Where Do You Go When You Have Lots of Small Group Questions?

It was about this time 20 years ago—the fall of 1995—that I started a new ministry from my basement in Cincinnati, Ohio. For a couple of years I had considered developing a national magazine for small group leaders, and I even had an offer from the preeminent small group ministry of that time to publish it—in due time. As I prayed and planned and talked about the idea with some friends, one of the guys in my men’s group asked why I didn’t just put the content on the World Wide Web.

So, using my dial-up modem and a computer measured in megabytes rather than gigabytes, I got started, registering the domain name smallgroups.com (oh how I wish I had also registered .org and .net as well as all the variations: smallgroup.com, etc.). God took the small seed and grew it and multiplied it and overwhelmed me, so much, in fact, that I eventually partnered with others to take it over and help it continue to grow.

Today that little ministry is operated by Christianity Today and is being overseen by Amy Jackson, who continues to be used by God to provide resources to help groups develop disciples who make disciples. That was my dream 20 years ago, and today it’s going stronger than ever.

I’m honored today to have Amy share her story and thoughts about how we can continue to resource group leaders worldwide. 

GUEST POST by Amy Jackson, Managing Editor of SmallGroups.com, a ministry of Christianity Today. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKJackson. 

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I have always loved to learn, and bookstores have always been a favorite place of mine. Years ago when I was hired by a church to start their small-group ministry, I approached it the same way I did everything else: I plopped myself down at the local bookstore and read all I could. After a few hours, I had a few new ideas, and I bought the best book of the bunch.

But within a few weeks, I realized that my questions weren’t fully answered. Yes, this new book had given me an overview of small groups, but I still had a lot of questions about the specific things I was working through. So I headed back to the bookstore, looking for a more specific book on my most pressing ministry questions.

The problem is that books simply couldn’t dive deep enough into the specific questions I had: What do I do about the existing Sunday school classes? What exactly should new leaders know before they start leading? What are the best ways to connect people into our new small groups? And perhaps my biggest question: How in the world can I take the principles of these huge churches and make it work for my church of 300?

Soon I found myself turning to online resources that addressed my specific questions with tips. Rather than spend hours at a bookstore searching for a book that might answer only a few of my questions, I could now look at a specific training tool for a few minutes and find the answers I needed.

There is still value in reading books about small groups! Some of my favorites are Leading Life-Changing Small Groups, Community Is Messy, and Life Together in Christ—and I highly recommend them all. But when you need to know how to troubleshoot a problem, you don’t have time to wait for a book that may or may not have an answer—in this case, even Amazon’s speedy shipping isn’t fast enough.

Besides the benefit of immediacy, the Internet has also helped small-group ministry leaders by allowing a variety of authors to publish and share what they’ve learned. One of my favorite things to do as editor of SmallGroups.com is find unknown small-group pastors around the world and share their wisdom. The only people who get book deals are people with large platforms, but there are lots of other people with hard-won wisdom to share. Online publishing allows a multitude of voices to be heard—and that benefits everyone.

I love the possibilities the Internet has opened up on for small-group leader resources. We can easily find just the right training from knowledgeable people around the world and access it immediately. We can stream videos on our TVs, and we can purchase a Bible study for our group tonight and still have time left to prepare for our meeting.

I’ve felt the pain of being in ministry and needing answers fast, so I love being able to provide valuable resources for small-group pastors to access right when they need it most. I’m overjoyed to connect with small-group pastors around the world to learn their proven techniques and best practices, packaging them in a way that allows leaders to instantly access high-quality training in whatever way makes sense for them. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for bookstores, but the ever-widening resources on the Internet have the unique ability to meet specific needs—and that has the power to change our small-group ministries for the better.


The Beginnings of Small Groups.com
“Why Small Groups Matter to Me”: My Story

The Brazil Cell-Church Conference: What I Learned … #1: Community Is a Way of Life for Brazilians

In March, my son Dru and I traveled to Brazil where I had the privilege of training cell-church pastors, coaches, and leaders at two conferences. The first three days I led five sessions in Manaus, which is in the north of Brazil. Then we traveled to the south to the beautiful resort town of Aguas de Lindoia, where I led the same (relatively) five sessions. In between, Dru and I had the opportunity to see some of Brazil, especially the Negro River, which is a huge river that feeds the Amazon, and visit several Indian villages along the river banks.


I was asked to go there to teach on the subjects of leadership burnout from my book The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership and the vital signs of a healthy group from Small Group Vital Signs. The fact is, I learned as much or more than what I taught.


