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Don’t Miss Distinct: Living above the Norm

distinctI spent some time with a new study from LifeWay’s Bible Studies for Life series this week. Distinct: Living above the Norm is the newest addition to a growing line of studies “on topics that are relevant to today’s believers. Studies that help people understand how to apply the Bible to everyday life — their families, their careers, and their struggles — just as they are, right where they live.”

Working its way through Matthew 5:1-48, Distinct provides a timely look at 6 aspects of Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.

A 6 week DVD-enhanced study, a short video featuring Michael Kelley discussing the primary themes of the session helps set up a good discussion. While it’s a very straightforward video, simply the author setting up the session, the no-frills approach works very well. The study is quite flexible and the video can be shown at the very beginning, after an icebreaker question, or after a quick overview section just before the meat of the study. The video segments average 8 to 10 minutes in length.

The Bible Study book is very easy to use with a well-written set of discussion questions. Each session of the Bible study is made up of three sections: The Bible Meets Life (“an introduction of the section and its connection to everyday life”), What Does the Bible Say (“includes the primary Scripture text along with explanations for key words and ideas within the text”) and Live It Out (this section helps group members apply what they’ve learned). Working their way through the session’s particular passage of scripture, a group will acquire a good understanding of the meaning and implications for their lives.

The Bible Study book also includes a good Leader Guide that provides extra help and coaching to help members “get the most out of the study and ensure a richer experience.” While the study is certainly simple enough that an average leader can facilitate it without the Leader Guide, new leaders and experienced leaders alike will benefit from the guide. The DVD-ROM also includes a commentary section and additional leader helps and tools.

If you’re looking for a study that is easy to use and still takes your group deep into biblical truth and solid application, Distinct: Living above the Norm ought to be on your recommended list. For that matter, the Bible Studies for Life series is a series that is consistently delivering very timely topics in a way that will have your members talking. I like this study and the series and I think you will too.

Thinking Thursday: Amy Tan: Where does creativity hide?

amy tanNovelist Amy Tan digs deep into the creative process, looking for hints of how hers evolved.

Can’t see the video? You can watch it right here.

Every week I choose a video that I think you need to see and believe will inspire some new thinking. You can find the rest of the collection right here.

Foundational Teaching: Next Steps for EVERYONE

next steps

An important aspect of my ministry strategy is that there needs to be next steps for every Ridger and first steps for their friends. This informs an analysis of the menu of available programs, events, classes and studies for every church (noticeable gaps will need to be filled). Another important aspect is my conviction that whatever you want to happen at the member level, will have to happen to the leader first. See also, Life-Change at the Member Level and How to Design Next Steps and First Steps.

In an effort to cast this vision, I handed out a version of the following at a recent leader development session:


What’s Your Next Step Now?

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul wrote these words:

“I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” Philippians 3:12-14 (NLT)

“Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on.”

Like Paul, we each have some distance ahead in our journey as we press on to reach the end of the race. And as important as it is to know we have not yet arrived and have a journey ahead, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

It’s one thing to take a step. It’s another thing entirely to take the right next step. In order to take the right next step you have to know two important things:

  • Where you are going.
  • Where you are.

Where are you going?

 In order to take the right next step, you need to know where you are going. In his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul expressed his hope for them with a phrase that is unmistakable:

“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Colossians 1:28 (ESV)

“Mature in Christ.” Some translations read “fully mature” and others read “perfect” or “complete.” You get the idea. Where we are going is a long way off for most of us.

Mature in Christ. When Dallas Willard described maturity he said, “A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”

How are you doing? Are you effortlessly doing what Jesus would do if He were you?

Where are you now?

Knowing where you are going is important. Knowing where you are is also very important. Taking time on a regular basis to reflect on your spiritual development is an essential habit.

Where are you now? Or put another way, what would need to change for you to effortlessly do what Jesus would do if He were you?


What do you think?  Have a question?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Tim Green

Need to Grow as a Small Group Pastor? Join My Coaching Network

coaching network calendarEvery year I block off six days and several hours a week for six months to personally invest in a very limited group of small group pastors.

My Winter/Spring 2016 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network experience is designed to give you the tools and strategies you need in order to build a small group ministry that works in the 21st century. The coaching network program will expose you to a new perspective. While it makes sense that in order to get different results you need to do different things…it’s not always clear what those different things might be. My coaching network program is designed around the idea that different, not better, leads to the kind of strategy that connects beyond the usual suspects.

Who will be part of the network? Each of my networks are limited to 15 participants and are designed for small group champions who serve in a local church. Because of the nature of the role, champions may be senior pastors, executive pastors, small group pastors and directors, ministers of education, and other key leaders.

