Friday, September 29, 2006

FAQ: What's the deal with non-linear discipleship?

We have 2 basic goals at NCC: plug into a small group and plug into a ministry. We had over 75 groups during the Fall 2006 semester that allowed NCCers opportunities to get plugged into disciple-making relationships. Our small groups are great for helping people take the next step in their faith.

But last year, we began to talk about the need for a discipleship map of some sort. We felt like we needed to give people a little more guidance than just "get involved in a small group." A brand new believer in Christ doesn't necessarily need to be in a year-long inductive study on the book of Romans. And someone who has been following Christ for 30 years may not be challenged the most by reading Purpose Driven Life.

I had to answer 2 questions:
  • What do NCCers need to know and do?
  • What environments, processes and programs do we need to create to facilitate that learning and growing process?

I went into this process with 2 basic parameters. Number one, I did not want to develop a linear approach to discipleship. A lot of churches have discipleship strategies that are built on linear systems. You go to a Christianity 101 class. Then Discipleship 201. Then Leadership 301. I didn’t want a linear system like that because we don't feel that’s how most people grow. Most people do not grow in a systematic, linear way; rather, they learn what they need to learn when God connects them with the right people at the right time in the right place in the right circumstances. On a related note, I did not want to intentionally or unintentionally suggest that there was an “ending point.” All linear systems have some sort of endpoint, whether it is stated or not. And I did not want to indicate in any way that there was any sort of endpoint.

The second criteria is that I did not want a one-size-fits-all system. A lot of church discipleship programs that I participated in try to cram everyone into one type of system. I was told that I would grow if I did (fill in your own blank here). But I didn't always grow in those environments. Everyone is different. Some people grow best in one-on-one discipleship mentor relationships. Others grow best in community with a larger group. One way people grow is through experiences. A worship experience or a missions trip or a service project or a retreat may be a more powerful discipleship experience for some people. Personally, I like academic lecture/lab style discipleship. Give me a textbook and an assignment and I start growing—it’s not just an intellectual activity, it is discipleship for me. But the academic style is not the best discipleship environment for others. So I wanted to prayerfully develop a strategy that was built on a variety of discipleship methods. Our "free-market" approach to small groups already facilitated a wide variety of groups.

So what we have is a map. Not a set of step-by-step directions. But a guide and an invitation to exploration.

American poet William Stafford writes of people who “want a wilderness with a map.” I think that describes a lot of us. There is a yearning for the mystery, excitement, and adventure of stepping into the unknown. At the same time, that yearning for adventure is held in tension by a strong desire for a map to show us where to go. There is something in us that wants to see the destination. While the unknown is exciting, it is also unsettling.

This map does not have all the answers. It does not include everything we need to do or learn to be a disciple. And it doesn’t lay out all of the unexpected things that certainly lie in the path. But it does give NCCers a general idea of some ways they can go to take the next step in their spiritual journeys.

We don’t want to give people boxes to check off. Rather, we want to expose them to experiences that ignite their passion for God and then get out of their way. Finishing a process is not the goal. Being in the process of growing closer and closer to Christ is the goal. We want to give people opportunities to become fully devoted followers of Christ.

And with our map, there is terra incognita-- places of growth that we haven't yet discovered. That means more experimentation and exploration.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

FAQ: What is the Discipleship Map?

For several years, our sole discipleship goal for NCCers was “plug into a small group and plug into a ministry.” That’s not a bad goal (that was basically Jesus’ goal-- come follow me in community and I will send you out to make disciples). However, our strategy was not taking into consideration each individual’s spiritual history. We needed to develop a system for helping people grow in their faith that was more strategic than simply “pick a small group, any small group.”

The Discipleship Map was developed out of a desire to provide a systematic, logical yet flexible framework to help people take the next steps in their faith journey. American Poet William Stafford wrote of people who want a “wilderness with a map.” That describes our generation. We want to experience the wild and untamed adventure of life, but at the same time, we desire a roadmap of some sort.

The Discipleship Map includes the groups, retreats, classes, and experiences that we believe every NCCer should participate in during their time at NCC. It is built around the Seeker, Learner, Influencer, Investor framework for discipleship. So, the journey begins with Alpha, a practical introduction to the Christian faith. Then, explorers can move to Journey, an outpost island 8-week small group that prepares people for the map by introducing them to the four dimensions of discipleship (Seeker, Learner, Influencer, and Investor).

Each island has a "port city" that serves as an introduction to that particular dimension of discipleship. Then, each map contains other experiences to help people continue to grow in that particular characteristic. We designed the map so that a person could complete Alpha, Journey, and the 4 port cities in 2 years time-- which is the average length of time we have a person at NCC.

