Pushing Boundary-Free GroupLife

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How Are You Managing the Tension Between Theology and Ministry? (re:group Day Two)

manage tensionI came away with a number of profound insights from this year’s re:group Conference. One of my most eye-opening moments happened toward the end of Training Leaders to Engage Culture, a second day breakout.

Pointing to Jesus’ ability to focus on core issues of the faith while moving time and again “toward the messes,” Tim Cooper emphasized that we need to treat core issues of the faith differently than peripheral ones (as Jesus did when he went to Matthew’s house).

“Address core issues of the faith differently than peripheral ones.”

To help train their leaders to distinguish between core issues and peripheral issues North Point developed a “beliefs assessment” that measures a leader’s ability to make the distinction. You can see their beliefs assessment right here.

Here are some tips to help distinguish core versus peripheral (from the Beliefs Assessment):

  • Core issues are beliefs that are essential to faith.
  • Christians have considerable differences of opinion about peripheral beliefs.
  • While core issues have endured over time, many peripherals have changed over time.
  • Even if something is peripheral, that does not mean it is unimportant.
  • Statements about core beliefs can be pronounced publicly in the local church, but conversations about peripheral topics are many times better handled privately.
  • Whether a topic is core or periphery determines how much energy and emotion it warrants.

In explaining the thinking behind the beliefs assessment, Cooper pointed out that “the more issues that are core to you the harder you make it for people to turn to God.”

“The more issues that are core to you the harder you make it for people to turn to God.”

You can see their beliefs assessment right here.

Can you see their thinking? Have you ever thought through this tension? Have you ever trained your leaders to manage this tension?

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

Further Reading:

Image by Luke Addison

Influencing Culture: Jesus’ Model vs the Pharisees’ Model (re:group Day Two)

influence cultureIn yesterday’s post I gave you a quick overview of a second day breakout called Training Leaders to Engage Culture. If you haven’t read it, you might want to go back and catch up.

One of the big takeaways was embedded in a careful look at the difference between Jesus’ model for influencing culture vs the Pharisees’ model for influencing culture. Sharing an insight into Jesus’ model, the presenter (Tim Cooper) talked about an incident that Matthew records in Matthew 9:9-13:

“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’

12 On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'”

Pointing to verse 13 and citing an insight from Richard Beck’s Unclean, Cooper noted that sacrifice is intentionally moving toward purity (away from what is impure) while mercy is moving toward what is different.

“The Pharisees, seeking purity, pull away from the sinners. Jesus, seeking fellowship, moves toward the sinners.” Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, and Mortality.

And once again, I have to circle back to a great question from the breakout: “What’s encouraging your small group leaders to push through their natural instinct to avoid people God is trying to influence?”

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

Further Reading:

Image by Rachel Kramer

Training Leaders to Engage Culture (re:group Day Two)

engage cultureTraining Leaders to Engage Culture (re:group Day Two)

One of the most powerful takeaways I came away with was a renewed commitment to the importance of training small group leaders. Yes, adults learn on a need to know basis, and yes, I still believe the best practice is to do TO and FOR your leaders whatever you want them to do TO and FOR their members, but when leaders are well trained they will be better prepared to do something beyond facilitate a good discussion. And they will almost always need to be trained to engage culture.

If you read my post on Community for Everyone from day one of re:group you’ll know that I resonated deeply with the need to offer community to everyone (i.e., far beyond community for the usual suspects). As long as I can remember it has been my hope and ambition to reach deeply into the crowd and community to reach people who are far from God. I suspect that you read my blog because you share in that same hope and ambition.

And that leads me to an aha moment from the Community for Everyone breakout. Here’s the insight:

“The wider the diversity (you hope to include) the better the leader must be.”

Did you catch it? Do you see it? I can’t assume every small group leader has my passion for reaching people who are far from God. I also shouldn’t assume they have my intuition about what to say or how to engage. And as a result, I need to make sure I’m actually equipping small group leaders to engage culture.

