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Don’t Let Strategy Trump the Vision of Discipleship

The following is a guest post by Michael Kelley, director of discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources.

Antione de Saint-Exupery, the French aristocrat, writer, poet, and pioneering aviator, once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

So true. This quote reminds us of the importance of vision, that we all need something big and grand birthed in our hearts. In fact, we actually need it more than we need to grasp all the specific processes to get there. It’s true in building ships, and it’s true in discipleship.

Use the Right Tools

But often in our churches as we seek to lead people in a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, growing further up and further in, we tend to jump past vision and into process. The exhortations abound, and so do the systems that go along with them. We inundate people with Bible reading plans, Scripture memorization tools, helpful hints to deal with the bad breath and moody attitudes that come with fasting, and nice moleskin journals to record our deep and profound thoughts.

These are all good tools. In fact, they’re more than good; they’re essential (though the moleskin might be debatable.) We need processes whether in building boats or in making disciples. There’s no doubt, in the case of building ships that people do indeed need to collect wood. They need to shape hulls and fashion masts. They need to process the right formulas to know about things like buoyancy and weight limits, wind patterns and ocean currents.

But they also need to breathe the sea air. They need to feel the freedom of the wind in their hair and get a sense of the adventure that lies on the other side of the ocean. That wind and smell is what fuels the processes that must be in place in order to actually get the work done.

Don’t Skip the Vision

In the church, the strategy of discipleship can never trump the vision behind discipleship.

Think about what the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12: “So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

This is process. It’s work. It’s a continuous, strenuous effort employed one decision at a time by which we work out our salvation. But notice too that Paul didn’t jump there immediately. Instead, he helped the Philippians “breathe the air of the sea” in the first 11 verses:

“Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:1-11).

Smell that? That’s the salt in the air. That’s the vision for the wide-open sea. That’s the imagination arresting vision before us as disciples of Jesus. We are following this One who is above every other, and as we are, we are being made like Him in our obedience.

This week, don’t be too quick to gather the wood. Maybe it’s time to help them feel the wind.

Michael Kelley is director of discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources and the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School and lives with his wife and three kids in Nashville, Tenn. He blogs at Forward Progress.

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Groups Matter: An Interview with Ed Stetzer on Transformational Groups

The following is an interview with Dr. Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Ed and I recently co-authored a book, Transformational Groups.

Ed, you and I worked on this book together, so I know a little bit of your thoughts on groups and community, but why did you see a need for a book on church groups and community in the first place? Aren’t there enough books on groups already?

That’s a great question Eric. The easy answer is, evidently not!

There certainly are many resources to help people and churches with their groups, but our research shows that groups are still not prioritized in churches. For instance, we asked pastors what the most significant discipleship tool in their church was, and a large majority basically said that it was any time they were in the pulpit teaching.

Now, I believe in the teaching ministry of the church, I usually preach 3-4 times a month, but the research tells us that groups are the most effective tool a church has, and they still are not committed to it. So, I wanted to write this book to help churches prioritize their groups, and use them effectively.

You’re the research guy, Ed. What were some of the statistics about church groups and community that really stuck out to you as we worked on Transformational Groups?

There are quite a few helpful statistics, but a few that were particularly important to me revolve around pastoral leadership. For instance, we asked pastors who, in their church, was responsible for selecting the curriculum in their groups.

This is important as it’s hard to imagine a pastor letting just anyone preach. Pastors guard the pulpit, and they should. With the importance of groups, you would think they would equally guard what is taught in their groups, but the data shows otherwise.

Among churches in the U.S., the curriculum is selected by the group leader almost 2/3 of the time, and most of that time it occurs with no input from the pastor or staff.

Another stat that struck me has to do our assessment of our effectiveness. Disciple making is the one commission that Jesus gave the church. Because of that, I believe we should evaluate our effectiveness regularly. Sadly, we rarely assess our groups.

For example, 92% of Protestant pastors agree with the statement: “Our congregation is making significant progress in their spiritual development.” That sounds great until we followed that up by asking if their church regularly assessed the spiritual progress of their people, over half (56%) admitted that they do not.

But more than being a research guy and a pastor who teaches on community, you have a group that meets at your house. What has that group taught you or reminded you about Christian community?

More than anything, I lead a group because ministry is about people. The more we know, the better we can advance God’s mission, so I am glad to do the research. However, with that said, we need to study God’s mission and engage in God’s mission. Beyond that, leaders cannot lead what they do not live. I want my church to understand the importance of groups, and the importance of people, so I’m going to invest my time in a group. 

Outside of establishing the programs, what role do church leaders (pastors, elders, etc.) play in the initiation and success of transformational church groups?

