G12: A Cautionary Tale?

I’m asked about G12 a few times a year…not near as much as free market, semester based, or sermon based…but often enough to have had many conversations over the past few years.  Here’s what I know about the G12 small group philosophy:

First, at it’s essence G12 works like this: the key leader forms a group with 12 members.  The leader invests in the members, holds them accountable, encourages them, shepherds them, etc.  Each of these members is then expected to form their own group of 12 where they’ll serve as the leader…doing to their members what has been modeled to them.  And then, those members are expected to form their own group of 12.  Pretty simple concept.

Second, there are other key ingredients in the model.  Encounters, or weekend retreats, are used to help jump-start leader development.  Groups are almost always separated into men’s groups, women’s groups and children’s groups.  You can find other aspects in this article over on Wikipedia.

Third, unlike most of the other small group systems I’ve referred to, G12 is really more of a church growth concept.  Where most small group systems are strategies to help members grow in Christ and be encouraged through community, G12 is the engine that drives the churches who use it.

Two Cautionary Keys:

There are two keys for me as I have observed churches in the United States and Canada attempt to implement the G12 idea.  First, I’ve found that the pace of life in developed countries (I’m probably misusing the term, but you get my meaning) is too fast to actually pull off the idea that I’m in one group as a member and another as a leader…and they meet simultaneously.  Generally speaking, the majority of adults have too much going on to actually make that happen.  If anyone can really do that they are in the distinct minority.  Anytime you base a system on what a minority will do…it is not likely to succeed.

Second, when you google G12 you’ll notice that the first page or so are negative articles about the system.  Just to highlight one, Joel Comiskey’s Concerns About the G12 Movement is much more developed than what I’ve written here.

Thoughts?  Questions?  Use the comments to let me know what you’re thinking.

Looking for information about other small group systems?  You’ll find more right here.

Finding the Flow: A Guide for Leading Small Groups and Gatherings

finding_the_flowLooking for a leader training resource?  Finding the Flow: A Guide for Leading Small Groups and Gatherings, by Tara Miller and Jenn Peppers, is one you should take a look at.  New from IVP, it’s full of great leader training ideas, practices, and philosophy.  This is a book length training guide.  At over 240 pages (including a very helpful appendix), it is not a skim through manual.

When selecting a training resource, practical, hands-on experience, is very important.  Written in a very conversational way, this is also the story of two group life practitioners.  The authors [quote]served at Pathways Church in Denver where Tara Peppers was the Small Groups Pastor and Jenn Peppers is an elder.  They’re also the co-founders of Flow, whose mission is “to resource emerging leaders who facilitate group conversations that lead people closer to God.”

Looking over the contents you can get a pretty good idea of the style.  Chapters on knowing yourself, stages of group life, listening to God and others, asking good questions, navigating group conflict, developing new leaders and spiritual transformation let you in on the fact that this is not really a book about technique.  In fact, in the forward by Joseph Myers we learn that, “This is a field book for spotting the patterns people use to connect.  This is not a guide to clone groups.  This is a guide to help you develop environments where people can connect in organically ordered patterns.”

The book is based on the idea that small groups are “like a river.”  Out of that idea comes the notion that like a river, small groups need a water source, they need help charting their course, there will always be undercurrents and times when the waters are stirred.  The metaphor works very well because Finding the Flow is really more of a travel journal written by two very experienced travelers.  In the stories that are shared on almost every page you can sense that the depth is based on hands-on participation.

In addition to a liberal supply of great stories and illustrations, you’ll also find a steady supply of “Do This” tips that are very practical and will easily move from great idea to implementation.  Paired with a really practical set of appendices you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of this resource.

If Finding the Flow has a downside, I think it’s that it will mostly be used by small group pastors and directors to develop training experiences and practices…as opposed to being used by group leaders as a work-through-and-discuss journal.  In my world of busy small group leaders, reading a 240 page journal is not high on the list of probabilities.  The upside?  You need this book.  Your coaches probably need this book.  It is the kind of reading that will inspire you to try a few new things.  And some of those new things will become part of your system and that will change the flow for groups in your church.

Open or Closed Groups?

I’m often asked whether groups should be open or closed?  It’s one of those questions that kind of defines you as a grouplifer.  Open or closed?  It’s kind of like Coke or Pepsi…but not very much.

