Community Is Messy

One of my favorite thinkers in Small Group world is Heather Zempel.  Heather is Pastor of Discipleship at National Community Church in Washington DC.   When Heather speaks I listen, first of all because she is funny, but mostly because she is cutting edge in her thinking.  I did an interview with her recently about her latest book Community is Messy.

Why did you write Community is Messy?

Anyone who has led a small group for more than two weeks has discovered that mess happens. For those who serve as small group directors, discipleship pastors, and volunteers who champion group life in their churches, navigating mess is often the unlisted but most demanding part of their portfolio. I wrote Community is Messy to encourage those group leaders and group ministry leaders that mess may not be a hindrance to community but a catalyst to the cultivation of deeper community. My prayer is that leaders can embrace the mess and the promise that God can write his story of redemption through the mess.

You had an unorthodox path going from engineering to ministry. How does your background inform your understanding of community?

I have two degrees in environmental engineering—not a very traditional path into ministry. But small group leaders and environmental engineers have a lot in common. Both strive to engineer environments where growth happens. When I think about community, I picture treatment lagoons and pig farms. When I think about spiritual growth, I consider the differences between static friction and kinetic friction and remember the diversity of strengths in physical properties reflected in the modulus of elasticity. That’s all in the book.

You talk in the book about valuing people over programs. Why is this important?

In the church, we tend to invest lots of time, energy, and resources into developing and maintain programs. I think we do that because programs are easy to measure. The problem is that people aren’t discipled by programs. They are discipled by relationship. I would much rather pastor people than manage programs, but that takes focus and regular examination of priorities.

What’s a story of mess from your own life that reveals God’s redemptive work?

There’s always mess in my life, and I think it gets especially messy when we wear multiple hats with people—pastor, mentor, leader, boss, friend, etc. Here’s one that happened just a couple months ago. I was talking to a young leader about her calling, and I sincerely thought I was building her up with encouragement. When I came to the end of everything I knew to affirm her, I said, “I don’t know what else to say.” She responded with a look that seemed to be a mix of anger and hurt and said, “You’ve said enough.” At that moment, I didn’t know whether to jump across the table to strangle her or to hug her. Everything in me wanted to strangle her, but the little pastoral instinct I possess informed me that the words I had intended for good had been received negatively. That situation led to a number of productive conversations about how I lead, how she grows, how I grow, and where God is at work polishing off the rough spots in both of us. Many times, messes that are navigated with prayer, honesty, and a commitment to honoring the other lead to growth on all sides.

The book comes out tomorrow!!  You can purchase your own copy of Community is Messy here:


Online Training for Small Groups

In today’s busy world we have to look for solutions to deliver training for the Small Group leader in our churches.  Small Group pastors grow frustrated when they offer training classes but few people show up.  Well, what if there was a solution that enabled you to train leaders any time, any place, at any pace?  Over the past year I’ve had the opportunity to work with the great team at Right Now to help develop Right Now Training for Small Group leaders.  This online training enables you to deliver specific training modules of your choice to your leaders, check on their progress, communicate with them AND add your own training modules.  Join the hundreds of churches that are already using the Right Now Training and help us add even more content that will serve churches all around the world.

Shallow Small Groups

My friends at not only put out some great small group curriculum but they put out some very funny video shorts.  Check out this great video about Shallow Small Groups.


Saddleback’s Global Small Group Conference

I was in the Saddleback studios this past week shooting a segment for a brand new conference coming up September 14-15 called The Twelve. This ground breaking conference is for small group ministry leaders at churches around the world. It will be webcast over a two-day ‘live’ conference timeframe, and then the sessions will be available on-demand for registrants for the next 30 days. Speakers include Rick Warren, Reggie McNeal, Geoff Surratt, Mark Howell, Greg Anderson and more.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Ron Wilbur and asked him to share a little bit about this upcoming conference. For more information or to register to go THIS LINK


Five Types of Questions for Small Group Leaders

Everyone has arrived at your home for Small Group. Some are gathered in the kitchen, some in the den and others hanging out in the living room. Your house is alive with chatter, people are engaged in comfortable conversation, the rooms are filled with energy and it’s obvious that everyone is glad to be there. You practically have to drag them into the living room to start the study time because they don’t want to break away from their conversations. Then as you start the study time you notice a whole new dynamic. The energy is gone, the people who were so chatty just moments ago suddenly have nothing to say and you dredge your way through the study time feeling as if you have bored them to tears.

How do you create dynamic discussion during your group study time? One of the keys is using quality discussion questions. While most group leaders use a guided curriculum, you still have those times when the curriculum doesn’t provide the best of questions. So as a facilitator, it is essential to understand what makes a great discussion question.

