
  4. Doing life together.  Love the term.  Hate the idea that to some it actually means 7 to 9 p.m. on the 1st and 3rd Thursdays.  That’s not it.  See also, The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group.
  5. Free market groups.  This term refers to a very specific strategy described in the book Dog Training, Fly Fishing and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century.  It gets used incorrectly lots of other ways to lump in just about everything.
  6. Missional communities.  Again, this term refers very specifically to a very well defined strategy promoted by Mike Breen, 3DM, and others.  It isn’t just that you have a group of 25 instead of 12 or that your group periodically meets in a 3rd place like Starbucks.
  7. Authentic community.  Okay…there is only authentic community.  Everything else is counterfeit or pseudo community.  See also, 4 Countercultural Characteristics of Authentic Community.
  8. Lower the bar/Raise the bar.  Maybe this is my issue alone, but the point is to make it easy to begin and nearly automatic that leader development happens.
  9. Small group champion.  When this term is used to describe anyone other than your senior pastor it isn’t necessarily incorrect, it’s just less powerful.  See also, 5 Things Every Small Group Pastor Needs to Know on Day 1.
  10. Healthy span of care.  I use this term almost every day and then almost always work my way through the Exodus 18 passage the concept is based on.  It is essentially the idea that everyone needs to be cared for by someone but no one can care for more than about 10.  A healthy span of care fits that definition, but every care structure has its own nuance.  See also, Span of Care.

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

Image by Gavin Llewellyn

Sideways Energy

Ever found yourself struggling with a program that draws a crowd and generates a kind of buzz…but actually moves people in a different direction than you want them to go?

For example, you’ve designed your strategy to move everyone in the direction of a small group, but a legacy program, maybe an ongoing on-campus class or periodic event moves people in a different direction.  On it’s own merit, the class or program or event isn’t bad.  It might even be a good thing in some ways, but it takes people away from the commitments that you want them to have.

That’s called sideways energy in The 7 Habits of Effective Ministry.

A concrete example?  Let’s say you want to offer an excellent program for children on Sunday morning; the kind of experience that will leave every child wanting to come back and every parent willing to prioritize that commitment.  What else does it do?  It allows your weekend service to concentrate on providing a life-changing environment for adults.  Who doesn’t want that?

But let’s say that you also offer a Wednesday night program for children that has taken on a life of its own.  And it brings in a lot of children.  What else does it do?  It requires a lot of adult volunteers (who are unavailable to serve on Sunday).  It takes up lots of your available space on campus (making the space unavailable for other things).  It pulls in a chunk of staff time and energy (making that same time and energy unavailable to plan the Sunday experience).

Two programs.  The weekend provides a launching pad for next steps for adults.  The mid-week is good on it’s own merit, draws a crowd and generates buzz, but on closer examination takes away from the momentum of the weekend.

Sideways energy.

Making GroupLife On-Ramps Easy, Obvious, & Strategic

This is a two-part concept.  First, so that we’re all on the same page, let’s start with a definition:

on-ramp: noun [on-ramp, -awn] an entrance lane for traffic from a street to a turnpike or freeway

We all know what an on-ramp is when we’re driving, right?  But when we’re talking about grouplife…it’s still just that basic concept of ways to go from the anonymity of the auditorium to the familiarity of the coffee table; to move from unconnected to connected.

On-ramps.  Every church needs ’em.

Now, let’s establish easy, obvious, and strategic:

One of the most important insights in the 7 Practices of Effective Ministry is the importance of thinking steps, not programs.  In other words, rather than focusing on programs as solutions (home grown or off-the-shelf), we ought to be paying attention to designing steps that lead from where people are to where we want them to be.

Think steps, not programs.  A very simple concept.  A very powerful practice.

Within the practice of thinking steps, not programs, is the concept of making each of the steps easy, obvious, and strategic.  Essentially, each step should be obvious (not hard to discover), easy (shouldn’t require a running start), and strategic (ought to lead in the right direction every time).  You can read a more detailed explanation right here.

Can you see how the practice applies to grouplife?  Getting connected to a group ought to be easy, obvious, and strategic.

