Saturday, February 28, 2009

Review - Destination Community

As one who doesn't believe that small groups are dying, I'm frequently on the lookout for fresh approaches to group life, or material that emphasizes the goals of life transformation, authentic community and biblical discipleship. Destination: Community Small Group Ministry Manual by Rick Howerton is an excellent resource that covers all the key aspects of small group ministry, of interest to small group leaders, coaches/shepherds, ministry directors, and those considering developing a small group ministry.

The book discusses key questions like why small groups, how to lead a group, how to start a SG ministry, tips on effective SGs, tips on facilitating a SG mtg, and a specific section on Youth SGs. The book is very easy-to-read, with super short chapters of about four pages each. A key aspect of the book is the cover-to-cover emphasis on authentic relationships and community, not about the need to convey knowledge. The small groups proposed to not ignore discipleship, but they are insistent that this occurs best in close community, living life together. My favorite quote from the book: "Leaders must invite people into their lives, not their programs"

The book discusses both principles and practical ideas, yet without telling the reader what to do. Howerton stresses that every group is unique and should have a well-defined purpose that fits their group and is communicated well. On first reading I wasn't quite sure if what Howerton was proposing was an emergent or relational 'spin' on other excellent small group approaches (including the excellent books by Donahue and others from Willow Creek), but a second look suggests that it's more - that the emphasis on community and relationships is real and central to the book. The approach in Destination: Community will be of great interest to those seeking relational and redemptive community in a group setting, and to those who see the purpose of small groups as life transformation. The approach to small group leadership is fresh, with the leader much more of a shepherd and first among peers, sharing meaningful responsibility with others for facilitating, caregiving, and hospitality. Check it out ...

Table of Contents
SECTION 1: Basic Principles and Practices of Small-Group Life
Chapter 1--Authenticity
Chapter 2--Life is a Story
Chapter 3--Embrace Adventure; Do Life Together
Chapter 4--Experiential Discipleship
Chapter 5--Compelling Community
SECTION 2: The Heart of Leadership
Chapter 6--Obtaining Group Members
Chapter 7--Retaining Group Members
Chapter 8--Organizing the Group
Chapter 9--Unifying Group Members
Chapter 10--Directing Group Members
SECTION 3: Starting a Small-Group Ministry
Chapter 11--Decide If Small Groups Are Right for You
Chapter 12--Envision the Vision
Chapter 13--Choose the Types of Groups You'll Include
Chapter 14--Capture the Purpose Behind our Passion
Chapter 15--Plan for Growth
Chapter 16--Obtain Approval from Infl uencing Church Leadership
Chapter 17--Enlist the Senior Pastor to Cast Vision
Chapter 18--Recruit Generation 1
SECTION 4: The Model Group - Leading G1
Chapter 19--Five Actions of Healthy Small Groups
Chapter 20--The One Anothers
Chapter 21--In His G-R-I-P
Chapter 22--Team Evangelism
Chapter 23--Covenanting
Chapter 24--Power Prayer
Chapter 25--Multiplication
SECTION 5: The Small-Group Meeting
Chapter 26--Meeting Tips
Chapter 27--Before the Meeting
Chapter 28--During the Meeting
Chapter 29--After the Meeting
Chapter 30--Between Meetings
SECTION 6: Youth Small Groups by Josh Howerton
Chapter 31--Advantages of Small Groups in Student Ministry
Chapter 32--On Your Mark ... Get Set ... Go!
Chapter 33--Handling the Animal
Chapter 34--Final Warnings and Encouragement

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What is the Future of Small Groups?

There has been some excellent discussion in blogs this week on small groups - based on an article in the Washington Times (?!) - "Group movement showing its age". Are they effective? At what? Are they out-dated and in need of replacement? What will supplant them?

Kathy Guy, the Director of Community at Granger found some good points in the article, and politely but strongly observed: "I do think that small groups as we've known them are dying and will continue to do so." That post is entitled "Sunday School, Small Groups, what's next?" Guy is a huge proponent of the necessity and power of relationships, but points out different venues may work better for different people.

