GroupLife Philosophy for the 21st Century

Disclosure: Depending on your own bias or bent, you might read this rant as either heresy, confirmation that I’ve lost it, or maybe something worth sharing with your team.

To start with, at some level I believe the missional community strategy and the current discipleship emphasis are both needed and smokescreens at the same time (I’ve wrestled quite a bit over this sentence).

Why?  Just give me a few minutes.  Trust me…I’m sure we’ll have a lot to argue about.

First, I am more and more convinced that as we move deeper into the 21st century, it will become more and more likely that the front door of the Church in America will shift from the auditorium to the home.

Every indicator is screaming that we are rapidly moving in this direction.  From Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christiansthe widening 60% that are unreachable with the attractional model, and Barna’s recent study on the arrival of post-Christianity…let’s just say, we are not in Kansas anymore (even if you are in Kansas…you are probably already seeing the signs too).

Second, I am coming to believe the missional community strategy is mostly needed in churches whose weekend services are primarily designed for believers.  Even excluding fortress churches (where Christians huddle, isolating themselves from the evils of the world, sending their children to their church’s Christian school, etc.), it’s my belief that a high percentage of the members of believer focused churches don’t know their neighbors and don’t have friends at work (perhaps acquaintances, but not friends).

In that kind of environment, missional communities make a lot of sense.

On the flip side, in most of the churches I’ve served, where the weekend service is designed to be an inviting experience for friends and neighbors (attractional), it is very common for members to both know their neighbors and have friends at work.  See also, Do You Know about This Game-Changing Connection Secret.

Third, the discipleship emphasis is needed but should never be seen as an invitation to a more intensive program.  Rather, a small group is only the optimum environment for life-change if it is about becoming like Christ.  When I look back at my own grouplife journey, my understanding is very much formed by Willow Creek’s small group ministry mission statement (circa early 90s):

“To connect people relationally in groups of 6 to 10, where they can grow in Christ, love one another, and further the work of the Kingdom.” (I might be off by a word or two, but you get the idea)

Discipleship is an expectation.  “Where they can grow in Christ.”  It isn’t an add-on or an elective.

Finally, here are the assumptions that underpin my grouplife philosophy:

  1. The small group is the optimum environment for life-change.  See also, Life-Change at the Member Level.
  2. Groups that are welcoming to neighbors and friends will increasingly become the front door to the Church in the 21st century.  See also, Open Groups, Closed Groups, and Specialized Groups.
  3. Whatever you want group members to experience has to happen in the life of the leader first.  See also, What Is the Role of the Coach?

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

Skill Training: Learn to Celebrate What God is Doing in Your Group

Whether you’re finishing a challenging study, coming to the end of a semester, or completing an outreach or mission project…celebration ought to be part of the culture of your group.

It’s important to build a culture of celebration for at least three reasons:

First, if the journey your group is on on is about life-change…you’re definitely going to want to acknowledge the spiritual steps your members are taking.  Second, discipleship really is a team sport.  When group members take important steps, it’s very common for several members to have played key roles in praying for, encouraging and challenging.  Finally, what gets celebrated gets repeated.

What are some ways you can incorporate celebration into your group?  Here are 5 ideas:

  1. Set aside a group meeting just to revel in completing a season together.  Include a meal together.  Instead of finishing a study and immediately beginning another, take the time to reflect on what you’ve learned and how you’ve been challenged.  Most importantly, take the time to recognize steps that your members have taken.
  2. Get everyone involved.  Celebrating is infectious.  Don’t forget to get as many of your members involved in the celebration as possible.  Give them an opportunity to prepare.  Ask everyone to bring a note or card.
  3. Celebration is an opportunity for a little extravagance.  If there’s a moment when it makes sense to go all out…it’s when you’ve got something to celebrate!  How can you make the celebration a memorable moment?  What memento can you include that will become a cherished keepsake?
  4. Affirmation is an important ingredient for every group.  Asking group members to acknowledge each other’s growth is a powerful ingredient to group experience.  Simply saying, “Let’s take a moment and share with Bob one thing that you see God doing in his life.”
  5. Never miss the chance to celebrate any spiritual step.  Commitment to Christ.  Baptism.  Returning from a mission trip.  These are just a few opportunities to celebrate.  Take pictures and frame them.  Buy cards and have everyone write a note.  Pitch in and buy a Bible for certain steps.  Write notes affirming members who make commitments.

