Activate, by Nelson Searcy

Review by Josh Hunt

Nelson Searcy is the master or practicality. And why not? He learned from the best: Rick Warren.

Nelson served on staff at Saddleback before coming to New York City to start a church just before the 9/11 attacks. His church is called The Journey. Activate is his third book. This one co-authored with Kerrick Thomas. The other two are:

Launch: Starting a new church from scratch. The big idea is "launch big." Create momentum by making a big splash. Do some fund-raising from outside churches to support a major advertising campaign.

Fusion: Turning first time guests into fully-engaged members of your church. Nelson offers a practical, step-by-step plan to get your visitors to stick. Success is in the details, and they are all here.

In Searcy’s newest book, he gives a bold promise for a subtitle: An entirely new approach to small groups.

What is this new approach? Well, it is not entirely new in my experience.

When I was on church staff, we had two parallel group systems. We had Sunday School groups which were on-going, open groups. Then we had what we called Discipleship Groups that were short-term, closed, semester-by-semester groups. These were normally held on Sunday night and Wednesday nights.

Searcy and Thomas’ entirely new approach is like that second approach: short-term, closed, semester-by-semester groups. A few other distinctives of the plan:

The groups at the Journey are not really about creating intimate relationships as a lot of churches talk about. They are just going after casual friendships. The thought is that closer relationships will flow out of the casual friendships formed in groups. You can’t really program intimacy; you can create an environment where casual friendships can form. At the Journey, they redefine the win for small group leaders. They are not going after intimacy; casual friendships will do.

Searcy and Thomas emphasize a principle he calls stress and relief. Think of a weight lifter. They stress their muscles one day, breaking down those muscles. Then, they let those muscles rest for a time. Searcy teaches the body of Christ grows in a similar kind of way. They push everyone to be in groups for a time, then they don’t say too much about groups, then there is some time off between semesters to let everyone rest and want to get back in groups again.

The Journey emphasizes a one-step process for getting in groups. Without saying so, it seemed the authors were saying, "We don’t do things like they do at Northpoint." Northpoint has a program that has been widely adopted, called Group Link. It is a place you go and meet potential group members. From there, they have short term group called Starting Point. See From there, you get into a regular group. Thus, they teach a three-step process: Group Link, Starting Point, regular groups. At the Journey, they by pass all of this. During the worship service you sign up for a group. They print a catalogue of available groups, you pick the one you want, and sign up. There is also sign up available online, as well as a small group table. Wherever you sign up, there is only one step to getting it done.

At the Journey, Nelson Searcy and the staff lead by example. In Searcy’s own words: "Most lead pastors share a common temptation when in comes to small groups: They want to turn the system over to someone else. They want to give it to a dedicated staff specialist so they don't have to deal with it. We know! In theory this doesn't sound like a bad idea. But the truth is, handing the system off too early is the worst thing a pastor can do for the small group system. As a matter of fact, when it comes to implementing a successful small group system, every single person has to be involved, starting with the top." I heard Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock say recently that he attends Sunday School–Woodstock’s small group system–every week. Johnny Hunt leads by example. I have heard Andy Stanley say many times, "I am in a group that is doubling; I want you to be in a group that is doubling." As Bill Hybels says it, "The leader must embody the vision." There is a reason why small groups don’t work at a lot of churches, and it is not that we need a better model. We need the leaders to lead by example, as they do at the Journey.

Searcy and Thomas boast 100% participation in small groups. This is pretty amazing when you compare it to many mega-churches that have less than half of their people in small groups. These kind of percentages are pretty common in churches that have on-campus groups, but almost unheard of in churches where the groups do not meet on-campus.

There is a lot to like about this plan:

  • It flat works. They are getting a very high percentage of their people in groups.
  • The ebb and flow of push and relax makes sense to me. If you emphasize groups all the time, it is just noise after while. If you hit it for a while, then back off. . . it just makes sense to me.
  • Lead by example. Almost any group system will work if the top level of leadership are really behind it.
  • They solve the dividing groups issue in a clever way. Each semester, everyone just signs up for new groups. The leadership organizes enough groups so there is always more this semester than there was last semester. An individual group could all sign up to be together again, but the way it is set up, they would have to be very intentional to make that happen.

A little push back:

  • At the risk of sounding lazy, it seemed like an awful lot of work to me. If you have ongoing groups, you can start them and they just go. There is ongoing coaching and training, but not as much work as in this sytem. In this system, you have to start all new groups every four months. Searcy and Thomas lay out a good annual plan to make this happen, but it is real work. This is not a plan for the faint of heart.
  • I fear they give up too quickly on developing close friends through groups. By reshuffling the deck every four months it seems over time you would develop lots and lots and lots of casual friends. Ongoing groups afford the opportunity for relationships to go deeper.
  • I’d be afraid people would look at group like as optional. Instead of seeing being a group as the normal and on-going habit of the Christian, they would see it as a series of classes that they can opt into this semester and out of the next. If no particular group calls to me this time, I might just opt out and stay out. It seems it is working against the power of habit.

Having pushed back on this plan just a bit, I am remember what a man who discipled me used to say. We were young preach-boys and we would complain about this preacher or that ministry. My "Paul" would say to me, "Who have you won to Christ this week?" Sheepishly, we would drop our heads. "Well. I’d say their way of doing things is better than your way of not doing things." The Journey is doing far better than most and I commend them for it.

Another reflection I had on this plan is that it seems you could do both. You could have ongoing groups, and, start new groups on a semester by semester basis. People who wanted to stay in the same group in an ongoing way could do so. People who wanted to get in a new group every few months could do so. What a wonderful word: and.








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