I want to share just five of the many observations I made while there. I want to be careful not to overgeneralize or make blanket statements about all Brazilians, all Brazilian Christians, or even all Brazilian cell-group members. But I do want to share my own perceptions, for what they are worth. My intent for sharing these is that I learned quite a bit about North American Christianity and group life in the process.

Today I’ll begin with my #1 discovery. I’ll share the other four over the next week or so.

1. Community Is a Way of Life in Brazil. 
One of the reasons cells work so well in Brazil is that sharing life with one another is natural for most Brazilians. I saw this everywhere, from the way they drive (see my post and video abouit this here) to the way they share meals together to the way they worship. The latter of these really struck me. It seemed to me that when Brazilian Christians worship corporately, they do so as a community, looking at one another, pointing at each other, putting their arms around their friends … rather than as individuals who all happen to be gathered in the same room.

There is an important nuance here that I noticed. My whole life, I’ve experienced church as an individual who then steps into a community; in Brazil, people seem to see themselves as part of the community, the body of Christ, who have individual gifts and resources to share in that community. This difference makes community, evangelism, celebration–everything as the church–more vibrant, more like the New Testament church, than I’ve seen elsewhere.

My takeaway: I believe in the power of authentic, Christ-centered groups even more than ever before. Whereas in Brazil, and, from what I understand, many other countries around the world, cell life fits in perfectly with their community-driven culture, here in North America small groups and cells (I use these terms interchangeably, by the way) must be the driver of helping us develop a more community-driven culture in our churches and beyond.

We talk a lot about “sharing life together.” But we must humble ourselves and ask God to break our independent natures in order to truly live that way. I believe in the vision of my friend +Rick Howerton to see “a biblical small group within walking distance of every person on the planet making disciples that make disciples,” but I believe first we must learn to live  in the kind of community the early church experienced, not claiming that anything was their own, but sharing everything they had (Acts 2:45; 4:32). As always, health must proceed growth.

It’s in this kind of environment that once again the Lord will add to our number daily those being saved.

Read the rest of the posts in this series HERE

Ralph W. Neighbour: What We Can Learn from this Pioneer in the Groups Movement

+Ralph Neighbour is one of the pioneers of the groups movement in the U.S. I believe we can learn much from men and women like him who paved the way for us. Dr. Neighbour has a heart not only for healthy, holistic, Christ-centered groups, but for the church and God’s kingdom. And out of this passion he challenges and encourages us to break free from building-centered, program-focused, clergy-led forms and calls us to be the body of Christ, the priesthood of all believers.

Dr. Neighbour continues to travel around the world, passionately teaching and equipping leaders. Later this month, he will be traveling to the Canary Islands and then to Kiev, training cell church planters.

“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana). On the other hand, we can listen and learn from those who have gone before us. Ralph and others like him fulfill the psalmist’s affirmation: “We will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the Lord, about his power and his mighty wonders” (Psalm 78:4).

You may or may not agree with Dr. Neighbour on every point. But I encourage you to hear his heart for God’s church: the body of Christ.


By the way, I highly recommend the book Dr. Neighbour and I mentioned in the video, Christ’s Basic Bodies: Embracing God’s presence, power, and purposes in true biblical community. The book has had a profound impact on me and my ministry. It really is a must-read if you are involved in groups ministry.

2013’s Most Influential Small Group Influencers

Well … maybe these are just my favorite influencers–the ones I like to read (books, articles, blogs) and hear speak. I’m sure I’m leaving several very influential people off this list. I apologize–I mean no disrespect.

I’m including places you can contact them so you can follow them too.

So, in alphabetical order . . .

  1. Scott Boren @mscottborenhttp://mscottboren.com
  2. Joel Comiskey @sovereigntyGod; http://comiskey.org
  3. Bill Donahue @bdonahue80http://drbilldonahue.com/
  4. Jim Egli @jimeglihttp://jimegli.com/
  5. Steve Gladen @SteveGladenhttp://www.smallgroups.net/
  6. Mark Howell @MarkCHowellhttp://www.markhowelllive.com/
  7. Rick Howerton @rickhowertonhttp://blogs.navpress.com/rickhowerton/My-Blog
  8. Josh Hunt @joshhuntnmhttp://www.joshhunt.com/
  9. Amy Jackson@AmyKJackson@SmallGroupscom;  http://www.smallgroups.com
  10. Andrew Mason @_AndrewSMason@SGChurcheshttp://www.smallgroupchurches.com/
  11. Ben Reed @benreedhttp://www.benreed.net/
  12. Allen White @allenwhitehttp://allenwhite.org/
I’m thankful for each of these folks and the ministry they provide. I’m also grateful to be a partner with them in God’s kingdom work!
So . . . who did I leave off? Add your own favorite small group influencers iun the comments!

