Having just started a role where I am responsible for revitalizing and leading a small group ministry, I have begun reading the most popular books on small groups. I have intentionally snagged books from churches from a wide philosophy of ministry range. I hope to learn and glean from pastors who are outside my box. To best process the insights the books contribute, I am going to write reviews of the books here at the blog.
While most book reviews are written for titles fresh off the publishing line, that won’t be the case here. Some of these books are several years old, but since I am new to the genre that is small group literature, they will be new to me. Perhaps my fresh perspective will give you a new look at these books if you have already read them. And if you haven’t, then I guess it’s no biggie.
The first book that I will review is Creating Community: 5 Keys to Building a Small Group Culture by Andy Stanley and Bill Willits.
The five keys the title mentions are identified as five needs in the book. According to the authors, in order to be successful at creating community, your small group ministry must meet these five needs:
1. People need community.
2. Leaders need clarity.
3. Churches need strategy.
4. Connection needs simplicity.
5. Process needs reality.
1. People need community
Stanley and Willits begin by identifying our culture’s craving for significant relationships as the need that small group ministry fulfills. This need is embedded in us as people created in God’s image. They argue from Genesis 2 that, since “it is not good for man to be alone,” churches must address our relational need, which ultimately reflects the relational, triune God who created us.
2. Leaders need clarity
Small group leaders need to know the goals that the ministry aims for. For North Point, those goals are intimacy with God (defined as “continually pursuing an intimate relationship with him,” p. 65), community with insiders (“regularly connecting with other believers,” p.66 ), and influence with outsiders (investing in the lives of unbelievers and inviting them to church, p. 67).
3. Churches need strategy
After you find your goal, you have to find your word. For North Point, the word is “relational,” as in being a relational church. Their choice for being “relational” stems from the first need they identified, that people need community. Whatever word you come up with, it needs to connect with the greater strategy of your church.
Then the authors explain their purpose for small groups: “to provide a predictable small-group environment where participants experience authentic community and spiritual growth” (p. 103). In order to achieve “predictable” groups at North Point, they close the door on outsiders. This allows the group to be vulnerable. In order to create new groups, however, groups are encouraged to multiply after 18 to 24 months.
4. Connection needs simplicity
In order to simplify how to lead people to small groups, the authors compare the main environments of church ministry to a home: the worship service = the foyer, medium-sized communities = the living room, and small groups = the kitchen. The idea is that the closer you are in relationship with people, the farther you are invited into one’s home. It follows, the authors argue, that small groups is where the church is at its most intimate. In order to get people to that intimate location of church life, you need simple programmatic structures so that the process is not too confusing or difficult.
5. Process needs reality
A system for small groups might look great on paper, but once you start using it to lead people, theory goes out the window. Rather than forcing your theory upon a small groups ministry, the authors argue that you should maintain flexible stance. Therefore, you should have reasonable qualifications for your leaders, but not too high; have realistic expectations of the time that people can contribute to small group ministry; and expect to modify your system as needs arise.
Strengths of Creating Community
Creating Community is a book that anyone leading a small groups ministry should read for its practicality. Stanley and Willits have boiled how small groups run down to its basic essentials. If you are tempted to decorate your ministry with bells and whistles, the authors will show you that it doesn’t take much to create structures that allow as many people to participate in your small groups ministry as possible.
Besides simplicity, the book is speckled with helpful tips about small groups ministry. Perhaps the most seasoned of small groups pastors might not be helped by Creating Community, but my guess is that most would.
Weaknesses of Creating Community
Despite its benefits, Creating Community contains a foundational misstep that readers should be aware of.
The authors begin with the human need for relationships. This is a true human need, but the authors treat it as the ultimate need that small groups fulfill. This misaimed starting point sets the trajectory for the entire book, which is almost primarily about connecting people in relationships in your church.
The authors argue for the primacy of relational connection from Genesis 1-2. Citing God’s declaration that it was not good for man to be alone, they conclude that relationships and community are primary needs that churches must meet. They call this a “human-shaped void” (p. 31).
This exegesis is troubling for two reasons. First, the authors have taken a passage about marriage and expanded it include all human relationships. I grant, of course, that people do need relationships. But this passage is particularly about marriage. It is shocking, that – apart from a couple lines quoted from another book –they don’t trace the argument all the way to chapter 3. That is where our sin broke our relationship with God, where we get our God-shaped void. Yet the authors do not proceed to chapter 3.
Our need for relationship with other people points to a deeper need, namely, a restored relationship with God. And why do we need a restored relationship with God? Isn’t it because of our sin? Yet discussion along the lines of sin and a pursuit of holiness within the church community is absent from the book.
One result of starting from a “human-shaped void” is that throughout the rest of the book the authors only speak superficially about our relationship with God. Because they are primarily focused on person-to-person relationships, how we relate to God is moved to the periphery. In fact, in the chapter entitled “Define Spiritual Maturity,” the authors fail to actually define it. They show from the great commandment that spiritual maturity is loving in both vertical and horizontal relationships. But they closest definition they give to spiritual maturity is “continually pursuing an intimate relationship with God.” But what does that mean? They have only defined one ambiguous phrase (“spiritual maturity”) with another (“intimate relationship”). They work this out only to include dealing with exterior problems in relationships, parenting, or finances. But shouldn’t it involve repentance of sin? Obedience to God’s commands? But they do not undertake these topics.
Another result of the “human-shaped void” starting point is that small groups become the ultimate destination in North Point’s philosophy of ministry, rather than the gathered community worshipping God together and receiving the means of grace. The “kitchen” – that is, the most intimate place in their church – is the small groups ministry. I would argue that the Lord’s Table is the most intimate place for the church, since that is where unbelievers are excluded. The main worship service is the “kitchen” for the church, and it is an eat-in kitchen.
I don’t know if the authors would say that they intentionally aim their small group ministry primarily to meet a human need. Nor do I expect that they would say our greatest need in life is to have a relationship with other people. They do, after all, speak to the need for a relationship with God. However, functionally speaking, by launching from Genesis 1-2, and not Genesis 3, they have severely crippled their ministry from addressing the single issue that has broken our relationship with God and others: our sin. Without initial reconciliation (justification) or continued reconciliation (sanctification) in that relationship, we can never have authentic relationships with other people. Stanley and Willits lose the very thing they aimed for because they made the secondary thing the primary thing.
Takeaways from Creating Community
As tragic as shaping your small groups ministry around need for human connection is, that does not mean that there is nothing for pastors to apply from this book.
You can be the most principled church regarding theology, the gospel, and preaching the power of the cross to overcome sin. But if you don’t have a simple system for your small groups ministry, you won’t see those things happening in the community life of your church. In my experience, churches that are good at theology are bad at simple systems. So it may be that those farthest outside the North Point philosophy of ministry that have the most to learn from it, as ironic as that may seem.
My guess is that if your small groups ministry doesn’t have many participants, the issue is not the content of your groups, as important as that is. I bet you don’t have a simple system for people to get plugged in. North Point’s system for integrating people into small groups has only three steps. The steps are obvious, visible, and flow together in a way that makes sense. While Creating Community will not help you with your theology of Christian community, it will help you piece a simple structure together to help people join your small groups.