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.

A Great Study for Men: A Man and His Work

a man and his workTook a look at A Man and His Work this week.  The latest in a line of men’s studies called 33 The Series, it was inspired by the Men’s Fraternity material created by Robert Lewis (I reviewed part 1 of the series right here).  The relevance of the title caught my attention and the content of the study held my attention very well.

DVD-driven, A Man and His Work is a six session study that features teaching by Bryan Carter (senior pastor of Concord Church), Tierce Green (lead house church pastor of The Church Project),  and John Bryson (founding pastor of Fellowship Memphis).  These three communicators are known for their ability to connect with men.  The DVD segments average 30 to 35 minutes in length and include a variety of elements: teaching, man on the street interviews, and personal testimonies.

A Man and His Work wrestles with the following topics:

  • The tensions of work
  • A blueprint for work
  • Having courage at work
  • Essentials to help you follow the blueprint
  • Six traps to avoid at work
  • Six work catalyzers

The Training Guide includes a note-taking section to be used while viewing the teaching segment, as well as a reflection and discussion guide that will direct the group experience.  In addition, you’ll also find an engaging set of short between-session reading assignments on a series of topics that will capture and hold the attention of group members.  Because of the way the questions are designed, no leader is required.

The Leader Kit comes with a second DVD that includes a promotional trailer, leader ideas, creative ideas for building a men’s large group study and much more.

A Man and His Work is well designed to engage men in a study that will inspire and challenge.  The teaching has just the right amount of Biblical straight talk to keep men tuned in.  The discussion questions are pitched at the right level to help men engage.  And the between session reading assignments are short enough to be doable for every man.  If you’re looking for a study that will engage the men in your congregation, you need to take a look at A Man and His Work.  I like this study and this series, 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. 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.”

5 Things I Learned from Carl George

A few months back, near the beginning of last years NBA season, there was a running dialogue about “Who’s on your NBA Mount Rushmore?”  Mount Rushmore you remember is a massive sculpture carved into the side of a South Dakota mountain featuring the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.  The “who’s on your Mount Rushmore?” question made me think about who would be on my small group ministry Mount Rushmore.

The first face on my small group ministry Mount Rushmore has got to be Carl George.  No question.  The father of the Meta Church model and author of a number of books including Prepare Your Church for the Future and Nine Keys to Effective Small Group Leadership, I have learned a lot from Carl.

Here are 5 things I learned from Carl George:

  • The importance of span of care.   Carl pointed out that “everyone needs to be cared for someone but no one can take care of more than about 10.  Drawing this true truth of life from Jethro’s counsel to Moses in Exodus 18, this is a foundational understanding about the care aspect of coaching.  The attempt to provide care for too many is one of the most common rookie small group pastor mistakes.
  • The power of apprenticing for leadership development.  Every leader ought to be trained to be intentional about identifying, recruiting and developing an apprentice.  This is about replacing yourself and it is about making disciples.  Imagine if every small group pastor, every coach, and every small group leader was developing a legitimate apprentice, someone who was learning to do the job.  What a concept.  Sometimes apprenticing is described primarily as a group multiplication strategy.  I see it as a powerful leadership development practice.  See also, 5 Small Group Ministry Myths that Need Busting and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #5: A Leadership Development Disconnect.
  • Resources are finite and wise leaders allocate them to the critical growth path.  Grabbing hold of this conclusion and defining the critical growth path are elusive to some.  Still, this is an essential idea for effective ministry.  Missing this mark leads to diffused impact.  See also, Ten Ideas that Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry.
  • The size of the harvest is more important than the size of the building.  A thriving small group ministry makes it possible to connect far beyond your average adult worship attendance.  Every church has an almost unlimited seating capacity once every home, workplace and third place comes into play.  Further, as we slip further into the 21st century it becomes more evident every day that we are nearing the time when it will be far easier to say “come on over” than “come with me to church.”  See also, 5 New Assumptions as I Step Further into the 21st Century.
  • Churches of the future will be committed to making more and better disciples.  It will not be about attracting a crowd or building a larger space to hold the crowd.  It will be about what you do with the crowd.  “Making more and better disciples” is a common phrase today.  I first heard the line at a Fuller Church Growth conference in 1992.  The speaker was quoting Carl.  I have been captivated by that mission ever since.  See also, Top 10 Things I Need to Know about Discipleship.

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

5 Common Mistakes of Rookie Small Group Pastors

“That was a rookie mistake.”

Ever heard that?  Ever said it to yourself?  Probably all of us have been there and done that.

