Top 10 DNA Markers of Churches with Thriving Small Group Cultures

Here are what I believe to be the top 10 DNA markers of churches with thriving small group cultures:

  1. The senior pastor walks the talk.  I am unaware of a single instance of a church with a thriving small group culture where the senior pastor isn’t personally engaged in a group.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.
  2. Staff and congregational leadership engagement in a group is far more than a written expectation.  Group engagement extends deeply into the leadership structure.  The most influential congregational leaders are clearly invested.
  3. Weekend services consistently refer to groups as an ordinary component in the life of a Christ follower.  Thriving small group cultures are in evidence 52 weeks a year.  Even an infrequent attendee understands that “this small group thing” is pretty important and not just something for high achievers.  See also, Top 10 Reasons Saddleback Has Connected Over 130% in Groups.
  4. Small groups are an essential component of the ministry to children and students.  Knowing their leader knows them and cares about them is vital to children and students.  The powerful need to belong cannot be met apart from being known.  As Carl George said, “Everyone needs to be cared for by someone but no one ought to be caring for more than about ten people.”
  5. The church website (along with all communication forms) clearly prioritizes groups.  Churches with thriving small group cultures never present small groups as one option among many.  They also make small groups an above the fold home page item.  Learning about groups and joining a group is never more than one click away.  See and for more.
  6. Joining a group is easy.  The process is clear.  There are no prerequisites and no middlemen.  See also, Making GroupLife On-Ramps Easy, Obvious, and Strategic.
  7. New groups are regularly forming.  There may not be a new group every week, but the next opportunity to get involved in a new group is never very far off.  See also, Design Your Connection Strategy with Unconnected People In Mind.
  8. The church budget clearly reflects small group priority.  Staffing, leader care and development, connecting events and strategies should all be resourced in a way that is indicative of their role in the overall philosophy of ministry.
  9. Significant resources are committed to caring for and developing group leaders.  Beyond budgeting, leaders receive the investment of time and attention of senior leadership.  In addition, the importance of small group ministry is evidenced in the allocation of on-campus space for encouragement, training and development events.
  10. Care happens systemwide through the small group.  Can you see it?  Pastoral care happens so regularly and routinely through the small group system that it reduces the number of phone calls to the church office.  Congregational care is decentralized and more hospital visits are made by group leaders and members than staff.

What do you think?  Have one to add? Want to argue? You can click here jump in to the conversation.

The Intersection of My Two Greatest Concerns

If you’ve been along for much of this conversation…very little of this will be new to you.  If you’re new, you might just be wondering what exactly I’m talking about.  No matter where you are in the mix…I think we all still need to hear this.  I know I need the reminder every day.

It’s about the intersection of my two greatest concerns.  Here they are:

First, I know that unconnected people are always one tough thing away from not being at my church.  Marriage trouble.  Loss of a job.  Bad diagnosis.  A child that goes south.  One tough thing.

By my estimate we have over 8000 unconnected adults at Canyon Ridge.  That means we need to add about 800 groups, as fast as we can.  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults Are Actually Connected?

You read that number right.  We’ve connected a lot in the last year.  But we have over 8000 to go.  And that’s just what we have now.

The thing is…you have a ton of unconnected adults too.  One tough thing.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?

Second, I know that whatever I want the members of our groups to experience, the leaders of our groups must experience first.  In other words, if I want the members of our groups to know what’s it like to be prayed for, cared for, encouraged, challenged, loved unconditionally, forgiven, celebrated and admonished…they leaders must have had that experience first.

Where is the concern?  Follow me on this one.  Since I am a firm believer that Carl George was right when he said that “everyone needs to be cared for by someone but no one ought to be taking care of more than about 10 people,” I know that we don’t have anywhere near the number of coaches we need in order to take care of the number of leaders we need to connect 8000 unconnected people.  See also, Span of Care.

If Carl was right, we need around 80 to 160 new coaches.  We probably don’t need them all at once.  But we’ll need them as fast as we can identify, recruit and develop them.

The thing is…you need coaches too.  See also, The End in Mind for an Effective Coaching Structure.

The Dilemma

Can you see the dilemma?  And I use the term, dilemma, somewhere between advisedly and tongue in cheek.  The dilemma is that we know how to start groups.  You do too.  If you’ve been part of this conversation you know that we can start an almost unlimited number of groups using the church-wide campaign strategy along with the small group connection strategy.

We have no trouble starting groups.  We are determined to connect unconnected people as fast as we can.

The dilemma?  In order to sustain the groups we start and in order to deliver the kind of experience to group members that we want them to have…we must become better at identifying, recruiting and developing coaches.  And we must become better today.  If not yesterday.  See also, Supercharge Your Ministry with These 5 Questions.

