When I walked in to Capital City Church on Saturday, something happened that I never expected. People talked to me. I don’t just mean that I was greeted when I walked in the door. Three people made a distinct effort to engage me in significant conversation while I was hanging out in the lobby or sitting in my seat.
And it wasn’t just me. Kelly, one of the NCCers I was with, said that she had ten people come talk to her throughout the course of the event. These people weren’t necessarily part of their staff or hospitality team.
They’ve been doing something that I’ve been dreaming of for the past eight months. Engaging people in a large-group setting is key to helping them get involved with a life-changing community.
Capital City Church has created a culture of hospitality. I was incredibly impressed.
One of the guys who struck up a conversation with me was Harrison, their Executive Pastor who also oversees their assimilation strategy. I just e-mailed him hoping to set up a meeting. I’d love to pick their brains about how they made this a part of their DNA.
Rest assured, if I do get the chance to meet with them about this, I’ll report back here.
Stories like this are why you should join a small group.
Huge thanks to Andy Pisciotti for filming and editing this inside of a crazy 36 hours. Thanks to Leo, Edgar, Jessica, Mel, Bianca, Mark, Ashtan, and Tara for sharing their stories. And of course, thank you to my lovely wife Rachel for letting nine people and video equipment invade our house on a random Tuesday night.
I love the small group leaders at National Community Church. They’re passionate individuals who are making a difference in our city.
For the past few semesters we’ve had a group called Living in the Tension led by Jill Carmichael and Carmel Pryor that’s focused not just on study but also on service. Right now they’re gearing up for their second HIV/AIDS related event.
They’re screening The Other City to raise awareness about the epidemic that is HIV/AIDS in Washington DC. You might be surprised to learn that somewhere between 3-5% of the population of DC has HIV/AIDS, rivaling some African countries.
They’re also actively working to combat the epidemic by offering free HIV/AIDS testing.
They’ll be at Harriet Tubman Elementary School (3101 13th St. NW DC) starting at 8 PM this Saturday. Come on by and check it out. Questions about the event? Take a look at their Facebook page.
A couple of days ago I was considering handing over leadership of my small group to one of the group members. As I was considering what nuggets of wisdom (such as I have) to convey to the new leader, the statement, “You’re leading people not a group,” popped into my head.
The importance of that statement struck me. It got me thinking about how I’m serving the people in my group, about how I’m helping them develop their faith.
Leading a small group isn’t about making sure that people get together for a weekly discussion. It’s not about sitting in a circle and chatting, discussing, or debating. Leading small groups is about caring for, connecting, discipling, and teaching people. It’s about helping people grow closer to one another and closer to God.
The “group,” the officially organized and named entity, is really irrelevant. It exists only to serve people.
I may be guilty of focusing on the group over the people more often than most. Charged with creating opportunities for discipleship and community through small groups, I sometimes fall into the trap of being more concerned about whether a group itself lives or dies than what is best for the people in the group.
Whether you’re leading a small group or directing a small group ministry, never forget that groups are about and for people, and they’re otherwise meaningless.
I lead a small group that meets at 7:30 am on Friday mornings for liturgical prayer. I know. I know. You just can’t wait for us to start meeting again this summer so you can join.
Sounds like the least fun you could possibly have, right?
Wrong. We laugh, a lot. Every week after we finish praying we just end up laughing hysterically. Bob, one of our group members, could have been a professional comedian. At our last meeting we actually started laughing before we prayed, and I eventually had to shut it down so we could pray.
On Wednesday nights I lead a theology discussion group. We’ve been covering the basics this spring, and over the summer we’re planning to dive in to the theology of Hell.
I know what you’re thinking. Two small groups? Liturgical prayer and theology? Of Hell? Really? Will must be the most boring guy at the party.
I present as Exhibit A this picture of Mel from a recent get-together at my place. Yes, those are Bugles on her fingers, and yes, the last time you stuck bugles on your fingers was when you were seven.
Or what about my good friend Leo. Here you see a picture of Leo… holding a skewer… with a barbequed chicken leg stuck on the end of it. Leo is explaining Fogo de Chao to people who haven’t been. We were laughing so hard it hurt (proof below).
When God created us He designed us to be in community. I haven’t done any advanced Biblical analysis to back this up, but I’m convinced God didn’t just intend for community to be this intense experience of theological study and sharing our deepest sins. Studies are important. Prayer is essential. Accountability, transparency, and openness are musts.
But you have to have fun too. Laughter builds community. People want to enjoy one another.
I think one of the keys to these groups’ success, especially the prayer group, is that we laugh together and genuinely like each other.
