Saturday, June 25, 2011

Small Group Ministry Planning

After my recent posts on small groups, and the factors that encourage group growth and a successful ministry, I got a few questions and comments from readers. So I'll share a few more concluding thoughts about the implications of Egli's research study and recent book on a church's approach to small group ministry.

Ok, prayer and community are important, but Egli doesn't suggest any specific model?

No he doesn't, and that's why one reason I find the results so interesting. Another excellent resource I recommend is "Simple Small Groups" by Bill Search. The focus there, quite in line with Egli's findings, is that you really need three elements to succeed in small groups regardless of your model. Up (connection with God), In (care for each other), and Out (cultivating relationships with outsiders). I see this Up-In-Out pattern reflected by other authors and small group experts, including Mike Breen and Scott Boren (Launching Missional Communities and Building a Discipleship Culture). For a lot more info on various models to consider using, see Mark Howell's excellent series. And remember: adapt, don't adopt; your church culture is unique.

Does group size matter?

There are a great variety of small group approaches. On the small side, there are leaders who advocate missional groups of three (G3), discipleship triads of three or fourhuddles of six-to-eight for discipleship and leadership training, in addition to more typical groups of twelve. Going even bigger, a powerful new trend is for mid-sized communities of 20-50 people who united in Christian community around a common service or community. (These also tend to use the huddles as well). So really, there are valid approaches possible with any size group system. It's more about making sure that leaders are healthy, intentional, clear, and relational.

What's the role of the senior pastor and church leaders on small group ministry?

Even with a dedicated small group pastor the senior pastor really must be a visible and strong champion of small groups. That means being in a group, highlighting small group success stories from the pulpit, and pointing people to life transformation through small groups. There is really no substitute. If you're wanting to be a 'church of small groups' instead of a 'church with small groups' it's even more important. A small group coordinator / pastor must be on the same page as the senior pastor on vision, expectations of a group, and of group leaders. If people are thinking it's to be a "church of groups" then all pastors and ministry leaders will need to work together to reduce competition, and must make clear the 'win' for people to be moving into a small group. (For more on clarifying the win and improving focus, check out the excellent series by Andy' Stanley: "7 Keys to Effective Ministry".

How do you change or relaunch a small group system that isn't working well?

If your congregation had a system or model put upon them that didn't work, they are going to be very resistant to yet another radical change. Patience is key here, as well as making the effort to understand the reasons why people are frustrated with the current system, and suggesting changes which address these concerns. If the current system can be salvaged, with some tweaks to address felt problems, that may a good first step. If not, be sure to "pilot" any new system with a smaller set of people who are likely to be enthusiastic rather than planning to go with a grand launch.

What other questions do you have about small group ministry? Different answers to these questions, or feedback on this series of posts? Leave a comment!

Friday, June 24, 2011

More Findings on Small Groups

As you may have noticed, I've been quite excited by things I've been learning about small groups this week, including some research by Jim Egli on what makes for a great small group and some other factors encouraging small groups. Today Rick Howerton finished up a four-part series interviewing Jim Egli about his book and research study on small groups. I'll share some more interesting findings from that series in this post, and finish up next post with some answers to questions I've gotten from readers.

We saw that for individual small groups the key factors for growth were a praying and empowering leader, and group members who care for one another and reach out. But what systemic factors distinguish a thriving versus a struggling small group ministry? Egli found there were three factors including church-wide intercessory prayer and leadership training, but the dominant factor above all others was the presence of an active coaching system, in which the coaches were well trained and knew what was expected of them.

In the third part of Rick's interview Egli shared:
"The research showed that effective coaches do four things: they pray for their leaders, they meet with them personally to encourage them, they get their leaders together as a group to encourage and pray for one another, and they occasionally visit their groups."
The pattern is clear, your leaders at every level must model what they want to happen in the lives of those they lead. In the case of coaches and small group leaders alike, it's all about relationships, covered in prayer, expressed both inside and outside of regular meeting times.

Given this context, I had to smile as I was reading "Finding the Flow: A Guide to Leading Small Groups and Gatherings" and came across this comment: "Generally, leader trainings give a nod to the leader having a consistent personal devotion time or living a godly example for others, but then they quickly move on to skills." Clearly we would do better in our training and modeling to spend a lot more time encouraging personal devotion time, prayer, and the spiritual life of the leader.

