Archives For Mark Howell

21st century cityscape

When we woke up this morning, we woke up to a very different world than our parents lived in. Truth be told, we actually woke up to a rapidly changing culture. As we step deeper into the 21st Century there are some things you need to know about how cultural changes impact small group ministry. Wise leaders will be paying attention as culture changes.

  1. Biblical literacy is a distant memory in almost every setting. This reality must be anticipated in leader training, in the design or selection of curriculum, and in the development of the group experience. Continuing to operate as if everyone knows even the people, places and events of the Bible (let alone its meaning) is already the trademark of hopelessly out of touch ministries.
  2. The expectation that the Church provides something essential is rapidly decreasing. This is an important understanding. All of the research points to the changing belief about the Church. Worse than disagreement with beliefs or practices is the sense that the Church is irrelevant.
  3. “I am a spiritual person” is growing; “I am a Christian” is declining. A correlation noted in…

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x's and o'sWhen the HOST strategy was introduced by Saddleback in 2002 during the launch of 40 Days of Purpose it truly was a game-changing innovation. The idea that the senior pastor could challenge members of the congregation who had a heart for unconnected people to open up their home for 6 weeks, serve a simple snack, and turn on their VCR–and the results would be nothing short of miraculous–well, it was an amazing idea.

13 years later it is still a powerfully effective strategy. It’s also a strategy that is often misunderstood (and poorly implemented) by many.

And I’d hate for you to be one that misunderstands or poorly implements this powerful strategy.

Here are 7 things you should know about the HOST strategy:

  1. The HOST strategy connects the friends, neighbors, co-workers and family of the people who say yes to hosting a group. Because the host is gathering their own group (and you’re not assigning members to the new groups), there is usually less concern about the qualifications of the host.
  2. The HOST strategy is not an effective way to connect large numbers of unconnected people in your congregation (and crowd) who do not…

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I’ve noticed that there is a short list of small group ministry moves that can be toxic. They often seem harmless. They don’t look dangerous. But they can cause great damage.

Here are a 5 toxic small group ministry moves:

  1. Switching to a different small group model, system or strategy…again. There are several main models or systems and versions of each. Whether you call it Idea fatigue or shiny object syndrome, switching models can be toxic. You may have just read a very good book or attended a conference that made a different model sound better, but when you choose a system you need to commit to it for 3 years. And by that, I mean you need to pursue it head long for 3 years.
  2. Assigning coaches to experienced group leaders…again. Retroactively assigning coaches to experienced leaders almost never works. It often permanently sours the coach and almost always is rejected by the small group leader like a bad organ transplant. Fortunately, it is possible to provide care for experienced leaders with a little finesse and wisdom.
  3. Springing required curriculum on groups. Whether it happens as a result of a last minute inspiration on the part of your senior pastor…

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quitThere are a number of reasons that small group leaders quit. While some quit for good reasons, most quit for reasons that are completely avoidable.

Here are what I believe are the top 5 reasons:

  1. They aren’t being developed and discipled by a coach. This is probably the most common reason small group leaders quit. If someone (a coach or mentor) isn’t investing in them, it is unreasonable to think that the average leader will continue for long. While there will always be exceptional leaders who are essentially self-motivated, they are by definition the exceptions to the rule. Intentional investment in your leaders will overcome this very common reason for quitting. See also, Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciples Leaders.
  2. No one in their group is sharing the load. Some small group leaders don’t know any better and have never been coached to share the load with the members of their group. Others come naturally by misplaced pride that “since they do everything better than everyone else”…they can’t really let go of anything. Both patterns ultimately lead to burnout; both patterns lead to pent up frustrations that they…

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everything libraryThere are many things you need to know about small group models, systems and strategies. Too many to include in a single article!

Here are three very important things to know (and links to other key posts on this topic):

First, every small group model, system or strategy comes with a unique set of advantages and disadvantages. I like to say, “there are no problem-free small group models, systems or strategies.” That said, be prepared to acknowledge that there is an upside and a downside to every model.

If you like the semester model, don’t overlook the challenge of confirming which leaders will commit for the next semester and what they will study…early enough to assemble your catalog of available groups. If you like the cell group model, don’t turn a blind eye to the reality that groups don’t always birth new groups fast enough to absorb the number of unconnected people in your congregation. If you like the campaign-driven strategy, be prepared for messy. See also, Breaking: No Problem-Free Small Group System, Model or Strategy.

Second, the model you choose should be predetermined by what you hope to accomplish. Before…

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ideasYou might be thinking, “We don’t have time for anything complicated, but we really need to help a new wave of people get connected!” If that’s you…here’s some help!

