An Analysis of the Sermon Based Small Group Strategy

I am regularly asked about the wisdom or effectiveness of a sermon-based strategy.  Underlying the question many times is the sense that providing a study to be used will keep groups from straying from the well trodden pathway.  And I have to admit that at some level there is  wisdom behind what they are asking.  See also, Sermon Based Small Groups.

There is wisdom behind what they are asking…but there is also a set of assumptions that need to be unearthed and evaluated.  Only after evaluating will it make sense to embrace, discard or modify.

Common assumptions that accompany a sermon-based group strategy:

  • A sermon-based group curriculum allows members to ask questions and discuss the weekend message (hard to argue with that)
  • A sermon-based strategy encourages one conversation among the congregation’s adult participants (again, hard to argue with the benefit, at least periodically, of this idea)
  • A sermon-based curriculum can be produced in-house, ensuring theological orthodoxy while keeping the cost down (perhaps the cost of curriculum can be minimized, but ensuring theological orthodoxy has more to do with the leader)
  • Sermon-based curriculum makes it possible to intentionally target particular aspects of spiritual growth

Observations about sermon-based strategies:

  • The invitation to join our group as we dig in deeper to our pastor’s message is often less appealing to friends, neighbors, co-workers and family than an intentionally selected cross-cultural topic.  
  • Small group studies based on expository sermons, especially lengthy verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible, are a often a tougher invite for unconnected people.
  • Variety is present in virtually every other arena (restaurants, television programming, neighborhoods, etc.) and the entire customer base is targeted and served by anticipating individual tastes.

My Takeaways:

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

A Potentially Game-Changing Mashup We’ll Be Testing in September

I’ve written a lot about how to use the HOST strategy combined with a church-wide campaign.  In my mind those two strategies represent two of the most powerful ideas in small group ministry.  If you’re looking for a way to jump start lots of groups and connect way beyond the usual suspects…I’ve not found anything else that can come close to a well designed church-wide campaign with the HOST strategy in place.

I’ve not found anything that can top it…until now.  Keep reading…

The church-wide campaign strategy plus HOST comes with several problems, but since there is no problem-free solution or strategy, I use it and coach many other churches to use it because I’d rather have these problems than the problems of any other strategy for starting groups and connecting people.

The one thing the strategy doesn’t do very well is make it easy for unconnected people who don’t know a host to find a group.  We’ve tried a number of ways to get around that issue:

  • trained new hosts to fill their group by taking advantage of top 10 ways to find new group members
  • taken sign-ups to be in a group (once you’re beyond a certain size the match-making idea just doesn’t work)
  • implemented an online group-finder tool that allowed unconnected people to find a group near them (requires unconnected people to overcome their second greatest fear)
  • outfitted hosts with special t-shirts that identified them as hosts and had them stand up in the service

We’ve tried a lot of ways to help connect as many people as possible.  I bet you have too.

Here’s what we’re trying this September (I got this idea from Tracey Smith, a grouplife veteran at Central Christian here in Las Vegas):

  1. We’ll run the host recruiting strategy in August (three weeks in a row with an embedded ask in our senior pastor’s message).  See also, HOST Recruitment and the Launch Sequence.
  2. Host sign-ups will be invited to one of several identical orientations.
  3. The invite to the orientation will have a simple questionnaire attached and the instructions to bring the completed form to the orientation (you can download a copy of a recent questionnaire right here).
  4. At the orientation (and maybe on the invitation) they’ll learn that completing a couple steps will qualify them to promote their group in two ways: (1) at on-campus connecting events* the two weekends before the launch and (2) on the online group-finder.
  5. At a minimum, the required steps will include completing the questionnaire and connecting with a coach.
  6. On the weekends of the on-campus connecting events our services will be shortened to allow our attendees to walk a few steps out of the auditorium and choose a group to attend based on the area, day of week, and life-stage.  The key is that they’ll be able to meet the host face-to-face.
  7. Hosts leave the connecting events with potential members they’ve met face-to-face and contact information.

As you can see there’s a lot of detail missing.  If you’re a grouplife veteran you can probably see traces of the small group fair idea and also North Point’s GroupLink strategy.  See also, Distinctives of the Three Types of Small Group Connecting Events.

What we’re looking for is the most effective way to connect unconnected people who already attend our church.  The right church-wide campaign plus the HOST strategy does an amazing job of connecting friends, neighbors, co-workers and family.  Add this wrinkle…and we think it will connect even more people.

