Promoting the gospel in growth groups

swiss_army_knifeGrowth groups can have a tendency to focus inwardly upon themselves. Or should we say, the people in growth groups can become attached to their groups, so that the group gets all the bulk of their attention. This might be hard to believe when you first join up with a bunch of strangers, but as we get involved in each others’ lives, we can grow attached to each other. Of itself this is good, but if it leads to the neglect of others outside the group then we have a problem. Sometimes this can manifest itself with a prioritising of the group over the rest of church. But it can also mean that we forget about the needs of people outside church altogether.

centrifugalI didn’t do much physics at school, but my novice understanding is that growth groups therefore have a centripetal tendency. We tend to become preoccupied with what’s going on inside the group. If so, then I suggest we also encourage a centrifugal interest among the members of our groups. We want to be concerned for what’s happening on the outside, and we want to be preparing people in our groups to live and speak as followers of Jesus outside the group.

We don’t want growth groups to be holy huddles or simply emotional support groups. They are growth groups. We want to see the members of our groups growing together in Christian maturity. This will mean following the mission of Jesus, who came to seek and to save those who are lost. It will involve promoting the gospel of Jesus in our daily lives and it will move us to prayer.

There are many ways that growth groups can focus on promoting the gospel. We’ll explore a few:

1. Prayer

2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. 3 And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4 Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.

Paul asked the churches to support him in prayer. He had the responsibility of preaching Christ to the nations and he needed God’s help and people’s partnership in prayer. We can also support others in their proclamation of Jesus. Pray for the preachers and evangelists in our churches. Pray for others who are entrusted with the privilege and responsibility of making Christ known. Pray for those who are under much public scrutiny. Pray for people who are using different media, who are writing books and blogs, producing audio, video and TV, to proclaim Christ. Pray that they will be faithful, engaging, and bring honour to God. If our church supports global partners (or missionaries), or has sent people to plant new churches, then let’s uphold them in prayer.

Let’s also pray for one another in our groups, that we will live godly lives and show the difference that a relationship with Jesus can make. Pray for opportunities to do good to others and to bring blessing into people’s lives. Pray that God will open doors for us to give a reason for the hope that we have. Ask God to help us do this with gentleness and respect to others.

Maybe your group could pray for particular people outside the group. Friends of the members, family, workmates, neighbours, people we’re keen to see come to know Jesus. If your group breaks into 2s or 3s to pray, then you could pray more specifically and personally.

2. Living out the implications of the gospel during the week

People notice how we live. It matters! Who’s going to pay attention to someone who tells them that being a Christian can change their life, if they’re known by everyone as the office gossip, a liar and a cheat? Titus 2 gives us gospel motives and purpose for living lives of integrity and grace…

5 … so that no one will malign the word of God.

8 … so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.

10 … so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive.

For this reason our Bible studies should be focused on producing fruit in people’s lives. Application shouldn’t simply be tacked on when we allow enough time. It’s the whole purpose of the study. Transformed lives is what we are seeking. Not so that we can pat ourselves on the back, but for the glory of God and the welfare of others.

We should make time to get to know the members of our groups. What are their lives like? Who do they live with? What’s goes on in their workplace? What courses are they studying? Do they have any kids? What do they find tough? Who do they hang out with? What temptations do they face? Where do they think they are most on show? Let’s use our time together in growth groups to encourage one another, as it says in Hebrews 10:24-25:

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

3. Celebrate our God-given differences

The beauty of a church and a growth group is that they’re made up of different people. We’re united in the gospel of Jesus, but we have different gifts, personalities, experiences, opportunities. God has designed it this way so that we recognise the benefits of working together. When it comes to promoting the gospel, it’s important that we don’t spend the whole time making each other feel inadequate. Perhaps John spent a recent plane trip talking with his fellow passengers about why he’s a Christian. That doesn’t mean that everyone else should be doing the same thing. Some people can’t afford plane trips! Seriously, others will be too shy to ever contemplate such a thing. Some will be better communicators than others. We’re all wired differently and we should celebrate this, rather than judging one another.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. (1 Corinthians 12:15-18)

This doesn’t mean that we can’t be nudging each other along or encouraging each other to grow and change. We must. But let’s encourage transformation into the image of Christ, rather than calling everyone to conform to a particular stereotype. How many Ned Flanders do we really need!?

