Taking Your Small Group to the Next Level | Influence Podcast


Small groups are a vital component of a church’s ministry. They extend the span of pastoral care, deepen group members’ spiritual formation, and provide a motivated cadre of volunteers for a church’s various ministries. At least that’s what they’re supposed to do. Too often, however, small groups get stuck in a rut, frustrating leaders and group members alike.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Jason Sniff about how to take your small group to the next level. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

Jason Sniff is small groups pastor at Eastview Christian Church in Normal, Illinois, and a licensed professional counselor with more than 15 years of experience developing healthy groups in private and public sectors. He is coauthor with Ryan Hartwig and Courtney Davis of Leading Small Groups That Thrive, recently published by Zondervan.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Leading Small Groups That Thrive | Book Review


I vividly remember the first small group I led. It was Sunday morning, I was a seminarian in my early twenties, and I was wearing a suit. (Men still did that in the early 1990s.) I arranged metal folding chairs in a circle, welcomed the attendees, and spent the next 45 minutes lecturing them.

When it was over, a woman asked if every session would be a repeat of that morning’s performance. I took umbrage at what I perceived to be her questioning of my teaching abilities. She didn’t return for the second session. After a couple of months, nobody else did either.

The group failed, but it wasn’t the group’s fault. It was mine. I had not led the group well.

John Maxwell says that everything rises and falls on leadership. That sounds pretty egotistical, until you remember that he also defines leadership as influence. A true leader influences others. Or, as Howard Hendricks has put it, “Your measure as a leader is not what you do, but what others do because of what you do.” A leader catalyzes change in others.

In Leading Small Groups That Thrive, Ryan T. Hartwig, Courtney W. Davis, and Jason A. Sniff identify five things catalytic small group leaders can do to “maximize the benefits that result from thriving, transformational group experiences.”

Hartwig and Davis are social science professors at Christian universities, and Sniff is a small groups pastor at a multisite church in Illinois. Their interest in effective small group leadership flows out of transformational experiences each of them had in small group settings.

What makes Leading Small Groups That Thrive unique is its original research. The authors surveyed approximately 1,000 small groups members, leaders, and pastors. They used Steve Gladen’s “Spiritual Health Assessment” as a baseline questionnaire, but they also asked members questions about group practices such as time commitment, conflict, and leader characteristics. Small group leaders were asked additional questions about issues such as small group priorities, leadership development, and commitment to the group.

Some of their findings are counterintuitive. For example:

  • “The more time a group spends in prayer, the less a group contributes to its members’ spiritual growth. In contrast, the more time the leader spends in prayer, the more the group contributes to spiritual growth.”
  • “The more time a group worships together and talks through logistics and announcements, the more it contributes to its members’ spiritual growth.”
  • “Groups that place less emphasis on discipleship see more spiritual growth among their members.”
  • “The most effective groups were either really small (fewer than eight members) or pretty big (more than seventeen members).”
  • “Newer groups that had been meeting for less than three months contributed the most to individual spiritual growth. … On the other hand, we discovered that outstanding group practices can counteract the decline in impact that occurs as groups age.”

These counterintuitive research findings are interesting, of course, but the heart of the book is a research-based model of five actions catalytic small group leaders take. They 1) articulate purpose, 2) set the stage, 3) cultivate shared ownership, 4) stimulate meaningful conversations, and 5) embrace difficult conversations.

Each of these points is worth discussing at length, but since I started this review with my personal failure to stimulate meaning conversation among my small group members, let me park there for a few paragraphs.

The problem with the way I led my first small group is that I felt my job was “dispensing information” rather than “facilitating transformation,” as the authors put it. “In the most effective groups,” they write, “members contributed equally to discussion and talked among themselves, rather than speaking solely to the leader.” This discuss-among-yourselves approach works because it turns members from passive listeners to active participants. Everyone now has an informational and relational stake in the conversation.

Interestingly, such robust discussion resists the tendency of older groups to become less effective: “when groups engage in high-quality discussions, they can almost entirely counteract the decay they would otherwise experience over time. Simply put, quality discussion creates continued spiritual growth.”

The authors go on to offer detailed, practical advice about how to ask better questions in a strategic sequence, how to set up the room for better discussion, and how to facilitate the conversation with purpose and flexibility. I do not doubt that my first small group would’ve been much more effective had I followed the authors’ advice. Unfortunately, I had to learn these lessons through trial and error, but you can learn those lessons better from this book.

