Introducing: Randall Neighbour and The Naked Truth About Small Groups

One of the names you need to know in small group ministry is Randall Neighbour.  If it sounds familiar, it may be because you recognize the last name.  Randall is the son of Ralph Neighbour who, along with Lyman Coleman and Carl George, are really the patriarchs of small group ministry in North America.

Randall provides a steady stream of provocative articles at his blog, The Naked Truth About Small Groups.  He is one of the leading voices in the cell group/cell church movement (along with Joel Comiskey and Mario Vega).  And he’s definitely as least as opinionated as me…in a good way.

If you want evidence of his convictions you can catch them in  The Summit: A Convergence of Small Group Experts. There is a classic moment late in the program when something Randall says provokes a pointed response from Lyman Coleman.  I feel a little bit like the voice of Dos Equis when I say this, but I don’t always agree with Randall…but when I do…it’s a moment worth recording.  Actually, Randall is a passionate advocate for the holistic small group idea and at the same time is quick to acknowledge a good point made from another perspective.

Randall is also an author.  In addition to The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry he’s produced a number of resources designed to help pastors implement the cell group strategy.  You’ll find many of them at Touch USA, along with the materials of others in the movement.

You can also follow Randall on Twitter.

If you drop by over there, be sure and tell Randall I said “hello.”

You can read the rest of my GroupLife Introductions right here.

Soul-Shaping Small Groups

Working my way through Soul-Shaping Small Groups: A Refreshing Approach for Exasperated Leaders by Kim V. Engelmann.  New from IVP, the subtitle sounded hopeful and honestly, the book doesn’t disappoint.

The concept for the book comes from Engelmann’s own experience while serving as the head of the Care Ministries Department at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church.  She quit her own group when it became “another chore, duty, obligation–something I did not need (p. 18).”  We’ve never felt that way…have we?  Definitely.

Wrestling with the findings of Reveal, the study by Willow Creek Community Church that found that once a person moves beyond Growing in Christ (the second stage) small groups become far less important, Engelmann asks the question: “Are small groups the problem?  Or is it the way we do small groups that is the problem (p. 21)?”

She believes it’s the way we’re doing groups.  I tend to agree.  Her response is compelling.  The first half of the book takes you through her journey and the second half gets very practical with exercises you can help your groups put into practice.  Believe me, you’ll find yourself pulled in by the journey.  We all need that part, that set-up.  The practical exercises are just that…practical and good to have in your toolbox.

The topics covered are:

  • Building a praying community
  • Creating Emmaus Road groups
  • Invitational exercises
  • Sharing and praying for others
  • Listening
  • Interceding for others
  • Befriending scripture
  • Community, Celebration, and Service

If you, like many of us, are looking for ways to help the groups in your small group ministry have transformational experiences, Soul-Shaping Small Groups is a book you should be reading.  First for yourself.  Then for your coaches.  I really appreciate a line from the book:

“The best training is always experiencing exactly what you are talking about.  Until you get something from the inside out, you don’t get it (p. 31).”

Almost like the instruction you’re given as the jet taxis out for take off.  “In the event of sudden loss of cabin pressure…put the mask on yourself first and then help those around you.”  I needed help with this.  I bet you can use some help too.

Breaking the “Mythical” 150% Participation Barrier

Certain barriers are legendary when they’re broken.  The four minute mile immediately comes to mind.  When Roger Bannister became the first person to record a sub-four minute mile on May 6, 1954 it changed everyone’s mind about what was possible.  46 days later another runner broke Bannister’s record with an even faster time.  Since that time many runners have beaten Bannister’s time and today the record is nearly 17 seconds faster.

What would your reaction be if you read an article about breaking the mythical 6 minute mile record?  Surprisingly there are articles for that!  Not exactly…because they don’t use the word “mythical” and they’re really not about a record.  But there are articles.  And the only people reading them are fitness runners who want to improve their time.

A recent article by our friends over at the Leadership Network called Breaking the 50 Percent Barrier in Participation prompted what I hope was very little interest in readers here at MarkHowellLive.  After all…is anyone really shooting for 50% participation?  I guess that might be a milestone on the way to 100%, but it’s not my goal!  And I hope it’s not yours either.

Participation Is Based on the Wrong Number

The key for me is that the participation percentage is always based on the wrong number.  In almost every case participation levels are based on average adult attendance…and that’s the mythical part!

