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Todd Engstrom on Austin Stone’s Missional Move (part 3)

Todd Engstrom is the Pastor of Missional Communities at Austin Stone and this is part three of a three part interview.  You can read part one right here.

Anything you’d do differently if you could do it over?

Many things!  Honestly, we would strive very hard to make the gospel the centerpiece and motivation for the community and its mission.  We definitely had a compelling vision, but often assumed the gospel in the midst of motivating people toward it.  We’d be really careful to be explicit with that in the future.  On the pragmatic end, there are too many to list.  One specifically that we would do differently would be share stories of both success AND failures, and be careful to share stories from a variety of contexts.  The stories you tell will shape the practices of your church powerfully.

What would you say to the folks considering this move themselves?

First, I would say pray: examine your heart and test your motives.  This transition will be difficult and shouldn’t be taken lightly.  We’ve spent the last four years working tirelessly to build this DNA of missional community into the very fabric of our church, and we’ve still got a ways to go.  To cultivate disciples of Jesus who live as a community on mission is not something a mere change in program will accomplish, but requires a ton of digging into the soil of peoples’ lives.

As you begin preparing for the transition, it is important to cast clear vision with clear goals, to effectively communicate the who, what, where, when, and why of this change. You will also need to be patient and flexible, as this will be a process.  Finally, be ready to celebrate wins frequently and tell stories of both success AND failure.

I would also encourage folks to take advantage of the many resources available for people considering this shift, as there are many churches who are seeking to work this out in a variety of contexts.  We are putting together a coaching cohort for churches considering the transition in the near future, and you can email me for more details if you’re interested in pursuing this avenue.

What have been the main sources of inspiration for this development at the Stone?  What books have you been reading?  Speakers you’ve found helpful?

This would be an incredibly long list for us if we talked through every person who has contributed to the DNA of missional communities at The Stone, so I’ll just highlight a few.

Books that have been helpful on the popular level include:

As for people we interact with, we’ve been learning from regarding missional communities:

Thanks Todd for providing so much great insight into the missional community concept!


The Verge Network

The Austin Stone launched the Verge Network to feature resources from and for the missional community world.  They’d love to see any and all of you join them for the Verge Conference in 2012 in Austin, TX!

Todd Engstrom on Austin Stone’s Missional Move (part 2)

The Austin Stone Community Church is one of several prominent churches moving in the direction of missional communities.  Todd Engstrom is the Pastor of Missional Communities at Austin Stone and this is part two of a three part interview.  You can read part one right here.

What are your goals for missional communities?  What do you hope to accomplish?

Our goal for missional communities is that they be a community of Christ followers on mission with God in obedience to the Holy Spirit that demonstrates tangibly and declares creatively the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a specific pocket of people.

We hope to see our city and ultimately the nations engaged street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, region by region as God’s people incarnate the gospel as communities to their neighbors around them.  When you think about a single missional community, we hope that they would build their lives around being a “good news” people to those immediately in their relational spheres, and that different pockets of people in Austin would experience the love of Jesus through a Christian community on mission.  We want new disciples of Jesus to be made who go and make more disciples.

Matt Carter (Pastor of Preaching and Vision) seems to have been very instrumental in the decision to be more intentionally missional in your grouplife format.  What do you sense were the things motivating him?

A watershed moment for Matt was when he was studying Amos 5 on a sabbatical and God provoked him to ask a very hard question:  Have we become a church whose worship was just noise to God’s ears?  This prompted us to think through what it would look like to be a church in the city for the city, and it changed the trajectory of our church and how we viewed small groups/missional communities.

How did you lay the groundwork for the beginning stages of the move toward missional communities?  Were there things you felt like needed to be first steps?  Or preparation for the move?

First, we consistently went back to the Scriptures personally and with our people, spending significant time in the book of Acts to see how the early church movement began.  We read the book of Acts together repeatedly over a span of a few months.  Next, we studied other people who were talking like this and distilled much of the patterns and practices from folks around the country and the globe.

As we began to think about shifting, we spent a lot of time working with our leadership and introducing the idea from the top down…Michael Stewart (Pastor of Missional Communities, New Initiatives) met with every single group leader and ministry leader in our church over the span of 6 months to cast vision and get feedback.  During this time, we also piloted some missional communities and listened to stories from them.

Finally, we launched church wide through a coordinated preaching and host strategy of groups (we called it a Vision Series), and followed it up with curriculum that reinforced the ideas we were talking about.  This really set the ball in motion and gave us a ton of momentum working toward becoming a church of missional communities.

What would say have been a few early indicators that you’re moving in the right direction?