Training Leaders to Engage Culture

Here is the introductory paragraph from the session notes of a breakout called Training Leaders to Engage Culture:

“From politics to sexuality there are numerous topics where culture intersects with faith and opinions vary. How we think about these issues is as important as what we think about them. In this breakout, we will take you through how we train volunteers to engage with culture. We’ll explore some root causes of existing cultural tensions and focus on how to walk alongside someone who has a viewpoint different from your own.”

I loved the 5 declaratory statements that were part of the breakout notes:

  1. We have to decide if we really want to influence the culture we live in. Note: The difference between what churches believe is true and right and what the culture believes is true and right creates a gap. How we teach people to handle the gap influences how we view and treat the people on the other side of the gap.
  2. Our ability to influence culture is limited by our disgust toward it.
  3. To overcome disgust, we must intentionally move toward the messes. Great Question: “What is encouraging your leaders to push through their natural instinct to avoid people God is trying to influence?”
  4. Jesus models how to influence culture. Note: It was right about here that Tim Cooper said, “If what someone is doing keeps you away from ministering to them, you have a higher standard than Jesus.”
  5. Managing the tension between theology and ministry requires work.

Can you make out the flow of the discussion?

I have to tell you, I’ve thought of little else since I attended this breakout. I am convinced that as the West becomes an increasingly post-Christian culture, it is imperative that we become better at engaging culture.

I found the conclusion of the breakout notes captivating:

“How we educate volunteers to engage with and influence culture is one of the most important things we will do as a church. When our devotion to God is illustrated, demonstrated, and authenticated by our love for others, we make it possible to change our culture…and our world.”

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

Image by Terry Shuck

Celebrating 1900 Posts: My 19 Favorites

celebrateYesterday I published my 1900th post here at


I began blogging here in early 2008. Although I don’t have accurate stats on readers and pageviews until 2009, I know it was a slow beginning in terms of traffic. Today…well today is different.

Here is my best attempt at my 19 favorite posts. This was very tough.

  1. 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader (October, 2013)
  2. 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People (May 2013)
  3. What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People? (June 2012)
  4. 7 Practices for Developing and Discipling Your Small Group Coaches  (December, 2013)
  5. 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group System (August, 2012)
  6. 7 Assumptions that Shape My Small Group Strategy (June, 2013)
  7. 5 Habits I’d Look for If I Was Hiring a Small Group Pastor (January, 2014)
  8. 7 Things You Must Do TO and FOR Your Small Group Leaders (October, 2015)
  9. 6 Essential Questions about Making Disciples and Small Group Ministry (November, 2014)
  10. Four Obsessions of the Extraordinary Small Group Pastor (February, 2015)
  11. 5 Stupid Things Small Group Pastors Need to Stop Doing (September, 2015)
  12. Ten Ideas that Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry (December, 2012)
  13. Top 5 Reasons Small Group Leaders Quit (August, 2015)
  14. 8 Secrets for Discovering an Unlimited Number of Leaders (December, 2014)
  15. 5 Things that Used to Work in Small Group Ministry (January, 2016)
  16. 5 Things You Need to Know about 21st Century Small Group Ministry  (September, 2015)
  17. Foundational Teaching: Next Steps for Everyone (October, 2015)
  18. 10 Things Small Group Pastors Should Always Be Thinking (September, 2015)
  19. 5 Clues that Point to a Change in Small Group Ministry (October, 2015)

What do you think?  Is your favorite missing?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Image by Shawn Nystrand

Quotebook: A Higher Standard than Jesus? (re:group Day Two)

quote marksThere are times every once in a great while when something a speaker says is so convicting it causes an audible gasp or sigh in the room. There was one of those times on Day Two of re:group in the session by Tim Cooper called Training Leaders to Engage Culture.

