Four Countercultural Characteristics of Authentic Community

How do you know when something is authentic?  In the case of currency, the way a secret service agent is trained to detect counterfeit money is to spend a lot of time with the real thing.  Want to make sure you’re buying an authentic Rolex watch or designer handbag?  If the price is too good to be true (or you’re haggling with a road-side vendor), you’re probably about to purchase a knock-off.

Authentic hundred dollar bills, Rolex watches, and Michael Kors handbags have characteristics that make it easy to distinguish between the real thing and a counterfeit.

What about authentic community?  I like the four characteristics Bill Hybels shared years ago in a message at Willow Creek.  He said that the characteristics of authentic community are:

  • To know and be known: Way more than casual acquaintances or Facebook friends.  Deeper than the surface level, mask-wearing, master of disguise forms so common today.  To truly know and be truly known is to share life.  Can you imagine Peter’s desperate desire to be known when Jesus asked him a third time if he loved him?  “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you (John 21:17).”  Is anything more countercultural than to drop our mask and let our friends see who we really are?
  • To love and be loved: Beyond being liked or likable, to love and be loved is about following Jesus’ example.  Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).”  He went on to say, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13).”  If it’s hard for many to allow anyone to truly love us, it seems near impossible for most of us to show love first.  If there has ever been a more countercultural action I don’t know what it is.
  • To serve and be served: To expect to be served is ordinary.  When we experience substandard service at a restaurant, we feel justified in leaving a smaller tip (or even omitting a tip!).  To adopt the posture of a servant?  Not easily done.  Jesus demonstrated this countercultural characteristic when He set aside what was truly His and took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8).  When He washed the disciples feet he said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you (John 13:14-15).”
  • To celebrate and be celebrated:  How rare to be genuinely celebrated!  How uncharacteristic of the 21st century to celebrate the accomplishments of anyone else.  The apostle Paul instructed us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15.”  Who can truly do either?  Countercultural and yet at the heart of authentic community.

Four characteristics of authentic community.  Four countercultural characteristics.  Are you there?  Can you go there?  Wouldn’t it be sad if the tribe leading the way had never really experienced the life in authentic community that God designed for us?  See also, 5 Habits I’d Look for If I Was Hiring a Small Group Pastor and Note to Senior Pastors: Authentic Community Begins with You.

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

5 Habits I’d Look for If I Was Hiring a Small Group Pastor

I’ve been asked many times for a small group pastor job description, and that is certainly one way to look at the situation.  If I was a senior pastor though, I’d look at it from another angle.  I’d try to figure out the habits and patterns that make for the ideal candidate.

Here are the 5 habits I’d be looking for:

  • A long-term pattern of doing life in authentic community.  Remember, we can only expect the members of our groups to experience what their leaders have already experienced.  Doesn’t it follow that it’s crazy to expect members to experience things that aren’t modeled by the small group pastor?  When you find the right candidate they’ll have stories about previous groups, deep friendships in every port, and a desperate need for connection.  See also, 3 Prerequisite Convictions for Senior Pastors Who Experience Authentic Community.
  • A habit of identifying, recruiting and developing high capacity leaders of leaders.  Don’t miss this one!  Building a thriving small group ministry absolutely depends on the implementation and cultivation of a reasonable “span of care” and it’s ludicrous to expect to build a significant ministry without high capacity leaders of leaders.  The right candidate will be on the lookout for killers and fearlessly look for opportunities to ask them to join the life-change movement.  See also, 5 Assumptions that Set Small Group Coaching Up to #FAIL.
  • A pattern of making heroes of others.  A clear indication of the right candidate is someone who regularly brags on the amazing stories of small group leaders who go above and beyond what is expected.  A collector of stories, a great story-teller, quick to speak with pride about the life-changing accomplishments of others…is an essential attribute.  See also, Top 5 Keys to Starting New Groups. Lots of Groups.
  • A habit of focusing on the end in mind and commitment to stay the course.  A thriving small group ministry, a true church of groups, is built over the long haul.  It is the result of persistent determination and steadfast resolve.  See also, Wash, Rinse, Repeat and the Long Run and 10 Powerful Benefits of Building a Thriving Small Group Ministry.
  • A pattern of working well in the background, giving the senior pastor confidence in promoting grouplife.  This is an absolute essential.  The best candidates are nearly anonymous…except to group leaders, coaches and community leaders.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.