4. Work on a gospel project together

Perhaps your growth group could work on a project to promote the gospel. This could be an event that you each invite people to. They tend to work best when the members of the group are connected with similar people. If everyone lived in the same community, perhaps they could each invite their neighbours. Parents of the kids in the same school or sporting team could arrange an event for other parents. A group meeting in the same workplace could invite their colleagues to something in a lunch hour or after work. A common ethnic group could promote an event in their community. A common interest group could connect with others in their network. A group of people living in the same university residence have special opportunities to promote the gospel together.

Their are all sorts of events that could be used in promoting the gospel. Here are a few suggestions that I’ve participated in…

  • A Question & Answer event where someone answers people’s questions about Christianity. People invite friends, put on a good meal or refreshments, invite a speaker, or a panel of speakers, to answer questions. It’s very important people know clearly what they’re being invited to come to. No surprises. And don’t let the Christians dominate discussion!
  • An fun activity followed by short refreshments and a brief talk. If everyone is into mountain biking, perhaps go for a ride, come back for a BBQ, and have someone share why being a Christian is so important to them. Our group once held a wine tasting event at a local winery, after which I spoke about the one who turned water into wine!
  • A God party! You’ve heard of Tupperware and Nutrimetics parties. It’s the same idea with a few differences. The good stuff is all free. A friend of mine promoted this idea by encouraging people to take advantage of an excellent opportunity to discuss the often neglected, but important, topic of God. Heaps of people came.
  • A home brew evening. We have a few clever blokes in our church who make their own. They got together, put on a demo, and invited Pat Alexander (The bloke who wrote I’d love to have a beer with Duncan for Slim Dusty) to speak about the two most influential men in his life – Jesus and Duncan!
  • Use the collective imaginations of the people in the group to come up with your own ideas!

5. Training together

5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4:5-6)

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. ( 1 Peter 3:15-16)

If someone was to ask you how you became a Christian, or what makes a Christian different to a Jew, a Hindu, or a Jehovah’s Witness, what would you say? If they asked why you go to church, or whether you pray, or what’s so important about Jesus, would you have an answer? If someone enquired why you have an eternal hope in the face of death… do you know what you want to say? The Apostles, Peter and Paul, both call us to be prepared to answer those who want to know what it’s all about. We’re encouraged to be willing and able to speak to others about what we believe.

Willingness flows from confidence in the gospel, trusting in God to be at work, and that he can use our lives and words to impact others. It’s easy to be embarrassed, or even ashamed, of the perceived weakness of our message. We need to be regularly reminded that the truth about Jesus can change people’s lives for good and forever. Ability comes from knowing what we believe and knowing people, and connecting the two in practice. Growth groups are a great environment to build confidence in God’s word and how it changes people.

A group can take incidental opportunities for equipping each other in sharing what we believe. Maybe we’re telling the group about a conversation we had at work where Christianity came up. The group could brainstorm how we might have handled it well or how we could improve. An idea might arise out of the Bible study that helps us to explain an aspect of our faith to enquirers. It’s good to highlight and reinforce these things. The Bible passage might intersect with some issues that are preventing people from taking God seriously, and the group could discuss how to over come this. People could talk together about how God has relevance to issues that we deal with day to day, so as to be better prepared when opportunities arise.

There can also be formal opportunities for training in gospel communication. If the church is providing courses or one-on-one mentoring, the leader might encourage people to participate (even if it means skipping the group for a few weeks). Maybe the growth group could set aside a few weeks from the regular studies to focus on some area of training.