Where Is the Small Group Movement Today?

Lately I have been studying the beginnings of the small group movement in order to better understand what we can learn today. Last week I spoke to +Ralph Neighbour, and he gave me some incredible insights.

Movements typically develop over time in three (or up to about eight, depending on what sociologist you read) levels:

LEVEL 1: Emergence. This is where the movement begins, of course, with pioneers who are often, I believe, creative geniuses who have a radical passion. They are, as Ralph Neighbour shared with me, on-fire, desperate rascals willing to attack the status quo.

LEVEL 2: Coalescence/Synthesis. At this stage leaders (or managers) seek to organize all the chaos of the founders. Neighbour told me that at this stage the tendency may be to freeze the fire of the founders. I believe this is also the time when the goals of the founders are apt to change. Lyman Coleman recently shared with me about how the organizers of the church growth movement changed the purpose of small groups from reaching people outside the doors of the church to being a means for closing the back door of the church. In other words the main audience moved from outsiders to insiders. In an article on “The Stages of Social Movements,” the Boundless.com website reports, “One of the difficulties in studying social movements is that movement success is often ill-defined because the goals of a movement can change.” This seems to be true of the small groups movement.

LEVEL 3: Bureaucratism. At this stage, systems are set in place that help the movement fit into conventional lifestyles and rituals. This takes place by the establishment of certain rules and procedures within the established culture. Of course, this new bureaucratic system is often the antithesis of what those radical pioneers fought so hard for. The movement can now settle into status quo. Neighbour’s modern-day example of this is when a senior pastor hires a small groups minister to take care of the small groups ministry.

The process of moving through these levels will lead to either the success or the demise of a movement.

So the question today is simple: Where are we as a movement today? If you ask some of the pioneers you will get one answer. If you ask some of those who began in the synthesis or bureaucratism stages, you will probably get quite another.

What do you think? Where are we now and where are we going?

Lyman Coleman: Small Groups Are Much More Than an Assimilation Strategy
Lyman’s Legacy
The Beginnings of Small Groups.com

The Beginnings of Small Groups.com

I was sitting in a small groups seminar in 1993, mesmerized by Lyman Coleman as he stood by his overhead projector, training leaders as nobody else could. This is good stuff, I thought, but what will these folks do when they get back to their churches? What will they do two or three years from now when they run into difficult situations or have questions? How will the pastors and administrators continually train their leaders? 

My creative juices started flowing. Because of my background as a magazine writer and editor, I initially thought a monthly journal might be the answer. I talked to Lyman Coleman about the idea and he loved it, and he offered me a job with Serendipity. I flew to Colorado and spent several days with Coleman and his staff.

I was excited about the possibilities, but I had not yet done two vital things: talked to my wife and talked to God. Heidi said yes with her mouth, but her eyes told a different story. Heidi is usually up for an adventure, especially an adventure that God is leading, but she did not seem excited about this one. So I talked with God about the opportunity but heard neither a yes nor a no from him. After talking more with Heidi and seeking the advice from other people, I sensed that God had other plans.
For the next three years, from 1993-96, I dreamed and planned and continued praying, mostly in my spare time. One evening as I talked about my dream in my men’s group, one of the guys, a computer-savvy guy who was starting an Internet company (in the still-early days of the Internet) randomly threw out an idea: why not a web site rather than a print magazine? So I resigned my position in a Christian publishing company, became a stay-at-home dad of three toddlers (later to become four), and then, in November 1996, I launched what I then called “The Small Group Network,” now known as SmallGroups.com, from my basement. Our vision was reflected in our original name: to build a network of individuals, churches, publishers, and other resources to provide ongoing training and support for small group leaders and administrators of groups. Our goal was to equip small group leadership to make disciples and strengthen disciples into disciplemakers.
Several years later a group of leaders from a large ministry wanted to start a web-based ministry and so they brought me into their offices to get my insights into how to plan and launch it. I wish I could have provided them with all kinds of wisdom and expertise, but truthfully, I was rather dumbfounded. I was just along for the ride.

Today SmallGroups.com is part of the Christianity Today family of ministries, and it’s been fun to watch it grow and impact people around the world. I don’t understand how, but I’m fascinated by how God works in and through people to carry out his mission for his world. I’m glad to be part of it.


