5 Non-Negotiables That Define True Small Group Ministry Success

What’s really a win in your small group ministry?  What are you really going to call success?  Have you ever actually declared a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal)?

I‘ve seen plenty of statements like:

  • We want to be a church of groups: helpful but really more of a philosophical aspiration.
  • We want to make disciples who make disciples: good concept and an important aspect of what a win would be, but also lacks some important ingredients.
  • We want to connect people in groups of 6 to 10 where they can grow in Christ, love one another, and further the work of the Kingdom: this is a version of Willow Creek’s small group ministry mission statement in the 90s.  Lots of carefully selected ingredients.  Still misses an important aspect in my opinion.

Here are the 5 non-negotiables that define true small group ministry success for me:

I’m beginning to form my own statement that incorporates the ingredients that must be there; the non-negotiables.  Here’s what I have so far:

To connect far beyond the average adult weekend worship attendance in an expanding network of groups where members are cared for and urged to grow; leaders are identified, recruited, developed and cared for; by coaches whose primary role is to care for and urge to grow small group leaders.

Full Disclosure: I’m not a very good wordsmith.  This statement has what I want in it but it probably too long.

Here’s how I unpack the statement:

  • far beyond the average adult weekend worship attendance declares that our objective is not some or even most of our adult attendees.  Because most church’s weekend adult worship attendance is really only a percentage of all the adults who attend, shouldn’t our objective be to connect all the sheep?  Not just the average number who are in the room?  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults Are Actually Connected? and Life-Change at the Member Level.
  • in an expanding network of groups declares that the number of groups in our system must be growing.  If we want to connect far beyond the average weekend adult worship attendance, we’re going to need to start lots of new groups.  Adding new members to existing groups is not a strategy that leads to more people in groups.  See also, New Groups Lead to a Church OF Groups and 5 Keys to Starting New Groups. Lots of New Groups.
  • where members are cared for and urged to grow declares that the member experience isn’t just social.  The optimum environment for life-change is still a small group.  At the same time, a group will often be nothing more than a social club without intentionality.  None of us want that.  See also, Skill Training: Design Your Group Meeting for Life-Change.
  • leaders are identified, recruited, developed and cared for declares the anticipation and expectation of growth and care.  The reality that whatever we want to happen in the lives of the members must be experienced first by the leader should never be forgotten or overlooked.  See also, The End in Mind for an Effective Coaching Structure and Life-Change at the Member Level.
  • by coaches whose primary role is to care for and urge to grow small group leaders declares how our leaders will be developed.  Again, if we truly want the members of our groups to be cared for and urged to grow…the leaders of our groups must have that experience first.  See also, How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure.

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

Determining the Minimum and the Recommended Dose

I was on a coaching call with several staff members from a church wrestling with a number of foundational grouplife issues.  A fairly common situation, they had been following the conversation here and were not sure what their next steps were…so they set up a call to pull a pair of fresh eyes into their predicament.  See also, Scheduling a Coaching Call.

Their first conviction

As we talked, two divergent convictions slowly came into focus.  First, they seemed genuinely concerned about the growing number of unconnected adults and saw off-campus small groups as a way they could reduce that number while building community.  They seemed to place a high value on the importance of life-on-life ministry; at one point quoting back to me that “a small group is the optimum environment for life-change.”

In the early minutes of the coaching call, I believed we could make quick progress in establishing a plan to move forward aggressively in connecting the unconnected people in their congregation and crowd.  Their senior pastor seemed eager to make it happen.  The other staff members seemed on board.  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?

Bada bing, bada boom.  Forget about it.

A second conviction emerged

Not so fast my friend.  At this point in the conversation a second conviction emerged from the murky edges of their philosophy of ministry.  One of the voices on the call began talking about the importance of deeper Bible teaching in addition to attending the weekend worship service (as in an adult Bible fellowship or Sunday School class).  Soon all three of them seemed to be passionately extolling the virtues of sitting in rows at the feet of a gifted Bible teacher.

Unperturbed, I asked a series of diagnostic questions.

