Four Reasons to Not Give Up on Small Groups

We may attract attenders through preaching, but disciples are made in small groups.

When you’re leading a campaign, like 40 Days of Prayer, or anytime in the future as you lead your congregation toward a deeper relationship with Jesus, you’ll want to explain to your members why small groups are so important to spiritual growth and why they are more than just a Bible study.

Small groups provide the kind of accountability and support we need to mature as believers, so I want to give you four reasons why they are important to your congregation.

1. Small groups are relational.

You can’t have a conversation with 600 people or 60 people, but you can have a conversation with six people. Generally, when there are more than 10 in a group, people stop talking. It is impossible to learn how to love your neighbor as yourself unless you are involved in a small group of some kind. You don’t need a lot of friends in life, but you do need a few good ones, and you find those solid, supportive friendships in small groups.

Sometimes I hear people say they don’t want their church to grow larger because, if it does, they won’t know everybody in the congregation. Based on that mindset, a church shouldn’t grow beyond about 60 people. The average person knows 67 people.

Small groups allow you to know people, regardless of how big the congregation becomes. You don’t have to know everyone in the church as long as you know somebody in the church. If you miss a weekend service, not everyone will know you weren’t there, but your small group will know. Even the largest congregations seem small when your members are in small groups.

2. Small groups are flexible.

Small groups can meet anywhere. They can meet in a library, at a coffee shop, in a park, in an office during lunch, or in a home. The Bible says, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20 NIV).

3. Small groups are expandable.

You will run out of space and money if you try to build enough classrooms for your groups to meet at church. On the other hand, if your small groups are meeting across the community, then you will never run out of space.

We have small groups spread over 100 square miles around Saddleback Church. Don’t let buildings limit the number of small groups you can have. That’s like letting the shoe tell the foot how big it can get. Buildings are just a tool for ministry. Invest in people; they will last forever.

4. Small groups are economical.

When people meet at the church, we pay for the lights, and we pay for the janitors to clean up. But if a family hosts a small group in their home, they don’t expect the church to pay for utilities that night or to send a janitor over to clean up. In fact, they’re usually glad to take care of those things as part of their ministry to others.

Here’s another thing: You bring a guy into the church for a meeting and he might sit there like a bump on a log, but you put him in a home and give him a cup of coffee, and he may talk his head off. Why? Because you’ve put him in an environment that encourages fellowship.

> Read more from Rick.


 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rick Warren

Rick Warren

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and most influential churches. Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. His book, The Purpose Driven Church, was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for pastors.

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How Do Groups Fit into the Overall Strategy of Your Church?

One of the biggest takeaways from the research behind our book Transformational Groups is the need for churches to be more clear and focused in their group strategy. Church leaders must know how their groups (classes, Bible fellowships, etc.) fit into their overall discipleship strategy/process, and many don’t. They simply have groups. Once leaders know how groups fit into their overall church discipleship plan, they must harmonize their group leaders, training, and content with the overall discipleship plan. We will flesh this out more in the book, but here are some early thoughts for churches.

Know the purpose of your groups.

According to the research, the most effective groups were the most focused groups. People who attend groups in churches that understand the primary purpose of their groups reported a higher level of group effectiveness than those who attend groups in churches with a plethora of purposes. Meaning the groups that are crystal clear as to why they meet and how they fit into the overall life of the church are more effective. Groups that gather with an attempt to be everything don’t accomplish much of anything.

In other words, if a group attempts to constantly invite unbelievers to the group while simultaneously teaching the Bible in depth, hoping to connect believers together in deep relationship, and live on mission together in the community–according to the research the lack of focus is a detriment. Much better is to identify the chief purpose (or two purposes) the groups are gathered together to accomplish, and to focus energy and attention in that direction.

So as you think about your groups, it may be helpful to force rank the list below. In light of your overall church discipleship plan, what are the most important purposes for your groups?

  • Formation/ Study (primary goal is teaching and study)
  • Connection (primary goal is connecting believers in biblical community)
  • Mission (primary goal is the group serving on mission together)
  • Invitational (primary goal is inviting non-believers to the group)

What should the purpose of your groups be? It depends on your overall discipleship strategy. For example, if your weekend worship teaching is 40-45 minutes of biblical exposition, your groups may not need to be a duplication of that. You may decide that your groups should carry a different primary purpose. Of course, you would want the groups to study the Scriptures together, but the intended purpose may be connection and community around those studies. On the other hand, some churches really need the groups to carry the burden of formation and study because the weekend teaching isn’t designed to accomplish that in the life of believers.

Match leaders with the purpose of your groups.

For groups to be the most powerful, there must be harmony between the purpose of the groups and the leaders who lead the groups. The leaders should be recruited and trained based on the purpose of the groups. If a church decides the primary purpose of a group is study, then the church should recruit teachers. If a church decides the primary purpose is biblical community, the church should recruit leaders to shepherd and facilitate. If a church decides it is mission, the church should train their leaders to think like missionaries.

Frustration and friction exists if there isn’t a match. For example, if a church desires the groups to connect people together but a leader is recruited who wants to lead a group so he can lecture for 52 minutes every week, the group will lack focus and fail to deliver on the reason the group exists in light of the overall church discipleship process.

There are other very important issues (launching new groups, communicating with groups, moving new people to groups, etc), but church leaders must first understand how groups fit into the overall discipleship strategy for their church.

