Community is just as essential to spiritual growth as content. Think about this: Jesus who designed your brain also taught you how to make disciples. According to one study, Jesus spent 73% of His time with His disciples. This involved teaching, eating, serving, debating, correcting, and sending. All of this was wrapped around community. While the Enlightenment hijacked the Western church’s approach to disciple making, neuroscience is showing the importance of community in developing godly character.
Disciple making is not merely a transfer of information. It’s not simply making better choices. Disciple making is certainly not a process. After all, you’re not manufacturing widgets. And, as I’ve written before, sermons don’t make disciples. Character is formed in community. How is community formed? Here are some ways to connect your congregation into community:
Leverage Existing Relationships
“Everyone is already in a group.” That’s the first sentence of my first book, Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (Hendrickson 2017) . When you think about your people, they are in families, workplaces, classes, sports teams, hobbies, friendships, and neighborhoods. Over the years, I discovered that some people won’t join a small group because they value these relationships more than a church small group. Rather than grousing against that pull, I embraced it. Resource and empower people to make disciples in the groups they already enjoy. You don’t have to make it hard.
The short of it is if you will give your people permission and opportunity to start a group, give them an easy-to-use resource (like self-produced curriculum with your pastor’s teaching), a little training, and a coach to walk alongside them, you can start more groups than you’ve ever dreamed. If you don’t know the leader, then don’t advertise their group. They’re gathering their friends anyway. These groups tend to form more easily and stay together longer than groups formed in other ways. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. (You’ll have to read the rest of Exponential Groups to learn the system of starting and sustaining small groups for the long haul.) Leveraging existing relationships is one way to create community.
Pursuing a Common Topic or Interest
Sometimes community starts from the other direction. Instead of gathering friends for a study, people sign up for group based on a relevant topic. You can start groups around marriage, parenting, relationships, finances, Bible studies, book clubs, and a myriad of other subjects. People are drawn by the topic, but stay for the community.
Similarly, you can start groups around hobbies, interests, or activities. What do your people enjoy doing? These groups can connect both people in your church and in your community. Again, by giving permission and opportunity, someone with an interest can start a group around it.
Now in both of these cases, you will need to know these leaders well, since you will advertise these groups. They will need to qualify as leaders in your church, so the start up process will be longer than gathering groups of friends, but it’s important to offer multiple strategies to form groups. After all, one size does not fit all.
Connecting through a Shared Experience
Shared experience can range from serving teams to missions trips to Rooted groups. These are higher commitment experiences that quickly bond people together. While every group may not start this way, it would be a waste to allow these tight knit groups to discontinue.
When your people serve in the community, they develop a connection. When they travel together outside of the country, they certainly bond together. When they spend 10 weeks in a Rooted group, they are united by a powerful experience that stretches them in many ways. All of these experiences beg for a way to continue. Give them an opportunity to continue.
Think About This
This is a short list. This is just a sample of the ways your people can connect into community. What I want you to hear is that people need more than content. If they only needed content, then you could post online videos for them to watch, and they would just grow on their own. The problem is that they won’t watch videos in isolation, and they can’t grow without encouragement, support, accountability, and relationship with others. People are just not made that way.
Offer as many opportunities as possible for people to connect in community. Start friend groups, campaign groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, topic studies, activity groups, affinity groups, support groups, and on-going groups out of shared experiences. My only caution is this: Don’t start all of these all at once. But, for everyone who tells you “no,” offer them something they might say “yes” to.
Justin Bird from Crossfit once said, “People came for the fit and stayed for the family.” (from a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Jay Kim). I wrote about Crossfit a few years back in a post called What Michelob Ultra Understands About Community: “Now, before you announce in the next staff meeting that your church is going to open its own CrossFit gym, don’t miss the point. Community comes in various shapes and sizes: small groups, activity groups, task groups, classes, Bible studies — all of these are environments where community can take place, but none are a guarantee that community will take place. Community is formed around common goals, common interests, and even common enemies. Maybe promoting community in the church is recognizing the community that is already taking place.”