There are those that are a little wild-eyed about one perspective or the other.   And then there are those that don’t really care.  I’m not in either one of those camps.  To me, it’s all about the purpose of the individual group you’re talking about.  And that begs a prior question.  Before you can determine if your group should be open or closed you’ve got to answer at least one preliminary question.  Here it is:

“What are you trying to do in your group?”

There are other ways to ask this question.  Two great alternatives are: “What will you call success?” and, “What will you call a win?”  Any way you slice it though, what you’re really asking is, “What is the purpose of this group?”

Why is this important?  Why does it come first?  It comes first because the values and norms of the group must be aligned with the purpose or you end up with a mess.  What are some possible purposes?

  • We exist to provide a safe environment to share our lives.
  • We want to help each other grow spiritually.
  • We want to be an easy first step for our non-Christian neighbors and friends.
  • We like to eat pie.

I can’t tell you what your group’s purpose needs to be, but I can tell you that without clearly defined purpose–a win–you can’t answer the open or closed question very well.

Here’s how I personally answer the open or closed question.

  1. The main purpose of our group system is to make followers of Jesus.
  2. A secondary purpose is to connect people relationally.
  3. Part of becoming a follower of Jesus is learning to set aside my interests for the sake of others (Phil. 2:4; Luke 14).
  4. Therefore, the group shouldn’t be just about me and my needs.
  5. “Come over to my house” is almost always easier than “come with me to church.”
  6. Therefore, setting my own interests aside might include inviting my friends and neighbors to my group.
  7. It is never easier to connect the friends and neighbors of the newest members of the congregation than in the first 3 to 6 months.
  8. Therefore, setting my own interests aside might include encouraging the newest members of the group to invite their friends and neighbors.

Those are my reasons for preferring open groups to closed groups.  Doesn’t mean all groups all the time.  Just means as a general philosophy of group life…that’s how I roll.  Need more?  Don’t miss my Top 10 Reasons I’m a Fan of Open Groups.

Top 10 Reasons I’m a Fan of Open Groups

In terms of small groups philosophy of ministry, the open or closed group question is very big.  Both sides have some good arguments.  Like every other argument there is no problem-free solution.  Although I believe there are times when it is both appropriate and beneficial to “close” a group, for the most part I am solidly in the open group camp.  Here are my top 10 reasons:

10.  Eliminates the need to “card people at the door!”

9.  One less idiosyncrasy to explain to interested newbies.

8.  Adding a new person to a group often causes new details to be added to old stories.

7.  Gives an opportunity for includers to include, reach out, and help new members to feel part of the group.

6.  Creates opportunities for new friendships.

5.  It counters the “me-first” attitude of the culture when I’m willing to share what I have.

4.  A growing group opens new doors for putting the needs of others above your own.

3.  Without new blood, relationships can become stagnant.

2.  If grouplife really is essential to me, I will be most persuasive when I invite you to my group.

1.  The closest friends of the newest people in your congregation will never be easier to invite than in the first 3 to 6 months.

Admittedly, if you’re any kind of debater you can come up with counter arguments for many of my top 1o.  Let me be clear though.  I believe that reason number one trumps any potential good that can come from a closed group system.  Relationships that members of closed groups had with outsiders will almost certainly have faded once they’ve completed 12 to 18 months.  In the sense that there’s an upside and a downside to everything…that is a huge downside and solidly puts me in the open group camp.

Encouraging Group Leaders

Sometimes I trip across great ways to promote group life or recruit leaders and they’re so good I have to share them.  If you’re ever stumped about how to encourage group leaders, to let them know how much they mean to their members and how much of a difference they make…you’ve got to see this video from Buckhead.  I can only say, “Wow!  Nicely done!”

Thank You from buckheadchurch on Vimeo.

North Point’s Small Group System

FutureLooking for a small group ministry system?  You might want to check out Creating Community: Five Keys to Building a Small Group Culture for some insight into the way that North Point Community Church has structured and built their system.  Written by Andy Stanley and Bill Willits, Creating Community provides a good look at some of the underlying principles that form the foundation.  And let me just say…it is a great book.  It’s great because it is a very practical and fairly detailed illustration of the principles found in the 7 Practices of Effective Ministry, easily one of my favorite books in the last 10 years.

There are three distinctives that must be pointed out in any discussion of North Point’s strategy: (1) the GroupLink strategy of forming groups,  (2) the closed-group philosophy, and (3) the use of staff to care for group leaders (as opposed to identifying, recruiting and relying on volunteer “coaches”).  Although any examination of their structure and strategy will unearth Meta Church and Willow Creek roots, these three distinctives are something that are important and shouldn’t be minimized.