The next time you’re evaluating your small group, ask yourself this: When was the last time we laughed?
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What we want to do today is hopefully switch gears a little bit and talk about how things practically work out in the trenches for us. That’s the idea behind this session.
We’ve gotten a lot of questions from you and pared them down into four basic categories, and we’ll answer those questions. Before we do that we’re going to lay some foundation for how small groups serve as the catalyst for local mission in your church.
I went to church until I was 12-13 years old and then the church split. I decided that I’d do anything except be on staff at a church, but God brought me to a little church called Homestead Heights Baptist. They showed me what it meant to love one another. That church became the Summit Church, and I’m on staff there. I love the church and am passionate about the church and believe that healthy church life is possible.
I’m on staff at Advance 21. I never had any idea growing up that church could be good. I didn’t understand the Gospel walking out of there. I grew up with a guy who was a hurricane planner. He called me a couple of years ago and told me he briefed the President, and no one grows up thinking I’m going to be a hurricane planner. No one grows up thinking they’re going to be a community groups pastor. Most of us just fall into this role.
What does it look like to have Biblical community. We have to focus on making disciples who make disciples. I think we have to agree on some level what that mission is. We can disagree in a thousand different ways, but at the core of what Jesus wants us to do is make disciples who make disciples.
I had to start at the source, God. God himself is community. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, perfectly united community. In the restoration process of bringing us back to Him, we became community as well. God trusts, shares mission, etc. I dare say all of those attributes of God are how we want our groups to look.
As we know God and are being transformed by God, we become this community. We are becoming community rather than just creating it. Acts 2:44-45 is quoted a lot in relation to community. We’d love to see this happen in our groups, but what had just happened? The Spirit was sent on them to boldly proclaim the Gospel. The Spirit was at work. People were being saved and it was drawing folks together.
Where does proper organization come into this?
Some would say it will just happen as the Spirit moves, but I think that in Scripture we see that we need to administrate and bring order to things.
I would say that what Taylor’s articulated is that vision of where do we want the church to be. I bet if we talk around the table, I’d be deeply encouraged by your dream of where your church is going. What I’m about to tell you is how to move from seeing where you want to go to getting there.
You’ve got this vision of where you want to go. Next step is to start thinking through a strategy. How do you want to get there? You want to see that group embody the mission of the church. The strategy piece is how are you going to get there.
Now, the frustrating caveat: Church growth is messy. It’s not formulaic. It’s organic. It’s relational in nature. Trying to formulate a process for something that tries to buck against a formula is frustrating.
Most of you have already decided on your overall strategy.
What you’re trying to figure out now is how do we move those groups from where they are to the mission of the church.
To get to that place is we need to define what we want a group to be. I know that might feel Pharisaical, but Alan Hirsch already had that conversation already.
So you tell your 50+ hour a week job small group leader that you want his group to be more missional. Great, what does that mean? Can you tell me your strategy for how your groups will move onto mission in one sentence, and does that sentence make sense.
Here’s what we said, small group, we want you to identify a pocket of people you can intentially engage with the Gospel. For my group, there’s three: A particular Starbucks one of my guys works at, Earthfair, and pregnancy support services. Those are three pockets right now we’re trying to work in and we’re praying about. We don’t all go to all of them, but we’re praying.
Is it clear and identifiable how you’re going to get there, especially when you’re multisite or you get bigger, it has to be simple so that the trickle-down gets there.
Execution, what are the next steps we’re going to take to get there. Who on your pastoral team do you need to talk to? If you’re the only guy, that’s easy. But if you’re on a team of 5, who else do you need to talk to? If whoever is speaking from the pulpit doesn’t embody your mission, you’re fighting an uphill battle.
If you’re making your small groups the source of your mission, what are you going to de-emphasize? We had to say no to a bunch of other things. Did the missions team get mad when we started emphasizing small groups.
What’s the execution? Maybe that’s the next thing you need to do when you need to leave. What are the next three steps.
Last step, evaluation. Is this thing we tried actually working?
Seems like leadership development is a huge part of running a small group ministry? How do you handle it? How do you embed mission into it?
SS: This is where church planting as a small group ministry comes in. I’ve made 3 big mistakes as a small group pastor. The first one is I read a book that told me to split a group when it gets big. I started doing that. Here’s what I found. Somebody imported that from South Korea where it worked well. In our culture real relationships are becoming more scarce. So when people actually break through to real community, they latch onto it and value it. So I’d come in like the Darth Vader of small group ministry and slice through it making two smaller groups. So I went back to the drawing board and we decided that unhealthy churches split. Maybe that’s what unhealthy small groups split. Healthy churches plant new churches. Healthy families don’t split. Healthy families raise children to send them out and make new families. Maybe that’s what healthy small groups do. We ask, “Could we see a healthy small group planted in your neighborhood one year from today?” And this is training guys to be church planters. This is another way you are tapping into that sent mentality.
