Symptoms of a Healthy Small Group

I have posted several articles on the need for small groups in the church. It doesn’t matter if the small group meets in a church, a home, a restaurant, or in a park—they just need to meet. During these meetings people learn to trust, depend on, and care for one another; thus ensuring that close lasting relationships are formed.

Ed Stetzer elaborates on this topic in his post “Five Characteristics of Transformative Small Groups.” These characteristics would be good to take back to your small group to help evaluate your effectiveness.

Stetzer writes:

As culture drifts more and more toward individualism, transformational churches are taking on the responsibility of moving people into authentic relationships with each other, many through the instigation and encouragement of small groups. Though a hermeneutically responsible scriptural case cannot be made specifically for the institute of small groups, the Bible does offer examples of the need for and benefits of small units of community.

In Exodus 18, Jethro approaches Moses and says, “What you’re doing is not good . . . You will certainly wear out both yourself and these people” (Ex. 18:17-18). The principle here is applicable for pastors, church leaders, and members: when people do not have small units of connection and relationship, it wears everyone out – the pastors and leaders because they are constantly working to fulfill that need for connection; the members because they are unable to be in the nurturing relationships that they need but cannot necessarily have with pastors or leaders. Similarly, small units of community allow people to “carry one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) in a way that simply is impossible in large group settings. Therefore, Scripture favors small settings for accomplishing genuine community.

In addition to scriptural favor toward small units, the institution of small groups addresses significant cultural needs. In Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putnam explains the shift in our culture away from community and toward “cocooning.” Think about it. People used to bowl in leagues. They’d wear funny shirts, go in groups, and bowl together. Now, leagues are a fraction of what they used to be, and people bowl alone. Similarly, while we used to have front porches, now we have back decks. We have home theaters and home gyms. As a result of this societal shift, the nuclear family is nuclearized into small units, disconnected from others along the way. However, I believe a shift back toward interpersonal relationships is taking place.

Why is this shift happening in the church? Because small groups are meeting the needs of people to grow in faith by learning in a community with some purpose. We want and need to be connected– it is not good to be alone– so that we can grow and help one another.

Most of these needs can be best met in small groups, where people are able to mature in their faith as they respect, appreciate, listen to, and hear those in community alongside them.

Though Christians experience the need for authentic community, they often need nudging to acknowledge and live in the reality of that need – not unlike many of us who understand our need for exercise, but require encouragement to participate and, thus, enjoy the benefits! In the church setting, small groups provide an opportunity to encourage people into life-changing community. However, the significance of small groups goes beyond the benefits of personal life change and becomes crucial for the transformational church. Five important facets of small groups demonstrate their transformative nature:

1. Connectible: Small groups connect people in relationships. According to William Hendricks in Exit Interviews, one common reason given by people who leave churches is a failure to connect in relationship. Small groups provide a comfortable environment for newcomers to connect.

2. Reproducible: In human growth, multiplication allows the cell to become multiple cells, which allows change and growth to occur. Similarly, for growth to occur in the church, people groups must continuously grow and multiply. Small groups are more easily multiplied than large groups.

3. Assimilative: Just as small groups connect newcomers to the church through relationships, small groups assimilate members to ministry through service. As people in small groups grow in relationship together, they will readily serve alongside others and integrate into ministry opportunities.

4. Transformative: Small groups allow individuals to experience faster and deeper personal transformation through authentic community. For non-Christian seekers, small groups provide a safe setting to ask questions in a community of people who also wrestle and struggle. Thus, when they do come to faith in Christ, they are more likely to experience authentic life-change having been in and remaining in community.

5. Transferable: Small groups can be excellent ways to start churches. As an essential element of the transformational church, church planting generally necessitates a core group of people who are sent out to reach a new area.

Small groups provide the transformational church with an opportunity to connect members in genuine relationships. Through interpersonal relationships, small group members will experience life-change as they fulfill their need for community in an individualistic society. Ultimately, as small groups grow and multiply, so will the church.

