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.