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

7 Perplexing Dilemmas of Small Group Pastors and Directors

Call them dilemmas, issues or problems…we all have them.  Here are what I’ve found to be the most common…and some steps you can take to break through the barrier:

  1.  My senior pastor won’t be the champion of small groups.  There are several basic reasons for this.  Some don’t want to play favorites and choose one ministry over another.  Others feel like they’ve hired you to be the champion!  Either way, until your senior pastor moves into the champion role small group ministry will be limited.  What can you do?  See How Can I Tell My Pastor about This?
  2. My senior pastor isn’t in a small group.  This is a different issue than #1.  Sometimes they feel like they’re too busy.  More often than not they feel a little threatened by the prospect of letting down their guard with members of their congregation.  What can you do?  Suggest they assemble their own group of very trusted friends.  Several of my pastors have had hand-selected small groups with carefully chosen members who became deeply connected.  See also, Diagnosis: Senior Pastor Buy-In and 10 Commandments of Small Group Ministry.
  3. I can’t find enough coaches.  While this is a very common dilemma, it’s almost always a matter of intentionality, effort and vision casting.  We all have people that could coach and would be very effective.  Identifying them, recruiting them, and keeping them engaged is a challenge, but it can be done.  See also, Three Keys to a Coaching Tune-Up, The End in Mind for an Effective Coaching Structure, and Where Can I Find New Coaches?
  4. I can’t find enough leaders.  This is a big challenge, especially when we don’t know what to look for, where to look, or are looking for the wrong thing.  The solution is almost always about clarifying what it takes to be a leader and re-imagining how they are recruited.  See also, Small Group Leaders: Finding, Recruiting and Developing and Raising the Bar, Lowering the Bar or Open Bar.
  5. My church’s buffet approach makes it hard for people to know what to choose.  This is a very common issue.  In my experience most churches actually offer a buffet and only rarely recognize the resulting challenges.  Is there a solution?  I believe there is. but it takes some work.  Choosing which of the menu items will be promoted in a given season will make a great difference.  Beginning to think strategically about how certain menu items can be refreshed to become strategic steps on the way to the right destination is essential.  See also, A “Plated Meal” Leads to a Church OF Groups, Think Steps, Not Programs, and Making GroupLife On-Ramps Easy, Obvious and Strategic.
  6. Our adult Sunday School directors think we’re slighting them when we promote off-campus small groups.  This is a common dilemma but not insurmountable.  The real secret?  Lots of sensitive conversations.  There’s no getting around it.  Lots of coffee.  Plenty of lunches.  Framing the issue in a way that opens eyes without cheapening or demeaning the value of on-campus strategies like Sunday School.  See also, But We Have Adult Sunday School! and How to Build a Small Group Ministry in a Church with a Sunday School Culture.
  7. We’re stuck in terms of percentage connected.  Almost everyone struggles with this dilemma.  It’s not unique to your situation.  The key to breaking through to a new level almost always has to do with diagnosing the very first step in your strategy.  Here’s the essential question: Does what you’re offering make sense to unconnected people?  See also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected PeopleWhat Percentage of Your Adults are Actually Connected?, Four Questions that Evaluate Small Group Model Effectiveness, Do You Know This Connection Secret? and Does Your Topic Connect with Your True Customer?

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

Even a Lizard Can Respond to Come and See

LizardBefore we get into it, the answer is yes…that is a lizard.  I think it is a southern aligator lizard.  I snapped this picture when it crashed a recent small group ministry event at Saddleback.  Seriously, it meandered through the room from front to back, creating a little bit of mayhem every time it got a hair too close to a foot or disappeared under a table.

What’s Up with the Title of This Post?