Easy: That is, it shouldn’t take a lot of work to connect.  Think about the process of connecting at your church.  Start by thinking about the simple transaction of finding a group to join.  Is it easy?  Can a prospective member walk up to a booth after service and find a group?  Or do they have to turn in a form and wait for a response?  What about your website?  Is it easy to find out how to join?  Is it easy to find answers about what a small group is?

Obvious: In addition to being easy, how to join a group should also be obvious.  In other words, it shouldn’t be a guessing game.  Think about your lobby.  Think about your website.  Think about your bulletin.  If anything requires a detailed explanation…it’s too hard.

Strategic: If you want to connect a lot of people, every thing you do needs to move people in the right direction.  Steps that take people out of the way (think ongoing teaching venues where the participants “sit in rows”) are what Andy Stanley calls “sideways energy.”  A strategic step might be an on-campus small group connection that leads to an off-campus small group.

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

The “Catch a Moving Train” Scenario

catch a moving traingYou know the feeling.  No matter how many new groups you start, an equal number of groups lose interest and drop out.

No matter how many apprentices you’ve recruited and trained, you’re not starting new groups fast enough to keep up with the number of small group sign-ups.

No matter that you even launched a record number of groups with your church-wide campaign, you’re not sustaining enough of them to keep up with your church’s attendance growth.

Know the feeling?  I call it the “Catch a Moving Train” Scenario.  All you know is that it feels like you’re on the train station platform watching the train roar by and disappear into the distance.  And as it does, in the back of your mind you’re realizing that starting a few new groups will never catch that train.  Or how about this one: birthing new groups will never catch the train at the rate you’re reproducing.

Here’s my favorite.  You’ve just recalculated how many adults are actually attending your church and realized that you don’t really have 50% in groups…you’ve got 25% (read Clue #1 When Designing Your Small Group System for more on recalculating).  Everything you’ve done over the last 24 months has really moved you from 18% to 25% and meanwhile average adult attendance grew by 10% over those two years.

Moving train.  Roaring by.  Disappearing into the distance.

How to Catch a Moving Train

It’s easier to tell you why you’ll never catch the train (see above).  The reality though, is that the results you’re currently getting from the strategies you’re using are not a fluke or an anomaly.  They are the result of the design.  And…tweaking what you are doing will not significantly change the outcome.  Better to realize that you’re either using the wrong strategies…if you want to catch the train.

Two Examples

There are two churches that have caught the train.  Willow Creek and Saddleback.

  • Willow Creek began a decade-long attempt to catch the train in 1991.  Switching to an adaptation of Carl George’s Meta Church model, they assembled a staff team that have since become many of the most recognized grouplife names (Bill Donahue, Brett Eastman, John Burke, etc.).  Retooling from a intensive system that took members through a two-year process, Willow built one of the best examples of Meta Church model and in 2002 announced that they had more adults in groups than they did at their weekend services. Two important items to note: (1) it was a decade long effort and (2) it was a photo finish moment that they have not sustained.
  • Saddleback, much like Willow, switched strategies in 1997 with the arrival of Brett Eastman.  Adopting the small group connection strategy as the primary way they added new groups, they quickly moved from 70 groups to nearly 800 groups in less than four years.  Although the strategy worked well, it was clear that it wasn’t working on the scale it needed to in order to catch the train.  In the fall of 2002 Saddleback innovated again and introduced the HOST strategy for launching church-wide campaigns (see Exponential Thinking: The Power of Adding a Zero for a little behind the scenes on how Saddleback made the switch).  This has become their primary method for launching new groups and in the fall of 2010 they broke the 4500 group threshold with over 130% of their weekend adult attendance in groups.  Notes: (1) Saddleback takes a snapshot during their fall campaign when group involvement is at its peak and again later to see where group participation settles out.  (2) This model is still being implemented, but there is always the possibility of a next strategic innovation.

Want to catch a moving train?  You’re going to have to do new things.

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

Image by Matthew Black

Who’s In and Who’s Out? (Bounded vs Centered Sets)

A key concept in The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch has to do with who actually belongs to the community.  They illustrate the concept through the use of the diagram to the left and refer to it as the difference between a bounded set and a centered set.