6. Are people who aren’t Christian invited?

I think the short answer is “Why not?” Why wouldn’t we welcome anyone who wants to join with us, look at the Bible together, enter into life together. We don’t put bouncers on the door at church, so why would we close the doors to our groups? It could offer a wonderful opportunity to build genuine relationships and promote real discussion that will help someone come to a decision to follow Jesus.

It is important for the group to be of a common understanding of what the group is about, who it’s for and how it functions. Let everyone discuss their hopes and expectations. If you are a group of Christians, and then someone who isn’t persuaded joins with you, it will change the dynamics considerably. Not a bad thing, but we need to work with the changes. You might need to talk about whether your particular group is the best context for a friend who’s not a Christian, or whether another group might be better. If your church has special groups for those who are looking into Christianity, perhaps it would be better to go with your friend to that group for a while. Think about whether they’d be more comfortable talking things through with you, just sitting anonymously in church, joining in with the group, or something else entirely.

Remember we are talking about GROWTH groups. Our desire is to be growing followers of Jesus, through people coming to faith in Jesus Christ and growing together into maturity.

Further reading
Colin Marshall, Growth Groups, chapter 9
John Chapman, Know and tell the Gospel
Kel & Barbara Richards, Hospitality Evangelism
Dave Thurston, Making friends for life
John Dickson, Promoting the Gospel
Steve Timmis & Tim Chester, The Gospel-centered Church

Leading better Bible studies

Leading Better Bible StudiesLeading Better Bible Studies: Essential skills for effective small groups by Rod and Karen Morris is a compendium of valuable information on small groups ministry. The authors draw together a wealth of material acquired through theological training, adult education study, and years of practical experience leading Bible study groups. There’s much more to Leading Better Bible Studies than teaching us how to lead better Bible studies, but the Bible is clearly central to the whole agenda. This book is intended to assist leaders to ensure their groups are about helping people (i) grow in their relationships with God, (ii) become more like Jesus, and (iii) experience the joy of doing this in relationship with others.

Scan 2A strength of this book is its balance. Good small group leadership requires people to build biblically-shaped competence in a range of areas. Leading Better Bible Studies outlines seven areas important areas for leadership development. While the book follows a logical sequence, any chapter can be dipped into at any stage.

1. Being a Christian leader

The assumption is that leaders are men and women seeking to know God and serve him in their role as leaders. They must be Christians who trust in the saving work of the Lord Jesus. Leaders are not called primarily to impart their own wisdom, but to help the members of the group grow in their knowledge and love of God through studying the Bible. This will require leaders to focus on Christ, depend on the power of God’s Spirit, delve deeply into the Scriptures, pray humbly, teach in word and example, and call people to change in the light of God’s word.

2. Helping people learn

The main task of the leader is seen to be helping people learn from the Bible. This will, in turn, shape all the other ministry in the group. This takes diligence in understanding the Scriptures and it also requires the leader to understand how people people learn and how we can assist people to learn.

The content of our teaching is so important that we must use the best possible methods to enable people to learn.  (p2)

Scan 3Rod and Karen apply their understanding of adult learning principles and the adult learning cycle to enable leaders to suitably connect with the variety of people in their groups. They show how people learn through stages, but also how individuals have a preference for particular stages of the cycle. Activists tend to focus on the challenge of something new and fresh. They love the ‘doing’ part of learning. Reflectors take more time to reflect and consider how things relate. They look for patterns, connections and explore things from different perspectives. These people tend to take more time to come to their conclusions. Theorists are more into formulating explanations and developing principles. They’re keen to draw everything together into coherent unity. Pragmatists are keen to get to the point where the ‘rubber hits the road’. Recognising the different stages and preferences for learning can assist the leader to engage all members of the group better and, hopefully, help the pragmatists not to get so frustrated with the theorists!

3. Learning from the Bible in groups

This is the longest chapter in the book and focuses upon the leader’s central task. It looks to develop skills in handling the Bible, both personally and in the group. The foundations of understanding Scripture in its context are well presented here. We’re encouraged to look at the detail in each passage, within the overall theology of the whole Bible. Three aspects are developed in studying the Bible:

(i) observation – what does the text actually say?
(ii) interpretation – what does the text mean?
(iii) application – how do we respond to what the text means?

