Connecting the “Nones”

One of the most important developments in our culture is the dramatic rise in the percentage of people who claim no religion at all.  A 2012 Pew Forum study titled “Nones on the Rise” indicates that one in five Americans (19.3%) claim no religious identity at all (up from 15% in 2008 and 8% in 1990).

One in five Americans claim no religious identity at all (19.3%)

Catch that?  One in five Americans claim no religious identity at all (19.3%) and that percentage has doubled in just over 20 years.

In The Rise of the Nones James Emery White refers to the 2012 Pew Forum study titled “Nones on the Rise” and notes that

“Only 28 percent say that belonging to a community of people with shared values and beliefs is important to them.  Yet they do believe that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community and aiding the poor.  Three quarters say religious organizations bring people together and help strengthen community bonds (78%), and a similar number say religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor and needy (77%).  In other words, we may have lost the opportunity to talk to them and do life with them, but we haven’t lost the opportunity to good to them, before them, and with them–good that will open their ears and hearts to the message of the gospel.”  (p. 100, The Rise of the Nones)

How will they be reached?  How will they be connected?  White believes we have entered a new era when the easiest way to reach the fastest growing demographic in our culture is with a cause they will embrace (i.e., water, orphan care, human trafficking, etc.).

Can you see how a small group might embrace a cause as a way to reach unchurched people?

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

What Will You Call a “Win” for the Groups in Your Ministry?

I’ve written several times in the past about clarifying the win for your small group ministry.  It’s an important concept and it’s an essential strategic step.  Peter Drucker referred to this concept in his question, “What are you going to call success.”  I listed it as the third thing I’d do if I was starting today.

Need an example?  I spelled out in detail what I think are the 5 non-negotiables for true small group ministry success right here.

What will you call a win for the groups in your ministry?

What will you call a win for the groups in your ministry?  I intentionally used the word “groups” instead of “small groups” because I want you to think more inclusively.  Every type of group should have its own win.

Your church has off-campus small groups, on-campus Sunday school for adults, adult Bible fellowships, Wednesday night discipleship groups, Men’s Fraternity and a Beth Moore Bible study?  No worries.  What will you call a win for each of them?

We ought to be carefully clarifying the win for every type of group in our ministries.  This is important: there might be a different win for every type of group.  That is, you might conclude that for the small groups in your ministry is that every group member would feel “connected, cared for and urged to grow” and the win for the Beth Moore study would simply be that women would grow in their love for the Bible.

With me?  We ought to be carefully clarifying the win for every type of group in our ministries.  This is a key strategic step.  Only after clarifying the win can you determine whether your ministry is succeeding or failing.

Is your win as simple as grow in attendance by 20%?  It could be…but hopefully you’ve identified a win that is more robust.  For example, you might have studied my 8 essential ingredients for life-change in groups of all kinds and determined that a win is that your groups are experiencing 6 of those ingredients.

We ought to be carefully clarifying the win for every type of group in our ministries.  This is a key strategic step.  Only after clarifying the win can you determine whether your ministry is succeeding or failing.

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

Groups of All Kinds and the Essential Ingredients of Life-Change

“A small group provides the optimal environment for the life-change Jesus intends for every believer.”  This was one of 5 core assumptions that were embedded in Willow Creek’s small group ministry strategy in the 90s.

Was it true?  Is it true?  I believe it was and is true but I also believe that in order for it to be true…certain ingredients must be present in the group* experience**.

*These are the ingredients for a group of any kind (i.e., small group, Sunday school class, Bible study, etc.).  **Experience is an important word because the group experience extends well beyond the meeting.

What must be true about a group for it to be the optimal environment for life-change?

I believe these are the 8 key ingredients:

  1. It must be centered on following Jesus.  For a group of any kind to be the optimal environment for life-change…it must be centered on following Jesus.  While following Jesus includes learning about Him, knowledge is not the end in mind.  Following is the end in mind.  Therefore, while learning is involved, becoming is primary.  See also, Small Group Ministry Myth #2: Effective at Connecting and Ineffective at Discipling.
  2. It must be an inclusive environment.  Jesus’ first invitation was, “Come and see.”  Embracing a “come and die” aspiration should not be prerequisite to entry.  “Come as you are” is deeply woven into the fabric of inclusivity.  See also, Recruiting Like Jesus.
  3. It must encourage intentionality.  While inclusive, there is an expectation of movement.  “Come as you are…and don’t stay that way” is at the heart of life-change.  Every group leader asks the question, “What is your next step?”
  4. It must be a safe  environment where transparency is the rule, not the exception.  “All’s well” and pseudo-community is where most groups live with masks on.  Life-change happens in groups where it is safe for the real me to show up.
  5. It must be an environment that encourages dialogue.  Monologues are often efficient for distributing information.  Monologues are rarely effective at producing the personal clarity and conviction that lead to next steps.  See also, Four Countercultural Characteristics of Authentic Community.
  6. It must facilitate a 24/7 sense of connection.  What happens in the group meeting is important.  What happens between meetings is the secret ingredient that enables the life-on-life engagement that Jesus’ closest followers experienced (as did Paul’s).  Groups whose only interaction is once a week from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. or 9:00 to 10:15 a.m. cannot be expected to produce the kind of deep connection that leads to life-change.  Doing life together (i.e., a meal, a cup of coffee, a text message or a Facebook message to encourage, a phone call just to connect) is the norm in groups that produce life-change.  See also, The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group.
  7. It must cultivate the practice of the one-anothers.  This was the primary activity of the early church.  It will always be at the very heart of any effective group.  The love Jesus spoke of in John 13:34-35 was far beyond verbal.  Far more important than a hug and an “I love you brother” is a countercultural one-another.   Setting aside personal interests and paying attention to the interests of others models the sacrifice Jesus made (Philippians 2:3-11).
  8. It must have a leader who functions as a shepherd.  Lowering the bar of leadership makes it possible for ordinary people to take a first step into leadership.  At the same time, for a group to truly be the optimal environment for life-change it must have a See also, 8 Habits of Life-Changing Small Group Leaders and From Here to There: The Preferred Future for Small Group Leaders.

I don’t believe it matters what kind of group you have.  Whether you have a small group that meets off-campus or a Sunday school class that meets on-campus, certain essential ingredients must be present for a group to be the optimal environment for life-change.

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

A GroupLife Glossary for the 21st Century

Language is important.  Without a common language, the massive project known as the Tower of Babel came to an abrupt halt.

It occurs to me that we in groupland often struggle to understand a model or system, a concept or a strategy because we are hearing and seeing through the filter of our own experiences.  We are hearing and seeing through a set of assumptions that may be off by a smidge or a country mile (two very good examples of terms that mean one thing to you and another to me).  For example, in last Thursday’s post, I used the term Sunday school class in a way that confused and frustrated proponents of the Sunday school model.

Here are a few words that need definition:

Small group: It really isn’t purely a function of size.  A small group can be as small as three people.  The ideal size might be 10 to 12 people.  With good leadership, small groups can sometimes continue to grow beyond 14 to 16 but when they do they often practice sub-grouping for discussion and prayer.  Although there may be some teaching, most of the meeting is spent in discussion and prayer.  Seating is informal and generally in a circle.  Where the group meets (a living room, an office, a classroom at church, at Starbucks) is irrelevant.  See also, The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group,

Bible study: Although this term is sometimes used synonymously with small group, I use Bible study to describe a group form that is almost exclusively a teaching venue.  There may be opportunity to ask the Bible study teacher a question, but there is rarely a discussion.  Seating is often in rows, but in smaller Bible studies seating might be in a circle.

Sunday school class: This term is used to describe more than one group form and they are significantly different.  Although Sunday school classes were originally smaller groups with a teacher and sat in a circle, today the term can also apply to a form that is essentially a smaller version of the weekend service with a master teacher, corporate prayer, singing together, etc.  See also, What’s the Difference Between a Small Group and a Sunday School Class?

Adult Bible Fellowship: This group form is almost always a classroom experience of 25 or more.  Seating is usually in rows.  A typical experience would include a master teacher, corporate prayer and often singing together.  See also, True Community or Smaller Version of the Weekend Service?

Life-change: The gradual process of becoming like Jesus.  We may be new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), we may not be what we used to be and not yet what we will be (Philippians 3:12-14), but we ought to be moving in the direction of  fully mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28-29).  See also, Essential Ingredients for Life-Change and Essential Ingredients for a Meaningful Small Group.

Other terms that need definition: missional community, life-on-life, discipleship, etc.

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

Top 10 Posts of May, 2014

Miss a day?  Here are my top 10 posts of May, 2014.  I had visitors from 90 countries (and 37 languages!).  Thanks for stopping by!