Bounded Sets are when there is “a set of people clearly marked off from those who do not belong to it.  Churches thus mark themselves in a variety of ways.  Having a church membership roll is an obvious one.  This mechanism determines who’s in and who’s out (p. 47).”

A Centered Set is “defined by its core values, and people are not seen as in or out, but closer or further away from the center.  In that sense, everyone is in and no one is out.  Though some people are close to the center and others are far from it, everyone is potentially part of the community in its broadest sense (p. 47).”

Fences and Wells

I love the authors use of an illustration to point out a key difference between a bounded set and a centered set.  They refer to the way a farmer might use a fence in some regions to keep his livestock in and the livestock of neighboring farms out.  On the other hand, in regions where the ranches are vast, there are no fences.  Instead, ranchers dig a well and know that their livestock will never stray too far from life-giving water.


What’s the point?  Why are we talking about this?  It’s all about the purpose of your small group ministry, what a win will look like, and who can participate.


The concept of an alignment, or a church-wide campaign, (the combination of a weekend message series and a small group curriculum) is probably the most important spiritual growth development in the last hundred years.  Preaching in series allows an idea to be fully developed.  Adding the element of a small group study that complements the weekend teaching allows your members to be encouraged to find a group that’s using the curriculum that goes along with what we’re learning.  That is a huge advantage!  Why?  Read on…

What most people need is a way to take a baby step in the right direction.  You’re not asking them for a lifetime commitment.  You’re only asking for a six-week commitment.  Six weeks is short enough to encourage people to try it.  It’s a reasonable commitment for most people.  A month and a half.  "I can do anything for six weeks."  At the same time, six weeks is long enough to begin to establish connective tissue.  It’s a great toe-in-the-water experience.

Secret Ingredient:

Be sure and give your new groups a study to do next in about their third or fourth week.  Don’t wait until they finish the alignment.  Begin to promote what’s next by week three or four because that’s when they’ll start talking about how quickly the six weeks is going by.   You can begin to promote the next study two ways.  First, have your senior pastor hold up a copy of the next curriculum and say something like, "Many of you have been asking what we’ll do after…"  Second, be sure and put copies of the next curriculum at the small group table.


Community Building

How hard is it to build community?   What’s involved?  Is it just a matter of using a strategy, unrolling a game plan?  Uhhhhh…no.  Peter Block says it in a very elegant way:

“What makes community building so complex is that it occurs in an infinite number of small steps, sometimes in quiet moments that we notice out of the corner of our eye.  It calls for us to treat as important many things that we thought were incidental.  An afterthought becomes the point; a comment made in passing defines who we are more than all that came before (Community: The Structure of Belonging, p. 9).”

HOST: What Does It Mean?

You’ve probably heard of “hosting” a group.  But what does it mean to be a host?  Is there a difference between a host and a leader?  Is it just another name for a leader?  If I’m a host, will you provide the teacher?   These are questions that are asked all the time.  ALL the time.  You may have your own answers…but let me give you some of the defining ideas of the host strategy (and what it means to host a group).

The HOST Concept: The first thing you need to know is that the idea of H.O.S.T. makes it possible for ordinary people to lead a small group.   By that I mean that we’re almost always talking about using a DVD or video-based small group study, bringing the teaching into the group via the television, and allowing the Host to do just that.  In fact, the HOST acrostic stands for:

  • Heart for your community (or your church)
  • Willing to Open your home for six weeks (or the length of the study)
  • Serve a few simple refreshments
  • Tell a few of your friends (in the beginning the T stood for “Turn on your VCR”)

This is very important to the idea.  You’re not recruiting teachers or leaders.  You really are simply inviting people to open up their homes, serve some coffee and dessert, and tell (invite) a few of their friends.  That is a ground-breaking concept and allows many more people, ordinary people, the chance to include friends, family, neighbors and co-workers.

Will a “leader” or “teacher” be provided? No.  Using a DVD-driven curriculum allows a group to begin without a teacher.  In addition to a warm invitation and spirit of hospitality, only very basic facilitation skills are needed.  Sometimes you will have the opportunity to match someone with an interest in leading with someone who has an open home, but that is not normally how the concept works.