This is a pretty big question, but to start with I would say that leaders need to lead. Leaders say that groups matter, but they’re not investing time and energy in their groups. Leaders need to develop strategy for their groups, invest in curriculum selection for their groups, pour into leadership development to help lead their groups, and finally, leaders need to be in a group themselves.

What about group leaders? What were some of the biggest takeaways regarding the people that lead church groups? 

Maybe the biggest number in the study for me was that 75% of group leaders tell us that they want more direction from church leaders when it comes to their groups. Leaders are asking for help, we just aren’t always giving it. So, let’s invest in our leaders.

What are two or three actions that any church of any size can take today that would set them on course to establish a biblical, transformational culture of community and groups ministry?

Good question.

First, I would encourage churches to develop a strategy for their groups. Why do their groups exist? How does that fit in the churches overarching discipleship strategy?

Secondly, leaders need to get more involved in curriculum selection and leadership development. An easy question to ask here is, “In comparison to our weekend worship, how much time, energy and money do we invest in our groups?” Create a bit more balance between the two.

Finally, I would encourage churches to create a clear pathway for visitors to get into groups. Do you have an easy to describe manner in which people can choose a group? Have you clearly defined each group, their leader as well as times and locations that they meet?

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What Dwells in Your Life and Your Community?

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [Colossians 3:15-16]

The apostle Paul challenged the community of Christians living in Colossae to let the word of Christ dwell richly in them. Not scarcely, but richly.

What dwells in us controls us

There is a connection between verses 15 and 16, between the peace of Christ ruling our hearts and the word of Christ dwelling among us. The peace of Christ will not rule and reign in your community if the word of Christ is not central and primary.

What dwells in us comes out of us

If you have a community that is built on the word of Christ, the result is a people who encourage one another, are filled with thankfulness, and rejoice together (verse 16). If you want a community like that, then the word of Christ must dwell in your community.

Community is going to be built on something, around something—and if it is not built on the foundation of God’s Word, it is shallow and fleeting.

For this reason, I am very excited about our new Explore the Bible studies for groups of all ages. Explore the Bible is quite simply “book by book studies for groups of all ages.” We desire to help kids ministries, student ministries, and Bible study groups have the Word dwell deeply in them. Pastors and theologians such as David Jeremiah, Tony Evans, and George Guthrie are involved as each session is designed to help participants study the text in its context so they can obey the text in their context. You can preview sessions for kids, students, and adults here.

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The Power of Consistency

The following is a guest post by Michael Kelley, director of discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources.

Imagine a leaky faucet. Regardless of how you hard you twist the knob, it still drips. One drop at a time. Incessantly – drip, drip, drip. The consistency becomes an annoyance pretty quickly. But put in the right environment and given enough time, that same dripping with that same consistency, can have an immense amount of power.

That’s how canyons are made. Not all at once, but through the power of consistency.

Dripping isn’t that exciting, but what it lacks in flash it makes up for in effectiveness. There’s a lot to be said for the power of consistency.

When we lead people in the way of discipleship, one of the issues we must deal with is the boring nature of it all. I mean, there’s only so many ways you can “spice up” the habits that characterize consistent growth in Christ.

In the end, there will be many days when you and the people you lead won’t feel like reading the Bible. They won’t feel like praying. They won’t feel like memorizing Scripture or serving or doing any of the other practices of spiritual development. Consequently, we might be tempted to reframe or describe spiritual growth as some grand adventure completely free of drudgery. While it’s true that at times growing in Christ will feel like that, it’s also true that many times it won’t.

In the end, what we’ll find is that consistency wins over excitement time and time again. And here are a few reasons why:

1. Consistency emphasizes faith over experience.

What makes someone get up and do the same thing day after day after day regardless of whether they feel like it or not? You could argue that it’s simply being a creature of habit, but you could also say that such action is driven forward by faith.

You do the same spiritual practices because you genuinely believe that the Bible is the Word of God. You truly believe God hears you when you pray. The alternative to this kind of consistency is a life driven by experience. If that’s the case, your spiritual development is like a yo-yo moving up and down with the flippancy of emotion.

2. Consistency causes roots to grow deep.

When you opt for consistency over excitement, you are developing the kind of practices that will carry you through the seasons of spiritual dryness all of us will encounter. In other words, your roots are growing deep.

When we integrate the same, repeated practices into our lives, day after day, we will find that when eventually we don’t feel anything; when we are suffering; when we simply can’t pray any more, that our roots will have extended well past the shallows.

