Memorial Day, Honor, and Heroes

Today is Memorial Day in the United States; a day to honor U.S. service members who died while serving their country.

On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I watched the first 25 minutes of the online service of Woodlands Church during which they asked current or past members of the armed forces to stand.  I was reminded how frequently that was done while I served on the staff there.  Memorial Day weekend, July 4th weekend, and even Veteran’s Day if it fell on or near the weekend.

As current and past members of the armed forces stood, I remembered the gratitude I felt for their service when we honored them along with policemen and firemen after 9/11.  It was a powerful experience as we honored them.

As they stood, I was also reminded of our honor-giving, hero-making role as pastors and leaders of ministry.  It is a key opportunity and one we should never miss.  After all, in our ministries, we get to choose who will be honored as a hero.

I remember when I first heard this notion, that we get to choose who will be honored as a hero.  It was the early 90s.  I was attending a conference on developing vision and building teams…and I’ll never forget the realization that in recognizing those who do what is admirable, in making heroes of the right people, we can play a part in helping other people step into a new trajectory.

I was reminded again of this important practice in On the Verge, a new book in the Exponential series by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson (watch for my review later this week).  Clearly, if you want to build a ministry that enters a new trajectory, you will need to rethink who you are honoring as heroes.

If you’ve never done so, you might want to do a kind of honor assessment in your church and for 30 days keep track of who gets mentioned from the platform and other ways (bulletin, newsletter, and website).  Although it may be right on target, you might find you need to pay more attention to who you acknowledging.  You may discover that you’re missing the opportunity to recognize and affirm those whose actions are most in line with a new trajectory you’re dreaming of and instead, continuing to affirm those whose behaviors are aligned with the status quo.

Start with Why

I love this inspiring presentation by Simon Sinek.  Filmed at the TED conference in September, 2009, it should be mandatory viewing if you are designing, developing or leading ministry of any kind.  I’ve watched it at least 5 times.

There are two fabulous illustrations (if you hang out here very much, you know why I care about that).  It is just a great talk.  Only 18 minutes…he nails one point.  If you want to become a better ministry point leader, this is a must watch presentation:

Can’t see the video? Click here to watch it.

Small Groups with Purpose: New from Steve Gladen

I’ve said this a number of times, but I want to be sure and say this again.  Steve Gladen is a couple of things.  First, he’s one of the smartest GroupLife guys on the planet.  He’s also one of the most helpful small group experts on the planet.

Steve’s new book, Small Groups with Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities is a perfect example of his brilliance and his extreme helpfulness.  Even better?  It is a great book, absolutely packed with wisdom and insight.  You’ll have trouble finding a chapter that doesn’t get extremely marked up, underlined, starred, and dogeared for future reference.

There are several things I really love about the book.  First, this is a first person, insider account of the inner workings of the largest small group ministry in North America.  That is worth noting.  Size isn’t everything, but to build something like this takes time, wisdom, patience, and leadership.  If you read with eyes to see…you’ll have some aha moments about how to build a pervasive small group culture.

Second, you don’t have to be a purpose-driven church to really benefit from an understanding of how the model works in grouplife.  Important concepts like “healthy groups balance the purposes” are fleshed out in ways that you’ll find yourself applying in your context.  With a chapter on how groups can develop each of the five purposes, Small Groups with Purpose will become a road map for implementation.  It will also provide some insight into the kinds of grouplife attributes and activities that can be measured to determine system health.

Third, Part III, Step-by-Step, How Can I Do This is as sweet and complete a blueprint as you’re ever going to come across.  Seriously…there aren’t many small group practitioners who know as much as I do about how it works at Saddleback, but there were so many no-brainer ideas that I came away with a long list of easy fixes and smart adjustments.

Fourth, each chapter includes a great set of questions that can be used for personal reflection or in the development process of a team.  Since this is a book that could easily provide a leadership team exercise for both  churches that are considering launching small group ministry as well as churches with groups already that dream of being more effective, this feature will be really helpful.