But wait, that's not all!?!

Howerton finished with a fourth post with perhaps the most surprising of the findings. Many churches choose closed groups instead of open groups to foster a greater sense of intimacy. What does the research show about this assumption?
"The results surprised us. We found out that open groups actually experience closer relationships between the members than closed groups do."
Didn't see that one coming! They discuss how there is a faulty assumption underlying the idea that closed groups are better. People assume that small group life is all about the meeting time, which is emphatically not true. It's rare to see intimacy in a room with a dozen or so people, and far more common to occur organically, with two or maybe three people getting together informally. In a healthy group, this kind of interaction outside the group meeting time occurs often. In fact, over-promising intimacy as a key benefit of small groups can lead to disappointment, as Nelson Searcy describes in his book "Activate." Searcy sees it as more realistic to consider small group meetings as personal or social (not intimate) space where a reasonable hope is to find a potential friend.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Encouraging Great Small Groups

Last time I posted on some powerful research results on the factors that correlate with healthy growing small groups, shared by Rick Howerton about Elgi and Marble's new book "Small Groups, Big Impact."

In a nutshell, a leader's prayer time trumps prep time, and the dominant factors for a group are: leaders who connect with God, pray for their group and empower others to serve and lead; and group members who reach out to others outside the group and who love one another. (Doesn't that sound Biblical?! :)

Top 10 Implications for Small Group Ministry
  1. Our church must see small groups as relational environments for community, spiritual growth, and outreach (not just an assimilation structure or a means to carry out church priorities)
  2. Our church should visibly pray for groups and celebrate small group successes - people cared for, coming to Christ, stepping up to lead, and groups multiplying.
  3. Our small group coaches must encourage, pray for, and support small group leaders in a way that is meaningful to the leader (different leaders and groups can have vastly different needs)
  4. Our coaches must listen more than they talk, and when they do talk, encourage prayer, care, outreach, and involving group members in ministry (mechanical issues can be handled on an as-needed basis)
  5. Our small group leaders must pray regularly for and with group members
  6. Our small group leaders must intentionally share the load, inviting others into ministry and leadership
  7. Our small group members should be encouraged to care for one another, do things together outside of the meeting, and reach out to others in a natural way. (Hanging out trumps Homework)
  8. New leaders must be chosen on the basis of their love for God and love for others (not their gifting, personality type, or experience).
  9. New leaders should focus more on who they invite (leveraging existing relationships) than what they study.
  10. Our ministry team leaders need to pray for their team members, encourage them personally, build a sense of community, as well as equipping them for the task.

............ Appendix ............ (I'll bet you didn't think a blog post could have an appendix did you?)

I've been chewing on how these results support or work against what I've seen in various small group ministry models and books. Several of the resources below seemed completely contradictory in their outlook and advice, but what do they have in common (with each other and with Egli's findings)? This may not interest every reader, but if you're a small groups geek who has spent any time struggling with the 'right small group model' I hope you find these reflections worthwhile...

Saddleback's Host Strategy. If leadership gifting, teaching and facilitating skill, and lots of up front training were critical for a small group leader, how does one explain the great success of Saddleback's "HOST" strategy. They use DVD-based teaching, minimal training or experience, and will let almost anyone lead a group. Yet notice the tie-in with Egli's results: while the leader is not necessarily gifted or trained, they care enough about people to invite friends and family for a group. They invite people they already are in relationship with (increasing the 'care for one another' factor), and are usually reaching out and inviting people not already connected to a group (strong outreach factor). Typically, enthusiasm and prayer run high for such new Host leaders too.

Small Group Coaching. It's rather well known by those working in the area of small group ministry that the effectiveness of small group coaching and training systems varies tremendously. Sometimes they flop miserably, other times they can be quite effective. Why is that? The results here suggest that it will not be very effective when 'coaching' that focuses on how to facilitate a group, trying to be a leader who is the expert and does it all, or looks for certain giftedness to put someone in leadership. Instead, coaching would be expected to be most effective when it is relational, models prayer and the heart of a shepherd, models and encourages caring for one another, and that encourages a leader to share the load and keep a missional or outreach mindset. Mark Howell has this one-sentence definition of a small group coach: "A Small Group Coach needs to do to and for their small group leaders whatever you want small group leaders to do to and for their members." What does that suggest in Egli's paradigm? A small group coach should pray often for his leaders, care for them, empower them, and be on the look-out for new leaders who love God and can do likewise.

