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5 Totally Obvious Reasons Small Group Ministries Fail

failThe more I consult with churches around the country, the more obvious it is that there is a very basic set of reasons why small group ministries succeed.  There is also a basic set of reasons why small group ministries fail.  See also, Top 10 DNA Markers of Churches with Thriving Small Group Cultures.

Here are 5 reasons small group ministries fail:

  1. Switching models on an annual basis.  Who hasn’t come home from a conference or read the hottest new book on small groups and at the very least felt the urge to switch?  Idea fatigue and shiny object syndrome are the names for this illness.  Trust me.  When you choose a system you need to commit to it for 3 years.  See also, How to Choose a Small Group Model or Strategy and Top 10 Signs Your Small Group Ministry Is Schizophrenic.
  2. Sticking with an ineffective model.  Unfortunately, one of the hardest lessons to learn is that there really is a connection between design and results.  Andy Stanley says, “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re currently experiencing.”  If I had a dollar for every time a small group pastor told me that apprenticing was producing enough new leaders or that raising the leadership bar enabled them to exceed 100% of their adult weekend attendance in groups…I’d change my tune.  Until then, be quick to acknowledge that your results are directly connected to your design.  If you don’t like the results, it might be time to reevaluate and adopt a different model.  See also, Evaluate Your Small Group Ministry with My Signature 10 Point Checklist.
  3. Offering small groups as an entrée on a buffet.  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, you must position small groups as the way to get connected and grow in Christ.  As long as you are willing to position small groups as one way among several options…you cannot expect to succeed.  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.
  4. Hit and miss emphasis of small group ministry.  Unconnected people are infrequent attenders.  Connected people are regular attenders.  If you want to connect unconnected people you must take advantage of every opportunity to promote small groups.  Use your senior pastor’s messages, personal testimonies, the website, church-wide email from your senior pastor, the bulletin, newsletters, etc.  And here’s the key: If you want to build a thriving small group ministry…there shouldn’t be a week that goes by where you aren’t talking about small groups.  See also, Top 10 Reasons Saddleback Has Connected Over 130% in Groups.
  5. Lack of commitment to leader care and development.  Launching new small groups is easy.  Sustaining new groups is not easy.  If you want to sustain a high percentage of the new groups you launch, you must make a commitment to leader care and development (i.e., build an effective coaching structure).  Putting energy and resources into launching new small groups without committing to leader care and development is poor stewardship and leads to small group ministry failure.  See also, How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure.

Are you building a thriving small group ministry?  Or is yours struggling?  Which of the 5 totally obvious reasons is the culprit?

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

Image by Thomas Hawk

Top 10 Posts of July, 2014

Miss anything?  There was a lot of action this month!  As I close in on 1500 articles, there is always a lot going on in the archives.  And I had visitors from 87 countries (reading the blog in 46 different languages)!  Thanks for coming by!

Here are my top 10 posts of July, 2014.

  1. 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader
  2. 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People
  3. If I Was Starting Today, Part One
  4. 5 Essential Ingredients of Groups that Make Disciples
  5. HOST: What Does It Mean?
  6. How to Choose a Small Group System or Strategy
  7. Groups of All Kinds and the Essential Ingredients of Life-Change
  8. 6 Essential Ingredients of an Effective Small Group Coach
  9. What Have You Designed Your Small Groups to Make?
  10. 5 Things Every Small Group Pastor Needs to Know on Day 1

Follow: A New DVD-Driven Study from Andy Stanley

followI’ve been waiting for this one to arrive!  Based on a 2013 message series by Andy Stanley, Follow is an 8 session DVD-driven study that will take your group “on a journey through the Gospels, tracing Jesus’ teaching on what it means to follow.”

Back when this series was being given at North Point, I downloaded these messages and listened to them multiple times.  Andy Stanley’s way of explaining what it means to follow Jesus is very easily understood and I shared it with many of my friends.  It might be my favorite Andy Stanley message series.

DVD-driven, each of the sessions is a 17 to 22 minute clip from an Andy Stanley message.  One of the most compelling communicators in America, this is must see TV.  Never flashy or fancy, Stanley is known for his ability to draw out life-changing truth and deliver it in a way that is both inspiring and very memorable.  Follow is an excellent example of his pattern of taking difficult or challenging ideas and presenting them in a way that leads to application.

The DVD also includes a selection of promotional resources (bulletin inserts, postcard templates, poster and powerpoint slide) making Follow a study that could be used effectively as a church-wide campaign.  The only thing missing is a set of transcripts, but the inclusion of complete messages (along with the message clips) would enable a pastor to see and hear how the whole package works.