Dave Treat of the Willow Creek Association had two excellent posts in response to this article from the Times, "Showing Our Age" and "Are Small Groups Dying?"  Dave and co-authors on the blog Bill Donahue and Greg Bowman have been proponents and practitioners of small groups for quite some time. He's convinced that small groups on the whole are alive and well, though program-heavy approaches or pushing a specific model may be counterproductive.

In the post "Are Small Groups Dying?" I chimed in with this response in the comments:

Whenever I find myself strongly agreeing with people on opposite sides of a discussion it's a sign that there is powerful truth to be found in the intersection while the disagreement is in the periphery reflects different assumptions.

These are the points I'm seeing as common ground...
- Life-change and spiritual growth are far more likely to occur in a smaller community setting than in isolation or in large venues. -> Relationships matter greatly.
- Honest discussion about improving the way we design ministries is fruitful. Strong language may be helpful in drawing attention to the need for change, but it can also leave us defensive and arguing over words.
- No system is perfect and even if it were, the change in society and culture would require us to change/modify what we do to be effective.
- Some in small groups (including me) love them and have found them to be truly transformational, and wonderful experiences. Yet many people today are simply not interested in a small group as currently practiced, whether they have never tried such a group or have had a bad experience with a poor group.
- Metrics as an indicator of success are useful only to the extent that they measure the desired outcome of your activity. When that is difficult (eg goal is heart change) we may need to measure some secondary reflection; the challenge is to not forget the primary goal.
- Relationships, community and discipleship can be found in other 'small' groups that are not 'small groups'.
- It's counterproductive to oversell intimacy as an expectation of joining a small group with people you don't know.

And here are what seemed to be the key differences.
- While no one argues Christ-centered relationships are central to everything we're talking about -
  Small group proponents would say their intentionality helps make sure Christ is at the center of interaction.
  Small group detractors prefer to let relationships form organically and without programming everything.
One starts with Christ and builds relationships around it, the other takes relationships where they are and seeks to help Christ become the center.

- Proponents believe small groups done well are the best way to build both relationships and disciples and so a church should make them a pivotal structure for the group, and strongly encourage coming to one
  Detractors view small groups as merely one of many ways to foster relationships, prefering not to impose an unnatural structure among people who don't find that comfortable.
One is centripetal in approach, the other centrifugal (Attractional/incarnational if you prefer)

- While both agree that discipleship is not about information, and that program-heavy structures often fail to produce Christ-following disciples,
 Proponents say discipleship is hard and so must be intentional, as Jesus was.
 Detractors say discipleship is hard and so must be organic, as Jesus was.
One focuses on *process* to produce disciples, the other expects disciples to *emerge*.

The differences seem to recap the differences between the modern mindset and the postmodern, don't they?
The world is made of people in both camps, so the body of Christ needs different kinds of churches and relationally based community and discipleship models.

It's my prayer and hope that the next stage of the 'small group' is intentional, organic, meets people where they are at, and leads them to a place closer to Christ, in a way that feels right for each person.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Processes and Relationships Together

In my current class at Rockbridge Seminary we're currently discussing some aspects of leadership and team building. In forum discussion I mentioned the tension between processes and relationships. I got a great response from a classmate, Mark Lake, who had shared about the relational component of team building and how this takes time.
"It is hard for us engineers to get away from processes. As I have grown closer to God, I have realized that every process or system should provide opportunity for building relationships. The more we see ourselves as a conduit for Jesus-centered relationships, the greater our kingdom impact will be."
As I thought about the various processes and systems in our church, I realized how true this was. In fact, as we're adding new processes or addressing weaknesses in current systems, the aspect of building relationships - helping people to connect to God and to each other, is a major driving force.

It's discussions like this that helps make it a joy to learn online at Rockbridge.

Friday, February 20, 2009

It's Hard to Succeed without Failing Often

Caught a great video clip on Tony Morgan's blog today. Some powerful thoughts from Craig Groeschel for leaders. (You dads may especially like it)

Try. Fail. Learn. Adjust.