Simple Small Groups. One of the most interesting books I've read on groups in a while is Simple Small Groups by Bill Search. It doesn't present a new 'model' for doing groups, rather it focuses on what a group leader can do practically to help group members (and the group itself) to grow. Search looks at three vital dimensions to group life: connecting, changing, and cultivating. The connect continuum moves from meeting to connecting to belonging. To help people connect he suggests sharing leadership responsibilities, praying for one another, and hanging out together. (Sound familiar? Egli would agree!) The changing continuum spans learning to growing to transformation. Key factors here include sharing honestly, applying the Scriptures, and really listening to the Holy Spirit and each other. (These are factors that would be critical for the growth of the individual - the health rather than the growth of the group.) The cultivate continuum is about exploring, applying, impacting, and is fostered by establishing a missional pattern in the lives of each group member. Reaching out to others and caring in a practical way are essential - another tie-in to Egli's findings. I think this is why the book struck such a chord with me; it focuses a lot more on factors that matter rather than mechanics or models.

Small Group Leader's Toolkit (Dave Earley) - starts with a story of a small group pastor expecting a quiet new leader to fail, but shocked at his success. On asking his coach what made this leader different he heard "he does everything we ask him to do like other leaders, but what sets him apart from others is that he prays a lot. He prays for his group and with his group every day." The author concludes "Prayer is the most important task of a spiritual leader." He shares ten 'power tools' for small group leaders. The very first is prayer, and others include things like personal integrity, modeling love for one another, and a commitment to developing others.

The Naked Truth about Small Group Ministry (Randall Neighbour) - rails against much of what is going on in the American church and its small groups. Interesting, a main theme in the very first chapter is the lack of prayer and a recommendation for prayer groups and for small group leaders to get serious about prayer. In the second chapter he highlights relationships as paramount, and the need for small group members to truly care for one another. Also very interesting - he cites research by Jim Egli showing that "the practical, proactive coaching of small group leaders does more than anything else in a church's small group system to promote health and growth." (So - both the system and the groups need a leader/coach who prays and cares for those they lead.)

So Much Noise and Debate. There are so many different models for doing small groups, and even more books telling you about these models. For every model you will find some churches in which it's working well, and others where it fails. Within any given church you'll see the same thing whenever the emphasis is on the model - some groups do well, others don't. Why is that? We're focusing on the wrong thing! It's important to have a structure, a plan or model for doing small group ministry, but when all our mental energy and training goes into following the model we fail to promote what really matters: praying, caring, reaching out and inviting others to serve and share. This also explains why I can read several books promoting different models and finish them with a sense that half of what they're saying is great but other aspects don't appeal at all (sermon-based groups, semester-based groups, or neighborhood groups). When most authors pitch a process it's very hard for the reader to differentiate between what is essential (a practice that fosters caring, outreach) and what is strictly pragmatic (topic, length, format, how groups are filled...)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Great Small Groups

Have you ever wondered what factors make for a small group that is healthy, where life transformation occurs, and that actually grows? (I know I have!) Jim Egli and Dwight Marble have, and they conducted an interesting study to help answer that question. They've shared their results in a new book called "Small Groups, Big Impact." Rick Howerton has interviewed Egli and shared some fascinating results (part one and part two) from his quantitative study involving 3000 small group leaders in more than 200 churches in 21 countries.

What factors about the group leader and/or group would you expect to have a big effect on health and growth? Stop and think about that for a minute. The leader's prep time? Appropriate spiritual gifts like teaching or exhortation? Curriculum or meeting format?

Here's the first surprising result. The length of time a small group leader spends preparing the study has no correlation with growth of the group. None. Whether they spend no time whatsoever preparing, or several hours. The single biggest correlation? The prayer life of the leader(s) and whether they actually prayed for the group and their meetings. In some ways that's a 'duh' response, but at the same time profound - the key factor that correlates with whether a group grows is one the group members never even see!

