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Planning with Your Core

I think every healthy small group has a core of people who are closer and more committed than most of the members. Jesus’ small group did. He had twelve close followers, but if you look closely at the Gospels, sometimes he is just with his core—Peter, James, and John (i.e., Mark 5:37; 9:2; 13:3; 14:33).

Right now is a good time of year to get together to do some planning and praying with your core.

The core of our group is Vicki and me, our hosts, and our intern. Our hosts invited the core over for a cookout on Sunday to plan for the weeks and months ahead. We hung out and talked. We took time to minister to one person. We ate grilled chicken, steak, pasta salad, and cheesecake. I think I’d forgotten why we got together, but then Vicki said, “Aren’t we going to talk about small group?” So we got out a pen and paper and did some talking and planning.

We talked about what time we would meet (7:15pm this fall instead of our previous time of 7:00). We planned three regular small group meetings, one party and one outreach event for September. We decided to work with SeniorCare, our church’s nursing home ministry, again as a small group this year. We talked about distributing responsibilities better this year instead of the leaders doing too much. We talked about how different members were doing and what new people we should invite. This discussion probably only took about 30 minutes but it was extremely helpful and set the course for our group for the fall.

Who is the core of your group? Have you met with them to chart your course for the weeks and months ahead? What questions or suggestions do you have about making plans for the fall?

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Pray, Invite, Eat, Repeat

How do you grow a small group? I think it comes down to four simple actions: pray, invite, eat, repeat.

One reason why I want to write on this is because growing our own small group this year took persistence in these principles. We started strong with three committed couples. Then three other individuals joined us. But those three didn’t stay past our fall Outflow series and one of the core couples moved to Italy. Someone else joined us and for what seemed like a loooong time we had five people if everyone showed up.

What do you do when you have a great group and you just need more people?

Pray. We kept asking God to send us people.

Invite. This can’t be overemphasized. Everyone needs to be in a vibrant small group. Really. Some of them don’t realize it though! Some do. So you invite lots of people. We and our host invited people at the Vineyard, our friends, and even people in the grocery store. Some people we invited repeatedly. I remember one week when we were having a potluck that Vicki and I figured if everyone came that we invited that week we would have 20 additional people. One came. Eventually, though people started visiting and some of them kept coming back.

Eat. Food is important to small groups for lots of reasons, one is for drawing people. For some reason it’s less threatening and more fun for people to visit when you are having a potluck, cookout or party. So eat often. Last month our group had a potluck. This week we are having a cookout.

Repeat. These principles work but they sometimes take time. Persistence is important. Hang in there!

If you want your small group to grow—and you do, right?—I recommend that you pray, invite, eat, and repeat.

What advice do you have for others on growing a small group?

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Discipleship thru Mini-Groups

How do you release spiritual growth in small groups? How do you help people move through barriers into the fullness that God has for them in Jesus?

A big part of this is mini-groups. I love small groups and I also love mini-groups. What is a mini-group? It’s two to four guys or two to four gals meeting together and holding each other accountable, praying for each other and encouraging each other.

Right now I meet with two other guys over lunch each Thursday. (One of them is in my small group, the other is someone else I want to invest in.) We all pack lunches and meet in one of the guys’ offices that is central to the three of us. It’s cheap, convenient, and private enough to let ministry flow. In the past I have met guys for breakfast at McDonald’s or even late at night after our little kids were in bed.

In small groups we get personal, but in mini-groups we can get even more intimate and say what is really going on in our lives. I like having three or four guys rather than just two. There is more strength and wisdom, and the group can meet even if one of us misses.

We always ask each other when we start, “What do you need for us to ask you every week?” Different guys need different questions. Are you taking time with God? Are you looking at internet pornography? Are you taking time with your wife and kids? Are you working on your doctoral dissertation?

We meet for a set amount of time. “Let’s try this for two months.” Then we adjust and recommit. Others can join us if they are really wanting to grow and willing for others to be honest with them and direct. If they don’t really want to be held accountable it ruins things. Don’t do mini-group with people who don’t genuinely want to grow.

If I am meeting with new Christians I use the booklet that Ralph Neighbour and I wrote called Beginning the Journey. If not it’s less structured.

I use our church’s recommended questions, though we don’t use all the questions every week. We each have these on a business-sized card in our wallets.

What has been the best part of your week? the hardest?

Did you read your Bible and pray daily?

Have you prayed for and served your unchurched friends?

Have you made progress on your personal goals?

What known sins have you committed?

Are you keeping any secrets (from us or from loved ones)?

What would you like prayer for?