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

Add “Pressure Points” to Your Church-Wide Campaign Short List

pressure pointsLooking for your next church-wide campaign?  Don’t miss an exciting new development at LifeWay.  This fall’s launch of the Bible Studies for Life curriculum series needs to be on your radar.

Pressure Points, a six session study based on the book of James, is the first study in the series.  Everyone faces the challenges of pressure.  Pressure knows no boundaries.  Men and women.  Young and old.  Christians and non-Christians.  Pressure is a truly cross-cultural topic.

We all deal with it.  And everyone will see the wisdom found in James.

The study guide was written by Chip Henderson, senior pastor of Pinelake Church, a multi-site church in Brandon, Mississippi, which has grown from 700 to more than 9000 people on five campuses.  The DVD features Henderson presenting a short introduction for each session.

With curriculum available for adults, students, and children…this is a campaign that will produce one conversation in your church.

Several delivery formats make the Bible Studies for Life series a 21st century solution.  In addition to the print version of the study guide, it is also available as a digital download or via an iPhone app.

Special Resources in the Leader Kit:

  • Promotional video, presentation slides, banner ads, and posters
  • DVD segment for each session featuring the author providing biblical insight
  • Leader guide: Expands on the commentary you get in the Group Member Book
  • PLUS- Free online sermon outlines: Two sets for each session. One uses the same Scripture passage as the session. The other expands on the theme but uses different Scripture passages.

If you’re looking for a church-wide campaign that will help your congregation wrestle with a real-life issue, don’t miss Pressure Points.  An easy invite…I think this study ought to be on your list!

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. In addition, I am the Small Group Specialist for LifeWay. 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.”

Be Aware of the Self Serving Bias When Diagnosing Your Ministry

cone_slide8One of the greatest challenges in diagnosing your own ministry is successfully overcoming the self serving bias.  You know this term, right?  A self serving bias is “the tendency of people to attribute success to their personalities and failure to external factors.”

For example, while diagnosing the previous ministry year one might determine that Event A succeeded due to great personal leadership and Event B failed due to the disinterested customer’s lack of spiritual maturity.

One of the discussions that I begin consultations with is based on the Andy Stanley line that “your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results your currently experiencing.”

When diagnosing my own ministry outcomes, I’m learning to ask myself, “Is my rationale for the success or failure of this strategy affected by a self serving bias?”

I’m learning to add this same step into my consultation work.  See also, Brutal Honesty about Your Present and Innovation Step One: Acknowledge What’s Not Working.

By the way, one of the reasons that fresh eyes are so important is their immunity to the self serving bias.  Whether you take advantage of a one hour coaching call with me or have coffee with a ministry practitioner from another church in your area, you can counteract the dangers of the self serving bias.

2013 Summer Reading List

Have your reading planned for the summer?  I think there are a few books that you need to be reading to be up on the grouplife conversation.

discipleshiftFor starters…I think you need to be reading DiscipleShift: Five Steps that Can Help Your Church Make Disciples Who Make Disciples.  Trust me…this is one you’re going to want to carefully work your way through.  There are some very important ideas in this book.

Putman, founding pastor of Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho, is also the author of Real Life Discipleship and the Real Life Discipleship Training Manual (with Avery Willis, Brandon Guindon, and Bill Krause).  Known for one of the strongest disciple making models in America, DiscipleShift (with Bobby Harrington and Robert Coleman) is a great addition to the collection.

Read my full review right here.

church in an age of crisisNext up?  I think you need to add The Church in an Age of Crisis.  The newest book from James Emery White, founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, White is the former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the blogger behind the Church & Culture blog (a must-read for anyone interested in life at crowd’s edge).

The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity is a fascinating, gut-wrenching, and terrifying read.  Anything but a page-turner…but only because every other paragraph contains a wait…what?  Can that be true? moment.  Definitely in the category of The Next Christians as essential reading for anyone attempting ministry in the 21st century.

Read my full review right here.

mud and the masterpieceJohn Burke’s Mud and the Masterpiece is a masterpiece itself and immediately joins the required reading list for anyone who wants to reach people at crowd’s edge.

Burke, the founding pastor of Austin’s Gateway Church, is the author of two previous books; No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come-as-You-Are Culture in the Church and  Soul Revolution: How Imperfect People Become All God Intended.  If you’re sensing a trend, your eyes don’t deceive you.  With 16 years as the lead pastor of one of the very best examples of how to reach people in a post-modern, post-Christian culture, Burke is both passionate about the mission and a very compelling story-teller.