This chapter is a treasure chest of strategies for doing Bible study in our groups. It helps us to get beyond the boring Q and A approach of so many studies, and explore creative means of learning together from the Bible. They are designed to help people learn from the Bible and not simply discover what’s in the head of the leader! There are 21 different approaches to Bible study outlined here, each with an example study to share.

4. Developing group life

Many of us will have had superb experiences of small groups, along with others we’re still trying to forget. This chapter focuses on the ‘people’ side of our groups and how to develop groups that really work. It’s highly practical, dealing with issues such as group size, when and where you meet, developing mutual expectations of the group, building trust, sharing responsibilities, good communication, celebrating milestones, and more. Groups go through life cycles and good preparation enables the group to navigate these well. They require attention to task and maintenance functions. Finishing groups well can be as important as starting them well. If you’re looking for a range of activities to help people in your group get to know each other, this chapter offers you another 24 great ideas!

5. Helping people pray

Prayer is often emphasised in theory in Bible study groups, yet neglected in practice. We know of groups which run out of time and have only a perfunctory prayer to open and close the meeting; of others which never move beyond the mundane and superficial; and of still others where only one or two people pray, while everyone else remains silent.  (p151)

I suspect many of us have been involved in groups that struggle to pray. The strength of this chapter is that it offers practical steps to model, teach and encourage people in our groups to pray. And it needs to begin with the leader.

6. Sustaining group members

A good Bible study leader will seek to look after the members of their group. They will care for each person with regard to their relationship with God, and what’s going on in their lives. They will seek to equip the group to build one another through God’s word and loving service. This requires more than simply preparing a study and opening our homes each week. It requires perseverance and hard work, understanding of people, good communication skills, capacity to work through and resolve conflicts, and more. But it also requires a healthy grasp of the limits of our responsibility. Ultimately, the people in the group are God’s responsibility, not yours. Therefore there are limits to your accountability. (p188) A healthy reminder!

7. Continuing as a leader

How do we keep leaders fresh and willingly serving God in this ministry for the long haul? The book finishes with some more practical wisdom. Refreshment is key to doing anything long term. People need change, variety and breaks. While they may no longer need basic training, they may benefit greatly from ongoing encouragement and support. Supervision, peer mentoring, personal reflections and self-appraisal are all useful tools for developing leaders.

Scan 4Rod and Karen suggest focusing on the person, the people, and the process. These three areas are all important for healthy leaders and healthy groups. They include a few pages of questions and ideas that could be used either personally, or by a supervisor who is encouraging another leader (p195-8).

Leading Better Bible Studies finishes with a list of resources on a range of topics related to each of the chapters. These are good resources, but it would be useful to update them to include materials written since the first printing of the book in 1997.

I’ve worked through this book on a number of occasions previously. It’s been my ‘textbook’ for teaching courses on leading Bible studies. Along with other books, such as Growth Groups, it’s been a ‘reference guide’ for equipping myself and others to lead. Our church is implementing a strategy of coaching and mentoring for our growth group leaders. My hope is for every coach to be familiar with this book, so they are better equipped to support the leaders under their care.

Growth Groups

Passing the Baton-text-S2Growth Groups by Col Marshall has been around now for a couple of decades. For many of us, it’s been the ‘go to’ book on small group ministry. As I’m currently reviewing how we support and equip our growth group leaders, I thought I should read over it again. My immediate thought was it could do with an aesthetic refresh. The number-dot-number section headings makes it look out of date and rather academic. However, the content is as relevant and helpful now as it was back in ’95. If you were to get one book on leading Christian small groups, this would probably be the one to get. It gets you into the Bible, but it also explores the other aspects relevant to leading groups – such as group dynamics, prayer, personal ministry, evangelism, training leaders, and the like.