Do you encourage mini-groups in your small group? What have you learned about these accountability groups? What questions do you have?

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Communion, Kids, & Small Group

Should kids be able to take communion? I am sure a lot of profound stuff has been written about this over the last couple thousand years. What has been written and said? I am not sure. But my wife thinks we should include the children, so that sounds good to me. (She’s close to God, extremely intelligent, and also a seminary student.)

I thought I’d talk to the kids and teens in our group ahead of time and get their preferences. So before small group started I went down in the basement (where they had all headed) and ask which of them wanted to participate in communion. The three teen girls there at that time all wanted to. But an 8-year old girl said, “I’ve taken it before and I don’t want to again.” The other grade school kids sided with her. Another teen girl and an 11-year old boy arrived a little later and they both decided to also take communion.

We started with all the adults, kids and teens together in the family room doing our icebreaker and two worship songs. Then we all talked about what baptism and communion mean. Following that I dismissed the kids that wanted to leave to go play in the basement.

Communion was cool. First we took time to let God examine our hearts and to bring anything we needed to him. Then we passed the homemade bread to each other saying, “The body of Christ was broken for you.” Each person broke off a piece. Then we passed the cup of juice saying “the blood of Christ was shed for you” to the person next to us. As we did, that person would dip their piece of bread in the juice and then eat it. (During this time the three kids in the basement were getting kind of loud so someone went and ask them to be quieter.) Immediately following the passing of the bread and cup, we prayed and were quiet and listened for words from God. People shared. Then the four teen girls headed to the living room to pray for each other, the women stayed in the family room for ministry time, and the men and the 11-year old boy went to the dining room to pray. Everyone joined together later for snacks in the kitchen.

What thoughts, advice or questions do you have for kids and communion or about celebrating communion in small group?

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Retuning My Leadership

Last weekend was our annual Leadership Rally which—if you’re not from our church—is a fun Friday evening and Saturday morning event where we have worship, ministry and workshops.

The purpose of the rally is to encourage and retune our leaders. The rally helped me to recalibrate my own leadership. On Saturday morning all the small group leaders—including me—took a group leadership assessment. My highest score was “Prayer.” My lowest score was “Empower.” It was helpful to realize this. Vicki and I talked. We have five regular attenders in our group and two of them are our host couple. So we haven’t seen a lot of places to give away leadership just yet. But I realized, as we talked about things, that we could give away the snack coordinating to the other gal and that I could ask the host husband to coordinate our involvement with SeniorCare. He’s excited that our small group is helping with this nursing home ministry. Coordinating it is a small thing but it’s one less thing for me to think about. These are small but significant steps in retuning our leadership and our group.

Does your leadership need a tune up? Where is your leadership and small group strong—Praying, Reaching Out, Caring or Empowering? Where is it weak? What can you do to improve in the weak area?

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Serving Others as a Group

Small Group is a lot more than a meeting. It’s people caring about one another and reaching out to those beyond the group. I want to see our small group reaching out in two ways—first, praying and loving those that don’t know Jesus and, two, doing things for those less fortunate than us.

As a group we discussed what we wanted to do to show Jesus’ love to others in a tangible way. We decide to try out helping our SeniorCare ministry with their nursing home ministry which involves helping with a worship service and praying for and visiting residents at a nursing home near our church’s building. One reason we chose this is because we have a kid-friendly group and nursing home ministry is great for kids. Seniors just light up when they see children and teens.

So we did this a couple weeks ago. (If you want to help with SeniorCare, it’s the third Saturday of every month from 3:30-5:00pm.) It was fun and also a blessing. It wasn’t the best timing and I forget to get the details out well in advance, so not all of our group was able to go this first time, but we had three adults, one teen, and two grade-school aged kids who showed up. A dad told me his son wasn’t anxious to go but after going he’s excited about returning and bringing his trombone next time we do so that he can help with the songs. He is going to be practicing to that end.

What a privilege to see kids learning to use their gifts to serve others at a young age!

Jesus says in Luke 14:12-14: “When you put on a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will repay you by inviting you back. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the godly, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” There is a special blessing in doing something for those who can’t “pay you back.”

What has your small group enjoyed doing to serve others? What do you plan to do in 2008 to serve those who can’t serve you back? Please share your ideas.

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Timing My Small Group Meeting

I want to blog about timing a small group meeting.

A 90-MINUTE SMALL GROUP MEETING
I like a 90-minute small group meeting. Most group meetings that go longer than that are too long. (I think young adult groups can go longer perhaps. You young guys and gals maybe have more time.) You can do a great group in 90 minutes and it’s easier to end on a high note if you don’t go too long. It also allows more time to hang out together afterwards and some of the coolest stuff—relationship-building—happens after the meeting’s over.