TR: Part of that question was about where do we find those leaders. Here’s what we do. We make sure that all of our community group leaders and coaches are members. We make sure that people are on the same page. It also gives us a very clear pipeline. As much as we’d love to have everyone raised up within a group to plant groups, but sometimes we need leaders faster than that, so we’ll ask for people to lead, but we make sure they’re members. I’d also say this, if you’re developing elders and deacons, it’s a great development tool to put them into positions of small group leadership. Prayer has to be central for looking for leaders. Ask God to surprise you with people interested in leading. I’d invite you to do that, to pray to the Lord to give you leaders.
What are the responsibilities of a small group pastor/point person?
Beat the small group drum – if it’s not going to be you, appoint someone else. Everywhere you can, beat the small groups drum
Equipping – training small group leaders
Evaluate – celebrating, appreciating, quality control
Recruiting new leaders.
Supporting – how are they providing ongoing pastoral care and support
If small groups are doing well, then how does that change or does that change the function and purpose of the weekend services?
Hopefully healthy small group life greatly enhances what your corporate worship gathering looks like. Hopefully that’s creating a whole heightened sense of worship and community. This isn’t where people just come to be smacked with Jesus. If they’re growing disciples, they’re going to be much better attuned to what is happened.
What do you expect of small group leaders, and what do you expect a small to actually look like?
TR: Many of us desire to begin with the end in mind, and that’s not a bad idea. But often in an attempt to bring order into chaos, we attempt to control things and define exactly what things should look like. What we’ve found at Vintage 21 was that when I was doing that I was not recognizing what God was doing in them. Everything had to start with me. Everyone looked at me. I was the bottleneck. So then I swung the pendulum to the other side and became too loose. So I started asking, what are the healthy parameters. So I started to ask, where do you feel like you lack clarity? It doesn’t mean they’re always right, but they’ll surprise you with their answer.
SS: We’re probably 70% on the job training, 30% classroom. We do a gathered training 2x/year. We’ve started to do some online training.
What do you do when the small group blows up and all of the sudden it’s 25 people?
SS: We’re faced with that pretty regularly. Usually when that many people come to a small group it’s because of a great leader. I’ll work with the group leader to find if there’s someone else who can plant now. Sometimes well do a multiplication split and it works out well. That’s the minority, but it happens.
How do you measure spiritual growth in groups?
TR: Fruit of the Spirit
At NCC we have three leadership summits each year. They’re 3-4 hour events for our small group and ministry leaders where we cast vision, provide training, worship, and celebrate wins. We typically produce them entirely in-house, but this year we decided to bring in some outside voices who could speak to our leaders in a fresh way.
For our spring summit we brought in Dr. Bill Donahue, former head of group life for Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Assocation. Dr. Donahue has a BA from Princeton, an MA from Dallas Seminary, and a PhD from the University of North Texas. Prior to joining the ministry he worked for Proctor and Gamble and PNC Bank.
He spoke to our leaders on the need to raise up others into leadership. Here are my unedited notes from his talk:
There is a crying need for ongoing leadership. It’s not an arrogant thing or we need to be the leaders, but it seems that God has prioritized leadership/shepherding.
But what happens is, people begin to say, wow, this is hard. So I began to brainstorm, what keeps leaders from sharing their leadership.
What begins to happen if I give up control? If I give up control, it might stop working. There’s fear of a loss of control, sometimes that’s for right reasons and sometimes it’s a control issue. There’s a risk there. But if anyone should have held onto control was Jesus, but he passed it on even though he knew they were going to bumble around a bit.
If I give away leadership, what if they’re better than me. It’s an insecurity issue. I love John 14:12 – Greater things than this will you do because I go. Think about that for a moment. Greater things? Than Jesus? Dead-raising, it doesn’t have to be a long list. Maybe it’s greater in scope. Maybe Jesus is like a boulder dropped into a lake. He made a huge impact, but we’re the ripples that reach the shore.
Ego gets in the way. John Vanye – Community is the place where ego comes to die. You have John the Baptist, he must increase, but I must decrease. It is fun to be in the spotlight. I played football at Princeton, not very well, injured most of the time. My training regimen of late nights and beer probably didn’t help. Sometimes when you want to shine, you end up failing in front of a lot of people. And then you don’t want to step back out. So you ask someone, and they don’t want to step back out because of insecurity.
