GroupLife Is Different at Crowd’s Edge

Some things are hard to describe…but you know it when you see it.  Or taste it. When you sense it…or don’t sense it.  If you’ve ever taken a drink from a perfectly calibrated soft drink dispenser you know it when it hits your tongue.  You actually know it when you put the cup to your lips…because the fizz is already tickling your nose.  On the other hand, if you’ve ever taken a drink from a bottle of coke that has lost its fizz…you also know what I’m talking about.

Not long after I left 10 year old Fellowship of The Woodlands (now Woodlands Church) and arrived at a landmark Southern California church…I began to sense that their carbonation was gone.  It felt flat, but I had trouble describing it until I stumbled across the metaphor.  I went out and bought two 2 liters, uncapped one and put both of them on the edge of my desk…where they sat for about a year.  “What’s up with the coke bottles?” launched many discussions about carbonation and churches.

I think the same thing is true in many small groups and small group systems.  You know a good group when you’re in one.  You can almost taste it.  It’s like it’s carbonated.  And then there are times when it really is pretty flat.  No zip.  Not the business.

Want in on the bubbles?  You might need to step out of the comfort of  the core and try grouplife at the edge of the crowd.  At Crowd’s Edge it can be about real change.  At Crowd’s Edge is can be about discovering real truth.  At Crowd’s Edge it can be about real life, with eternity in the balance.

While telling the story of two coke bottles I often described castaways on an island where a pallet of coke syrup washed up.  They knew what it was.  They drank it.  It was sweet.  It was tasty.  It was a change from their usual  water.  But it wasn’t the real thing.  Not really.  And then one day a pallet of the real thing washed up.  I wondered if they’d even like it.  It had the familiar essence of the syrup, but it was different.  It had the bite of carbonation.  It was dangerous by comparison.

And I wondered if you could get so used to just the syrup that you’d reject the real thing.  I wondered if people could be so accustomed to the sweetness of the syrup that they’d reject the bite of the real the thing.

Is your group the real thing?  Or has the co2 left the building?  What about your small group system?  Are you working with the whole formula?  Or have you gotten used to the syrup?

Review: The Power of a Whisper

Worked my way through The Power of a Whisper on a recent plane trip.  Bill Hybels’ newest book, Whisper is the anchor to a new church-wide campaign by the same name.  Like so many of his previous books…it is an inspiring read.

There are a number of sections in the book that I found myself re-reading to make sure I caught a story or an idea.  I found the chapter on personal stories of times that people heard God’s whisper very compelling.  Hybels tells of a time when he sent an email to the congregation asking them “to describe a time when they heard a whisper from heaven and then to explain how they had responded to that whisper.”  Let’s just say their answers were amazing, very poignant, and tremendously inspiring.

Another chapter that I found particularly compelling was on promptings for parenthood.  If you’ve followed Bill and Lynne Hybels’ story over the years, you’ll find the insights here very interesting.  At the same time, as I read this chapter I found myself wishing there was a rewind button on the tape deck of my own parenting.  If you’re still in the stage where you’ve got younger children in the mix, I think you’ll find this chapter very helpful.

Finally, one of the most helpful aspects of The Power of a Whisper is the lengthy chapter on God’s written whispers.  Much like the way Too Busy Not to Pray impacted me over 20 years ago, this chapter left me motivated to memorize some new scripture.  Very inspiring to see how these key passages have been a source of guidance over the years.

Like many of Bill Hybels’ books over the years, this one was prompted by a message series and no doubt will prompt message series everywhere.  Whether or not they’re coupled with the church-wide campaign, these messages will encourage and equip seekers to listen more carefully for God’s whisper.

Top 10 Posts for October 2010

In case you missed them, here are my top 10 articles for October, 2010:

  1. Add 5 To 10% More Hosts with Jedi Move
  2. Top 10 Reasons Saddleback Has Connected Over 130% in Groups
  3. How To Launch Groups Using a Small Group Connection
  4. Breaking: Here’s How Saddleback Launches a Campaign
  5. 5 Keys To Sustaining New Groups
  6. How To Choose a Small Group System or Strategy
  7. Mass Hysteria at the Grab and Go Table
  8. Top 10 Articles on Small Group Coaching
  9. Birthing, Dividing and Splitting Groups vs. the Jedi Path
  10. Alan Danielson on Measuring Small Group Ministry Effectiveness

Where Do You Want To Go with Your Small Group Ministry?

Have you ever actually thought through where you want to go with your small group ministry?  Have you ever looked further ahead than this year and dreamed about what things will look like in 10 years?  I mean really took some pains to describe the preferred future of your small group ministry?