This is the third post in a series about the influence of Lyman Coleman in the small group movement. Previous posts:

Lyman’s Legacy

I wrote yesterday about Lyman Coleman and his thoughts on small groups as an assimilation strategy for the church. Today, I want to share some more personal thoughts about Lyman.
I first met Lyman Coleman in 1992 when I wrote a feature article about him for The Lookout magazine (right). I had called Serendipity House, the ministry he founded, to set up an interview with him. His assistant put him on the phone and he invited me to travel to two cities with him on his training tour. The time I spent with him over several days had a profound effect on my life. He challenged me to throw my life into God’s passion for reaching lost, broken people through authentic community.
I watched as Lyman led those conferences, and when I began to lead small group conferences myself, I tried to lead the way I saw him do it (although, looking back now, there was no way I could lead like him. Coleman is a unique, creative genius). More than anything, however, I caught Lyman’s passion for people the church has not yet been able to reach. I still carry that passion with me today.

Lyman speaks ardently about the men he learned from, men like Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, Sam Shoemaker, an episcopal priest who was influential in the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Bruce Larson, pastor at University Presbyterian Church and the Crystal Cathedral. Lyman is known as a preeminent small group pioneer, but he points to others who had a profound influence on him. Besides those mentioned above, he talks about other people he did ministry with: Bill Bright, Elton Trueblood, Stacey Woods, Keith Miller, Roberta Hestenes, and of course his brother Robert (author of Master Plan of Evangelism among other books).

In an interview with Christian Counseling Today, Lyman said, “I was given the privilege of being around some people in my early life who planted within me a passion for reaching the world for Christ and for ‘binding up the wounds’ of the broken people in this world.” Lyman still lives out this passion as well as passing on the legacy that these pioneers gave to him.
My initial meeting with Lyman Coleman was a serendipitous moment. I thought I was interviewing him. As it turns out, God meant it to plant a passion for lost, broken people into me. I hope I can pass on that legacy to others.

Lyman Coleman: Small Groups Are Much More Than an Assimilation Strategy

I spent a day with Lyman Colemen recently and talked about small groups ministry over the last 60-some years. Lyman founded Serendipity House and for more than 30 years, he spoke at church conferences across America. At that time, he was the voice of the American small group movement.

Mike and Lyman Coleman, August 2013
Lyman Coleman leading a Small Groups Conference in Columbus, Ohio, February, 1992

Lyman commented that the term “small groups” means nothing anymore. The term was hijacked by a number of church movements, especially the church growth movement, that had other objectives in mind than how the term was originally used by Lyman and some of the other early pioneers in the small group movement of the 50s-70s.

“In the early days,” Lyman says, “the small group movement was primarily an underground movement. The established church didn’t want anything to do with it.” Later, churches began to recognize small groups as “the best way of reaching out beyond the doors of the church to the broken people in our society.” Coleman has always wanted small groups to be places for caring and deep relationships, where people can belong and feel wanted, and he believes that healthy groups can have the effect of helping to close the back door of a church, but he bristles at small groups being purely an assimilation strategy. His feelings are deep and very personal. “Every time in my life,” he said in 1992, “at times of my deepest needs, my needs were not on the church’s agenda.” His sentiment should continue to convict us as leaders today.
In an article I wrote about him 20 years ago, I shared the line Coleman used to close out his seminars: “The church is full of beautiful people. We must not forget the people beyond the doors of the church.”


Healthy Groups Are a Community for the Community
Healthy small group leaders are friends with non-Christ-followers
Mannequin Small Groups

Rethinking Our Small Group Model

What is “authentic biblical community”?

It’s within the environment of authentic biblical community that disciples are made and we live out our faith. But what does that look like for us today? Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what a model for discipleship should look like today, and truthfully, I have more questions than answers. I began writing about this last week in my blog I titled “What If Everything We’ve Always Believed About Small Groups Was Wrong?”

It seems others are thinking about this as well. Alan Danielson blogged about the “First Small Group Gathering Ever.” I love the way he poses this:

What is your small group doing to have an exploding reputation in the community? Are you meeting safely inside a home or church building, insulated from the rest of the world? Or are you doing life together in public, so that evangelistic ministry opportunities can be seized? Does your small group look look like Jesus’ small group, or does it look like something different? I’m just asking.

Hmm. I wonder, Is it even possible in today’s culture for our small groups to look like Jesus’ small group? If you say no, why not, and then what should they look like? If you say yes, then how?

I’ve read other blogs dealing with the same questions Alan and I are asking, and I’ll share some of those in a future post. But I want to keep asking and thinking about this and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts, so please respond!