Sometimes you think you don’t have anything to teach. But Gerald May says how you view yourself really has very little to do with who you are. It’s God who makes you adequate
Fear of failure, what if I pick the wrong person?
A sense of short supply or shortsightedness. I’d pick somebody, but I don’t see anyone around. I don’t think that’s true, but there’s this perception that they’re just not ready yet.
A plain old unwillingness, we say, there are people out there, but they just aren’t willing to step up.
The list could go on, but there are afew things that hold us back.
When the how doesn’t work or the what isn’t clear, I can come back to the why. Why do we share leadership?
There’s a pattern of it in Scripture. Jethro tells Moses in Exodus 18 to setup a leadership structure to allow others to share in the responsibility. There’s Elijah and Elisha. Jesus chose the twelve to be with him and send them out. The twelve raised up people to serve the widows.
It’s essential for the health of any community. When leadership resides in a lone person, there’s danger to it. We’re weak and broken people, and we can mess up. David Gergen when reflecting on the four presidents he served under said that a leader with character without capacity is weak but a leader with capacity without character is dangerous.
It shifts a focus off the few to the many. It’s a flatter church, a flatter organization. Heirarchy can have a role in places, but it’s dangerous if it’s very narrow.
If you begin to share leadership in your culture, this is not an assistant. An apprentice does what you do. An assistant does what you don’t want to do. It takes away that hierarchical you’re helping me get my leadership done to I’m helping you get your leadership done.
Go back to one of your first leadership experiences. Doesn’t have to be church. What was the first time you were in a leadership role and you were conscious of it. How did that feel to you? How did it go?
One of the things that I do when someone has some hesitancy to step into leadership is go back to when I was there, when I wasn’t sure I would do well or when I failed.
Identifying and engaging emerging leaders is work and skill.
What are you looking for?
A learner, someone who wants to grow. Every now and again I’ll ask someone to be a leader, and they’re like, it’s about time. Suddenly we have a lot more hesitancy about their leadership. This versus someone who is hesitant and unsure. Don’t worry about the person who says no the first time. They could be the next Moses. It might not be the right time. They might not be ready yet. You need the courage to grow in your leadership to make another ask. How many asks was that? One? You’re done? Pray, stay connected, you’ll see another opportunity to ask.
Where do you find leaders? I really don’t know. I would look for leaders and not find them. I’m not good at looking for leaders. People are easy. I can find them. If you’re looking for a leader, it may be hard to find one.
But if you’re looking for some people who might be open to leading, you can find them. I don’t even ask them to lead. I just ask them to help me, maybe help me brainstorm some ideas. It’s not hidden necessarily, but it is a bit subtle and subterranean. This person may find some joy in beginning to help lead. Can you help me? We will plan together.
The first time I saw a leader when I hadn’t seen one was a really quiet guy in one of our groups. Whenever he spoke, everyone would listen. He had great insights. But I didn’t think “leader.” We had coffee and he told me he sometimes thought about the group. I broached the subject of “leader,” and he withdrew. I went to promise keepers with some guys, and he was one of them. We started a mens group, but there was no “leader.” But suddenly Steve was asking probing questions, directing the group to pray. What I realized was it’s about getting alongside of people in a process.
Some of you may have great discernment gifts and can figure this out easier, but me and I think a lot of others do it by trial and error. Some people may need a bolder ask. Maybe that guy doesn’t need to be in three softball leagues.
Invite people into a relationship, not a role. Join me, let’s do something together.
You’re looking for people who are willing to learn, not people who see autonomy as the ultimate goal. Becoming autonomous is not the ultimate goal. The Bible says that interdependence is when you’ve arrived. When the hand needs the eye. You don’t want people who feel like they’re all of it.
Love – When I’ve worked with people, the first thing, especially in a group, is I want the apprentice or the aspiring leader, even if they don’t know it, is give them someone to love. Henry Nouwen says service is love. The main problem of service is to be the way without being in the way. I there are skills to be learned, they are primarily to serve getting out of the way.
Learn – Give them something to learn. Ask them to stay five minutes after the group and to give me feedback on my leadership. Then when they start to lead, I’ll give them feedback. Experience plus feedback is the best way to learn.
Lead – Give them time to lead. It’s okay if they fail. Learn to give leadership away. Don’t hold it tight Early on in the apprenticing process is to give them the value of passing things on. Say to them: Hey, why don’t you start praying about a shared leadership experience? Who can you pass things on to?
I want to ask you a couple of questions. We’ve been talking about government shutdown in our culture. We don’t have to worry about shutdown, except… but we’ll come to that. We have a great policy manual in Scripture. We know our values.