If you’re thinking clearly, you realize that your average adult worship attendance is only part of your congregation (or crowd if you want to use Saddleback’s terminology).  How can that be?  Easy.  The real number is much higher.  Over the course of a month there are people who attend 3 to 4 times.  Others who attend a couple times.  And some who attend only once.  Then you’ve got some folks who only attend a few times a year (maybe Christmas and Easter), but if they’re asked where they go to church…they’ll say they go to your church.

What’s the big deal about that?  If you believe that the optimal environment for life-change is a small group…then you need to set your sights higher than 50% participation.  After all, if you’re averaging 500 adults in worship and you get 50% of your average adult worship attendance in groups you end up with 250 in groups.  And that’s not bad.  But it fails to take into consideration the fact that you’ve really got 650 adults who came over the course of that month.  So your 250 in groups?  It’s not a true 50%.  And if life-change happens best in a group…you’re changing a smaller percentage than you think.

I’ve written about this concept more than once.  The Perils of the Well-Worn Path and How to Choose a Small Group System or Strategy both refer to the idea of clarifying the right win.  And it’s not 50%, it’s 150%.  That’s why I wrote the Top 10 Reasons Saddleback Has Connected Over 130% in Groups.

Take Action: Find Stories That Connect

Nothing helps convince unconnected people see the value of connecting like a great personal story.  You can make all the announcements you want about how to get connected to a small group.  You can preach all the sermons you want about how being in a small group is biblical and God’s plan for all of us.  You can make it easy to connect and put a small group finder right smack in the middle of your home page and a small group kiosk dead center in the middle of your lobby.

And you need to do all those things.  Those are the right things to do.

But none of those things are as convincing as a great personal story about “how important my small group is to me.”  Nothing helps convince unconnected people about the importance of being connected like the story of how my group came around me when I really needed them.  Or a story about how my group makes me feel like I’m part of the family.  or a story about how doing life together helps me know that God is always with me.

If you’re not gathering stories you are missing the main chance to help unconnected people get connected.

Here’s Your Assignment:

  1. Ask your current group leaders to think about who in their group has a good story about the importance of being in a group.  Tell your group leaders that you’d like to talk with the people they identify.
  2. Follow up with each person asking them to tell you their story.
  3. Ask each person at least these three questions: (a) When you were thinking about joining a group…what were you afraid of?  (b) What do you sense that God has done in your life as a result of being in a group?  (c) What would you say to the people that aren’t in a group?  What are they missing?

How To Take Advantage of Personal Stories:

There are at least three ways to leverage the power of a great personal story to convince unconnected people to take a group test drive.

  1. Ask them to share their testimony.  Have them write out their answers to the questions above and share their story during a service.
  2. You can interview them during a service.  Simply ask them the questions and let them respond naturally.
  3. You can video them answering the questions and put their responses together in a video that can be used in a service.

Here are some additional articles I’ve written:

Don’t miss this opportunity to capture some stories that will help your unconnected people to respond to the invitation to join a group.  Find great stories.  Get them ready to use.  Taking action now will help someone tomorrow.

Abide: Practicing Kingdom Rhythms in a Consumer Culture

Looking for a way to help your small groups begin to experience and practice the spiritual disciplines?  Abide: Practicing Kingdom Rhythms in a Consumer Culture is a new 5 session study from Threads Media; designed to help group members “subvert the rhythms of suburban culture.”

Abide, by Jared C. Wilson, takes a look at 5 key sections of the Sermon on the Mount and begins to develop 5 new rhythms that will help group members in their struggle against the “subconscious message of the suburbs…self-empowerment, self-enhancement, self-fulfillment (p. 10).”

Most of the Threads Media (a division of Lifeway) studies are designed with a “read-first, do some preparation, come ready to discuss” flow.  Abide is no exception.  Each of the 5 sessions are about 20 pages that unpack a rhythm through reading, scripture, questions that help explore, references to web sites, and steps that lead to application.

The 5 rhythms are:

  • Feeling Scripture: Move past just reading
  • Intentional Prayer: Fight the sickness of hurry
  • Purposeful Fasting: Deprive with meaning
  • Joyful Service: Make room for others
  • Genuine Community: Do it together

The Leader Kit comes with an enhanced CD that includes a Leader’s Guide and Tools, Digging Deeper articles, emailable audio files, and music.  Although the study isn’t DVD-driven, there is a short video designed to enhance the experience  for 3 of the 5 sessions.  In addition to the extensive preparation materials built in to the member book, each session is guided by a 3 to 4 page leader’s guide with questions designed to help the group process and respond to what they’ve learned.  Along with the leader’s guide and resources on the CD there is additional leader helps in the Lead section of the Threads Media site.