The bottom line?  The role of a small group pastor is not about being a figurehead or the face of small group ministry.  It’s not primarily about being an administrator or an organizer.  And the role of a small group pastor is definitely not about being a personal trainer for small group leaders.  What is it about?  The role of a small group pastor is about commitment to building an army of ordinary men and women committed to life-on-life ministry; and that is the commitment that transforms whole communities…one life at a time.

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

You’ll Get Through This: A New Church-Wide Campaign from Max Lucado

youll get through thisWorked my way through You’ll Get Through This, a new church-wide campaign from Max Lucado and Thomas Nelson.  You’ll Get Through This: Hope and Help for Your Turbulent Times is a six session church-wide campaign that features pastor and New York Times best-selling author, Max Lucado and is based on his 2013 book by the same title.

You’ll Get Through This is based on the biblical story of Joseph the favorite son of Jacob.  Knowing that, you can foresee where the campaign’s title comes in.  Joseph’s life, a series of tragic turns-of-events, is perfect for illustrating how God takes the threads of our lives’ troubles and uses them to form a tapestry of good (to use one of Lucado’s phrases).

Anchored by a six session DVD-driven small group study, the DVD features Lucado in his familiar mode as a story-teller.  With the video segments coming in at 22 to 25 minutes, they will hold the attention of most audiences, but they are right on the edge in length.

Each of the study guide sessions include a video teaching note section (designed to help participants capture the principles as Lucado presents them) as well as a straightforward Bible study that will guide groups through the six concepts that make up the series.  A between sessions section is included following each study to help group members personally apply what they’re learning in the study.  In addition, each of the study sessions includes a reference to a reading assignment from Lucado’s book.

Sermon outlines, a campaign starter guide, and templates for bulletin inserts, promotional posters and invite cards are all available for free download at

The campaign’s theme is timely and Lucado’s tone and manner will be received well by most groups.  This will be a very helpful campaign for some congregations.  If you’re looking for a study that will encourage people, you’ll want to take a look at You’ll Get Through This.

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 may 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 New Resolution: “Family Night” Is In My Future

In late 2010 I received a copy of Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians in the mail.  It arrived unsolicited.  It even had a note from Gabe.  Very cool.  I read it very quickly.  Almost didn’t put it down.

I can tell you for sure that it helped raise a growing awareness of the arrival of a post-Christian era.  Along with a handful of other books and articles, The Next Christians opened my eyes to the reality that we’re not in Kansas anymore.  My reaction was equal parts disturbed and hopeful.  Disturbed at the damage the changes would bring.  Hopeful at the new opportunities to truly be salt and light in a post-Christian culture.

In a chapter near the end of the book,  In Community, Not Alone, Lyons describes the efforts by David and Kate to create a Thursday night scene in their Hollywood Hills home “where relationships could be cultivated.”  Good music.  Good food.  Good conversation.  They call it “family night.”

I loved this paragraph:

“For David and Kate, creating community among their collective of friends is a non-negotiable.  They’ve learned that society’s path tends to end in loneliness, emptiness, and ultimately disappointment.  They’ll do anything to fight that cultural tide–host the best parties, befriend new people, and find substantive friendships wherever they can.  Without this community, they would be compromising the core of their faith.  It’s that foundational to how they live.”

Re-reading The Next Christians this morning I came across this passage again.  And like the first time I read it…I knew intensely that we need to start our own.  Stay tuned.  Family night is in my future.

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

Small Group Ministry Roadblock #4: A Myopic Understanding of the Culture

I’ve been thinking lately about the biggest roadblocks to small group ministry; the things that stand in the way of a truly thriving small group ministry.  See also, 10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

Here are what I believe are the top 5 roadblocks:

  1. A doubtful or conflicted senior pastor.
  2. A bloated belong and become menu.
  3. Indecision about the best next step.
  4. A myopic understanding of the culture.
  5. A leadership development disconnect

Roadblock #4: A Myopic Understanding of the Culture

Today I want to spend some time on Roadblock #4: A Myopic Understanding of the Culture.

Essentially, myopia is “a condition in which the visual images come to a focus in front of the retina of the eye resulting especially in defective vision of distant objects” or “a lack of foresight or discernment :  a narrow view of something.”