Read more from Eric here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eric Geiger

Eric Geiger

Eric Geiger is the Senior Pastor of Mariners Church in Irvine, California. Before moving to Southern California, Eric served as senior vice-president for LifeWay Christian. Eric received his doctorate in leadership and church ministry from Southern Seminary. Eric has authored or co-authored several books including the best selling church leadership book, Simple Church. Eric is married to Kaye, and they have two daughters: Eden and Evie. During his free time, Eric enjoys dating his wife, taking his daughters to the beach, and playing basketball.

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5 Dangers of Unaligned Small Groups

The first time I encountered this issue was in a church consultation nearly twenty years ago. I asked the pastor to tell me what was being taught in the church’s small groups. He seemed to be nonplused in his response: “I have no idea.”  I was taken aback.

I tried a different approach. “Tell me,” I said, “how the church decides what will be taught in the small groups.” Again, I was unprepared for his response: “The church leaders have no input into what small groups teach,” he said. “We let every class decide on its own. We don’t want to be like dictators telling them what they have to do. They decide according to what’s best in their own eyes.”

So, I continued, “I guess you let anybody teach or preach anything from the pulpit on Sunday mornings?”

“Of course not,” he said with some indignation. “We are very strict about the Sunday morning preaching. If I’m not teaching, then we have someone who is closely aligned to where we are going and what we believe.”

He did not get my attempt to connect the approach of the small groups with that of the Sunday morning teaching and preaching. How can you be so concerned about one and so nonchalant about the other?

Over the years I have been surprised to find out how many church leaders have a laissez faire attitude about what is being taught in small groups and Sunday school classes. Allow me to share five dangers of this unaligned, “anything goes” approach.

  1. Because preaching is held to a higher standard, the perception becomes that the small group teaching is just not that important. The reality is that most small groups or Sunday school classes spend more time in their groups than the time they take to listen to a sermon.
  2. The vision of the church could be distracted or derailed. When the preaching and small group teaching are not aligned, the small groups can become alternative little churches with their own vision and priorities. Unfortunately, I have seen this reality a number of times.
  3. It opens the door for heretical teaching. I know of one church that gave no thought to the content of the teaching in the small groups. They would soon discover that one group was studying a book that denied the deity of Christ.
  4. It takes away from the unity of the church. The preaching is headed in one direction. The small group teaching is headed in another direction, or multiple directions. There is no unity in what the church is learning or how the members are growing spiritually.
  5. It does not allow for strategic teaching. Indeed, the contrary may be true. The teaching in the small groups can negate the strategic intent of the preaching plan of the pastor.

Leaders in churches need not be autocratic in their desire to get small group teaching aligned with the ministry of the church. It can and should be a mutually agreed upon goal to move people toward greater maturity in Christ with clear and known material.

Indeed many churches are now moving to a uniform curriculum across all ages in all small groups and Sunday school classes. I see this development as a healthy trend. The leaders are making a statement that what is taught in every group is vitally important for the spiritual health of the members and for the church as a whole.

How does your church decide what is taught in its small groups or Sunday school classes? How would you evaluate its effectiveness?

Read more from Thom here.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to speaking in hundreds of venues over the past 20 years, Rainer led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married to Erin, Sarah and Rachel respectively.  The Rainers have six grandchildren: Canon, Maggie, Nathaniel, Will (with the Lord), Harper, and Bren. He is the author of twenty-four books, including Breakout Churches, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, and Essential Church.  His latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, was released in 2014 by B&H Publishing Group.

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Bishop Q — 11/10/15 12:26 am

Excellent insights. I have experienced the heretical teachings in small groups debacle. It nearly split the church!

pastorwillrice — 12/30/14 8:21 am

Great piece Thom! I have found it really challenging in the mainline church to try and move to a uniform curriculum. There is much resistance to changing the culture and it as seen as "telling us what to do." I think it is possible, it is just a long process of negotiation and an attempt to get people to see the value. I have seen new church starts have a great advantage here. If they begin with unity in their small group teaching, it can become part of their DNA.

Ralph Graves — 12/23/14 1:41 pm

Having planted 8 years ago, I've kind of shy'ed away from small groups. I might add to these 5 reasons a 6th reason. "Cliques" will form quickly in the body. And that's another headache altogether. God Bless.

Ro'i Steiner — 08/14/13 12:16 pm

You didn't define what "unaligned" is. Small groups can be totally aligned , and need to be, with their church doctrinally and still talk about and emphasize anything they choose. Having a group that meets to talk about business , lets say, can be aligned with the church doctrinally but not discuss the last sermon. Would you say that a group like this is "unaligned" ?

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3 Reasons Groups MUST Be a Big Deal

While one person can make a significant impact on each of us, we tend to be much more influenced by groups of people. Here is a fascinating example: The Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona has often faced a crisis as people can steal petrified wood at an alarming rate. Some researchers tested what message would motivate people to respect the forest and not steal wood. Three different tests were conducted:

  • Test 1: No sign posted.
  • Test 2: A posted sign with a picture of one personpicking up petrified wood with encouragement not to take wood.
  • Test 3: A posted sign with a picture of three people picking up petrified wood with encouragement not to take wood.

So what were the results?