It was a statement that was not in the notes and I’m not sure if it was a quote. Here’s the line:

“If what someone is doing keeps you from ministering to them them, you have a higher standard than Jesus”

I hope I never forget that truth.

Community for Everyone (re:group Conference Day One)

everyoneI might be sharing key insights from re:group 16 for days. So good! I wish you had been there!

One of the two or three most powerful takeaways I came away with is a very good way of thinking about the importance of making community (available) for everyone.

To set the stage, here is the introductory paragraph in the session notes for Community for Everyone:

“If we want everyone to experience life-changing community, we need to make space in groups for people with a variety of lifestyles and theological beliefs. How do we create avenues for opportunities for dating couples living together? How do we help LGBT people experience a growing relationship with Jesus through community? In this breakout, we’ll explore what we’re learning as we try to move a diverse population from rows into circles.”

Think with me for a moment.

Like the North Point Ministries churches, our small group strategy is designed to form and launch groups for married couples, men (married and unmarried)  and women (married and unmarried). As a result, it is already more and more common for us to field questions from people who are trying to figure out if they fit or where they fit.

Are you answering those questions too?

Let me tell you, if you’re not yet wrestling with questions about “how can I/we participate or “I/we can participate” it is probably only a matter of time (a very brief time).

Again, I love the thinking behind North Point’s philosophy and strategy. Consider these three statements:

“Our mission as a church is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Check. That’s not how we say it but it is what we say. And you are probably the same.

“Our vision is to create churches that unchurched people want to attend.”

Check. I resonate with that vision and you probably do too.

Stop and think for one moment, through, before we continue.

Follow the thinking right here:

If you want unchurched people to attend and are praying that unchurched people to attend and God answers your prayer and unchurched people do attend…doesn’t it stand to reason that these same unchurched people will arrive with lifestyles and habits (and much more) that are consistent with and shaped by the culture?

How are you doing? Still with me?

Okay, so here’s the third statement:

“We believe for people to grow spiritually, they must be connected relationally.”

Check. I’m with you. We are with you.

And now, what must we do to make community available for everyone?

In our case, I’m certain we can’t easily fit everyone into our three categories. At least, not without a lot of forcing men and women to fit.

What do we need to do? What will we do?

We’re already on it. Stay tuned.

If you missed yesterday’s post, here it is: 18 Great Lines from Andy Stanley (re:group Conference Day One).

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

Image by Thomas Hawk

18 Great Lines from Andy Stanley (re:group Conference Day One)

quote marksAndy Stanley’s talk during the opening session of re:group ’16 was a serious collection of great groups one liners. Here are the ones I captured:

  1. After announcing that North Point Ministries has 72,000 people in groups. “20 years in people ask me, ‘What would you change if you started over?’ Our one numeric goal (to have 100,000 people in groups) has shaped everything. It has shaped everything including our budget. Your goals shape where the money goes. Groups is the best bet.”
  2. “People often come up to me and say, “I visited your church.” I tell them, “No you didn’t. You visited one of our worship services. Our church meets in circles.”
  3. “We wanted to build a community of Jesus followers who were in community.”
  4. “The most powerful form of evangelism is a community of Christians who love each other.”
  5. “The one another factor is the explanation of the first couple hundred years.”
  6. “Our kids think you’re supposed to be in a group and lead a group.”
  7. “The church doesn’t happen in rows. The church happens in circles.”
  8. “When people say, ‘I’m going to call the church,’ we should say, ‘no you’re not. You’re going to call somebody. The church meets in circles.'”
  9. “[Life-change] happens a little bit in rows and a lotta bit in circles.”
  10. Teaching on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, “When people are in circles, ‘the church’ automatically picks them up.”
  11. “Groups are like retirement savings. If people wait until they need it [to be picked up] they won’t have it when they need it.”
  12. “Groups are preventative. Somebody (in your group) can see what they can’t see. Somebody can always see it coming.”
  13. “Groups are preventative. You can’t measure prevention. You can measure what happens without it. There is way way more going on (in groups) than you can measure.”
  14. “Every marriage needs support now in order to avoid life support later.”
  15. “[Life-change] is cumulative. When you miss one time you don’t miss much. It happens over time.”
  16. “Your life would be better if the generation before you had been connected.”
  17. “The generation before us tells us that circles are better than rows.”
  18. “You can’t do in rows what you can do in circles.”