When is HOST strategy used? The idea of hosting a group came into being as part of Saddleback’s 40 Days of Purpose campaign.  The HOST strategy can be very effective when used as part of a church-wide campaign (an alignment of weekend message series and small group curriculum).  As part of the build-up to the campaign, HOSTs can be recruited who will commit to opening up their home for the six weeks of the series/study and invite a few friends.

Who can be a HOST? Every church makes this decision based on a number of factors.  The culture of the individual congregation, available coaching for new hosts, even the topic of study are all relevant.  Some churches may decide that only members may host a group.  Other churches may decide that you must attend an orientation to qualify, but will only allow members to advertise their group on the web or in the lobby.  Still others will simply require that you use the provided materials and invite your own group members.

What kind of training is required? Again, this varies from one church to the next.  The most effective strategy seems to be to require attendance at a brief orientation (1 to 2 hours max) combined with connection to a coach who will serve as a liaison for at least the period of the campaign.  Many churches are also finding that a decentralized mid-series huddle in the home of the coach is a very effective additional opportunity to encourage the host.

What happens when the six-week commitment ends? With a good experience, many of the new groups will decide to continue.  Hosts are reminded in the orientation that they’ve made a six-week commitment and that their commitment is making it possible to launch many new small groups.  They’re often encouraged to be open to the possibility that the group may be such a good experience that they would choose to continue…but there’s no pressure to do that.

What is the biggest advantage of the HOST strategy? The HOST strategy is a proven method of getting the largest number of new leaders in the game and unconnected people in a small group.  It is not problem-free, but it is a great solution when a church needs to connect a large percentage of their members and attendees.   

Concentric Circles

I’ve found Saddleback’s concentric circle idea to be very helpful in explaining a number of small group related concepts.  Here’s my version.

Basic idea?  The largest circle represents the community you’re in.  They are who you’re trying to reach.  The crowd represents the group that considers your church to be their church.  They may not come all the time, but if asked where they go to church they name your church.  The congregation represents the group that are actually members of your church.  They attend more frequently.  Committed is a step towards greater commitment.  They’re serving in some way.  Core is the most committed bunch you’ve got.  Serving.  Giving.  Leading in some way.

How does this play into small group ministry?  Here are a just few ideas:

  1. Most churches are attempting a version of core to crowd small group ministry.  By that I mean that in order to lead a group you’re recruited and selected for leadership training based on already being known and involved.  Consequence?  It severely impacts the ability of the group to reach and connect beyond the congregation.
  2. Since the community is more likely to walk across the cul-de-sac than come into your auditorium it makes sense to find ways to help them connect in community before they attend your service.
  3. The deeper a person’s commitment to your church (core and committed) the less likely they are to have deep friendships with people who are in the community.  While there are exceptions, this is generally true.  As a result, if the most likely accepted invitation to a small group is made by a friend, it makes sense to help your congregation and crowd invite the community.

The Easy/Hard Continuum

All topics are not created equally. Know what I mean?  Whether you’re talking about a weekend message series or small group curriculum, the topic you choose determines some things right away.  If you think about it, you can see that certain topics would have great appeal to your church members but might repel their neighbors.  Other topics might be very appealing to seekers but seem too simple for long-term believers.  With me?

So the question is, “How do you determine what topic makes the most sense when you’re designing an alignment?”  I’ve found what I call the Easy/Hard Continuum a good way to understand the challenge.

easyhard1What’s it mean?  A topic that  belongs on the “easy” end is one that would be easy to invite my neighbor to talk about (whether it’s a weekend message series or a small group study).  Think 40 Days of Purpose.  At its peak it was easy to invite your neighbor because everyone had heard about the Purpose Driven Life.  Right?  Other topics on the easy end might be stress, relationships, marriage, etc.  You get the idea.

What about the “hard” end?  Do a six-week series on hell or judgment and see how easy it is to get your members inviting their friends.  That is why it’s called the “hard” end of the continuum.

What can you learn?  If you’re putting together an all-church alignment and you want your members to invite their friends…better choose from the “easy” end.  You’re leaving a lot on the table if you don’t.  For more on this see my post on exponential outreach. On the other hand, if you’re trying to deepen your members or lead them through a capital campaign…ok to go with a series that is a little harder.  Let’s be clear though, it doesn’t make sense to overlook this important understanding.

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