While I’m waiting for the book I was planning on reviewing this week, here’s a blast from the not-so-distant past that’s well worth your time…..
• Randall Neighbour. The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry: When It Won’t Work and What to Do About It. Softcover, 256p., $20.99. Touch Publications.
Randall Neighbour has an unusual but appropriate message for pastors: If you’re looking to fix what’s wrong in your church, don’t expect small groups to accomplish that. But if you’re looking to make a healthy church healthier, get going!
“In many churches,” Neighbour correctly points out, “the lead pastor uses small groups to support the larger corporate gathering. Or, he views small groups as one option among many for church involvement.” Both views, he says, are bad reasons to be doing small-group ministry — they end up overwhelming the leader and not engaging the rest of the group.
Neighbour advocates a more organic approach, where the focus is on the sense of community being created within the small groups, rather than as a church-support system or just another ministry among many. And he extends this idea into his approach for creating a small-group ministry as well.
Rather than launch a church-wide initiative as most churches do, Neighbour suggests the exact opposite: Start with one pilot/prototype group. Find out what works and what doesn’t before unleashing a small-group ministry upon the rest of your church. First get it right, then let the rest of the church catch the vision. “Launching a number of groups when you’ve never had experience launching one healthy group makes no sense.”
Likewise, when launching, Neighbour recommends starting with one new group. This gives leaders a chance to develop naturally, and as well as allows time for ministry champions to develop so they can transition from leaders to coaches.
There’s a huge emphasis on relationship-building through this book, as well there should be. Perhaps Neighbour’s most forceful point (and he’s got a lot of them) is: If you’re not willing to make a commitment to others — to put yourself in a position where real discipleship can happen — don’t even think about starting a small group. And heck, potential leader, in that case you probably don’t even want to waste your time joining one. To reinforce the seriousness of his message, Neighbour suggests a fairly rigorous discipleship program for both members and leaders.
There’s a lot of good ideas here, especially for established leaders who are trying to figure out how to make their small groups better. (I particularly liked “The Blessing List,” a means to get groups more outsider-focused without viewing others as “targets.”) There’s also a very useful chapter about intergenerational small groups at the end of the book, written by Daphne Kirk. (Great quote: “The small group is not a spiritual ‘date night’ for parents.”)
On the down side of all this good advice is that I suspect a lot of the more uninitiated readers will look at this and say, “If this is what it’s going to take, it’s too much work to even try.” And granted, it might be a good thing to weed out people who aren’t really committed earlier on. But I think potential leaders are also the audience Neighbour’s really trying to reach here, it’s kind of a shame, too.
There’s probably a way to make all these good ideas seem less daunting. After all, it isn’t that hard to throw a party and get group members involved with one another and connect them with “outsiders.” And there’s plenty of good materials out there to help groups find a sense of mission without it becoming (Neighbour’s own words, and methodology) “boot camp.” And being a real friend to your other group members, while absolutely essential and all-too-absent in a lot of small-group ministries, isn’t something you’re going to learn in any book.
In short, get the book for the ideas and the vision, because they’re well worth reading. Just don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by all the do’s and don’ts here, or feel obligated to do things the exact same way.
On the other hand, if you are up for using The Naked Truth… as the textbook for your burgeoning small-group ministry and feel your church can handle the rigor, by all means go for it! It’s good stuff.
An earlier version of this review was originally published on smallgroupministry.com.