Review: One.Life by Scot McKnight

Sometimes I get caught up in strategy and grouplife implementation and find myself feeling dry and thirsty.  When that happens, I need a certain kind of book.  One that takes me straight into the path of Jesus.  If you’re like me, you need that kind of book from time to time, too.

One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow by Scot McKnight is that kind of book.  Much like The Jesus Creed, One.Life takes you right into the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  Interwoven with the contemporary responses of McKnight’s university students, you’ll find yourself wrestling with what Jesus taught, with Jesus’ actions and words.

In addition to its role as a personal refresher, I also found that One.Life provides a set of truths about the kind of life Jesus calls us to live.  This is important (and makes One.Life a helpful grouplife resource) because as we think about the kind of people (disciples) we’re trying to produce, we all want to develop small group ministries that are about more than connecting.

If the answer to the question, “What is a Christian?” is “Someone who follows Jesus,” it will be essential to know where Jesus is going and how to follow.  You’ll find that path in One.Life.  You’ll also get a close look (that in some cases will be a painfully revealing look) at the ways we’ve slipped off the path and settled for a life that only bears a surface resemblance of the kind of Kingdom life we’re called to live.

As I’m challenged to move in the direction of the Next Christians, One.Life provides further insight on the life that truly imitates the life that Jesus lived…and calls us to follow.

Top 10 Posts of March 2011

Here are my top 10 posts for March, 2011.  Interesting, one of these is from 2008!

  1. BASIC: Who Is God (by Francis Chan)
  2. How to Launch Groups Using a Small Group Connection
  3. 10 Essential Small Group Leader Skills
  4. Clue #1 in Designing Your Small Group System
  5. 5 Questions Every Small Group Pastor Should Be Asking
  6. Belonging or Believing…Which Comes First?
  7. Build Next Steps for Every Participant and First Steps for Their Friends
  8. Choosing Curriculum for Your Small Group Ministry
  9. Josh Walters on Seacoast’s Missional Community Strategy
  10. About (Mark Howell)

Building Biblical Community | featuring Donahue and Gladen

Building Biblical Community, a new DVD-driven grouplife resource, has been one of Lifeway’s most anticipated releases…at least within the small group ministry community.

Featuring Bill Donahue (after 18 years invested building biblical community at Willow Creek) and Steve Gladen (13 years building the small group community at Saddleback), this is a study everyone ought to be taking a look at.  These guys are not new to the journey.  They’re also not theorists.  They’ve been doing this for a long time in the two ministries that have had more impact on grouplife than anywhere else.  What you’re doing today, pretty much wherever you are…these guys, these ministries have influenced you already.

Building Biblical Community develops four key aspects of grouplife.  Becoming a celebrating community, a learning community, a loving community and a serving community are all essential ingredients.  Each of the four sessions explores one of these key ingredients through DVD segments, scripture to be examined, and a set of insight-generating discussion questions.

Watching the DVD segments, I was really struck by the sense that Bill and Steve were having a good time together.  The fact that they’re clearly having fun will make for an enjoyable experience for your members.  To be honest, it almost feels like they’re part of your group meeting.  I review a lot of curriculum and to my knowledge, this is the only grouplife study that has this feel.  Very refreshing.

In addition to the sessions themselves, each of the four essential ingredients are driven deeper by daily personal devotionals, provided in the member book.  These daily devotional experiences are short enough to be doable by even the busiest member.  A verse or two, chosen to help focus your mind on the practice you’re learning about; followed by a question or two, designed to prompt introspection.  Easy to follow through.  Powerful impact on group members.

Another very helpful component in this study is a fairly comprehensive Leader Notes section, included in every member book.  There are general tips and ideas as well as session ideas.  In addition, you’ll find a Leader Tips segment on the DVD.  You’ll have to look carefully to find it. The leader to leader coaching is located within the Session 1 menu.

This is a very good resource.  It may turn out to be a study you use on a regular basis to help groups get started.  It might also be a resource that you introduce to groups that are already meeting but really need a purpose realignment.

The Simplest Way to Help Your Members Pray Out Loud

We have all been there.  You come to the end of the meeting.  You ask, “How can we pray for you this week?”  Most of your group members share a prayer request.  You say, “Let’s pray.”  And no one else prays.  At least, no one else prays out loud.