Myopia is not hard to diagnose.  The symptoms are easily spotted (headaches, eyestrain, squinting).  There are relatively easy solutions.  An opthamologist can prescribe glasses or contacts.  Today, lasik surgery can be performed to reshape the cornea.

Organizational Myopia

Organizational myopia is much more difficult to diagnose and treat.  The symptoms are easier spotted by an outsider with fresh eyes.  Symptoms are commonly misdiagnosed by insiders because nearsightedness developed slowly over time.  Vision that was sharp and vivid at one time gradually becomes blurred and colorless.

A Myopic Understanding of the Culture


  • Unaware of the culture’s biblical illiteracy, frequent references are made to obscure people, events, and principles.
  • Participation expectations are determined according to decades old pace of life realities.
  • Programs are designed with antiquated ideas about attention spans.
  • Lack of programming that meets the needs of single parents and blended families.
  • Maintaining and even reinforcing flagship programs and forms of an earlier era while younger generations opt out.
  • Regularly missing opportunities to leverage media and technology to connect.


First, an accurate and up-to-date diagnosis is in order.  Whether it is bringing in a pair of fresh eyes that can provide an honest and unbiased evaluation or soliciting input from still connected (or recently departed) members who are more in tune with the culture, you must have an accurate and up-to-date diagnosis.  See also, Diagnosis: Brutal Honesty about Your Present.

Second, conduct a frank and no-holds-barred self-assessment of ministry results.  Remember, “your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley).”  Your results are not a fluke or a coincidence.  If programs and ministries that once succeeded are no longer seeing the results you are accustomed to, it is due to a defective design.  See also, Ministry Design Determines Results.

Third, identify a church that does have a better understanding of the culture and start a conversation.  You don’t have to copy what they are doing.  You do have to develop a real-world understanding of the choices they’ve made and why they’ve made them.

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

The Evidence Is In: Rick Warren and Saddleback Are Committed to Small Groups

I’ve written many times about the need for senior pastors to champion small groups.  If you’ve been along for any length of time, you know it’s a frequent rant for me.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.

I really believe the #1 reason that Saddleback has so many small groups (and has connected so many people to a small group) is that Rick Warren is a relentless champion.  He never quits on the need for people to be in a small group.  He never delegates the responsibility to be the one to make the challenge.  See also, The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many in Small Groups.

Nearly 34 years since founding Saddleback Church he’s just taken advantage of another church-wide campaign to recruit another 2000 small group hosts to connect another huge wave of unconnected people.  Rick Warren is relentless because he knows the power of life-on-life.  He knows that life-change happens in circles…not rows.

Exhibit A: Here’s the text of Rick’s January 17th newsletter to Saddleback attendees:


This weekend I intoduce our revolutionary spiritual growth campaign for 2014. If you participate in a small group, it WILL transform your life for the better. If you don’t form a 50 Day group, I’m certain you’ll later regret missing out on what God intended to bless you with.


Anybody can be a HOST! We’ve proven this over 7,000 times! You just turn on the DVD player at your home or work.

Last weekend, nearly 2,000 brave people took a step of faith and volunteered to host a 50 Day group at work, or in a home. How about you?


The leatherette Life Journals, the seven DVD lessons, and all the other life-changing materials for your group.

As a small group HOST, you have two options for picking up your free kit:

  1. Tonight (Friday, January 17) spend one hour with me and all the other HOSTS during our ALL-CAMPUS HOST GATHERING at our Lake Forest Worship Center at 7:00 p.m.
  2. Or wait in line on the patio this weekend after each service.


I’m going to teach everyone how to use this tool for personal transformation.

The HOSTS always grow the most! You CAN do this! Step out in faith and watch God bless you. Bring a friend this weekend.

Exhibit B: Here’s the text of Saddleback’s January 9th e-newsletter: 

Next weekend, we will begin Pastor Rick’s new small group study, Transformed, and weekend series, 50 Days of Transformation. Learn how real change—lasting change—can actually happen in your life. There’s no better time to become a small group host. Signing up is easy! With you and just two additional people, your group is ready to go. Then join Pastor Rick on January 17 for a special small group host gathering to celebrate the start of the new series and pick up your group materials. Go online to learn more and sign up today!