Tom Peters described vision as a “picture of a preferred future.”  I love that definition.  Vision is seeing word.  I’ve been using this diagram* to describe a number of important concepts in small group ministry.  My article, This Road Doesn’t Go There illustrates the fact that only a new trajectory arrives at the preferred future.  You Are Here begins to tease out the idea that where you are today is a result of decisions you’ve made in the past.

Today I want to focus on the preferred future for your small group ministry.  This really is a huge concept, much more than we can talk through adequately in a single article, but we can begin to look at it.  Here are three aspects you need to see:

  1. The preferred future has elements of your probable future.  Remember, we’ve already pointed out the fact that once you really know the truth about your present, you will be very close to knowing how things will turn out in 10 years if nothing changes.  But you probably wouldn’t want everything to change.  Some of what you’re doing is already good or even great.
  2. The preferred future also has elements of the possible future.  One of the most important steps in defining your preferred future is to dream broadly about what could happen.  Use flip charts and markers.  Pull together the dreamers in your organization and think about what you’d do in small group ministry if you knew you couldn’t fail.  What are all the things that are possible?
  3. I also want you to notice that some of the preferred future in the diagram is actually outside the lines of what’s possible.  That is intentional.  You need to think that way.  You need to think beyond what you could reasonable expect to do in your own power.  That’s where God comes in.  You also need to realize that some of what can happen in the future is outside the boundaries of today but won’t be outside the boundaries tomorrow.

This third aspect of the preferred future is very significant.  You can’t know what it will be exactly…but you need to be able to stretch your imagination beyond what you actually think is possible.  Thinking beyond what is possible today and moving as close to the edges of what’s possible is what puts you in striking distance of what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls the adjacent possible (described in Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From).

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways the present can reinvent itself (p. 31, Where Good Ideas Come From).”

Here’s a quick illustration of how the adjacent possible works:

  • The development of DVD-driven curriculum made it possible for people with the gift of hospitality to lead a small group.  You don’t need a teacher if you have Rick Warren on the DVD.
  • The Small Group Connection made it possible to connect people without a prequalified leader and for leaders to be identified during an event.
  • The HOST concept made it possible to connect people who didn’t come to an event.  Asking volunteers to host a group and invite their own members made it possible to connect the friends and neighbors of everyone in the congregation.
  • The Church-Wide Campaign made it possible to jump-start a large number of groups at one time, even to have more people in groups than you have at your weekend services.

That’s where we stand right now.  It is now possible to ask for volunteer hosts who have no teaching gifts or abilities, to host a vibrant group where disciples are being made.  Who would have thought that 10 or 20 years ago?

Are we now on the final frontier of what is actually possible?  I say we’re not.

What if a topic was identified that people outside the congregation could choose to form a group around?  What if a compelling topic was identified and then developed in a way that people outside the congregation (or on the very edges of the crowd) would pick it up and form their own group?

That’s a taste of the adjacent possible.  What have you got?  I’d love to hear your idea!

* I first saw this diagram in Turning the Future into Revenue, a business book by Glen Hiemstra.

Discovering What’s Next in Small Group Ministry

I am a huge fan of innovation.  I always want to try out the newest gadget.  I love seeing what the new thing can do.  I even love trying new foods.  Although I have my favorites, if I see what I think will be a great new combination of tastes on the menu, I’ll pick that a lot of the time.

I’m like that in ministry, too.  Let me hear about a new way of doing things, a new strategy that seems to be working, and I’m just curious.  I want to discover what’s next.

After meeting with Tim Sutherland while candidating for the position at Parkview, he told the rest of the team, “Just know that if you hire Mark Howell you’re hiring a mad scientist.”  I loved that!  I want that on my business card!

I want to find strategies that work better.  That’s why I test new ideas when they come along.  That’s why when I began hearing about the Small Group Connection I wanted to try it.  I was in a church that was too large to know all of the potential leaders.  The Connection identifies leaders during the event.  What’s not to like about that?  Admittedly, when the Host strategy first came along I wasn’t quite ready to ditch the Connection idea, but I did like the idea that HOST connects people who don’t come to the event.  That’s a big idea.

I’ve got 3 articles that I really want you to read.  All three are about exploring what’s next in small group ministry.  I really hope you’ll take a few minutes and read them.  It just might be that they’ll help you re-think an area where you’re stuck:

I write what I write because I want you to succeed at what you’re doing.  I want all of us to connect more people, to make more disciples, and to impact our communities.  And I’m convinced that the next idea might make it happen.  I want in on that.  And I hope you do, too.

“You Are Here” and Getting To There

Have you ever been completely turned around in a mall or an amusement park, desperately looking for a directory?  One of those big maps with a large red star that says “You Are Here?”  Sometimes that red star simply helps you see where you are.  Sometimes it is an essential ingredient in getting to where you want to go.

This illustration is from one of my most requested talks. I explained it recently in an article called Different Leads to a Church OF Groups.  Today I want to highlight another important aspect of the concept, a teeny tiny detail with huge implications that often gets overlooked.