When there was no sign posted, people stole 2.9% of the wood. When there was a sign showing only one person taking the wood, 1.9% of the wood was taken. When there was a sign showing several people taking wood, 7.9% of the wood was taken. Clearly people were much more willing to follow the lead of a crowd than a single person. * A group can impact people much more than one person can.

The people in your church will be much more influenced by a group of people than they will be by one person, by even one pastor. While a pastor can make a significant impact on a person’s life, the impact of a group is much more sustainable and reproducible.

Here are three reasons groups must be a big deal at your church this fall. (I am using the term groups, but the same applies to Sunday School classes, Bible fellowships, etc.)

1. A group provides encouragement that no one person will ever be able to provide.

We are all limited in the number of relationships we can have. Thus, a church that does not value groups acts as if they foolishly believe that a pastor/leader can deeply relate to a lot of people. Without groups, ministry leaders can run feverishly in futile attempts to relate deeply to lots of people.

2. A group illustrates the faith in multiple ways.

One person can provide an incredible example of faith and godliness, but it is one example. A group of people provides multiple expressions and illustrations of how the Christian faith is expressed in different spheres of life.

3. A group of believers provides a counter culture.

People in your church are going to be impacted by some group of people. The wisdom writer wrote, “The one who walks with the wise will become wise, but a companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). The groups of people we surround ourselves with either help or harm us. By offering and emphasizing groups, churches offer an opportunity to walk with the wise. If people don’t walk with the wise, they will be a companion of fools and suffer harm.

Here is my observation: A church that does not emphasize groups tends to put way too much burden on a weekend worship service and too little trust in the power of Christian community.

* The research is cited in the book “Social Psychology and Evaluation,” page 277.

> Read more from Eric.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eric Geiger

Eric Geiger

Eric Geiger is the Senior Pastor of Mariners Church in Irvine, California. Before moving to Southern California, Eric served as senior vice-president for LifeWay Christian. Eric received his doctorate in leadership and church ministry from Southern Seminary. Eric has authored or co-authored several books including the best selling church leadership book, Simple Church. Eric is married to Kaye, and they have two daughters: Eden and Evie. During his free time, Eric enjoys dating his wife, taking his daughters to the beach, and playing basketball.

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Two of the Best Questions to Ask to Determine if Your Small Groups are Working

A couple days ago a church leader asked me if I thought small groups were kind of “old school and over with?” He continued to suggest that small groups were now passé and wanted to know the new cutting edge innovative thing.

I pressed in further in order to better understand his question and discovered that small groups were not working at his church. Although it sounded like his church is healthy and growing, the small group attendance is declining. His interpretation and conclusion of their reality, is that small groups are over. My thoughts are different.

Small groups have been a part of culture from the beginning because people are created to flourish and grow in community. But what has always been on the table is how we do small groups. The structure, format and method will always change and evolve.  For example, I love hearing stories about some of the cool digital/online small group innovations that help people in larger churches connect. There will always be new and innovative ways to do small groups, but small groups are here to stay.

Perhaps a better question to ask is, “Are your small groups working?”

Two of the best questions to ask to help figure out if your group life is working are:

  • What is the purpose of your small groups?
  • How do you measure success of your small groups?

Let’s start with purpose.

If you don’t know the true purpose of your small group ministry, the leaders won’t know and you’ll never be as effective as you’d like to be. When I interview small group leaders in any local church, and ask that question, it’s amazing how many different answers I get. It’s important to train your small group leaders to know the purpose. It is essential that the leaders stay focused on the purpose or all that effort and energy will slide sideways to good fellowship at best, or general busyness at worst. Don’t get me wrong, good Christian fellowship is great, but that’s a lot of work for something that often happens naturally on its own.

So, what is your purpose? (Why do you meet?) Here are the 7 most common answers.

  • Bible Study. We meet to study God’s word in depth to learn more about biblical principles.
  • Connection.  We meet to help make the church become more “sticky” and help our large church feel smaller by enhancing healthy relationships.
  • Serve.  We meet not so much in a group discussion format, but the group comprises a serving team and provides a ministry that serves people and supports the church overall.
  • Prayer. We meet to pursue God in deeper ways, intercede for others and the church as a whole.
  • Spiritual Maturity. We meet with a purpose of spiritual formation overall, seeking to grow in our faith and walk with God.
  • Care. We meet with a focus on pastoral care and shepherding. Our church is large and the staff can’t keep up with caring for all the people personally.
  • Evangelism. We meet with a desire to engage people who are not yet Christians with the ultimate desire to see them say yes to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Nothing new right? Right. But here’s my challenge to you. More often than not church leaders say something like: “All those components are part of our small group system.” I understand that answer, but I want to challenge you with this thought, if you don’t intentionally choose your primary focus, you will lose your effectiveness. Look at the list again. Do you think that your small groups can achieve all those elements?  I’m going to press back and say they can’t. So, again, what is your focus? If you get that settled, you are on your way toward much greater effectiveness.

I believe we would all agree that the big picture is life change. In some ways that seems highly subjective and possibly illusive. But on the other hand, it’s really easy to see when someone in your group has truly experienced change in their life.

