Pushing Boundary-Free GroupLife

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Josh Walters on Seacoast’s Missional Community Strategy

One of the most important grouplife trends right now is the development of missional communities.  One of the churches on my radar right now is Seacoast Church.  They ought to be on yours, too.  Here’s my conversation with Josh Walters, Seacoast’s Life Group Pastor.

Mark: I know Seacoast has been moving toward the missional community concept.  What have been the main reasons for this change in direction?

Josh Walters: Community, mission and study have always been key aspects of group life at seacoast.  Focusing on these values have effectively allowed people to connect with others, impact the community and grow in their relationship with Christ.  However, these values have not been the most effective blueprint for discipleship.  This transition has been a cultural shift, a DNA change for us that will impact every aspect of group life.  Instead of working to cast vision, convince and align people to fulfill our vision/mission, we are helping people identify, build community around and commission them to fulfill theirs.  This allows us to focus on Discipleship and ensure that our people are being led well.

Mark: From some comments that Geoff Surratt made to me in late 2010, I know you’re making some strategic moves in the new direction.  Can you give us some sense of the steps you’ve taken so far? Continue reading

Top 10 Posts for February 2011

Here are my top 10 posts for February, 2011.  Interesting, only one of these is from 2010.  The rest are from January or February.

  1. GroupLife Insights from William Vanderbloemen and Justin Lathrop
  2. Review: Life’s Toughest Questions (featuring Erwin McManus, from Lifeway’s Platform series)
  3. CRAVE: An Exploration of the Human Spirit (a 7 Session Study from Lifeway featuring Erwin McManus)
  4. Clue #1 When You’re Designing Your Small Group System
  5. Mike Breen on Missional Communities
  6. Current GroupLife Trends
  7. Review: The Organic God by Margaret Feinberg
  8. Bill Donahue on Turning Meetings into Moments
  9. 10 Essential Small Group Leader Skills
  10. Missional Communities, Midsize Groups, and Sunday School

What was the top post on your blog for February? Share the link by adding your comment.

Review: Walking with God in the Desert

Walking with God in the Desert, the newest volume in Ray Vander Laan’s long running Faith Lessons series, is also the newest addition to a growing number of Zondervan produced, church-wide experiences.  And if you’re familiar with Vander Laan, you know right away this one will provide a different experience than almost anything else available.

Ray Vander Laan, the founder of That the World May Know Ministries is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable experts on the land of the Bible.  He is a renowned Bible teacher and historian and provides a fascinating peek into the history, geography, and culture of the sacred scriptures.

Walking with God in the Desert, a 7 session, DVD-driven study, will help your congregation understand in a new way how God uses the desert to “draw us closer and help us experience His grace and provision.”  If your congregation is

Anchored by the 7 session DVD, each session features Vander Laan in the desert.  I think you’ll find each session very engaging as the video takes you from one significant place or kind of place to another.  For example, in session two (It’s Hot Here and There Is No Way Out) he stops in front of a Broom tree (mentioned in the story of Hagar and Ishmael), talks about the truth that “The LORD watches over you, the LORD is your shade at your right hand (Psalm 121:5),” and poignantly illustrates the fact that what God promises is not an oak tree.  It’s just enough…just wide enough to shade the outstretched hand.

Session three finds Vander Laan standing underneath the shade of an Acacia tree where he points out the temperature drop upon walking into it’s shade.  He also points out that the Acacia tree is mentioned for its use in the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.  Acacias grow along the wadis, close enough for its roots to absorb the rains mentioned in Jeremiah 17.  “But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.”

It’s important to note that each of the 7 video sessions are approximately 30 minutes long.  Although attention spans are shrinking, these sessions are very insightful and should keep your group engaged for the entire time.

Along with the DVD, there is a 300+ page participant guide that includes the session guides as well as a daily experience (5 days a week) for each of the 7 weeks of the study.  Along with the length of each DVD session, it’s important to note that each session of the participant guide is packed with questions.  They’re well written and won’t take a lot of leader preparation.  At the same time, the length of the DVD sessions combined with the sheer number of questions will require either choosing to cover only certain material or perhaps stretch it over two weeks.

Along with the session questions, the participant guide also includes a daily experience for 7 weeks, incorporating scripture study and a memorization assignment.  These daily experiences are designed to provide a more in-depth look at many of the topics and verses mentioned in the DVD session.

Like the other church-wide experiences in Zondervan’s growing collection, you’ll find downloadable sermon resources to make it easy to implement along with a limited number of additional resources and ideas.

