Creating Community

creatingcommunityI’ve come to recognise a disappointing fact about myself – well, another one anyway! Having been an advocate of small groups in churches for many years, I’ve only ever opened a couple of books on the topic. Contrast this with the dozens of books I’ve read on theology, leadership, preaching, evangelism, apologetics, and you could reasonably challenge my commitment to small groups. Am I really engaged with something that I don’t invest time into understanding and improving? I suspect that I’m not alone among pastors. Many of us have given only minimal thought to the purpose, function, expectations, priorities, and practicalities of small groups in our churches. For me, this is beginning to change and I’m seeking to share some resources and insights with others.

Creating Community: 5 Keys to Building a Small Group Culture by Andy Stanley and Bill Willits is a book born out of experience. North Point Community Church, where the authors serve, is a church with a small group ministry at it’s centre. There are literally thousands of participants in these groups, each with leaders that are trained, equipped and supported. Without agreeing with every emphasis in this book, I found that it raised numerous questions for me to answer and introduced me to many important issues I’d never considered. Most of my reading and thinking on small groups to date has focused upon leading Bible studies. The emphasis of this material is on relationships and creating community and it provides a helpful complement to the Bible input.

Creating communities is well written and easy to read. The chapters are clear and succinct. One distinctive of this book, not as relevant for an Aussie reader, is that small groups are advocated over the Adult Sunday School on site programs so prevalent in the US. There is a cost effectiveness and relational benefit to the in homes, off site approach of small groups. However, the benefits of building relationships and doing life together in small groups is the primary driver for small groups, as churches grow beyond their capacity for everyone to know each other. I’ve read this book twice now and I covered the 180 pages in a couple of hours on the second run through. I won’t summarise the book, but rather highlight some helpful points.

Leaders of groups are expected to meet five reasonable criteria.

  1. They have to be connected. Every leader needs to be a Christian, formally connected to the church, and committed to partnering with the church in leading others in their relationship with Jesus.
  2. The need to have godly character, to be known for their faith and integrity of life.
  3. They must embrace the groups culture in the church. In particular, this means they support the small group strategy and values. They will build up other leaders and seek to see groups multiplied in the church.
  4. They should have good chemistry with staff and other leaders – team players who willingly serve others.
  5. They need to have a suitable level of competence for their responsibilities.

The first of these criteria is established through formal church membership or partnership. The latter are determined through an application and interview process. Training is also offered and required.

North Point has developed six essentials that are critical to leading well. Each area must be fully embraced by the leaders and these essentials form the priority for leadership training and development.

  1. Think Life-Change
    Small groups are to be an environment where God is active in the lives of the members. People are encouraged to grow in their walk with God and to encourage one another also.
  2. Cultivate Relationships
    Leaders are called to build a sense of community in their groups. Relationships are like bank accounts – they don’t just happen, you need to make deposits!
  3. Promote Participation
    Shared participation creates broader ownership of the group. People are encouraged to use their gifts, take initiative, and build one another in love. The leader is not simply a teacher, but a facilitator who helps people to learn and discuss the Scriptures together.
  4. Replace Yourself
    Leaders are encouraged to apprentice others in their group for future leadership. This needs to be intentional. This is important for multiplying the numbers of groups over time.
  5. Provide Care
    Larger churches rely on small groups to be primary contexts of personal care. This requires that leaders are equipped to deal with issues as they arise, and also that the church is able to provide additional care resources.
  6. Multiply Influence
    The groups have a life cycle. At North Point this is 18-24 months. After this time, the groups disband and apprenticed leaders get to lead new groups. This means that they hope to double the number of groups with each change. This is a tough thing for many groups, so the expectation is built in from the start.

This book identifies five factors that contribute to a successful small groups ministry.

  1. Keep your strategy simple. They don’t try to do everything, but rather to do a few things well. They make it very easy for people to get into groups.
  2. Groups need to be visible. The more visible they are the more people get the message they’re important. This happens through preaching, promotion, clear paths to get into groups, and more.
  3. Groups need to be valued. They celebrate their groups. It’s part of the DNA of the church. It’s the destination where they want everyone to end up. The only numbers they’re interested in at North Point are how many are in groups.
  4. People invest in what they value. Groups need to be resourced. They’ve invested in personnel to direct, assimilate people into groups, and develop leaders. They put money into training. And they offer reimbursements to every couple who incurs childcare expenses by attending a group! This is a big budget item.
  5. Small groups must be modelled. If leaders aren’t passionate about groups then they can’t expect others in the church to be. The best case scenario is where the senior pastor and all other leaders are regularly involved in a small group.

This is a stimulating book. I’ve jotted down many notes to follow up on. Here’s a few:

Every new group with new leaders is offered a start up curriculum to help them get started.

New leaders receive intensive coaching support over the first few weeks.