The participant’s guide includes everything you need to unpack the profound set of ideas that form the basis of this series:

  • A well-designed discussion starter helps the group take a first look at the topic.
  • A video overview and a section for taking notes enables a look ahead at the teaching to come and a place to jot down key ideas.
  • A great set of discussion questions that will help group members dig deep into the content.
  • Mileposts keep your members focused on the central truths.
  • Moving Forward and Changing Your Mind provide direction for next steps.
  • 5 short devotional segments help set up the next session.
  • Every participant guide also includes a very complete leader’s guide (making it possible for groups to rotate facilitators).

When I saw that they’d taken the content and created an 8 week small group curriculum, I was so excited for you!  This is a powerful study.  Your small group members need this content.  I love Follow 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 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.”

Dallas Willard on Our Most Serious Failure

What are you doing to and for your coaches that you want them to pass on to leaders?  I know you know by now that that’s how it works.  Whatever you want to happen at the member level, will have to happen to the leader first…and by extension, whatever you want to happen at the leader level, will have to happen to your coaches first.  See also, Life-Change at the Member Level.

See where this is going?

And that leads to two observations:

  • Someone is going to have to do the right things to and for your coaches (that would be you).
  • If you want the right things to happen at the member level, you’re going to have to do the right things to and for your coaches.

What do you need to do to and for your coaches?  I think Dallas Willard was on to a very good way to say it: “How to live the life of Jesus.”

And that leads to this challenging and convicting line:

“Our most serious failure today is the inability to provide effective practical guidance as to how to live the life of Jesus.”  p. 110, The Spirit of the Disciplines

Ready to do that?  It’s our job.


Saddleback Changed the Church-Wide Campaign Game…Again

friendsDon’t miss this!  If you’re planning a church-wide campaign you must grab hold of this latest idea.  I believe it is at the very heart of how Saddleback amassed over 8400 groups for their most recent campaign (Transformed: How God Changes Us).  You read that right.  8400 groups.

Their idea was embedded in every message, every announcement, and every email.  Here’s an example from a Saddleback email sent just before the campaign began.  See if you can spot the idea:

“This weekend marks the beginning of Pastor Rick’s highly anticipated new series, 50 Days of Transformation! Through small group study and the weekend series, you’ll learn how real change—lasting change—can actually happen in your life. Sign up now to become a small group host. Hosting is easy! Grab two friends and your group is ready to go. Then join Pastor Rick this Friday, January 17 for a special gathering to celebrate the start of the series and pick up your group materials. Learn more at our website!”

Did you catch it?  Grab two friends and your group is ready to go.

Grab two friends and your group is ready to go.

Could this simple tweak really have been at the heart of how Saddleback jumped to over 8400 groups?  According to Steve Gladen, “there were many reasons, but starting groups organically was a huge part.”

If you’ve been along for very much of this journey, you know that I’ve always suggested lowering the bar even lower on the last weekend or two before the launch of the campaign.  It’s always made perfect sense to broaden the definition of who could host a group at the last minute.  That’s what I was talking about in Add 5 to 10% More Hosts with This Jedi Move and Mass Hysteria at the Grab-and-Go Table.

The Key Idea: Go Organic from the Opening Bell!

Based on Saddleback’s experience, I’m suggesting you adopt the language of “grab two friends and your group is ready to go.”

You still need to follow the 10 Simple Steps that Lead to a Great Church-Wide Campaign.  This is not a pass that eliminates planning or praying.  But clearly, it is a different game when your campaign has the potential to enlist a wave of people who have two friends!

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

Image by Janita

Join My Fall Coaching Network by 8/4 and Receive a Special Bonus

Need to take your small group ministry to the next level?  My coaching network is designed to help you do that!

Members of my small group ministry coaching network receive personal attention and customized coaching.  They also benefit from the experience of connecting with the other practitioners from around the country.

I want to invite you to join my Fall 2014 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network; an experience designed to give you the tools and strategies you need in order to build a small group ministry that works in the 21st century.

Join my Fall 2014 Coaching Network by 8/4/14 and I’ll throw in a special bonus! (see below)

Here’s what three of my alumni had to say about the coaching network experience:

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

Special Bonus: Take advantage of a FREE 60 minute coaching call (a $100 value). 

My Fall 2014 Small Group Ministry Coaching Network begins in September and I’d love to include you.  I limit participation to 12 members (and already have several commitments).  If you sign up by 8/4/14, I’ll throw in a FREE 60 minute coaching call (it’s a $100 value!).  And you can use it whenever you want (even right away!).

Need more information?  You can find out all about it right here.  Ready to sign up?  You can fill out the application right here.

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

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