Read my full review right here.

great omissionI’ve read pretty much everything Dallas Willard ever wrote.  The Divine Conspiracy might be one of my most marked up, starred, underlined, dog-eared books.  Renovation of the Heart and The Spirit of the Disciplines are right on its heels.  I’ve bookmarked websites.  I’ve printed reams of articles…and they’re just as marked up as any of the books.

Last week I finally picked up a copy of The Great Omission.  Containing “several previously published articles and addresses on discipleship, spiritual growth and formation,” I can tell you that my copy is now no different than anything else I’ve ever worked my way through of Willard’s.  Lots of notations, underlined passages, and dog-eared pages!

Read my full review right here.

playing to win largeOne of the most important reads I’ve worked through lately is Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works by A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin.  If you can base the value of a book by the amount of underlining, starring, and dog-eared pages…this is a veryvaluable book!

I first discovered Roger Martin a few years ago when I tripped across The Design of Business.  Easily one of my top 5 reads in the area of design-thinking, it included several key questions and concepts that I use almost daily.  Very, very good stuff.  So, when I saw the announcement for the upcoming release of Playing to Win…I had to have it.  And I was not disappointed.  Playing to Win is literally jam-packed with great content and is very transferable to what all of us do!

Read my full review right here.

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.”

Skill Training: 6 Keys to Keeping Your New Group Going

So you started a new group.  You’ve overcome your fears.  You’ve gone where you’ve never gone before.  And now–believe it or not–you’re enjoying your new friends and looking forward to your next meeting.  Who knew that could really happen!

The question is, what do you need to do right now to keep your new group going?  And beyond going, how can you make it even better?

Here are 6 key steps you can take right now:

  • Ask your church (your pastor or coach) for a recommended follow-up study.  Be sure and choose a study to do next that is similar in format to what you’re using right now.  Caution: When your group is brand new, it’s always a good idea to offer the recommended study as the next step.  Once your new group is more established, you can ask the group for requests or suggestions.  For more, see Choosing Curriculum for New Groups.
  • Ask your group members if there’s anyone they’d like to invite to join the group.  The easiest time to add new members is when you’re beginning a new study.  Also, it’s much easier for new people to fit in when the group is still forming.  Once it’s established (meeting longer than 3 to 4 months) it will become increasingly more difficult for new people to connect.
  • Take advantage of the new study to invite group members to share the responsibilities of the group.  Group members can take turns facilitating discussion, keep track of prayer requests, organize the refreshment calendar, etc.  Note: “One Man Shows” are challenging to sustain.  In addition, they aren’t nearly as satisfying to members as shared ownership.
  • If you meet off-campus, consider inviting an additional member or two to host a group meeting in their home(s).  Note: Groups that can meet in more than one location are more enduring and can meet more consistently.  For more, see Skill Training: Rotating Host Homes.
  • Consider reviewing the group’s covenant or agreement whenever you begin a new study or add new members.  The values and expectations you agreed to in the beginning can be renewed and refreshed as you continue.  For more, see Skill Training: How to Use a Small Group Agreement.
  • Plan a party or a potluck to celebrate continuing!  Building in fun and food is always a good idea.  Instead of pressing on with a new study immediately, consider planning an opportunity to celebrate your new friendships.  It’s almost always easier to invite potential new members to join you for a Mexican fiesta or pizza party and game night.

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

Seven-Mile Miracle

seven mile miracleHad an opportunity over the weekend to review Seven-Mile Miracle, a new study from Steven Furtick, founder and lead pastor of Elevation, one of the fastest growing churches in America.  A dynamic speaker, Furtick provides a characteristically powerful message in this study.

DVD-driven, Seven-Mile Miracle: Experience the Last Words of Christ as Never Before is a 7 session study explores the last words of Christ recorded in the gospels.  Filmed on location where they were spoken (the Emmaus Road, Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, and more), the setting adds to the experience.

I loved the way Steven Furtick works through the meaning of each of the seven last words, interweaving other related passages.  The length of each of the sessions is just about right, averaging 10 to 12 minutes;   just long enough to fully engage the participant.

Along with the teaching segments, each of the DVD segments also include a classic worship hymn sung on location at the end of every session.

Anchored by a 108 page study guide, each session includes:

  • a video viewing guide
  • the scripture referred to in the session as well as several additional passages for deeper study
  • a skillfully crafted set of discussion questions
  • a set of questions for reflection in worship
  • a personal reflection exercise to be experienced during the week

The final session includes the opportunity to take communion together with your group.  Whether used for Lent in the weeks leading up to Easter, daily during Holy Week, or when a group needs a study that will provide renewal, Seven-Mile Miracle will be deeply meaningful any time of the year.