It is interesting to me that many of the churches overseas with tens of thousands of groups—churches like Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, and International Charismatic Mission in Bogota, Columbia—actually do one-hour group meetings.

So tonight at my small group meeting I discreetly looked at the clock so I could report our timing to you.

6:52PM, ARRIVAL
We got to small group at 6:52. Our host always has free coffee and lemonade ready ahead of time. People gathered as always in the kitchen.

7:04PM, “ICEBREAKER! ICEBREAKER!”
At 7:04, I yelled to the kids who were mostly in the basement, “It’s time for the icebreaker.” It was cool to hear them yell to each other, “Icebreaker! Icebreaker!” They scrambled up the stairs and into the family room. A fire was glowing in the fireplace at one end of the room and the dog was curled up on her bed at the opposite end.

7:12 PM, STUDY BEGINS IN LIVING ROOM
At 7:12 we prayed a blessing on the kids and the adults moved to the living room because we need a DVD player for what we are doing now. I like a study of 25-30 minutes followed by LOTS of ministry, but this evening we were doing a session on “How to Handle Teen Anger” and it took us till 8:17 to cover it well. It’s okay for the study to go long sometimes, but you don’t want that to happen consistently. I actually had things pretty intentionally timed this evening. We’ll break next week’s video into two sessions and leave ample time for ministry for those two meetings.

8:17PM, WORSHIP
Our worship leader led two great worship songs: “Everlasting God” and “In the Secret.” At 8:26 we started praying about the things we had talked about that night.

8:30PM, AMEN!
At 8:30 I said, “Amen!” We did it! Group was over by 8:30 again. I was anxious to move back to the kitchen to enjoy the fresh brownies that someone had brought, but the hostess wanted to talk about two more things. First off, she wanted the group to discuss who else we should be inviting to small group. (Is she a cool hostess or what!?) We talked about several people different ones of us could invite. She also wanted to plan something fun. It looks like we’ll do a Superbowl party.

8:37PM, BROWNIES & PRAYER
I reminded the group that there were fresh brownies in the kitchen and managed to move us onto that important agenda item. Everyone, including kids and teens, converged in the kitchen. Ice cream also appeared. I had another cup of decaf coffee with the dessert. One of the teens of the host family was sick. We laid hands on her and prayed for her.

8:57PM, “LET’S GO”
At 8:57, I said, “Let’s go and let this family get to bed.” Before 9:01 everyone was out the door. People, especially the hosts, appreciate it if you end on time and leave on time.

TIMING YOUR GROUP
What have you learned about timing your own small group meeting? What suggestions do you have for others for keeping things on track?

How are things going now? Are your meetings timed well or are they going too long? What’s one thing you want to change or you want to try to time things better?

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Food & Small Group Growth

This week everyone came to small group! Why? Because we were doing a potluck. People show up for food!

It reminds me of a potluck we did in our last small group. So many people were there that evening that a new member asked me if we had invited another group to join us. I said, “No, this happens every time we have a potluck.”

Food is important to a small group. There is something special about eating together. We share meals with those closest to us. When we eat together we enjoy great food and fellowship and celebrate belonging in God’s family.

I actually looked at the relationship of eating meals together and small group growth as part of my doctoral research. Groups that eat together grow faster. It’s not a major growth factor—like prayer or outreach or empowering leadership—but it definitely helps.

Here is what we did at our meeting. We met earlier than usual—at 6:00pm instead of 7:00pm. First we enjoyed a meal together. Adults ate in the dining room, the teens and kids were in the kitchen. Then we all moved to the family room and answered two fun icebreaker questions: “What is one thing you want for Christmas?” and “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Eight adults, three teenage girls, and four grade school aged boys all answered both questions. (There were also two toddlers there.) All the answers were fascinating. It was fun. Then we enjoyed dessert together. After that people hung around and talked and some of us looked at a video of the Mahomet Marching Bulldogs. Some prayer concerns were shared informally. People stayed about two hours in all. We left about 8:00pm.

Have you done a potluck lately in your small group?

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Caring—The Heart of Leading

I was reminded this past week, by my wife’s actions, that small group leading is all about caring about people not simply leading a meeting. As I related in a previous blog, one person—let’s call her “Mary”—recently visited our group a couple times and then graciously let us know that she wasn’t coming back.