I’d say a few indicators for us are a consistent stream of stories of men and women coming to faith in Jesus primarily through missional communities (check this one out:, not just through Sundays.  I think we’ve seen a groups that have been in existence for some time willing to make complete overhauls of their group patterns and practices in order to be more engaged in the lives of their neighbors.  Finally, we are now consistently growing in groups that have multiplied out from some existing healthy missional communities for the sake of mission in our city, not just because they’re getting to be too large.


The Verge Network

The Austin Stone launched the Verge Network to feature resources from and for the missional community world.  They’d love to see any and all of you join them for the Verge Conference in 2012 in Austin, TX!


My interview with Todd Engstrom continues with more on The Austin Stone’s missional move right here.  If you’re not signed up to get my updates you can do that right here.

5 Things Senior Pastors Need to Know About Small Group Ministry

Library KnowThere are 5 things every senior pastor needs to know about small group ministry:

First, senior pastors need to know that they are the most important champion of small group ministry. If they want grouplife to happen, if they want to be a church OF groups, they must accept this role.  They might hope to delegate the role…but they can’t.  It’s not about humility.  It’s all about influence.

As I’ve said before, your senior pastor as champion leads to a church OF groups.  There is no better example of this principle than Rick Warren and Saddleback Church.  It is the real reason Saddleback connects so many in groups.

Second, senior pastors need to know that grouplife as a priority is caught…not taught.  In other words, no one is really too busy to make this commitment.  What’s vitally important at the member level is equally vital at the senior leadership level.  You cannot hope to truly connect beyond the usual suspects without the full engagement and participation of your senior pastor.

At the same time, senior pastors should know that there is great flexibility and freedom on the makeup of the specific group of which they are a member.  I’ve seen numerous instances where senior pastors have been part of long-standing  closed groups with members specifically chosen for their trustworthiness and character.  I’ve also seen senior pastors build open groups right in their own neighborhoods.  The key is participation.

Third, senior pastors need to know that commitment to small group ministry is a year-round sport.  It is not three weeks in the fall and a mention in January.  It is week in, week out, full-on engagement.  It is one of the top 10 reasons Saddleback has connected beyond 130% in groups.  This is a huge challenge in a church with a cafeteria approach where every ministry expects their 15 minutes.  It is much more likely where there is a plated-meal approach.

Fourth, senior pastors need to know that small group ministry can be the delivery system for every other thing that must be done.  Want to build mission into the life of every believer?  The most productive path is to build mission engagement into every small group.  Want to build ministry participation into the life of every believer?  Build it into grouplife.

Fifth, senior pastors need to know that the optimum environment for life-change is a small group.  It’s not the weekend service.  As important as the weekend service is, with inspirational music and powerful messages, it is most like a defibrillator.  Only life-on-life can provide the ingredients of life-change.  Without a genuine conviction about the optimum environment, there cannot be the kind of emphasis that builds a church OF groups.

New here?  You can sign up right here to receive my updates.

What do you think about my list?  Have one to add?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Tommy Ellis

Todd Engstrom on Austin Stone’s Missional Move

One of the most important current grouplife trends is the move in the direction of missional community.  The Austin Stone Community Church is one of several prominent churches moving in this direction.  Todd Engstrom is the Pastor of Missional Communities at Austin Stone and this is part one of a three part interview.

What is your role at Austin Stone?  How long have you been on the staff?  How has your role changed?

I am the pastor of missional communities (leadership development) at the Austin Stone, which means that I lead out in equipping and caring for our missional communities.  I have served on our staff for 4 years now.  I actually started off by launching our college ministry with a missional community driven approach, and also developed our connections ministries.  I also teach in a variety of settings, including our Systematic Theology equipping class, our Nearly/Newlywed equipping class, and in our Austin Stone Institute.

My role is to shepherd the people of our church as we pursue the vision and mission of the Austin Stone. We desire to see our city (Austin, TX) and the nations changed by the gospel, and we believe missional communities to be one of the best expressions of this desire.

Specifically, I help develop strategy and implementation of missional communities, including:

  • Training new leaders of missional communities in the field and the classroom
  • Leading a staff team that leads and develops our missional communities
  • Leading our connections team and process for assimilation into communities
  • Identifying strategic areas for missional community in our city
  • Collaboration with other missional thinkers, pastors, and practitioners

Austin Stone seemed to have a pretty vibrant small group ministry very early in your history.  Was it always an essential part of the philosophy of ministry?

Gathering together in smaller groups has always been a part of our vision to be a new testament church existing for the supremacy of the name and purposes of Jesus Christ.  A cornerstone to the new testament church for us was the priesthood and ministry of every believer, and we have always wanted to be a church that loves one another AND impacts the world around us.  As we have grown up over time, our practices have started to catch up with our values and we’ve gotten a lot more clarity on what it looks like for us to live out this vision well.