Life change is the best measure of success regardless of your choice of focus or purpose. You may be tempted to form a list of attributes or scripture passages by which to measure the spiritual maturity of people in your small groups. I have done that multiple times over the years. Each time I’ve been part of an effort like that to “measure success” (measure life change) it turns into a mechanical nightmare and eventually fades into non-existence. In small church environments, it works okay for a while, but the larger you get the more unmanageable it becomes and you’ll likely find yourself looking for something much more intuitive and organic.

Let me offer a simple, powerful way to measure success (assess life change).

Gather stories! That’s it! Gather stories of life change. Don’t make it more complicated. Train your leaders to look for, gather and send you clear and concise stories of how real change is taking place in the lives of small group attenders. They can be:

  • God Stories – Where God shows up and does what only God can do!
  • Growth Stories – How a person takes steps toward being more like Jesus.
  • Gift Stories – How a person understands that God has gifted them for Kingdom purpose and serving in ministry. (Story about serving in a ministry.)

Tell these stories on Sunday morning! Your church will love 3-4 minute videos of the stories. They don’t need to be highly produced. Just make sure the point of the story is clear and that you capture heart. It’s also a great idea to include these stories, videos and even live testimonies within your sermon.

This practice creates momentum and begins to infuse group life into the culture of your church and each time you open groups and invite new people to join, you’ll see greater participation. Of course you need good systems (the method for getting people connected to groups) and good group leaders and apprentice leaders, (effective and consistent training), but you also need the ministry of group life to be clearly part of the (ministry) culture of your church.

Your small group ministry is one of the most important things you can do in your church. It’s also a lot of work. I can promise you that if you are not fully committed to small group ministry the results will be average at best. If you’re going to do it, go for it 100%.  If your church feels too busy, it may be wise to lean out or simplify your ministry menu in order to do a better job with the most important ministries. Small groups don’t work well as “one of the things you do.” It needs to be at the top of the list if you want great results.

The method or structure you select isn’t nearly as important as knowing your purpose and how you measure success. My prayer for you is that you truly experience life change through group life in your church!

> Read more from Dan.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Reiland

Dan Reiland

Dr. Dan Reiland serves as Executive Pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY. He and Dr. Maxwell still enjoy partnering on a number of church related projects together. Dan is best known as a leader with a pastor's heart, but is often described as one of the nations most innovative church thinkers. His passion is developing leaders for the local church so that the Great Commission is advanced.

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Doing Life Together with Others Follows Christ’s Example

In a world that is pushing against community, the church must pursue authentic community.

Community matters.

There are few things in which the church can be more counter-cultural than in the way it practices community. There are few things in which the church can manifest its missional nature more than in the way it pursues community.

Community matters.

It’s a biblical non-negotiable. Transformation is not an individual task. No Christian is an island. The model Jesus gave us for disciple making is one of shared experience and learning in community. Christ did life together with his disciples, and he expects us to undergo life transformation as a community.

Community matters.

Churches that are serious about developing and cultivating authentic community are going to have congregations that are involved in transformational small groups. There’s no getting around the fact that any church that wants to make an impact on its people and a difference in its neighborhood will pursue and cultivate small groups.

Transformational Groups Matter

Transformational groups matter. Small-group ministry is essential to the health of any church. These small groups take a variety of forms: cell groups, Bible studies, life groups, Bible fellowships, discipleship classes, home groups, Sunday school classes, and other gatherings that promote relationships within the community.

The question is: what’s the primary reason for having small groups? It’s important to note that all groups have three purposes:

  • All groups have a connecting function.
  • All groups have a formation function.
  • All groups have a mission function.

Depending on the makeup of your congregation, your overall discipleship plan, and/or your small group strategy, you’ll find that one function will become predominant over the others. And that’s okay. You can actually structure accordingly to accomplish all three functions.

Decide on a Purpose

The first question we have to ask: what is going to be the primary function or purpose? Connecting? Formation? Mission? The answer depends on several different factors. The discipleship strategy of your church is a pre-condition that is the most important question to decide which function will be the focus.

If the preaching and teaching in your church is predominantly characterized by biblical exposition, it would be wise to consider the connecting or mission functions for your small groups. This doesn’t mean your small groups won’t study the Bible. It’s just that their intended purpose will be along the connecting or mission trajectories.

Conversely, if the preaching and teaching on Sunday is more topical and intended as a front-door experience for those who wouldn’t be considered the core of your community, you probably want to consider small groups centered on Bible study and spiritual formation.

Decide on a Structure

The next question to consider is how will you structure your small groups to carry out the primary function?

For example, let’s say that you’re focusing on missional communities. Missional communities are communities that are intentionally mission focused. These communities are engaging and serving those around them as an outgrowth of the gospel.

This doesn’t mean that missional small groups are not a place for congregational members to be building meaningful relationships with one another. They are connection points. And it also doesn’t mean that missional small groups do not seriously engage in spiritual formation in the lives of its members. It’s just the opposite. Missional small groups are strongest when all three functions of a group are present, with mission being the primary focus.

Cautions

There are a couple of cautions I need to point out.

The first, I’ve alluded to above. Focusing on one function of a group alone is not healthy. Transformational small groups thrive when they are practicing all three functions with one as primary. A solitary focus on missions tends to be unsustainable to groups that are not primarily college students. Groups that are solely focused on formation tend to lead to a spiritual deadness in the lives of the people and in the life of the church.

