The Northpoint Way










It is no secret that I am a big fan of Andy Stanley and Northpoint Church in greater Atlanta. Truth is, I am a fan of his father's church, which, although it has not enjoyed as rapid growth as Northpoint, has shown steady and significant growth over the years. (In addition, they have an amazing worldwide TV and radio ministry.) I am also a big fan of Woodstock, that does things in a completely different way, and a big fan of Willowcreek, Saddleback, and Ted Haggard's New Life Community Church. My daddy used to say, "We don't all do things alike." One of the smartest things that Rick Warren ever said is, "It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people." The Northpoint way is not the only way, but it is a good way.

It is also a very unusual way. One of the most striking elements of the Northpoint small group system is they employ closed groups. How in the world do you reach people, and reach them rapidly through closed groups? I decided to find out.

What you will find below is an email interview I recently conducted with Josh Jones. Josh is the small group leader at Athens Church, a strategic partner church of Northpoint. (He will explain more about this relationship in the interview.)


Josh Hunt: Imagine I am a visitor to your church. How would I find out about small groups? How would I be encouraged to get in a small group? How would I find a small group?

Josh Jones: That actually brings up a bigger issue- our small groups are not really for visitors. We follow the model of Foyer to Kitchen.

Right now, our Foyer environments are our Sunday morning service and Kidstuf. These environments are designed for our guests. These are the places where our regular attenders are regularly encouraged to be investing in people outside our church and inviting them in. Our hope is that all visitors come on the arm of a regular attender. We don't try very hard to attract "walk ins".

Our next goal is to get people to the "Living Room". This is where people begin to make friends. Right now, this is accomplished by joining one of our Strategic service teams. This includes Waumba (preschool), Upstreet (elementary), Host, Production & Environment (set up and tear down- we are in rented facilities).

Our Final step for people is the "Kitchen". This is where we want people to feel like family. Our primary environment for this is our Community Groups.

They are closed groups of 6-8 individuals or 4-5 couples that meet in homes for 10-22 months for accountability, belonging and care. They are "closed" to create deeper intimacy (people cannot join a group after it has begun unless all members agree) and they have a predetermined ending date so that they don't fizzle out. It also allows us to multiply a group into two or three groups every 10-22 months. People primarily find out about small groups through the bulletin, announcements, web site or word of mouth. It is the destination we want for everyone at our church, so we talk about it a lot.

The primary way people join a group is by attending a Community Group Orientation. At the orientation, they meet people in their same stage of life and commit to an eight week starter group. At the end of the 8 weeks, if everything is going well, the group signs a covenant together to meet for 10-22 months. People do not, however, have to attend the orientation.

They can simply form a group with people they have built relationships with in other ways- such as on our strategic service teams.

I know that's way more than you asked for, but I hope it's helpful.

Josh Hunt: You have raised a million questions. Let's start with this one. What do you mean you don't try to attract "walk ins." I thought all churches wanted walk ins?

Josh Jones: We obviously don't turn people away and we welcome people who don't know anyone else there, but our model works best when a person is brought by a regular attender. Our desire is for our regular attenders to answer any questions they have and to lead them into a relationship with God as they process together what they experience in the services.

The way this may make us different from some churches is that we spend very little money on "marketing". We want word of mouth to be the primary way that people hear about Athens Church. Our goal is to make that Sunday morning service such an engaging environment that people are excited to bring people from outside the church.

Josh Hunt: Let's move then to the "Living Room." As I understand your comments above, this is (in your case; maybe not so at Northpoint) a service opportunity. So, people are asked to serve before they are asked to be in a group?

Josh Jones: For us, that's true. We have found that joining a service team is a great first step into community for people. So, right now, that is the only thing that functions as a "living room" for us. We hope to continue to develop other living room environments. The goal is to allow people to be relationally connected before they make the bigger commitment of joining a community group- it's a step to community for us.

Josh Hunt: What would be some other examples of "Living Room Environments," say, as practiced at North Point?

Josh Jones: North Point does Fusion (singles gatherings) and Married Life Live (couples gatherings). These serve as environments where people begin to make friends. It's the step in between the Worship service and Community Groups.

For kids and students, North Point combines their "Living Room" and "Kitchen" environments- Xtreme (middle school), Inside Out (high school), Upstreet (elementary) and Waumba (preschoolers). These environments have a large group time and small group time.

Josh Hunt: Well, let's move to the "kitchen." How do I get in a small group?

Josh Jones: There are two ways people can get into a group...