What will you receive?

  • Five monthly coaching sessions. Anchored by a 90 minute video conference call, these group session provides focused exposure to the strategies that will build a more powerful platform.  Sessions are scheduled at 11am Pacific on January 14th, February 11th, April 14th, May 12th, and June 9th).
  • Two day gathering in Las Vegas. March 9th: 1pm-5pm followed by dinner | March 10th: 8am-12pm (extend your stay thru March 12th and attend my soon-to-be-announced groups conference).
  • Focused training on key strategic steps including planning with the end in mind, developing an annual grouplife calendar, identifying an unlimited number of new leaders, launching new groups in waves, and impacting your community through groups.
  • Tools, strategies and next steps to be implemented after every session.
  • Access to special password protected network pages with customized content for each session.
  • Scheduled 60 minute one-on-one calls to address questions more specifically, bring team members into the conversation, or help equip your senior pastor or other key staff members.
  • The opportunity to connect with other network participants between sessions
  • Email access to Mark during the six months

What are the expectations?

  • Participate in all six sessions
  • Invest as little as $1050* (*super early bird pricing thru 10/31/15, early bird pricing of $1150 from 11/1-11/30, $1250 after 11/30/15)
  • Cover your own travel expenses to the two day gathering
  • Commit to the reading and exercises between sessions

What’s next? Complete the Coaching Network Application. My Winter/Spring Coaching Network begins on January 14th, 2016. Questions? Contact me.

Image by Jenn Vargas

3 Small Group Ministry Missing Ingredients that Lead to a Bad Taste

missing ingredientYears ago my wife and I came home to find our son cleaning up the kitchen.

“I baked a chocolate cake today. Want a piece?”

The first bite revealed that something wasn’t right, but what was it? The cake was very crumbly and dry.

“Did you follow the recipe?” my wife asked with a furrowed brow.

“I wanted to make it less fattening so I didn’t add the oil or the egg.”

Try to bake a cake without certain ingredients and you’ll discover right away that something is amiss. It turns out that some ingredients are really not optional.

Guess what? The same thing is true in small group ministry. Oh…you can try to do it without certain things. And you might even fool yourself and some people. Just don’t miss the fact that when you serve it up it won’t taste quite right. And it might even be a little crumbly.

A few common missing ingredients

  • First steps that are easy, obvious, and strategic. Having a hard time developing traction in your small group ministry? Take a look at the steps that lead to groups. A first step that is too difficult or too hard to figure out is an obvious explanation for low engagement. Take a look at your menu while you’re at it. If you have menu options that don’t lead to groups (that are promoted equally alongside groups), it should be easy to figure out how important the missing ingredient is. See also, How Would You Rate the First Steps out of Your Auditorium?
  • Preoccupation with life-change. Settling for connection instead of designing for life-change leads to a less than desirable flavor in my view. Unless you are intentionally designing your groups for life-change, they will almost always drift in the direction of fellowship without discipleship and mission. Like Coca Cola without the co2, a group without the presence of life-change will always feel flat and will never last long. See also, Essential Ingredients for Life-Change.
  • Intentional span of care. Regardless of whether you use a high bar of leadership or a low bar of leadership, attempting to build a small group ministry without an appropriate and intentional span of care always leads to a failed experiment. If whatever you want to happen in the lives of the members of your groups must be experienced by the leaders first…you must build an effective coaching structure. If you don’t have one, you may not be able to put your finger on the missing ingredient, but you will know something is definitely amiss. See also, Model Whatever You Want to Happen at the Member Level.

Can you see how these missing ingredients might lead to a tasteless concoction?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Simon Law



Prepare for Easter with The Crucified Life

crucified lifeI spent some time with a new DVD-driven study this week that is almost a one-of-a-kind. The Crucified Life: Seven Words from the Cross is a 7 week study designed to be used during the Lenten season. Part of a three study series (the Christian Life Trilogy), The Crucified Life was developed by Rev. Charlie Holt and produced by LifeTogether. The rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Lake Mary, FL, I first learned about Holt in 2004 when he led his congregation to do 40 Days of Purpose and then shared one of the most remarkable and powerful stories of community transformation.

The Crucified Life is a study of the seven last words from the cross:

  • Forgiveness: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” Luke 23:34
  • Salvation: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” Luke 23:43
  • Relationship: “Woman, behold your son! Behold your mother!” John 19:26-27
  • Distress: “I Thirst,” John 19:28
  • Abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46
  • Reunion: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Luke 23:46
  • Triumph: “It is finished,” John 19:30

DVD-driven, the video segments feature teaching by Rev. Charlie Holt and a powerful set of personal testimonies. At 10 to 12 minutes in length, the segments are just about right. Short enough to hold everyone’s attention and long enough to set up an important discussion.