This is why the Sunday School movement has seen a lot of decline over the past few years. Many Sunday School classes are focused on knowledge formation. There’s really not enough else happening within the dynamic of the small group that would rise to the level of spiritual formation. The recitation of knowledge without any connection or mission leads to a sense of dryness.

On the flip side, if we’re developing a small group as a connecting point for friendship and social interaction only, the result is pretty shallow spirituality. In fact, people will hang for a while and enjoy the relationship building. But since there’s nothing more to the group, after a few weeks or months, they simply won’t stick around.

Our research shows people believe there must be a purpose for their gathering. That’s why they’ve come to church. Not simply for connecting, but for something bigger than themselves. And I’ll suggest that something bigger is found in the Word. Small groups that are serious about transformation will have some kind of Bible study or spiritual formation component to them, even if it is secondary to the connecting or mission functions.

Holistic Approach

Every small group should have all three elements of the purpose and function of groups, but one element will be predominant based on the overall discipleship strategy of the church. And that’s the sweet spot.

Transformational small groups that are going to serve the church well are going to flow out of the church’s strategy for discipleship and mission. And they are going to be most effective when they augment, rather than duplicate the weekend services.

If you’d like to explore more in depth about the role of small groups in the life of the church, my colleague Eric Geiger and I have published a helpful book, Transformational Groups: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations.

How is your church doing with small groups?

> Read more by Ed.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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Does Your Leadership Structure Impede the Progress of Discipleship?

At LifeWay Research, we are passionate about the state of the church. It is the focus of the vast majority of our work. One of the conclusions of an overwhelming amount of statistical evidence is that healthy churches are utilizing small groups.

Whether they call them cell groups, small groups, Sunday School classes, missional communities, or one of a number of other monikers, healthy churches are moving people move from sitting in rows to sitting in circles, in order that they might engage in community for ministry and mission.

If we take a good look at the state of our churches, however, we also see that there is a dearth of disciple-making. People are neither being discipled nor trained to make disciples, and much of that problem springs from a lack of small group community participation.

We surveyed North American churchgoers, and found: less than half sacrifice their own desires to provide for those in need; over one-third never exercise their spiritual gifts to serve God and others; and only 19 percent read their Bible every day.

Discipleship Deficit

So, statistically we see churches have a major discipleship deficit. Those who have realized this have tried to address it in various ways. For some, the answer is more exciting worship. For others, it is better programming or better preachers.

All those can be helpful things, but it can be deceptively hurtful when our focus becomes all about the weekend. A dynamic communicator and wonderful music can gather a crowd, but they often do not move people forward in discipleship.

In the book Transformational Discipleship, we specifically zeroed in on that particular deficit. What we found in our research is that one of the keys in the discipleship process is tight-knit community. Small groups are vital for creating disciples.

The Need for Community

There are at least 30 commands in the New Testament you cannot obey unless you are actively engaged in a local church. And you will not fulfill these “one another” commands by simply attending a church that is all about the weekend. You have to meaningfully engage in relationship-building with other believers who will walk through life with you, thereby fulfilling the one anothers together.

Because of all that we have learned in our research, small groups are now an assumed necessity, in my opinion. If you want to develop healthy disciples who make more healthy disciples, a healthy small group ministry is required.

But they are challenging, as is anything that requires deep, intimate relationships. So what makes them work. One of the most glaring issues we have seen in the creation of healthy small group culture within churches is leadership.

The Priest of Priests

I think one of the great challenges in the church today is that of “clergification.” Let me explain what I mean by that.

Most of the people reading this are Protestant, and one of the keys of the Reformation was the focus on what would eventually be called the priesthood of believers. This is a key theological position within Protestantism—we do not need a priest for access to God. (I do understand and appreciate that some traditions see the pastor as having important functions related to the the ordinances or sacraments, so I am talking in general about spiritual access to God and the importance of community.)

The problem is that while it is held broadly theologically, it is not necessarily held in practice. Many churches are set up as if some remarkably gifted, talented, or trained leader must teach and explain the Bible in order for the people to understand it.

Most churches have created an environment in which, if someone needs to understand the gospel, the leader has to be the one to explain it. We don’t hold theologically to the necessity of a priest, but we do functionally.

We act as though people cannot approach or understand God themselves.

I’m not unaware of that challenge of individualism, which is why I prefer the plural priesthood of believers. Yet, it is important to note that there is an undeniable tendency inherent in human nature to turn over our religious commitment or devotion or obligations, as we see them, to our religious hierarchies.

In effect, we create priests to carry out the religious rituals. This is the common trajectory for most churches, even in churches that are not theologically liturgical or sacramental. The acts of our faith become centralized on the clergy, hence, “clergification.”

I believe in biblical offices in the church. I believe that “pastor” is one of those offices, and some people might not agree, and some think there are more. Our ecclesiology determines those things, but we don’t have to agree on this to agree on the broader point.

Regardless of our conclusions on those matters of theology and practice, I believe that if we honestly assess the current situation we can (should) all agree that too much of the ministry and mission of the church has been centralized into the clergy. The result is hindering the life and ministry of our churches.

Discipleship and Clergy

Part of the discipleship deficit that exists in our churches is there because clergy has become the religious shopkeepers who provide the religious goods and services necessary to our faith. The people come to them as customers instead of co-laborers.