What were the primary ministry goals of small group ministry in the early days?  Were you meeting those goals?

At the end of the day, the goal of our community groups functionally were accurate knowledge of the bible and community by itself.  Over time we realized that neither we truly happening because accurate knowledge wasn’t producing obedience and community wasn’t impacting the city.  We definitely had people that loved and served one another, but the city of Austin wasn’t changing because of our groups.


What prompted you to begin moving toward missional communities?

Several different things over time led us to consider missional communities.  From the outset, we had a desire to be a church that led people to Jesus and changed our city, and we began to analyze some of our strategy and structure in light of that desire.

In 2006, our lead team was reading through Transformation by Bob Roberts, and the book posed the question “What if the church was the missionary?” and that’s when some light bulbs started going off.  As we processed that question, we realized that when we aimed at community, we got neither community nor mission.  But when we aimed at mission, community almost always resulted.

When we started surveying church planting movements around the world, there were some very clear patterns that emerged, and we realized that very few of them were characteristic of our communities.  Finally, we began to see mission as central to the new testament church as we studied Acts together, and in many ways mission was the organizing principle of every facet of that church. We just couldn’t keep doing church the way we have been doing it after we considered all these things.


The Verge Network

The Austin Stone launched the Verge Network to feature resources from and for the missional community world.  They’d love to see any and all of you join them for the Verge Conference in 2012 in Austin, TX!


Part two of my interview with Todd Engstrom continues with more on The Austin Stone’s missional move right here.

Twelve: The Global Online GroupLife Gathering

Have you made plans for September 14-15, 2011?  That’s when 2011′s biggest online grouplife event happens.

2 days.  3 tracks.  8 sessions.  Featuring 36 top small group thinkers…this is a seriously good list.  The best news?  Through June 29th you can register for as low as $25!

Three Tracks

Essentials Track: This is a highly interactive track taught by Saddleback’s small group pastor Steve Gladen, with small groups director Carolyn Taketa and author and small groups pastor Bill Search.  You’ll learn the principles that God has used to create one of the most successful small group ministries in the nation at Saddleback Church, one that has been successfully used in churches around the world of all sizes and virtually all denominations.

In eight sessions over two days you’ll learn how your church can start and grow a healthy small group ministry, can’t-miss principles, and how to connect your community and your church for spiritual health.  Steve is joined by two dynamic leaders of small group ministries in other churches.

Experience Track:  This interactive track is taught by over a dozen working small group ministry leaders at churches of all sizes around the country.  Each topic explores what happens when you apply ministry principles that work in one size church into practice in other types and sizes of churches.  You’ll gain street-level insights from leaders who have hit the walls and found ways over, around, through or under them.  You’ll gain breakthrough ideas and practical knowledge to successfully apply exponential small group ministry principles in your church (Full disclosure: I’m presenting in the Experience Track).

Planning Track: In this track, Ron Wilbur, Chip Kelly and Ben Reed will take you through the process of mapping out an 18-month plan for your small group ministry using the essentials of exponential small groups.  You will tailor the plan to your church, your issues, your road blocks and your strengths and weaknesses.  You’ll have some initial prep work to do before the event to help you get even tailored to your church.  You’re encouraged to enlist any other members of your team, staff or non-paid, who need to be invested in the ministry for the implementation phase.  Embedded in the planning process are the 50 key area learnings that came out of the successful Saddleback model that now has more people in weekly small groups than attend weekend services.

My Personal Recommendation

Twelve is going to be great!  It will be an easy way for you to expose your team (key leaders, coaches, other staff, even prospective team members) to some of the very best grouplife thinking.

Plan a two day confab at your offices.  Invite pastors and point people from nearby churches.

This will be an investment that will pay off in a big way.  Yes, I am doing a session (teaming up with Mac Lake), so you’d expect me to be enthusiastic.  But these speakers are the experts I listen to.  This is a no-brainer.

Register: It’s easy to register.  You can do that right here.

Learn More:  Need more information?  You can get everything you need right here.

The “Catch a Moving Train” Scenario

You 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.

It’s Not What You Think…It’s the Design

Have you ever been really stumped by something, really trying to puzzle out an answer, and then be shocked at how simple the explanation was?  It’s easy sometimes to just be looking at something from the wrong angle and be really surprised by how different it looks from another angle.

I was talking about a grouplink event with some small group ministry champions recently and they shared with me that a pretty significant number of new groups never got started.  That is, they tried to form, but they didn’t actually ever have their first meeting.

With a little investigation I learned that they didn’t have equal confidence with all of the grouplink leaders; that there were some that were a little iffy.  Were those the ones that didn’t ever get started?  What would you guess?