You might be wondering about the title of this post.  Here’s the backstory.  There’s a running conversation these days about discipleship.  Some have asked, “Are we really making disciples in our small groups?  Or have we settled for simply connecting people into community?”  Some wonder if we’ve made “an idol of community that needs to be knocked over?”  And some even make the bold statement that we do a disservice to everyone who responds to our invitation to join a small group to satisfy their most basic felt need (belonging) without pointing out our end-in-mind (becoming).

Can I offer a few observations from the gospels?*

First, a simple check of A.T. Robertson’s A Harmony of the Gospels reveals a series of interesting insights about Jesus’ invitations.  Looking at the gospel events in their probable sequence indicates that Jesus’ first invitation was to simply “come and see.” (John 1:35-51)  Note the conspicuous absence of much of a disclaimer.  Simply “come and see.”  See also, The Twelve Were Not Chosen from the Core.

Second, the next invitation seems to happen about a year later.  In an event reported in Mark 1:16-20, Matthew 4:18-22, and Luke 5:1-11 Jesus invites Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John to “follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  Obviously, a little more to this invitation than “come and see.”  Responding to the invitation and the miracle described in Luke 5, the four men leave their family businesses and follow.

Third, sometime later Jesus invites Levi the tax collector (Matthew) to “follow.”  (Mark 2:13-17, Matthew 9:9-13, Luke 5:27-32)  More than “come and see.”  Is this Levi’s first encounter with Jesus?  Who knows.

Fourth, still later, Jesus spends a whole night in prayer and “called His disciples and chose twelve of them (Mark 3:13-19 and Luke 6:12-16).”  I just want to point out that He apparently chose the twelve from among a larger group.  He designated the twelve apostles.  And He was 11 for 12.

Finally, every reference to a “come and die” invitation happens in the last year of Jesus’ three year ministry.

My takeaways:

  1. The gospels illustrate conclusively that Jesus operated with a “crowd-to-core” strategy.  His initial invitations were not hard.  In fact, they were easy.  They were a no-brainer.  “Come and see.”  Anyone suggesting that the entrance requirements were high is simply not being honest about the sequence of events in the gospels.  By the way…there were no disclaimers about what would happen later.
  2. Jesus’ strategy was fluid and met people where they were at the moment.  His invitations were customized to the person.  Note the difference between what He says in Matthew 8:18-22 and Mark 5:1-20.  See also, Next Steps for Everyone…and First Steps for Their Friends.
  3. Jesus made progressively more challenging asks of His disciples.  Luke 9:23 is in the game plan, but it is not first.  “Come and die” happens later…but it does happen.  It is not possible to read the gospels and find community without an invitation to progressive abandonment to the Kingdom.

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

*I have a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  I am not a biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination…but I do know how to use the tools.  I wish to the core of my being that I would have been more diligent in my studies with Dr. Curtis Vaughan and Dr. Jack MacGorman…but I stand, albeit unsteadily, on the shoulders of giants.

Don’t Miss This New Study from Jennie Allen – Chase: Chasing after the Heart of God

chaseYou might not know this name…but I think you will.  If you haven’t checked out Chase: Chasing after the Heart of God, you need to.  If you’ve never heard of Jennie Allen…you will.  Chase is good stuff.  Very good stuff.

Chase “explores the events that defined David’s life and the Psalms that flowed out of those experiences.”  The study is put together in a way that will provide new insights into David’s own chase–what he found himself pursuing–while helping women discover what God really wants from them.

A DVD-driven study, the videos are each 8 to 12 minutes long.  Just long enough to provide a foundation for the topic of conversation and study.  If you’re used to the longer format teaching videos in many women’s studies, you might be tempted to think the videos aren’t long enough.  Don’t.  Featuring Jennie Allen and set in (of all places) Marfa, Texas, every session is captivating and will set up discussion very well.

The study guide is well written and is designed to provide the pre-meeting experience.  A combination of the familiar dig into scripture homework along with thought-provoking and creatively designed projects skillfully prepares for a very engaging weekly meeting.  The homework can be done over several days or on a single day.