The map is different from most discipleship strategies in the following ways:

  • It is not linear. Rather, it is rooted in the belief that discipleship is a journey. Instead of giving a linear set of points to reach or boxes to check off, it gives road markers to help people navigate their spiritual growth.
  • It is not one-size-fits-all. It does not assume that everyone needs to learn in the same pattern. There is flexibility to jump in and out as needed.
  • It does not have an endpoint. The journey never ends. Individuals are encouraged to explore Alpha, Journey, and the 4 port cities. From there, each island will be populated with other discipleship experiences, and our small groups help people continue their journeys. We never “arrive” at home plate or at the top of a ladder. It is a life-long process of discovery and growth.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Granger Community Church Small Groups

I'm going to take a break from the NCC FAQ series and focus the spotlight on another church and how they do small groups-- Granger Community Church.

First, Granger Community Church's Innovative Church Conference. Wow. I was so overwhelmed at their creativity and commitment to excellence. Their environments and staging were amazing. Every session was great-- I particularly appreciated Tim's talk on buzz and the appropriate intersections of faith and pop culture. I got to hang out with some of their team-- Tony, Tim, Mark, and Kem. I'm super excited because they posted notes from their breakout sessions.

They are also doing some interesting things with their small groups. They have made a decision that they are a church with small groups as opposed to a church of small groups. (For more brain straining on that concept, read here) That really relieves all the pressure that comes with churches that put all their discipleship eggs into the small group basket. Instead, they are a church of relationships and acknowledge that relationships can and should be built in a number of different environments. They have really based their connecting philosophy on Joseph Myer's book, The Search to Belong. If you are a connections/discipleship/community pastor or involved in facilitating those environments in any way, then you definitely need to read this book.

Here's how their groups work. Each month, they kick of "Starting Point" (not to be confused with Northpoint's version of Starting Point). These Starting Point groups are short introductions to group life. At the end of the trial run, the group can stay together or start over. The leader leaves the group and starts a new Starting Point while the remainder of the group continues on. The remaining group chooses a leader, but the entire group goes through leadership training. That was the thing that intrigued me the most. I love the idea that the entire group, not just the leader, understands the vision and values of group life. I'm just not sure how to implement it in our existing structure.

They also run "Turning Point" for recovery groups.

They have a series of core classes, based on the Saddleback baseball diamond model, but they are not offered within the small group context.

Here is a link to their group information.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Innovative Church Conference

I'm taking off in a couple of hours for the Innovative Church Conference at Granger Community Church. Mark Batterson is speaking. If you are going to be there, look us up!

FAQ: What is May Term?

Operating on the semester system, we take 3 primary breaks every year: May, August, and December-January. No groups meet at all in August and December-January. In May, we run May Term.

May Term runs, appropriately enough, throughout the month of May. During that month, we run short, quick-hit "small" groups (that aren't always small). Topics we've covered in the past include The Story (3- week high speed thrill ride through the entire Bible) and Contagious Christianity. May Term serves a number of unique purposes:
  • Our small group leaders have an opportunity to attend a group themselves.
  • For our long-time continuously running groups that refuse to take breaks, May Term groups offers them an opportunity to stay together while giving the leader a break from leadership responsibilities (in other words, they can attend a May Term offering as a group)
  • May Term groups give folks an opportunity to "test drive" a group for a few weeks before committing to a longer-term group.
  • May Term groups tend to be larger, so it provides a mid-level step between Sunday morning and traditional small group.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

FAQ: Do Sunday morning ministry groups operate on the semester system?

Yes and no. Our ministry groups basically operate on the semester system, but they operate on an extended semester schedule.

Our small groups can take a break in May, August, and around the winter holidays. But church still happens through the semester breaks, and we need ministries to fill those mission critical roles.

Our ministries operate on the semester system in the sense that we harness the momentum of each new semester to recruit people for ministry. They also utilize the advantage of "short-term commitment" by asking newcomers to commit for only the semester. However, that commitment to the ministry runs a few weeks longer than the official semester deadline.

(Did that make sense?)

Monday, September 18, 2006

FAQ: Does "Seeker, Learner, Influencer, Investor" represent a linear growth process?

No. Our discipleship framework of "Seeker, Learner, Influencer, and Investor" does not represent a linear growth process. We should strive to grow in all 4 of these areas all the time. It is a life-long process of discovery and growth.

Each dimension flows naturally into every other dimension and back again. For example, as we learn more about God, it sets off a chain reaction that causes us to want to worship him more as a seeker, share him more as an influencer, and get involved in ministry as an investor. Another example-- we may give to missions as an investor, and that can set off a chain reaction to pray for unreached people more as a seeker, go on a missions trip as an influencer, study the Bible in order to teach cross-culturally as a learner.

FAQ: What is Seeker, Learner, Influencer, and Investor?