Here are 5 of the most common mistakes of rookie small group pastors:

  1. Trying to take care of too many small group leaders.  This is a very common mistake and reflects a lack of understanding of span of care.  Caring for too many can only do two things: burn out the caregiver or provide inadequate and watered down care.  See also, Span of Care and How to Build an Effective Coaching Structure.
  2. Propping up existing groups instead of starting new groups.  It happens to all of us and if we let it, it will happen over and over.  “We are down to three couples…if you could send us a couple more it would be helpful.”  This is a losing proposition.  Far better to prioritize new groups and teach existing group leaders how to be on the lookout for new members.  See also, Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs. Start New Groups and Great Question: How Do I Train Leaders to Add New Members?
  3. Not saying “no” to unfit “leaders”.  Although unfit can cover a lot of ground, the version that catches many rookie small group pastors are the people who want to be a leader but couldn’t build their own group if their life depended on it.  They need to be given 10 members and then don’t have what’s necessary to hold the group together.  Learning to say “no” often begins with learning to ask, “Do you already have a few people you can invite?”  Seasoned small group pastors learn to be wary of the “leaders” who can’t build their own group.
  4. Allowing their senior pastor to delegate the small group champion role.  This mistake has deadly implications.  It’s never good when the most influential person in the congregation (the senior pastor) delegates the champion role to the small group pastor.  Rookie small group pastors often have a very hard time helping their senior pastor see the opportunity that exists when the champion role is played by the right person.  See also, Your Senior Pastor As Small Group Champion Leads to a Church of Groups.
  5. Missing the opportunity to partner with their senior pastor.  Related to mistake #4, there is a tremendous opportunity for impact when a small group pastor learns how to help the senior pastor champion small group ministry.  See also, 6 Ways to Help Your Senior Pastor Make the Small Group Ask.

Here’s an important note.  All of us make these mistakes at one time or another.  The key is to learn from our mistakes and not make them again!

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

5 Things To Do in June to Maximize Small Group Ministry This Fall

You can’t wait until the end of the summer to prepare for the fall ministry season.  Have you figured this out yet?  Most likely you’re on to this fact of life…but even if you are, you might need an idea or two about how to prepare and what to focus on.  See also, What To Do Before You Plan Another Church-Wide Campaign.

(Ready for my July List?  Click here to see what’s next.)

Here are 5 things I believe must be done in June:

  1. Meet with your senior pastor to clarify involvement and fine-tune where necessary.  It really doesn’t matter what strategy you’re using this fall to launch new groups, you need your pastor in the game.  Integrating the HOST ask into their sermon is essential.  Leveraging their influence at a HOST gathering is a huge opportunity.  Casting the vision for everyone to be involved in a group is something that only your pastor can do.  June is the time to confirm and clarify involvement (before vacations and/or study breaks).  See also, 6 Ways to Help Your Senior Pastor Make the Small Group Ask.
  2. Make sure your existing small group leaders are aware of the fall plans.  “Why are we just hearing about this now!”  “We’re three weeks into a 12 week study and won’t be able to participate in the church-wide campaign.”  All of us have heard these excuses for remaining on the sidelines.  Sometimes they’re legitimate and sometimes they’re just excuses.  Either way, making your existing group leaders aware of fall plans is not hard and will pay off.  Tip: It’s a good idea to communicate in a way that requires a response and follow up to confirm.
  3. Identify, recruit and begin training the coaches you’ll need for the new groups you hope to launch this fall.  We have conclusively demonstrated that the addition of a coach dramatically increases the likelihood that a new small group survives.  It is one of the two most important factors in sustaining new groups.  It takes the right kind of person and June is the time to engage them.  See also, Recruiting Additional Coaches for Church-Wide Campaigns.
  4. Identify and recruit the testimonies you’ll need to encourage potential leaders and members to say “yes” to a six-week test-drive.  This is a secret weapon that is often overlooked.  Take advantage of the tremendous power of personal story by finding HOSTs and group members who had life-changing experiences.  Add this powerful element to the HOST Ask and maximize the response.  Whether the testimonies are video or live the impact will be well worth the effort.  See also, Take Advantage of Testimony to Recruit HOSTs.
  5. Plan the communication and promotional pieces you will need for the fall launch.  Whether your church has a dedicated “director of communications” or you are the de facto director (or anything in between), now is absolutely the time to plan and coordinate all of the pieces you will need this fall.  That might include promotional copy for the website, e-newsletter and bulletin; inserts for HOST and member sign-ups; FAQs, invitations, and more.  The earlier you can have this conversation and the further ahead you can get the better.

(Ready for my July List?  Click here to see what’s next.)

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

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