Obviously, Mary wanted to find a small group or she wouldn’t have come twice. For some reason our group wasn’t a good fit. We thought of another group with people in a similar life stage as her. We wanted to commend that group to her. We were going to talk to her at the following Saturday evening service, but she wasn’t there. Vicki decided to call her and let her know about the other group. But then she realized that she hardly knew Mary and that she needed to get to know her rather than simply doling out advice.

Vicki phoned her and asked if she wanted to meet for breakfast to get to know one another better. She did. They met and had a delightful time. Vicki learned a lot. Mary’s life hasn’t been easy. Many things were stacked against her right from the start. A recent crisis made her realize her need to get back to God. She knows almost no one at the Vineyard but knew that it was a safe and caring church. So she has recently starting coming to weekend services. Vicki recommended a ministry to her that she thought Mary could benefit from and find friends at. She also told her, that she is always welcome at our small group.

I’m at church every Saturday evening and all morning each Sunday. The worship service that Vicki and I normally attend is Saturday evening. Last Saturday evening when we entered the auditorium we looked around for small group members to sit with but didn’t see any. Then we looked for small group leaders or members from the West Zone but couldn’t spot any of those either. So we sat down next to someone else. About half way through the service, I noticed Mary sitting several rows in front of us. She was all by herself.

I want her to find rich relationship with others in the Vineyard family. I want her to give and receive encouragement, ministry, and caring.

She stopped by the Community table where I stand after every service to say “hi” and to let me know how much she enjoyed the time with Vicki.

Our group is having a potluck (with a Mexican theme) the week after Thanksgiving to wrap up our Outflow study. We’ll invite her to join us.

Today Vicki met two other ladies from the small group for lunch in one of their homes. She set up this meeting so that they could learn from one another about how to care for a parent with failing health—something all three are facing.

Some of the most important things a small group experiences happen outside the weekly meeting. It’s all about caring, growing in friendships, and have fun together.

I think I’ll call some of the guys and meet them for breakfast. I love small groups. I have made my closest friendships in small groups.

What does it mean for you right now to genuinely care for others? How can you grow in relationship with them?

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Preparing for Small Group

This may not be very exciting but I thought I’d tell you how I get ready for small group. I have an old flimsy nylon briefcase that is my small group briefcase. I keep my small group stuff in it. Right now it has songsheets, the Outflow book, and outflow DVD in it. I toss the small group helps—the LifeLine—in there each week.

I PRAYED
The longer I lead small group the more I realize that praying is important and preparing the lesson isn’t that important. As many of you might guess, it was my doctoral research on healthy small groups that helped me discover this. It’s really true. This week I prayed for the group at various points. Mostly random prayers as the group came to mind but Vicki and I also prayed for things a few times together.

WE PHONED
“You have not because you phone not” is a truth about small group especially when you are starting a new group. We called everyone who has come to group—not many at this point—to inform them of where we were meeting. One person said that she enjoyed visiting our group but would not be back. 🙁

I’m not sure why. We’ll try to find out from her after the service this weekend. Maybe another group would be a better fit for her.

Vicki called a gal who hadn’t come yet but seemed interested. She came! 🙂

I LOOKED OVER THE LESSON
I skimmed the small group helps and highlighted key phrases and the questions that I wanted to ask.

I LISTENED
As I prayed for the group this week I could see one of the group member’s face. As we prayed on the way to group this happened again, I realized that this was probably from God. I thought, “We need to pray for this guy tonight.” We did. I have found if I listen, God faithfully shows where to start ministry.

GOT COFFEE?
We met at a different host home this evening. The couple is moving out of the country in two months so they have sold a lot of their stuff. They told us that they don’t have a TV or coffee maker anymore. “No problem,” we told them, “we’ll bring a coffee maker and a computer to show, the Outflow DVD on.” On the way to small group, as Vicki and I were praying for the group, I realized that we had loaded up the coffee maker but not the computer. Oops! We were too far from home to go back. I joked to Vicki, “I guess we got the most important thing—the coffee maker!” Fortunately, the hosts had a laptop and external speakers that we could use to play the DVD.

Small group went great. The input, discussion and prayer on reaching our family and friends was on target and really spoke to everyone. Worship was good. Ministry was good. There was delicious cheesecake, popcorn, and coffee for snack. People didn’t seem to want to leave, but I didn’t want to wear out our welcome so I threw my stuff in my old briefcase a little after 9:00 and said we need to run. Everyone left.

One of the group members wants to have the whole group over for a Thanksgiving meal later this month. This group seems to be gelling way faster than the last small group we led. It’s a joy and privilege to be a small group leader.

What do you do to prepare for group?

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