What can you do?  How can you help your group members learn to pray out loud?

I’ve written about this before.  In fact, Top 10 Ways to Learn to Pray Together is one of my most popular articles.  But last fall when I started a new group for our church-wide campaign I slightly tweaked one of my top 10 ways and it worked so well I want to tell you in a little more detail what I did.

Here’s the Simplest Way to Help Your Members Pray Aloud

It was the end of our second meeting.  I said, “Prayer is just talking with God.  That’s all it is.  And if you think about it, we would definitely do some things differently if Jesus was physically here with us tonight.  Wouldn’t we?  If He was sitting right here (I patted the empty chair next to me) we probably wouldn’t close our eyes to talk with Him.  Right?”

(It was a fun moment.  No one knew where this was going.)

I continued, “If Jesus was sitting right here, if He was physically part of our group, we probably wouldn’t use any kind of special language…like refer to Him as ‘Thee’ or ‘Thou.’  Right?”

(Everyone was nodding.  They still didn’t know where it was going.)

“Well, the Bible says ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them (Matthew 18:20 NIV).’  So really, He is here right now.”

“Here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to imagine that Jesus is sitting right here, right now.  And I want you to think of one thing you’re thankful for, one thing, not a lot of things.  And I want you to keep your eyes open and tell Jesus the one thing.  It can’t be a long thing.  Just one, simple thing.”

And my group, all 12 of them (9 from backgrounds where they’d never prayed out loud), went around the circle and said one thing, eyes open, to the empty chair.

Very cool.

The Next Week

The next week (our 3rd meeting) we came to the end of the meeting and I split the group into four groups and sent them to their own rooms or areas with this assignment.  I said, “Imagine that you each have Jesus with you in your little group.  I want you to share with Jesus one need that you personally have.  Eyes open.  Look at a spot in the circle if you need to.  Just take a few minutes to do that and then we’re done.”

The Week After That

The next week I sent them back to their little groups of 3 and said, “This week I want you to imagine that Jesus is with you again.  Right in your little circle.  I want each of you to share a need that you have with Jesus and your group.  After you’ve done that, I want each of you to pray for the person on your right, eyes open, and just ask Jesus to meet their need.”

6 Months Later

Does everyone pray out loud when our meetings end?  Not all the time.  But many more do.  And if we subgroup, it’s very common for everyone to pray.  Even better?  Last week when we ran out of time, I asked everyone to connect with one other group member (from their little group) and share a personal prayer request.  As the meeting broke up, I noticed several little prayer meetings going on.  Pretty cool…I have to say.

5 Key Insights When Designing Your Small Group System

Small group systems work best when they’re designed with the environment in mind.  Off-the-rack is fine if you’re choosing a shirt or a pair of pants.  But if you really want a small group system that does what you want it to do…you’ll need to customize it to fit your church’s culture (or ideally, the culture you’re developing).

How do you do that?  How do you develop a custom design?  You start with these design shaping insights:

Clue #5 When Designing Your Small Group System

When you pull out of the driveway to head out on a long trip…are you the type to have it all planned out?  Rest stops.  Miles-per-day.  Where you’re going to eat.  Where you’ll stop along the way.

Or do you make it up as you go along?

If you’re the plan-the-whole-thing-out type…you’re going to get this clue right away.  If you’re the make-it-up-as-you-go-along type…you’re going to have to break a pattern.  It will be worth it though.  This is a really big clue to designing your small group ministry.

This diagram is one I use all the time.  In fact, if you’re planning on catching Twelve 2011 (Saddleback’s online GroupLife conference on September 14-15), you’ll see how it applies to personal spiritual growth.  Today…I want to show you three important applications:

  1. In one of my favorite quotes, Andy Stanley points out that “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re currently experiencing.”  The “Present” in the diagram represents the way things are in your small group ministry.  Effective or ineffective communication.  A surplus of leaders or a shortage of leaders.  Life-change stories or a lack there of.  Whatever your small group ministry is producing…is a direct result of its design.
  2. Albert Einstein said that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  I like to point out that if nothing changes in the design of your ministry (how you launch groups, who can lead, how engaged your senior pastor is as champion, etc.) you’ll almost certainly land in a very predictable “probable future.”
  3. If you want to move in a new direction (towards a “preferred future”) you will have to move over to a new trajectory.  As I’ve pointed out in the past, the well-worn path never arrives at a new destination.  In addition, I should point out that it is not easy to move over to a new trajectory.  It can be done…but it takes energy.  After all, in most cases you’ve been on your current trajectory for a long time.  Think of it like a deeply ingrained rut.  If you want to get out of that rut…you will have to expend a lot of energy to climb out.  And…this is really important…it will take focus to keep from slipping back into the rut you pull yourself out of.  You can stay on the new trajectory…but it will take constant attention.