If you’re looking for study material that will help your groups to dig deeply into God’s word and grapple with God’s deep love for us, take a look at Seven-Mile Miracle.  I like this study and I think you will too!

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.”

My Top Three Learnings about Small Group Ministry This Year

I’m an experimenter by nature, so I’m always on the lookout for what’s next.  Here are the top three things I’ve learned this year.

First, joining a small group that meets in a stranger’s living room is not easy.  In many instances it’s even harder and requires more  courage or desperation than attending a weekend service for the first time.  It may be true that only the most extroverted people will be willing to use an online finder.

This is why I remain enthused about the connection potential of on-campus events like Saddleback’s small group connection, North Point’s  GroupLink or even a group fair (where group leaders can meet potential members).  See also, Distinctives of the Three Types of Small Group Connecting Events.

It’s also why I am becoming a bigger fan every day of leveraging short-term (5 to 8 weeks) on-campus group-based events to launch off-campus groups.  See also, File This Under Connection Ideas and Breaking: North Point Increases GroupLife Participation by Adding an Easier Next Step.

Second, cause may have supplanted community as the leading impetus for connection and engagement.  James Emery White’s insightful post earlier this year theorized that there has been a seismic shift in outreach.  I believe his theory is being confirmed every day in a variety of ways.

The basic idea of White’s theory is that the driving force behind outreach and evangelism has shifted twice over the last 60 years.

  • From the 1950s to the 1980s a direct proclamation style flourished (think Billy Graham and Willow Creek’s creative weekend services).  “This led to joining a community and then being discipled into participation with the cause.”  Unchurched >>> Christ >>> Community >>> Cause
  • From the 90s through the 2000s community moved to the front of the equation.  A desire to belong before believing was the clear pattern.  Once a part of community, trust could develop, Christ was found in community, and the cause could be joined.  Unchurched >>> Community >>> Christ >>> Cause
  • The current trend seems to be cause first.  “Cause has become the leading edge of our connection with a lost world, and specifically the “nones” (and it is increasingly best to replace the term “unchurched” with the “nones”).”  Think Compassion International, water, human trafficking, etc.  Nones >>> Cause >>> Community >>> Christ

How will this shift affect what we do?  Is there a way to create natural next steps that lead from engagement through a cause to connection in community and find Christ there?  See also, Connecting the Dots: Your Strategy and Post-Christianity and Essential Reading: The Church in an Age of Crisis.

Third, building “next steps for everyone and first steps for their friends” is the missing link in the discipleship equation.  Making the first step too difficult (come and die) and thinning the herd on the front end is no worse than making connection easy (come and see) and not providing progressively more challenging, age appropriate next steps of maturity.  Both methods are inadequate if you want to have the greatest impact on the largest number of people.

What works?  A legitimate crowd-to-core strategy that truly provides next steps for everyone (crowd, congregation, committed, and core) and first steps for their friends (community).  See also, Three Keys to Connecting Beyond the Core and Committed, 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group SystemRecruiting Like Jesus and Even a Lizard Can Respond to Come and See.

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

Here’s a Video for Your Next Leader Training: Awkward Prayer

Need a funny video to lighten the mood in a leader training?  I think you’ll like this one!  Testing the limits of awkwardness…

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

Looking for training ideas on prayer?  See also, Skill Training: Top 10 Ways to Learn to Pray Together and The Simplest Way to Help Your Members Pray Out Loud.

Was Jesus’ Mission Different Than Ours?

Maybe this is just the ramblings of a sleep deprived traveler…but here’s what I’m wondering:

Do you think Jesus’ mission was different than ours?  So many of our current conversations find their biblical basis in Matthew 28:18-20 (the Great Commission).  It does seem to be our assignment or at least one of our assignments.  After all, it’s also very clear that the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40) is more than a suggestion…don’t you think?

What about everything Jesus said about coming to seek and save the lost?  What about His teaching in Luke 15?  Was that not His mission?  Was it His and not ours?

I was telling some friends last week that my passion is connecting unconnected people.  When I see the crowds I have compassion for them because they really are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).  When I see them as Jesus saw them I am learning to do what Jesus said to do.  See also, Four Leading Indicators of Small Group Ministries That Make Disciples.

Am I excused from making disciples?  No.  Can our mission of making disciples surplant the need to seek and save the lost?  No.  Both are essential.

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