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

Joel Comiskey’s Newest: Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church

biblical foundations for the cell based churchI’ve been working my way through Joel Comiskey’s Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church this week.  A very helpful work by one of the leading voices in the cell church movement.

I actually picked up a copy of the book several months ago hoping to gain some new insights into the cell group philosophy.  I wanted to be able to intelligently compare and contrast its guiding principles with those of the other small group systems and strategies.

What did I find?  What I found in part one of Biblical Foundations is a very helpful look at the Old Testament basis for community.  If you’ve read Gilbert Bilezikian’s Community 101, this will provide a kind of refresher with plenty of new insights.

Part two provides a very thoughtfully researched and carefully written look at the early church and its organization and structure, practices, and leadership development.  My copy is full of highlighted sections, bookmarks, and notes.  This quote is representative of many, many, that caught my eye:

“Most leaders elevate the large group as primary and the small group as optional. The New Testament writers were thinking about church much differently than we do today.”

Part three is a look at “cell church ecclesiology today.”  As much as I appreciated Comiskey’s work to provide a truly biblical basis for the cell-based church, I think I appreciated his frankness in part three even more.  Acknowledging the vast differences between the ancient culture of the early church and life in 21st century America and the Western world, he advocates strongly for a kind of deep ownership of the theology of community (as opposed to simply doing it because it works or makes your church successful).

I really appreciated the thoroughly gathered and assembled research with a wealth of quotes and references from a wide variety of other voices.  Interwoven and packed with so many biblical references, Biblical Foundations turned out to be much more than a look into the cell group philosophy.  In this book I’ve found so much to ponder and lots to reinforce the biblical underpinnings for small group ministry.

Whether you know much about Joel Comiskey and cell-based church movement or you’re new to the whole idea, I can highly recommend Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church.  I know you’ll be challenged like I was.  I also know you’ll come away with some important insights into grouplife and perhaps a new understanding of the theological underpinnings that ought to be informing our work.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

A Small Group Pastor, a Discipleship Pastor and a Minister of Education Walk into a Bar

A small group pastor, a discipleship pastor and a minister of education walk into a bar.  The bartender says, “What is this, a joke?”

Actually…I don’t have a joke here.  I’m sure there is one.  It probably has to do with circles and rows or the shallowness of DVD-driven curriculum.  Or possibly it has to do with raising the bar, lowering the bar or an open bar.

Mostly, I’d love to see if you have an idea for the joke.

Want to give it a shot?  You can click here to take a stab at the punch line.

Design Your Connection Strategy with Unconnected People in Mind

When you set up your connection strategy, did you stop to think about the folks you were hoping to connect?  You need to.  And don’t make the mistake of expecting the newest or least connected people in your congregation to have your sensibilities or priorities.  When you design your connection strategy you need to keep the priorities and interests of unconnected people in mind.

Here are four keys to connection that will help you evaluate your strategy:

It’s easier to connect in a new group than in an existing group.  The longer a group has been together, the more difficult it becomes for a new member to connect.  Groups that have been meeting longer than about 12 meetings have begun forming an almost impenetrable membrane around their nucleus and only the most extroverted (and sometimes brazen) can break through to connect.

Can you offer a new group 52 weeks a year?  No, but you can build in opportunities year round that make it easy to join a new group.  See also, 5 Keys to Launching Small Groups Year-Round.

It’s easier to connect in a familiar setting than a stranger’s living room.  Long-time church members and very connected people sometimes have a hard time understanding what it feels like to be new.  Many of your church’s newest attendees will tell you that coming for the first time was a giant step and filled with awkward moments.  Asking these same people to “find a group online” or “pick a group from our small group catalog that meets near you” is often even more scary than attending church the first time!

Are there people that can brave the unknown, find a group online or pick one out of the catalog and show up for a meeting?  Yes, but it’s important to design your strategy for the less sure of themselves majority.

Consider offering on-campus connecting events or short-term opportunities that lead to an off-campus group.  The familiar setting will make the first step out of the auditorium an easier step.  See also, North Point Increases GroupLife Participation by Adding an Easier Next Step.

Choosing from a menu is preferred over assignment.  Think about it.  In almost every other experience, we are used to choosing from a menu of options.  What movie would you like to go to?  What restaurant?  What class would you like to take?  What store would you like to shop at?  What church would you like to attend?

When an unconnected person is assigned to a group (i.e., you live in 90210, you’re assigned to the Wilson’s group) they feel limited.  If your current system is to preemptively assign to a group based on zip code or life-stage, you may want to consider providing a way to choose from a short menu.