Finally, the things that stands out the clearest, throughout Small Groups with Purpose, are the author’s unassuming brilliance and authentic servant mindset.

This is a great book!  It will make a difference in your ministry, whether you’re already in the midst of the small group adventure or just trying to chart an effective course.

Carl George said, “You absolutely must put a copy of Steve Gladen’s book into the hands of your small group leadership.”  My one addition?  You’d have to be crazy to not take advantage of Small Groups with Purpose, a fabulous resource and one of the five books I included on my GroupLife Reading List for Summer 2011.

I See Dead Groups

“Our small group just doesn’t have the energy it used to.”  Seeming genuinely perplexed, he continued,  “We’re really not sure what we should do.  We’ve decided to take a break this fall.  But maybe it’s best to just  move on?  It just feels stale.  Any ideas?”

Maybe you’ve had this conversation with a leader.  Maybe you’ve had a group yourself and wondered why it seemed stuck.  Most of us have been there.

Here’s a core assumption for me:

Every small group has a lifespan.  They don’t live forever.  Most groups have a lifespan of 18 to 24 months…max.

How you feelin’?  Want to argue?

Maybe you’re wondering about a group or two that you’ve been part of that seemed to last a lot longer than that?  Stick with me.  There’s something you need to know.

Groups can be dead and just not know it.  They can still meet, still choose curriculum, hang out.  They can do all of that and be dead…and just not know it.

How is this possible?  Read on…

The Sixth Sense and GroupLife:

Let me give you a way to think about this.  The Sixth Sense, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan tells the story of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, isolated boy who “sees dead people,” and an equally troubled child psychologist (Bruce Willis) who tries to help him.

You know the movie, right?  You may not have seen it.  I did.  It was a great movie.  Although several of the scenes still spook me when I think about them, it was a great movie on several levels.

Can’t see the video? Click here to watch the scene.

(Spoiler Alert) Throughout the movie, the psychologist worked hard to help the boy.  He was very understanding.  He seemed to genuinely care about the boy.  And then at the very end of the movie, in one of the greatest plot twists of all time, you suddenly realized that the psychologist was dead the whole time.  The whole time!  The boy could see him and even talk with him.  But he was dead.

How This Relates to the Lifespan of a Group

In the same way that the psychologist seemed alive, some groups seem alive.  The test for the psychologist is clear.  What’s the test for a group?

Some diagnostic questions might help:

  • Is the group still an environment where life-change is happening?
  • What are the spiritual growth issues being worked on?
  • What are the spiritual next steps that are being taken?
  • Are there group members whose spiritual vitality is confined by the limits of the group?
  • Is it just comfortable?

Obviously, every group is unique.  There are clearly exceptions to the 18 to 24 month guideline.  How will you know which ones are dead?  Can you tell when they’re dying?

I say yes.  There are clear signs.  If you ever watch The Sixth Sense a second time you see all kinds of signs that he’s dead.  It’s amazingly more obvious the second time around.

In the same way, if you begin looking at the groups in your system with an eye for lifespan…you’ll start to notice a lack of certain vital signs.  There are definitely steps you can take to revitalize a group (I loved Rick Howerton’s, 10 Tips for a Small Group Makeover).  There are also times when you’ll see the wisdom of encouraging certain groups to consider taking a small group vacation.

The main takeaway?  Groups have a lifespan.  The objective of grouplife is life-change.  If you’re paying attention, you’ll begin to notice dead groups.  And you’ll have a better idea what to do.

By the way, the post that followed this one, FAQ: Shouldn’t Every Group Have a Vision to Multiply? provoked a conversation that was just as engaged.

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

Your Pick: Gamaliel or Simon Peter?

We tend to think that the leader identification and selection challenge is a modern problem.  It’s not.  Faced with the challenge, Jesus “went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.  When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them (Luke 6:12-16).”