At the conference?  Have one to add? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

FAQ: What If My Senior Pastor Won’t…

what if my senior pastor wontFAQ: What If My Senior Pastor Won’t…

I get questions. A lot of questions.

My most frequently asked question? Probably has to do with “what if my senior pastor won’t…”

There are all sorts of these questions:

  • “What if my senior pastor won’t be the small group champion?”
  • “What if my senior pastor won’t narrow the focus, trim the belong and become menu, and prioritize now over then?”
  • “What if my senior will only preach expository sermons through books of the Bible?”
  • Etc.

As you can see, there are all sorts of these questions.

What if my senior pastor won’t be the small group champion?

Why don’t we start with this one: “What if my senior pastor won’t be the small group champion?”

First, it might help your senior pastor if they understood the role of the small group champion (what it is and what it isn’t).

Step One: Make sure your senior pastor knows that the role of the small group champion is simply to be the number one spokesperson for small groups: the optimal environment for life-change. Also, make sure they know the role of the small group pastor is to take care of the planning, the organization, the design, etc., making it easy for the senior pastor to simply focus on the champion role. See also, Essential Ingredients of Life-Change and Life-Change at the Member-Level.

Second, it might help you to determine the background for their reluctance. There may be several reasons why they won’t take on the mantle.

  • They may misunderstand what the small group champion does.
  • They may not understand why it is important for them to be the small group champion.
  • They may have been burned by a previous small group pastor who didn’t take care of their end of the bargain.
  • They may feel like their small group pastor is better qualified.
  • They may truly believe it is the small group pastor’s job.
  • They may not want to play favorites.
  • They may not want to seem to be playing favorites.
  • etc.

Step Two: Determine why, exactly why, they are reluctant to be the small group champion. How to go about this may require some gentle trial and error. Depending on your relationship with your senior pastor, your tenure on the staff, etc., determining the background for their reluctance may have to be learned over time. But…it is worth learning. See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #1: A Doubtful or Conflicted Senior Pastor.

Third, it may be that this is a game of inches, not yards (or miles). If every season is a step in the right direction, you will eventually arrive in about the right place.

Step Three: Be sure you are doing everything you need to do. Do the planning well in advance (i.e., What weekends could the small group launch be highlighted? What is the best sign-up method? How will the follow-up happen?) Fine tune the details (i.e., When must the sign-up form be printed? When will the names be entered into the database for follow-up? How will you be able to email sign-ups on behalf of your senior pastor? etc.). Script the ideal version of what you would like your senior pastor to say. See also, 6 Ways to Help Your Senior Pastor Make the Small Group Ask.

Conclusion: You can only do what you can do. Remember, your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing. Make your plan. Run the strategy. Determine results. Evaluate your strategy and begin to plan the next attempt.

In my own experience, the best results are actually developed over multiple efforts after careful planning, best-case execution, and thorough evaluation to discover the steps that could be improved.

Stay Tuned: Heading to re:group

NP_regroupFinally! My team heads for Atlanta this weekend to attend the re:group conference at North Point’s Buckhead Church campus on Monday and Tuesday. Such a good conference…every time. Can’t wait!

If you’ll be there and you want to connect, I hope to have a meet up during the break from 2:15 to 2:45 on Monday. If you want to join us, email me ( or tweet me (@MarkCHowell) and let me know!

And stay tuned right here for updates! Both of the last two re:group conferences have been loaded with takeaways! Here are the five posts from 2014 and 2013



quote marks“A new perspective could be sitting In the seat next to you.” Andrea Lucado

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