Preliminary diagnostic questions:

  1. What is your average weekend adult attendance?
  2. What was your attendance last Easter or Christmas Eve?
  3. What percentage of your adults are involved in an on-campus Bible study?

Their answers uncovered a significant finding.  Approximately 35% of their adult weekend attendance were involved in an on-campus Bible study.  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults Are Actually Connected?

Follow-up diagnostic questions:

  1. Do your on-campus Bible studies have the ingredients that lead to life-change?  See also, Design Your Group Meeting for Life-Change.
  2. What is the minimum required dose of activity and engagement?  In this case, I believed they needed to find conviction about the minimum required dose.
  3. What is the recommended dose of activity and engagement?  A slight variation in the question.  I believed their assumptions about how many currently unconnected adults would add another 75 to 90 minutes to their Sunday morning commitment and commit to an off-campus small group.

The call ended with an assignment to come to develop conviction on the minimum dose and the recommended dose.  Without conviction it would be unlikely that they could move forward.  Depending on the conviction they arrived at, they would choose between two divergent strategies.

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

Choosing What Not to Do

cone_slide8If you’ve been in on very much of this conversation, you are probably becoming very familiar with this diagram.  I use it for all kinds of discussions (you’ll see many of them right here), but I’m not sure we’ve ever talked about choosing what not to do.

Choosing what not to do is very near the heart of identifying your preferred future.  If you study the diagram for a moment, you’ll see that the preferred future is actually a subset of three areas:

  • The Probable Future: I think of this as a way of describing the way things will be in your ministry or organization if nothing changes.  You pick the timeline, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, it doesn’t matter.  The probable future is what things will look like if you’re doing the same things.  See also, Start with the End in Mind.
  • The Possible Future: This is actually all of the known or imagined possibilities for the future.  For example, you might have a meeting where you brainstorm as many possibilities for connecting people as you can.  See also, Where Do You Want to Go with Your Small Group Ministry?
  • The Adjacent Possible: This section isn’t labeled in the diagram, but if you look closely in the preferred future section, you’ll notice that it includes some of what is actually beyond the possible future.  See that?  The white space.  I think of the adjacent possible as the Ephesians 3:20-21 aspect of the preferred future.  See also, Grouplife Agnostics and the Adjacent Possible.

Where does choosing what not to do come in?  According to Michael Porter, “choosing what not to do is the essence of strategy.”  Porter, often recognized as the father of modern strategy, has boiled down our discussion to its essence.

Calling out the preferred future is really a three step process:

  1. identifying the gold of what you are currently doing
  2. imagining all of the possibilities beyond what you are currently doing
  3. choosing what not to do trims out the extra that may very well be good but not great.

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

The Importance of Discipling People with Wisdom

geiger-headshotEver feel any responsibility for the spiritual development of the group members in your church?  I do.  And I bet you do too.  I had an opportunity this week to ask Eric Geiger a few questions about the importance of discipling people with wisdom, one of the key benefits of LifeWay’s new Bible Studies for Life curriculum.

What is the big idea behind “discipling people with wisdom”?

The apostle Paul said, “We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). Paul wanted to see maturity and development occur in the people he led, and according to this passage, this involved teaching with wisdom. The antithesis of  “teaching with wisdom” is a haphazard plan or no plan for developing people in our groups/classes.

As we design ongoing Bible studies from LifeWay (such as Bible Studies for Life), we long for the studies to provide church and group leaders with a wise plan to lead people toward greater maturity in Christ. We are concerned about the long-term lack of impact on people in our groups/classes if there is no plan.

Is there a biblical basis for a discipleship plan?

I believe there is. The apostle Paul described his ministry as skillful building in response to and empowered by God’s grace. He said, “According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder” (1 Corinthians 3:10). In other words, the apostle Paul did not just “wing it.” He did not haphazardly plant churches or disciple people. With great intentionality, Paul faithfully served as a master builder. And likewise, he challenged us to “be careful how [we build].”

A wise builder has a set of blueprints, a plan, and a clear strategy for proactively attacking the building project. A wise builder would never come to the table with a dream of what could be built without a plan for executing it. In the same way, your ministry needs a blueprint. Your church must have a plan to disciple people with wisdom. Your church must be more than a random and disconnected array of programs, studies, and events.