The study guide is well-written and easy to use. Each session is designed with a simple flow that makes it very possible for newer leaders to feel confident and effective. The study guide also includes several leader resources that will help enhance the member experience.

A daily devotional with 45 focused reflections will also enrich the experience. Spending time each day, continuing the journey, will encourage members to deeply reflect “on Jesus’ seven final utterances from the cross.”

Produced by LifeTogether, The Crucified Life campaign includes downloadable templates for flyers, posters, powerpoint backgrounds, and web banners. An excellent campaign manual is available right here.

There are two other studies in the Christian Life Trilogy (The Resurrected Life and The Spirit-Filled Life). “While these studies can be done at any time of the year, many congregations use The Crucified Life and The Resurrected Life for Lent and Easter and then kick off The Spirit-Filled Life in the fall season after Pentecost (from the brochure).”

I really like the potential of The Crucified Life and this series! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if there are any studies that will help their church prepare for Easter during the Lenten season. I can finally say, “Yes!” I like this study and I think it’s a great resource that will help many congregations.

Thinking Thursday: Daring Greatly to Unlock Your Creativity with Brené Brown

brene brown chase jarvisChase Jarvis welcomes author, scholar, and public speaker Brené Brown to his Seattle studio to discuss how to cultivate creativity.

Can’t see the video? You can watch it right here.

Every week I choose a video that I think you need to see and believe will inspire some new thinking. You can find the rest of the collection right here.

“We Talk about Connecting Beyond 100%…but It’s Just Not Us.”

changeVery often, especially right after I post an article like 5 No-Brainer Characteristics of Churches that Actually Connect Beyond 100%, I’ll hear from readers that there church just doesn’t have it in them.

“We talk about connecting beyond 100% in small groups…but it’s just not us.”

Sometimes they’ll write, “As much as I’d like to be that kind of church, it’s just not in our DNA (or culture, or wiring, or you fill in the blank).”

Can I tell you what I tell them?

I believe it’s actually not true. I believe that just a like a person can change, so can a church. It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But it can happen.

My Personal Change Story

I lost 30 lbs over the last year. I had gained the weight over the two years we were in Chicago (great food, great friends, long winters). I decided it was time to get rid of the weight and made changes.

Here’s my plan: Eat healthier. Eat less. Walk more. Start running.

Can a Church Change?

I believe a church can change in the same way an individual can change. It won’t happen without a deep desire to change. It will need to be a shared desire. It will take a commitment to a process. A genuine resolve.

But with the right work a church can change.

My Canyon Ridge Change Story

I don’t have the space to tell you much of the story, but I can tell you this. I’ve almost been here four years. I agreed to come in part on the assurance that there was a commitment to have more adults in groups than attended the weekend worship service. There was also an acknowledgement that becoming that kind of church would require change; that continuing to do the same things would not produce different results.

In September of 2015 we took our fourth consecutive shot at a fall church-wide campaign. After each of the previous three attempts we thoroughly evaluated, collected learnings, and made new commitments. And after each of the previous three campaigns we acknowledged we were moving in the right direction but were not there yet.

The key learnings of the three previous campaigns were:

  • The emphasis on the campaign was diluted by competing programs
  • We didn’t start promoting early enough
  • We stopped promoting too soon
  • Our senior pastor didn’t seem fully engaged
  • We weren’t fully leveraging the weekend service

We learned from each attempt. And we did move forward, but not enough to break through.

This year? We had dramatically different results by finally embracing the things that needed to be done.

We’re not there yet. We are on the way. We’re different than we were. And we still have a long way to go. But…we are changing. And you can too.

By the way, I work with a few churches every year who want to change. If you want to find out how it works, just email me for more information.

Image by B Gilmour


5 Clues that Point to a Change in Small Group Strategy

clue fingerprintThere’s no doubt that one of the most toxic small group ministry moves is changing small group systems, models or strategies too frequently or flippantly. It is important to make a three year commitment and pursue it with everything you’ve got when you do decide to change. See also, 5 Toxic Small Group Ministry Moves.

Still, there is a right time to change strategies.