How are you creating community in your church? What do you need to try?
You’ve seen how some groups produce great growth in their members while other groups merely tolerate each other. Some groups excel at reproducing leaders. Other groups seem to just go through the motions. What makes the difference?
You could assume that the leader makes the difference. You might be on to something. But, what is it about that leader that makes for a good group? If you could figure that out, then you could multiply that enthusiasm across all of your groups. Let’s dig into what makes an effective group.
What is an Effective Group?
The simplest definition is a group who fulfills their purpose. If the group’s goal is the three F’s: fun, food, and fellowship, then if the group is fat and happy, they are a success. Every group could be a little happier at least. But, there is a difference between the group’s purpose and God’s purpose for the group.
The mission of the church is to make disciples. You know Jesus’ works from Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Now, go back and read it again, and really read it this time. (No yada, yada, yada’s allowed). Effective groups make disciples.
How Do You Make a Disciple?
One common Western definition of a disciple is a student. Students study. The more a student knows and the better decisions the student makes, the more they become like Christ, right? The problem is that churches often produce a lot of over-educated members with poor character. If articulating biblical principles was the only factor to growing in Christlikeness, then the Sunday sermon would be all that is necessary. The problem is that sermons don’t make disciples. There are a lot of knowledgeable Christians whose lives don’t reflect much of Christ. After all, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). It would be fair to ask whether your people’s behavior more closely resembles Galatians 5:19-21 or Galatians 5:22-23. Information alone doesn’t produce transformation. There are other elements to making disciples.
From the Great Commission and from my own experience, I see three key elements in making a disciple: the Holy Spirit, the “curriculum,” and the community. The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God in the lives of believers. The “curriculum” might be a study guide, but let’s not limit curriculum to that. The community is equally important to the curriculum. Who you join with is highly important in character formation.
The Holy Spirit
While there are diverse opinions about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, you can agree that you cannot give what you do not have. Every believer has the Holy Spirit. As far as being an element of an effective group, at least one person in the group must be saved.
The Holy Spirit guides you (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit has revealed the truth of God’s Word, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit illuminates your mind (John 16:15). The Holy Spirit gives words to say when you don’t know what to say (Mark 13:11). The Holy Spirit empowers you to serve others (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). Attachment to the Holy Spirit produces spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). While you must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to see this fruit, it is the Spirit’s work and not just your sweat.
The Holy Spirit is present in the group meeting through his presence, through prayer, through God’s Word, and in the interactions of the group members. The Holy Spirit saturates daily quiet times and spiritual practices. Without God’s presence, there is no power for transformation. While you can become well disciplined, you cannot transform yourself. It just takes more than you’ve got.
In Western thought, which was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, the church picked up the notion that if you knew what was right and made the right choices, then you could live a life that reflected Christ. The problem is that no matter how hard you work, eventually you run out of steam. That doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It just means that all of that well-intentioned trying doesn’t achieve the goal of Christlike character. And, it’s not supposed to. After all, you cannot become godly without God or other believers. Study is part of the curriculum, but it’s not the only part.
The curriculum also involves your life circumstances. Your problems are your teachers, (and some days you want to skip school). The hardships, trials, and pain of your life cause you to seek better solutions and force you to grow in ways you haven’t volunteered to. But, the curriculum is not only pain and trials, the curriculum also includes serving and sharing and taking a risk with others. You grow by trying new things – serving the poor, taking a missions trip, and loving your neighbors in practical ways.
What is life teaching you? What is serving teaching you? What is pain teaching you? What is your group teaching you? All of these experiences produce a powerful hermeneutic within the confines of orthodox Christian belief.
Now, don’t get me wrong. God gave us a book, the Bible, and God gave us the left side of our brains. That’s not a coincidence. But, those aren’t the only faculties at your disposal to attain godly character.