I talked recently with a small group ministry champion who shared with me that the semester concept was working well and they’d stayed pretty consistently at 20 to 22 groups over the past several years.  “We’ve added new groups…but we’ve also had groups die.  We feel a little like we’re treading water.”

What can this ministry champion do to increase the number of groups?  Ideas?

I am constantly reminded of the great Andy Stanley quote:

“Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re currently experiencing.”

There are very few coincidences.  There are some mysteries…but not that many.  Almost everything has an explanation.

Not happy with the total number of groups in your system?  Concerned that you’re not adding them fast enough?  It’s the design.

Concerned that too many of your new group leaders aren’t actually getting their new groups going?  It’s the design.

If you’re not satisfied with the results you’re currently experiencing…be sure you’re looking carefully at the design.  That’s where the issue is.

Got some mysteries in your ministry?  What’s happening that you just can’t figure out?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Mission: St. Louis is Transforming a City

One of the coolest ideas in On the Verge is being implemented by Mission: St. Louis, a non-profit that exists “to transform the city of St. Louis through education, empowerment and development by connecting churches with neighborhoods in need.”

Mission: St. Louis was launched by The Journey in the St. Louis area with a vision of “building lasting relationships with neighborhoods in need and restoring dignity to the people who live in the communities,” their strategy is to bring about such transformation by creating “a network of churches who work alongside communities in need to create a safe and nurturing environment for all people.”

Churches or groups “operating alone often struggle with duplicating the efforts of others and maintaining limitied resources.  However, many people working together with the same purpose will have a lasting impact on our city.”

Along with educational programs (like Adopt a Classroom) and empowerment programs (like  job training programs), the Community Loop program has served over 40 families this year, with over $100,000 in resources.

I recently interviewed Josh Kamer, the director of one of the most innovative solutions being pioneered by Mission: St. Louis.  Josh joined the staff 2 years ago to develop the Community Loop program “to enable homeowners in Forest Park Southeast and Hamilton Heights to remain in their homes and to ensure safe and healthy living environments for community members.”

There are several keys to the Community Loop program that ultimately lead to projects being developed that serve the people who need help maintaining their homes:

  1. The Community Loop website was developed to provide an easy to use way to connect interested volunteers with suitable projects.  You can get a look at it right here.
  2. Training is provided for churches and volunteers who want to participate in the program.  The training provided is both on-site and on-the-job.  To date, over 250 captains have been trained; prepared to go into the website, log in and set up a project.
  3. Donated warehouse space provides storage for material donations (largely overstock and damaged goods) from Home Depot and other corporations making it easier to complete projects.
  4. Community Loop is also designed to receive tax-deductible donations as well.  It’s easy to give.

What have you seen that helps groups get involved in mission?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Nine Keys to Effective Small Group Leadership

Some books get scanned and end up filed away in a bookcase.  Others are read thoroughly–maybe even marked up–but still just get shelved and forgotten.  And then there are books like Carl George’s Nine Keys to Effective Small Group Leadership.  Originally published in 1991, this is a great book and one you’ll use again and again.

While Nine Keys is written from a higher leadership bar perspective*, it has the potential to serve as the curriculum for leader development beyond the initial test drive stage.  One of the most compelling aspects of the nine keys is that they’re not primarily skill training, but heart and mindset development.

As you can see from the title, the book covers nine essential leader development concepts.  What you can’t see from the title is that each chapter includes a “how to” checklist and a set of “to dos.”  You’ll come away with an easy to incorporate development syllabus.

Here are the nine keys:

  • Connect: Build a strong link with the pastoral staff
  • Recruit: Keep your leadership nucleus fresh and growing
  • Invite: Cultivate a larger contact group through enthusiasm and care
  • Prepare: Tailor a plan that you prayerfully personalize to your group and apprentices
  • Meet: Convene your group in such a way that people genuinely experience the Body of Christ
  • Bring: Help each group member appreciate the whole church through larger corporate worship
  • Serve: Make time to serve needs in and beyond the group
  • Win: Initiate the kind of outreach that makes Christ to people
  • Seek: Experience the renewal of God’s strength as you regularly meet with Him in secret

You may not be in philosophical agreement with everything you read in Nine Keys.  You might have moved away from the notion of birthing groups as the primary way you launch new groups.  You might have adopted a very low bar approach to recruiting potential leaders.  No matter.

I included Nine Keys in my GroupLife Reading List for Summer 2011 because this is a great book and packed with leadership principles that are timeless and relevant regardless of the model you’ve selected.

*In Carl George’s Meta Church model, apprenticeship is the primary leader entry point.  There is a high expectation from the very beginning for intentional leader development.