The real strength of Growth Groups is how it places small group ministry within the wider context of gospel ministry in church. God’s agenda for transforming lives shapes the agenda for these groups. The training course at the back of the book involves studying Paul’s letter to the Colossians and this anchors the earlier material in God’s Word. Colossians takes us from the grand themes of Christ’s lordship and salvation to their practical outworking in the Christian life. For this reason the best way to read Growth Groups is in conjunction with the training course.

If you’re not able to participate in a training course, the book still provides an excellent resource for leaders. It’s full of biblical and experiential wisdom on ministry in small groups. The following chapter headings show the breadth of material covered:

  1. The strategy of growth groups
  2. Growth group basics
  3. Pitfalls of growth groups
  4. Preparing a Bible study
  5. Leading a Bible study
  6. Answers about questions
  7. The games people play
  8. Praying in growth groups
  9. Gospel growth through growth groups
  10. Leading for growth
  11. Growing the individuals
  12. The healthy growth group
  13. Starting a growth group
  14. Selecting, training and shepherding leaders
  15. Developing the growth group program

It’s most logical to work through the chapters in the order they appear, but you can dip back into them any way you like. I’ve found that over the years I’ve written all sorts of notes, supplementary ideas, questions and links to other resources in the margins of my copy. It’s covered in underlining and highlighting, with various scraps of paper lodged inside. In other words its a tool – a workbook that I keep coming back to on the job.

Having read this book again in close proximity to reading Spice It UpI can see the overlapping ideas between the two. The latter builds on the chapters about preparing and leading Bible studies and it helps us to engage well with the text and with the people in our groups. Col’s book presents the foundational issues very clearly, and I believe its an indispensable ‘Small Groups 101′ manual. It offers a philosophy of small groups ministry, that’s anchored in Scripture, and from which our practise should flow. The best example of this is the opening chapter that draws us deeply into Colossians and expounds on receiving Christ as Lord and living with Christ as Lord (Colossians 2:6-7).

Chapter 3, on the pitfalls of groups, offered some helpful warnings. With the ubiquity of small groups in churches today, and the variety of purposes they seem designed to fulfil, this book warns how they can easily lose their way. Community, experience, and mission can all become divorced from their biblical significance and growth groups can become much like many non-Christian groups in our world. We’re encouraged to keep God’s agenda front and centre. Sometimes groups can take on an independent life of their own, reacting against the church, the minister, or the preaching. Our purpose is not to create isolated, independent mini-churches, but rather to help the whole church to build itself in truth and love by meeting regularly in smaller gatherings.

Chapter 9, on gospel growth, reminds us not to let groups become introspective cliques. God’s agenda of bringing people into his family through the gospel is to shape the purpose of growth groups. This might not mean regularly inviting and welcoming non-believers into our groups (though some groups could have this purpose), but it will mean keeping the gospel on our agenda. Growth groups are an excellent context to support one another in reaching out to others and to pray for friends’ friends to become followers of Jesus.

Growth Groups is intentional in developing leaders – it’s a training book, after all! But it calls leaders to be committed to expanding the numbers of groups by raising up and training new leaders. Apprenticing leaders is the preferred model, to be supplemented with the material in this book. The course itself involves guided reading of this book, plus a 10 week practical Bible study and training program. Our church is following a similar strategy by encouraging our leaders to have core members in their groups whom they are mentoring into leadership. We will also be offering specific targeted training courses later in the year for these apprentices and others.

If you’re a leader and you haven’t come across Growth Groups, then I recommend you get hold of a copy, read it and scribble what you learn all over it! If you’re looking for a training program for leaders in your church then this is a great place to turn, especially as it’s so comprehensive. If you’re feeling rather stale in your leadership, and you want to up-skill a bit, then why not read a few of the chapters of this book with a friend and discuss them together? If you’ve been reading The Trellis and the Vine then you will find that these books are singing from the same song sheet. And that’s a good thing because it’s about churches, small groups and individual Christians being shaped by the gospel.