The Power of the Negative

As leaders, there are times we have to make difficult decisions on how to address the mistakes, weaknesses, or shortcomings of others. After taking time to pray and think through the situation, we still find ourselves struggling with how to approach the other person in just the right way. We want them to know how important they are; however, their actions are hurting others and must be dealt with.

The Power of the Negative” is a post which Dr. Thom Rainer calls attention to our need to have a healthy balance when using negative reinforcement.

Rainer writes:

I often turn to Brad Waggoner for leadership advice and wisdom. He serves as executive vice president of LifeWay and, previously, as dean of a graduate school of leadership. He provides me a gentle reminder from time to time on, to use his words, “the power of the negative.”

Indeed I often have to remind myself of this leadership principle.

Understanding the Principle

The principle is simple but profound: Negative reinforcement has 20 times or more power than positive reinforcement.  At first glance, a leader may conclude that speaking and leading negatively is the best path since it is so powerful. To the contrary, unless used wisely, negative words and leadership can demoralize, demotivate, and destroy because of its very power.

While there is a place for negative leadership, it must be used with the greatest of care and discernment.

Examples for All of Us

We all experience the power of the negative, either as givers or recipients. See if you can identify with any of these examples:

  • You speak or preach somewhere and you get twenty compliments and one criticism. Upon which one do you dwell?
  • A husband in anger tells his wife that he is tired of her. Though he has given her over a dozen compliments that week, which one does she remember?
  • A child receives accolades for her good grades that semester. But the dad, upon discovering the child has her first failing grade, tells her “you won’t amount to anything in life at the pace you are going.” Which of the father’s words stick with the child for years if not a lifetime?
  • One coworker points out problems in another coworker’s area. Though the praises have been equal to the criticisms, which have the greatest power?
  • A CEO who has provided mostly steady leadership for a few years has an anger meltdown in front of his direct reports. What facet of his leadership is remembered the most?

A Time to Tear Down, A Time to Build Up

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us clearly that there are times to be negative and times to be positive (3:3). Indeed there are times for a prophetic voice, a corrective voice, and an admonishing voice. The problem is that the writer of Ecclesiastes does not give us specific instruction on timing and frequency.

Many of us are tempted to exercise the power of the negative too frequently. When we are negative about some other person and event, we are able to look away from ourselves and our own weaknesses and failures. It’s easier to the point the finger of accusation at someone other than ourselves.

Further the power of the negative can be tempting because we often get attention when we do so. I can point to one example clearly on this blog. The article that has received the most views was a negative article I wrote on Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. I am convinced and convicted that the article was appropriate and timely. But I must ever keep in mind the power that negativity has.

The Power of the Negative and Discernment

The Apostle Paul said these words to a church 2,000 years ago, and they still apply to us today: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11, HCSB). There are indeed times when a prophetic or negative word is in order. There are moments in any leader’s lives, whether a parent, pastor, or president, that the power of the negative should be exercised.

But it should be exercised with wisdom and discernment.

It would seem that the preponderance of our leadership should be one of building up and encouraging. Such leadership can change a family for the good. It can change an organization for the good.

And it might just change the world for good.

Seven Deadly Sins of a Dying Church

Here is another fantastic article by Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources.

I stood before some 700 church members on a Sunday evening. My task was straightforward. I was to share with them the results of a consultation my team members and I had worked on during the past several weeks.

The presentation should have been easy and uneventful. To the contrary, the time proved to be stressful and contentious. When I pointed out even a small area of concern with suggested remedies, dozens of members raised their hands to tell me how wrong I was, how the evaluations of the consulting team were far off base.

The church in question had been in decline for nearly two decades. Yet, from the perspectives of many of the members, the church was healthy and thriving. From my perspective, the most obvious reality I saw was denial.

Lessons from the Past, Lessons for the Future

Over the past 20 years, one of the richest blessings in my life has been the opportunity to study and consult with thousands of churches. I’ve seen hundreds of healthy churches that have taught me valuable lessons.