In order to engage small group community well and counteract the deficit we’ve created, we must work toward the de-clergification of the work of our churches and embrace the empowerment of a new breed of leaders.

Declergify

I’m not asking you to cast aside your leaders and leadership models on a whim. Also, I am definitely not, in this small article, encouraging you to change a well-thought theological view of your clergy. I’m encouraging you to not unintentionally clergify your ministry to the detriment of your service and discipleship.

I am simply encouraging you to prayerfully consider how your leadership structures might actually be impeding the ministry and disciple-making processes of your churches.

Consider how you might empower new leaders to begin to engage people within the church in small group community and how new leaders just might spring out of those groups, as well.

> Read more from Ed.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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Why Group Friendliness is More Important Than You Realize

I work with dozens of churches each year as I work with their leadership teams about small groups, spiritual growth and transformational leadership. Often I am contacted and asked some variation of this question: “Bill, can you help us build/grow our small group ministry?”

Before I answer yes, no or maybe, I engage in a conversation, asking lots of questions and getting to know the current state of the church. As it relates to group life, I discover that churches fall into four categories:

  • Group-focused
  • Group-proficient
  • Group-wary
  • Group-hostile

You might be wondering why a “group-hostile” church would even ask me to help them build groups. Reality is, they do not see themselves as group hostile, but I do. So allow me to unpack each of these and see where your church is these days.

Group-focused: In this church groups play a central role is spiritual formation and providing a sense of connection or belonging (I won’t get too caught up in terminology at this point). Church members and regular attendees are very aware groups exist and usually know how to get involved in one. Even most visitors will have some exposure to the idea. It is part of the philosophy of ministry, part of the DNA, regardless of the level of actual participation. There is dedicated staff and core volunteer support, with a mandate to grow groups or various kinds so people can have a variety of experiences in community.

Group-proficient: This church views groups as helpful, knows what they look like and how to lead them, and sees them as a vital option for people (along with classes, serving and other growth environments or experiences.) Groups are advertised, are peppered throughout the church, and usually have some kind of staff or key volunteer support. Group life may not lie at the center of the church strategy for making disciples, but groups are nonetheless close to that center and many members will be in them (or were in them) at some point.

Group-wary: Such churches are exploring group life but are not sure where groups fit in, whether they will create tension or competition with other ministries, if they will be too “psychology” focused, or will create a life of their own and become little islands separate from the larger body. There is a sense that groups work, but fear that they might cause more problems than they are worth.

Group-hostile: A church that is “hostile” toward group life – yet still asks me to help – is usually a church that 1) is still recovering years after a really bad group experience, 2) cannot imagine a small group without an intense bible-study focus, has virtually no culture/value of community life anywhere in the church, 4) does not believe in any kind of official church meetings off campus, and/or 5) has senior leadership that is highly controlling or has a fear-based theology, ignoring the priesthood of all believers.

To be clear, ANY of these four can experience varying levels of group friendliness. Even a “group-focused” church may tolerate only certain kinds of groups and be quite averse to others. Some have a one-size-fits-all approach, and your ideas may not fit. Or, despite the prevalence of group life, there is little structure, vision, resourcing or training to support the effort. As a result, groups flounder, new people cannot connect, or a kind of elitist mentality develops among the already connected.

And, at the other extreme, a “group-hostile” church might be more “group-friendly” than first appears. I have often found that there are groups everywhere in almost any church – people just don’t see them as such, because they have a pre-conceived notion of what constitutes a small group. In other words, there is no small group “program” (about which there may be fear or hesitancy to launch), but people are “grouping” without much resistance. (To be sure, some churches think small groups are part of some Satanic ritual, and definitely DO NOT invite me to help!).

Here 5 ways for any church to increase its group-friendliness.

1)     Create a culture for community. Teach the value of relational, spiritual growth as vital to the church. Offer groups as a way to experience this.

2)     Support the effort. Provide staff (or quality volunteers), ample financial resources, training, communication and times for celebrating transformation of lives though groups.

3)     Encourage “communal” experimentation. (Ok, I am not talking about something some of you did in California in the late 70’s.) Allow a variety of groups to form of various sizes and formats, and study them. See what works, how participants are growing, what processes are helpful, what kind of leadership is needed, how and where they can meet, and so on. As friend Heather Zempel reminds us, “Everything is an Experiment!”

4)     Get personally involved. Launch a new kind of group yourself group. No need for a big announcement and banners in the hallways. Get a few people together around you – you should lead the early efforts.

5)     Be patient with resistance. As I often tell leadership teams I work with, “Building this ministry takes a thousand cups of coffee.” Sometimes this only grows one conversation, one prayer, one leader, one member, one meeting at a time. Not every ministry looks like the church in Acts 2 on the first day. Ask most church planters, especially in multicultural settings, about perseverance!

So where is your church? What needs to happen for you to become more group friendly?

Read more from Bill here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bill Donahue

Bill’s vision is: “Resourcing life-changing leaders for world-changing influence.” Leaders and their teams need a clear personal vision and a transformational team strategy. This requires work in 3 key areas: Maximize Leadership Capacity, Sharpen Mission Clarity & Build Transformational Community. Bill has leadership experience in both the for-profit and non-profit arena. After working for P&G in New York and PNC Corp. in Philadelphia, Bill was Director of Leader Development & Group Life for the Willow Creek Church & Association where he created leadership strategies and events for over 10,000 leaders on 6 continents in over 30 countries.