Last week I wrote that “the only way to get to there (the preferred future) is to move over to a new trajectory.”  Although I didn’t spend any time on it, you can see right away that the current trajectory leads to the probable future.  And as you can imagine, the probable future is not much different than today.  In fact, we could say that if nothing changes about your strategy or execution, tomorrow will be pretty much like today.  That’s why I say “the well-worn path never arrives at a new destination.”

Today I want to point out that where you are today (the present in the illustration) is a direct result of decisions you’ve made in the past.  Where you are right now (the state of your coaching structure, the health of your small group system, etc.) is actually the probable future of sometime back in the past.

Think about that.  The decisions you’ve made over the years have actually created the present state of your small group ministry.  You’re having trouble finding enough leaders?  It’s largely because of decisions you’ve made (or a predecessor).  Can’t make a coaching structure come together?  Probably a result of a string of ideas, strategies and tactics from the past.  Stuck at the same level of group participation?  You got it.  The most likely culprit is the set of past decisions.

Andy Stanley says, “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing.”  Want different results?  You’ve got to change the design.  Want to arrive at a new destination?  You’ve got to move over to a new trajectory.

How do you move over to a new trajectory?  You learn to think differently about things like building an effective coaching structure.  You open your eyes to new ways to launch groups like the small group connection or you lower the bar in terms of who can lead a group and embrace the HOST concept.  You move to a new trajectory by unleashing the exponential power of a perfectly executed church-wide campaign.

Memo: It won’t be easy.  If your present is the direct result of decisions made in the past, escaping the straight-jacket of conventional thinking will be difficult.  But you can do it!  And you must do it if you want to arrive at a new destination.

Website Reconstruction in Progress

Doing a little remodeling this afternoon (and maybe into the night).  Don’t mind the mess.  We’ll be back in force tomorrow.


This Road Doesn’t Go “There”

One of the most important concepts for builders of small group ministry is that the well-worn path never leads to a new destination.  There really are times when the road you’re on does not lead to where you want to go…and the only way to get “there” is to move over to a new road, a new trajectory.

This drawing is from one of my most requested talks.  I explained it recently in an article called Different Leads to a Church OF Groups.  Today I just want to highlight an important aspect of the concept, one of those tiny details that sometimes get overlooked.

If you want to get to the preferred future (in the drawing), you have to move to a new trajectory.  This is one of those times when there’s really no alternative.  No matter how much you hope you end up where you want to go, no matter how hard you try or how many times you try, if you’re not on the right road…it just doesn’t go to there.

Only a new road, a new trajectory, goes to there.

For example, if you’ve been faithfully working the apprenticing strategy and, no matter how hard you work at it, it’s not producing new groups fast enough to keep up with the number of unconnected people…it’s time to try a new path.  Harder won’t get to there.  Smarter won’t either.  Only getting on a new trajectory.

What might the new trajectory be?  The small group connection was a new trajectory.  It identified leaders where you didn’t know you had them.  HOST is a new trajectory.  It identified leaders from the edges of the congregation and even the crowd and then connected people to groups far beyond what anyone anticipated.

New trajectories, new paths, lead to a different destination.  Want to go somewhere different?  Get on a different path.

Reid Smith on Measuring Small Group Ministry Effectiveness

Recently Rick Howerton was asked a challenging question by some small group pastors and Rick responded by sending the question on to a number of small group pastors in order to get a broader perspective.  Ready for the question?  It might be yours, too!

They asked, “What are the markers for a healthy small group ministry.  That is, when a small group pastor does her/his evaluation of the ministry, what are the list of things that that small group pastor should be measuring to determine how effective the ministry really is?”

Isn’t that a great question?  I thought you’d think so.  I also was sure you’d enjoy reading the responses.  Really good stuff from a number of the sharpest minds in small group ministry.  I got Rick’s permission to use the idea and asked each of the participants if they’d be willing to share with you.  All of them said “yes!”

Here’s what Reid Smith had to say:

I’m obviously late to the party here!  From Eddie & Mike’s hallmarks to Alan & Mark’s metrics — not to mention Greg’s raw account of his relate-able experience — I always walk away stronger and encouraged after receiving from you guys.  Thank you.  I’m chiming in now because I find myself at a different starting point on this question.  I would begin by exploring questions about alignment and integration:

  • Are small groups seen as another ministry among ministries (or even a program or subset within a larger ministry) or are they seen as the ‘operating system” in and through which discipleship happens throughout the church?
  • Is the lead/senior pastor and core leadership on the same page about “groups” with the small group pastor?
  • How does leadership collectively value relationships and community in ministry?  What are the evidences of this?
  • How are groups defined and supported in communications and resources?
  • What’s the relationship between groups and the mission of the church?
  • Is the core philosophy and direction of a church’s group-life reflected among all age groups / ministry areas?
  • What do the “working relationships” look like between the small group pastor and their senior pastor / direct report and other key influencers in the church?
  • During weekend programming, are small groups a critical factor in planning or an after-thought?  How are they supported?
  • Are groups a part of the church’s culture in function and communication or do they feel unnatural, forced, overly-programmed, or obligatory?
  • Is there a rhythm to group-life or have groups been ‘used’ erratically as a reaction/fix to some perceived problem in the church such as lack of connection, retention, attrition, spiritual maturity, etc.
  • What is the gut-level value that senior / core leadership places on small groups? Does their own participation in word and action reflect this?