If you’re looking for a church-wide experience that will deepen your congregation, Walking with God in the Desert is one you’ll want to take a look at.  While it will be somewhat challenging for some of your newest leaders, it will provide a rich experience for your members.  Though it might not be a a just-add-water series…it is a series that expose your congregation to the Holy Land…without leaving home.

Connecting the Widening 60% (who are unreachable by the attractional model)

In my mind, one of the most important trends to watch (and one that will require our most intentional counter-strategies) is what Tim Stevens calls the shrinking 40% that are still reachable by an attractional model.  More to the point, the stats are coming in from many sources that indicate there are serious reasons to recognize what’s happening as just the beginning of post-Christian America.

Jon Meacham’s 2009 Newsweek article, The End of Christian America, provided an important early salvo in what’s become a deluge of accumulating evidence.  Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians, an insight packed follow-up to his earlier project (unChristian with David Kinnaman), continues building the foundation for a post-Christian America.  Lyon’s recent webinar with Tim Keller provides a fascinating look into the building new reality.

The reason I write frequently about the outreach potential of crowd’s edge and urge you to recognize that the x-factor is near the edge…is that I want you to see that it’s not enough to connect the usual suspects!  In fact, although I regularly remind you that no small group solution is problem-free and every small group system or strategy has its advantages and disadvantages…I absolutely believe we all need to be mindful of the fact that most small group strategies only connect people from the congregation, committed and core (to use Saddleback’s concentric circle illustration).

The reason I’ve been writing about the missional group strategy and the HOST strategy is that I believe it is critical that we pay attention to the widening 60% who will never be reached by the attractional model.  This is a critical moment, friends.  Be sure you’re keeping your eye on the great prize.  As Larry Osborne and Ron Sylvia have said, “We have to fight our way to the fringes…because that’s where the life-change is.”

What do you think? Make sense? Want to argue? Got a question? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

More from Mindy Caliguire on Spiritual Formation

One of the most current grouplife trends is the integration of spiritual formation practices into small group curriculum.  In yesterday’s post we began a conversation with Mindy Caliguire, a leading spiritual formation voice.  Here is part two of our conversation:
Mark: Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and maybe John Ortberg  (for the everyman in us) are often listed as some of the most important writers in the spiritual formation field.  Who are you reading that we might be missing?

Mindy: I like Eugene Peterson’s writing… (especially the shorter ones!) and Larry Crabb’s stuff that relates to transformation in community.  Jan Johnson is also strong, and of course Ruth Haley Barton.  Scot McKnight has a fantastic book on fasting… and many other topics besides… Some of those dead guys, like Thomas Kelly, have had a huge impact on my life.  I haven’t actually read Keith Meyer or Todd Hunter’s new books, but they’re good friends and have many good things to say, so I suspect their writing is strong as well.

There’s a great magazine your readers would really like, Conversations Journal (  I’m a section editor for them… really strong stuff!

Mark: What do you think are some practical ways that small group ministries can encourage formation practices in the lives of group members?

Mindy: What a ministry does when its leaders gather will definitely impact whatever formation practices might happen in a group and, then, what members of a group might do on their own time.  If they are choosing curriculum for the ministry, they could choose ones that include meaningful assignments for folks to do between meeting times… as you said, there are more and more options like this being developed.

I find that since folks are sooo inexperienced with many forms of spiritual practices that it’s vital to create occasional environments when they can learn about and then DO a spiritual practice together.  A practicum of sorts.  The likelihood of them actually incorporating spiritual practices in their lives increases once they’ve experienced a few.

Mark: I know you’ve published several books, what are you working on now?

Mindy: I’ve actually got a few projects in the works… one explores the many connections between our physical bodies and the spiritual life… might be called, “Body of Faith”.  Another develops the concept of Hebrews 12, running the race marked out for us, but focuses on the essential role of community in the process of transformation—how we run that race together.

I recently wrote a really brief piece for Leadership Journal on the idea of transformation in the church… I enjoyed writing it, since I was playing off the “Elgin-O’Hare” expressway, which I’ve learned goes neither to Elgin nor to O’Hare.  Seems oddly like many mission statements I’ve developed and/or used over the years… It’s called, “Thruway or Partway?”  That’s it for my writing now, though… I always have more ideas than time to write.

Mark: This is great, Mindy!  Thanks for taking the time to share with all of us!

Mindy Caliguire on Spiritual Formation

If you’re following what’s happening in small group ministry, you know that one of the current grouplife trends is the integration of spiritual formation practices into small group curriculum.  I’m seeing it as such a big influence that I asked Mindy Caliguire, a leading expert in spiritual formation, to give us some of her insight on this trend.  Here’s how the conversation went:

Mark: Mindy, you launched SoulCare almost 13 years ago, so you’re really a spiritual formation veteran.   What prompted you to invest your time and energies into this ministry?

