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5 Terrible Small Group Ministry Ideas to Avoid at ALL Costs

terrible ideaThere are a few things that seem so right at the time…but really are terrible ideas and should be avoided at all costs.

Here are 5 Terrible Small Group Ministry Ideas to Avoid at ALL Costs

Waiting until next year.  This is a truly terrible idea!  Every year, every ministry season is a gift from God.  Waiting until next year is what the third servant did in Matthew 25!  We can provide all kinds of rationales:

  • Waiting will give us more time to prepare
  • We’ll be better trained
  • Our foundation will be stronger
  • Etc.

When we wait until next year we assume that unconnected people will still be around.  They won’t!  Unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again.  When we wait until next year we assume we will have discovered a problem-free solution or strategy.  We won’t!  The pursuit of problem-free delays more ministry than anything else.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People? and The Pursuit of Problem-Free.

Providing life-support for dying groups.  You may have never thought about this.  You may be such a warm hearted person that you’d never even think about letting a group die.  But if you’re the kind of small group pastor who will do anything to help prop up a dying group (i.e., send them another couple or two)…you need to know that this is a terrible idea!

If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, you must focus on starting new groups.  It may seem like the kind thing to do to “help” a dwindling group add another couple or two, but the truth is nearly every time you do that it comes at the expense of starting a new group.  See also, 5 Simple Small Group Ministry Moves with Exponential Payoffs and 5 Assumptions that Stunt Small Group Ministry Growth.

Matchmaking.  If you’re still taking sign-ups to be in a small group and then doing a homemade version of eHarmony to find just the right group for them based on the day of the week, life-stage of the members, part of town they live in and the extracurricular activities of their kids…that is a terrible idea!

I stopped taking sign-ups to be in a group when I had two powerful realizations:

  1. Motivation to join a group is a very fleeting thing (and ends just about the moment they hand you their form).
  2. A kind of Murphy’s Law exists that virtually guarantees that the person that fills out the form is almost never the person who answers the phone when a leader calls.  (i.e., “Who is this?  I didn’t sign up for a couples group!  Stop calling!).

Unless you are overstaffed and have fewer than about 10 groups, you need to stop taking sign-ups to be in a group and focus on strategies that start new groups or automate the process (for example, with a groupfinder like ChurchTeams).  See also, Top 10 Articles on Launching New Groups and  4 GroupLife Urban Legends that May Be Killing Your Ministry.

Settling for warm and willing.  When you are recruiting coaches for your small group ministry, settling for warm and willing instead of holding out for hot and qualified is always a terrible idea!  Whether you’re just working to provide the right span of care or you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, settling for warm and willing always cripples your coaching structure.

Far better to set your sights on hundred-fold, high capacity leaders of leaders and never settle.  It is far easier to get someone into a job than out of a job.  Why waste time and energy on the wrong person?  See also, How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure and Imagine If Your Coaching Structure Looked Like This?

Impersonating a champion.  Encouraging or allowing anyone other than your senior pastor to play the role of small group champion is a crime and an extremely terrible idea!  Whether you serve with a senior pastor who desperately wants to delegate the role or you’ve been operating under the assumption that you’re not earning your keep if you’re not the champion…you cannot build a thriving small group ministry if you allow that to happen!

The most influential person in your congregation is almost always (99.99% of the time) your senior pastor.  When they speak, people listen.  When they ask, people respond.  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry with more adults in groups than attend your weekend worship service, insist on the right person playing the role of champion.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.

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

Image by Robert Terrell

Enlist Your Congregation in the Mission with “Life on Mission”

Life on Mission largeHad an opportunity to preview a new church-wide campaign from Tim Harlow (produced by Lifetogether and published by  Life on Mission: God’s People Finding God’s Heart for the World is a 6 week campaign that “offers clear Bible teaching designed to empower you to share your faith with people right in your own neighborhood.”

If you’re not familiar with Tim Harlow, he is the senior pastor of Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park, Illinois, one of the fastest growing churches in America for 7 of the last 10 years.  I had the great privilege of serving on Tim’s staff at Parkview and am so excited that his teaching ended up in a campaign we can all take advantage of!

Taking his cue from Acts 1:8, the teaching centers on the powerful realization that although reaching the world is important, the United States is actually the 4th largest mission field opportunity and God has placed us where we are for a reason.  Based on Tim’s new book by the same title, I love the way the teaching zeroes in on reaching our own Jerusalem.