Groups have been okay at best where I’m at.  By God’s grace, there’s more stability than we’ve experienced in a long time…but there’s also so much unrealized potential.  This can be very frustrating and discouraging as I’m sure everyone copied here can attest.  I think a lot of it has to do with things Greg mentioned (yes, my friend…I hear ya!).  As you can see, I’ve presented questions vs. marks.

In the years that I was engaged with 2orMore, I found myself spending more and more time with the senior pastor and staff of churches vs. small group leaders, especially if I was being invited to help re-invigorate (give the ole shot in the arm to) a church’s floundering or plateaued small group ministry.  Not surprisingly, these questions unearthed core issues in leadership, structure, and resourcing that directly affected the vitality of a church’s group-life.  I believe that if these fundamental matters remain unaddressed, the small group pastor and leadership in their care will not be set up for success, regardless of the goals that are set.

Reid Smith, Community Life Pastor, Christ Fellowship


This is part four of a series. Here’s part one.  If you want to make sure you stay up to date on what comes next, you’ll want to subscribe to right here.

Review: Outlive Your Life

I’ve been looking forward to taking a look at the new church-wide campaign based on Max Lucado’s book Outlive Your Life.  The campaign, published by Lifeway, presents some very interesting possibilities.

The theme is a challenging one.  A study of the Book of Acts, the subtitle is “Joining God’s Plan To Change the World.”  Although it might not be as easy an invite as 40 Days of Purpose or Love at Last Sight, the idea of “changing the world” will resonate with many people.  Making a difference consistently ranks as one of the most common aspirations.  Promoting participation along those lines has the potential to capture the imagination of people.

The Outlive Your Life church-wide campaign offers several powerful advantages:

First, Outlive Your Life is anchored by a DVD-driven small group study that features Max Lucado.  You’ve got to start there.  Name recognition alone is a significant factor with this campaign.  It makes invitation much easier when the speaker is known.  It is an advantage as well that each of the six sessions are just long enough to prime the discussion pump, but not so long that groups are lulled into viewer mode.  The average segment is 17 minutes.

Second, the Bible Study Workbook includes both the questions that drive group discussions and the “daily readings and Bible studies [that] will help you review that message, go deeper in your understanding, and then apply what you’re learning to your daily life.”  This is a very substantial workbook.  In fact, after a careful review, the workbook experience has potential to be a powerful experience for participants.  At 174 pages it will provide a thought-provoking devotional that is just about right.  Daily readings of three or four pages offer an opportunity to spend 15 to 30 minutes with the theme every day.  More than just a reading experience, each day is really a Bible study with questions and scripture references that drive the time.

Third, the resource CD-ROM includes resources for group leaders, sermon outlines from Max Lucado and custom dramas for each week, helpful publicity tools, and a lot more.  This is a very important aspect of a church-wide campaign, making it easy to thematically tie a lot of pieces together with visuals and media pieces.

Fourth, this is a campaign that is focused on more than just delivering a good experience for participants.  One hundred percent of the author royalties from Outlive Your Life products will benefit children and families through World Vision and other ministries of faith-based compassion.  How’s that for putting your money where your mouth is?

Summary: When I evaluate church-wide campaigns I’m looking for several elements.  Theme or topic plays a very big role in the suitability of a campaign.  Length and quality of the DVD presentations is another very important aspect.  Ease of use, the amount of leader preparation required, and the level of member engagement required are all elements that should be examined when choosing a campaign.

  • Outlive Your Life is a challenging theme, but an appropriate level of challenge.  While it’s not the highest motivation (belonging), changing the world ranks very high when people are asked about their dreams and hopes (impacting).
  • The DVD segments feature Max Lucado and the Bible Study Workbook includes several chapters from his book.  Name recognition is a very important advantage when selecting a campaign.
  • There is an appropriate level of preparation required on the part of the leader and participant.  This is not a “just show up” study.  Those members that want to dive in and engage daily will get more out of it.  And that’s a good thing for many participants.

I think you’ll enjoy this campaign.  It will be challenging and it will engage your members in a conversation that is right at the heart of the Book of Acts.  You can find out more about content, features and pricing right here.