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.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: Aligning the Ministries of your Church through Creative Collaboration by Ferguson, Ferguson and Bramlett challenges churches to think hard about the message we communicate and how we go about doing it. Fittingly, the strength of this book is its big idea. Disturbingly, I found some of its weaknesses lie in the details.

If you go to church regularly it’s a worthwhile exercise to write down how many different little ideas you have to take in each week. If you consider the welcome signs or banners, printed handouts, messages on the screen, various announcements, the MC or leaders comments, intros to songs, the songs themselves, children’s talks, prayers about different topics, video clips, Bible readings, the sermon, various connected or disconnected points within the sermon, more songs, closing comments, conversations over supper or morning tea… you can see the problem. What message do you take home from church? Add to this the family context – if children and youth are looking at unrelated material, learning about different things, and engaged in different activities, then families could have dozens of ‘take home messages’. What gets remembered? What sinks in? What gets put into action? This book argues for alignment, getting our message focused. It’s premised on the observation that more information means less clarity and less action.

We have bombarded our people with too many competing little ideas, and the result is a church with more information and less clarity than ever before.  (p19)

The passion behind the big idea is for churches to be communities of transformation, not simply information. This requires genuine relationships and a focus on personal change. Small groups, for example, aren’t to be tutorials or study groups, but rather places where people care and share, challenge and support, confide and confess, learn and grow together. At Community Christian Church, where the authors serve as pastors, they adopted sermon-based studies to align the small groups with the weekly church celebrations around the same big idea. This approach is much the same as that described by Larry Osborne in Sticky Church. Yet, not only do they seek to align small groups with the big idea, but also families, ministries, congregations and other churches in their network. One big idea shapes everything they do.

What does this look like? It begins with planning the preaching program a year ahead. Topics and series are worked out and positioned carefully with regard to the annual calendar. At thirteen weeks out, the teaching team write a short essay that fleshes out the series and each topic within. These are called big idea graphs. The graphs are distributed to the relevant people so that at nine weeks out a creative team meeting can brainstorm how to shape the church service by the big idea. This meeting will include the leaders of teaching, drama, music and other areas needed to determine and shape the service content. At five weeks this gets a reality check. At three weeks the teaching team and the small group curriculum writers collaborate to construct a big idea sermon and discussion guide. At two weeks the big idea teaching manuscript is finished so that preachers in different congregations or churches can take the manuscript and personalise it to their own style and to suit their congregations. This is also passed on to the media team and others who will organise slides, graphics, scriptures references, and other things needed for the particular service. The whole process is very collaborative and teams are the order of the day. Even the sermons are a cooperative exercise. The long lead times opens options for creativity and ensures that things are done well.

There is much to like about this approach, but I will reveal my concerns first. The authors openly admit that topical preaching is their preferred and normal practice. They brainstorm and discuss possible sermon ideas and vote on which ones to pursue in the following year. It seems that much of the creative work in preparing sermons takes place as people share their ideas about the topic. Working out which Bible texts might be relevant to the topic is only done after the topics are nutted out. I don’t believe this is the healthiest approach to determining a preaching plan. It can mean we’re driven by popular ideas and what we think people will find interesting. Many important themes addressed in the Bible will never be heard and certain hobby horses will often get ridden. I’d much prefer to follow a staple diet of expository preaching so that we let God’s word put the topics on our agenda. Look to get a balance from different parts of the Bible and mix it up from time to time with some specific topics and occasional messages. In fact, I’d love to see a book like this written from the starting point of expository preaching.

I’m also worried about what doesn’t really get described in this book. One example is their skeleton for weekly adult services:

  1. Praise choruses (opening of service)
  2. Campus pastor moment (greeting)
  3. Creative element (video, sketch, or song or a combination)
  4. Teaching
  5. Communion
  6. Giving back to God (offering)
  7. Praise choruses (closing of service)  (p133)

While admitting that we can replace the nouns we see with whatever describes our own church’s style, system and mode, it concerns me what they’ve left out. Where does prayer feature? Where does Bible reading fit in? What preparation goes into these areas? I have to admit that the heavy emphasis on the creative arts and the silence about prayer and Bible reading in the church service left me concerned. The storyline of this book is about BIG church and is dominated by the ‘performance’ on weekends. This is not to say it’s irrelevant to small churches with single pastors. I think there’s some great wisdom here, but it needs careful transposing.