What do you mean when you talk about a “wise discipleship plan”?

I know discipleship is much broader and deeper than information, so I want to be careful to emphasize that I am not suggesting a discipleship plan is equated to discipleship. Ultimately, discipleship is about transformation, not merely information or behavioral modification. I believe local churches exist to make disciples and that the totality of their mission must be to make disciples; thus, they need an overarching discipleship process that undergirds their church. But when I talk about a “wise discipleship plan” for groups or classes, I am talking about the plan for study. Educators would likely call a “plan” a “scope and sequence” of what is studied. Because community is only as strong as what it is built upon, church leaders are wise to give their groups a discipleship plan that over time exposes people to the whole counsel of God’s Word.

So each of our Bible study series (Bible Studies for Life, The Gospel Project, etc.) is developed in community with church leaders we respect, with educators, and with scholars so that we can lay our heads on our pillows at night really believing that we have a plan to develop and mature people over time—that we aren’t throwing a whole bunch of studies on the wall and hoping some of them stick.

What are some essential elements in a discipleship plan?

The most common and essential element in a wise discipleship study plan is the Word: the Living Word (Jesus) and the written Word. Studies must be rooted in Scripture, and over time, people must be exposed to the totality of the Word. Studies must also be focused on Jesus because only He transforms the heart.

The starting point for a discipleship plan may vary based on the group/class, but all studies must get people to the text and to Jesus. For example, with Bible Studies for Life we start with real life issues that people face everyday, and we want to bring the Scripture to bear on those issues. Over time we expose people to the whole counsel of the Word. With The Gospel Project, we start with a systematic plan to show people how all Scripture points to Jesus. With Explore the Bible (our next big launch for all ages), we start with a plan to walk people through all the books of the Bible. A pastor who has been to seminary would say one sounds like practical theology, one sounds like systematic theology, and one sounds like biblical theology. Three different approaches, but all must be centered on the Word.


Eric Geiger serves as one of the Vice Presidents at LifeWay Christian Resources, leading the Church Resources Division. Eric received his doctorate in leadership and church ministry from Southern Seminary. He is also a teaching pastor and a frequent speaker and consultant on church mission and strategy. Eric has authored or co-authored several books including the best selling church leadership book, Simple Church.


Quotebook: Dallas Willard on Following Jesus

When I think about the objective of making disciples, I am reminded of Colossians 1:28: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”  For me, a big part of my objective is to present everyone fully mature in Christ.

What would that look like?  How do I know I am accomplishing my objective?  I love this Dallas Willard line.

“Disciples of Jesus are those who are with him, learning to be like him. That is, they are learning to lead their life, their actual existence, as he would lead their life if he were they.” (Renovation of the Heart, 241)

I think it’s interesting and instructive that Willard didn’t write about knowing what Jesus knew.  Instead, he talked about learning how to live; “learning to lead their life, their actual existence, as he would lead their life if he were they.”

Note to Self: Don’t Forget to Pray for Your Church-Wide Campaign

You’ve done everything you could to ensure that you’re ready for a powerful church-wide campaign.

  • You’ve carefully prepared, planning the weeks leading up to the campaign, the campaign itself, and the series that follows.
  • You’ve chosen a great series for the campaign.
  • You’ve recruited coaches to help sustain as many new groups as possible.

Can I remind you about a very important step?  Don’t forget to pray!  Don’t forget to pray for your senior pastor.  Don’t forget to pray for God’s protection on the leadership of your church.  Don’t forget to pray for every new host that will be recruited.  Don’t forget to pray for every new small group member that will be invited.

Who should be praying for your campaign?  Everyone!  Your staff should be praying every day.  Your elders or deacons ought to be praying every day.  If you have a prayer ministry, invite them to pray for the campaign and recruit others to join them.  Your existing small group leaders…ought to be praying every day.

I want to urge you to consider one more level of prayer.  I want to urge you to consider adding a 7 day prayer guide to your new host packet (that you’ll distribute at your host orientation).  Teach your new hosts to pray every day during the week before your launch.  Give them a 7 day prayer guide that will help your new leaders know what to do.