The first is the best. As they develop relationships in our "Foyer" and "Living Room" environments, they make friends and form groups together. This is the best option because it ensures that people have connected relationally. The other way is to attend a Community Group Orientation. This is the way most people have gotten into groups at Athens Church. At the orientation, they meet people at their stage of life and commit to be in a starter group with them for 8 weeks. At the end of that time, if the group has connected well relationally, they sign a covenant to be together for 10-22 months. If the group doesnít work during the starter period, we encourage them to attend the next orientation and join a different group. We offer orientations every couple of months.

Josh Hunt: Walk me through an actual group evening, from the time the doorbell rings until the time they say good night.

Josh Jones: We give the leaders a lot of freedom in how they decide to lead their group time. However, we ask that four elements be present at every meeting: refreshments, Bible study, fellowship and prayer. I am personally a small group leader, and our group meets on Sunday nights from 7:00-9:00 PM. This is what our group time looks like:

7:00-8:00 dinner/fellowship
8:00-8:20 prayer
8:20-9:00 Bible study

We actually eat dinner together, but that is not a requirement. We rotate houses, and the host house serves dinner that night. That works well for us, but each group has the freedom to structure it how they would like. We end promptly at 9:00, and most of the time people stick around for 15-30 minutes talking some more. I have attached a covenant that each group is required to fill out. This is when they decide all of these details.

Josh Hunt: Let's push forward a year or so. How does this group wind down and reproduce into two groups?

Josh Jones: There are two keys to effective multiplication: the covenant and communication. The covenant sets the expectation of multiplication from the very beginning. Everyone agrees on it and determines the multiplication date together. The second key is that the leaders must talk about it often- especially in the last few months of the group. They must keep the vision of it in front of the group because the natural tendency will be for groups to never want to multiply.

When it is time to multiply, the leader will have spent a lot of time developing an apprentice who will become the leader of the new group. The group decides who goes with which group and then each new group will either attend a Community Group Orientation to add new members or simply invite others that they already know into the new group. The process, of course, does not always run without snags, but thatís when a staff member assists the group in handling any problems they face.

Josh Hunt: Is it fair to say that your best group leaders joyfully, enthusiastically, personally, sincerely buy into the vision of growing and dividing, growing and dividing, growing and dividing?

Josh Jones: At this point in our church life, I would say ,"Yes." The reason I can confidently say that now is because we are a new church, and we have cast that vision from the very beginning. When they became a leader, thatís what they committed to. To become a leader, you must agree with the way we do groups. However, I do see this as a potential problem in the future. When people build close relationships with each other, it is difficult to keep the vision of including those not yet involved in group life. Groups will always want to stay together longer. However, it is something we are very committed to, and it is vital to keep both our groups and our church growing. We are not heavy handed about it, but we will work to help groups stay committed to their covenant. We work very hard to keep our eyes on those not yet connected- to God and in community with others.

Josh Hunt: You mentioned that you are a new church. Talk to me about that for a moment. What is your relationship to Northpoint? How did you get started? Where is this movement going to be in five years?

Josh Jones: Being a strategic partner means that we have the same mission, strategy, values & beliefs as Ministries but are a separate entity. We began as a church in Aug. 04 and had our first service in Jan. 05. We agreed to play the sermon portion of the service 60% of the time. The rest of the service is ďliveĒ, and we have a local lead pastor and staff. Northpoint helped us get started with an initial financial loan that we will pay back to another strategic partner within 5 years. We also receive counsel and advice from the staff  as we need it. They are currently working on a plan for the best way to support us as the number of partners grow. There are currently 4 strategic partners with more on the way. You can see the current list at their ministry site: . The strategic partner concept is only a little over a year old, so we are still seeing how well it works. There is really no telling where it will be in five years, but the hope is that there will be strategic partners all over the country.

Josh Hunt: Well, I'd like to wind this down. Anything else you would like to say to small group leaders and those who coach them?

Josh Jones: I would probably say that the biggest mistake a small group leader should avoid is the knowledge acquisition trap. A lot of times, we have fallen for the lie that if we just learn more theology and more about the Bible that life change will follow. Most of the time, this is not true. I know in my life, that has not been true. Itís great when I learn more, but it rarely produces change. That doesn't mean we shouldnít be increasing in our knowledge of Scripture; Iím just saying that the focus should not be on that. Most Christians know plenty of theology and Bible- we just donít apply it. I believe a major role of a small group leader is to help the group build a community that can be honest about life and can help each other apply the principles of Scripture. The focus should be on life change- not knowledge acquisition.


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