Seeker, Learner, Influencer, and Investor provides the framework for our discipleship strategy. The first step of designing any discipleship strategy is to define what a fully devoted follower of Christ looks like. Acts 2 gives us a glimpse of the early church and profiles of fully devoted followers of Christ:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Everyday they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

This passage highlights 4 dimensions of discipleship. They were “filled with awe” and "many miraculous signs and wonders were done"—that's the spiritual or Seeker dimension. They were “devoted to the apostle’s teaching”—that's the intellectual or Learner dimension. They “had everything in common” and “enjoy[ed] the favor of all the people” and "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved" — that's the relational or Influencer dimension. And “they gave to anyone as he had need” —that's the stewardship or Investor dimension.

So that's our discipleship goal: to produce seekers, learners, influencers, and investors.

Seeking is the spiritual dimension of discipleship. We want to produce disciples who practice spiritual disciplines, discover and implement their spiritual gifts, develop the fruit of the Spirit, understand and participate in the work of the Holy Spirit, and engage in spiritual warfare.

Learning is the intellectual dimension of discipleship. We want to produce disciples who endeavor to have the “mind of Christ” and long to know more about Him. We want to produce people who are actively reading, memorizing, meditating upon, and studying the Word of God. We want to produce people who understand the core doctrines of their faith.

Influencing is the relational dimension of discipleship. We want to produce disciples who share their faith with those inside the church through discipleship and share their faith with those outside the church through evangelism. We want to influence neighborhoods and nations for the Kingdom of God.

Investing is the stewardship dimension of discipleship. We believe want to produce disciples who are investing their finances, talents, time, energy, and resources into Kingdom work. We want to produce disciples whose calendars and checkbooks reflect Kingdom priorities.

Seeking, Learning, Influencing, and Investing provide the framework for our discipleship strategies. It is not a linear process. Rather, it is a life-long process of discovery and growth.

Read more here:





Saturday, September 16, 2006


I love Tigers. Both the Auburn and the LSU varieties. That makes it difficult for me during SEC football season. You see, I grew up in Alabama, and everyone in Alabama is forced to "declare." So I declared Auburn. Then, I went to LSU for undergrad and graduate school and changed from "Go Tigers" to "Geaux Tigers." When Auburn and LSU play, my loyalty is fully and completely to LSU.

They played a great game. I jumped and yelled and ran around my house throughout the entire game. It was one of the best defensive games I've seen in a long time. Bummer in the end for LSU. But now I'm hoping Auburn will come out of the season with a National Championship. We've got great teams in the SEC!

Simple Prayers

I've spent the past couple hours studying and preparing for a retreat I will be leading next weekend. After reading lots of commentaries and books, examining Biblical texts, and creatively building my messages, I took a big step back and said, "God, I don't wanna give them a bunch of crap."

I don't think what I've got is crap. But it was a cry to God to be with me in the preparation and help me say what He wanted said. It was a cry to come off message preparation auto-pilot, crafting messages that I think college students need to hear. It was probably the most genuine and powerful prayer I've prayed all day.

Sometimes, the simplest prayers are the best.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

FAQ: What are the dates of your semesters?

Spring Semester
February - April (12-14 weeks)

May Term

Summer Semester
June - July (8-9 weeks)

Fall Semester
September - November or mid-December (12-14 weeks)

FAQ: Why do you operate on a semester system?

Our small groups operate on a semester system. We do that for several reasons.

  • There is a natural rhythm in our church, and we have decided to work with that instead of working against it. Since so many people in our congregation work on the Hill or are college students, there are natural “break points” in the year for us. May, August, and the Christmas holidays are always slow times. So following a semester system is natural for our culture.
  • People are more willing to jump in and try a group if there is an obvious and easy entry point and exit point. People don’t like visiting a group once and then feeling trapped there in perpetuity. The commitment only lasts 8-12 weeks.
  • The semester system allow people to join groups that can minister to them effectively at the point of their deepest need or area of potential growth when timing is critical. For instance, a young woman may need to be in a support group for sexual brokenness one semester, and then jump into a women's group for growth the next semester, and then join an outreach/service group the next semester. It can keep us balanced.
  • More people are interested in being a leader because they know it’s a finite commitment. Many people are willing to experiment with leading a group because they know it’s only an 8- 12 week commitment. It's a short but solid commitment.
  • Our leaders have opportunities to take breaks and catch their breath. When we see a leader showing the first signs of burnout, we can encourage them to take a semester off. They don’t feel like they are “quitting” or walking away for good. They are just taking a short “sabbatical.” Before semesters, leaders kept leading until they burned out, quit, and never came back into leadership again. Now, they take short breaks when they need them and then come right back into leadership.
  • Momentum. The semesters give us 3 strategic opportunities each year to promote our groups. Before we had semesters, there was no natural rhythm for highlighting group life and it was difficult to spread the word about new groups that were forming. Now, we can rally the whole church around small groups 3 times a year.
And let me go ahead and answer the next obvious frequently asked question: How do you create community when it changes so rapidly? It's a good question. Community experts and practitioners will tell you that real community does not begin to develop in a small group until somewhere around Week 12-- which is when most of our semesters are ending. But we have lots of different types of small groups that serve lots of different types of purposes. Some are to help people get connected with some other people in the church. Others are designed to systematically help someone take the next step in their faith journey. Many of our groups stay together as a group. In other instances, people within groups will connect and then move together from group to group.

