Thursday, October 27, 2011

Does Community Lead to Mission?

Does a common mission produce community? I don't think that we can make this a universal claim. Nor can we toss the claim aside as if it has no relevance. See my previous post.

Then must we conclude that community produces mission? Many make this claim and it has some very important biblical texts to support it. Jesus prayed in John 17 that his followers would live in unity so that the world might know him. After washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus told them that the way that the world would know that they were his disciples was by their love for one another. Our love for one another is one of the greatest, unused evangelistic tools.

And I have seen many small groups communities that have grown in love and the natural overflow of that has been mission, evangelism and even group growth. We have 40 years worth of small group experience around the world to support this. So we cannot say that community does not lead a group into a life of blessing those outside the group.

At the same time, we have all seen small groups that experienced deep community nothing every moved beyond the people in the group. They grew insular, developed inside jokes and sequestered themselves into a elite club that others either envied or despised. It might have felt good for insiders but there was nothing inherently beautiful about it that flowed out to bless the rest of the world.

What can we say then:
  1. There is a reciprocal relationship between living in community and sharing a common mission. They feed each other.
  2. Which is first? In some cases it's community. In other cases its a common mission. Most of the time is both.
  3. In most cases where community leads to a group that impacts the world, the groups are set within a church that already has an established church culture of impacting the world. Or they have a pretty big front door and the groups infold new people.

But I think that there is more to the story. Which will be in tomorrow's post.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Does Mission Lead to Community?

A common statement I hear bouncing around in the discussion about developing missional community is this: If you start with community, you rarely get mission, but if you start with mission, you almost always get community.

I've heard this stated in many forms over the years. We used to proclaim something like that in cell church circles when I was doing training for cell groups in the 1990s. In my previous pastoral position, I had a colleague who would fight for this supposed axiom. She said to me once "Groups that have a common mission will grow in love. It's like an army platoon that grows together while fighting a common enemy."

On the surface, this sounds right. And there are enough church situations where the church culture lines up with this statement.  Therefore, it's not hard to list examples that seem to support this claim. However, I can also list plenty of stories of groups that tried this approach and it actually made matters worse. Today, I am going to deal with the practical reasons why we need to call this statement into question. (Tomorrow I'll address another aspect.) Here are a few reasons why this is the case:
  1. Let's look at the analogy of a platoon at war. Brotherhood (and sisterhood) is formed as you fight together. This is true. But let's not forget that soldiers go through basic training before they go to war. They are equipped with basic tools so that they can fight in tandem with others. Throwing people together around a common mission without considering how they have been equipped can produce disaster. 
  2. People need to be equipped in the basics of what it means to give agape love in a Kingdom community. I've yet to find situations where people know how to do this just because they have a common mission. 
  3. When a church has unhealthy relationship practices, putting those people in groups does not change those patterns. And giving them a common mission does not change them either. In fact, it can actually work against you as those patterns are put on display for the lost to see.
The churches where the "common mission leads to community" strategy works are churches that have created a culture characterized by three basic things: First, they have established healthy, other-oriented, agape love relationship practices. Second, they have developed the church around the vision to engage the community. And last, they are usually highly flexible because the church is relatively new and the participants of the church are relatively young. As a result, often the leaders in such churches are more entrepreneurial. In such cases, therefore, mission often does lead to community.

But it cannot be claimed to be universal truth. We need to listen to churches that are basing their groups on this statement, but we also need to understand the church culture from which they speak. We cannot go to them and try to do it like they do it. That's like a business owner driving up to GE and asking them how he can copy their business model. Most of the churches with whom I work need to establish some basic training to establish  new practices that will result in missional living and then release people on mission. We need to understand where our people are and what they need in order to be prepared for mission and not just throw them out and expect them to "get it" on their own.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The End of Evangelicalism? by David Fitch: A Book Review

Even though David and I come from different parts of the country, we share the same tribe. We both belong to the tribe that would carry the label "evangelical." For the last ten to fifteen years there have been quite a few thinkers who have wrestled with what evangelical theology is, what it is becoming and why there should even be such a thing as evangelical theology.