The most intriguing aspect of the Chase study are the conversation cards.  Designed to “provide a unique way of starting deep, honest conversations about what you’re chasing after,” I love the idea of the cards!  Each of the 8 sessions have their own cards that help members begin with scripture and end with application.  If you have a larger small group (or are meeting as a larger women’s Bible study) you can purchase additional decks of conversations cards.

The leader’s guide might be one of the most complete I’ve ever reviewed.  Very well designed with lots of resources to help both brand new and experienced leaders facilitate the best experience possible for their members.

Whether you lead an off-campus women’s small group or are looking for a study that will work for your on-campus Bible study, Chase: Chasing after the Heart of God ought to be on your list to check out.   I really like this study and I think you will too.  Most important, this is a study that will help women chase the heart of God.

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: Learn How to Apply Scripture As a Group

Whether we realize it or not, there are a number of benefits in doing life together:

  • Because every member has a unique shape or wiring, they bring different spiritual gifts, life passions, abilities, personalities and experiences to the conversation.
  • Because every part of the body is necessary, there are things we miss out on when we’re not part of a group.  1 Corinthians 12
  • Because every member is different from a spiritual maturity standpoint, there’s a role for everyone in the group. Depending on the biblical principle, I might be the student sometimes and other times I might be the teacher.

An often unrealized benefit to doing life together in a group is learning to apply scripture together.  To become doers of the word and not hearers only” (James 1:22 HCSB) is almost always a team sport!

Here are four practices that can help you learn how to apply scripture as a group:

  1. Regularly include questions in your time together that pull toward application.  Whether you’re studying the Bible together or simply sharing a meal, steering conversation toward application moves the experience from information to transformation.  As important as it is to understand what the Bible means, if we don’t get to doing what it says we miss the point.
  2. Provide opportunities in group meetings to model or role play application.  Different learning styles (verbal, visual, physical, etc.) make it essential to build in different ways of teaching the principle.  Sam O’Neal has a great series of posts on learning styles.
  3. Add offline check-ins as an essential ingredient.  Groups that only interact during their meeting time rarely experience the depth of connection that produces life-change.  A quick phone call, a Facebook message or text, meeting for coffee or even sitting together in the worship service takes relationship to a new level.  Building in the practice of asking, “Have you been able to put what we learned into practice?” goes a long way toward becoming doers.
  4. Add a “how’d your week go?” component to every meeting.  Spending a few minutes talking about how members applied what was learned last week brings scripture to life.  Without application, learning never moves from information to transformation.

The key in all four practices?  Group leaders set the pace.  Speed of the leader, speed of the team is an often quoted axiom of grouplife.  It’s never more true than in learning to apply scripture as a group.  See also, 5 Keys to a More Dynamic Group Experience.

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

Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability

Do you know about Brené Brown?  What if our small group leaders could learn this?

Can’t see the video? You can watch it right here.  By the way, if you haven’t read Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, it’s probably what you need to be reading.

5 Cross-Cultural Church-Wide Campaigns That Ought to Be on Your Radar

Looking for a church-wide campaign that connects with neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members?  Maybe one that is on a topic that unchurched people care about and in a language that won’t require a translator?  That’s what I call a cross-cultural church-wide campaign.

Here are my 5 favorites right now.

Soul Detox: Every once in a while, a study comes along that just seems a perfect fit for the needs and interests of the culture.  Soul Detox: Clean Living in a Contaminated World, based on Craig Groeschel’s newest book, is one of those studies.  With built elements of a church-wide campaign, this is a study that many churches will want to take a look at. An engaging look at five of the most damaging issues in our culture, this is a very practical study.  Read my full review.

Stolen: Looking for creative small group resources?  You might want to take a look at Stolen, a study from Chris and Kerry Shook.  Taking its cue from John 10:10, Stolen takes a look at how the Enemy uses our circumstances to rob us of treasures like passion, joy, peace, strength, and dreams. Recognized as one of today’s most creative communicators, Woodlands Church Pastor Kerry Shook and his wife, Chris, will lead you into a discovery of the ways you can reclaim the treasures God intended for you. A six session study, the DVD segments have a creative twist that sets up the discussion.  Read my full review.