Read More

You can learn a lot from what Rick has to say.  Is your senior pastor saying anything close to this about small groups?

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

5 Keys to Taking New Ground in 2014

Want to take new ground in 2014?  Don’t we all?  You’re probably not spending a lot of time figuring out how to avoid or slow down the rate of losing ground (although this Dilbert cartoon has a very funny take on the idea).  No, if you wake up in the middle of the night it’s probably to think about what you need to do to take new ground.

Here are five keys to taking new ground in 2014:

  • Sharpen clarity on your preferred future.  One of the most productive things all of us can do is to develop razor sharp clarity on where we want to go as an organization.  If “path, not intent, determines destination” (Andy Stanley), then clarity on destination makes the best path obvious.  See also, Start with the End in Mind and Choosing What Not to Do.  In addition, two excellent resources on this subject are The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry by Andy Stanley and Church Unique by Will Mancini.
  • Be about finding solutions.  There are people on almost every team that seem pre-wired to focus on problem identification.  If you want to take new ground, you must build a team that is about finding solutions.  Since there are no problem-free solutions anyway, wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.  Colin Powell had it right when he said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.”  See also, The Pursuit of Problem-Free.  An excellent resource on this is Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley.
  • Ask great questions.  Learning to ask great questions is very near the center of great leadership.  Whether you develop your own questions or simply develop the skill of collecting and using great questions you hear or read is not important.  Making it your practice to insert great questions into your conversations and meetings is essential.  Albert Einstein was expressing a similar perspective when he said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”  See also, Supercharge Your Ministry with These 5 Questions.
  • Develop and celebrate an “others focus.”  If you want to take new ground, you will need to become preoccupied with the interests of others.  Forever working to provide more and better services for the usual suspects won’t take new ground.  New ground is taken only when we begin thinking about and prioritizing the needs and interests of the people we haven’t yet reached.  Craig Groeschel has said that “if you want to reach people no one else is reaching, you need to do things no one else is doing.”  See also, Unexamined Expectations about Commitments and Priorities and Preoccupied with the Needs and Interests of the Right People.
  • Refine your menu to offer only the best next steps.  While this is a very challenging step (it means disappointing the owners of the sacred cow), it is an important key to taking new ground.  There are two underlying truths in this key.  First, the more options your menu offers the more difficult the choice becomes.  Second,  Peter Drucker pointed out that “planned, purposeful abandonment of the old and of the unrewarding is a prerequisite to successful pursuit of the new and highly promising.  Above all, abandonment is the key to innovation—both because it frees the necessary resources and because it stimulates the search for the new that will replace the old (p. 143, Managing for Results).”  See also, How to Make Next Steps Easier to Choose and Purposeful Abandonment: Prerequisite to Innovation.

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

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.”

Don’t Miss This New Study from Verge: Disciple Making: No Plan B

disciplemakingHad an opportunity this week to spend some time with a new resource from Verge Network.  Disciple Making: No Plan B  is an 8 session study designed to be used by a missional community.  A challenging study, it provides just the right combination of push and pull to move groups out of comfort zones and into life-altering engagement.

I love this line from the included leader’s guide:

“This study guide is a tool to help you and your community live on mission in your city or neighborhood.”

I would call Disciple Making a DVD-enhanced study.  Each session features a short 10 to 15 minute clip from a session at a 2012 Verge Network conference.  The speakers are well known inside the missional movement and include Alan Hirsch, Jo Saxton, Neil Cole, Jeff Vanderstelt, Mike Breen and Kevin Peck.

The member book sets a course for a fairly engaging experience.  A varied experience, each session includes a number of elements.  Short readings to establish an idea and provoke dialogue, thoroughly biblical with extensive scripture, and very practical with its urge to apply the learnings…there is plenty here to fully engage participants.

A very good leader’s guide is included in the member book, making it possible for members to rotate the facilitator role.

If you’re looking for a study that will help group members take steps in discipleship, Disciple Making has a lot going for it.  Far beyond learning about discipleship, this is a study designed to compel movement.  I like where Disciple Making goes 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 may 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.”

Small Group Ministry Roadblock #3: Indecision about the Best Next Step

Last week we began a detailed look at what I believe are the top 5 small group ministry roadblocks; the things that stand in the way of a truly thriving small group ministry.  We began with a look at roadblock #1: a doubtful or conflicted senior pastor and continued with roadblock #2: a bloated belong and become menu.  See also, 10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

Today I want to dive in to a 3rd roadblock: indecision about the best next step.  Why is this a roadblock?  How is it a roadblock?  Read on.