3. Consistency works into other areas of life.

One of the side benefits of this kind of spiritual discipline is that it will work into other areas of life as well. You’ll find, I believe, that not only are you disciplined “spiritually;” but physically, emotionally and mentally. But then again, that’s why “spiritually” is in quotes because I seem to remember Jesus saying that we should love God not only spiritually but with every part of ourselves.

Time is a powerful ally. Drip, drip, drip. One drop at a time. And slowly, the landscape changes.

Michael Kelley is director of discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources and the author of  Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School and lives with his wife and three kids in Nashville, Tenn.

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When a Blessing Becomes Meaningless

In Ecclesiastes 1, Solomon declares everything to be meaningless. He boldly states, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”

Just as the Bible uses the language “King of kings and Lord of lords” to emphasize that Jesus is above every king and every lord, Solomon is emphasizing that everything is emphatically and utterly meaningless and futile. He even declares the pursuit of wisdom, the thing Solomon is most known for, to be a fleeting pursuit of the wind.

I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind. For with much wisdom is much sorrow; as knowledge increases, grief increases. (Eccl. 1:17-18)

Solomon was blessed with wisdom. It was a good gift of God, a gracious gift of God. But Solomon started to enjoy the gift more than God. He began to pursue the gift more than God. He sought satisfaction in the blessing, not satisfaction in God. The gift God gave Solomon became a source of grief for him because he cherished it more than God Himself. Thus he came to conclude that the gift of wisdom, by itself, is meaningless.

God blesses us. He is gracious to us. But when we make gods of the good things He gives us, they lose their meaning because they alone cannot fulfill us. Only He can. When we love the blessings more than God, they enslave us and disappoint us.

Jonathan Edwards said:

God is the highest good of the reasonable creature; and the enjoyment of him is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.

Without Him, everything—including the good things—is meaningless, futile, absolute vanity. With Him, there is joy. Augustine said, “Instead of vanity beneath the sun, there is joy under Him who made the sun.”

Only the King of kings can rescue us from the vanity of vanities.


Managing the Downside of Your Groups Approach

There has been ample debate on the approach a church takes to their small groups. Should the groups be “open” or “closed”? Should the groups meet on-campus or off-campus? I rejoice that the discussions take place because this means pastors and ministry leaders are wrestling with how to help people live in biblical community. At the same time I think it is critical for us to recognize that while these are important tactical and practical questions, we must not take our eyes off the bigger picture of Christian community.

The writer of Hebrews stated, “But encourage each other daily, while it is still called today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception” (Hebrews 3:13). Community that is built on the gospel—that is, formed by the Word—is community that keeps our hearts soft and moldable before the Lord. Without Christian community we become hardened by the deception of sin. Because of that, ministry leaders are wise to do whatever it takes to ensure people enjoy and participate in Christian community.

Typically churches offer some type of group structure to help people experience community practically. In previous posts, I have shared some of the inherent benefits of both “on-campus” groups and “off-campus” groups.

Just as each approach has inherent benefits, each approach also has some downsides that wise leaders will seek to overcome.

Managing the downside of “on-campus” groups:

If your church offers on-campus groups, you can benefit from easier movement from your worship service(s), easier coaching as some leaders and groups meet at the same time at the same facility, and built-in programming for the kids.

But there will be some downsides to the approach as well:

  • Because the groups meet in rooms at a church, the rooms will likely feel more like a classroom than a living room.
  • Because there is a clear start and stop time and a continual flow of new people, there are some challenges with connection and transparent conversation.
  • Because groups meet when kids and student ministries meet, groups and these ministries will be pursuing some of the same people.

To manage the downside of on-campus groups, consider:

  • Adapting the set-up of the rooms to feel more conversational. David Francis, our managing editor of Bible Studies for Life encourages people that “if you want the teacher to talk, set up the room in rows. If you want people to have conversations, together – set up the room in a circle.”
  • Training the group leaders on how to welcome new people to the group while still having a level of transparent conversation.
  • Encouraging and training groups to meet together outside the “study time” so that the relationships will further develop.
  • Spending extra energy helping the kids and student ministries recruit and develop leaders.

Managing the downside of “off-campus” groups:

If your church offers off-campus groups, you can benefit from a less expensive structure (no educational facility), more leaders in kids and student ministries, and more transparency and relational time during group meetings.

But there will be some downsides to this approach:

  • Movement from the weekend worship gathering to a small group is a greater challenge.
  • Coaching leaders and observing small groups can be daunting as leaders and groups are spread out throughout the county/city.
  • Handling “childcare” for groups with kids can be a constant question.