  1. New to Small Group Ministry? Start Here. (This is a new page on my blog)
  2. How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure (February, 2008)
  3. How to Launch Groups Using a Small Group Connection (May, 2008)
  4. 7 Decisions that Predetermine Small Group Ministry Impact (May, 2014)
  5. 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group System (August, 2012)
  6. HOST: What Does It Mean? (April, 2008)
  7. Top 5 Keys to Starting New Groups. Lots of New Groups (July, 2013)
  8. 6 Essential Characteristics of an Effective Small Group Coach (May, 2014)
  9. Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups (August, 2010)
  10. Learning How to Pray Together (April, 2009)
  11. The Meta-Church Small Group Model (October, 2009)

Here’s My 2014 Summer Reading List

Every summer I create a list of books I think you should read.  Sometimes the books I include are strictly about small group ministry, discipleship or spiritual formation.  Other times, the books I include may seem pretty far afield (innovation, design, leadership, or strategy).  You’ll just have to trust me.  I wouldn’t include a book I didn’t think would be added to your toolbox and contribute in a trajectory-altering way.

Here’s my 2014 summer reading list.

the rise of the nonesThe Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated by James Emery White.  The dramatic rise of the demographic slice who check the box next to the word “none” on religious surveys has been noted and studied by Barna, LifeWay and others.  James Emery White is an insightful observer of culture and culture shifts and the implications of this particular shift ought to be a front burner conversation for all of us.

You can read my full review right here, but if you want to pick up a copy and read along, you can do that right here.

marketing to millennialsMarketing to Millennials: Reach the Largest and Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever by Jeff Fromm and Christie Garton.  This is a fascinating and eye-opening book.  If you’ve been trying to figure out how to reach and connect the Millennial generation, this is a must read book.  If you’re not thinking about this already…you better get started!

Based on original research, “the book reveals the eight attitudes shared by most Millennials, as well as the new rules for engaging them successfully.”  I am a little more than halfway through the book and my copy is very marked up.  Lots of insights that will help shape some new strategies.

You can read my full review right here, but if you want to pick up a copy and read along, you can do that right here.

your volunteersYour Volunteers: From Come and See to Come and Serve by Chris Mavity.  This is a very helpful little book that packs a big impact.  Written by Chris Mavity, Executive Director of North Coast Training, Your Volunteers is a book you’re going to want to read right away and again and again.  More to the point…you’re going to be passing this on to your staff and key volunteers because this book is a game changer.

Your Volunteers is short–just 84 pages in the Kindle version–but it is packed with great ideas!

You can read the rest of my review right here.

transformational groupsTransformational Groups: Creating a New Scorecard for Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger.  This is an important book and if you’ve not yet read it, you need to spend some time with it this summer.  My copy is pretty marked up after just one pass through the content.  In addition to many spot on research insights, I came across a number of ideas that have made it into a number of discussions on our groups team.

This is an important book.  If you are looking for practical help and powerful insights that will help you and your team advance the cause of connecting unconnected people and making disciples, you won’t want to miss Transformational Groups.  I highly recommend it.  You can read my full review right here.

soul keepingSoul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You by John Ortberg.  I’ve been looking forward to this one for awhile now.  Most of what John writes is on my reading list before it publishes.  Soul Keeping is no exception.  I read the first chapter online and can’t wait to get my hands on the copy that is in the mail.

Profoundly influenced by his relationship with Dallas Willard, John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping is sure to be one of the highlights of my summer.  I loved this paragraph from the introduction:

“Dallas once wrote about a tiny child who crept into his father’s bedroom to sleep. In the dark, knowing his father was present was enough to take away his sense of aloneness. “Is your face turned toward me, Father?” he would ask. “yes,” his father replied. “My face is turned toward you.” only then could the child go to sleep.

Over the years I sought Dallas’s wisdom to help me understand the human soul, and in this book I will share what I have learned. But I did not really just want to know about any soul. I wanted to know that my soul is not alone. I wanted to know that a face is turned toward it.

That’s the journey we will take together.”

I’ll be posting a full review soon, but if you want to pick up a copy and read along, you can do that right here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am also the Small Group Specialist for LifeWay. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

What’s the Difference Between a Sunday School Class and a Small Group?