There's definitely a drawback. And there's certainly the risk that an individual could float from group to group every semester and never land in true community or grow in a meaningful way. And that is something I try to track. But the benefits of the semester system seem to outweigh the risks for us right now. I would never go back.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

FAQ: I've seen the slogan, "Be One, Make One, For One." What does that mean?

Be One, Make One, For One is our discipleship strategy.

“Be One” means to be a disciple. We believe that the first and most critical skill in leadership is the ability to lead yourself well. This is the modeling aspect of discipleship.

“Make One” means to make a disciple. Each semester, our leaders have one goal: to help each person in their group take one step closer to Christ over the course of the semester. It also means they will seek to multiply themselves by identifying 1-2 people who they will uniquely disciple and train as potential leaders.

“For One” means for Christ and his glory. This speaks to the attitude and motivation of the leader. There is only one valid reason for doing ministry. It’s not because we are gifted. It’s not because we have a passionate vision. It’s not because we feel called. It’s not because we see a need that must be filled. The only valid, sustainable motivation for leadership is a love for Jesus and a desire to see His name glorified. We lead because we love Jesus.

Be One- follow Christ and be his disciple. Make One- take others on the journey with you. For One- do it all for Christ and his glory.

Three objectives for leaders: Lead yourself well, disciple another peson, and keep your motives and attitude in check.

You can read the entire vision statement here.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

FAQ: What is the difference between a "small group" and a "ministry?"

We try as best we can to blur the lines between our small groups and ministries. We believe our ministries should act like small groups because there is more joy and fulfillment in completing the task when we know each other and do it as a team. And we believe our small groups should act like ministries because serving together is one of the fastest ways to build community.

The only “ministries” identified at NCC are production, hospitality, prayer, nursery, kid’s ministry, worship, and In Service. These are the ministries that we consider to be “mission critical” at our weekend services. Everything else is considered a small group.

Some of our small groups would be considered “ministries” at other churches. For instance, Alpha is typically considered a “ministry” because of its scope, size, and staff involvement. Some of our outreach and social justice groups would be considered ministries by most churches. For us, the size, budget, and staff involvement do not differentiate between small groups and ministries. Some of our small groups (like Alpha) have a tremendous size, budget and staff involvement. A ministry is an activity that is "mission critical" for Sunday mornings. Everything else comes under the small group/discipleship umbrella.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Leadership Pressure

Taking a break from our FAQ series, I wanted to direct your attention to the most recent edition of The Pastor's Coach. This bi-weekly email newsletter is available for free from In this week's newsletter, Dan Reiland talks about the pressure of leadership and how to manage it.

As we approach a new semester at NCC, I found this article to be especially helpful.

You can read it here.

Friday, September 08, 2006

FAQ: Are you a church "of" small groups or a church "with" small groups?

It’s the dreaded question. Seriously, how many of us duck for cover when we are asked that question? We all think we want to be a church of small groups, but the numbers don't ever come close to backing it up. Can we exist somewhere beyond that distinction?

The question stems from a very important place; it is fundamental to the role that small groups play in the larger vision of the church. Do we view our church as a collection of many smaller groups? Or is the church offering the small groups as one of many opportunities for identifying with the life of the church.

When people ask me this question about NCC, "are you a church of small groups or a church with small groups?" I say, “yes.”

We hear this distinction a lot- a church of small groups versus a church with small groups. Pastors are encouraged to consider which camp their church falls into. Do we have groups as just one of many ministries? Or is the entire ministry of the church revolving around the small groups? Are small groups simply an arm of the church or are they the sole focus church?

I completely understand and appreciate the distinction. In one sense, it’s an important question. Knowing whether your church is "of" or "with" helps the pastor immensely in determining budgeting priorities, deciding what gets premier announcement time on Sunday mornings, and navigating tricky scheduling conflicts, among a myriad of other things. In many ways, being a church "of" small groups can really simplify your entire ministry.

Identifying your goal of being a church of or with small groups also affects some pretty big decisions about how you structure groups, train leaders, and decide curriculum.

Categories can be good because they can help us think through our motives and goals. But categories can also be limiting.

Let me get back to NCC for a second. Here are some of my goals. My ultimate goal is to see every NCCer growing in community and growing more and more like Christ. A related goal is that over 100% of NCC’s average attendance would be plugged into NCC small groups. Why more than 100%? Because we have some small groups organized for the primary purpose of building relationships with those who are not yet following Christ, so we want our small group attendance to exceed Sunday morning attendance for evangelistic purposes.