Here are 5 clues that point to a change in small group strategy:

  1. Your current number of groups isn’t growing. Small group strategies aren’t created equally. Some strategies struggle to do more than tread water, recruiting a new leader only when an existing leader takes a break. When your current number of groups is not growing it is often a result of prioritizing the needs of existing groups over starting new groups. Shifting priorities is a strategic change that will lead to growth. It will also require training your group leaders to fish for themselves. See also, Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs Start New Groups.
  2. Leader identification and development isn’t keeping pace with congregation and crowd growth. If your congregation and/or crowd is growing faster than you can identify and develop new leaders…it is definitely time to take a look at a strategy whose design will give you the results you need. Some leader development strategies (for example, apprenticing) work well in slow growth scenarios but not in faster growing churches or churches that need to launch new groups rapidly to absorb large numbers of unconnected people. See also, How Can I Find More Leaders?!
  3. Percentage connected is flatlined. Unless you are evaluating percentage connected on a regular basis (at least annually), this can be a difficult clue to spot. It occurs when your total number of adults connected only keeps pace with adult attendance in worship. See also, What Percentage of Your Adults are Actually Connected?
  4. Your model is not making disciples. Please don’t miss this clue. Most small group ministries exist to connect people and make disciples. When you discover that your model really only connects people and provides for their fellowship needs, it’s time for a strategy change. Remember, your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing. If you want or need different results, you must change the design. See also, 5 Signs You May Have a Bad Disciple-Making Strategy.
  5. Your current model only appeals to the core and committed. Unless you have keen eyes to see and ears to hear, it can be hard to spot this clue. The needs and interests of the people in your congregation and crowd are different than those who are already connected (AKA, the usual suspects). For example, many in the core and committed may be deeply interested in studying books of the Bible, those in the crowd and outer edges of the congregation will only be attracted to studies that appeal directly to their interests and needs (i.e., relationships, family, purpose, etc.). See also, Does Your Topic Connect with Your True Customer?

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

Image by Daniel Pink

5 No-Brainer Characteristics of Churches That Actually Connect Beyond 100%

characteristics horseshoesTrust me. I wanted to call these “surprising” or “shocking” characteristics, but I just couldn’t do it. They’re no-brainer characteristics. Still, it is both surprising and shocking that so many churches say that groups are a priority…but just can’t seem to commit to developing the characteristics that make connecting beyond 100% possible.

What are the characteristics?

Here are the 5 characteristics I’ve found in every case:

  1. A senior pastor that walks the talk and talks year-round. Who is surprised? Anybody? If you want to connect beyond 100% of your adult weekend worship attendance…there is no substitute for a senior pastor who is all in. Need a work-around? I don’t know of one. Have a senior pastor who has to get creative and call his staff meeting a group? Don’t bank on it. Have a senior pastor that highlights groups (along with every other ministry) at least once a year? Don’t pin your hopes on it. Connecting beyond 100% requires a senior pastor who is all in all the time. See also, The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many in Groups.
  2. A year-round connection strategy. Churches that have connected beyond 100% of their weekend adult worship attendance know that an annual small group campaign isn’t enough and won’t connect everyone. Connecting beyond 100% requires building a year-round strategy that makes connecting easy and non-stop; just around the corner. See also, 5 Keys to Launching Small Groups Year-Round.
  3. First steps designed with unconnected people in mind. Connecting unconnected people requires an understanding of their needs and interests. Very few things are truly one-size-fits-all. This is not one of them. What an already connected member of the core or committed cares about or is intrigued by almost never crosses the minds of the unconnected members of the crowd (or even the outside edge of the congregation). Churches that connect beyond 100% design their connecting strategies with the needs and interests of unconnected people in mind. See also, Design Your Connection Strategy with Unconnected People in Mind.
  4. A commitment to launch and sustain new groups. New groups is an important distinction. Energy spent on connecting people to existing groups is a losers game. Churches that connect beyond 100% teach existing group leaders to fill their own groups and focus their energy on launching and sustaining new groups. Don’t miss this. The commitment to sustain what they launch is not an afterthought. This commitment is made in advance with scary intentionality. See also, Top 5 Keys to Starting New Groups and 5 Steps to Sustaining the New Groups You Launch.
  5. An intentional leader development strategy. Developing leaders is not left to chance. It is intentional and built into the very beginnings of a new group. The design is intentionally holistic and makes it easy to begin and nearly automatic to continue. This commitment underpins a commitment to building an effective coaching structure as an important part of the leader development delivery system. See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #5: A Leadership Development Disconnect.

Do you have the full set of characteristics that make connecting beyond 100% possible. Missing one or two? Missing several? In my experience you need them all. And if you don’t have the full set of characteristics? Well, you know what they say about horseshoes and hand grenades?

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

Image by Linda

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