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.

If you’re like me, you get so caught up in the practical preparation for the campaign.  Don’t miss this key step!  Don’t miss what only God can do!

Top 10 Posts of July, 2013

Miss a day?  Here are my top 10 posts of July, 2013.  Pretty cool to see that I had readers from 68 countries around the world!  Thanks for stopping by!

  1. Top 5 Keys to Starting New Groups…Lots of New Groups (July, 2103)
  2. How to Launch Groups Using a Small Group Connection (May, 2008)
  3. New from Beth Moore | The Law of Love: Lessons from the Book of Deuteronomy (August, 2012)
  4. How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure (February, 2008)
  5. 5 Keys to Launching Groups Year-Round (October, 2008)
  6. Add “Pressure Points” to Your Church-Wide Campaign Short-List (June, 2013)
  7. Is an Artificial Barrier Limiting Growth in Your Small Group Ministry? (July, 2013)
  8. Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs Start New Groups? (May, 2012)
  9. The One Thing Every Small Group Pastor Must Do…for Small Group Leaders (November, 2012)
  10. 5 Cross-Cultural Church-Wide Campaigns that Ought to Be on Your Radar (May, 2013)

Don’t Miss These Two Huge Barna Findings for Small Group Ministries

I tweeted the link to Barna’s July 31st report yesterday.  I’m not going to go into the whole report here, but I wanted to point out two huge findings in their latest research.

The report compares “Americans’ descriptions of themselves from the early 2000s until now, illuminating how much American life has changed in the past decade, and how Americans see themselves moving forward into the future.”

There are many fascinating details in the report, but there are two related findings we dare not miss:

  • Ten years ago, 10% of Americans saw themselves as lonely.  Today, that number has doubled.
  • The desire to find a few good friends has also increased and in certain key demographics there has been an even larger increase.

Think about the implications of those two findings.  And you might think, well the loneliness number only moved from 10 to 20%, but think about it doubling in 10 years!  That is a huge statistical move with real challenges and opportunities for all of us.

Here are two paragraphs you’ll want to read:

One of the greatest self-perception changes over the past decade is in how Americans see themselves in relation to others. For all the technological advances in the past decade, the desire for human connectedness remains. Ten years ago, slightly over one out of 10 Americans self-identified as lonely. Today, that number has doubled—a paradoxical reality in the full swing of the social media age.

But while loneliness among Americans has risen, the desire to find one’s place among a few good friends has likewise increased—from 31% a decade ago to 37% today. Leading this charge today in finding friendship are Millennials (47%), Hispanics (47%) and never-married single adults (44%)—all higher than the national average.

You can read the full article right here and you should because there are a number of other findings that should influence our work.  A decreased commitment to getting ahead in life, an increased concern about the future, an increase in serious debt, and increased stress should all be on our radar.  Read the rest of the article right here.

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

4 Secrets of Connecting People

Want to connect unconnected people?  Want to connect beyond the usual suspects?  Way beyond?

Here are the 4 Secrets of Connecting People:

First, make sure that being connected is always presented as playing an essential role in growing spiritually.  Don’t miss this.  I believe being connected is essential to spiritual growth.  When this truth is clearly and frequently presented and really part of the fabric of your weekend service communication, there will be greater responsiveness to the invitation to join a small group.

This is a critically important idea.  In fact, I list the absence of this truth as one of five artificial barriers that limit growth in small group ministries.

If I can sit through a weekend service and not hear about the essential role that grouplife plays in spiritual growth, I’ll probably feel like I don’t need that extra ingredient that you talk about every once in a while.

Question: What percentage of your weekend services include a reference to the essential nature of being part of a group?

Second, make it easy for unconnected people to take a first step.  It shouldn’t be hard.  It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out.  And it shouldn’t require a person to be an extreme extrovert.

It should be easy.

That means whatever you design for connecting people should assume that they might be an introvert (or married to one).  You should assume they might need childcare.  You should assume that they have a crazy schedule.  And you should assume that the best process is the one with the fewest hoops to jump through.