Let me be clear-- my goal is not to have 100% of NCCers in an NCC small group. A hush falls over the crowd...and someone asks quietly, "Does Mark Batterson know about this?"

My goal is that people grow in community and grow closer to Christ. We do small groups because I honestly believe that is the best environment for facilitating that process. But our college students need to be in college-focused ministry small groups, like Chi Alpha or Intervarsity or Campus Crusade for Christ. Those at NCC struggling with relational and sexual brokenness need to be in Regeneration’s Living Waters Program.

So—when someone asks me if we are a church of small groups or a church with small groups, I say “yes.” We want everyone in community. And we want everyone to grow closer to Christ. We want everyone to be in a small group. But we don’t necessarily think that everyone should be in an NCC small group.

I think NCC has the best small groups of any church out there. But I also realize that NCC might not be big enough to offer the small group experience that everyone needs. So in one sense, yes, we are a church of small groups. But I think we are somewhere beyond that distinction.

Or I could be completely off my rocker...

FAQ: What if the church has a bad taste in its mouth because small groups were tried and failed in the past?

A lot of people have a bad taste in their mouths for cell groups/small groups because they have been promised “life changing community” that never materialized.

I think the best way to re-start the small group discussion is by establishing the Biblical precedent and importance of community and discipleship—this needs to come in various forms in the life of the church. Pulpit time on these concepts is important. Then, create a system or program or model that fits the culture of your church. Maybe you don’t call them “small groups” or “cell groups.” It’s kinda silly, but sometimes nomenclature can change the way people think/respond to new things.

Most importantly, don’t just copy someone else’s model. I think that’s the best advice I can give. Too many churches try to copy another church’s model, and it just doesn’t work. Willow Creek spent 7 years developing their program. Yoido Full Gospel in Korea has overhauled their system at least 3 times. It took John Wesley 15 years to develop his model of class meetings that eventually led to the creation of the United Methodist Church. They tweaked and re-engineered and re-programmed to make their discipleship model mesh with the culture of their church. There are definitely things we can and should learn from them, and many principles are transferable. But finding your own unique rhythm and style of community will be a process. I think a lot of church small groups fail because they try to put their church on a program that was specifically designed for another church in a different community (and maybe a different country) and then they expect the new program to fly on autopilot. It takes a lot of work to disciple people!

There are really two ways you can go about transitioning. The first is the frog in the kettle approach. A slow transition. In this approach, use the existing structure (i.e., Sunday School) but incorporate a greater level of community, commitment, transparency, and discipleship challenge. This method takes longer and requires you to be extremely intentional about developing your leaders.

The second approach is the Big Bang. In this method, you throw all the existing structures and programs out the window and totally re-wire the entire discipleship framework and environment. You will face a lot of conflict and criticism for this method, but sometimes it’s the only approach. With the Big Bang, I would put in overtime hours to prep my leaders to get them to understand, own, and help implement the new vision when it’s implemented.

FAQ: We want to start small groups in our church. How do we begin?

If you want to start small groups in your church, here are some tips. Some are more philosophical. Some are more practical. In no particular order:

Philosophy Questions:
  • Ask yourself why you are starting small groups. If you are doing it just because you think it's the thing to do, then don't do it. You will just be creating a headache for yourself and everyone else in your congregation. Granted, I believe whole-heartedly that small groups are the way to go. But this is a question you need to tackle with your family, your staff, and your key leadership. How do small groups fit into the larger vision of the church?
  • If you are the senior pastor, determine what your level of involvement will be in small groups. Do you want to lead it yourself? Or do you want to delegate it? This will help in establishing the right model for your church. Will you and your family be involved in an official small group yourself? Or will you view your staff or other close relationships as your small group? Again, this will help you create your model.
  • Look at community and discipleship Biblically. Develop a theology of community, discipleship, and small groups.
  • Read as much as you can and pray as much as you can. About a year ago, I threw our entire small group ministry up in the air with a question mark behind it. I then began to read everything I could about how discipleship had been done throughout church history and across denominational lines. I've got some book lists here.
Model and Structure Questions:
  • What is the primary purpose that small groups will serve? Is it primarily for community and fellowship? Primarily for spiritual growth, information, and discipleship? Or some combination of those two. Walking the Small Group Tightrope by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson can be helpful in assessing those tensions.
  • Learn as much as you can about the major "models" of small groups-- Willow Creek, "cell group" model, meta model, free market model, principle of 12 model, etc. Look at their advantages and disadvantages through the lens of what you want to accomplish through your groups (some are more geared towards fellowship while others are more geared towards serious growth)
  • After learning about the models, throw them out the window and create your own model that is specifically and uniquely crafted for your community and church. I think this is one of the most important steps. Many churches have failed with groups because they have tried to force a ministry model into their church that was not created with their specific community in mind.
Leadership Questions:
  • Appoint a "point leader" and empower them to run the ministry, cast vision, train leaders, etc.
  • Establish a base of leadership that will allow the ministry to grow naturally
Roll-out/Implementation Questions
Knowing how to implement the new small group thing may be the most difficult part of starting a new small group ministry. Here are some very practical tips:
  • Get the top influencers in the church on board with the vision as soon as possible. Top influencers do not mean staff, necessarily. In most cases, they are not staff. Think about the people who have the most influence-- the relational kind of influence that really matters.
  • Utilize every communication channel possible to talk about the importance of community and discipleship- sermon series, video testimonies, bulletins, church newsletters, blogs, podcasts. Be creative in demonstrating the importance of group life.
  • Identify the places within the church life where community and discipleship are already happening. Validate those and find some way to incorporate them or recreate them within the context of your new small group model.
  • Invest a lot of money and a lot of creative energy into the rollout. The level of "snazziness" of your small group "marketing" materials will communicate a lot about the level of importance the staff places on small groups. If you list your group on an excel spreadsheet on a piece of white paper, you are communicating great information, but not importance. We publish a magazine each semester. And yeah, we dump a TON of money into it.
  • Train your leaders. Do something to help them get started. Explain to them why you are doing groups, how it fits into the larger picture of the church, how to lead themselves well, how to practically lead a group meeting. Clearly define expectations and goals. Your training will evolve over time, but make sure you do something in the very beginning. It's best to create your own materials, but use Willow Creek materials if you don't have time to develop your own.
I could write a whole book about this. Actually, lots of people have written books about it and I should probably shut up now and let you read them.

If you've ever helped launch a new small group ministry, please share your own personal observations using the comment thread.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

FAQ; What is the "free market" small group system?

A free-market small group system allows for a high degree of relational connection and creativity by allowing leaders to turn their existing relationships, gifts, interests, passions, and hobbies into disciple-making small groups.

Oswald Chambers said, “Let God be as original with others as he was with you.” So why do churches force people into little clusters that all look alike, slap the label “small group” on them, and then promise that they will grow exponentially in their faith as a result?

For any small group or discipleship program to be successful, you need leaders who burn white hot with a vision for making disciples. That’s why we implement a free market small group system at NCC. We believe discipleship happens best within the context of shared interests, and it flows naturally out of leaders who are driven by a passionate vision from God.

Too many churches establish a vision and a small group model and then ask their leaders to come serve that vision and model. At NCC, we have reversed that by encouraging leaders to get their own vision for discipling others and then equipping them to do it in whatever relational context they find themselves. The NCC vision for small groups is specific enough to give direction and focus, but broad enough to give latitude for leaders to get their own vision from God and run with it. Leaders are motivated when they see where their passion meets a need.

We only have 2 basic requirements for NCC small groups. One, there must be opportunity for connection and relationships (relational). And two, discipleship should be the primary purpose (missional). And of course, the leader must also meet the leadership deployment requirements as specified by NCC to be an officially recognized NCC group.

We want to encourage innovation and creativity. We believe that God has designed each person uniquely, and he can use that uniqueness as a catalyst for disciple-making.

Examples of some groups that have come out of our free market system include:

  • Fantasy baseball
  • Spiritual warfare
  • Sign language
  • Inductive Bible Study
  • Acting
  • Evangelism
  • Running
  • C.S. Lewis’ Writings
  • Women in Leadership
  • Weight Training
  • Church History
  • Crown Financial

For more reading on this particular topic, see the following resources:

Dog Training, Fly Fishing, and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century (Ted Haggard)

Small Groups That Buzz (Heather Zempel)

FAQ: Why do you do small groups?

We do small groups because we have found that they are the most effective way to do discipleship within the context of our culture.

This may be a surprise, but small groups are not sacred to me. I do not hold to the view that small groups (or a particular small group model) are the only way to Biblically disciple others. What I care about most is that people grow in their relationship with Christ, transform their lives to look more and more like him, and grow in their relationship with other people. Small groups just seem to me to be the best way to facilitate that process.

I believe there are five primary ways that people grow in their faith:

Relational- people grow in their relationship with Christ as they grow in relationship with others and are influenced by those relationships.

Experiential- people grow in their relationship with Christ when they are immersed in an experience with him that propels them in some area of their faith formation.

Intellectual- people grow in their relationship with Christ as they develop the mind of Christ through the reading, study, meditation, and memorization of Scripture.

Personal- people grow in their relationship with Christ as they incorporate and practice spiritual disciplines into the context of their everyday lives.

Incarnational- people grow in their relationship with Christ as they seek to follow his model of servant leadership and become his hands and feet in sacrificial service to those around them.