5 Quick Ideas that Will Connect More People This Fall

  1. Plan a small group connection. Pick an appealing small group study. Pick a convenient day and time. Promote the connection 3 weekends in a row. It’s just about that simple. The study you choose determines who will attend. The process itself is designed to identify leaders at every table. You’ll find plenty of detail in How to Launch Groups Using a Small Group Connection.
  2. Plan a 6 week on-campus study that leads to an off-campus group. Choose a study that will grab the attention of a select group of people (i.e., Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage). If you have more than one group you’d like to target, choose the perfect study for each target (i.e., couples, men, women, etc.). Choose a convenient night and time when you have available on-campus space. Arrange child-care. Promote the study 3 weeks in a row. You’ll find additional details in Take Advantage…

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bullseyeIf your church is like mine, your mission or vision or purpose probably includes some aspect of the Great Commission. Many of us have even gone a step further and proclaimed that we are in the business of making disciples and we’ll know we are succeeding when we make some amount of more and better disciples.

So…if we’re all trying to hit the same target, why are so many of our discipleship strategies missing the mark?

Any theories? I have a few and before you think I believe I have it all together, I’m actually guilty of a few of these myself!

Here are 6 reasons our discipleship strategies miss the mark:

  1. We don’t actually have a strategy. We really have more of a theology of wishful thinking. We spend time planning everything from our weekend services and special events to staff retreats and the updated vacation policy, but we don’t get around to developing a discipleship strategy. In the place of a strategy we are hopeful. I love this line from Winston Churchill. “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”  If you don’t like your results, change the strategy….

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smoky carMost of us quickly recognize the signs that there is something wrong with the way our car’s engine sounds or feels. When our car dies at the stop light or backfires as we drop off our teenage daughter at school…we get it. There’s something wrong with the engine. We may not know what it is but we know it’s time for a tune up.

But do you know the signs your small group ministry is due for a tune up?

5 signs your small group ministry is due for a tune up:

  1. You never need to start new groups because there’s always room in your existing groups. This is a serious sign that your small group ministry needs a tune up. It’s a problem for two reasons. First, the hardest place for a new member to connect is in an existing group where relationships are already established. The easiest place for a new member to connect is in a group where everyone is new. Second, small group leaders (and members) of existing groups need to learn to “fish” for new members. See also, Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups…

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questionsThere are several foundational questions that must be asked and answered in order to determine what your small group ministry will look like.  Think every small group ministry has the same end in mind?  You might be surprised.  Alan Kay pointed out that “Point of view (or perspective) is worth 80 IQ points.”  Spending sufficient time wrestling these questions to the ground will help clarify many things before you even get started.  Or at least, before you build the next layer.  See also, Avoid These Four Realities at Your Own Peril.

The way these questions are answered should play a role in how your ministry is designed.  And the design of your ministry absolutely determines the results you should anticipate.  See also, 7 Signs You Have a Bad Design for Small Group Ministry.

  1. What need(s) do people have that might best be met by a small group?  Which of these needs would be seen as most pressing?  Which of these needs could be met in the same small group?  While there may be some overlap in your answers and mine, your answers should define your direction.
  2. What will have to be…

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face in the crowd

To reach people no one else is reaching we must do things no one else is doing.”

That was the line I heard from Craig Groeschel at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit in 2008. I remember where I was sitting in the Bayside Community Church auditorium when I heard the line. I can’t tell you anything else I heard at the Leadership Summit that year, but I’ll never forget that single line.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one rocked by the line. Andy Stanley referenced it in a memorable Drive Conference session. You can listen to him recount its impact right here: What no one else is doing.

“To reach people no one else is reaching we must do things no one else is doing.” If there was ever an idea that was self-evident, that was and is one.

To connect people no one else is connecting

When I heard the line, it was only a short leap to rearrange it this way:

To connect people no one else is connecting, we must do things no one else is doing.”

And like Groeschel’s original line, what this means is that simply improving what we’re already…

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growth redwoodsI am convinced that whatever we want to happen in the lives of the members of our groups must happen first in the lives of our leaders. If you’ve been along for much of this conversation, you’ve already heard this. I suppose you might even be sick of hearing about it (hopefully not).

I’m also convinced that this principle extends upstream to indicate that whatever you want to happen in the lives of your leaders must happen first in the lives of your coaches and ultimately, what is happening in the life of the small group pastor makes possible the kinds of life-changing experiences happening at the member level.  See also, The Most Important Contribution of the Small Group Pastor and Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Your Leaders.

If it’s true that what happens in the life of the small group pastor ultimately impacts and affects what happens at the member level of our groups…it makes sense that we would pay attention to our own personal growth. That’s why I was very pleased to see 5 questions on our new staff evaluation tool at…

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transparentQuestion: How transparent should I be as a small group leader? Should I share my struggles with the group? Or should I seek to be an example to my group?

This is a good question, don’t you think? Isn’t it the internal debate that every leader has?

In my post, 8 Habits of Life-Changing Small Group Leaders, I point out several interrelated habits that I believe must be cultivated by every small group leader.

First, small group leaders need to make time with God a daily priority.  A regular and ongoing conversation with God adds an essential ingredient to spiritual growth. Spending consistent time with God, reading His word and praying, are not elective activities. Jesus modeled this essential habit. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Mark 1:35 NIV

Second, small group leaders need to follow the best example and offer a good example. The Apostle Paul urged the members of the church in Corinth to “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1 NIV).” This is an…

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