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Growing Your Groups, Part 1: 5 Ways to Connect with Disconnected People

One of the higher priorities for the church in recent years has become assimilation, and rightful so. The days are gone when people would find the nearest church and commit immediately—more people are secular and are not looking to jump in to a church and more Christians are cautious in their involvement. If people visit your church, however, they are probably looking to connect in some way, regarless of their spiritual condition. If they don’t, they won’t be around long.

So, this article is intended to help you find ways to connect with people who visit your church but are not connected in community. In a later article, I will deal with connect (via groups) with people in your community.

Simply put, you need to find opportunities to connect with disconnected people that attend the church gathering. People need to be assimilated into the church fairly quickly. It has been said that if people do not get plugged into some meaningful community within six months of their attending a church, they almost always drop out. In some cases, that may look more like six weeks.

On the other hand, if they are successfully connected (or “assimilated”), they are probably going to stick. This opens up doors for evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth for not only with those people and their family, but also their extended family and friends.

Connect with the Disconnected People

People come to a church gathering and they will typically visit anonymously to check things out. They are often looking for a connection to God that comes through worship, prayer, the sermon and communion. They are also looking for a connection to people; otherwise they would stay at home and watch an Internet church. If they connect with God at the gathering but don’t connect with people, they may miss an opportunity for their spiritual growth, health (or in some cases, spiritual birth).

Let’s look at five ways a church body can connect with the disconnected.

1. Take Advantage of the Three-Minute Rule

The three-minute rule begins when the final prayer is said or song is sung. This is not the time to talk to your best friends. During those first three minutes, two things are going to happen: people who are familiar are going to talk to each other and people who don’t know anyone are going to leave quickly. This is where it’s crucial. If you take the time in those first three minutes to talk to the people who aren’t connected, you will have time afterward to talk to your friends who are more likely to stick around. You need to see those first three minutes after a church gathering as a time-sensitive corporate fishing pool for Group prospects. You have three critical minutes to look immediately around for people who are not connected in the body. Be friendly to them, ask them if they are in a group, and invite them if they are not connected to one.

2. Make Sure Group Leaders are Visible and Available

People who are not connected will often slip out as quickly as possible—sometimes even before the service is over. (It is not surprising that they don’t excitedly anticipate the offering and closing benediction.)

Key group leaders should move to the exit areas to connect with the disconnected right after the sermon or the end of the message. The people who are the most disconnected will exit before they have to speak to anyone. They may not be ready to connect, but you can at the least, be a friendly face on their way out. If they return, you will have a greater opportunity to connect them to a group when they are ready.

3. Know Where the Groups meet and have a Groups Concierge in a Prime Location.

As a group leader trying to connect with newer people, know what groups may work best for the person you are trying to connect. If the visiting family lives 15 miles east of the church gathering, asking them to attend a group that meets 15 miles west would not seem very wise—you shouldn’t expect them to drive 60 miles round-trip every week for a group meeting.

Try to connect them with a group that meets fairly close to their home. If you are not sure, walk over to the group’s counter with them and help them to find one that best suits them. You can offer your assistance based on their demographic or their interests as well as your knowledge of the leaders. The goal is connecting them to a group that best serves their needs, not that best serves your needs. Have a groups table with a volunteer staffer ready to help them find a place.

4. Invite them to a Basic Newcomer’s Class or Informal Gathering.

Connect with people by inviting them to a basic newcomers’ gathering. This could be a class that highlights the foundations of your church or it could be an informal gathering that helps them find their next steps for assimilating into the church. Design this as an opportunity for them to connect with other people: group leaders, key leaders and pastors. The goal of this newcomers’ gathering is to connect them with the mission and vision of the church, with other people, and with a group.

5. Follow-Up

Here is where we go “old school.” Many churches have abandoned some basic follow-up of visitors to their church gatherings. Below are some follow-up things we do.

  • Visitors receive a phone call on Sunday night from a volunteer who thanks them for visiting.
  • The church mails out a typed letter on Monday that includes information about small groups.
  • As the lead pastor, I send visitors a hand-written note on Thursday. It is brief but personal saying something like: “Thank you for being our guest this Sunday at Grace Church. We hope you were challenged and encouraged. Please let us know if you have any questions or if we can be of service in any way. God bless, Ed Stetzer.”
  • An optional follow-up is really old school. We stop by their house with a baked good on the Saturday after they visited. This works better in some parts of the country than it does in others.
  • Finally, we provide the names and contact information of those people who attend the newcomer’s gathering to the group leaders. We want the group leaders to connect them to a group as soon as possible.

Conclusion

We want to move disconnected people who are sitting in rows toward becoming connected people who are sitting in circles. If we do that quickly, they’re almost certain to stay and become connected into the life of our church. If they’re not yet a believer, they will hear the gospel in the context of having some friends around them, and that is the ultimate goal. We want them in the Kingdom, not just in the building. It starts with a simple connection.

Later this month, Eric Geiger and I will release a book called Transformational Groups.Groups are at the core of the mission of the church, and in our book we set out to help churches evaluate and improve their small groups.

You can learn more about the book and preorder your copy here.

Read more from Ed here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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comment_post_ID); ?> Thanks Thom, You’re exactly correct. Now how about some solutions when confronted by one of these wayward actors?
 