Mindy Caliguire: At first, I simply wanted to create intelligent, compelling, and beautiful resources that would help people care for their souls… something I so desperately needed, but never discovered until my lack of soul health brought a devastating implosion in my own life and ministry.  Eventually, I began to experience increased health and life… and I wanted to create resources that would inspire others towards forging or deepening an authentic connection with God.  Over the years, though, I have been more and more interested in serving churches that are orienting themselves more explicitly around the priority of transformation and discipleship.  Spiritual practices are an important part of that, but not the only factor… there is a bigger picture.

Mark: What are you seeing now in your work with churches that might be different than it was when you first began?

Mindy: Oh! Great question… at first, Spiritual Formation was a foreign concept, occasionally held in deep suspect.  This always bewildered me, to be honest.  But that was true… and thankfully seems rarely to be an issue any longer.  More and more in evangelical settings we are admitting that our effectiveness in creating disciples hasn’t been as strong as it could and should be—and formation speaks to the developing interior life of a disciple.  As a result of this widened interest and urgency around transformation, two primary areas have shifted for me in my work:

  1. While I care about the “soul health” and spiritual formation for everyone, more often these days I am particularly focused on the soul health of leaders.  Some of the deepest change needed in the church in our day centers around the spiritual vitality of our leaders.  This, of course, impacts small group structures and leadership communities as well.
  2. More and more communities are focused on helping the people in their congregation grasp the concept of a spiritual journey (beyond “cross the line” salvation) and learn ways to take next steps on that journey.  I am encouraged by these conversations, and am optimistic about what can happen in the Body of Christ as more focus is given to this important concept.

Mark: I’m finding the integration of spiritual formation practices into small group curriculum, along with the inclusion of small group discussion into books on formation topics (i.e., The Good and Beautiful God, etc.) to be one of the most important trends in small group ministry.  Are you seeing this?  Why do you think this is happening?

Mindy: Yes, I do see this trend.  Why is it there?!?  Well, as you know, transformation won’t happen from simply reading a book or listening to a sermon—as important as those two kinds of inputs may be!  The self-disclosure and connecting that happen in small groups are also key components of transformation.  Also, “discipleship” was often delegated to a small group ministry/vision, so it’s logical that transformation-related topics would appear in curriculum designed for that environment.  As a related topic, it seems there are many strong Christians for whom the next groups-based-Bible-study is a version of “laying again the foundation” referred to in Hebrews.  It is entirely possible to keep acquiring more and more information about the Bible but be less and less transformed by that knowledge.  We need to move on to maturity.  We need a new kind of challenge—one that builds on a strong biblical foundation, but takes us to the deeper places of interior brokenness and longing for God.  These new kinds of curriculum really help us bring THAT journey, not just our knowledge, into community.  I celebrate any books that do this!!!


You can read part two of my conversation with Mindy Caliguire right here.  Don’t want to miss what’s next?  You can sign up for my update right here.

CRAVE: An Exploration of the Human Spirit (a 7 Session Study from Lifeway)

Let me start by saying, “Wow!”  Although I loved Life’s Toughest Questions (a previous Lifeway title featuring Erwin McManus), this one is even better.  CRAVE: An Exploration of the  Human Spirit really delivers a great example of story-driven visual media, an important grouplife trend.

There are a number of elements to really like about CRAVE.  First of all, this is a study that will take your small group on an important expedition; an expedition into the depths of their own souls. As pointed out in the opening session, “every human being has a craving for intimacy, to find a love that is unconditional.”  In addition, “every one of us has a craving for destiny, a longing to become.”  At the same time “we all have a craving for meaning; we’re all striving to make sense of our life and are searching for someone that can be trusted.”

Second, each session is anchored by a teaching vignette featuring Erwin McManus, the engagingly charismatic Lead Pastor of Mosaic; exploring these soul cravings (intimacy, destiny and meaning), pointing out that they are “the fingerprint of God on our soul.  And what we are experiencing is our soul longing for God.  If we’ll just look into our souls we just might find the proof of God we’ve been looking for all along.”

Third, along with the teaching vignettes, CRAVE features three original short films that “take advantage of some of the youngest and brightest directors and writers in the film industry…uniquely created to drive the CRAVE small-group discussion (from the study guide).”  All three films will provoke a great conversation.  The closing scene in Midnight Clear will probably take a long time to forget.