Every person tends to gravitate towards one or two of those five growth patterns, and small groups offer opportunities for all five types of growth.

Here are some of the more practical reasons we do small groups:

Organization, The Jethro Principle (Exodus 18:21-26)

v. 21 "But find some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as judges over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten."
We do small groups because it establishes a structure that allows for continued church growth and the effective pastoring of people.

Relationship, The Acts Community (Acts 2:43-47)

v. 46 "They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord's Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity."
We do small groups because we believe they provide an environment for true Christian community to develop through the intentional sharing of our lives with others.

Discipleship and Ministry (2 Timothy 2:2)

2 Timothy 2:2 "You have heard me teach many things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Teach these great truths to trustworthy people who are able to pass them along to others."
We do small groups because we feel that discipleship and ministry are ultimately community activities.

Many churches run into problems because they think small group ministry is the “thing to do,” but they have never given any significant thought to why they were doing them. Why small groups? is a critical question to ask and answer before implementing any sort of small group model. It’s imperative to put structures in place and create environments that move people forward in their faith. Otherwise, it’s just one more church program.

For more reading on this particular topic, see the following resources:

Building a Church of Small Groups (Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson)

Creating Community (Andy Stanley and Bill Willits)

Growing True Disciples (George Barna)

Purpose Driven Life (Rick Warren)

The Second Reformation (William A. Beckham)

FAQ: How do you do discipleship in rented facilities?

We are asked this question quite a bit. Sometimes, it’s from people who are also doing church in rented facilities. Other times, it’s from people who attack us for meeting in rented facilities because they assume that we can only be a Sunday morning “entertainment venue” without Sunday School classrooms, equipping centers, etc. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but it does happen.

Here’s our vision: to meet at movie theaters at metro stops throughout the DC metro area. That vision stems from a core conviction that the church belongs in the middle of the marketplace instead of being relegated to the margins of society. For us, that core conviction plays out by actually holding our weekend services in the marketplace. We have 5 services in 3 locations—at Ebenezers Coffeehouse, at the movie theaters at Union Station, and at the movie theaters at Ballston Common Mall.

This question typically assumes that discipleship requires some sort of classroom setting. I would submit that the assumption that discipleship requires physical space reflects confusion over what discipleship is really about. I’m a Southern Baptist girl by upbringing, and I am very grateful for the Sunday School experience that I had. But I don’t know that “Sunday School” or “discipling” requires a class. We do it at NCC through small groups.

We have over 75 small groups this semester that will meet all over the Washington, DC area. The groups allow opportunities for people to connect with other believers and to connect with God. Some small groups focus on inductive Bible studies. Some focus on serving our homeless community. Some focus on prayer. Approximately 100 people are expected to go through our Alpha small groups.

All of these groups are involved in discipleship-- the process of helping people become fully devoted followers of Christ. We model our small groups after the church structure outlined in Acts 2, where the new followers of Christ met with one another in both the temple (large group setting) and in homes (small group setting). We have basically taken the Sunday School idea and thrown it out into the community where it is more accessible to people by placing it in the marketplace and neighborhoods. But I believe we have also improved on the Sunday School model. Our small groups are not simply academic in nature, but also experiential. We force people to put feet to their faith and bring application to the things we have learned.

Yes, rented facilities definitely makes it harder to do discipleship. But I think forcing discipleship to happen outside the church walls, in the context of our normal everyday walking around lives, it produces an approach to discipleship that is more pure, organic, and maybe even more effective.

FAQ Series

I am going to start my FAQ series today. I occasionally receive emails from people asking questions or requesting materials related to our small group ministry at NCC, and I want to post some of my responses here.

I want Wineskins to be an opensource site, so please use comment threads to post your own answers to these question, ask clarifying questions, or challenge my points.

Here are some of the questions I hope to answer over the next several weeks:

Small Group Philosophy

  • What is a “free market system” for small groups?
  • How do you do discipleship when you meet in rented facilities?
  • How do I start small groups in my church?
  • What if the church has a bad taste in its mouth because small groups were tried and failed in the past?

Discipleship Map

  • What is the discipleship map?
  • Is the discipleship map implemented by individuals or groups?
  • Do you focus the entire church on one aspect of the map at a time?
  • Can people take a non-linear path through the map?
  • What is Alpha?
  • What is Crown Financial?
  • What is Journey?
  • What is The Story?
  • What is Inward Bound?
  • What is Upward Bound?
  • What is Spiritual Experiments?

Semester System

  • Why do you use a semester system?
  • What are the dates of the semesters?

Group Recruitment

  • What is the small group magazine?
  • How do you connect newcomers with a small group?
  • Can someone join a group mid-semester?
  • What is Marriage Matters?

