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Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Filtering by Category: Small Groups

13 issues for the Church in 2013


Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and author of several books including Break Out Churches, has written an interesting blog that looks at trends in the church - particularly with the rise of the millennial generation. This list he compiled is largely taken from Sam S. Rainer, senior pastor of Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN, and president of Rainer Research. I'd love to hear what you think about these projections:

  1. The impact of the “nones.” The 2012 study by Pew Research rightfully garnered much attention. The percentage of the adult U. S. population that claims no religious affiliation increased from 15 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2012. That is an amazing 33 percent increase in that one category in a relatively short period. One implication for local congregation is the decrease of marginal church attendees, often called “CEO” (Christmas Easter Only) Christians. There is no longer much societal pressure to attend church. Those on the margins are thus falling off completely. There will continue to be a financial impact since these infrequent attendees typically provided some level of giving to their churches.
  2. Migration back to small groups. For three decades, the key emphasis in American church life has been the corporate worship experience. Though that emphasis is not going away, there is an increasing emphasis on moving people to small groups of all kinds: Sunday schools; home groups; life groups; etc. There is an increasing awareness that those who are in groups have a higher level of commitment in almost all areas of church life. As the Sunday school movement swept the nation for a half-century through the 1970s, a similar groups movement is already underway and should gain even more momentum.
  3. Accelerated closing of churches. The institutional church stubbornly resists formal closing. Even if only six or seven people attend each week, those few fight for the survival of their church. Those who were attending these very small churches are either moving to the “nones” category, or they are moving to larger churches. The primary stalwarts to keep the doors open are members of the builder generation, those born before 1946.  As that generation decreases at an increasing rate, more churches will close. Any guess to the number of closings in 2013 is speculation on my part. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the numbers reach the 8,000 to 10,000 level.
  4. More churches moving to multiple venues. Membership in Mensa is not a requisite to have an insight on this issue. Just from an anecdotal perspective, the number of congregations moving to multiple venues is staggering. Indeed that issue may be the single greatest distinguishing factor in growing churches. The variety of the venues is increasing as well. Some churches have different venues on the same campus. Others move to multiple campus models. Some have an onsite preacher/teacher; others offer video streaming. Some churches have venues on Sunday only. Other churches have venues up to seven days a week. In the 1960s American congregations moved to multiple worship services in sweeping numbers. That same trend in multiple venues is taking place today. It should accelerate.
  5. The growth of prayer emphases in local congregations. Though prayer is foundational in the life of New Testament congregations, it frankly has not garnered much attention in recent years in American churches. There was a subtle but noticeable shift in 2012. More and more church leaders and members realized that the power and strength of health in their congregations is not human-centered but God-dependent. I am reticent to predict a true prayer revival in our nation, but I am confident in saying that more local congregations will focus on prayer. It will be interesting to see how such an emphasis manifests itself in each local body.
  6. Fickle commitment. In his post, Sam Rainer noted an overall decline in institutional loyalty. It is certainly pervasive in many American congregations. Indeed, the culture of the vast majority of American churches has been one of low commitment. That lower level of commitment is evident, paradoxically, in even the more committed members. Those members who once were present “every time the doors were open” may now be present, for example, 75 percent of the time. It is likely that decreased frequency of active attendees may be the single largest contributor to church decline in the past five years.
  7. Innovative use of space. I recently drove onto a church property located on approximately three to four acres. My consultant training told me that 300 to 500 people could worship on that site. The Millennial pastor who was riding with me said that the site could easily accommodate 2,000 in attendance. The younger pastor did not see limitations of times or days of worship. Indeed that generation will cause us to look anew at church space limitations.
  8. Heightened conflict. The Millennial generation will not accept church-as-usual. They are shaking the status quo in many churches. They are not seeking to be adversarial; they are simply asking tough questions that those of us in older generations were reticent to address. Anecdotally the greatest resistance to change is occurring in the Builder generation and the older Boomer generation (roughly including those born before 1955).
  9. Adversarial government. More public schools and other public facilities will be less accepting of churches meeting in their facilities. Some other local governments are resisting approval of non-tax paying congregations expanding their facilities. New churches and existing churches that are expanding their venues will be forced to become more creative as they look for new locations.
  10. Community focus. One of the great benefits the Millennial generation brings to our churches is their focus on the community in which the church is located. They are not content simply to offer ministries to those who come to the church facilities; they are going into the community to serve the merchants and residents who work and live there.
  11. Cultural discomfort. Many of the issues noted thus far point to growing levels of discomfort for the congregations in the culture they seek to minister and serve. For all of the twentieth century and even the early years of the twenty-first century, it was culturally acceptable, even expected, to be a part of  a local congregation. Those expectations are all but gone. There is a growing and distinct divide between the values of the culture and the Christian values most churches hold.
  12. Organizational distrust. There is a pervasive and growing distrust of institutions in general. Those institutions are found in both government and business, but religious institutions are not exempt from this lack of trust. That diminishing confidence exudes from those both in churches and those who do not attend churches.
  13. Reductions in church staff. I am watching this development carefully. Two different forces are at work. First, in many congregations there is a greater emphasis on laypersons handling roles once led by paid staff.  Second, the tough economic climate and declining church attendance are naturally affecting church budgets. Congregations are reticent to fire staff, but more and more are not filling vacant positions.