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen thousands of churches whose ministries are declining, whose members are discouraged, and whose evangelistic impact is negligible. Recently, I reviewed many of my past consulting and research projects to discern common characteristics of declining and dying churches.

I found what I call “seven sins” that characterize dying churches. These issues are not mutually exclusive; they are often directly related to each other. Rather than being a source of discouragement, I pray that my elucidation of these seven sins will be a tool to help you avoid the pitfalls that other church leaders have experienced.

Sin #1: Doctrine Dilution

One of our consultants sat in a Bible study class of a church that had brought in our team for a long-term consultation relationship. He had been told that the class included some of the church’s strongest leaders. Much to his surprise, the entire Bible study was a debate on whether or not a non-Christian might go to heaven. After much argument, the conclusion was that God would indeed allow such a person into heaven.

When such cardinal truths as the doctrine of exclusivity become issues of doubt, a church is in trouble. There’s little motivation for outreach and evangelism if other paths and other religions are equal to Christianity.

Ironically, in our survey of unchurched persons across America, we found that these non-Christians were much less likely to attend churches with weak doctrinal beliefs than those with strong ones. “Why should I waste my time in a place that does not have much certainty of belief,” Amy, a 29-year-old unchurched person from Arizona, told us. “I can find plenty of uncertainty in the world.”

Sin #2: Loss of Evangelistic Passion

It is no surprise that declining and dying churches have little evangelistic passion. In my January/February ’05 Outreach column, I highlighted one of the major reasons for evangelistic apathy: Many senior pastors either don’t have or have lost their evangelistic passion. Congregations tend to follow the passions and visions of those in key leadership positions, particularly the pastor.

Sin #3: Failure to Be Relevant

Unfortunately, many churches in America are out of touch with the changing trends and values of today’s culture. Some churches, for certain, abandon many of the cardinal truths of the faith in their quest to be relevant to the community they serve. But even more churches are woefully unaware of the realities, hopes, and pains of those around us. Failure to be true to doctrines of the Christian faith leads to apostasy. Failure to understand the world in which we live and serve leads to irrelevancy.

Sin #4: Few Outwardly-Focused Ministries

In a recent survey of churches across America, we found that nearly 95% of the churches’ ministries were for the members alone. Indeed, many churches had no ministries for those outside the congregation. Many churches seem to exist only for themselves. While there certainly should be ministry available for church members, often the balance between external and internal ministries is heavily skewed toward internal. When churches seek to care and minister only to their own, it’s a likely sign that decline is in motion and that death may be imminent.

Sin #5: Conflict over Personal Preferences

Some of the more vicious internal battles in congregations today are not fights over defending the great truths of the Christian faith. Instead, members have conflict over their preferred worship style, the way a room is painted or carpeted, and the type of pulpit the preacher uses. Battles like these are sure signs that members are more concerned about their needs than the needs of the hurting and unchurched people who live and work next to them.

Sin #6: The Priority of Comfort

A few years ago, my youngest son, Jess, was a high school senior on the football team. Because he gave so much of himself in the Friday night game, he often slept late on Saturdays. Around noon, he’d trudge down the stairs, turn on the television in the family room, and collapse on the sofa.

One Saturday, I passed him as his extended body contorted on the sofa and noticed that my football player son was watching HGTV. Curious, I asked Jess why he was watching a home and gardening show. His response was classic—“’cause the remote is broken.”

Many churches are in definitive patterns of decline because church members simply will not move beyond their couches of comfort. It’s much easier to do things the way we’ve always done them, rather than to get uncomfortable in the world outside the walls of the church.

Sin #7: Biblical Illiteracy

Only 3% of churches in America have a planned method of instructing their members to learn the Bible in its entirety. While studying the Bible shouldn’t be limited to a church setting, it’s imperative that churches take the lead in these types of endeavors.