Leadership Training

  • How do you recruit leaders?
  • How do you train leaders?
  • What is the annual leadership retreat?
  • What is the leadership summit?
  • What are zone meetings?
  • What is Leadership 101?
  • What is the process for someone to become a leader?

Leadership Structure

  • How do your structure your leadership?
If there are other questions you would like to see discussed, please let me know.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Last Year in Jerusalem

It was one year ago today that I began a journey that I will continue to walk out the rest of my life. I joined a team of 6 other clergy on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Even though I've had an entire year to reflect on that experience, I'm still not sure I have all the right words to wrap around it.

The land is a place of turmoil. We have seen that all too clearly in recent weeks. But it also became a place of turmoil for me personally as I wrestled with my theology, my political leanings, and my God.

I just spent a few moments reviewing our trip itinerary and re-living some of the experiences, conversations, and relationships that have influenced me for good-- in both the positive and permanent meanings of that word.

Thank you to Brian, John, and Michael of Meriwether Productions for pointing us to the path. Thank you to JoAnne, Michael, Ruth, Ashley, SaulPaul, and Charlie for walking the path with me. Thank you to fellow pilgrims like David and Catharine, Kevin, Gabby, and Krisha for including us in the larger band of travelers and wanderers. And thank you to Stephen Need, Lois, Genia, and all the others at St. George's College in Jerusalem for you hospitality and leadership.

Go to the Holy Land. Take those you disciple to the Holy Land. Particularly if they are teenagers and young adults.

For more information, see the following posts:

Reinventing Ancient Disciplines

Pilgrimage Trailer

I want to get back there soon. As the Jewish people proclaim after the annual Passover Sedar, I say hopefully, "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Preaching Goal

I'm on deck at NCC this weekend, so I am putting the finishing touches on my sermon. Earlier today, I discovered one of my preaching goals-- to preach in such a way that those who hear are driven to the Word of God to read it for themselves.

I think every person who preaches has two things: 1) A life message and 2) A preaching goal. Your life message is that one sermon that you could preach over and over and never tire of. It's the one message that seems to worm it's way into everything you preach. My life message revolves around the themes of destiny and the Body of Christ. Every time you hear me preach, those two things are going to get worked in somehow.

The preaching goal is a little different. The preaching goal is the inner drive that motivates the preacher every time they get before the congregation. For Mark Batterson, the goal is to communicate old truths in new ways. For Andy Stanley, the win is to make one big idea stick in the minds, mouths, and lives of his listeners. For me-- I want people to fall in love with the Word of God. When I walk off the stage, I want them to be so excited about the Word that they run home to tear into its pages. That goal frames the way I preach. I tend to spend more time in my sermons reading the Scriptures. But more importantly, I try to engage the Scriptures. I like to point out the stuff that's odd and ask questions of the text and dig out the drama of the Bible story that we have buried under years of intellectual dissection.

I think it's helpful for preachers to know and understand their goal as they approach sermon preparation. It will help them find their voice and help them prepare in a way that works best for them.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Bible Drill Wednesday

I have amazing zone leaders (I'll explain who and what they are next week), and I just have to bring your attention to the incredible work of one of them-- Sarah Owen. Each Wednesday, Sarah writes a Bible study-related post on, our online community for small group leaders. Her stuff is absolutely amazing. Sometimes, she writes about Bible study methods. For example, her post yesterday on the Chapter Summary Method. On most weeks, she outlines a book of the Bible. Last week it was Hebrews.

Check it out. It's some of the best content we are cranking out at NCC, and it's coming from a volunteer.

Creative Discipleship

Within our "free market" small group system, our leaders have the freedom to create discipleship experiences out of their gifts, passions, and interests. Here is a sampling of the type of groups that can emerge:

Damascus to Rome- a Bible study of Paul's journeys and letters

Rescued by Christ- Spiritual warfare

Generations- Bridging the generations through outreach to the elderly

Sessions- Songwriting

Chinese Conversation Club- Chinese food and conversation

Under His Wings- Using the story of Moses to build community amongst adoptees

Men of Valor- Men's group studying the lives of the giants of faith

The Vine Inspirations- Women's group studying and blogging their way through the book of Romans.

I've posted about these before: Sola Scriptura, In His (Tennis) Courts, Inklings Reloaded, Galatians and the Washington Monuments


I'm going to start an FAQ series next week. Each week, I receive emails asking about how we do groups, semesters, leadership training, group promotion, etc, and I'm going to post some of my responses.

If you've got a burning question, let me know.


That's how many groups we've got heading into the fall semester. 76 groups. Almost 90 leaders. I can't believe it.

I've spent the past week organizing our leadership structures, zones, and teams, and I've never had so much fun with a spreadsheet. Why? Because each cell contained a the name of a leader, team leader, zone leader, or group that is taking a tremendous step of faith, and I am so proud of all of them.