Choosing from a hand-selected menu is easier than choosing from a full buffet.  It may surprise you to learn that too many options is actually demotivating.  In a fascinating study by Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper (Choice is Demotivating) it was learned that more is rarely better.  See also, Is An Artificial Barrier Limiting Growth in Your Small Group Ministry?

An unconnected person is more likely to choose from a short menu of the best options than a wide menu of all options.  If your menu of next steps looks more like the buffet at Luby’s (or the Mirage), you’ll want to consider highlighting a hand-selected short menu.  Just because you have 9 entrees doesn’t mean you have to give all of them equally desirable platform.

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

Win a “Pressure Points” Church-Wide Campaign Package!

I’m so excited about a great give-away!  Pressure Points, a six session study based on the book of James, is a true church-wide campaign.  With curriculum available for adults, teens and kids, it will generate one conversation and leverage one of the real keys to a great church-wide experience.

New from Chip Henderson and published by LifeWay, this is a great match of a great topic and a great communicator.  I am always on the lookout for topics that are cross-cultural, that is they make sense to the friends, neighbors, family and co-workers, too.  Pressure Points fits this bill perfectly!  You can learn more about it right here.

To support the contest, LifeWay has put together a great offer!  The winner will receive:

That’s an $800.00 value!

You must do TWO (2) things.  And you have to do both to win.

  1. Use the comment section to tell me why you’d like to win.  You can comment right here.
  2. Tweet or Facebook the following line: “RT @MarkCHowell: Win a Pressure Points Church-Wide Campaign Kit by Chip Henderson, an $800 value  “”

The contest ends on Friday, July 26th, at noon (PT).  Thanks for playing!

4 Keys to Sustaining New Groups

Last week we talked about the 5 keys to starting new groups.  Today I want to focus on how to sustain the new groups you start.  Very important stuff.  After all…if you expend the energy it takes to get these new groups going, you want to keep them going!

There are 3 things you need to do in order to give your new groups the best opportunity to continue.  But before we even get into how to do it, let’s define what sustain means.  When I talk about sustaining new groups, I’m talking about helping new groups make it into a 3rd study.  6 weeks is short enough to help unconnected people commit and long enough to help them begin to develop some connective tissue.  The second 6 week study will go a long way to helping them truly connect and if they make it into their 3rd study they will have enough muscle memory to keep them going.

Here are the 4 keys to sustaining new groups:

First, give them a coach before they even begin to meet.  If you’ve made it easy to start new groups (one of the keys to starting lots of new groups), you’re going to enlist a lot of group leaders with great potential and no experience.  To give each of them a person who can walk alongside them for their first 10 to 13 weeks is a huge advantage.  A relatively short connection with a coach each week will go a long way toward helping new leaders feel confident and make adjustments.  See also, Recruiting Additional Coaches for Church-Wide Campaigns and Clarifying the Win for Launch-Phase Coaches.

Second, help every new leader recruit a co-leader as their first assignment.  Don’t miss this important idea!  If you help new leaders recruit a co-leader (who is NOT their spouse), they’ll have a much better chance of continuing.  It will lighten the load for the new leader and they’ll be able to meet more consistently (even when the leader cannot be there).

Third, give each of your new groups a study to do next that is similar in kind to their first study in about week 4.  This is very important.  Remember, you helped them get started by giving them an easy-to-use study on a topic that mattered to unconnected people.  Your new leaders said “yes” to a 6 week commitment and their members said “yes” to a 6 week commitment.  But…about 4 weeks into their study they’ll begin to develop a level of relational connective tissue.  They’ll be looking forward to their meeting.  In most cases they’ll actually be mindful of the fact that “there are only 2 more weeks” and they’ll begin to ask if “there’s anything after this?”  If you choose a study that is similar to what they’re currently using (i.e., DVD-driven, on a topic they’ll enjoy, limited prep required, etc.), they’ll be more likely to continue.  See also, What’s Next?  When (and how) to Promote the Next Study and Does Your Topic Connect with Your True Customer?

Fourth, help them do the calendar work as part of their meeting.  This may seem a little over-the-top prescriptive, but trust me, one of the most important steps you can take to help new groups sustain is to help them plan their next meetings.  This is especially true when there are holidays or long breaks in the picture.  For example, if you’ve launched a wave of new groups with a fall church-wide campaign you need to be aware of and help new leaders and new groups proactively plan for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season.  For example, if they begin a 6 week study in the 4th week of September, they’ll be ready to start a new 6 week study the first week of November.  They might be able to meet 2 or 3 more times before Thanksgiving, but will not be able to finish before the holidays.  Guiding your newest groups to take out their calendars and plan a Christmas party, an opportunity to serve together, and when their first meeting in January is (so they can finish their 2nd study) is essential!  See also, Skill Training: Help Your Small Group Survive the Holidays!