Over the last nine weeks, I’ve participated in a weekly book club to discuss The Other Half of the Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks. This book confirmed many of the things that small group people have known intuitively. The quality of your community is equally important to the curriculum you study. Wilder and Hendricks teach that things like joy, hesed (community), group identity, and healthy correction create the necessary soil to produce godly character.
Hesed is “wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty–in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty,” elaborates Bible scholar Darrell L. Bock. You need a loyal and loving community to grow spiritually.
While I would need to write an entire book to explain Wilder and Hendricks’ book, the importance of community is clear in making disciples. You need people to model, instruct, correct, encourage, support, and partner with you in your spiritual development. You need people who love you but are not impressed with you to willingly speak the truth in love. I experienced this personally.
Years ago as a young pastor who was overly influenced by David Letterman, I frequently used a word that was unbecoming to a pastor. My senior pastor lovingly confronted me by saying, “When you use that word, it takes away from who you are.” He didn’t scold me and say, “You are a pastor. You work for me. No pastor on this staff is going to talk like that around here. If you don’t stop it, then you’re out of here.” No, he gently and lovingly told me the truth. I immediately stopped using that word. Who says these things to you? Who stands by you no matter what? How are these things communicated in your groups?
Disciples aren’t made in isolation. While there is a place for solitude and silence, character is forged in relationship with others. Whether on mission fields or in mine fields of emotions, by serving at soup kitchens or through praying in hospital waiting rooms, the bonds of community grow your character.
Think About This
Some groups depend on the Holy Spirit to zap them into godly character. I guess I was never thoroughly zapped. Other groups have diligently studied the Scripture only to become judgmental and legalistic in some ways. Some have solely embraced community only to be led in the wrong direction. But, the combination of these elements produces something powerful. The people of God filled with the Spirit of God and living out the Word of God produces amazing things. Your groups can produce amazing things.
You know that you need to train your leaders. The problem is half empty training meetings and leaders who are just difficult to reach. How do you train people who will never show up?
Your leaders like most people are inundated with information that further complicates their marginless lives. It’s probably all they can do just to lead a group. I’m not saying this is right. Unfortunately, this is your reality.
I graduated from seminary believing my purpose in life was to conduct meetings. When I started leader training meetings, most would attend. But, over time, the numbers dwindled. In fact, some days I would stand in an empty meeting room shortly after the start time. I would listen to the crickets and question the call of God on my life. Then, one day I had a realization – people hate meetings. But, how do you train your leaders if they don’t want to attend meetings? This led to a new question.
What is Training?
Maybe like me, you equated training with meetings. But, if your people won’t come to meetings, then how do you train them? You have to think outside of meetings.
You can train your leaders through conversations, blog posts, short videos, text messages, coaching, Facebook, and many other methods. You have to push the training out to them. If they won’t come to you, then go to them.
What Do They Want to Learn?
Your leaders don’t all need to know the same things at the same time. While it would be great to think you can equip your leaders by supplying them with answers to all of the questions and issues they will ever face in their groups, the reality is that leaders are only interested in solutions to the problems they are currently facing. The more your training is customized to the leaders’ needs, the more meaningful and memorable your training will be.
How Do You Know What Your Leaders Need to Know?
How Do You Deliver Individualized Training to Each Leader When They Need It?
Let me back up for a minute. There is some general training that you should deliver to all of your leaders live and in-person to get them started. All of your leaders should have an understanding of what it means to lead a group in your church and the basics of group dynamics. This should happen once during your on-boarding process.
Beyond that, give specific answers to specific issues. Use technology to deliver training that your leaders can access at any time. Whether you use Facebook Live or Youtube, push out short videos to your group leaders on relevant topics (answer the questions they are asking). You’ll need to archive these videos in some way so that if your group leaders don’t have an overly talkative person in their group today, then they’ll have access to the training when that person shows up in their group. You can do the same by writing and categorizing blog posts. You can even offer some training meetings – at the church, over Zoom, or even on a conference line. Whatever format you use, record and archive the content for future use.