Once a term run some kind of ‘group-link’ program to make it easy for people to find their way into a group.

Have some kind of ‘try before you buy’ offer. Allow people to step out of a group without shame if it’s just not working for them.

Review how visible our groups are and how easy it is to get into one.

Among the helps in this book there are also disappointments. There is virtually no discussion about the role the Bible and prayer plays in the groups. They speak of the Bible, prayer, and sharing together in groups, but I’d have liked to see more how this should work in this book. If life-change is the goal – and it should be – then we need to model how the Bible and prayer are integral to personal and group life. Nor was there any mention about how leaders are trained in these areas, though I suspect they are.

Creating Communities also included a critique of volunteer coaches supporting other leaders. They had found the expectations on coaches were too high. They changed their model from coaches supporting 5 leaders to employing a small groups director who supports 60 leaders. Another big budget item, as they have thousands of people in small groups! This jarred with me, as our church is poised to support and equip leaders through a network of volunteer coaches and mentors. We’ll take the warning not to overburden people and pray that our system will work! If it doesn’t then we’ll change it!

I recommend this book to pastors and small group directors. If your small group ministry is in need of an overhaul or a rethink, then you should find this book helpful and stimulating.

Spice it up

spiceitupSpice It Up, by Mike Hanlon and James Leitch, is not a Spanish cookbook, nor a guide to better sex! It’s a course to equip leaders to lead more engaging Bible studies. If Bible studies are your thing, then I hope you haven’t had the experience of being bored to death (especially if you’ve been in a group with me!) Far too many studies end up being mundane and pedestrian. Sometimes we plough through the passage, asking basic comprehension questions, and fail to understand what it really means or what we should do in response. This course aims to overcome these problems. Bible study should be stimulating and life-changing.

Spice It Up is an 8 week course aimed at giving confidence to leaders in handling the Bible in a small group environment. The beauty of this course is that it’s compact and simple, while integrating wisdom from other books and resources. It acknowledges dependence on ideas and material from Growth Groups by Col Marshall and Leading Better Bible Studies by Rod and Karen Morris. This is a great start for new leaders, but it’s also an excellent refresher for those who have previously received training in leading Bible studies. It covers the following topics:

Week 1   Why Bible Study Groups
Week 2   Basic Bible Study
Week 3   Making Bible Study Come Alive
Week 4   Group Dynamics
Week 5   Understanding and Integration
Week 6   Learning Cycle – Application
Week 7   Preparation
Week 8   Practice Sessions

A real strength of this material is how it pushes the leaders to be more interesting AND to go deeper into the Bible. It’s a big mistake to think that the Bible and fun are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Instead of superficial pedestrian yes/no type questions, we’re urged to use creative strategies that connect people to the text and highlight it’s relevance. For example, instead of asking…

  1. What does it say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. What does it mean to us?

we’re encouraged to explore with the group…

  1. What is surprising?
  2. What is thought provoking?
  3. How does it inspire and challenge us?

This course helps us to use questions well. We should consider the likely responses to any question we ask, but avoid questions that are really a quiz, asking people to discover the answer in our heads. We’re encouraged to have prompting questions up our sleeve that keep the discussion going. These might include extending questions (e.g. Can you explain that a bit more?”), justifying questions (e.g. How does that fit with what we’ve been talking about?”), and redirecting questions (e.g. Any other thoughts?”).

People learn in different ways. Some are more auditory, some visual, and others kinaesthetic. Recognising this opens up creative opportunities for engaging the group. The authors are huge fans of engaging people in a common space, especially by the use of a whiteboard. If people speak and get to write things on the board, then all three learning styles are engaged to some extent.

Spice It Up encourages leaders to add a step between meaning and application. This step asks how what we are learning fits with or shapes our overall theology and connects with the rest of the Bible. It helps people to do theology in a practical way. It also demonstrates that our thinking and practice are to be shaped by the Bible, rather than simply filtering the Bible through what we already believe.

The course also pushes us to apply ourselves to application. Too often we overlook this area and then tack on a question like “So how does this apply to us?” if there’s time! If the goal of Bible study is to see people’s lives transformed by the Word of God, then this is simply not good enough. The advice is to use more concrete and specific questions, to probe more deeply, and to introduce scenarios that highlight what the passage will mean in specific situations.

There are so many practical tips in this material. A whole chapter is devoted to how to go about preparing a study. There’s a string of appendices covering issues such as discovering your learning and communication styles, templates for preparing and writing studies, specific issues for studies from the Gospels and parables, factors of group life, relationships between leaders and personal ministry to members of the groups, and memory prompts for quick Bible studies.

