“For a Cause or for Christ?” (Repost of Heather Zempel Blog)

I’ve been talking about the first sign of a healthy small group. It must be Christ-centered. Heather Zempel (at right) put it so well in her blog November 23. Check it out:
“The disciples didn’t lay their lives down for a cause but for a person.”
That’s how Dave Buehring kicked off his talk on the Ways of God at our Kaboom Retreat (formerly zone leader/team leader retreat) this weekend.
For some reason, that one statement is really challenging me personally and challenging the way I lead my team. I fear that I have spent too much time motivating people to a cause- make disciples, advance the Kingdom, create culture, change a generation, etc. That’s all good stuff, but it’s not the ultimate goal, is it? Maybe I should focus a bit more on simply elevating the person of Jesus Christ.

Causes are good. Causes build fans and create evangelists. Christ is better. He builds communities of faith and creates martyrs. Not that we all want to rush out to the Colosseum to volunteer ourselves for lion dinner. But laying down our lives is one of the ways we follow Jesus Christ.

The disciples didn’t lay their lives down for some great cause that had captivated their emotions and imaginations. They laid their lives down for a person who had already laid his own life down for them.

Why am I more cause focused than person focused? Perhaps it is more comfortable and easy for me to acquaint myself with and attach myself to a cause than to enter a messy and flesh-killing relationship with Jesus Christ.

Read Heather’s blog here.

Hungry Small Groups

For those of you outside of Northeast Christian, we are now on Day 2 of a food challenge, eating just a small amount of rice and beans for lunch and dinner (and maybe 1 tortilla) and oatmeal for breakfast. We’re doing this as a church as an act of solidarity with those who live in the bottom economic half of the world. We want to understand what it might be like to be hungry, and grow our hunger to make a difference.

An interesting aspect of this for me is watching how our small groups respond. I’ve wondered if they would come together to encourage one another and spur one another on and bear with one another? I got my answer today when one of our group leaders, Stephanie Wilson posted a comment on our church blog:

So great to have a life group to encourage each other through the week. Last night the “I’m Hungry!!” email blasts to our group started around 5pm. It is fun to have a group to connect with and to hold each other accountable and to know that you have someone praying for you during this challenge.

Stephanie’s words point to at least two of our signs of a healthy small group: Authentic Biblical Community and Mission-Minded. I’ll write more about these in a future blog, but I thought this was a great opportunity — a teachable moment, perhaps — that I did not want to miss.

Groups that are moving both inward in community with one another and outward in mission are the most healthy, strong, life-changing groups. And the best part is how these two values are interdependent. They are symbiotic, or mutually beneficial to one another. It’s what I posted in my first blog about being a part of a healthy ecosystem.

Is your small group hungering for more?

“Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty'” (John 6:35).

Click the banner below to check out our “Hunger Blog”

I’m Not the Leader: 1st Sign of a Healthy Group – Part 2

I am not the leader of our small group.

I’m not trying to get out of anything. I’m not passing the buck. It’s just that a group can only have one real leader, and I’m not it.

In my last blog, I wrote about the importance of a small group being “Christ-centered.” What’s even more important is that the leadership of my group must be Christ-centered. I’ve combined these as two separate but related aspects of the first sign of a healthy small group.

I am the “second-chair” leader of the group. The Best Small Group Leader Ever is a perfect model. Jesus only did and spoke what the Father gave him to do and say (see John 5:19; 8:28; 12:49 and other passages). Jesus recognized the Father as the real leader.

I try to look at our small group as a matter of stewardship. God owns the group, but he has entrusted the people to me. They were his in the first pace. Then he gave them to me to care for, encourage, spur on…. Jesus modeled this perfectly too. See John 17:6-12. I believe I’ll one day be held accountable for what I did with those he has put under my care … some day, when the “Chief Shepherd” appears (see 1 Peter 5:2-4).

I’ve been learning that my main job as the second-chair leader is to stay close to Jesus. My leadership actually has little to do with me, my ideas, my abilities, even my gifts. No, it starts with what God is graciously pouring into me and then simply–but powerfully–overflows from my life into others near me.

This is one of my favorite subjects to write about. I’ve discussed it in Leading from the Heart and I’m a Leader … Now What? and it’s a vital element in The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership. So you’d think I’d have this down by now. Wish I did. But I always seem to take back control, forget to rely on God, try to depend on my own minimal strengths rather than God’s unlimited power. So the “how” does not come as easy as the “what” and “why.” I know it starts with my time spent with him. I do well there. But it’s more than that. It’s truly letting Jesus lead the group through me.

I (or someone else in the group) begin every meeting in worshipful prayer, recognizing Christ’s presence with us and that he is our real leader. I ask him to show his power as he leads us. Then I watch for what Jesus does in and through me as I lead from the second chair. This is a good start, but I want to continue getting much better at this. I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Tootsie Pop Small Groups: 1st Sign of a Healthy Group


Healthy small groups are like Tootsie Pops. The most important part is what’s at it’s center. I was thinking about this analogy and the tract that contrasts two ways of living life, represented by two circles: the self-directed and Christ-centered life. Here’s the illustration from the Campus Crusade web site:


What’s at the center of these circles determines the kind of life you have. What if these circles represented your small group? Who’s on the throne there?

Is your group …

  • leader-centered?
  • content-centered (focused on curriculum or a certain study or author)?
  • challenge-centered (focused on a group member’s or the group’s issues)?
  • cause-centered?

There’s nothing wrong with any of these, of course, but a healthy group is focused on Christ and his presence, power, purposes, and plans.

