Reviews of The Connected Life by Jacob and Rachel Armstrong and The Christian Small-Group Leader by Thomas R. Hawkins.
Jacob and Rachel Armstrong and Thomas R. Hawkins, all successful United Methodist leaders themselves, offer very different options for creating an effective small group ministry. Should you focus on the groups or on the group leaders? What does a team of leaders look like? What is the purpose of these groups in the life of your church?
The following reviews of The Connected Life by Jacob and Rachel Armstrong and The Christian Small-Group Leader by Thomas R. Hawkins provide different answers to these questions, and every church will answer these questions differently. The guidelines and strategies offered here should be applied according to the context of your ministry.
by Jacob Armstrong with Rachel Armstrong; Abingdon Press, 2017.
Jacob and Rachel Armstrong lay out the strategy that they used to plant and grow the church that Jacob currently pastors, Providence Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, a United Methodist congregation with an average weekly attendance of 1,400. From the beginning, the life-blood of this church has been small groups. Starting the church with just two small groups, they followed the formula laid out in Acts 2:42.
Every small group at Providence Church includes devotion to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer. The Armstrongs attribute much of the success of their groups to adhering to these scriptural guidelines. The groups of 12-16 people meet outside of the church, in homes or public spaces, and the church provides childcare if needed.
These small groups form the basis of all other ministries including outreach, congregational care, and evangelism. Since small groups are so important to the mission of the church, they recommend keeping “the idea of small groups in front of your church members and attenders as frequently as possible.” (37). Group members share their stories and activities during the worship service. When mission opportunities are announced, small groups are encouraged to sign up as a group.
Providence Church begins new small groups in January and August/September. They offer an online form (included in the appendix) for folks who are interested, and then they create new groups, or add members to existing groups, based on factors such as life stage, interests, and schedule availability. During these times, church attenders will hear about small groups during worship, at a table in the lobby, in a bulletin insert, in their email, and on the church website.
When new small groups are formed, the first two sessions are led by a coach. A coach oversees several small groups by checking in with them and handling logistics such as ordering materials. The leader guides and participant guides for these sessions are included in the appendix. The first session involves introductions, a study of Acts 2:42-46, and a discussion of what the small group will do and the role of the coach. In the second session, group members work out how they will participate in fulfilling the purposes of the group. They discuss and sign a group covenant and agree to the terms for one year at which point the group will choose whether or not to commit to another year. The coach helps assign and schedule group members to roles such as facilitator, food provider, and coordinator.
The authors contend that “context is everything,” and the details of their approach may not be what is needed at your church (29). They recommend listening to your congregation and your community while keeping in mind the principles and guidelines suggested in this book.
I read this short book in an hour and a half, and it is well worth the time for any church leader that is looking to start or grow their small group ministry.
by Thomas R. Hawkins; Discipleship Resources, 2001.
When I finished reading The Connected Life, I left with the impression that anyone with an interest can be a small group leader. In fact, their groups do not really have leaders. They have facilitators, coordinators, and coaches – a team of people who work together to keep the group going.
Rev. Thomas R. Hawkins offers the opposite viewpoint in his book. The qualities he describes for a leader of any sort of group in the church, whether a bible study, mission group, administrative group, or church council, are only ascribed to growing and mature Christians. These long lists of attributes, taken from scripture, indicate someone disciplined in the means of grace who bears spiritual fruit.
Hawkins has had many leadership roles in the church including pastor, district superintendent, director of connectional ministries, author, and now he even serves as a university professor. He has thought carefully about what makes for good leadership in the church and has grounded much of his writing in scripture.
First, Hawkins considers that every church meeting is an invitation to the Lord’s table where the Spirit is invited to “transform people’s lives” (11). Effective groups will demonstrate Christian community through centering themselves upon Christ, extending hospitality, offering healing and wholeness, practicing the means of grace, identifying people’s spiritual gifts for ministry, and equipping Christians to live out their baptismal covenant.
Hawkins devotes an entire chapter to the importance of hospitality and in a more biblical sense than our current notions of entertaining. He gives specific examples of how leaders can offer this hospitality by creating a physically inviting space, offering feasible objectives, explicitly stating group norms, and redeeming conversations. Another chapter is devoted to facilitating group listening as the heart of hospitality. This chapter offers eight techniques for facilitating listening that would be useful to any group leader. In the final chapter, Hawkins provides advice on working through resistance such as when group members are combative, confused, or silent.
Hawkins warns against pseudo-leaders who have the wrong motivations and lack the spiritual maturity to be effective leaders in the church. He describes several types of these leaders and recommends the means of grace as a way to avoid becoming a pseudo-leader. In addition, Hawkins underscores the importance of gospel partnerships for church leaders. He describes the need for spiritual fruitfulness, healthy emotional dynamics, self-differentiated leaders, and a seasoned pilgrimage with God to be characteristics of those who will work well in gospel partnerships. An effective gospel partnership will cultivate a shared vision. Hawkins provides marks of what a powerful vision should look like.
Which model is right for your church?
Hawkins is working from a model that creates strong leaders who then, in turn, create strong groups. The Armstrongs work from a model that creates strong groups that develop growing Christians. Hawkins’ groups are focused on doing the ministry of the church. The Armstrongs’ groups are focused on creating community. Both models have been life-giving to the church. Which model is more appropriate for your context? How could you take elements from both models to provide what your church may need to grow its members into disciples?
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