I’ve focused on better discussion because this was where I failed my first small group, but Hartwig, Davis and Sniff’s book offers sound advice about all the topics it addresses. If you’re a small group leader, or want to be one, or if you’re a small groups pastor who wants to provide a good resource to your leaders, I recommend Leading Small Groups That Thrive.

Book Reviewed
Ryan T. Hartwig, Courtney W. Davis, and Jason A. Sniff, Leading Small Groups That Thrive: Five Shifts to Take Your Group to the Next Level (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Immerse: The Reading Bible | Book Review


Most Americans own a Bible, but few read it. According to the American Bible Society’s State of the Bible 2017 (SOTB), 87 percent of U.S. households own at least one copy of the Scriptures. Unfortunately, only 50 percent of U.S. adults read the Bible, listen to it or pray with it at least three or four times a year.

How can we help people move toward greater Bible engagement?

There are many ways to answer this question, but I want to focus on a new Bible product I believe merits attention. It’s called Immerse: The Reading Bible, which Tyndale House Publishers created in Alliance with the Institute for Bible Reading. You can read more about it at ImmerseBible.com (BibliaInmersion.com for the Spanish version).

Immerse is designed to take the entire church — from Jr. High to senior adults — through the Bible in three years. It presents Scripture in six high-quality, low-cost paperbacks or e-books.

  • Messiah (New Testament)
  • Beginnings (Genesis–Deuteronomy)
  • Kingdoms (Joshua–2 Kings)
  • Prophets (Isaiah–Malachi)
  • Poets (Job–Song of Songs, plus Lamentations)
  • Chronicles (1 Chronicles–Esther, plus Daniel)

According to its website, “Immerse is built on three core ideas: reading a naturally formatted Bible, reading at length, and having unmediated discussions about it together.”

While most Bibles are formatted like a dictionary or encyclopedia — a two-column format with scholarly apparatus, including chapter and verse numbers, headings, cross-references and notes — Immerse presents Scripture in a single-column format and eliminates the scholarly apparatus entirely. According to SOTB, 8 percent of U.S. adults cite difficult layout as a significant frustration when reading the Bible. Immerse’s formatting reduces that frustration.

Using this Bible, a church’s small groups or Sunday School classes meet twice a year for eight weeks each time to read and discuss one of Immerse’s six paperbacks, starting with Messiah. Reading each paperback takes 20 to 30 minutes daily, five days a week, for the duration of the small group. This is what Immerse means by “reading at length.” Thirty percent of U.S. adults say lack of time is a significant Bible reading frustration. By delimiting how much and how often participants read, Immerse’s program addresses this concern.

During meetings, a leader facilitates open discussion around four questions:

  1. What stood out to you this week?
  2. Was anything confusing or troubling?
  3. Did anything make you think differently about God?
  4. How might this change the way you live?

State of the Bible 2017 found that readers are motivated to increase their Bible reading when encountering a difficulty in life (41 percent), a significant life change, such as marriage or childbirth (17 percent), or contemporary discussions about religion and spirituality in the media (17 percent). By focusing on four open-ended questions, Immerse encourages readers to ponder what the Bible teaches in the specifics of their lives.

Several other features of Immerse are worth highlighting. First, it uses the New Living Translation of Scripture (NLT). According to SOTB, 16 percent of U.S. adults are frustrated by the Bible’s difficult language. The NLT features readable, idiomatic English for a broad audience.

Second, within each paperback, Immerse reorganizes the books of the Bible in an interesting fashion. For example, the standard New Testament order of books is Gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, other epistles and Revelation. Messiah pairs each gospel with letters related to it: Luke–Acts with Paul’s letters, Mark with Peter’s and Jude’s letters, Matthew with Hebrews and James, and John with John’s letters and Revelation. This helps readers see thematic connections between each gospel and its associated letters.

Third, Immerse provides resources to help readers understand the theological, historical and literary context of each book of the Bible. All six paperbacks include brief introductory essays. And the website includes free aids for small groups: a weekly 3-minute video that introduces each week’s readings, audio files of daily Bible readings, and downloadable guides for pastors, small-group leaders and participants.

God inspired the Bible to equip us for holy living (2 Timothy 3:16–17). If we don’t use it, however, it does us no good. Immerse offers church leaders a well-thought-out strategy for guiding readers through Scripture.