WEiRD: There’s a DVD-driven study that you’re going to want to take a look at.  Published by Zondervan,  WEIRD: Because Normal Isn’t Working is a great companion to Craig Groeschel’s popular book by the same name. Inspired by Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:13-14 and the central idea that the “broad road leads to destruction” (normal) and the “narrow road” leads to life (weird), the study takes a look at a set of topics that will make sense to Christians and non-Christians alike (making WEIRD a very compelling option for a church-wide campaign). This one will take a little more work than the other four, but it’s such a compelling example, I couldn’t not include it.  A really good DVD and participant guide, you’ll have to visit the LifeChurch.tv site to retrieve the sermons and other creative elements.  Read my full review.

Pete Wilson, the founding and senior pastor of Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tennessee is widely recognized as one of America’s most creative communicators.  This study makes it easy to see why.  Based on his recent book, Empty Promises: The Truth About You, Your Desires, and the Lies You’re Believing, this 6 session study is going to be very popular. Similar in design to Putting Plan B into Action (released in 2011), each session is anchored by a visually creative teaching video featuring Pete Wilson.  8 to 10 minutes in length, the six video segments are consistently captivating as a back story emerges.  Way more than a talking head, the creative use of story compellingly illustrated in the background makes the truth of scripture come alive visually.  Read my full review.

what on earth am i here forIf you’re wondering what to do for your next church wide campaign, you’ve got to at least consider taking advantage of What On Earth Am I Here For? So powerful and it addresses questions that everyone has. An easy invite for neighbors and friends, this is a truly cross-cultural topic. At the same time, it will take your congregation to a new place. I really like this new edition and I think you will, too! Need more information? You can find out more in my full review.

Want more ideas?  There are plenty more where these 5 came from.  You’ll find an almost complete list in The Latest on Church-Wide Campaigns (2012).

In the Company of Brothers (and Sisters)

the lobbySometimes you end up with an unexpectedly rich experience.  Last night and today over 120 grouplife practitioners have gathered for a time to refresh, share ideas, and prepare for the next run.  So good to see many long time friends.  So good to meet so many new friends.

Honestly…the passion all of us share, the mission we are on, the race we are running, cannot be run alone.  I’m glad you’re part of the tribe that runs with me!  And at the same time, I want to encourage you to find some brothers and sisters  in the cause that you can gather with.

One great way to find a few kindred spirits is to join the Small Group Network.  It’s free.  It’s just about everywhere.  And you’ll find a kind of encouragement and camaraderie born of shared passion and commitment.

Wish you were here!

Must Have Personal Growth Resource: A Resilient Life by Gordon MacDonald

resilient lifeA couple weeks ago I downloaded a copy of Gordon MacDonald’s A Resilient Life: You Can Move Ahead No Matter What.  This morning I was trying to remember how I heard about it.  Was it mentioned in an article?  Did I hear someone talk about it?  Honestly…I haven’t been able to recall how I heard about it.  But I do know what prompted me to download it once I heard about it.

I downloaded a copy because one of my core convictions is that whatever I want to happen at the member level in our small groups…has to be experienced by small group leaders first.  And it just follows that in  order for small group leaders (and coaches) to be able to pass anything of significance on to their members…I will need to set the pace.  In a very real sense I will need to be able to say, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 11:1 NIV

Like everything I’ve ever read of Gordon MacDonald’s, A Resilient Life is very readable.  Might even be called an easy read.  Certainly not a difficult read, but be careful that you don’t fly through it.  Take the time to re-read passages, making sure you’ve truly digested what is there.  Packed with great insights, powerful questions, and quotable lines, you’ll get so much more out of it if you’ll take the time to really consider what it is there.

I loved many of the chapters and my digital copy is full of highlights, notes, and bookmarks.  No doubt I’ll be referring to many of these principles as I spend time with the coaches and leaders in my ministry.  If you’re looking for some great stuff to chew on, I suggest you pick up a copy (or download one) of A Resilient Life.  So good.  You won’t be sorry.

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.”