A second surprising result about the small group leader. There was no correlation between personality types and small group growth (extrovert, introvert), nor spiritual gifts, nor age or gender or anything else outside the leader's control. Everything that mattered was a behavior, and there were only a few key factors. Here are some quotes from Jim Egli in his interview with Rick Howerton.
"We probed and looked at hundreds of variables but we found out there are just four key things—pray, reach, care and empower. Leaders need to connect with God. Group members need to reach out to others beyond their group and love each other. Leaders need to give ministry away and call others into leadership. It’s not complicated."
"It jarred my leadership paradigm. It meant that anyone that could love God and others could lead successfully. All of a sudden, I didn’t have to look for people who had a certain disposition or a certain personality type or gifting. I just had to look for people who were open to God and wanting to move forward with him." 
"When a leader connects to God and group members practically love one another and others, people are drawn to the group and into relationship with Jesus."
Simple, but profound, with significant implications for small group ministry. I think I might have to pick up a copy of 'Small Groups, Big Impact.' :)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Insights from James - Part 5

Today our men's group wrapped up our study of the book of James (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4) with a look at the end of Chapter five. These passages cover a wealth of material - patience, not grumbling or judging, standing up under suffering, prayer and healing, forgiveness, and confrontation. That was quite a bit to cover over a coffee session!

We noted that although several of the verses seem at first glance disconnected from one another, there are some strong tie-ins between them. Throughout this chapter James continues exhorting the practice of a faith that overflows into action, and that allows us to stand firm and patience even in the face of suffering, affliction or persecution. In describing the expectant hope of compassion and deliverance from suffering, he brings the book full circle to how it was opening - asking these persecuted Christians to remain joyful under their suffering.

Some were unclear about the warning against swearing. As usual, context is important. James is specifically addressing the common practice of swearing an oath when you really are telling the truth or when you really mean it that you will keep a promise or contract. James is calling this nonsense, that a man's word should be his bond. Between this encouragement to be a promise-keeper, and to be one who is patient under suffering, one of the guys said with discernment: "You know, we can summarize this whole chapter as James telling us: Guys, man up!"

The most challenging section of this chapter, and perhaps all of James, is the statement in verses 14-15 that when you pray over the sick in the name of the Lord that "the prayer offered in faith will make them well." Obviously, we've all prayed for people who did not get better. People die, despite the prayers of many well meaning and faithful friends. Logically, if someone prayed for like this dies, we either simply did not have "enough" faith, or... we are misunderstanding this passage. I think that here, as with other passages in James, if you don't allow for the fact that this is wisdom literature, and that the author is making a case in as strong terms as possible to make a point and to call us to action, you can get tied up in knots being too literal. (We saw this earlier in James talking about being justified through works vs faith.)

First, there's a command. Are you sick? Get together with faithful friends, confess sins, and pray for healing. Period. Do it. Do it in faith. Second, the likelihood of God choosing to heal (which He is always able to do) without prayer, without submission, while clinging to a sinful life-style, is not that great. Rather that would mock God. Third, James is saying that God absolutely has the power to heal, and that He has often done so in the past, both to bless His children and to display His power (as with Elijah). Finally, we made an analogy. If I make a statement "Carry out proper maintenance on your car, change your oil regularly, and your car will run fine and last long" I don't expect you come back when your car broke down and say "You promised! I changed my oil every 2500 miles and it still collapsed. Your statement was a lie." Well, no, my use of the phrase "will run well" wasn't ever intended as a guarantee, but a wise statement. The chance of a car running well with proper maintenance compared to never changing your oil is far higher. My point in making such a sentence isn't to give a magic bullet to long-life for the car, it's to encourage you to do the right thing. Praying when in trouble, singing praise when happy, confessing sins and seeking forgiveness, and coming together with brothers and sisters before the Lord when facing major illness - this is just what we do as Christians! How much more do these behaviors reflect our joy in Christ and our doing-faith compared to judging, grumbling, and sitting in our armchairs arguing over doctrines while the poor need our help!?

And that, my friends, is the message of James.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

You Just Never Know

I loved a post by Jenni Catron on her blog this morning. Read it yourself, but she's making the important point that sometimes the way we encourage or challenge someone can make a huge impact in their lives, even if we don't know it. I was feeling discouraged recently about what I felt was a lack of impact, and two friends in the same week commented out of the blue what I difference I had made in their lives. In God's hands, every interaction with another person is an opportunity to bless in ways beyond our ability or understanding.
"You never know how or when you are influencing another’s life.  You never know what interactions will be critical to help someone make it through another day.  You never know how God is using you without your full understanding.