This books takes things to a deeper and more challenging level. He moves from the level of how we think as evangelicals to the level of how we practice evangelicalism by looking at it through the lens of politics. (Not in the sense of national politics, as the word is commonly used, but in the sense of politic as an order of our life in the midst of the world at large. Fitch defines "politic" as "what people assume about the way things are and how those assumptions are maintained in order to live together.") To do this, he employs the work of Slavoj Zizek as a dialogue partner. Admittedly, the rather obscure writing of Zizek makes this a challenging book to grasp, especially chapter 2. However, if one can get to chapters three and following, the logic of this analysis takes our tribe to a deeper understanding of how we live as evangelicals and how that impacts the way we do church.

Fitch writes: "As evangelicals, we have rarely evaluated our way of life together. Traditionally we have been more focused on the rightness of our theology or, even more so, on the pragmatics of getting people 'saved.'" In chapters 3, 4 and 5, Fitch analyzes three core "evangelical" assumptions that have shaped evangelical life. These are:
1. The idea of the Inerrant Bible
2. The idea of making a Decision for Christ
3. The idea of the Christian Nation

Fitch challenges these assumptions and therefore the identity of Evangelicalism. He does not do this so that we can be better theologians, nor for the sake of having bigger churches. He does this for the sake of the church's mission in this world. He invites us to think about our assumptions so that we might better practice a way of life that demonstrates Christ's character in the world.

This book is a challenging read and many Evangelicals will take exception to what he writes. But this is exactly the kind of book we need to read and work to understand. Fitch confronts our assumptions and if we never listen to such confrontations we will just continue to "rearrange the deck chairs." This book points out that there are icebergs ahead. I hope we will listen before it's too late.

Theology and Small Groups

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post asking if your small groups are theologically sound. Now it is time to pose and address some more questions along this line. Let me lead by stating that I am not asking whether or not the topics discussed in our groups fit within the bounds of orthodoxy. There is a place for that, but I want to invite us to think about a theology of community and therefore a theology of small groups, not just about what is doctrinally correct to discuss in our groups.

Nor am I trying to establish a theological or biblical foundation for doing small groups. That argument has been made many times over from many different angles.

At this point, you might be wondering what need there might be for a theology beyond these two concerns. And let me say that there is are a tone of theological questions we should be asking about small groups, cell groups, house churches, missional communities—whatever you want to call them. We need to move beyond labels and brands and actually get in touch with something deeper.

To do this I want to confront an under-discussed theology of practicality. Most of us involved in the day-to-day concerns of pastoral leadership are driven by practical questions, which has roots in an unnamed theology of practicality.  I have had to dig up this theology and look at it within my own life during the past few years. It basically looks like this: if it works, if it grows, then it's God. If I can find a methodology that results in more people and more groups then it must be a sound methodology that should be replicated. And what I mean by replicated is that the methods are formulated, written and dispersed so that they can be copied by others. A theology of practicality assumes that the structure is the key. The methods are essential for producing results. Left out are things like a theology of spirituality, a theology of culture and a theology of what it means to be the church.

But this theology of practicality comes with a slew of other assumptions. For instance, it assumes that success in a church is numerical growth. More people in more groups = effectiveness. I don't think that we need to do away with growth. I'm all for it. But because we have a theology of practicality we jump to this conclusion.

Then we also have the assumption that the job of the small groups pastor is to grow lots of groups. This means that a small groups pastor need never to raise theological questions that might interfere with group growth.

If we are going to develop a theology of community, we need to look at the assumed theologies that drive our imaginations because a robust theology of community will come into conflict with them. At least this has been the case in my life. While I still deal with practical issues, the practical stuff must be developed in conversation with other questions, some of which cause me to slow down, see what God is doing and change the bottom line from numerical growth to something much more rich.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Outside the Norm Books for Small Group Pastors

What are you reading? If you are leading the small groups in your church, what is informing your leadership? I know that you have the normal stock of books on group leadership, training manuals and plenty of stuff on small group strategies. And of course everyone has Life Together by Bonhoeffer.