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Exponential: how you and your friends can start a missional church movement


I mentioned in an earlier post on the book "Multi-Site Road Trip" that I had the opportunity to meet Dave and Jon Ferguson several years back.  I remember meeting with them, and Dave Dummit, as they were considering a site in Brighton, Michigan.  They had graciously met with Dan Reeves and myself to share their wisdom then on multi-site and the Big Idea in a time when very few people were talking about it.  I later was able to hear from them again at Third Reformed in Kalamazoo (now CenterPoint), and also had a chance to visit the Big Yellow Box and bring some friends along while I was in Chicago back in 2005.  What's been really cool is to see these guys stay so focused on the mission that God called them to long ago to reach the city of Chicago, and to do it consistently and yet creatively.  So much has changed in their movement in terms of the creative energy and leadership they've brought to multi-site, and yet in some ways, so little has changed.  The heart of the message to see people find their way back to God is consistent, persistent, and powerful. All that to say that I've just finished reading Exponential:  How you and your friends can start a missional movement.

This was a fabulous read for me.  First, something personal.  I'm embarking right now on Fair Haven Ministries' first site called South Harbor Church that will launch on 10.10.10 in Byron Township in south Grand Rapids, Michigan(along with many others in the 10.10.10 Initiative).   In fact, this morning I'm headed to hand out free cookies and lemonade at a local Little League to meet people and learn about the community.  Anyway, this book right now for me is a God-send in the sense that it affirms so many things that God is doing out of our church right now and also gives incredibly practical handles for being lead by Jesus, leading and reproducing leaders, tribes, communities, and movements.  What I love about how Dave and Jon wrote the book, was that it's written with deeply biblical values, immensely practical, tested, and proven in the trenches of missional multi-siting.  I also love the real-life stories of real people and real churches.  The story of Community Christian (and all it's sites) and many of its leaders is woven throughout the pages and gives you a sense of the messy reality of a true movement as well as the powerful stories. This isn't just ideas... it's the real deal.

For the past 5 years, a couple of my responsibilities as a spiritual formation pastor at Fair Haven have been leadership development and small groups.  I've been to many conferences and read many books and tried to implement many theories and ideas in both of these areas.  What's awesome in this book as well to see is how small group life really works in this church, and especially how the leadership development pathway is integrated with not only small groups, but also with missional communities and in the raising up of artists.

This is probably one of the best books I've read on the practical side of the church multiplication movement.  It's a must read for any church that is serious about multiplying leaders, churches, sites, disciples, and influence.   This summer, we took on 4 interns in church planting and we also have an on-site venue with a Campus Pastor.  We just talked this past week about all of them reading this, and I hope we can make that a reality.

Here are a couple of great tid-bits you'll find:

  • Real practical help on the leadership development people pathway and the importance of apprenticeship.
  • Great illustrations of vision and strategy on napkins!
  • A wonderful passage on scripture reading and journaling and how it affects leadership and vision for Dave Ferguson (see my recent post on YouVersion and LifeJournals)
  • A great chapter on coaching, its importance in leadership development, and practical questions and a format for coaching.
  • Encouragement that you, too, can really be used by God to multiply disciples, leaders, teams, sites, and churches.
  • A focus not just on church growth, but on being missional.
  • Much more.

Loved the book, and look forward to re-reading it and reviewing it with more care for some direct implementation in our new site.  I'll let you know how it goes.

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Holistic Christianity... mega-churches


There are lots of people writing and talking about "getting back" to a more holistic Christianity.  There are a lot of individuals, tired of a dualistic Christianity, who are moving into the city, committing to seeking justice in their own communities, changing the way they handle their finances to help the poor, changing habits of handling waste and the world, and at the same time helping people to turn their lives, hearts, and hopes over to Jesus. (By the way, just as an interesting aside, there seem to be many more "born-agains" or "evangelicals" who are moving towards a more holistic gospel than those on the so-called more "liberal" end adding the evangelical pieces.  Is that true?  Do you see that?)  There are a lot more people in evangelical Christian circles who are learning the sub-culture we've created for ourselves isn't all that satisfying, not to mention that it violates some salt and lightness of our mission.  More are talking again about being transformational in the culture, about being missional, and resurrecting stories from the past of how the church was instrumental in the civil rights movement, the abolition of slavery, the determination of basic human rights in the American constitution, the understanding of freedom, and addressing the poverty among us.  Again, a lot of those writing or speaking about these things lately are labelled emergent, but there are others who are saying it, too.  I already mentioned Hybels and Warren.  I was pleased several years ago to read a transcript of an interview with Warren in front of some of the nations leading journalists called Myths of the Modern Mega-Church, and event hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life with Michael Cromartie moderating and David Brooks, columnist at the NY Times responding.  Here is one thing that Warren said, which echoes an earlier post of mine about the 21st centery division between evangelicals and social liberals.