I've been slack on posting some other very interesting links, so let me just share some recent favorites:

We're prepping for some snow here tonight - so stay warm guys!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review - For the Tough Times

For the Tough Times: Reaching Toward Heaven for Hope  - Book Review
Max Lucado, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008

For the Tough Times is a short, extremely readable book that seeks to provide comfort to those hurting. Lucado addresses the heart question "Does God love me in the midst of this fear and pain?" It's not a theological answer book on why bad things happen to good people, though it does address this. Instead it calls us to that which offers the best hope of healing and comfort: prayer. It does so in a very gentle and caring way. Max inspires us - he doesn't shame or guilt us - but offers the hope that God does care, and He listens.

When tough times come, people naturally search for answers. Lucado speaks of course from a Christian perspective, but speaks in such a way that those who don't normally pray often may too find hope. Doubt and fear do not offend God or keep Him far. His love is powerful and reaches out to all who hurt.

The book is small and quite short (80 pages). Thankfully it avoids saying anything stupid (a must for any book dealing with grief and hurting people). This makes it an excellent book to give to someone you know who is hurting, when you don't know what to say. It does repackage some of his older material, the price is somewhat steep, and it's not necessarily a book you'll love if these aren't tough times right now. But it's one I will keep handy for when those times do come.

Review copy provided by Thomas Nelson Publishers.
For the Tough Times is available at Amazon and other retailers ($10.99 MSRP).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Review - Coaching for Excellence

I just finished reading "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Coaching for Excellence" by Jane Creswell, MCC. I've been hearing the term "coaching" used more often, in a variety of settings: life coaches, executive coaches, and coaching in ministry. I was looing to find out more about what coaching was, how it differered from other teaching/training approaches, and whether is it was something I should learn more about as a small business executive and a ministry leader. In short, it is - coaching provides a lot of value in a variety of settings. I've had the chance to meet the author, Jane Creswell, and she is definitely a person passionate about coaching and bringing out the best in others. Below is a review I'm also posting on Amazon...

Coaching for Excellence by Jane Creswell provides a solid and accessible introduction to the benefits and techniques of coaching. What's impressive about the book is the breadth of topics covered in such a short and easy-to-read guide. Creswell starts with an overview of coaching, what it is (and is not), what it means to coach for excellence, and how it differs from other approaches like mentoring. She then discusses what it means to have or build a coaching culture within an organization. Next are presented the basics of coaching - techniques, who can be a coach, and who to coach. Coaching groups and coaching within a team setting are welcome topics as well.

Another excellent feature of the book is that it looks at coaching in a variety of situations. Although Creswell worked for IBM for 17 years and founded the IBM Coaches Network, coaching is definitely applicable in organizations of every size and type - and in several different roles. The book has discussions on coaching for sales, marketing, communications, HR, service providers and support personnel. The specific challenges faced by small businesses, big business, non-profits and government organizations, and even faith-based organizations.

As the VP of R&D in a small business myself, I was encouraged to see how coaching might be utilized in our company to improve employee performance (and my own), and provide measureable business results. The mindset behind coaching for excellence is also one that fits well with small businesses and modern organizations: coaching values people, seeks to tap hidden potential, and seeks to bring out the best in others. Fortunately, it is able to deliver on these challenges in a way that is of great benefit both to the organization and to the person being coached.

The book will probably leave some readers with a lot of questions, wanting to know more about coaching and perhaps seek additional training. But it does an excellent job of meeting its goal and providing what you expect from this series of books - introducing and demystifying the discipline of coaching, giving insight into the characteristics needed to be an effective coach, and providing encouragement and some tools for starting right away with coaching peers and employees. The approach provides many examples - readers wanting to see coaching in action and learn by example are likely to enjoy the book, others wanting a in-depth exposition of the principles and methods of coaching will want to read other books in addition. Overall, I think this book will be of broad interest to leaders and team members in a variety of roles and organizations.
Coaching for Excellence is available at Amazon and other book retailers.