I just want to point out three things:

  • First, and I know this might bring out your inner theologian, Jesus was 11 for 12.  Sure…He had a reason for choosing Judas.  We all get that.  But isn’t it just part of the deal to know that when you choose leaders you can’t realistically expect to be perfect.
  • Second, He could have chosen Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea.  He could have…but He didn’t.  As John MacArthur pointed out yesterday, He chose “fishermen, a tax collector and other common men.”  He wasn’t looking at resumes.  He wasn’t looking at what they knew how to do.  He was looking at their heart and their willingness to follow.
  • Third, He invited them to “come and see” long before He invited them to “come and die.”  This is significant.  He made the ask in a way that was appropriate for the need.  It started out innocently enough.  There was very little danger.  Very little risk.  As they warmed up to the adventure, as they were ready, they grew into the come and die moment.

Can I tell you something?  Don’t overlook Simon Peter while you’re desperately searching for Gamaliel.  Don’t miss out on James and John while you’re waiting for Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea to come around to your philosophy of ministry.

And whatever you do, don’t turn your back on Matthew because he’s not on the usual suspects’ speed dial.  Don’t lose sight of the fact that the Matthews actually know the people in the community.

This game…connecting beyond 100% and impacting communities is not won with Gamaliels.  It’s won with Simon Peters.  It’s won with Jameses and Johns.  It’s won with Matthews.  They have rough edges.  They mess up regularly.  They require supervision.  And they change the world.

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

The 12 Were Not Chosen from the Core

You probably know this…but the Twelve were not chosen from the usual suspects.  I know for some that line all by itself might cause you to lump me in with the riffraff.  Sorry about that.  But sometimes the truth hurts.

It’s true, though.  When Jesus selected the twelve apostles, they were not first round material.  They were clearly the b team.  They were the riffraff.  They were the ‘am ha’ares; the people of the land.

I like what John MacArthur points out in Twelve Ordinary Men (there’s a first time for everything…I’ve never cited MacArthur before):

“When Jesus chose the Twelve to be His official representatives …He didn’t choose a single rabbi.  He didn’t choose a scribe.  He didn’t choose a Pharisee.  He didn’t choose a Sadducee.  He didn’t choose a priest…He chose instead men who were not theologically trained–fishermen, a tax collector, and other common men (p. 7).”

Why am I telling you this?

One of the most significant missteps when planning a small group launch (church-wide campaign or otherwise) is to select leaders exclusively from the core…what I often refer to as “the usual suspects.”

Why is that a misstep?

There are several reasons but the first and most important is that in most cases the folks in the square (to refer to the diagram) will tell you that 8, 9, or even all 10 of their best friends…are also inside the square.  To use my friend Allen White’s favorite metaphor, just like a Lego block, there’s a limit to how many people they can connect to…and they’re full!  I explain this much more thoroughly in Clue #1 When Designing Your Small Group System.

Second, new leaders recruited from closer to crowd’s edge are more likely to have friends, family, neighbors and co-workers from the community.  They often have the exact opposite situation than members from the core and will tell you that 8, 9, or even all 10 of their best friends have never been to your church.

Third, once a church reaches a certain size (not average attendance, but total number of adults in the crowd) it is way too easy for some of the most qualified potential leaders to simply disappear into the shadows.  Where’s that number?  Hard to say exactly, but when you see people in the grocery store and know that you’ve seen them at church but don’t know their story…you’re there.

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

Veneer…a Book You Should Be Reading

Want to reach the widening 60% that can’t be reached by the attractional model?  Developing a deeper cultural awareness is absolutely essential.  As part of my process I read Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society by Timothy Willard and Jason Locy.

I noticed Veneer and requested a copy after seeing a Qideas tweet (, because I’m looking for ways to understand what is happening in the culture…and why.  This is definitely part of The Next Christians conversation.

What’s missing for many of us is a language or a way of talking about cultural developments.  Not, “what’s the coolest new song” or “what movie is everyone talking about.”  It’s not even what book is everyone reading.

It’s not actually about what.  It’s about why.

What can Veneer do to help develop your cultural awareness?  I think this paragraph from the Prelude provides a clue:

“If we listen closely, we can hear the world speaking a language, a language that echoes in the way we dress, the jobs we take, and even how we interact with our friends.  It is the language of culture.  We all speak this language as we mimic the world of celebrity, buy in to the promise of consumption, and place our trust in the hope of progress (p. 14).”