In my church in California, I bought two cases of Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s book, Making Small Groups Work. It’s an outstanding book, and it’s still in print. I gave a copy to every one of my leaders for future reference. You could do the same thing with my book, Leading Healthy Groups, which is based on questions that my group leaders asked me. You could even use my book as content for your training videos.
Lastly, there is no adequate substitute for a coach. The best training is delivered by the person who is the most proximate to the leader when a problem occurs. The key is the relationship. Proximity trumps knowledge every time. The coach may not have the best answer, but if they can deliver a good answer in a timely way, then the leader is served well.
You may find that training leaders is difficult, but it is necessary. The key to equipping busy leaders is to provide training that is proximate, timely, and relevant. The good news with a variety of formats you can reach all of your leaders. You have to choose to move away from ineffective means of training, and maybe try something new. Don’t get stuck in a power struggle over meeting attendance. Take it to them.
How are you effectively training your leaders? Leave your comments below.
Excerpt from Leading Healthy Groups By Allen White Copyright (c) 2018.
I suppose if you’re going to lead a healthy small group, it would be a good idea to know what a healthy one looks like. Plenty of examples come to mind of unhealthy groups — groups where one member dominates the discussion; groups that have great Bible studies, but don’t live out what they’ve learned; groups that become unto themselves and never attempt to reach others; and groups that just hang out, but really don’t ever move in any direction. But, our focus is on health, not the opposite.
Healthy groups fully accept every member.
Every person matters to God and should matter to your group. Some group members might be a little rough around the edges or challenging to meet with, but none are less important or more important than anyone else. God has a reason for putting them in your group. Groups have to accept people where they are, because they can’t accept them anywhere else, can they? Acceptance is communicated through listening and giving equal time. Acceptance is expressed through intentionally getting to know those who are different from you instead of instantly gravitating toward those you are fonder of. Jesus directed groups this way, when he said, “Love one another” (John 13:34) and “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Jesus modeled this in who he associated with: tax collectors like Matthew; sinners like adulterers and bad hand washers; Samaritans who were racially different; and many others who the religious establishment looked down upon. Acceptance is one of the most precious gifts any person can give another. Healthy groups accept others.
Healthy groups center themselves on God’s Word, the Bible.
One of the key purposes of a healthy group is to become more like Christ. Every group has three powerful resources at their disposal to grow in Christlikeness: the Bible, the Spirit, and the group. Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). This transformation takes place through each person’s willingness to surrender, the direction of Scripture, the power of the Spirit, and the support of the group. These ideas will be more thoroughly explained in Chapter 5. Regardless of the type of group you lead, these elements are essential for healthy groups to make disciples.
Healthy groups are serious about helping their members grow.
(and group members are open to receiving help). This could involve encouragement and support to start a good habit or break a bad one. This can also involve confronting sin in the lives of their members. For most people, encouragement is much more appealing that confrontation. While the group should accept people as they are, the group should also love them enough not to leave them there. As the group grows in their relationship with others and their relationship with God, the group cannot shy away from hard things. Healthy groups are serious about help.
Healthy groups live like Jesus was serious about what he said.
When Jesus told his disciples that out of 633 laws in Scripture only two rose above the rest: love God and love others (Matthew 22:37-39), he intended for his followers to love God and love others above all else. Jesus wants his followers today to treat “the least of these – the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, and others who lack basic needs” as if they were serving Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46). While taking all of Scripture into account, Jesus wants his disciples to surrender themselves to God and live life in a selfless way. He wants his followers to “go and make disciples,” baptize them, and teach them to obey all Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). What if these weren’t just suggestions for better living? What if these weren’t merely nice platitudes where you could hit a mental “like” button? What if Jesus was serious about what he said? What if he expects his followers to actually do it? Obeying Jesus is a sign of group health.
Healthy groups are on mission.