I had some good interaction this week with a reader who took issue with some of my assumptions about the differences between Sunday school classes and small groups.  He had read my post, How to Build a Small Group Ministry in a Church with a Sunday School Culture (and later read But We Have Adult Sunday School, True Community or a Smaller Version of the Weekend Service? and Essential Ingredients of Life-Change).  Mostly…he disagreed.

I pointed out to the reader that there are distinct differences in a Sunday school class and a small group.  He disagreed and said,

“I don’t understand why we talk about Sunday school and small groups as two different entities, when in all reality, they are the exact same thing.”

I decided that it might help to list what I think are some of the key differences between a Sunday school class and a small group.  See if these 7 differences add up for you.

First, a few clarifications:

  • Sunday school classes were originally designed for outreach.  In their earliest forms, Sunday school classes were small and functioned like a small group in some important ways.  See also, The 5 Step Formula for Sunday School Growth.
  • Calling something a “small group” doesn’t change what it is.  We’ve all experienced or heard about the tactic of renaming everything a small group.  They are not the same and calling them the same thing doesn’t change this.
  • On-campus vs off-campus isn’t always a clear distinctive.  There are off-campus “small groups” that function more like a class and there are on-campus “classes” that function more like a small group.
  • There are exceptions to every rule.  Read the following to get a sense for generalities, not specifics.

7 differences between a class and small group:

  1. Classes sit in rows, small groups sit in circles.  Again, there are classes that sit in a classroom in a circle.  They are the exception, not the rule.  See also, What’s Better? Rows or Circles?
  2. Classes have teachers, small groups have leaders.  This is an important distinction.  A small group may have a leader that does some teaching (or they may watch a teacher on a DVD), but a small group leader doesn’t function primarily as a teacher.  A class may have a teacher who leads, but their primary contribution is to “teach” the lesson.  See also, Teacher, Leader, Shepherd, Host: What’s In a Name?
  3. Classes have students, small groups have members.  I know this is an oversimplification.  But I think it is generally true.  When  small group members think of themselves as students, they are probably actually in a class (even if they meet in a home); when students think of themselves as members, they are probably actually in a group (even if they meet in a classroom).
  4. Classes are primarily a monologue, small groups are primarily a dialogue.  Classes primarily feature one way communication.  The teacher teaches and the students listen.  Small groups primarily feature two way communication.  The leader asks a question and group members answer the question.  See also, Essential Ingredients for Life-Change.
  5. Classes learn about the Bible, small groups discuss the Bible.  Are there exceptions?  Yes.  Are there some small groups that mostly learn about the Bible?  Yes.  But for the most part, Sunday school lessons tend to be about information and small group studies tend to be about application and transformation.  See also, How to Stimulate Better Discussions.
  6. Classes listen to someone pray, small groups pray together.  Yes, some classes pray together and some small groups listen to their leader pray.  See also, Top 10 Ways to Learn to Pray Together.
  7. Classes have a fixed time slot, small groups have a more fluid time slot.  This is an important distinction.  Most classes have a fixed time slot (i.e., 9 to 10:15 am).  They almost always have a fixed start time and a fixed end time (because there is another class beginning in 15 minutes).  Small groups almost always have a more fluid time slot (i.e., we usually hang out for a bit and then get started at 7:30ish and we always try to end at 9ish).

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

FAQ: What Does a Coach Need to Know from a Small Group Leader?

I get a lot of questions.  Most of them come to me via an email, but there are some that come in as a Facebook or Twitter message.

Here’s a question I got over the weekend:

@MarkCHowell What might a group leader’s #coach NEED or NOT NEED to know from the leader?

This is a good question and it is a frequent question that is often asked from a slightly different angle.  It has to do with the role of a coach and the coach’s relationship with the leader.  See also, 6 Essential Characteristics of an Effective Small Group Coach.

Here’s my answer:

Great question, but my answer takes a little set-up.

First, the role of the coach is primarily about caring for the small group leader.  Although there is often an initial need for coaching (i.e., “what’s the best way to lead a discussion?” or “how can I keep this one member from dominating?”), the role of the coach is mostly about caring for the small group leader.

What do I mean by caring for the small group leader?   Essentially I mean “doing to and for the leader” whatever I want the leader to “do to and for their members.”  I want the coach to:

  • know the leader
  • pray for the leader
  • mentor the leader
  • give them a sense of family
  • etc.

I want the coach to do to the leader and for the leader all of the things I want the leader to do to and for their group members.