I loved Veneer.  I resonated and was captivated by some sections.  I also found it heartbreaking and some sections haunting.  I saw so much of my journey in it.  I also recognized immediately some of the language we’ll need if we’re going to play any part in connecting beyond the usual suspects.  You’ll see it, too, if you’re looking.

Teasing out the metaphor of veneer*, Willard and Locy tackle our obsession with celebrity (and pursuit of our own “15MB of fame”), as well as our desperate need to consume (a symptom of “an underlying belief system, a belief that personal meaning comes from the things we buy”).  They also explore technological progress “where computer screens and avatars simulate the life we want but not necessarily the life we have (p. 15).”

Veneer is not a quick read.  Chapters interwoven with thought-provoking imagery, short stories that vividly paint the picture, as well as carefully selected lines from theologians and scholars, all work together to create the basis for a conversation; an essential conversation that will influence your cultural awareness.

This book will be read, and re-read, as the conversation builds.  I hope you’ll add the ingredient of Veneer to the pot you’re stirring up.

*A thin decorative covering of fine wood applied to a coarser wood or other material.

P.S. May You Always Hear the Music

On a nearly daily basis I’m reminded that in order to reach the widening 60% (who will never be reached with the attractional model) we will need to rearrange priorities.  No doubt this is true for almost all of us.

Tripping across a great line from Gary Hamel’s Competing for the Future, I remembered what it felt like to be in an environment that was completely locked in the past.  “Every company is in the process of becoming an anachronism, irrelevant to the future, or the harbinger of the future.”  Ohhhh.  I want to be a harbinger, not an anachronism.

Looking down at my desk I noticed another quote I’d written down…this one from Ralph Waldo Emerson.  “There are always two parties, the party of the past and the party of the future; the establishment and the movement.”  Ahhhh.  I want to be part of the movement!

I write so much about the keys to grouplife at crowd’s edge…and I know that some of you are pushing hard against the prevailing culture, fighting years and decades of aligning priorities with the needs and interests of insiders, instead of those still far from God.

Don’t give up.  Persevere.  Keep your eyes on the edges.  Never forget that the most important thing is to cultivate the ability to see life from the perspective of those who have not yet found God.

I know that’s easier said than done.  And I know that it takes persistence.  And…I know that there will be many who can’t see the world the way you do.  Which is why I found this quote so inspirational:

“Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.”  Angela Monet (quoted in On the Verge by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson)

Inspirational?  Absolutely.  May you always hear the music…and dance.

GroupLife Reading List for Summer 2011

Started putting your summer grouplife reading list together?  If you’ve been along for this ride, you know I am always reading.  I’ve just found that we can all learn so much from other practitioners and reading a book makes it easy.  I’m a big believer in including your team in what you read, as well.  There are definitely some books that you’ll want to share with the others on your journey.  Here are my top five for summer, 2011:

My first recommendation has to be Steve Gladen’s long awaited Small Groups with Purpose.  I read an advance copy.  It’s packed with the philosophy that has built the largest small group ministry in the United States.  As the Pastor of the Small Group Community at Saddleback Church, Gladen is one of the smartest grouplife guys I know.  He’s not a theorist.  He’s a practitioner.  This book releases on June 1st.  You can be the first on the block to get it in your bag this summer.  You can order it right here (affiliate link).

Second, if you haven’t read Connecting in Communities by Eddie Mosley, this is one I’d definitely add to the list.  Another practitioner, Eddie is the Executive Pastor of GroupLife at LifePoint Church.  This is a very easy read and very practical.  Make sure you’ve got a pen nearby because your copy is going to be marked up like mine.  There’s a lot here you’re going to think about adding to your system.  You can read my review right here.  You can order your copy right here (affiliate link).