Let me also encourage you to add these to your shelf or electronic devise. These are not the normal how-to books. Instead these are books meant to equip your soul and challenge the way you see groups and community. Admittedly, these authors are not writing about Christian small groups. In fact, only one of them would be labeled as a "Christian" author. But these books can point us in some new and prophetic directions.

A Different Drum by M. Scott Peck
Community by Peter Block
A Hidden Wholeness by Palmer Parker
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson
Community by Zygmunt Bauman

These are books that have influenced my writing in Missional Small Groups and MissioRelate and they continue to challenge me.

What books about groups and community are challenging you to think differently about how we live in community with one another?

Consuming Small Groups

American culture, broadly speaking, is a consumeristic one. We are shaped, without any work on our part, to be consumers. History tells us that when production capacity began to outgrow consumption patterns during the industrial revolution companies sought ways to increase the level of consumption of the average person. They did not produce to meet needs. They produced to sell products. Now this is just the air we breathe. We don't question it. And those who tend to challenge this pattern are viewed as trouble-makers and radicals by those who accept the status quo. Consumption defines us more than we want to think about.

My point here is not to confront this pattern of our culture, but to point out how this view of life seeps into our life as Christians. We don't turn off this mentality toward life when we enter into church life or join a small group. The fact is that too often I meet people who have been so defined by consumerism that they consume God, consume church and consume small group life.

The response of the church typically tends to fall into one of two camps. There are those who rebel against consumerism with all their might. Then there are church leaders who buy into it shape the church to provide the best spiritual goods and services. Those who are sickened by consumerism consume the anti-consumeristic message. While the majority fall in line and go to church to consume their weekly dose of spiritual goods and services.

In either approach, people also consumer small group life. We are really good at giving people what they want. For radicals we give them a radical message to talk about in their groups along with some action. For non-radicals we give them religion on Melba toast which we now package as a DVD Bible study. Then we get excited that we are enfolding such a high percentage of our people into groups. But we are just giving them what they already want. Is that really the goal?

Well I'm all for wise enfolding strategies. I've written nine set of church-wide ca pack curriculum that has aimed at this goal.

BUT WE CANNOT STOP THERE. Enfolding, assimilation, closing the back door cannot be our aim. It's only a step along the way, unless of course we don't care about people remaining within the Christian consumer mentality.

What's the alternative? Don't assume that I'm anti Bible study or anti DVD curriculum. I just want more than that. It's connecting small groups +. What's that +?

Any thoughts?

I'll have more to add the rest of the week.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Four Seasons in a Small Group

This weekend I've been leading a retreat in Minneapolis for The Table. This is a picture from my walk this morning. We don't get colors like this in Houston. My walk this morning reminded me of the beauty of autumn.

It also speaks to transitions. As a family, we've been in a time of transition. It's been exciting. It's been tearful. It's been a lot of work. On my walk beneath these autumn colors I realized how we've had to let go of many good things about life and ministry in Minnesota in order to take next the steps in our calling. We would like for the goodness of Spring and Summer to continue perpetually but life does not happen that way. There are seasons to natural life. There are seasons to our personal life.

And there are seasons to life in a small group. There are ups and downs. There are growth spurts followed by times of transition. No small group experiences perpetual summer growth, although we wish we could. If we are seeking God's life in our group, we will be aware of how the life of the Spirit in the community follows the order of the seasons.

In what season of life is your group?

Spring-a time of new life, new vision, new hope
Summer-a time of growth, excitement, and impact
Autumn-a time of harvest, transition and the reality that something new is ahead
Winter-a time of dormancy, quiet life and waiting on God's new birth

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Do You Need Ministry Coaching?

There are lots of different ways that an outside voice can help church leaders be effective. One option that leaders don't often consider is called "Ministry Coaching." With coaching, an outside voice walks with a church leader or leaders on a reoccurring and consistent basis as the ministry develops over time.

Two years ago, I helped a friend write a book on ministry coaching, and I thought, "I think I would really enjoy doing that." However, I was a full-time pastor at that point. Now, since we have moved to Houston, I am only a part-time pastor and now I have the space in my life to coach churches in a regular way.

If you are interested in this, I'd love to talk with you. Here is a description of how the coaching works. Or click here to download this information.