Although the Threads curriculum line is intended to connect with young adults, the topics themselves are often very appealing to a wider segment.  A very important aspect in the design of most Threads studies are that more extensive leader and member preparation required.

There is a lot to like in the Abide study (and in many of the Threads Media projects).  Thought provoking preparation sections will provide members with a rich experience.  The Leader’s Guide adds a layer to the experience by helping the members to talk about what they’re learning and leads to practical application.  Abide will provide a good experience for groups (and leaders) that are willing to do the advance work.

Ready to jump in or pick up a copy for your curriculum library?  You can do that right here.  You can also take a look at two additional Threads studies I’ve reviewed:

Review: Triple-Threat Leadership E-Book

Do you know your leadership style?  Do you know what your default leadership style is?  That is, do you know yourself well enough to know what you do best without really working at it?  Got that figured out?

Alan Danielson’s Triple-Threat Leadership E-Book posits that there are three essential skills in the leadership realm:

  • the ability to cast vision
  • the ability to create strategy
  • the ability to foster relationships

Not only are there three essential skills, but most leaders “have some natural talent with one or two of these skills.”  And, Alan goes on to say, “becoming capable in all three will make you a more competent and well-rounded leader, the result of which is always long-term success (p. 4).”

So far so good.  Do you know what your natural strength is?  I have to confess, I looked it over and felt like I probably had a good idea, based on my experience.  After I took the assessment?  I was close…but missed a pretty important insight.  What was it?  You’ll have to take the assessment for yourself to see.

Of course, like most good analysis, there’s another side to this.  Acquiring an accurate sense of your strengths can also provide a deepened awareness of your weaknesses (or the areas you need to develop).  Do you know where you’re weak?  More importantly, are you taking steps to acquire the skill sets that will help you build long-term success?

I like the fact the Triple-Threat Leadership E-Book stirs up this conversation.  That the assessment is included is really important.  In the same way that Marcus Buckingham’s Now Discover Your Strengths, I think you’ll come away with a language that will creates some great conversation (especially if your team takes the assessment) and the potential for some powerful next steps.

At 32 pages including the assessment, it’s a short, insight packed read.  You can read it in an hour.  If you act on what you learn, you’ll be wrestling with it long after you finish and file it away.  In fact, it just might mark the beginning of an eye-opening self awareness that will really make a difference.

The best news?  For a limited time you can save 10% on your purchase by entering the code markhowell.  You can download your copy right here.  I think you’ll see yourself a little more completely.  If you’re a learner…that’s all it takes.  One insight leads to one next step and that leads to a gain in effectiveness.  You’ve got to like that!

Don’t Miss the Bill Donahue and Steve Gladen Webinar

Don’t miss the upcoming FREE 60 minute webinar with Bill Donahue and Steve Gladen!  It’s a rare opportunity anytime you get a chance to hear both of these guys at the same event.  If you had fun watching The Summit: A Convergence of Small Group Experts, this will be a can’t miss event.

“Leveraging Mid-Size Groups to Build Community” is part of a series of conference calls and webinars developed by the Group Life Training Network to promote their October simulcast Unconventional.  I really like the way they’re positioning this webinar:

Medium-sized groups in churches of all sizes, often become an end point – a final destination for church attendees as opposed to a bridge to community. Learn from Bill Donahue and Steve Gladen’s experience on staff at two mega churches and consulting with hundreds of churches around the world. Discover strategies and tactics that will help mid-size groups catalyze growth in your small group ministry and get answers to your current challenges.

That sounds like something just about all of us need help with.  If you’ve got an existing Sunday School or ABF structure, this would be a good conversation for you to catch.

Wednesday, June 16th, 1 p.m. Eastern, 12 p.m. Central, 11 a.m. Mountain and 10 a.m. Pacific

Click here to register for Leveraging Mid-Size Groups to Build Community.

Top 10 Things To Do This Summer To Maximize Your Fall

Churches that are praying for and expecting a high-impact fall ministry season do more than take a break in the summer.  They do take a break…but they also realize that summer is an essential time to do some simple but very important things that make a huge difference in September.