To manage the downside of off-campus groups, consider:

  • Focusing significant strategic energy and attention to helping unconnected people move to a small group. I put it to one pastor this way: “If you don’t want to invest the jingle to build space for groups but still want 80-90 percent of your people in a group, then take all the energy you would have invested in raising money for a facility and transfer that to designing opportunities and nudging people to groups.” Some churches are effectively doing this by constantly making groups a priority and offering clear and easy opportunities for people to connect to a group.
  • Ensuring your group leaders receive consistent shepherding and direction. Similar to the above point, this takes energy and structure.
  • Learning from other churches in contexts similar to yours who utilize off-campus groups and continually wrestle with the childcare solution.

Regardless of which approach you take, don’t lose sight of the bigger issue—helping people experience and enjoy Christian community. The challenges are worth it. As Ed Stetzer and I discovered in Transformational Groups, from a research vantage point, someone who is in a group reads the Bible more frequently, shares the gospel more regularly, serves more sacrificially, confesses sins more freely, and gives more generously. Regardless of where they meet, groups matter.

For resources on groups, whether they meet on-campus or off-campus, check out


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The Trade-Off Discussion: On-Campus and Off-Campus Groups

Michael Porter is a well-known expert on strategy. Porter has articulated “strategy is about making choices, trade-offs.” An effective strategist thus understands the landscape and deliberately chooses a path with awareness and understanding of the trade-offs. A leadership team that is strategic is able to say, “Here are the potential benefits and the potential pitfalls of this direction, and with those in mind, we have made the strategic choice to move in this direction.”

Church leaders frequently ask me about the directional choice between “off-campus” small groups and “on campus” groups, often called Sunday School.

I have never really involved myself in the discussion that pins one against the other. Not because it is a fruitless discussion but because I believe both are an approach to helping people enjoy and benefit from Christian community. In other words, I am much more passionate about community that is rooted in Jesus than I am about the nomenclature used to describe a church’s strategy for helping people live in Christian community. Through His death, Jesus created a new community of Christians, and He matures us in community. I am for churches being passionate about that—whatever nomenclature a church uses.

So when I have used “groups” in books or articles, I have used it as the overarching term, the generic term for the strategy churches use.

Some churches challenge their people to be in a group (or whatever language they use), and they offer groups that meet on the church campus and groups that meet in homes during the week. Others, because of space limitations or other reasons, are put in a position where they are confronted with a trade-off choice between focusing primarily on “on-campus” groups or primarily on “off-campus” groups.

While I want to emphasize that theologically and philosophically I see little distinction, practically there are some trade-off implications to the decision. When making directional decisions, wise leaders understand the trade-offs before those decisions are made, and then they work to minimize the inherent downside of the direction they chose.

Four practical benefits of “on-campus” groups

1. Greater and easier assimilation: It is much easier to move people to a group that meets on the church campus because the people are used to coming to the church campus, and they may already be there when the group meets. If you are one of those church leaders who bash “traditional approaches,” drink these data points in for a moment and rethink your position that everyone else but you and your crew just doesn’t get it:

  • Churches that focus exclusively on groups that meet on the church campus every week typically have 80+ percent of their adult attendance in a group each week.
  • On average, churches that meet in homes or other locations, and not as frequently, typically have 30-40 percent of their adults enrolled in a group (emphasis on enrolled, not attendance). Notice I wrote “on average.” There are some churches who utilize off-campus groups that experience high percentages of their people in groups because they have so effectively infused group life into their culture.

2. Easier coaching: On-campus groups enable a “groups coach” or staff member to more easily check in on groups and group leaders as many of the groups are meeting at the same time and at the same place.

3. Built-in programming for the kids: One of the biggest challenges of groups that meet in homes is what to do with the kids.

4. A clear start/stop time: You can accuse the host of being un-relational, but not every small group host loves having 3.5 hour group meetings followed by further conversations with a few laggards who don’t pick up on the social cues that the dishes have been washed and the husband has put on his pajamas.

So if you are a church leader who has space available on Sunday mornings for your people to meet (and the parking spots to go with it), you should consider using it. I would use every nook possible to get people into biblical community.

Tomorrow I will give practical benefits of groups that don’t meet on the church campus. Again, my goal is not to advocate one over the other—I don’t—but to help leaders understand there are some practical trade-off decisions that are being made. And if a church leadership team can recognize the embedded trade-offs, they can work to minimize the downsides of their approach.

For resources on groups, whether they meet on-campus or off-campus, check out



3 Disadvantages of “Non-Traditional” Theological Education

Because I often get questions from young leaders considering seminary, I recently shared three advantages for attending seminary in a “non-traditional” manner. I went through seminary the non-traditional way in that I took classes on the side at a slower pace while serving full-time on staff at churches. I found that studying while serving constantly reminded me of the why of seminary—the church. It also helped me make quick connections from the theological and philosophical to the practical.