DVD-driven, the sessions average 14 to 18 minutes in length and feature a combination of Harlow’s very engaging style of teaching, compelling stories from church members, and a collection of short vignettes by Mindy Caliguire, Tom Holladay, Gene Appel, Jud Wilhite, Lee Strobel, Cam Huxford, Kyle Idelman, Cal Jernigan and Alan Hirsch.

The Life on Mission study guide includes a video viewing guide, an engaging set of discussion questions, a section devoted to applying what you’ve learned, and a digging deeper section designed to help those ready to explore the topic further.  Each of the six sessions also includes a short set of daily quiet time experiences.  A good set of leader and group resources are included in the study guide.

The Life on Mission campaign kit also includes a resource disc loaded with downloadable sermons, series artwork, powerpoint slides, and much more.

If you’re looking for a church-wide campaign that will help your whole congregation step into mission, Life on Mission is calling your name.  I found it very compelling 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.”

7 Ways to Add Prayer to Your Church-Wide Campaign Preparation

I’ve written about the importance of prayer in your church-wide campaign, but I haven’t let you in on some of the best prayer ideas that I’ve come across.  See also, Note to Self: Don’t Forget to Pray for Your Church-Wide Campaign.

7 ways to add prayer to your campaign preparation:

  1. Challenge your staff and other key leaders to pray daily for the campaign.  This may go without saying, but involving your staff and key leaders (elders, deacons, etc.) in praying daily will be a unifying experience.
  2. Invite your staff and other key leaders to meet together in the morning to pray for the campaign.  I personally experienced the power of this idea while on the staff at Woodlands Church.  In preparation for Easter we would meet before the work day began and pray as a staff team for Easter.
  3. Enlist a prayer coordinator and team to both pray daily for the campaign and create opportunities for your congregation to pray.  Long an ingredient in Saddleback’s campaigns, every church has prayer warriors.  Involve them in the effort.
  4. Provide opportunities for others to join in praying for the campaign.  Whether you collect names on a clipboard, sign-up cards, use a “text to join” strategy, or post a link on your website, opening up engagement beyond your usual suspects will help include new participants.
  5. Challenge all of your current small group leaders and coaches to pray daily for the campaign.  When you’re preparing for a campaign, existing leaders are often overlooked and many times we presume they know what is coming and are planning to join in.  Don’t presume.  Reach out to them.  Use your senior pastor’s influence to cast vision and challenge them to join you in praying.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.
  6. Distribute a 7 day prayer guide with every HOST packet.  Here is a simple form I’ve included in new host packets for over 10 years.  I got the idea for this 7 day prayer guide from the 40 Days of Purpose campaign kit.
  7. Incorporate prayer for the campaign in your worship services 2 to 3 months before it begins.  Making the campaign part of your public prayers in your worship services will allow your congregation to catch fleeting glimpses of God’s heart for unconnected people.

Listen.  However you do it, don’t forget to pray for your campaign.  It is a powerful strategy but without God’s involvement it is just a strategy.

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

10 of the Most Overused Small Group Ministry Buzzwords

buzzwordsEver heard someone use a word or a phrase and there was something about the way they said it that made you realize…they didn’t know what it meant?  I remember when a friend of mine kept talking about the long tail (a business term) and ecosystem (or some other buzzword, I don’t remember) and it was so obvious to everyone else that he had no clue what either of the words actually meant!  To use a now ancient buzzword…it was emperor’s new clothes obvious.

Think there are buzzwords that we use and sometimes don’t actually know what they mean?  Or sometimes use in a way that is significantly different than everyone else?  I think there’s more than you might think!

Here are 10 of the most overused small group ministry buzzwords:

  1. Disciples who make disciples.  This actually might be the most overused small group ministry buzzword right now.  Not because it’s pretentious or anything.  Mostly because you’re probably not actually a disciple if you’re not making disciples.
  2. Spiritual formation.  If it’s complicated…it’s probably not legit.  I like what Dallas Willard said in Renovation of the Heart“Spiritual formation…is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite form or character. It is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of a spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. Period.”  Thank you Dallas.  See also, What Have You Designed Your Groups to Make.
  3. Life-change.  As in, “the optimal environment for life-change is a small group.”  I don’t know about you, but I’ve run across more than a few groups where there is very little change of any kind going on.  It is to be desired and designed into every group.  See also, Skill Training: Design Your Group Meeting for Life-Change and 10 Ideas that Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry.
  4. Doing life together.  Love the term.  Hate the idea that to some it actually means 7 to 9 p.m. on the 1st and 3rd Thursdays.  That’s not it.  See also, The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group.
  5. Free market groups.  This term refers to a very specific strategy described in the book Dog Training, Fly Fishing and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century.  It gets used incorrectly lots of other ways to lump in just about everything.
  6. Missional communities.  Again, this term refers very specifically to a very well defined strategy promoted by Mike Breen, 3DM, and others.  It isn’t just that you have a group of 25 instead of 12 or that your group periodically meets in a 3rd place like Starbucks.
  7. Authentic community.  Okay…there is only authentic community.  Everything else is counterfeit or pseudo community.  See also, 4 Countercultural Characteristics of Authentic Community.
  8. Lower the bar/Raise the bar.  Maybe this is my issue alone, but the point is to make it easy to begin and nearly automatic that leader development happens.
  9. Small group champion.  When this term is used to describe anyone other than your senior pastor it isn’t necessarily incorrect, it’s just less powerful.  See also, 5 Things Every Small Group Pastor Needs to Know on Day 1.
  10. Healthy span of care.  I use this term almost every day and then almost always work my way through the Exodus 18 passage the concept is based on.  It is essentially the idea that everyone needs to be cared for by someone but no one can care for more than about 10.  A healthy span of care fits that definition, but every care structure has its own nuance.  See also, Span of Care.

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

Image by Gavin Llewellyn

Quotebook: Thoroughly Conscious Ignorance

As you know, I’ve long been an advocate of being a learner.  Reading broadly, stoking curiosity, exploring stacks of seemingly unrelated material and curating collections of great questions are all part and parcel of the journey.

Watching Stuart Firestein’s TED video on the pursuit of ignorance was just one of my most recent excursions.  I came away with several great quotes and a new appreciation for my own willingness to experiment in a search for better ways to connect people and make followers of Jesus.  If you’ve never seen it you can watch it right here.

Here is the quote that caught my attention:

“Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”  James Clerk Maxwell

I know this is ostensibly a quote about science.  No matter.  It is actually about the idea that only when we are aware (conscious) of our own limited knowledge (ignorance) of how things work, will we become open to what is still possible.

Why is this important?  Clearly, our current strategies have proven ineffective at connecting the widening 60%.  Want to connect them?  I do…and it will take a collection of strategies we have not yet discovered.  See also, Different Leads to a Church OF Groups.

You Know You Have the Right Small Group System When…

system assembly lineHow do you know you have chosen the right small group system?  Can you know?  I think you probably can.

While there are at least half a dozen different small group systems, none of them are problem-free.  Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.  See also, How to Choose a Small Group System or Model.

So…how do you know you have chosen the right small group system?

You know you have the right small group system when…

  • …its design is consistent with the business you are in.  For example, if you claim to be in the disciple-making business, your system must be designed to make disciple-making an ordinary and everyday outcome.  Pointing to the exceptions as evidence is not proof that you have the right system.  See also, If I Was Starting Today and The First Question Every Small Group Pastor Must Answer.
  • …what you’ve predetermined you will call “success” is actually happening on a regular basis.  If you’ve written down what you will call a win and it’s actually happening, then you’ve probably chosen the right small group system.  If what you’ve predetermined you will call success only happens on the whiteboard when you’re casting vision and dreaming about your preferred future…there’s a pretty good chance you’ve chosen the wrong system.  See also, If I Was Starting Today, Part 3 and The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group.
  • …it effectively engages the kind of people you have identified as your primary customers.  For example, if you claim to be about connecting unconnected people your system will be designed to keep their interests at the center of the bullseye.  If you regularly choose study topics that appeal to the appetites of the already connected (and already convinced), there is something wrong with your system.  See also, Does Your Topic Connect with Your True Customer.
  • …your percentage connected is gaining on (or has surpassed) 100%.  If life-change happens best in circles, not in rows, then your system must be designed to connect unconnected people at a faster clip than your crowd is growing.  Is that not self-evident?  To use Andy Stanley’s line, “Your ministry (your small group system) is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re currently experiencing.”  See also, 5 Keys to Taking New Ground in 2014.
  • …finding enough small group leaders is not a barrier to growth.  This is a test that must be run on small group systems.  If you “love your system” but struggle to find enough qualified leaders to launch a sufficient number of new groups, it is not an unsolved mystery.  There is a direct link between they system you are using and your ability to identify, recruit and develop leaders.  See also, Is An Artificial Barrier Limiting Growth in Your Small Group Ministry.

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

Image by Ford Europe

Here’s Where I’ll Be This Summer

What are your summer plans?  I’ve got a few dates that I thought you might like to know about.