GroupLink: This is the North Point name for a strategy that is used several times a year to launch new small groups.  In many ways GroupLink is similar to a Small Group Connection, popularized by Saddleback.  As I’ve highlighted in other strategies, they choose very strategic moments throughout the year to promote and execute this strategy.  Like everything at North Point it is done very creatively and with excellence (even to the extent of bringing in seating arrangements for the event).  Essentially, GroupLink is an event that unconnected adults attend and once at the event are moved through a process that results in a very high percentage of connection.

You’ll also find a GroupLink strategy kit available on the North Point Resources website right here.

An important key to their strategy is having a adequate number of pre-approved leaders at the event.  This is one of the challenges of the system and what makes it so different than the Saddleback version (built on the idea that the group can choose a leader from amongst themselves).  You can find out more about the Connection idea right here.  Although there is a built-in way to accommodate the starting of groups without a pre-approved leader, it is a notch off the intended pattern.

Closed Groups: Another very important distinctive of the North Point strategy is that groups are launched as 12 to 18 month groups that are closed to new participants.  Group members sign a covenant committing to the process.  At the end of the commitment it is the expectation that the group will end and group members will return to a GroupLink, many as leaders, ready to help launch new groups.

Staff Provides Coaching:  Rather than continuing to work with the challenge of using volunteer coaches, North Point’s strategy uses staff “community leaders” who are responsible for approximately 75 small group leaders.  It is their primary responsibility and there are serious expectations about the number of times they’ll connect and what they’ll do when they connect.

As I’ve written about throughout this series, the North Point system has advantages and disadvantages.  There is no problem-free solution to anything.  Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they would rather have.

Advantages:

  • Promoting several GroupLinks a year gives real focus to the importance of being a member of a small group.
  • Pre-approved leaders gives some certainty that new group members will be well cared for.
  • An event focused strategy requires the necessary commitment level from prospective members (as opposed to just signing up and not following through).
  • Closed groups allow new group members to grow close over time, develop a lasting bond, and follow through on a commitment.
  • Paid coaches makes it possible to get a lot accomplished.  Expectations can be inspected and a high level of care delivered to group leaders.

Disadvantages:

  • It is hard for churches to identify and develop an adequate number of pre-approved leaders.  This disadvantage shouldn’t be minimized.  If your church has trouble identifying an adequate number of leaders now, GroupLink will not solve this issue.
  • Closed groups cut off the friends and connections of the newest people to the crowd.  If I’m a new attendee and I join a closed group it will be 12 to 18 months before I can encourage my friend to join my group.
  • Few churches are in a position to allocate adequate budget to hire staff with the primary responsibility of caring for group leaders.  Most churches will simply add this responsibility to an existing job description.

As with any strategy, there is more to it, but these are the three distinctives along with advantages and disadvantages.  You can learn about other small group systems and strategies right here.

The Connecting Church

The Connecting Church The Connecting Church by Randy Frazee is based on a core idea that there is more room for life when you simplify or streamline your small group relationships to center on the people who live near you.  In fact, Frazee’s followup to The Connecting Church, Making Room For Life, is even more centered on that idea.

It sounds very good.  In fact, it sounds great.  When taken to its natural conclusion, it is the idea that by forming by small group out of people in my neighborhood, I have more time to really build those relationships.  Contrast this idea with the normal practice:

  • relationships I’m trying to develop in the neighborhood (because I’m trying to be a good neighbor)
  • relationships with the people in my small group
  • relationships with people in my Sunday School class (hypothetical…I don’t have these but you might)
  • relationships from the softball team, PTA, bunko group, choir, ministry team, etc.

Most of us are trying to develop group life relationships in addition to all the other relationships we already have.  It makes for a complicated life and one that predicts that none of our relationships really become the kind that are the redemptive, life-generating, refreshing kind that we really need.

The essence of Randy Frazee’s idea is that by doing everything (overstatement) with those I live near, I have a better opportunity to develop the kinds of relationships that I need.  Makes sense doesn’t it?  It did to Willow Creek, too, and was the basis for an interesting, but failed, experiment.  The emphasis they called “neighborhood groups” came directly out of Frazee’s ideas.

Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

  • I streamline my relationships by forming my small group in the neighborhood.
  • If I’m part of an on-campus class, it could also be geographically organized (i.e., my class consists of people who are from my area of town and may even consist of all the groups from my area of town).

Disadvantages:

  • Geography is no longer the best predictor of affinity.  I can easily have very little in common with the people who live on my street.
  • Few churches are really in a position to exclusively move this way because most members are already more connected with church people than with neighbors…regardless of geography.

The Connecting Church strategy is a little tricky.  It’s one that is quite alluring and it’s based on some very good principles and practices.  And yet, in many ways it is a very idealistic notion.  Under the heading that there are no problem-free solutions, this one has some great upside and may present a vision to be moved towards.  At the same time, most churches aren’t starting with a blank slate.  And at the end of the day, the hand that you’ve been dealt (the way things are right now) must be taken into consideration before moving in a new direction.

For a look at other small group ministry systems and strategies, take a look at How To Choose a Small Group System or Strategy.

Church-Wide Campaign-Driven Small Groups

When comparing small group ministry strategies and systems there are some fundamental questions to consider.

  • What are the requirements to be a leader?
  • What does a new member commit to?
  • How will you care for the leaders?
  • How does a new group begin?
  • What materials can be used?

One of the most effective small group ministry strategies is centered on the idea that an annual church wide campaign is the easiest ways to launch new groups.  At its root it is a pretty simple strategy:

  1. Choose the right topic for an alignment (weekend message series and small group curriculum)
  2. Launch it at the right moment (there are three best times)
  3. Provide a curriculum that is easy to use
  4. Ask members and attendees to consider hosting a group and inviting their friends and neighbors
  5. Provide a follow-up curriculum that is on an appealing topic and easy to use

5 key elements.  Admittedly, there’s a lot more to it, but those are the keys.  And clearly there are some important distinctions that you’d best not overlook.  For example, there are certain topics that are easy to invite friends and neighbors to and others that will just not work.  There are times on the annual calendar that are naturally better than others.  But when you get the keys right…this is a great way to organize a small group ministry because it answers many of the most important questions.

Still, it is not problem-free.  Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.  Here’s a quick overview of some of the key disadvantages and advantages:

Disadvantages:

  • It takes a lot of energy to pull off a church-wide campaign.  Regardless of church size, this is a high energy endeavor.
  • It requires the focus of the whole church.  A church-wide campaign is not something you do while two or three other initiatives are being launched.
  • You will have people sign up to host a group that may not meet your standards.
  • Not all groups will make it.  Not all of them will even start, let alone finish the six-week study or continue to the follow-up curriculum.
  • Choosing the right topic can be challenging.
  • You may have to set aside normal practices to accomplish a church-wide campaign (i.e., “we’re in a year-long study of the Book of Acts).

Advantages:

  • Focusing all your attention once a year on one thing brings energy, clarity and focus to your congregation.
  • The right topic and curriculum can bring new vitality to outreach effectiveness.
  • Recruiting hosts skillfully will identify a new wave of potential leaders.
  • Encouraging ordinary members to take a step will open their eyes to new ways God wants to use them.
  • Aligning weekend messages with a small group curriculum launches one conversation for 6 weeks bringing renewed focus to the congregation.

There are probably other advantages and disadvantages.  This is not a stand-alone strategy.  Many churches use it in combination with ideas borrowed from other strategies and systems.  But it has some distinct elements that can provide a renewed sense of purpose once a year.

Here are three additional articles on the church-wide campaign-driven idea:

For an overview of the major small group strategies, check out my article, “How To Choose a Small Group System or Strategy.”

Do Good Groups Really Practice the Open Chair?

One of the best known ideas of small group ministry is the open chair.  And one of the best known axioms of group life is that good groups practice the open chair, implying that they are open and everyone is welcome.  Is that true?  Is there any truth to the idea?  Or do closed groups make more sense?  After all, how can you really build intimacy in a group that is continually adding new faces?

First, a little bit about the open chair.  Used as a prop to symbolize the idea that a group is actively looking for new members, for who else might need to be part of a group, the chair is a physical element that reminds of a stated value.  The earliest place I ever saw this practice taught was in Serendipity’s materials in the late 80s or early 90s.  No doubt Lyman Coleman dreamed this exercise up as a way to make tangible an intangible idea.  The idea?  Be on the lookout for people who need what you have.  A very biblical concept.