Books Reviewed
Immerse: The Reading Bible, 6 vols. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Transforming Discipleship’ by Greg Ogden


Greg Ogden, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

How well are Christians in America carrying out the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)? Not well, according to Greg Ogden. In the revised and expanded edition of Transforming Discipleship, he sets out to explain what went wrong with our discipleship efforts, why, and how to implement an effective church-based strategy for disciple-making. It’s a book pastors and other church leaders ought to read.

Ogden organizes his material into three parts. Part 1, “The Discipleship Deficit,” examines what went wrong and why. Part 2, “Doing the Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” looks to the Bible as a “method book,” focusing on Jesus’ and Paul’s respective models of discipleship. Part 3, “Multiplying Reproducing Discipleship Groups,” outlines how to implement a “microgroup” strategy for growing “self-initiating, reproducing disciples of Jesus Christ.” (Microgroups are groups of three or four people, “triads” and “quads” in Ogden’s words.)

According to Ogden, the basic problem with discipleship in America today is superficiality. Or, as the late John Stott put it, “growth without depth.” Lots of people bear the name “Christian,” but it’s not clear that they produce “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

Why? Ogden identifies eight “distractions” that mar our discipleship efforts:

  1. diversion of the church’s ministry from our primary calling to make disciples,
  2. discipling by means of standardized programs instead of personal relationships,
  3. reducing the Christian life to the future state instead of how we live now,
  4. promoting a two-tier understanding of the Christian life that makes discipleship for “super-Christians, not ordinary believers,”
  5. being unwilling to call people to become disciples,
  6. having a view of church as optional rather than as required,
  7. not articulating a clear pathway to spiritual maturity,
  8. and not having been discipled personally.

Ogden then contrasts the lack of discipleship in America with how both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul made disciples. Christian leaders typically turn to the Bible to identify what end their ministries should pursue, but Ogden effectively argues that the Bible also articulates the means by which we should pursue them. The Bible, in other words, is both a “message book” and a “method book.” While both Jesus and Paul ministered to groups of varying sizes, their most intensive efforts at making disciples focused on “invest[ing] in a few.”

Here’s how Ogden summarizes the matter:

Jesus intentionally called a few to multiply himself in them. He intended his ministry to become the ministry of the Twelve and be the means by which he extended himself to the world. To prepare the Twelve, Jesus followed a situational leadership model, adjusting his leadership style to the readiness of his followers. As Jesus adjusted his leadership to match the readiness of the disciples, he also changed styles to provoke them to the next level of growth. Jesus shifted his roles from living example to provocative teacher to supportive coach and finally to ultimate delegator. Though Paul’s language and images differed, his goal and process mirrored the model of his Lord.

So, how can pastors and Christian leaders implement Jesus’ model of making disciples in their churches’ own ministries? Ogden focuses on three words: relationship, multiplication, and transformation. “The necessary elements…,” he writes, “are to establish a relational disciple-making process that is rooted in a reproducible model (triads or quads) that brings together the transformative elements of life change.” If I could summarize Ogden’s proposal in my own words, I’d put it this way: Three or four people meeting weekly for a year to grow closer to Christ and to one another, using a curriculum that each member can in turn use with a new triad or quad the next year. This process is intensive, demanding and tailored to the circumstances of the individual members, but that is how Christ himself achieved His best results with His own disciples. If you don’t believe me, look at Jesus’ interactions with His inner circle of Peter, James, and John in the Gospels.

Using this model of disciple making doesn’t require that pastors and other church leaders ditch Sunday sermons, Christian education classes, or other forms of teaching. Both Jesus and Paul spoke to large crowds and smaller groups, after all. It does mean prioritizing microgroups, however, as Jesus’ and Paul’s preferred strategy of making disciples, as well as recognizing the limitations of large-crowd and smaller-group forms of teaching, which can be more informational than transformational.

Transforming Discipleship is a challenging read, though not because it is hard to understand. Rather, it is challenging because churches are tempted to implement one-size-fits-all discipleship programs that are easy for pastors to manage. (I speak from personal experience here.) The easy way is not always the best way, however. Sometimes, the best results require intensive effort on a smaller scale over a longer timeframe to achieve.

I encourage you to read Transforming Discipleship. The book combines passion for the Great Commission, keen biblical insight and helpful practical suggestions for implementing a microgroup strategy. Even if, in the end, you don’t implement the book’s discipleship strategy, it will help you work through the relevant issues—biblically and practically—so that you can better fulfill the Great Commission in your own ministry and that of the local church.

_____
P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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