Scott Boren’s Missional Small Groups has got to be on your list right now.  I included the missional group movement in my list of current grouplife trends because there is an increasingly important conversation going on right now about how to build groups that can impact and influence communities.  I particularly loved Boren’s “four different stories within grouplife.”  You can read my review right here.  You can order your copy right here (affiliate link).

One of the books that has influenced me the most this year has been The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons.  I can tell you that since I read it in late December, early January, this book has influenced more conversations that any other.  If you want to be involved in the grouplife opportunity to reach the widening 60% that will not be reached by the attractional model, this is a book you need to be reading.  Here’s my review of The Next Christians.  You can order your copy right here (affiliate link).

Carl George’s Nine Keys to Effective Small Group Leadership: How Lay Leaders Can Establish Dynamic and Healthy Cells, Classes, or Teams is one of the best books on small group ministry…that you’ve never read.  First published in 1991, it’s been revised and updated.  This is a very important book if you want to build an effective small group ministry.  You can order your copy right here (affiliate link).

You might also take a look at my list of essential grouplife reads right here.  Although I published this list in 2009…it’s packed with some of the very best books on the subject of grouplife.

Read the Bible for Life: A Whole Church Experience from Lifeway

Searching for ways to increase biblical literacy in your church?  A new church-wide campaign from Lifeway, Read the Bible for Life may be a solution.  Based on George Guthrie’s popular book by the same title, this study will be a valuable resource for many churches.

The Leader Kit for the whole church campaign includes three DVDs featuring nine teaching sessions, as well as a copy of the Read the Bible for Life Workbook and the Read the Bible for Life trade book.  A CD-ROM is also included with supplemental articles and study tools, a churchwide-initiative guide, and promotional tools.

George Guthrie is the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, TN.  Although his previous books had more academic readership, Read the Bible for Life was written to help average church members “grasp the story of scripture and learn how the books of the Bible fit together to communicate God’s redemptive message.”

Guthrie’s love of scripture and skillful communication of the Bible’s major elements is very evident in the DVD sessions.  You’ll listen in as he gives a small group of students an overview of the following topics:

  • Reading the Bible for Life
  • Reading the Bible in Context
  • Reading the Stories of the Old Testament
  • Reading the Law and the Prophets
  • Reading the Psalms
  • Reading the Stories of the New Testament
  • Reading the Teachings of Jesus
  • Reading the New Testament Letters and Revelation
  • Reading the Bible Today

In addition to Guthrie’s teaching on the nine themes, the DVDs also feature interviews with noted Bible scholars: Clint Arnold, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Michael Card, Scott Duvall, Daniel Hays, David Howard, Andreas Kostenberger, Douglas Moo, Gary Smith, Mark Strauss, and Bruce Waltke.

Along with the DVD, there is a participant workbook with five daily studies reinforcing each of the nine sessions.  Participants should anticipate a 30 minute assignment in order to get everything possible out of the study.

Using Read the Bible for Life

After working my way through the DVD segments and carefully examining the workbook, I think there are several ways Read the Bible for Life can be used.  First, it can be used as intended…as a whole church experience.  As you can imagine, adults (there is not currently student or children’s material) that completed the study could be expected to increase their understanding of the Bible.  Full Disclosure: the combination of a nine week study and a 30 minute daily assignment will limit participation for some.

Second, the study can easily be used by individual small groups who want to learn about the Bible and how to read the Bible.  At the same time, I believe the nine week time frame coupled with a daily 30 minute assignment will limit participation to groups with higher expectations.

Third, this material could be easily adapted to provide a nine week course on how to read the Bible.  I believe this will be a very popular curriculum for an on-campus elective course.


Will Read the Bible for Life be a great solution for your congregation?  It depends on a number of factors.  What do you hope to accomplish?  Who do you hope to connect?  When do you plan to use it?  Like any new small group curriculum, whether it is for a single group or for the whole congregation, questions like these will help determine whether a particular study will be a great fit.

I can tell you this: Anyone, any group, or any congregation, that invests the time and energy required to fully absorb Read the Bible for Life will never approach the Bible the same way again.  They’ll know how to read the Bible…for life!