Eric Geiger - a Husband, Father, Author, Vice-President of LifeWay Church Resources

03.13.2014

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 groupsmatter.com.

 

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03.10.2014

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 groupsmatter.com.

 

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02.20.2014

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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01.30.2014

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.

Truth:

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.

Posture:

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.

Leaders:

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.

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01.28.2014

Neither Dependence nor Independence

I am excited about the launch of my latest book, Transformational Groups with Ed Stetzer. Ed and I are both big believers in small groups because we are both big believers in Christian community—community that is rooted in Christ.

The Christian life is meant to be interdependent and interconnected, believers in partnership and fellowship together. In our sinfulness, we tend to drift away from interdependence and toward either dependence or independence.

Some of us drift toward independence…

Independence is often a badge of honor in our culture. The man who can stand alone, who is resourceful, who does not need anyone else, is often held in high esteem. Some of us drift toward foolish attempts to walk the Christian life alone, to be a Christian in isolation. When we drift toward independence, we reject transparency, confession, openness, and receiving encouragement from the body of believers.

Some of us drift toward dependence…

Instead of drifting toward standing alone, some of us drift toward an unhealthy over-reliance on another person. When we drift toward dependence, we run to relationships because we find our ultimate worth and meaning in someone else. Our security and identity are connected deeply to another person instead of Christ.

Neither dependence nor independence is truly Christian, and both can destroy us. We are continually transformed as we fully depend on the Lord, repent of our independence, and interdependently connect with a group of believers. As the writer of Hebrews said, “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).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us of both extremes:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.” (Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community)

 

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12.20.2013

Water-Skiing and Becoming Like Jesus

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. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

If you have ever been water-skiing or knee-boarding, you engaged in partnership with the power of the boat. You carefully positioned yourself behind the boat in the water, strategically held the rope, readied your body, and then gave a nod to the driver of the boat. And the boat pulled you out of the water and took you on a ride on the lake or bayou. You could not, no matter how much you desired or how hard you tried, ski in your own power. Only the boat could raise you. Only the boat could guide you and empower you to ride on top of the water.

Spiritual transformation, becoming more and more like Jesus, is very similar. Transformation is, as Kenneth Boa describes, divine-human partnership. We work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12) as and because He works in us (Philippians 2:13).

Just as we can’t pull ourselves out of the water, we can’t transform ourselves. Only He has the power to mold us, to make us more like Himself. But we are commanded to put ourselves in a position for transformation to occur. This is why spiritual disciplines must be present in our lives. The disciplines, in and of themselves, do not transform us but they do put us in a position to be transformed.

Dallas Willard said, “grace is opposed to earning, not effort.” Fueled by God’s grace within us, the diligent practice of spiritual disciplines, put us in a posture of growing more in His grace through the power of the Spirit within us. The disciplines are grace-driven effort at work. Whether a public discipline such as worshipping with the church or a private discipline such as confessing sin or studying the Bible, these are structured activities the Spirit uses to move believers toward maturity.

Without the Spirit, without His grace, the disciplines are religious machinations, empty and powerless – much like attempting to ski without a boat.

As we move into a new year in a couple of weeks, I encourage you to evaluate the spiritual disciplines that are present in your life. Practicing spiritual disciplines is, in some sense, like telling the driver of the boat we are ready to go…ready to grow.

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12.19.2013

The Heretic Within

History is filled with people who used the Bible to justify their desires and plans. For example, Adolf Hitler once declared, “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” Cult leader David Koresh used Scripture to position himself to his followers as the anointed one who would open the seven seals described in the Book of Revelation.

And while it is easy to point out these extreme examples, we all have the sinful tendency to jump to a conclusion or make a decision and then attempt to find an authority other than ourselves to support our actions. Sadly, the Bible is often used to justify a desire or decision.

Perhaps you have heard statements like…

  • God wants me to have joy, so I know He is okay with my plans to leave my spouse.
  • Because I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, I will apply for this job (one that is completely out of my field of competence).
  • God promises to prosper me, so I am going to…

D. A. Carson has said, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” If we don’t know the context of biblical passages, we may easily succumb to the temptation to find verses that support our feelings, our opinions, and our desires. If we only study passages without their context, we won’t really understand the Bible. And if we are not careful, we as church leaders will produce believers in our churches who grab passages to justify thoughts and actions instead of allowing the Word to direct and develop them.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:

“The heretics were never dishonest men; they were mistaken men. They should not be thought of as men who were deliberately setting out to go wrong and to teach something that is wrong; they have been some of the most sincere men that the Church has ever known. What was the matter with them? Their trouble was this: they evolved a theory and they were rather pleased with it; then they went back with this theory to the Bible, and they seemed to find it everywhere.”

To slay the heretic within us (within me), we need the Word as our foundation. We need the Word of Christ to dwell richly, not scarcely, among us. We need the God-breathed Scripture to guide us, the Scripture that makes the people of God complete.

 

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12.18.2013

John Bryson: The Multifaceted Nature of Men

Leading men effectively is crucial in any business or ministry, and it take more than golf outings and cookouts. John Bryson describes the three primary facets which make up men and explains why it’s important to engage each of them. Without connecting well with the whole man you will not be able to lead him well.

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11.21.2013

The Spiritual Discipline That Impacts Everything

In our research behind Transformational Discipleship, we discovered that engagement in one particular spiritual discipline positively impacts engagement in every other spiritual discipline (giving, serving, sharing the gospel, fasting, praying, etc.). In other words, while the other spiritual disciplines are important, engagement in one of these (from a research vantage point) does not necessarily increase engagement in the others. But there is one spiritual discipline that increases activity in every other spiritual discipline.

And that spiritual discipline is ongoing engagement with God’s Word. Those who increase their engagement with God’s Word increase their participation in the other spiritual disciplines.

The apostle Paul challenged Christians living in Colossae to let the Word dwell in them richly, not scarcely or superficially.

And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the Word of Christ dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God  (Colossians 3:15-16).

Whatever dwells in us controls us. If His Word dwells in us, His Word controls us and gives us peace (verse 15).

Whatever dwells in us comes out of us. If His Word dwells in us, we praise Him, we speak and live with wisdom, and we are filled with gratitude (verse 16).

If there is one thing you must do as a church leader, it is to foster the Word of Christ dwelling richly in your people’s lives. Help them:

1)    Hear the Word

When people gather for worship, preach the Word of Christ. “Persist in it, whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).

2)    Study the Word

Paul’s words in Colossians 3 were written to a community of Christ-followers. Letting the Word dwell in us and among us must happen in community. When your groups gather, ensure that they study the timeless truth of God’s Word.

3)    Read the Word

Brad Waggoner, in his research-based book The Shape of Faith to Come, demonstrates that regular Bible reading highly correlates to spiritual growth. Believers who read the Word regularly become more like Christ.

Let the Word of Christ dwell in you. Richly.

 

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