Fourth, the teaching vignettes in combination with the short films will prompt some very good discussions.  The questions and exercises included in member book  will help keep the conversation on track.  Along with the in-session guide, there is also a personal time section for each session designed to help participants continue to process their new understandings.  Although there is not much to the Leader’s Guide, this isn’t the kind of study that requires a jump-start.  If anything, leaders will require some sensitivity to keep the conversation on track.

Finally, some groups may want to read McManus’ Soul Cravings (2006) as a companion.  Although CRAVE is a great stand-alone study, reading along will only enhance the experience.

CRAVE is a grouplife study you’re going to want on your recommended list.  It’s a great entry into the story-driven visual media category and covers an important topic in a way that will get groups talking.  I highly recommend it.  Prefer to buy from Lifeway?  You can do that right here.

Clue #2 When Designing Your Small Group System

Last week I began a series on important clues when designing your small group system.  I really want you to catch this.  I believe there is a best system for your church.

I don’t mean a problem-free system (see my article on the pursuit of problem-free if you’re unfamiliar with this learning).  I mean, there is a system that will best fit your culture (or the one you aspire to cultivate).

Last week I said that the first clue when designing your small group system was an understanding of how many adults are already connected and how many are unconnected.  I believe this is crucial information as you develop the design for your small group system.

Clue #2: Build Next Steps for Every Participant and First Steps for Their Friends

We’ve talked about Saddleback’s concentric circles in the past.  This diagram is a great way to understand several different aspects of ministry.  Seriously.  It’s amazing.  But only if you really get it.

Here’s how it works for me.  These are the definitions:

  • Community: These are people who don’t yet attend your church.  They may know about you.  They may have friends that attend.  But they’re not connected in any way to what you’re doing.
  • Crowd: The crowd represents people who may only come a few times a year.  They may only come twice a year (Christmas and Easter).  Still, while thinly connected to your church, they consider your church to be their church.
  • Congregation: These are people that attend more regularly.  They may come 2 or 3 times a month.  They may serve occasionally (for instance, when you add greeters for Easter).  They may give sporadically.  But mostly, they’re more frequent consumers of what you’re producing.
  • Committed: These folks are very involved, are actively serving in a ministry, are regular givers, and attend most Sundays.  They may be playing a leadership role on a team or lead a small group.  They’ve moved out of the consumer role into a contributor role, but they’re more often on the team than leading the team.
  • Core: This last group is generally the most mature spiritually, are often sacrificial givers, and are playing key roles on boards, teams, and ministries.  They are most definitely contributors…in every way imaginable (with time, talent and treasure).

What does this have to do with designing your small group system?

While you probably already get this, a little review may go a long way.  Here’s what I want you to catch today:

  • Your average weekly adult attendance is a mix.  It’s made up of people from the core, committed, congregation and crowd.  All of them consider your church to be theirs.
  • Every church will have its own unique blend of the four circles.  Some churches will have huge crowd constituencies.  This is often the explanation of Easter attendance of 150% of average.  Other churches will hardly see a bump (commonly a reflection of a much smaller crowd segment).
  • Pay attention to the fact that specific activities (or topics) will appeal to less committed, spiritual beginners, while other activities (or topics) will more readily appeal to more committed, more mature believers.
  • Be careful who you’re listening to when you’re evaluating the effectiveness of an event or curriculum.  It’s very common for a critical review from an unintended participant to skew the feedback.
  • An unexpected reality in the concentric circles diagram is that the deeper into the environment a person moves, the more connected within they become.  At the same time, they become less connected to those outside.  With few exceptions, folks in the crowd have more connections in the community than anyone else.  That’s a very significant detail when you’re designing your host recruitment strategy.  It’s also a very important reason that the x-factor is near the edge.

Key Takeaway: You must develop an understanding of the kind of people that make up each of the segments.  I often suggest identifying a person or two from each segment.  Getting to know them, learning to anticipate their needs and interests, will help you design a system that offers next steps for all of them and first steps for their friends.

Here’s Clue #3 in my series.

Review: Scouting the Divine by Margaret Feinberg

If you’ve not found Margaret Feinberg yet…you might want to pick up Scouting the Divine (comes out in paperback on March 1, 2011).  Having only read The Organic God, I wasn’t sure what I’d find.  I was amazed to find myself 35 pages in before I knew it.  Better, I was enchanted by an captivating retelling of an encounter with a shepherdess and her sheep.  Part of the bargain?  A great collection of new insights into the world of the Great Shepherd.

