Pushing Boundary-Free GroupLife

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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 (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  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.

Clue #4 When Designing Your Small Group System

The 4th clue when designing your small group system is to ask great questions from the beginning and every step along the way (This is part four of a continuing series.  You can read part one right here.).

What’s so important about the questions you’re asking?  Great questions bring the power of clarity into your mission, strategy and tactics.  The first three of my favorite questions were asked by Peter Drucker, the renowned business writer and thinking, but they’re great questions to ask when you’re working on ministry design.

Let me show you five of my favorite questions:

  • What business are we in? Don’t be scared away by the word business. This is a great question to ask early in the design of a ministry.  You want to really be clear on what it is that you’re trying to do (i.e., make disciples, connect adults, help adults connect with their neighbors, etc.).
  • Who is our customer? This is an important question to have in your bag of tricks.  Knowing the specific group that you’re trying to reach makes a big difference in how you go about it.  And it’s not helpful to say, “Everyone is our customer.”  Better to be clear on who you’re primarily interested in designing the system for.
  • What will we call success? Similar to the concept that Andy Stanley and Reggie Joiner talk about in The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, you want to clarify what a win is for the ministry you’re designing.  When you can do this succinctly, you’ll have much fewer false starts and wrong turns.
  • What would have to be true for that approach to work? I love this question!  For example, if you’re building the apprenticing practice into your small group system design and counting on it to produce enough new leaders to actually connect your congregation…you need to be able to answer this question.  And you need to find the answers credible!
  • What would have to be true for the option on the table to be a fantastic option? This is another great question.  It forces your team to be honest about the system they’re designing (These last two questions are from another of my favorite books, The Design of Business by Roger Martin.  Although not a book on ministry, it is a very insightful read and extremely helpful when you’re learning to ask great questions.)

You can read part 5 of the series right here.  Did you miss part one of this series?  You can start from the beginning right here.

Launching Missional Communities: a field guide

Missional Communities are at the epicenter of one of the most important current trends in grouplife and the work of Mike Breen and 3DM is at the heart of it.

In my recent 5 part interview with Breen, he mentioned Launching Missional Communities: a field guide (co-written with Alex Absalom).   I’ve had a chance to carefully examine a review copy.  Here’s what I found:

First, Launching Missional Communities is truly a field guide and goes beyond explaining the need for this approach, this strategy.  It does start there, though, devoting almost 50 pages to building a carefully laid foundation to the concept.  If you’re beginning to explore the missional community (MC) strategy, your team will appreciate the detail here.  With a number of case studies woven into the discussion, Breen and Absalom begin by defining missional, community, the four spaces (think Joe Myers’ Search to Belong), and a very thorough explanation of the system-wide leadership requirements.

Second, the field guide goes way beyond an introduction by providing a very detailed launch guide with planning, preparation and implementation insights.  Beginning with some keys to preparation, you’ll appreciate the detail in the explanation of putting a pilot missional community into play.  Further, you’ll appreciate the behind the scenes strategies that will make a wider launch more effective.

The third thing I absolutely loved in the field guide is the nuts-and-bolts section in part four.  Providing over 50 pages of how-tos…you’re going to wear this section out!  Everything from how to develop MC Leaders, how to help MC Leaders identify their mission, the dimensions of MCs (up, in and out) and all the way through are case studies and “real-life stories from people and churches who have been implementing MCs in the United States.”

If you’re awareness is growing about the widening 60% who are unreachable by the attractional model, you’ve got to be thinking about missional communities.  Once you start down that road, you’re going to want Launching Missional Communities: a field guide on your resource list.

The Next Christians | DVD-Driven Group Discussion

One of the books that had the biggest impact on me in 2010 was Gabe Lyons’ The Next Christians.  Huge impact on my thinking.  At the same time, a very important confirmation of some of my core convictions about ministry in 2011 post-Christian America and the importance of the x-factor at crowd’s edge.

When I saw that there was a DVD-driven Participant Guide, intended to be used in the context of community, I was immediately interested.  The book in itself is very impactful.  Studying it, talking about it, dreaming of next steps, will provoke response.

The six-session study will allow a group to carefully process the ideas found in The Next Christians.  Each of the sessions has a reading assignment to be completed in advance and feature a series of thought-provoking discussion questions to be wrestled with in the group.  The DVD segment (watched as part of the group experience) includes the observations of author Gabe Lyons and a fascinating lineup of interviews with “notable thinkers and leaders such as Tim Keller, Andy Crouch, Scot McKnight, Phyllis Tickle, and Jon Tyson.

In addition to the advance reading, each session also includes a list of recommended activities for further exploration.  This combination of outside reading, cultural observation, field trips and movies to watch will provide context for your members and enrich the discussion.

Who should be reading The Next Christians and using the DVD-driven group discussion?  This is the kind of resource I would recommend for staff and key leaders in congregations.  In addition, it would provide a helpful experience for small group community leaders and coaches as you develop your team.  The ideas and concepts are presented in a way that will be eye-opening and next-step generating.  This is not about the future.  It is about the present and you won’t want to miss it.

Love Talk | A DVD-Driven Study from Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott

Looking for a DVD-driven study on marriage to recommend to your small groups?  Although it was released in 2004, I’m just taking a look at Love Talk: A Six-Session Guide to Speaking Each Other’s Language and this is some very good stuff!

Based on their popular book by the same title, the DVD segments combine short informative teaching segments by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott and personal interaction between couples who have used their communication techniques.

“Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott are husband-and-wife team who not only share the same name, but the same passion for helping others build healthy relationships.  Their professional training – Leslie as a marriage and family therapist, and Les as a clinical psychologist – ensures a presentation that is grounded, insightful and cutting-edge (from their website).”

The titles of the six session topics are pretty descriptive and will help you see where the study is headed:

  1. Communication 101 (based on chapters 2 and 3 in Love Talk)
  2. The Foundation of Every Great Communication (based on chapter 4 in Love Talk)
  3. Your Personal Talk Style (based on chapters 5 thru 9 in Love Talk)
  4. The Secret to Emotional Connection (based on chapter 10 in Love Talk)
  5. When Not to Talk (based on chapter 13 in Love Talk)
  6. The Most Important Conversation You’ll Ever Have (based on chapter 14 in Love Talk)

Each participant will need their own workbook (and there are different workbooks for men and women).  In addition to the small group discussion guide, the workbooks contain 21 self-tests and exercises designed to help:

  • Identify your personal communication style
  • Understand how it interacts with that of your partner
  • Talk your way to a healthier, stronger relationship

In addition to the participant workbook, there are reading assignments from Love Talk,  the book by the same title.  A free individual Love Talk Indicator assessment is included with the purchase of the book.  Additional assessments can be purchased at ($14.95 each at the time of this review).

As a package, this has all the ingredients of a great study for your groups.  Although it’s not a Bible study, it will be a really valuable resource for your couples groups.  I highly recommend it.

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