When only three of 100 churches even attempt to provide a way for their members to understand Genesis to Revelation, biblical illiteracy is likely to occur. And biblical illiteracy means that our churches may not be obedient to the calls of Scripture because they don’t know what the Bible says.

Lights in the darkness?

Our research shows that many churches in America are sick, declining, and dying. Still, I remain an obnoxious optimist about the American Church. I’ve seen many churches reject the darkness of these seven sins and do something about their decline. They’re truly lights in the darkness.

I recently concluded a one-year consultation with a church that had seen a reversal of almost all the negative trends in its congregation. The pastor summed up the experience well: “We were not lacking in resources or know-how; we were just lacking in obedience. When we made a decision that mediocrity and complacency would not be acceptable, God began to bless us. It is just that simple.”

10 Ways to Lead Under Pressure

For years I have enjoyed reading books written by Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay Christian Resources. He has been an encouragement to me as a pastor, leader, Christian, husband, and father. In his article, “10 Ways to Lead Under Pressure,” he challenges us to stay focused on what is important. I hope you enjoy Dr. Rainer’s article from

Dr. Rainer writes:

Leadership can be difficult.

Okay, I’ve just stated the obvious. Anyone who has led a group or organization knows that tough times and tough decisions are inevitable. The issue is not whether leaders will find themselves under pressure; the issue is how leaders will handle pressure. Allow me to offer ten suggestions.

1. Avoid spiritual slippage.

Many effective leaders are incredibly focused on their work, so much so that they neglect their spiritual disciplines. Leaders under pressure must depend more on prayer, they must spend more time in the Word, and they must realize their wisdom and their strength come from God.

2. Avoid family slippage.

Busy leaders sometimes neglect their families. Such leaders under pressure often disregard the most important people in their lives. Great leaders must first be the right kind of leader in their homes.

3. Avoid physical slippage.

I recently had my annual physical, and my physician once again reminded me that I needed to remain diligent in my exercising and eating habits. He noted there is no way I can sustain the energy necessary to cope with the pressures of my job unless I am taking care of my body.

4. Love those you lead.

Sometimes, the pressure in leadership is great because we don’t first love those we lead. Indeed, we aren’t really leaders at all unless we demonstrate Christ’s love to those who are under our leadership.

5. Be transparent.

It takes so much more unnecessary energy to be someone we’re not. Transparency means we are authentic and lead with integrity.

6. Admit and deal with mistakes quickly.

As I write this article, I am dealing with a tough issue where I made a leadership mistake. I have admitted my mistake and now feel the freedom to move forward. If we postpone tough decisions or if we do not own up to our mistakes, the pressure will only get worse.

7. Be accountable.

Every leader needs accountability to someone or to some group. Those persons should always be checking our actions and our motives. And when we face either internal or external pressures, these persons are among the first who can help us.

8. Use fun and levity as a balance.

Many leaders take themselves too seriously. We need to lighten up and laugh more. A truly joyous person can withstand almost any pressure.

9. Have a longer-term perspective.

The crisis of the moment often makes us feel as if our world is about to end. But leaders who understand that most issues will take care of themselves in time are better equipped to deal with the seemingly heavy burdens of the present.

10. Have an outside interest as an alternative focus.

I have three major outside interests: my grandchildren, reading, and Alabama football. When I am playing with one of my grandchildren, for example, I feel as if all the pressures I was feeling are really not that bad after all. Those grandchildren give me a healthy perspective.

Leadership is indeed difficult. And good leaders will always feel pressures and have problems they must address. But the most effective leaders will deal in healthy ways with those pressures and, as a result, be healthier leaders themselves.

Books by Thom Rainer

Church Growth God’s Way

This Sunday we will observe a few of the ways the first church in Acts 2.41-47 experience healthy spiritual growth.  In studying for this sermon I found the following article by Thom Rainer (President and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources).  It is an interesting look at five warning signs of declining church health.

“5 Warning Signs of Declining Church Health” by Thom Rainer