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

New DVD-Driven Study from Lisa Chan: Not of This World

not of this worldHad a look at the latest installment to Lisa Chan’s True Beauty series over the weekend.  Not of This World, the 3rd film in the series, is itself a thing of beauty.  Produced by Flannel, the non-profit behind the NOOMA, Basic, and Ed’s Story films, Not of This World is another great example of a very “fresh look at the teachings of Jesus.”  You can read my review of True Beauty: Be Still, the first film in the series, right here.

Just 17 minutes long, Not of This World is an engaging, can’t look away example of story-driven media.  With Lisa Chan’s teaching as foundation and backdrop, the film interweaves an intriguing story thread that resolves in the final moments.

A downloadable reflection guide provides the questions and prompts needed for an extended discussion with plenty of personal application.

I think this film (as well as the others in the series) could be used in several ways.  While it can certainly be used as a stand-alone study for a small group, it may also be just the thing as a theme-setting piece for a retreat or women’s event.

Looking for something like that?  I love this study and I think you will too!

True Beauty Not of This World TRAILER from Flannel Staff on Vimeo.

Can’t see the video? Click here to watch it.

Would Your Groups Wrestle with the Challenge of Homelessness?

homelessnessYesterday I mentioned that my ideal group will make having an impact a natural thing.  Maybe yours will too!

A friend at one of the sponsoring organizations let me know about Time to Listen, a 15 minute film focusing on the stories of six different homeless individuals and how they navigate life.  I watched it.  It’s a very compelling story and one that helps you see the faces and hear the backstory of those we just just pass by.

There’s also a very simple discussion guide that will help groups process the film.  A downloadable 90 second preview could make it a system-wide initiative.

Interested?  It’s free.  It’s very well done.  You can find out more about it right here.

The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group

cone_slide8Ever spent any time thinking about your ideal small group?  What would it be like?  What kind of people would be part of it?  What would you do together?  What difference would it make in your life to be part of a group like that?

Ever had those thoughts?

I suppose you’ve got good memories of some groups you’ve been part of in the past.  Maybe seasons where the group members just jelled and it was easy to be together.  Maybe other times where it was obvious that the members in your group really received a lot…but you mostly gave and didn’t get a whole lot out of it.

Have memories–good or bad–about groups that you’ve been in?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of group I’d like to have.  Really, the kind of group I think we ought to have in mind for every group member.  And whether you think of it as the end in mind for your ideal small group or the preferred future for your ideal small group…I think there ought to be things that we hope happen for everyone.

Here are a few of the things that I hope happen

Here are a few of the things that I hope happen.  This is the end in mind for my ideal small group:

First, my ideal small group will definitely have a sense of family.  A really healthy family.  We may not always agree, but we’ll always feel like we’re safe, loved no matter what, forgiven when we do dumb things or say dumb things.  Or mean things.  When something good happens for us everyone will celebrate with us.  When something bad or difficult happens, those same people will be the ones crying with us.  My ideal group will make it easy for me to belong.  See also, Do Your Small Groups Cultivate This Powerful Ingredient?

Life-change happens when we’re known.

Second, my ideal group will definitely know that spiritual growth is an expectation.  Changing to become more like Jesus all the time will be more than expected.  It will be anticipated.  And it won’t really be about completing a study guide or workbook.  It will be all about becoming the kind of people who live their lives like Jesus would if He were in our bodies.  My ideal group will make it natural for me to become.  See also, Groups of All Kinds and the Essential Ingredients of Life-Change.

Life-change happens when becoming like Jesus isn’t just something we’re studying.

Third, my ideal group will definitely make having an impact a natural thing.  We’ll hang out and enjoy each other’s company.  We’ll study the Bible together.  But making a difference will also be just part of the normal thing we do.  Whether it’s putting in a little extra to help someone with a need, giving time to help out with the needs of a neighbor, or pitching in to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the community.  My ideal group will make having an impact just part of the normal day-to-day reality.  See also, The Primary Activity of the Early Church and 101 Ways to Reach Your Community.

Life-change happens when we begin to live beyond ourselves.

That’s the end in mind for my ideal small group.  Is my group like that now?  Are our groups that way now?  No…they’re not.  But if we’re serious about arriving at the preferred future, we’ll be intentionally designing in elements and activities that move what we’re doing onto the trajectory that will take us there.  And there’ll be a set of milestones that help us see progress.

Won’t be easy.  Won’t happen without intentionality.  But won’t it be a story to end up in the preferred future?

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