But what happened is Protestantism split into two wings, the fundamentalists and the mainline churches. And the mainline churches tended to take the social action issues of Christianity – caring for the sick, for the poor, the dispossessed, racial justice and things like that. Today there really aren't that many Fundamentalists left; I don't know if you know that or not, but they are such a minority; there aren't that many Fundamentalists left in America.

Anyway, the fundamentalist and evangelical movement said they were just going to care about personal salvation when they split from the mainline churches. What happened is the mainline churches cared about the social morality and the evangelicals cared about personal morality. That's what happened when they split. But they really are all part of the total gospel – social justice, personal morality and salvation. And today a lot more people, evangelicals, are caring about those issues.

Here are some of the trends that Warren shared in his talk which I find encouraging sign-posts, particularly coming from a leader in his position.  Incidentally, it was probably this transcript that helped me to "be ok" with the call into a small-side mega-church after serving in a more emergent environment for 8 years prior.

  1. The return of the evangelical movement to its 19th-century roots, roots characterized by what he called "compassionate activism"
  2. Signs of spiritual awakening in America, particularly through the "small group structure"
  3. A shift in power from parachurches to local churches
  4. Three important questions
    • Will Islam modernize peacefully?
    • Will America return to its religious roots and faith or go the way of secularism and post-Christianity as did Europe?
    • What will fill the vacuum of a dying Marxism in China?
  5. An evolving alliance between Evangelical Christians and Catholics.  (In addition to a trip to Rome and some study of this trend and meeting with some leadership there back in 1999, there were some seminal studies for me that were helpful here that are worth looking at if you haven't:  Evangelicals and Catholics Together and Evangelicals and Catholics Together - a new initiative.

In this transcript, you can see the heart of Rick Warren to do justice, seek mercy, and walk humbly before his God.  You can see that he is trying to seek the Kingdom and lead others to do so.  One of the most influential things in my life from this transcript were two.  First was his explanation of the stewardship of his leadership to harness the influence and the affluence of his culture for the kingdom, not just for personal salvation or conversion.  Second was Rick and his wife's reverse tithing, in which they gave more and more of their income away until they paid back their salary to the church.  So often you see leaders of large movements caught up in their own fame and fortune.  Instead, Rick has committed his life to reaching the lost, and to making a difference in the world.  When he institited the P.E.A.C.E. plan and began to become a critical force in emergencies like the Tsunami and Hurricane disasters of 2005, and is now involved heavily in global poverty and AIDS work, I've been impressed and encouraged. 

Oh, and for good measure and if you don't want to read the transcript (although I highly recommend it), here are the myths of the modern mega-church.  I found these quite insightful and it opened my eyes to some pretty important things.  Remember, these are myths:

  1. The mega-church is a uniquely American phenomenon.
    • Truth:  reality is there are far more mega-churches outside of the United States than there are inside of the United States
  2. Mega-churches are politically active.
  3. Mega-churches attract people because of their size.
  4. Mega-churches have televised services.
  5. Mega-churches require little or no commitment.
  6. Mega-churches grow by marketing.

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Another study that’s out recently is Willow Creek’s Reveal: a spiritual growth conversation.  In order to really get into the details, you need to read the study, but you can download key findings at the website (as you can in the link for UnChristian if you give them you email). The people who did the Reveal study thought that they would find a direct connection or link between peoples spiritual growth and their involvement in church activities.  You know, you get involved in church, in bible studies, in small groups, in worship, in service and you grow, right?  What they found, instead, was that an increase in church involvement did not necessarily result in an increase in love for God and love for others or spiritual transformation.  In fact, they found that a significant number of heavily involved people were both spiritually stalled personally as well as dissatisfied with the church in terms of their spiritual growth and faith development.  The interesting thing to note is that those people remain committed and involved for an extended period of time, even in the midst of their stalled spirituality and dissatisfaction with the church.  Is it Christian guilt, duty, or something else that drives that?  Or is it just faithfulness? In any case, isn’t it interesting that those who are deeply connected to the church and deeply immersed in her culture, including giving and receiving from her are often spiritually stalled and dissatisfied.  Also, those who are outsiders (see previous post on the UnChristian) are more skeptical and critical of the church and Christians than ever.