If you’re paying attention, you can see that indecision about the best next step is related to roadblock #2 (a bloated belong and become menu).  Yes…they are related, but they’re not the same and you need to know about and fix both of them in order to building a thriving small group ministry.

Here’s what I mean by indecision about the best next step:

  • When an unconnected person can’t tell what they need to do next (or are confused in any way about what’s next) they get stuck.
  • The more options there are on the menu, the more likely an unconnected person is to be indecisive and do nothing (this is the problem with a bloated menu).
  • The most common reason we hesitate to clearly point out the best next step because we don’t want to diminish the value of any of the available options (because they are led by people that we don’t want to disappoint).
  • Sometimes we can’t clearly point out the best next step because we don’t know what it is.
  • Other times we can’t clearly point out the best next step because while we know what it should be…we don’t have it on our menu yet.

Solution: Get comfortable with the idea that there is best next step for unconnected people.  Maintaining that multiple options are preferable is counter to the evidence.  Multiple choices and no clear guidance lead to indecision.  See also, How to Make Next Steps Easier to Choose and Design Your Connection Strategy with Unconnected People in Mind.

Solution: Take the time to thoughtfully evaluate the potential next steps you currently offer.  Is there a best next step on your current menu?  If there is, have an honest conversation with the leaders of the various options.  You might be pulled to avoid this conversation, but it is in the best interests of everyone concerned to begin the conversation.

Solution: If you don’t currently offer the best next step, start working to develop it.  It’s worth your time and energy.  Remember, unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?

Easy to do?  No, definitely not.  Every one of these solutions will be tough sledding.  But…if you want to build a thriving small group ministry, you’ve got to remove the roadblocks that hinder success.

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

Two Spots Left! Still Time to Join My 2014 Coaching Network

I have TWO spots left in my 2014 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network.  It’s not too late…but it will be before you know it.

I love blogging about how to connect unconnected people and how to build a thriving small group ministry.  I’m always excited when I get to speak at a conference, whether it’s live or on a webcast.  I love it when one of my articles gets picked up in a magazine.

All good things…and I love doing them.

But, can I tell you something?  What I really love doing is helping my coaching network members move their ministry forward.  It’s just what I love doing the most.

I ran into a few coaching network alumni at the re:group conference a couple weeks ago.  Here’s what they had to say about the coaching network experience:

  • “I was a part of Mark’s Coaching Network and found it to be not only beneficial to helping me think outside the box, but also to hear from other pastors across the nation. If you are looking for a coaching network that will help you grow in your skills, sharpen your strategies, and guide you to take your next steps in small group ministry, make sure you sign-up for this coaching network!”  Jonathan Holcomb, LifeGroups and LifeMissions Pastor,, South Tulsa
  • “I would highly recommend Mark Howell’s Small Group Ministry Coaching Network.  I had been studying small group strategies prior to joining the network and discovered I had all kinds of questions as to which was the best approach for our church.  Rather than try to figure it out all alone, the network was a tremendous resource for me personally as well as our church as we began to implement a small group system.  Mark did a great job encouraging, challenging, and resourcing us as we chose a model to help us identify and reach our ‘preferred future’.  My experience with Mark Howell’s Coaching Network was well worth my investment of time and finances.  It has had a profound and lasting effect on my perspective of small group ministry.”  Kem Stickl, Journey Groups Director, Whitehaven Road Baptist Church
  • “I joined Mark Howell’s coaching network because I needed to make several significant decisions in our church’s group ministry. Adding Mark’s experienced, strategic mind to our process for that season was super helpful. But the best part has been the relationship I’ve continued to build with Mark since the coaching network.”  Mark Riggins, Community Life Pastor, Bible Fellowship Church

I want to invite you to join my 2014 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network; an experience 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 to many that in order to get different results you need to do different things…it’s not always clear what those different things might be. The coaching network program is designed around the idea that different, not better, leads to the kind of strategy that connects beyond the usual suspects.

My 2014 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network begins in January and I still have 2 openings. You can find out all about it right here. I’m hoping you’ll come along!