The questions today are, should groups really practice the open chair?  Should they always practice it?  Maybe not physically pull an empty chair into the circle…but at least symbolically talk about filling it?  And are there any times when it might be best to be closed?  Let’s take a shot at each of these questions.

  • Whether a group is actively looking for new members might depend on the age of the group.  When a group is new, whether you’re using a curriculum that actually mentions the practice or not, it is a great idea to insert a question at the end of the first several meetings: “Who else do you know who would have really enjoyed being here tonight?”  New groups have not yet formed the impermeable membrane that makes it tough for people to break through later.  In the early stages it is a great idea to make it a weekly practice.
  • When a group is preparing to start a new study is another very good time to begin talking about the open chair or who to invite.  This ought to happen the first three or four times a newer group finishes a study and prepares to start a new one.
  • There are seasons when it makes sense for a group to be closed to new members.  When the group chooses a study that covers a very personal topic can be a good time to take the group off the web site and close to new members.  When a particular group member is struggling and the group wants to rally around them for support is another good time to close the group temporarily to new members.
  • There is at least one popular system that espouses the idea that members of a new group sign a 12 or 18 month covenant and that the group is closed once they do that.  Upside?  The group has a lengthy period of time to grow closer, work on building long-term relationships and grow trust without the strain of new personalities.  Downside?  The best opportunities for members to leverage outside connections and invite friends and neighbors are early.  As the year or 18 months passes, those outside connections weaken.

The practice of the open chair is really about the values that drive the small group culture and system of every church.  While there are times when a group should be closed to new members, the notion that “we are closed” often sends the wrong message to unconnected people.  Choose carefully…and with the certainty that this is no problem-free solution.

Do Good Small Groups Really Grow and Birth?

Good groups grow and birth.

If you’re a student of group life, you’ve heard that line.  It’s shorthand for two of the key concepts of the Meta-church Model; the ideas that every leader should have an apprentice and that healthy groups grow over time and at about 12 members are “pregnant” and ready to birth.

The question today is, are these true “truths” of group life?  Or are they axiomatic beliefs that may be somehow holding us hostage to assumptions that aren’t really always true?

I want to suggest that there really isn’t anything about 14 members that says “this group ought to birth.”  In fact, I’ve seen plenty of larger groups that worked great and I’ve seen groups of 6 or 8 that really needed the fresh start of a birth.  I’ve also seen groups of 12 to 14 that were forced to birth only to end up with two anemic or dead groups instead of one healthy group.  So there’s nothing hard and fast that makes a group “pregnant” at 14.

That said, let’s unpack the idea of growing and birthing as indicators of health.  First, it is true that healthy groups are attractive and you’d expect group members to want their unconnected friends to get in on it.  Right?  Doesn’t that make sense?  Admittedly, there are people who would not want to share what they have with unconnected friends, but that wouldn’t normally be seen as an indicator of health.

At the same time, a group can grow too fast.  Get the right leader, add a few really attractive folks who are connectors and you could end up very quickly with a group of 20.  Not necessarily bad…but you might not end up with the kind of interaction and sense of belonging that you hope for.  We’ll talk about a few strategies in a moment.  For now, let’s just say that healthy growth probably should be expected.

The second question is “what about birthing?”  Should that be built in as an expectation for “good” groups?  Put another way, should that be seen as a win?  I think not.  I believe there are a few diagnostic questions that should be used to determine whether a group “ought” to birth.  Here they are:

  • Is there another potential leader within the group that can’t possibly play the part God has for them if they remain a participant (as opposed to stepping out)?
  • Is there another potential leader within the group that could actually hold a group together?  I’ve often found that the principle “good groups grow and birth” causes some premature births and end up with fatalities when the “apprentice” is not really a person that can hold a new group together.
  • Are there natural connections within the group that lend themselves to birthing?  In other words, can the members sort themselves into two groups?
  • Is there an easier way to end up with a new group?

In my mind there are three main factors at work in the idea that good groups birth.

  1. A smaller span of care is desirable.  That is, if you’ve got 8 people in the group, the leader cares for 8.  If you’ve got 20 people in the group, the leader cares for 20.  That’s an important factor.
  2. Too easy for some who ought to be leading a group to hide out in a larger group.
  3. More groups offers more points of connection.

All true.  But all three are better managed another way.  You know how they say, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat?”  After years of working at it, I’ve found that this is a cat that is much easier skinned another way.  And in part two of this article I’ll talk about a better strategy.