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comment_post_ID); ?> This is hilarious. Well done!
 
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comment_post_ID); ?> Love this
 
— Ann Stokman
 

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7 Ways to Keep Community at the Core of Your Church

I had the privilege of being with some great yet humble pastoral leaders last week at a forum in Atlanta. These 22 men and women are responsible for creating a climate where group life and effective teams can flourish in and through the life of the local church. Some world-renown churches were represented (Saddleback, LifeChurch, North Point) and some lesser known communities (Westridge, Sojourn, and Southridge in Canada) rounded out the list.

Church size, personal popularity, resources published, ministry longevity or the level of creativity were not the factors that made these leaders or their churches “great” in my eyes. Rather, they were successful because they maintained a relentless commitment to becoming a church with community at the core of everything they do.

Why? Because they knew and believed there is no discipleship without relationship! There can be no mass disciple-making using events and programs. Yes, you can create more followers with creative events, spectacular services and dynamic speakers. But you cannot make disciples.

As I listened to these friends and fellow leaders, it was clear that communal life and how it can change the world was truly at the center. It was not an afterthought, an add-on to be considered after focusing on fundraising, events, services, classes, programs and activities. I long for that kind of church.

But to be a place where community is at the core you must first believe that it really belongs there, where God put it and where Jesus lived it. And you must build everything around it. The heart of the gospel is community – the message that the God who lives in community came to restore community with his people through the life, death and resurrection of his son. (John 17:21)

How do we Become a Place with Community at the Core?

Here are some of the key insights that these leaders shared or that I took away as we engaged deeply about what it means for community to be central to the core of a church to catalyze spiritual growth and maximize world impact.

  • Strategy Matters: Organic growth is cool and new experiments are essential, but at the end of the day you need a cohesive, coherent strategy for building community life. It must not be so rigid as to inhibit innovation, nor so loose as to create unmanageable chaos. But you need one – missional groups, meta-church, life transformation groups, mid-sized communities…the models vary but not the need for a unified, cohesive strategy. And be careful not to over-program. The emerging discussion about Missional Communities was very provocative.
  • Clarity is King: Why do we do groups? What is our desired outcome? How do people get connected? Where do we find emerging leaders and how do we equip them? There are many questions and problems to solve, and most of them are complex or require real effort. But if you are committed to achieving clarity, you have most of the problem solved already. See Stanley on this.
  • Culture-Transformation is our Mission. Many Christians either attack the culture or run from it. But we are not called to build a community of navel gazers, obsessed with promoting an insulated, fortress mentality. People are lost, hurting, lonely, fear-filled, poor, hungry, homeless, hopeless, friendless, oppressed, unemployed, wounded and sick. We build community to strengthen the body AND enter the culture with a Luke 4 mindset. In God’s power we are setting captives free, bringing sight to the spiritually blind, offering good news and hope to the poor, and shouting out “God’s favor has come!”
  • Stories Stir the Soul: Listening to the stories of others and telling our story is a powerful way to connect people and build relationships with those outside our circle. Then we can connect our stories to God’s story.
  • Metrics Motivate the Mind: You get what you measure, but you cannot gauge progress without some markers. Without measurement there is no management. Plan to measure qualitative and quantitative growth, getting feedback so that you can focus your training and development of people.
  • Leaders Make a Big Difference: We all advocate the vision of shared ministry, mutual use of gifts, empowering one another to serve, and taking ownership of ministry at every level. But we also know that quality, committed leadership matters.  We want a flatter kind of church structure, and we know that leaders themselves have a big role in making that happen. We have to give more away, take more risks, allow others to fail, and be the first to work ourselves out of a job. See my post about your leadership.
  • The Good News is the Best News: We affirmed our commitment to the gospel-story of Jesus, teaching His way of being with people, loving others, living a sacrificial life, redeeming us from sin and shame, and putting us on a new path toward abundant life.

I was so proud to be in the room with such an amazing group of servants whose hearts are tender, minds are sharp, and souls long for real change. And who can laugh at themselves (and one another!) in a way that is simply pure joy.

Questions to consider:

  • With whom do you gather for this kind of inspiration?
  • Where do you get real interaction and thought-provoking conversation?
  • Where do you discover fresh ideas and see strategies that actually work in real life?  Not just more speakers and content and information – but real engagement about life and ministry issues that produces lasting change?
 Read more from Bill here.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bill Donahue

Bill’s vision is: “Resourcing life-changing leaders for world-changing influence.” Leaders and their teams need a clear personal vision and a transformational team strategy. This requires work in 3 key areas: Maximize Leadership Capacity, Sharpen Mission Clarity & Build Transformational Community. Bill has leadership experience in both the for-profit and non-profit arena. After working for P&G in New York and PNC Corp. in Philadelphia, Bill was Director of Leader Development & Group Life for the Willow Creek Church & Association where he created leadership strategies and events for over 10,000 leaders on 6 continents in over 30 countries.

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comment_post_ID); ?> Thanks Thom, You’re exactly correct. Now how about some solutions when confronted by one of these wayward actors?
 
— Mike
 
comment_post_ID); ?> This is hilarious. Well done!
 
— RussellC
 
comment_post_ID); ?> Love this
 
— Ann Stokman
 

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.