Spice It Up describes the groups as Bible Study Groups. In our church context we’ve given small groups a variety of names and the current one is ‘growth groups’. They’re not intended to be simply Bible study groups, but also involve prayer and personal ministry. For this reason, I’d be inclined to speak of Bible Study in Groups instead. Maybe, then, this course could be accompanied by a series of other courses such as Prayer in Groups, Relationships in Groups, Promoting the Gospel in Groups, Personal Ministry and Care in Groups!

However, the strength of the book is in assisting us with leading better Bible studies. It does this with clarity and simplicity. It’s an excellent resource that is backed up by a website that includes training videos, Bible studies and other resources. The course material can be purchased from this site.

Sticky Church

Last year, I purchased the ‘wrong book’, and read it by accident – and I’m so glad I did. Sticky Teams had been recommended to me as a helpful book to consider our organisation and direction as a church, but I mistakenly ordered Sticky Church by Larry Osborne instead! It took me a while to appreciate that this was a different title by the same author. And it proved to be even more important in thinking about how we were doing church.

As a senior pastor/team leader/preacher I’ve applied myself to the crafts of leadership and communication over many years. There may be 100 or more books on my shelves touching on these areas. But I’d probably only read 3 or 4 books on the topic of small group ministry, and none that had really explored the strategic importance of a well integrated small group ministry in a growing church. Sticky Church has begun to fill this void and pushed me to explore other material in this vital, and yet overlooked, area of our ministry.

The book begins by tackling the matter of how we grow our churches. While many churches work hard to get people in through the front door, they leave the back door wide open and people don’t stick around. By contrast, Osborne’s church does no marketing, gets plenty of visitors and inquirers, and focuses on building genuine connections with those who come. In short, small groups are seen as the key to closing the back door, by building real relationships in a context of ministry, Bible, prayer, and life experience.

For the statisticians among you, think about this one:

Imagine two churches that each grew in attendance from 250 people to 500 people over a 10 year period.

Church A is a revolving door. It loses 7 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it will have to add 834 new members of attenders.

Church B is a sticky church. It loses only 3 people for every 10 it adds. To reach 500, it has to add 357 new members or attenders.

On the surface, both churches appear to have doubled. But the revolving door church had to reach reach 834 new people to get there, while the sticky church only needed to reach 357.

Obviously, doubling attendance is a lot easier for the sticky church than for the revolving door church. No surprise there. But here’s the kicker: After ten years, the church with the big back door will have 500 attenders and 584 former attenders! And every year after that the spread between the number of ex-attenders and the number of current attenders will grow larger.

No matter what that church does to expand the size of the front door, it’s going to be hard to keep reaching people when the predominant word on the street is, “I used to go there.”  (p17-18)

Osborne is committed to having 80% or more of church attenders actively involved in small groups. He sees the groups as the hub of the ministry. And he sees this model as fully scalable. The same principles that make a church sticky with a hundred or so in attendance, continue to work as the church grows into the thousands. Osborne’s church, North Coast Church, is a mega church in Aussie terms and may lead some of us to tune out as to the relevance to our contexts. However, it took them five years to reach 180 attenders and another five to reach 750, and they worked hard at the small stuff along the way.

Sticky Church presents a model of sermon based small groups, where the preaching on the Sunday is followed up in people’s homes throughout the week. We can argue about the ups and downs of groups being sermon based, but let’s not miss the primary observation. Osborne writes:

It doesn’t matter if the groups are sermon based or not. Ours weren’t initially. All that matters is that a significant percentage of the congregation begins to meet in small gatherings outside the church building to share life and study the Bible together.  (p49)

I read over this book a couple of times, gave copies to all our pastoral staff, and used it as the basis for evaluation and planning at our staff week away last year. Here are some comments, relevant to our situation, that I pencilled into the inside cover of my book for our discussions:

How do we convey the value and importance of groups to the life of our church and the spiritual vitality of our members?

  • teaching ‘one another’ the word of God
  • developing authentic relationships and Christian community
  • encouraging people to share their lives and faith with others (in the groups and beyond)
  • helping more people take up opportunities to serve in the life of the church and our outreach
  • decentralising leadership and care of one another
  • experiencing more personal prayer in relationship with others

Growth in churches is often crippled by what Osborne describes as the ‘holy man myth’. This is the idea that pastors have a more direct line to God. They are seen as the ones who must teach, visit, pray, counsel, and do pretty much everything. Especially if we’re paying them to do it! Aside from the poor theology driving this myth, the harsh reality is that one man simply can’t do all these things. My observation is that if a church or its ‘holy man’ thinks he must do everything, then we are not likely to see the church grow beyond 100 to 150 people. Healthy small groups are a valuable means for decentralising the ministry, and empowering people within the church to use their gifts in service of one another.