So what did I find helpful? Let me focus on two strengths of The Big Idea. Firstly, the alignment of message in the church. My experience is that too often we have many little ideas competing for people’s attention and the message we most want people to hear gets seriously diluted. We have so many announcements that we forget most of them and can’t differentiate their importance. Sometimes the songs have no relationship to the message. Or the prayers are completely unrelated to everything else going on. Or the talk seems more like a commentary than a sermon, picking up too many ideas from the Bible passage without highlighting and applying the main one.

I’m not beating up on our church now. I’m very encouraged by the fact that our church has a weekly team meeting to discuss each service, make sure the different parts are connected, link the music to the message, integrate the kids talk, discuss priorities and emphases with the service leader, and more. We’ve also been following the same teaching programs with adults, youth, and children and this has enabled us to pool our resources and help families to focus on the big idea each week.

The second strength of this approach, is the emphasis on preparing well ahead. It worries me when I keep hearing of pastors writing their talks on the Saturday night before church, the kids talk being thrown together without much thought, the Bible reader being organised as we walk into church, the musicians not being given or not learning the songs until just before church. It doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t take any more work to be organised weeks ahead, but it does require discipline and organisation. 

I’ve always worked to get a draft preaching plan in place a year, or at least a term, ahead. This requires a lot of work, reading the relevant books, working out the preaching units, determining the big idea, conveying this briefly in a sermon title. It may mean setting aside a week or more to achieve it. We’ve mostly published these for the upcoming term so people know where we’re headed and can prepare as needed. In the preceding term I’ve been working on the upcoming book of the Bible, reading commentaries, writing notes and drafting ideas. I put these in a note book and draw on them when I get to preparing the actual sermons. I’ve tended to prepare the actual sermons in the week that I’ll deliver them. However, one year I managed to get about six weeks ahead with my talks. I’d write the rough draft weeks ahead, and tune it up in the final week. I can testify to this delivering a better product and removing a lot of stress. If I had my time again, I’d like to make this normal!

Our youth programs are worked out a term ahead and publicised. This enables the team to share responsibilities among the leaders while keeping to the big idea. Working on the children’s ministry material well ahead helps the creative process and good integration with the adult and youth programs.  Other churches manage to prepare Bible study and discussion guides for the upcoming teaching series. (We’ve only managed it once or twice, but we do manage to get them out each week!) These guides connect with the sermons. This means the big idea of all sermons needs to be worked out well ahead, so that the studies are integrated with the teaching. Advance planning assists the music teams to choose songs that connect with the big idea. It ensures we think carefully about what we’re praying about. It opens the door to creative ideas that we could never pull off the night before. And it takes some of the stress out of planning church.

All in all, I’d recommend this book to pastors and leaders as they look to the year ahead. Read it through before you spend a few days with your team planning for 2013. You did plan a planning time, didn’t you? Or perhaps you’re well organised and have already done it!

Why churches should stop small groups

Hear me on this one. I believe that home groups, growth groups, prayer and Bible groups, gospel groups, connect groups, cell groups, small groups – or whatever else we may call them – are a vital part of church life. They enable people to develop relationships with others in ways that are otherwise difficult in a larger church. They provide an excellent opportunity to read, learn, discuss and apply the Bible in fellowship with others. They enable personal prayers to be shared with one another. People can be encouraged, supported, and cared for, without always relying on the professional pastor to do all the work.

Stop_SignBut we need to stop them! Some groups just seem to go on and on, without clear expectations or direction. Some groups become so cliquey that nobody can ever break into them. Others get so toxic with gossip, divisions, or grumbling, that they need to be shut down for the sake of everyone involved, and often the church as a whole. Some groups develop there own agenda which clearly competes with that of the church as a whole. Sometimes groups are simply unhealthy and need to be stopped.