Coaching Purpose: To walk with a church leader to help in the establishment of small group communities that make a difference.

Coaching Process: Scott will work with the leader to establish clear goals and progress markers that fit the local context of a local congregation. The needs and circumstances of the local situation will dictate the kind of coaching provided.

Coaching Content: The information that will shape the coaching is introduced in Scott’s books Missional Small Groups and MissioRelate. More specifically, the content is based on the fact that most churches need to develop missional community through what is called an “AND” experience. What is needed is not a judgmental attitude that divides the missional experience from the attractional. We need a way to move people from an attractional mindset into a missional way of life.

Scott also has at his disposal resources that deal with the specific leadership needs (Called a Missional Leader 360) a Church-wide assessment (Called a Church 360), and a group system assessment (Called a Groups 360). Depending upon the needs of the situation, these resources might serve as additional content.

Coaching Pattern: The pattern is quite simple: we talk on the phone once per month. The first phone conversation will be for two hours, thereafter, one hour. In addition, you get unlimited email interaction.

Coaching Start-up: In order to get started well, all written information about the vision and strategy of the church would need to be provided to Scott two weeks before the first phone conversation.

Coaching Costs: The start-up cost is $400 which covers the preparation and the first two-hour conversation. The one-hour conversations will be $150 per month.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Do You Train Your Groups for Success?

One of my last tasks as a pastor at the church in Saint Paul, MN before we moved back to Texas was to write curriculum that we called The Journey Together. As I met with the other pastors who gave input into the project, their comment to me was something like this: "We train the leaders in how good groups work, but the people in the groups need that same information. It's not enough to train the leaders." What an idea. Honestly, I had not given it much attention and as I have looked around, neither have many other church leaders. Then last week, I saw where Alan Danielson wrote a blog post last year on this topic. (Check it out here)

After reading his article, I realized that Alan and I shared a similar discovery from totally different circumstances. I realized that most people in American churches are not being set up to be effective group members. As a result, most of us put all of the pressure upon group leaders and set them up with unrealistic expectations.

One reoccurring experience I've had revolves around the idea of group conflict. Every small group leader book or training manual worth its salt contains information in it about how conflict works and the stages of group life. You know: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Re-forming. But what about the group members? They are the ones going through the conflict and the time to teach them about it is NOT when emotions are high. It's not like the leader can go to the meeting and say, "Yes I learned about this in my training. What we are going through right now is the conflict stage. Don't worry, we will press through this."

We need creative ways to train groups, not just leaders. We need to equip groups for effective group life. This is the reason I wrote The Journey Together. It's designed to train the group to get started on the right track and figure out how they are going to continue on an effective path together.

To download The Journey Together for FREE, click here. Let me know what you think about it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Is Your Small Group Strategy Theologically Sound?

As I read books, articles and blog posts on small groups, I don't often read much that points to theology. Most of the time, I find information that is highly pragmatic and aims at helping you and I with the practical questions of how we develop effective small groups. And to tell you the truth, I learn a lot from what I've read over the years. I am a better leader for all the pragmatic information I've gathered.

However, I've thinking about the disproportionate focus on pragmatic issues when weighed against the almost lack of theological reflection regarding small groups. Now I know that most of us have a basic theology of "why" small groups in our back pockets. We all can give one of the two standard reasons why we do small groups. The first being the Trinity and the second a list of the "house to house" scriptures from Acts. But I'm not talking about a "why" theology for small groups. I'm talking about a "what," "how," and "who" theology of groups. Do we have that?

In my experience, most of us don't. Part of the reason for this is that theology has been set apart from the questions of practical ministry. We need theology in order to preach or to teach a class. But if someone is a good leader and has a good prayer life (for some this might be optional), he or she could run most programs in the church. We don't really need much theological reflection to run most programs in the church and this includes most small groups. Even if we are trying to become a church "of" small groups.

We need to reflect on questions like:
• What kind of groups are we aiming to create?
• How does God form people to live out the Kingdom?
• What does the Kingdom of God look like in this local context?
• Who are the people that are a part of these groups?

What kind of theological reflecting are you doing as a leader in the church?

More to come.