Did you miss an earlier clue in my series?  You can read Clue #1 right here.

(This diagram is the basis for one of my requested on-site sessions.  Click here to find out about my consulting and coaching programs).

The Missional Mom

Had a chance to work my way through a great new resource over the weekend.  You might think it’s a little bit of a one-off here, but I think The Missional Mom: Living with Purpose at Home & in the World by Helen Lee is something you’re going to want to know about.

There’s really a lot to love about this one.  I especially enjoyed the way Lee works in so many stories illustrating the concepts she develops, making it a very readable book.  At the same time, she incorporates the ideas of quite a cross section of authors and thought-leaders, notably Alan Hirsch, Andy Crouch, Dave Gibbons, Os Guinness, Po Bronson, Dave and Jon Ferguson, and Ed Stetzer.

I think one of the most engaging aspects of the book is the feeling you get that the author is more than an aggregator of great stories and supporting references.  In The Missional Mom you get all of that with very good twist of personal experience.

With chapters on resisting cultural pressures, meaningful engagement in the needs of the world around you, and becoming both a disciple and a discipler, this is a challenging book.  It’s the kind of book that will inspire you to move in a new direction…or confirm and energize the direction you’re already moving in.

While it’s not purely a grouplife resource, as long as we’re talking about developing Christ-followers who live with a missional focus…this is the kind of book we ought to be reading (and putting into practice).  It’s also the kind of book that we ought to be handing to the women’s coaches and women of influence in our ministries.  Remember, whatever you want to happen in the lives of your members…has to be experienced by the leader first.  The Missional Mom will impact the women in your ministry live with a Kingdom mindset.

Let me be quick to add that while not specifically written as a grouplife resource, this is easily a book that could be read and discussed by women’s groups.  If you use it in your group, be sure and download the discussion guide from themissionalmom.com (you have to register at the site in order to download it).

If you’re looking for resources that will generate ministry at crowd’s edge…The Missional Mom ought to be on your reading list.

This Week’s GroupLife Highlights

In case you missed them, here are this week’s must-read articles from the grouplife community (with a couple of my favorites from just outside):

I keep up with over 25 grouplife related blogs. Did I miss an article you got a lot out of? Or do you have a blog you want me to add to my list? You can click here to let me know about a blog I should add.

Choosing Curriculum for Your Small Group Ministry

I review a lot of small group curriculum here at MarkHowellLive.com.  You might wonder what makes one study better than another in my mind.  Here are the keys for me:

  1. Application oriented.  It needs to be written with application built in.  This plays a huge part in whether it gets added to my recommended list.  For a little more on application, take a look at this recent post by Rick Howerton: More to Application Than Going and Doing.
  2. Theologically Accurate:  I’ve included this simply because it should enter into your thinking when you’re developing an approved list.  Since I’m a fan of lowering the leader bar, it’s important to select curriculum that will keep your groups focused on topics that are consistent with the theological stance of your congregation.
  3. Facilitation, not teaching.  Healthy grouplife is not a smaller version of the weekend service.  It is about discussion.  It’s about conversation.  It’s about sharing.  That happens when everyone gets involved in the study.  It doesn’t happen when someone teaches and everyone else takes notes.  Note: This is the reason that I almost always note the length of the DVD teaching segment.  Many of the earliest DVD-driven studies featured teaching segments that were over 25 minutes long.  That’s too long for the average attention span.  The best DVD-driven studies are averaging 12 to 18 minutes (and only when there is a creative combination of teaching and storyline).
  4. Easy to use.  In order for a curriculum to make my list it needs to be the kind of thing that a caveman could do (to refer to the great series of GEICO commercials).  It needs to be plug-and-play and just-add-water.  Why?  In my mind, healthy groups have more than one facilitator.  If a study has to have a great facilitator to pull it off…it’s not easy to use.  In addition, easy to use means reasonable preparation on the part of the leader.  If a study requires more than 20 to 30 minutes…it’s not easy to use.
  5. Leader’s Guide Included.  The best studies include a well-written Leader’s Guide in the appendix of every participant guide.  Again, healthy groups have multiple facilitators and leader’s notes incorporated into the participant guide makes it easy.
  6. Affordable.  Keeping in mind that many groups meet weekly (or 36 to 48 times a year), purchasing a new study every 6 weeks can be expensive.  Developing a DVD library can help bring the cost down, but it still makes a big difference when the average cost for 10 members doing a 6 week study is $7 (Lifetogether) versus $10 (Francis Chan’s BASIC: Who Is God? or Erwin McManus’ Life’s Toughest Questions).
  7. Story-Driven Visual Media vs. Talking Head.  It’s important to point out that not all DVD-driven is the same.  Although the early entries in the category were talking head (think 40 Days of Purpose, Lifetogether’s Doing Life Together, etc.), an increasing number of studies are much more creatively presented (Liquid’s “The Ten” and Lifeway’s “CRAVE”) and often incorporate engaging storylines intertwined with teaching vignettes.
  8. Topical Bible Studies, Bible Book Studies and Lifestage Practical. Just a brief note on the various types of studies that are available.  There is real value in all three types of studies.  Since for me the most important criteria is application oriented, there seem to be more that are topical than expositional (through-a-book-of-the-Bible).  The key is whether it is based on scripture.  While many groups enjoy “going through a book of the Bible” and it can provide important insights, many of the studies that provide this experience tend to be teacher driven.  There are also a number of studies that are Lifestage Practical and biblically based but don’t overtly discuss or highlight scripture (i.e., Love Talk by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott or Putting Plan B into Action by Pete Wilson).

I hope you’ll find this overview helpful as you develop your own recommended list.  While not exhaustive, these are the main categories I use when I evaluate curriculum.

Think Steps, Not Programs

When you’re designing your grouplife strategy, one of the most important concepts is to think steps, not programs.  I picked this practice up from The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry by Andy Stanley and Reggie Joiner (a book that everyone ought to read).

Think steps, not programs is a simple and at the same time extremely powerful.  Stanley illustrated the concept in a staff meeting at North Point by taking a stack of construction paper and saying something like, “Let’s say you wanted to get from the door of this conference room to the seat at the very back.  If I took this stack of paper and threw it up in the air, allowing the individual sheets to scatter all around the room and then told you that you had to step from one piece of construction paper to another to get from here to there…you might be able to do it, but your steps would take you all around the room.  Some of them would require you to hop pretty far.  You might have to backtrack.  It wouldn’t be a simple process.”

With me so far?  Stanley continued, “But, if I took this stack of construction paper and carefully laid the sheets out so that the path led directly from the doorway to the seat in the back, and if I laid them close enough together to make it easy to step from one to another…you could all do it.”

He went on to say: steps need to be easy (you need to be able to make it from one sheet to the next), obvious (you need to be able to see which one to take next) and strategic (they need to lead right to the goal).

Think Steps, Not Programs

This concept comes into play when we design our small group ministry strategy.  For example, one of the toughest things for anyone to do is go from the familiarity and anonymity of a worship center to the up-close-and-personal living room of a stranger.  But that’s what happens when we say to people, “It’s easy to find a group at our church.  You just go on the small group finder, choose a group, and show up at a stranger’s house!”

Thinking steps, not programs would steer you towards thinking differently.  You’d begin thinking things like, “What if we had an on-campus event designed to help people go from the familiarity and anonymity of the worship center to a mid-size gathering and helped them become part of a group?”  By the way, that’s what a small group connection is designed to do.  That’s what North Point’s group link concept is designed to do.  Take people from a foyer type event (a worship service) into a living room type event (a small group connection) into a kitchen experience (a small group).

Note: This doesn’t mean there won’t be a need for a small group finder or that there’d never be times when the Host strategy makes a lot of sense.  It just means that we all need to think about and design in the steps that will help people move to where they really need to be.