Second, the role of the coach isn’t about supervision.  A coach isn’t a monitor or an accountant.  Group leaders don’t report to their coach.  Instead, the role of a coach is primarily about care and while “how many new members have you added?” may come up in conversation…it’s not the point of the conversation.

What might a coach need (or not need) to know from a small group leader?

A coach needs to know the leader.  A coach needs to know the leader’s family.  They need to know how the leader is doing spiritually, what their struggle are and how they’re growing.  See also, 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader.

A coach doesn’t need to know how many attended Thursday’s meeting or whether they’re signed up for the upcoming leader training meeting (these things will come up but they aren’t the point).

See also, What Is the Role of a Coach?

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

What Is Your Small Group Ministry Designed To Do?

What is your small group ministry designed to do?  Ever thought about it?  It matters, you know.

The design of your small group ministry determines the results you can expect.  Remember:

“Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing.” Andy Stanley

So…what is your small group ministry designed to do?

When you talk with small group pastors there are clearly several common answers:

  1. We want to connect the members of our congregation and provide an environment where they can develop close relationships (very common, but doesn’t often lead to something beyond connection).
  2. We want to provide an environment where our members can experience life-change (seen in sporadic groups but rarely in all groups).
  3. We want to make disciples who make disciples and we do that in a group environment (if words were all that mattered…lots of small group ministries would see this result).
  4. We want to create natural ways for group members to include neighbors and friends (again, only a few small group ministries can point to system-wide success in this design element).

Does one of these sound the closest?  I know, it’s tempting to say that:

“Our small group ministry is designed to do all four.  We want to connect people and provide an environment where life-change happens, disciples are made and every group is a natural first step for neighbors and friends.”

It’s tempting to say that.  But is your small group ministry really designed to do that?  It’s far more likely that your design will actually yield only one of the outcomes listed above.

Your results reveal the actual design you know.

See also, Is There a “Design Limit” on Your Small Group Ministry and Evaluate Your Small Group Ministry with My Signature 10 Point Checklist.

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

Do You Have an Acts 2 Small Group Ministry in an Acts 17 Culture?

What world is your small group ministry designed to operate in?  Ever thought about it?

Thanks to an insightful observation in a recent blog post by James Emery White I have what I think is a good way to frame today’s question.  White, the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, is also the author of a number of books (including The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated).

In an article entitled, “Why Baptists Aren’t Baptizing,” White pointed out that:

“Many churches are pursuing an Acts 2 strategy in an Acts 17 world. Meaning they are employing methods designed for the God-fearing Jews of Jerusalem instead of the “nones” on Mars Hill.

The SBC and many other denominations were largely built on four evangelistic strategies: revivals, door-to-door visitation, busing, and Sunday School. All four were anointed for their time, and all four are predicated on the audience being a “God-fearing Jew.” Yet we now live in a post-Christian culture, and strategies must change.”

What world (culture) is your small group ministry designed to operate in?

Is your small group ministry designed to operate in the world (or culture)…

  • where everyone is familiar with the Bible?
  • where everyone knows the players (i.e., is the Joseph with the amazing technicolor coat the same man as the Joseph who was engaged to Mary?)?
  • where everyone believes the Bible is more than a religious fairy tale?
  • where Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus live in another country?
  • where truth isn’t your truth or my truth and everyone essentially thinks the same things are true?
  • where there are clear lines between right and wrong?
  • where sexual orientation is something only mentioned on the national evening news?

Sound familiar?  If that’s the world (culture) your small group ministry is designed to operate in…you actually have an Acts 2 small group ministry.  The reality is we live in an Acts 17 world.

The reality is we live in an Acts 17 world (culture)

We actually live in a world where most are unfamiliar with the Bible, few know the players and the majority believe the Bible is a a fairy tale.  We actually live in a world where it’s not unusual for neighbors and co-workers to practice another world religion (or describe themselves as spiritual but not religious).  We live in a world where truth is relative and what’s right for me isn’t necessarily right for you.  We live in a world where sexual orientation is way more than a local news story.

The culture we live in is an Acts 17 culture.  For our small group ministries to ever be more than collections of holy huddles designed to keep the flock safe…we must begin to operate like Paul on Mars Hill.  See also, 5 New Assumptions As I Step Further into the 21st CenturySmall Group Ministry Roadblock #4: A Myopic Understanding of the Culture and  10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

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

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