Jesus says to his followers that the harvest is there, we need laborers. So pray, beseech, ask, the Lord of the harvest to go out. God will create in you a Romans 16 legacy where Paul describes his ministry relationships: Pheobe, a deacon; Priscilla and Aquilla, who risked their lives for Paul; Appenitus, the first follower of Christ in Asia; Mary who worked for your benefit; Adronicus and Judica who were in prison with him…
It’s not a prideful thing. It’s just that one day you get to write a Romans 16 list. It’s not a prideful thing. My impact is limited by the number of people I can touch and invest in.
Henrietta Meers started a Bible study at 6 AM on UCLA’s campus, some people on her Romans 16 list: Bill Brighton, Campus Crusade for Christ; Senate Chaplain Halverson; Billy Graham
Small groups at NCC are becoming more popular. It’s a bit anecdotal, but it seems that this spring a lot of our groups filled up very quickly, leaving me scrambling to find places to help people connect.
Generally what happens is a group gets to 17 or so people and the leader realizes they can’t really fit any more people than that in their living room, much less actually lead them, so they e-mail me and tell me that they have to close their group. They just can’t take any more people, I’ll need to send them somewhere else. Hopefully there is somewhere else to send them…
When groups don’t close, they’ll reach 20, 25, even 40 people, and most often one of two things happens: the group multiplies… or it shrinks.
The ideal small group size is probably somewhere in the eight to fourteen range. Once you get too much bigger than that people begin to feel disconnected, and the leader is stretched too thin. People don’t tend to stick around
So, problem solved you say? The group started at 20 but people drifted away and it’s a manageable 12. Great!
Or maybe not so much. I guess it would be great if everyone who left got connected somewhere else, either in a small group or just an informal Christ-centered community, but I’m not so sure that’s what actually happens.
I think it probably goes something more like this:
Jenny moves to town and looks for a church. She finds National Community Church and decides to stick around. In January they start talking about small groups, saying that they’re a great way to get involved, grow in your faith, and develop friendships, not superficial ones either. They’re saying you can have real community in these small group things.
So Jenny picks up a copy of the Group Directory and browses through. She emails James who leads a study on Ephesians. Hmm, that one’s full. How about this women’s group led by Jane. Oh, that one’s full too. Okay, there’s a book discussion group that Mary leads. “There’s space in your group? Great! I’ll be there Wednesday at 7.”
Jenny picks up a copy of Francis Chan’s Crazy Love at Barnes and Noble and reads the introduction before coming to the group. She shows up a few minutes early and waits outside, not wanting to seem too eager.
She heads inside just a couple of minutes after 7, and there are already half a dozen people chatting. She introduces herself, and everyone seems nice. It looks like they’ve known each other for a while, but they seem genuinely glad she came.
A minute later Tom walks in, and then Tracy comes after him. Jack and Carol and their kids Tommy and Sarah show up. And then Jim, or was it Tim? And Jim or Tim’s wife can’t make it tonight, but she’ll be here next week.
And then a few more people show up who she doesn’t quite get the chance to meet, but it seems like some of them are new. Jenny is glad she arrived early so at least she could meet people in smaller groups and not walk in to so many total strangers.
It’s time for group to begin so everyone gathers in the living room. It’s a bit tight. Some people are sitting on the floor, one’s on the arm of the couch. Poor Jim/Tim can’t seem to get the host’s black lab to stop licking his face.
Everyone goes around the room and says their name and where they grew up and their favorite color of M&M, which just confuses Jenny.
Mary begins to ask questions about the book, but Jenny has trouble hearing her on the other side of the room. Jack says something about how God’s love is universal, but Tracy says that she believes in limited atonement. Another girl chimes in. What was her name again. Shoot.
Once the discussion time is over, Mary asks if anyone has any prayer requests. Someone mentions that their uncle is sick. Mary says she’s trying to close on a new house… maybe this one will fit all of these people.
After the group people hang around for a few minutes. Jenny doesn’t really end up talking to anyone, but she overhears Mary and another long-time member discussing how the group is always big at the beginning of a semester but dies down after a few weeks. New people just don’t seem to stick around.
Jenny decides to come back a couple more times but doesn’t really feel like she’s getting to know anyone. It seems like some people have those deep relationships she heard about in church, but she doesn’t seem to be finding them. Ah well, Modern Family is on Wednesday nights, and that’s a pretty funny show. Might as well stay in.
It’s just a story. I made it up, but I think it’s an all too common experience. So what else can be done? How can we help people get connected and stay connected. How can we help them develop those meaningful relationships that we talk about in sermons? Well, stay tuned, more on that later.