The subtitle of Scouting the Divine offers a hint: “My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey.”  Can you tell where Feinberg is going?  I found myself pulled into the work by this quote from her introduction:

What does it mean to know Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God when the only places I’ve encountered sheep are petting zoos and Greek restaurants?  How do we learn to wait for the harvest when we live in a culture of easy access?  How can I understand the promise of a land overflowing with milk and honey when the only honey I buy comes in a bear-shaped bottle at my local grocery store?  Can I grasp the urgency of Jesus’ invitation to abide in the vine when I shop for grapes at Costco?

Scouting the Divine is artfully divided into four parts; engaging firsthand encounters with a shepherd, a farmer, a beekeeper, and a vintner.  Much like W. Phillip Keller’s, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Feinberg has given us two things: a devotional experience that will awaken a more personal read of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels and a resource that will bring a fresh approach for teachers and communicators.

Like The Organic God, I think this will also be a resource for groups looking for a book to read together.  Although it doesn’t come equipped with a fully functional set of discussion questions, skillful leaders will have an easy time guiding their members through the journey by incorporating a journal and companion readings in the Gospels and Psalms.  Scouting the Divine will be a good addition to your recommended list for devotional reading.

Mike Breen on Missional Communities, Part 4

Earlier this week I began a 4 part conversation with Mike Breen, one of the most prominent leaders in the grouplife trend known as missional communities. If you missed part 1, you can read it right here.

Mark: I know you’ve written a field guide (with Alex Absalom). What can you tell us about this resource?

Mike: I’d say a couple of things.  First, this isn’t really a book we wrote a year after we stumbled onto something.  This is something we’ve worked on for 20 years and we’re just now getting around to writing about.   So more than anything else, while there is some really strong theory and theology, this is a practical guide on how to launch, grow, multiply and disciple people in Missional Communities.

When it comes to the “missional” stuff, you can get a million books on the theory of missional church or missional communities.  We wanted to devote a book to how you actually can do it.  That seems to be the biggest question by every church leader we come across: I realize there’s a problem, but how can I do anything about it?

Mark: I’m looking forward to reviewing it myself in the next week or so.  Here are some of the comments made by others who have had a chance to read the field guide:

For years I have written about what the church of the future might look like. Consider this book one of the best around at getting to actually do the real thing. —Alan Hirsh, author of The Forgotten Ways

I have read heaps of books on Missional Church and Communities, but his book is by far the most practical and helpful thing I have read. Filled with theological background, case studies, practical help, and proven results. I highly recommend this.–Jon Tyson, Trinity Grace Church, NYC

There’s a lot out there on the theory, but not a lot out there on the practice. This is a practical field guide. If you’re a leader and are looking to start, explore or experiment with Missional Communities, this book is for you.–Michael Stewart, VERGE Conference & The Austin Stone

Pastors today — and I get letters about this — want more than a theology of mission or a missional theology, though they want that too. What they are asking for is a handbook, a field guide, about missional community formation. And they want a field guide from someone who has done it (not just talked about it or written about it) and who has done it long enough to have wisdom about it, and done it well enough to be able to teach it in ways that are both adaptable to a local context but theological enough to be sustainable. This is that book. And the publishers are to be thanked for making it look like and feel like a Field Guide. This is a one-of-a-kind book that will be the standard for all those wanting to form missional communities.–Scot McKnight, Jesus Creed

Mark: I also know you’re going to be at Exponential and that there is a full track on Missional Communities. What will be included in that track?

Mike: We’ll actually be doing a pre-conference session and 5 different workshops for people at Exponential, these are the ones we’re doing:

  • Pre-Conference 1, Missional Communities | Fad, Fact and Fiction: What are Missional Communities? Where did they come from? What makes MCs different than missional small groups? What works and what doesn’t? Learn the nuts and bolts from experts with over 15 years of experience in launching and multiplying MCs all over the world.
  • Main Session 1, Moving from Attractional to Scattered and Gathered: Implementing Missional Communities without killing your church
  • Main Session 3, Launching Missional Communities | A Practical How-To Guide: Insight and advice on how to practically launch, sustain and multiply MCs, from the authors of the new book, Launching Missional Communities– A Field Guide
  • Main Session 4, Using APEST* Giftings to Start, Sustain and Multiply a MC: How does leadership gifting play out in the shaping of a missional community? This session will explore how your/ your teams APEST giftings can be both leveraged and predictive of an MCs trajectory and success. *Apostle, Pastor, Evangelist, Shepherd, Teacher
  • Main Session 5, Q&A with Missional Mavens – Mike Breen and 3DM Team: After launching a world-wide missional movement and pioneering the use of MCs in the Western church, the 3DM team is available to answer your most burning questions.


I hope you’ve found this four part conversation helpful.  If you want to catch up with Mike Breen, be sure and take a look at his blog or check out 3DM.

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