At the same time, I recognize that I gave up some things by attending seminary the non-traditional way. I have many friends who set aside a brief season of their lives, threw themselves fully into seminary, and are glad they approached their studies that way. When I hear them recount their seminary days, I realize I missed out on at least three things:

1)    Deeper relationships with professors

My professors were great, and I am not just saying so because I now work for two of them: Thom Rainer and Brad Waggoner. But because my visits to campus were so brief each Monday or because I was taking classes online, I did not spend the same amount of time with the professors as other students were able to do. And I do regret that.

2)    A community of thinkers

I hear stories from friends who attended seminary full-time, stories of couples spending time together discussing theology, friends sharpening each other over a weighty read, and the benefits of a studying/learning community in close proximity together. Because full-time ministry was my priority and seminary was “on the side,” I spent more time in a community of practitioners rather than a community of thinkers. Much of this is my own fault as I could have done a better job infusing theological conviction and wrestling into conversations. But the reality is that I was with other leaders who were consumed with reaching our community, the daily grind of ministry, and the weekly rhythm. I didn’t lead us to “pull up” enough and think of things from a theological vantage point.

3)    More focused study time

There were times when I studied less than I should have. Ministry obligations increased for a season and studying time was cut. So instead of throwing myself into some of the readings, sometimes I read and studied “for the test.” And as we know, that is very different than studying for the learning.

Just as a full-time seminary student can offset the disadvantage of not serving in ministry by plugging deeply into a church, a full-time staff member can offset these disadvantages. Here is how I have attempted to do so:

  • Initiate relationships with professors. Seek to maximize the times you are on campus by having coffee or a visit with a professor you admire.
  • Embrace the theological in your ministry role. Seek to “pull up” from the weekly grind and wrestle with the theological convictions that serve as the foundation of the ministry.
  • View seminary as the starter. Instead of putting away the theological books when you graduate, commit to continuous and lifelong learning.
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How People Grow…in Groups

In Transformational Discipleship, we unpacked the important relationship between truth, posture, and leaders. God brings about transformation as godly leaders apply the truth to our hearts while we are in a teachable posture.


The Lord transforms us, sanctifies us, through His truth—and His Word is truth (John 17:17). The truth of the gospel and the truth of God’s Word has the power to change us and mold us into the image of His Son.


God puts us in a teachable and moldable posture to receive His truth. For example, He will use trials, spiritual disciplines, and biblical community to soften our hearts toward His truth. If you are a preacher or teacher, you have surely observed the importance of a teachable posture as you have preached or taught the same message to a group of people, and some have been impacted while some have been hardened. The message and the messenger are the same, but the posture of each person is different.


God uses leaders to apply grace to our hearts. Each person in the body is given the opportunity to administer grace, in a variety of forms (1 Peter 4:10). Because of this truth, pastors and teachers are wise to equip all of God’s people for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13) so that more people can encounter His grace through more leaders.

As a follow-up to Transformational Discipleship, Ed Stetzer and I wrote Transformational Groups based on a large research study on small groups and how people grow in biblical community. After analyzing the research, we can confidently say “your groups matter a lot.” From a research lens, people in small groups pray and confess their sins more regularly, share the gospel more confidently, give more generously, and serve more sacrificially than those not in a small group.

We see a deep connection between groups and discipleship. Based on the learning in both research projects and based on our understanding of discipleship and how critical groups are to the health of a church, we believe in these three imperatives for church leaders (notice the connection between these imperatives and the importance of truth, posture, and leaders):

1)    Develop your leaders (leaders)

Leaders will reproduce who they are. The faith is often more caught than taught, so the leaders a church puts in their group environments will greatly determine the health of the groups. Leaders must be encouraged and developed. They must be trained and equipped.

2)    Launch new groups (posture)

Biblical community is essential for spiritual growth as it puts people in a posture to receive encouragement and to walk together with others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.

If a church is not launching new groups, the church is not giving new people and unconnected people a clear opportunity to live in Christian community. Launch new groups so that more people can experience the beauty and joy of a connected and interdependent posture.

3)    Feed your people (truth)

Connecting people together is not sufficient for transformation. They must be connected together in truth. God desires His people to be both unified and sanctified, and community that is formed on the foundation of God’s Word accomplishes both. Don’t just launch groups—launch groups that are built on a wise plan for discipleship. Don’t just promote community—ensure your community is grounded in Scripture.