There are 5 types of questions you will use as a group facilitator.

Icebreaker Questions
Icebreaker questions introduce the topic by asking about personal experience or common human experiences. They help create a relaxed atmosphere and are an easy way for people to engage in the discussion. Icebreakers allow group members to share something about themselves on a safe level. For example:

  • What was your biggest childhood fear?
  • What was the most unique gift you were ever given?
  • What is your best vacation memory?

Observation Questions
Observation questions help the group member identify what the biblical text is saying. Asking this type of question usually causes the group member to look back at the passage to discover the answer. When I ask observation questions I look for the “nose in the book” response.  I hope that everyone looks at the text to look for the answer. For example:

  • What was Jesus’ audience like?
  • How does Paul describe the believers in Colossians in this paragraph?
  • What are the action verbs in verses 4-7?

Interpretation Questions
The purpose of an Interpretation question is to discover what the text means. While each passage has many applications, it only has one interpretation. Interpretation questions cause the group to wrestle with the meaning of a verse or passage. For example:

  • Why do you think Jesus told the healed man to “show but not to tell?”
  • What do you think the author intended as the main point of this passage?
  • What does it mean when Peter writes, “be holy as God is holy?”

Application Questions
Application questions help the group members see how they can act on the principle they discovered in the passage. Good application questions will help people to think “What should I do about this?” For example:

  • Which of the virtues from this passage do you need to work on the most?  Why?
  • What is one specific thing you can do this week to show the love of Christ to others?
  • What is the next step you need to take in order to strengthen the unity in your family?

Follow-Up Questions
These are spontaneous questions used by the facilitator to get clarification, amplification, or illustration of a group member’s answer. For example:

  • “Sue, that is a great answer. Can you give us an example of what you are talking about?”
  • “That is great insight, Bob. What are some practical ways we can apply that to our lives?”
  • “That’s interesting. Explain what you mean.”

Being familiar with and using the Five Types of Questions will help you put together a well balanced study that will produce dynamic discussion.

Leadership Tips for Missional Communities

Long before “missional” became a church buzzword lighting up the blogosphere, St. Thomas Church in England started doing things differently. They operated in a European culture that wasn’t friendly to Christians and they knew that if they were going to reach new people for Jesus, it wasn’t going to be in a church service. So under the leadership Pastor Mike Breen, they reinvented what church looked like. And as it turns out…it looks a lot like what we see in the early church.

They broke to the streets, the college campuses, living rooms and pubs; and in doing so, they quietly started a missional revolution. By 2000, they had become the largest church in the England.

At the heart of it all was a church culture that didn’t just create converts—it created disciples that seemed to live an awful lot like Jesus did. They trained regular, ordinary lay people to be leaders, to listen to the voice of God and respond.  And the people they trained…in turn trained people themselves.

Since that time Mike Breen has left St. Thomas to start 3DM a ministry dedicated to helping churches around the globe innovate this missional approach to reaching and discipling people.  Last week I had the opportunity to spend four days with Mike and his team and go through the 3DM training. 

One of the staff members present that day was Paul Maconochie who now pastors St. Thomas Church and continues the missional approach to discipleship Mike started years ago. I had the chance to ask Paul a few questions about Midsized Missional Communities.  He shares some great wisdom and advice in this 8 minute video.

The Biggest Issue Facing Small Groups

dirty-bathtub-300x225Today’s guest blogger is Alan Danielson.  Alan and I became friends about 2 years ago.  I love spending time with Alan because he is a leader who is full of passion, innovative ideas and energy to make a Kingdom difference with his life.  He has 20 years of ministry experience and is an excellent consultant and communicator.  If you would like to get to know more about Alan and possibly have him come consult with your church you can check out his site  And you can follow him on Twitter @alandanielson.

 The Biggest Issue Facing Small Groups

Why the picture of the gross bathtub? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that in a second. As a consultant I have the great privilege of speaking with churches all over the country about the challenges they face with their small group ministries. In those conversations I’ve seen a recurring theme in many church small group ministries: lack of leadership. Ant that, in my estimation, this is the greatest problem with small group ministries today.

Because we are victims of the “fast food mentality” in our culture we look for quick fixes and short cuts. Many churches and pastors are looking for a new small group model or approach that will yield faster results. Many are looking for a system for small groups that will run itself. Many are looking for ways to downplay the role of the “leader” in the small group itself. The problem with all of these hopes and desires is that they neglect the one thing that makes every small group model or approach work: leadership.

I’ve talked to many churches who have clunky-inefficient models and their small group ministries are thriving. I’ve spoken to others who have slick-streamlined models and their small group ministries are struggling. What’s the difference? Leadership!