Question: When you evaluate your connecting process, is it easy to get connected?  Or is it actually pretty hard?

Third, make the process obvious.  If connecting people is important…it shouldn’t take 5 clicks from the homepage to figure it out (or be below the fold).

First steps out of the auditorium shouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out.  There should be nothing that causes even fleeting hesitation.  You know the feeling you get when you’re suddenly unsure that this is the way to where you parked your car?  Your process needs to be so obvious that you eliminate every reason for indecision.

Question: How obvious are the steps to connection?

Fourth, make the connecting process strategic.  We know certain things about unconnected people:

  • They attend less frequently.  This usually means that you’ll need to promote your connecting event several weeks in a row.  It also means that you can’t rely on a once-a-year emphasis.
  • They often have more in common with their neighbor than with church people.  Think about what that means in terms of the topic you invite them to study!
  • They often have more “friends” who don’t attend your church than do attend your church.  Imagine what that might mean for new groups that form with a study that encourages everyone to invite a friend for week two!
  • Working up the nerve to attend your weekend service was incredibly hard.  Imagine showing up to a stranger’s living room as a next step? This gives on-campus connecting opportunities an edge over online group finders or sign-up forms that lead to match-making.

When you’re designing your connection process, you need to keep the feelings of unconnected people front and center.

There is an opportunity in designing the connecting process for careful analysis and thoughtful attention to detail.  There is also the real possibility that the process is actually just thrown together at the last minute, as if on a whim.

Question: How strategic are your connecting opportunities?  Is great intentionality interwoven into the design?

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

5 Things to Do in August to Prepare for Your Church-Wide Campaign

Ready for your church-wide campaign to begin?  Depending on your launch date, you’re probably approaching some of the most important weeks.  Although the launch of the actual campaign (the sermon series alignment) is still almost two months away, what you do in August has a lot to do with whether your campaign is a win or a loss.  (If you missed my July post, you can read it here).

Here are 5 things you must do in August:

First, although you’ve already met with your senior pastor and planned your HOST recruiting strategy (and your pastor’s role in it), I suggest making a weekly check-in with your pastor part of the plan.  Why?  In my experience, there is no substitute for a reminder.  Also, many pastor’s will benefit from a little bit of a script or bullets providing the actual verbiage required in the HOST ask.  See also, How to Make the HOST Ask — the 2012 Version and Why You Must Make the HOST Ask Several Weeks in a Row.

Second, there are a number of details that need to be confirmed.  You’ll want to confirm that the HOST bulletin inserts (to allow sign-up commitments to host a group) are ready.  You’ll want to double check the order of service and brief offering takers about the sign-up inserts that will be in the offering.  You’ll need to make sure the HOST FAQ is completed and available at a table in the lobby.

Third, you’ll need to fine-tune your host briefing or orientation agenda.  I’ve found that little details like a 2 minute thank you and affirmation from your senior pastor go a long way in helping new hosts feel valued and encouraged.  Although there is quite a range in terms of what’s in a host packet, you’ll want to include some invitations to be used to invite friends, neighbors, co-workers and family.  An outline of the briefing/orientation agenda is helpful.  I usually include a copy of the study guide as well.  See also, HOST Orientations That Work.

Fourth, although you should have already recruited a group of launch-phase coaches, you might not have trained them yet.  One of the concepts that I’ve used for a number of years include a simple job description and this skill training.  See also, Skill Training: Four Questions Every Coach Should Be Asking.

Fifth, August is the time to select the follow up study that you will be recommending to your new groups.  You’re going to want to select a study that is similar in kind to your launching study (i.e., DVD-driven, easy-to-use, on a topic that matters to unconnected people).  As you build your timeline, you’ll want to begin promoting the follow-up study in about week 4 or 5 of your church-wide campaign.  You might be tempted to allow your newest groups to make this choice on their own.  Don’t fall for that!  New groups are rarely strong enough to survive the kind of negotiation that is necessary when there are alternate ideas about what to do next.  See also, What’s Next? When (and how) to Promote the Next Study.

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