Small Groups Snapshot: Restore Community Church

When a passion for small groups and discipleship meets a new church plant

For several years, Janet McMahon helped direct the small-groups ministry of Community Christian Church—a large an innovative multi-site network primarily located in suburban Chicago. But recently she and her husband, Troy, set off to Kansas City to plant Restore Community Church. recently caught up with Janet to get a picture of this new ministry opportunity.

Tell us a little bit about the small-groups ministry at Restore.

Because we were a church plant and new to the community, we didn't have a ton of people with us—not very many people to even start getting them into groups. Fortunately, we decided to get people grouped long before we did weekend services. We began to build a launch team of people—and it ended up being around 80 people before we launched—so we needed to get those people in small groups so they could start doing life together and be in community together.

So my whole role during that time was to build community without a weekend service, and in some ways it was challenging because there wasn't a weekend event where everyone could hang out together. We met together monthly in our launch-team meetings. But in some ways it was really freeing and really fun because I didn't have the pressure of any weekend responsibilities. So it was really all about building community with people.

How did you get the ministry off its feet?

I started with hand picking the people I saw leadership potential in. I was looking for spiritually mature believers who understood the mission of church planting and helping people find their way back to God. So I hand picked about 14 people and then asked them to join me in a small group, with the idea that they would become leaders of groups in the future. And they said yes! All 14. I was so surprised and happy.

So we started a 10-week small group with those people. Part of what we did was study the Bible together, but the other part of was talking about small-group mission, ministry, and vision, and how small groups can be a catalyst for life change.

I wrote some turbo-training material that I led them through, which covered everything from facilitation skills to making the group a healthy and safe place for people to grow spiritually. We also talked about the vision of being a leader and how to have a vision for their small group of people, plus a vision for their own discipleship and personal growth.

So I took them through those ten weeks of materials, and then after that was done they kind of paired up two by two, leader and apprentice, and started groups. We were able to group the other 70 or so people that were part of our launch team, so that by the day we launched the church we had about 8 available small groups for people to join.

How many group leaders are you working with now, and do you still use a leader/apprentice model?

I have about 23 group leaders right now, and maybe half of those leaders have apprentices. I have one other coach, a volunteer, who is working with me to develop those leaders. I have one support/recovery group right now and a couple of interest groups, but the majority of those are sermon-based small groups.

With your sermon-based groups, are they following up what they hear on Sunday morning, or do they study the material before they hear a sermon about it?

We're following up. So they'll hear the weekend message, and that week they're going to talk about what they heard.

In terms of small groups, what was the biggest change that you experienced when you moved to Restore from a church like Community Christian?

When you come from a church of thousands and go to plant a new church, there's a hunger with you that's hard to get otherwise. When I was at Community Christian, if you would have asked me, "Can you increase your investment in any way in the local church," I would have said, "No, I'm highly invested in seeing people find their way back to God and get in a small group and being discipled." But when I got to Kansas City, suddenly every person I walked by—in the school hallway when I dropped my kids off at school or in my neighborhood—was someone far from God.

There's a hunger about that kind of life that I didn't have before. And so I guess what's changed for me is just my investment in the work—my passion to see people really find Jesus and find their way back to God, because it doesn't feel like we have enough. And it should never as a Christ's follower feel like we have enough, but it's easy when you're surrounded by thousands every weekend to forget that there are people out there who still need to encounter God.

But as far as the system—developing leaders, how I do it, how I train the—it's all very much what I did at Community Christian. I am a big fan of the meta-model from Carl George. He wrote Prepare Your Church for the Future.

What were the biggest obstacles that you had to overcome in order to get small groups started?

I'm thankful that God has blessed Restore with people who are new to church, or finding their way back to God. The obstacle I'm facing right now is grouping those people. It's easier to group people who are churchgoers—people who have been in Bible Studies or small groups before, and they feel comfortable with the model and the method. They group fast.

Grouping people who are just finding their way back to God is a different animal, and I'm seeing that a lot of what Andy Stanley says at Northpoint: there's a big step between weekend attendance and a small group. So, I think I need to create a system of grouping them that makes that step easier. That's the challenge I'm facing.

What would you say is the best success story of your small-group ministry right now?

I have a great one. I love this story. When we first got to Restore, we met a couple who had grown up in church—Kent and Cherylin, long-time Christ followers—but really wanted to be a part of the mission of Restore. In fact, we met them before we moved to Kansas City, and they read about Troy and I in an article in Christian Standard—they knew we were coming right to their area and they contacted us by email. So we met them and we hit it off right away, but we warned them that we weren't necessarily going to be the church they were used to. There were going to be some things about Restore that were designed to be intentional about helping people find their way back to God. But they hung with it and wanted to be a part of it. So they were in my turbo group and they became apprentices with Troy and I in our small group. And then they multiplied out and started a new group.

Here's a couple who have been in church their whole life, but not necessarily in close proximity with people that are finding their way back to God. So of course their group gets Steve and Carol, who are just finding their way back to God. Right away the two wives hit it off, and Carol asked Cherylin, "You've been on this journey longer than me, will you mentor me? Will you disciple me?" She didn't know the terminology, but that's what she was asking. So they started meeting together once a week, reading a book together, talking about what it means to be a Christ follower and a follower of Jesus. And Carol really gets it. She decides to get baptized, and she asked Cherylin to do it, which was great. Well, then somebody else in the group, Kathleen, watches what's happening to them and says to Carol, "Will you do that for me?" And Carol says yes. So a couple months go by with Carol now mentoring Kathleen, and then eventually Carol baptized Kathleen!

That's how this whole thing is supposed to work. And what was cool about it for me is that the discipleship piece was not programmed. It was organic.

Last question: what do you know now that you wish someone had taught you before you came to Restore?

That's a great question. Troy and I are a different kind of church planter because we're 45 instead of 25. So we came seasoned in different types of ministry, and that's been huge.

For me, I wish I had known more about community service when we got here. I resisted that in my ministry at Community Christian, quite frankly. We had a director of community then, Kirstin Strand, who wanted to see our small groups serving our community, serving others. And I remember that was a tough pill for me to swallow because it was one more "ask" I was making of our leaders, who were already training several hours a week plus meeting with coaches.

But when we got to Kansas City, that has totally become our DNA. Small groups serve the community. You find things to do outside of yourself. That's who you are, that's part of being a group, that's part of our culture. I wish I could have gotten that and embraced it earlier, but it took me a while. I was caught up in asking too much of people, and the bar was just too low. When you church plant, your bar is so high for yourself that you raise the bar for everyone else.

I understand now that it's not too much to ask of people to serve their community. That's what being a Christ-follower is. I wish I would have known that earlier in my ministry life.

—Interview conducted by Amy Simpson; copyright 2009 by the author and Christianity Today International.

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