This book promotes sermon based Bible study in small groups. Our church had only done this occasionally, usually for a specific purpose such as focusing the whole church on a theme. People expressed appreciation for the guidance and resources, but we’d never managed to keep it going. From my perspective it was hard enough getting the sermon done well, let alone adding the preparation of small group material. I’d seen others committing to it over the years, week in week out, and in some cases preparing their whole series of Bible study notes before the preaching even began. I would just sit back and marvel at how they could pull it off. I’d leave it for the Phil Campbells, Steve Crees, Craig Dobbies… it wasn’t for me!

But, Sticky Church has pushed us out of our comfort zone to develop a sermon linked small group Bible study strategy. We haven’t managed to write a series in advance yet. Mostly the studies are produced and distributed week to week, ‘just in time’ for leaders to work over material and prepare for their groups. They are sermon linked, rather than based, because we don’t want people just rehashing what the preacher said on Sunday. We want people getting back into the text, doing some work themselves, and applying it in their lives. Some groups like to follow the sermon with the emphasis on further exploration and application. Others have opted to precede the sermon with the study, aiming to get people more engaged in the observation and investigative processes, raising their questions, and whetting their appetite for a sermon to follow. Horses for courses, but I think that in our context we will benefit from a greater commitment to applying the Word in the context of relationship with one other after the sermon. So I’d tip the scales towards sermon first – small group studies afterwards.

There are a few things that have moved us in this direction. Feedback from some of our leaders has shown that they have worked hard on preparing Bible studies from scratch and devoted little or no time beyond this to leading and caring and promoting the ministries of others in their groups. Some haven’t even seen this as their role. (This probably says more about our poor communication of expectations and encouragement of leaders in their roles). Just focusing on preparing and leading studies is commendable at one level, but if we are seeking these groups to become ‘little church’, where people are being fed, encouraged, caring for one another, and encouraging each member to be connecting with people who don’t follow Jesus… then the leaders need to be helped to embrace a larger job description. Not simply preparing and leading studies, but leading people, and this takes time. If we can resource the leaders with material, this will give them a leg up. Some leaders follow our material pretty much as provided, while others use it as an aid for their own specific preparation.

We’ve also seen the positive benefits of having the entire church learning together the same or similar material. In fact, on the occasions we have been able to integrate youth and children’s material with the adult preaching and small groups, we’ve had great feedback from families. By linking to the sermons, people have had the benefit of the preacher’s hard work combining with the group working through understanding and application of the Bible together. As we put our sermons on line, people who miss church are able to download the talk before attending (or even leading) their small groups. This seems to be increasing people’s engagement with the Bible and with working through its implications for life.

Osborne’s church has worked to keep their groups aligned with the mission of the church. They are not seen as optional accessories, but integral to the church fulfilling its purpose. They desire to 1) enlist new followers into God’s kingdom; 2) train them how to live the Christian life; and 3) equip them and deploy them into service. Small groups are vital to this process.

There are some interesting particulars how about how North Coast Church groups function. People sign up for a term at a time, and are then asked to provide feedback at the end of each term, which includes indicating whether they will be remaining with the group the following term. Osborne says that providing a clear way out of groups has led to more people staying in. Groups are not divided into two as numbers increase. In fact, he has a whole chapter on Why dividing groups is a dumb idea. He notices that some people take forever to click with a group that works for them, and then we cruelly split their group and they’re lost again. Their answer lies in two strategies: starting new groups for new members, and hiving off leaders rather than dividing whole groups. We’ve basically adopted this approach and begun to see the advantages of moving newcomers through an introductory ‘connect’ course into a small group with the people they’re already getting to know.

There is some good stuff on finding and developing leaders. Look for spiritual and relational warmth in prospective leaders. Avoid hyperspiritual God-talkers and single-issue crusaders. Look to apprenticing leaders within existing small groups, or else find people with few preconceived ideas or baggage about how groups should be run and prepare them to play on the team. Grabbing a leader who did things differently in their previous church, without engaging them with the vision of your church, can spell disaster! And it’s better to ask for recommendations, rather than asking for volunteers.

I also appreciated the creative rethink on how we go about training leaders. The emphasis is on preparing leaders on the job, for the job. Keeping the information flow with resources, encouragement, tips, suggestions, and ensuring that groups are well connected with the wider ministries and mission of the church is vital in equipping our leaders. This hasn’t been our strength to date, and we’re seeking to improve. Osborne also addresses the different needs of rookie and veteran leaders. This is something we should probably consider more.

Finally, the last section of the book includes tips for preparing sermon based studies. For mine, this is not the high point of the book, but it’s worth reading as we review our approach and strategies. And there are a number of appendices that show how North Coast Church puts their model into practice.

I’m very glad that I stumbled onto this book. Not simply because of it’s great ideas and practical common sense, but especially because it reminds me that if we’re expecting our small groups to be the hub of our ministry, and a primary pastoral care context, and the leaders to run with this vision, then we must invest more in helping them to work well.