I’m going to presenting a free workshop, How to Build a Thriving Small Group Ministry,  in 4 west coast* cities in August.  

  • Seattle: Monday, August 4th from 9:15 to 11:15 a.m. at Calvary Renton Baptist, 1032 Edmonds Ave NE, Renton, WA 98056
  • Phoenix: Tuesday, August 5th from 9:15 to 11:15 a.m. at North Phoenix Baptist Church, 5757 N Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85012
  • Denver: Monday, August 11th in Denver from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at Mission Hills Church, 20 Southpark Dr. Littleton, CO 80120
  • San Diego: Tuesday, August 12th in San Diego from 9:15 to 11:15 a.m. at LifeWay Christian Store, 8807 Clairemont Mesa Blvd, San Diego, CA 92123

You can register for my FREE workshop right here.

Can’t make it?  Stayed tuned!  I’m always adding new opportunities.

Here are two more training opportunities (not free, but well worth the cost):

  • Supercharge Your Fall Ministry Season: My new four week short course is designed to give you a few ideas and strategies that will help you launch more groups, connect way beyond the usual suspects, sustain the groups you launch, and build next steps for everyone you connect.  You can find out about it right here.
  • Fall 2014 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network: Launching in September, this is a 6 month coaching experience that will help you whether you are an experienced veteran or new to small group ministry.  You can find out about it right here.

Win a Freeway Church Wide Campaign Kit and Group Kit!


This contest is closed!  Stay tuned for more opportunities to win!

I am so excited about the one of the best give-aways I’ve ever offered!  Freeway is one of the freshest studies I’ve ever reviewed.  New from Mike Foster and People of a Second Chance, Freeway: A Not So Perfect Guide to Freedom is a powerful seven session study by Mike Foster and Garry Poole.  Built on God’s amazing grace, honest conversations with friends, and finding freedom from deepest pain and struggles, Freeway is way more than a study.  It’s an experience in the very best sense of the word. I am always on the lookout for topics that are cross-cultural, that is they make sense to our friends, neighbors, family and co-workers, too.  Freeway fits this bill perfectly!  You can learn more about it right here. To support the contest, People of the Second Chance has put together a great offer!  Two winners will receive:

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 Freeway Church Kit by Mike Foster, a $297 value”

The contest ends on Monday, July 21, at noon (PT).  Thanks for playing!

The Most Important Contribution of a Small Group Pastor

important contributionThere are a number of very important ingredients in the role of small group pastor or director.  It isn’t a job for the faint of heart. and wishful thinking won’t get it done.  See also, FAQ: Do You Have a Job Description for a Small Group Director?

There are five things every small group pastor needs to know on day 1 and the very first thing they need to know is their role.  While there are a number of key aspects to their role, and all of them are important, I believe there is a most important ingredient; a most important contribution.  See also, 5 Things Every Small Group Pastor Needs to Know on Day 1 and 6 Essential Characteristics of an Effective Coach.

The most important contribution of a small group pastor is to be a role model

I believe the most important contribution of a small group pastor is to be a role model, doing to and for your leaders (or coaches as your ministry grows) whatever you want them to do to and for the members of their groups.  Does that sound familiar?  It should.  It is simply the natural extension of one of our most basic assumptions:  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.

This is not a new idea.  It is an old idea.  It is at the heart of building a thriving small group ministry.  It is actually one of the 5 most overlooked secrets of building a thriving small group ministry.

So here’s the million dollar question: are you making this most important contribution?

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

Image by Angus

“They Just Don’t Know What’s Good for Them” #irrationality

“They just don’t know what’s good for them.”

“If they knew what was good for them, they’d sign up for a small group.”

“If they knew what was good for them, they’d attend worship and stay for Sunday school.”

“If they knew what was good for them, they’d be leading a small group.”

Ever said anything like that?  I think it’s safe to say all of us have said something like that.  And that’s understandable.  It’s probably even human nature.

It’s understandable and it’s probably human nature…but it’s actually a kind of irrationality.

I love Peter Drucker’s take on the idea that the customer is irrational (a common complaint in business).

“To assume–as has lately become fashionable–that customers are irrational is as dangerous a mistake as it is to assume that the customer’s rationality is the same as that of the manufacturer or supplier–or that it should be.”  Peter Drucker, Managing for Results

Next time you feel overwhelmed by the need to say that “they just don’t know what’s good for them,” keep in mind that they don’t share your worldview…or your irrationality.  See also, Avoid These 4 Realities at Your Own Peril.

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

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