There are no shortcuts, there are no super-small-group-systems, there are no self-sustaining-systems. Every model or system has it’s problems and the answer to those problems is good old-fashioned quality leadership. In other words, every small group bathtub has leaks, and great leaders don’t go shopping for a new tub, instead they find ways to fix the leaks!

It’s fine if you want to call small group leaders “hosts” or “facilitators” (I’ve done that in my own small group ministries). Just don’t think that by taking the word “leader” out of it that you’ve somehow taken leadership out of it. As ministry leaders, it’s fine to establish smooth running, machine-like systems for your small group ministries. Just don’t think for a minute that those systems won’t require leadership.

The bottom line is this: if your small group ministry is sucking wind, resist the urge to look across the room and blame the leaky bathtub. Instead, look in the mirror and ask how/why you’ve not been providing enough leadership. You, the leader of your small group ministry, must find the capacity to fix the leaky bathtub.

Small Group Leadership Session 5

Over the past weeks I’ve posted Session 1,  Session 2, Session 3 and Session 4 of our Small Group Leader training.  This is the fifth and final session in this training series.  Please feel free to take these and use them with your leaders. If you see something that you would change…let me know.  Working together we can make each session better.

Where’s the Apprentice?

Welcome to Session 5, Where’s the Apprentice? During this session, you will learn how to identify and develop an apprentice.  An online journal has been provided for you to record your notes and thoughts, or feel free to use a notebook of your own.  Be sure to bring your notes when you meet with your mentor.
Part 1
Our Group Edutainment Video
“The Group Outing”

Watch Episode 4 of the video series, “Our Group” where Doug and Michelle hand over the leadership to Chris.  As the group serves together we see different group members taking on different leadership roles.  When you have finished watching the video, reflect on the following questions:

Episode 5: “Where’s the Apprentice?” from Seacoast Church on Vimeo.

  • What stood out to you the most from this episode of Our Group?
  • Why is it important to give other group members leadership opportunities in your small group?
  • What keeps leaders from sharing leadership roles in their group?
  • What challenges do you face when you share leadership among group members?

Part 2
Video Teaching with Josh Surratt
Apprenticing new leaders

During this session, Josh shares practical steps for mentoring a new small group leader.  Watch this video teaching and then answer the questions below.

Mentoring Your Apprentice from Seacoast Church on Vimeo.

  • What do you look for in a potential apprentice?
  • Which of Josh’s principles come easiest to you?  Which one will be the most difficult for you?
  • What are some ways you can share leadership within your small group?

Part 3 Explore

Read the following Bible passage, 2 Timothy 1:1-11, and reflect on the questions

  • What do you learn about Timothy from these verses?  What challenges did Timothy seem to be facing?
  • What do you learn about being a good mentor from observing Paul?
  • What are some general principles for a good mentoring relationship that you see in this passage?

Part 4  The Challenge
1.  If you don’t have your own small group yet make a list of people you could possibly invite to start a new group with you.

2.  If you have your own small group share the name of one or two people you could potentially mentor as future group leaders.

3.  Make a list of leadership possible leadership positions in your small group (ex: prayer leader, serve leader, social leader, etc).  Recruit people from your group into these various leadership roles.

Small Group Leadership Session 4

In the past weeks I’ve posted Session 1,  Session 2 and Session 3 of our online Small Group Leader Training.  Next Friday I will post the final session of this series.  Please feel free to take them and use them at your church. If you see something that you would change…let me know.  Working together we can make each module better.

Dealing with Difficult Situations

Welcome to Session 4, Dealing with Difficult Situation. During this session, you will learn how you how to effectively handle difficult group situations as they emerge.  An online journal has been provided for you to record your notes and thoughts, or feel free to use a notebook of your own.  Be sure to bring your notes when you meet with your mentor.

Part 1
Our Group Edutainment Video
“The Group Outing”

Watch Episode 4 of the video series, “Our Group”.   During a group outing, Chris learns about the different personality’s of the group members.  When you have finished watching the video, reflect on the following questions:

Episode 4: The Group Outing from Seacoast Church on Vimeo.

  • What stood out to you the most from this episode of “Our Group”?
  • Which of the personality types would be most difficult for you to deal with?  Why?
  • What are ways you have seen these different difficult personality’s express themselves in the context of a small group?

Part 2
Video Teaching with Josh Surratt
Dealing with Difficult Situations

When relationships deepen in your group, conflict is often bound to arise.  During this session, Josh discusses the importance of Biblical practices in handling difficult group situations.  Watch this video teaching and then answer the questions below.

Dealing With Difficult Situations from Seacoast Church on Vimeo.