And because you just never know, let me challenge you to embrace every interaction as if life depends on it.  Because it just might…"

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Real-Life Discipleship

No, I'm not talking about the book "Real-Life Discipleship" (which I enjoyed and reviewed recently) - I'm talking about how the pressures of every day living can be a powerful environment for growing as a disciple.

A friend emailed me asking for prayer as things have gotten very hectic and stressful at work, right at the exact time there is another huge pressure hanging over his head outside of work. We've had other talks and been mentoring each other and wanting to be more faithful in Bible reading in prayer. Given that context, here's what I shared with him...

"The onslaught of stress from multiple sources can be a very conducive environment for growth. It may highlight what is important, what is not, or what should be; it displays or builds character in how we respond under stress; it makes it challenging to see and act on the needs of others when our own needs are so pressing and time is so short. Discipleship (following Christ more closely and loving Him and others) can happen in this real-life environment even more than while doing traditional 'spiritual' exercises. Two things will determine for you whether this hectic season of stress will be such a time of growth in Christ, or simply a growth in stress and anxiety - time in the word to gain God's perspective and let Him speak to you; and time in prayer asking to gain wisdom and strength before facing the day, and reflecting on the choices we made that day to gain perspective."

When I'm faced with more stress than it seems I can handle, I find myself moving in one of two directions. I either escape or embrace. I escape when I turn to video games or sports or a less productive (procrastinating) activities which provides very temporary relief from thinking about reality. That is so tempting, but never turns out well. On other occasions, I embrace what I'm facing as an opportunity to grow, and I embrace what God is doing in my life. I let go of distractions (instead of running to them), and ask God "what are you trying to teach me here?" I wish I could tell you I take the second choice all the time, but I don't. When I do though, it dramatically changes my perception of the situation, my ability to handle the stress, and it builds my character more in the likeness of Christ.

How do you handle an onslaught of stress and work? Do you find yourself turning away from God (and towards things of little value), or do you give thanks for an opportunity to grow in the likeness of His Son? Discipleship doesn't just happen in the church - it happens as we live out real-life.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Insights from James - Part 4

Last week our men's Bible study group took a look at the fourth chapter of James. There were some very important cautions in there - pride and arguments, submitting to God and resisting the evil one, and being careful not to boast or be presumptive about tomorrow.

But the section that causes me a lot of confusion was verses 11-12:
"Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?" (NIV)

I certainly get the point not to slander or speak evil of one another, and how that is judgmental, but how exactly does that mean we're judging the law itself??!

To get some help I took a look in the IVP New Testament Commentary notes on these verses, available under the 'Resource' tab when reading these James 4:11-12 at BibleGateway. It sheds some light on the meaning here...

- A central theme of James is living out a life of faith - which comes by grace yet calls us to action - especially guarding the tongue and watching how we view and speak with others.

- To speak against a brother is essentially to judge him. It's not just distinguishing good from bad, it's judging.

- Because faith brings forth mercy from God, this has implications for our lives.

- When we judge, we're effectively saying "God's law of life and mercy for sin is a something I wish to claim for my life, but not apply to others. For them, I know better, and don't want mercy, I want to judge."

- The commentary notes: "James's point is that if we accept God's mercy through Christ, we place ourselves under Christ's law, which commands mercy. If we then judge others instead of being merciful toward their faults, we are rejecting that law and so setting ourselves up as judges over the law. This contradicts our proper stance as recipients of grace—we are to be doers under the law... In judging people, what we really want is to take God's place."

It goes on to summarize the passage as follows:
"What James has been prescribing is a life of faith that has two facets: confidence in God's grace and passion for God's righteousness. The confidence and the passion are complementary responses to God's judgment and mercy. God's mercy triumphs over judgment on our behalf; therefore we may be confident in relying on grace. However, we who have genuinely grasped grace will become all the more eager to grasp righteousness, realizing that our lack of righteousness so nearly brought us to disaster in the fearful judgment of God. Once one has humbly sought grace for escape from judgment (4:10), it becomes unthinkable to set oneself up as judge over a neighbor (4:11). It is part of a single stance before God to submit to him for his grace (4:7) and to submit to him for his law; one cannot be both a judge over the law and a doer under the law (4:11). James is showing us a well-integrated faith in Christ as both merciful Savior to be trusted and righteous Lord to be obeyed."
I'm really liking the new interface and resources over at BibleGateway. Check them out!