In his blog on Organic Group Formation, my good friend Randall Neighbour provides some great diagrams contrasting unhealthy and healthy group formation. Check these out and, if you want to read more, see Randall’s post:

These show how a group should form, and in my new book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership, I discuss in much more depth how a group can form or re-form around Christ. This is, I believe, “central” to a healthy, strong, growing small group.

Why do so many small groups fail to bear much fruit? Because we’ve been focusing on a lot of other things rather than Christ. Jesus promised that whenever we gather together in his name, or for his purposes, he will be there among us (Matthew 18:20). And if he is among us, he will bring transformation. And if his purposes truly are our purposes, we will be making, baptizing, and teaching disciples. And if he is present, his power will be at work in unexpected ways; he’ll do more than we can ask or imagine in and through our groups!

I’ve seen many small groups take a lot of licks trying to do group life centered on things other than Christ. So, here’s the question:

“How many licks will it take to get to the Christ-directed center of your small group?”

How are you doing at making Christ’s presence real in your group(s)? How are you keeping him at the center? How are you staying focused on him and his purposes for you?

I’ll write more on this first sign of a healthy group in my next blog …

Healthy Groups Are Intentional

Today I came across a great blog post by DeAntwan Fitts, pastor of Peace Chapel in Los Angeles, titled “Five Stages of a Healthy Small Group.” Great post, and a very necessary part of what I’m discussing here.

DeAntwan begins his post,

Healthy small groups do not just happen. They are the result of the leader being INTENTIONAL about moving the group through the four [sic] important stages of a healthy small group.

He’s dead-on about this. While I’m sharing 7 “signs” of a healthy small group, which I believe leaders can use to diagnose the health of their group(s) and then make prescriptive changes to make their groups more healthy, DeAntwan’s list provides five very useful benchmarks for those signs.

I also really like the fact that DeAntwan encourages leaders to be very intentional in all this. Unhealthy groups generally do not know their win and just meet week to week with little or no direction. Healthy groups are intentional about who they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there.

Check out DeAntwan’s post here.

Seven Signs of a Healthy Ecosystem in Your Group

Question #1: Is your group healthy? A healthy group is a group that will naturally grow, develop, bear fruit, and reproduce.

Question #2: How do you know if your group is healthy or not?

Last spring I wanted to answer the second question so I could help our groups answer the first one. So I thought and prayed and asked other leaders and pastors and read and prayed some more. Finally I came up with what I called “7 Signs of a Healthy Group.” I’ve now modified that original list slightly.

What I want to do in this blog for a while is discuss these signs of a healthy group along with the correlating 3 results. So here they are with just a very brief definition for each.

1. Christ-Centered. The group leader and members recognize that God is the real leader of the group (the leaders are stewards of the group). Group meetings are focused on the presence and purposes of Christ in their midst (Matt. 18:20) rather than on curriculum, group issues, individual’s needs and desires, etc.

2. Healthy, Growing Leader. The group leader is growing in his or her faith by being involved in daily disciplines such as Bible study and prayer.

3. Core Team. The group is led by a Core Team of 2-4 members who share leadership. No one leads alone.

4. Goals & Plans. The group has a written “Action Plan” that includes a mission, goals, expectations, ground rules, etc.

5. Authentic Biblical Community. The group meets regularly & consistently. The group regularly prays for and ministers to one another. Group members participate in a role (shared ownership) in the group. The group is doing life together outside of meetings.

6. Disciple-Making. Discipleship (helping one another grow up spiritually) is intentional. The group engages regularly in group Bible study and application.

7. Mission-Minded. Christ’s mission (Matthew 28:18-20) is the group’s mission. The group regularly prays for their lost friends and is sharing their faith with others. The group is intentionally open to new people. The group is serving others together and/or individually (or has a plan to do so if the group is new).

The RESULT or “fruit” of a healthy group is a group that is …
• Growing
• Reaching Out
• Reproducing

What do you think of these 7 signs of a healthy group? Would you add any others? More importantly, how are you doing on these? Which does your group do well? With which do you struggle the most?

Next time we’ll dive into #1: Christ-Centered.

Is Your Small Group Ecosystem Healthy?

The other day I was listening to a sermon by Chip Ingram in which he compared authentic community to an “ecosystem” (a link to the MP3 can be found at the bottom of this blog entry).

I like this comparison. For years I’ve taught that authentic Christian community is the “environment” or “culture” where people grow best. I used to use a Petri dish as an illustration of the fact that everything needs an environment or culture in which to grow. So do Christians. In the environment of Christian community, Christ followers receive all the nutrients they need to grow spiritually.

I think I like ecosystem better. Ecosystem suggests an interdependence upon one another in the environment, functioning together with each other for the betterment of the whole. It sounds a lot like Paul’s description of the body of Christ.

So I’m going with ecosystem now. And as we well know today, healthy growth only happens in a healthy ecosystem. Interestingly, even ecologists find it difficult to define a healthy ecosystem. (Check out this blog from the EPA, “What Is a Healthy Ecosystem?”)

Over the next several weeks I’ll share my thoughts on what makes a healthy ecosystem in a small group. I’ve already done a bunch of research on this, and I’ll share some of the results of the health assessments our leaders at Northeast Christian took last spring. I think this will help small group leaders to not only understand what makes a group healthy or unhealthy, but to begin to make healthier choices as they lead.

By the way, I’ll be posting at least weekly, so make sure you’re following!

Listen to MP3 of Chip Ingram’s sermon: “Balance Your Ecosystem”