The group is not just about itself. Groups members should constantly seek out people they and the group can serve. Who is the next person to invite? What neighbor needs help? Where can the group serve together locally or globally? Sometimes the greatest coping strategy for dealing with life’s woes is to focus on someone other than you. When groups align their mission with Jesus’ mission, they benefit from walking in obedience to Jesus’ commands. They benefit those who they serve. But, most of all, they benefit themselves with not only the blessing of obedience, but with a new depth of understanding God’s teaching through their experiences.
Healthy groups multiply.
This is not a popular topic among small groups in North American culture where groups want to stay together forever. I both understand and respect that desire. It’s natural to form a bond and “keep the family together.” But, it’s supernatural to think of others and the groups they will need. I don’t mean to sound spooky, but our connection to God is supernatural. His guidance through prayer and the Bible is supernatural. This makes identifying and developing new leaders possible. This causes hearts to change in favor of every disciple making disciples. To reach the world, and especially the next generation, this sort of selflessness is required. Every group should seek God about its direction and its future.
Your group may find other values in addition to these that you desire to integrate into your group life. You can certainly add these to your Group Agreement. But, don’t replace any of the priorities mentioned here.
That’s a lot to think about. These are things to focus on and strive toward. The accomplishment of all of these things will take a lifetime. But, on the other hand, nothing will ever be accomplished if you don’t start today. Today is both the culmination of what your life has become and the first step toward what you life will be. Your group is a big part of that.
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By Allen White
In conversations with small group pastors from some of the largest small group ministries in the country, I’ve learned that many have completely given up on coaching group leaders. Others are on the other extreme and hire coaches. Whether your approach is the “phone-a-friend” method or the metachurch model, here are some reasons coaching is significant.
More Group Leaders Will Quit BEFORE a Study Begins that After.
From the moment someone offers to be a Leader/Host/Friend and start a group, they need a coach. I have seen more potential group leaders stall between the invitation to lead and the start of the study than at any point in the process. Most groups who actually do the first study or first semester will continue on, but groups that fail to start tend to not continue.
It is mission critical for a leader to have a coach from when they say “Yes,” until the end of the study. You may ask, “But, what about the rest of our group leaders?” Here’s the deal, if your other groups have survived without a coach, put that on the back burner and start coaching your new leaders now.
People Hate Meetings.
You’re probably frustrated that your group leaders don’t show up for your training. The short of it is people simply hate meetings, especially when the topics don’t affect them. How do you train your leaders if they won’t come to meetings? Coach them.
Rather than coaches being your spies or your report-takers, have the coaches train the group leaders on what the leaders actually need training on. It’s not cookie cutter. It’s customized to what the leader is currently facing. If you are answering the questions your leaders are asking, then they will become very interested in training. But, what is training?
What if training, especially on-going training, is not a note sheet and a PowerPoint presentation? Training could be a short video emailed out to your leaders. Training could be a short conversation. Training could be solving a current problem. Training should come from the coach.
But, if the coaches do the training, what do small group pastors/ directors do? Train the coaches and build a small group team. By working at a higher level in your small group structure, you can have a greater impact and get much further faster.
You Can’t Successfully Coach More than 8 Leaders Yourself.
Why eight? That’s my number. I tried to coach 30 leaders once. There’s wasn’t much coaching going on. What I discovered is eight is great. In a church under 1,000 adults, your eight might be your coaches or small group team. In a church over 1,000 adults, your eight is definitely a small group team. Just follow the pattern Jethro gave Moses in Exodus 18.
Let’s face it – most small group pastors/ directors wear more hats than just small group ministry. If that’s the case with you, then you certainly can’t coach all of your leaders by yourself. Consider your best and brightest leaders. Could they coach? Let them give it a try.
But, there’s a much bigger reason to invest in coaching – you won’t always have as many groups as you currently have. You’re going to have more! How are you going to serve your group leaders when you have twice as many as you have now? It happened to me in one day! Plan for where you want your groups to grow. Recruit coaches even before you recruit leaders!
Coaching will make all of the difference in both starting and supporting group leaders. No doubt building a coaching structure is the hardest work of small group ministry.
The only thing harder is not having one.