Is it crazy to conclude that a) either the church is missing something huge or b) Christianity doesn’t work?  I’m not willing to move to b), but I know a lot of people who have walked away from the church because they have.  They say they can’t find Jesus in the church anymore… or he can’t find them.  They find that the promises fall empty, and the “marketing” rings hollow when the “product” the church is selling doesn’t live up to its ad campaign. 

I remember hearing Donald Miller say it this way (which really messed me up when I heard it), “Either Jesus is a bad product that doesn’t work, or we’re using a whole system that doesn’t work.” [Catalyst, 2007]  Though I’m not a fan of John Shelby Spong, I’ve always love the title of his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die.  Though I think he’s wrong in a much of his theology and his prescriptions, the title is right.

These are the things that keep me up at night.  How about you?

PS - If you’re interested in small groups ministry, there are some specific study results around small groups.

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Small Group Intimacy & Impact


I’ve been thinking a lot about a particular issue related to small groups.  One of my responsibilities in my position is oversight, development, resourcing, and training of small groups, what we call LifeGroups.  I’ve been planning a small groups mini-conference this fall on August 24-25 called “Be Transformed“.  One of our speakers is Denise VanEck, who recently left her position as Community Pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church and is now working as a consultant in her firm Deep Shift Coaching and Consulting and with Brian McLaren on his upcoming tour, Everything Must Change.  We were meeting in preparation for the conference, and got into a wonderful discussion about groups that has caused me to think differently about a few things.We were discussion the heart of how transformation happens in group life, why it happens, and how to help leaders guide their groups in joining God in what he is doing in their hearts, in their churches, and in their communities.  We began to talk about some of the changes in small group ministry happening at Willow Creek Community Church, one of the flagship churches after which so many churches have patterned their small group ministries.  In fact, we brought Bill Donahue in last year to do some coaching with our staff and leaders around small groups.  Then we got onto the topic of intimacy in groups, and the missional impact of groups in the community.  Here is what we talked about merged with some of my own follow up thoughts.  First, the intimacy that we try to create between people who meet regularly over a study may be a false kind of intimacy and a false community.  We may be asking them to do something that doesn’t merely come through meeting and studying together.  One of the questions that’s important, is what percentage of groups actually find that intimacy that we tell them will come if they meet together?  It’s a smallish percentage that find it and find themselves committed to one another.  Many groups struggle with commitment.  How many times have I heard, “My group doesn’t seem committed.”  “They aren’t doing their homework for small group.”  Could it be because there is something else going on?  And is intimacy the highest value of group life?  Is something else required to forge commitment?  I had called our conference “Be Transformed” because of a phrase that God laid on my heart a couple years ago that goes like this, “God is more interested in your transformation than your amounts of information.”  Now, I might add something like, “God is more interested in transformation and recreation than he is in your amounts of information.”  Not only is God interested in my transformation, but in the transformation of all of his children and all of creation until it returns to its original intention in the created order prefall.  Anyway…

Secondly, Denise reminded me of the times when some of the greatest intimacy and commitment are demonstrated are with the military platoon and the church mission trip.  Her contention was that these groups - often very diverse groups who are not “affinity groups,” who are of different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, are forged together with a deep bond of commitment.  Her idea is that the glue to these groups is actually being on mission together, particularly on a mission that is difficult and dangerous.  In her time at Mars Hill, she sought to bring this idea to their neighborhood groups, or house churches.  So, could it be that being on mission drives not only intimacy, but both personal and community transformation?  Could it be that even the church is transformed on mission?  That’s been one of my quandaries for the last 10 years - whether amounts of information lead us to transformation and then into mission, or if, as we are on mission, the church is changed.  (note… Jesus formed the disciples on mission)  I bought into that idea long ago, but never made the transition to group life.  Thanks Denies.

So… here are some things I’ve been drawing on the wall (when can I get a drawing feature on a blog?  Come on… keep up with FaceBook).

Here is the traditional group idea:

Affinity –> Intimacy –> Transformation/ Growth –> Missional Impact

One of the things I notice with this way of doing it is how many groups (like churches in the same way) become insular, ingrown, and have zero missional impact.  It is the rare small group that moves beyond group intimacy and study to community impact.  Here is, I think, what Denise was suggesting:

Missional Impact –> Intimacy/ Commitment/ Transformation/ Growth and affinity is built around Missional Impact and Kingdom work

When I spoke with my small groups team about this, they wanted to be less linear and thought that these all interacted together on some sort of complex level.  However, how do you  help group leaders to focus and lead in a way that participates with what God is doing and leads to personal, community, and church transformation and kingdom impact?  I look forward to interacting with some of these ideas at our upcoming conference, and I’d love to hear your ideas.

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