  • What are some examples of difficult situations you may face as a Small Group Leader?
  • What could possibly happen in a group when a group leader doesn’t address the problems that come up with various difficult people?
  • Review the following key concepts that Josh discusses.  Which of these principles do think you will need to work on the most?
    o Commit to telling the truth
    o Deal with issues quickly
    o Always speak positively about group members
    o Seek to understand the need of the difficult person
    o Clear the air – don’t let resentment settle into your group
    o Act in a loving way toward each group member
  • Reflect on a difficult situation that you have been involved in either at work, as a small group member or with a friend.    How did the experience make you feel? How could the situation have benefitted from the application of the conflict principles that Josh discusses?
  • What would your strategy be for managing the following types of group conflict:
    oIf someone in the group constantly turns discussion into debate?
    o If someone in the group is too needy?
    o If someone in the group dominates the discussion?
    o If someone in the group never participates in group discussion?

Part 3
Read the following Bible passage, Ephesians 4:25-32, and reflect on the questions below:

  • How would you describe what was going on in Ephesus?
  • List four or five of the basic principles Paul mentions in this passage about dealing with difficult people.

Part 4
The Challenge
1. Ask your mentor/group leader how they have handled each of the various kinds of difficult people?

2. Faciliate group discussion and have your mentor observe you and give you feedback on how you handled various people.

3.  Look for an opportunity at home, work or small group to practice one or more of the principles from Ephesians 4.  Journel the interaction, then talk with your mentor about the experience.

Small Group Leadership Session 3

Facilitating Group Discussion
In November I posted Session 1 and Session 2 of our online Small Group Leader Training.  I’ve had several people ask for the remaining sessions so over the next 3 Friday’s I will be posting these.  Please feel free to take them and use them at your church. If you see something that you would change…let me know.  Working together we can make each module better.


Welcome to Session 3, Facilitating Group Discussion. During this session, you will learn and practice skills to facilitate group discussion.  We encourage you to use a journal to record your answers to these questions. An online journal has been provided for you, too. Be sure to bring your notes when you meet with your mentor.

Part 1
Our Group Edutainment Video

“Discussion Derailed”
Watch Episode 3 of the video series, “Our Group” where Chris is asked to facilitate the group discussion in Doug and Michelle’s absense.  When you have finished watching the video, reflect on the questions below:

Edutainment 3

Episode 3: “Discussion Derailed” from Seacoast Church on Vimeo.

  • What stood out to you the most from this episode of “Our Group”?
  • How would you rate the discussion questions that were being asked by the leaders?
  • What mistakes stood out to you in this episode?
  • What do you think was going through Chris’ mind as discussion spiraled out of control?
  • What mistakes do small group leaders commonly make that lead to discussion being derailed?
  • In your opinion, what are some key elements for generating dynamic discussion in a small group?

Part 2
Video Teaching with Josh Surratt
Facilitating Discussion

Watch the followingtTeaching video and then answer the questions below.

Facilitating Discussion from Seacoast Church on Vimeo.

  • How does the discussion time during small group help build good friendships?
  • What challenges do small group leaders typically face in generating good discussion?
  • Which of Josh’s tips helped you the most?
    • Great discussion starts before the study
    • Try an icebreaker
    • Don’t ask a bad question
    • Get comfortable with silence
    • Ask Follow up questions
  • What are some ways you can get quiet people to participate?
  • What are some ways you can help your group refocus if discussion goes off track?
  • How long should the small group discussion time (study time) go for?

Part 3
Read the following Bible passage, Luke 10:25-37, and reflect on the questions below:

  • Describe  Jesus’  teaching method in this passage?
  • Why do you think Jesus used this teaching method so frequently?
  • Why is it important to allow people to think through information and participate in the learning process?
  • What challenges do you think small group leaders sometimes encounter as they use discussion as the primary method of learning?

Part 4
The Challenge:
Working with your mentor choose one of the following assignments that is most appropriate for your developmental level.  Then discuss with them what you did well and what you could improve.

  • Choose a passage of Scripture and practice writing 4-5 discussion questions that you can share with your small group leader/ mentor to evaluate.
  • Work with your small group leader/mentor prior to group to watch them prepare the questions for the group study time.  Try to understand their reasoning for asking certain questions.  Evaluate the questions using the 5 C’s Josh shared.
  • If you are new to facilitating small group discussion have your small group leader/mentor let you lead the icebreaker/opening question at the next small group meeting.
  • Lead a subgroup during one of your next small group meetings.  A sub-group is when the leader breaks the group into 2-3 smaller groups to discuss one or two questions during the small group meeting time.
  • Facilitate the group discussion at one of the upcoming small group meetings, then meet with your mentor to discuss how you did.