However, it’s not the euthanasia of groups that I’m primarily concerned with here, but the need to build helpful rhythms into our groups. I want to apply some of the insights from Bruce Miller’s helpful book, Your Church in Rhythm and Larry Osborne’s book on small groups, Sticky Church. We need to communicate about when and how our small groups will begin and end. We should also consider the value of various starts and finishes within the life span of the groups. Let’s consider Miller’s chronos cycles and examine the benefits to be gained by pacing our groups wisely and oscillating them between intensity and renewal. Let’s work out when and how to stop them!

Yearly cycles

Starting and stopping our groups each year, helps people to pace themselves. It allows time to build relationships and it also offers an opt-out when the relationships aren’t really working, or we simply want to get to know others. Life changes each year. We move, we get new jobs, our kids get older, we enter into new relationships. These changes often mean people should move to a different group.

Consider carefully when groups begin. Our church often waited until March, when uni students got back into town, but this frustrated others who were looking for a group in January or when school started. It might be wise to advertise a number starting times. But equally, set a stop time, so that the group can finish on a strong note, people can be thanked and farewelled, celebrations can be shared. It’s not good when groups simply taper out and dissolve. This can be a recipe for hurt and disappointments. We need to stop our small groups well!

[This is not to say that we should dissolve our groups every year. Some groups will continue for years and continue to be healthy. But giving people some time out at the close of the year can be very healthy. Taking a break from the small group can function like an annual sabbath to enable everyone to have a rest – pastors, leaders, participants and their families. Sometimes, short term summer holiday groups can fill the gap for those who need a group during this period.]

Term-based cycles

There is much to be gained by arranging our groups according to seasons, and often the most obvious is school terms. While not everyone’s life is shaped by terms, it does have the benefit of pacing the life of the group. We can oscillate between 9-10 weeks on and 2-3 weeks off. It gives the leaders and the group a break. People get time off for other things and don’t resent their group for always demanding their time.

It can also be helpful to match these groups with program of the church. If the teaching is term-based this allows integration across the church. A short teaching series is offered in the school holidays and the groups get some time off. Osborne also suggests that breaking between terms gives the groups an opportunity to take stock, reevaluate how the group is going, and sometimes to help people transition into another group if things aren’t working out. Stopping our groups in the holidays can also give space for doing other things with the group, perhaps a social outing, a special dinner, or a weekend away. If we want people to stay excited about the groups, I think there is great value in stopping our groups at the end of each term.

Weekly cycles

If our groups go for 9 or 10 weeks followed by a break, then we should plan how to use these weeks. Are we following the sermon series? Will the group need some variety over this time? Perhaps, a 4-1-4 plan to do studies, with a night of prayer in the centre, or a dinner together, or combine with another group in the church for a night. The church might encourage groups to do something different in one of the terms, perhaps encouraging the groups to do a training course, or to choose their own studies. If so, then we need to communicate well ahead and prepare people for the changes.

Sometimes the group will face a particular crisis and we need to break with the timetable or plan. Maybe a member is in hospital and the group will choose to stop a week so everyone gets a chance to visit. It could be a big issue that is facing the group that needs addressing, so we might stop the program and give this issue the attention it needs.

Daily cycles

It’s also worth considering the basic shape of each group meeting. How much time is given to catching up with each other, sharing needs or joys, learning and discussing God’s word, praying for one another and other things? Does the group share food together – a meal or simply refreshments? Is the group excited about how it uses it’s time?

People are creatures of habit and they build their expectations on their experiences. If a group always starts late and finishes after the agreed time, people will start coming late and often still get irritated when the group goes overtime. If we stick to the group’s agreed timetable, this will build confidence in the group and create a less stressful environment. If you need to, then agree together on extending the time we meet, otherwise we should stop our groups on time!

I hope these reflections help increase the joy and decrease the stress in our small groups!

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.