Here are my top 10 ideas:

  1. Deepen your relationships. This is a great time to catch coffee, breakfast or lunch with your coaches. The agenda can just be “how ya doin’? It will pay off in the fall when you’re asking your coaches to work a little harder than the rest of the team.
  2. Build your coaching team. Think about which of your hosts might be misappropriating their SHAPE by caring for 8 to 10 adults instead of 4 to 6 leaders (who each care for 8 to 10 adults). You probably have at least one or two that fit that category. This is an opportunity to help them move to the right seat on the bus.
  3. Plan and shoot the videos you’ll need in August and September. This is a great time to capture the video (or line up the testimonies) that will enable you to recruit new small group hosts in August and encourage unconnected people to test-drive a group in September.
  4. Fine tune the time-line for your fall strategy. You can think about things like the dates that your host insert will be in the bulletin, when you’ll start talking about being “in a group” vs. hosting a group, how you’ll promote each of those steps, ways of marketing the campaign you’ll be launching, when you’ll introduce the next curriculum, etc.
  5. Figure out what study you’re going to recommend after your church-wide campaign.  There are few things more important than introducing the right next study for your new groups to use right after the campaign.  Remember that a key is to choose a next curriculum that is very similar in kind to what you’ve just used (i.e., DVD-driven, easy to use, application oriented, etc.).  My article, What’s Next?  When (and How) To Promote the Next Curriculum will help you see how to do it.
  6. Encourage your existing small groups to take a “small group vacation” this fall. This is a very strategic move that can pay off big time but you’ll need the big guns and some preparation to pull it off. See my article for more.
  7. Clean up the data in your small group database.  Whether you’re using a small group finder technology like ChurchTeams or simply posting a static list of groups on your web page, summer is a key time to work through the information, clean it up and make any necessary corrections.
  8. Consider adding a blog for your small group ministry.  You can use my article on How To Get Started Using a Blog To Resource Leaders as a reference and get it in place over the summer.  Actually, summer is a great time to begin implementing a whole list of technology ideas that enhance grouplife.  You can take a look at my best ideas right here.
  9. Plan a few “get to know your neighbor” activities and encourage everyone to join in.  I wrote an article on The Top 10 Ways To Get To Know Your Neighbors This Summer.  It’s required reading if you really want to impact your community this fall.
  10. Start now praying for the fall ministry season!  This is number 10 on my list but it is #1 in importance.  Get your small group leaders and coaches in this game.  Now’s the time to ask some of the prayer warriors in your ministry to jump in and organize a regular and systematic approach to praying for the fall.


When I was given a copy of Exponential at the Exponential conference in Orlando I added it to my stack and figured I’d get to it when I got to it.  When I finally got to it…I found myself captivated by a great story!

Exponential is the very inspirational and at the same time extremely practical story of how Community Christian Church in suburban Chicago became a leading influence in the reproducing church movement.  When I say inspirational, you need to read packed with great stories, real life stories about people at Community who have been seized by the idea of stepping into ministry.  When I say practical, you need to read packed with immediately implementable practices that will help your church move in the direction of becoming a reproducing ministry.

Exponential at its core is the best practical explanation of how to implement the concept of apprenticing at every level.  If you’ve been along for any length of time you know what I think about apprenticing (if not, you can check here and here).  This is not that.  Really, what the Fergusons do a great job of illustrating is how to leverage an apprenticing strategy to reproduce leaders systemwide.  Very cool and an essential practice if you want your ministry to move beyond you in impact.

I really have to say that Exponential by Dave and Jon Ferguson fits in a pretty exclusive category of game-breaking books for me.  Let me qualify that statement.  I read continually and have a library full of books I’ve actually read.  I’ve been reading this way for over 25 years.  I’ve forgotten most of the books.  There are a few that refer to all the time.  Exponential is in that category.

This is not a tough read.  It’s not challenging to understand (like  Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways) or to do (like Chan’s Crazy Love).  At the same time, it is challenging because we can easily understand it and even better, we can do it.  We just have to want to be a reproducing church and begin to do what we learn in Exponential.

Introducing: Ben Reed and

Have you discovered Ben Reed yet?  He’s the Community Groups Pastor at Grace Community Church in Clarksville, TN.  He’s also one of a select group of younger small group pastors around the country that are doing a fantastic job in what they do.  I loved a recent Twitter reference that Steve Gladen made about Ben: “Got schooled 2day by 4 sharp up and coming SG Pastors @benreed @spenceshelton @mattwharmer @adamworkman Awesome time Oh to replay those days!”  High praise coming from Steve!

Although Ben’s blog isn’t all small groups all the time, it has some great content about group life and leadership and would be a very good daily read to add to your Google Reader.

In addition to very regular content on his own blog, Ben is a contributor to and SmallGroupTrader.

You can also follow Ben on Twitter and connect with him on facebook.

You can see the rest of my GroupLife Introductions series right here. And you can learn more about how to keep up with the GroupLife scene right here.

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