Before getting started here, I would like to announce that The Naked Truth About Small-Group Ministry has won this year's award for most arresting cover art. (And no, that's not Randall on the cover.)
On a more serious note, this is an interesting book in part because of Randall Neighbour's dual identity in the world of small groups. On one hand, Randall is a small-groups insider. He is passionate about community and discipleship, and he has spent the better part of his life coaching pastors and church leaders toward successfully implementing holistic small groups as a base of ministry and mission—and in doing so, he has continued the vision of his father, Ralph Neighbour.
On the other hand, Randall is often viewed as a small-groups outsider. His vision for cell groups, or holistic small groups, regularly contrasts (and sometimes clashes) with what a large segment of the church would view as "traditional" small-groups ministry, as we'll see below.
With that in mind, let's take a look between the pages of The Naked Truth About Small-Group Ministry.
The book is divided into seven chapters, with each one offering "the naked truth" about a perceived fault in the American church as it relates to small groups. Each chapter is divided into two sections. The first outlines the problems and flaws inherent in a specific way of thinking about small groups, and the second (labeled "What to do about it") offers solutions to those problems.
Here's a quick look at each chapter:
1.The Naked Truth About the American Church: the heart of the house is dead. This chapter asserts that the program-drive culture of Western churches has produced Christians that are in reality spiritual zombies. And when churches try to corral those spiritual zombies into groups as a method of spiritual growth, it doesn't work.
2.The Naked Truth About Lead Pastors: attitudes and strategies that bastardize the nature of holistic small groups. This chapter criticizes lead pastors who structure their small-group ministry as a support to the larger ministry (funnel strategies), or who create a "cafeteria plan" where small groups are one program among many.
3.The Naked Truth About Implementation Strategies: common mistakes that promote lethargy and small group closure. Randall addresses two specific strategies that are common in churches today: 1) choosing a pre-existing model of ministry and then shoe-horning it into your church, and 2) using a campaign strategy to launch groups, train hosts, provide curriculum, and so on.
4.The Naked Truth About Relational Discipleship: the American church doesn't do it. American churches don't view discipleship as a relational process, which is why small groups and other areas of those churches don't produce real, growing disciples.
5.The Naked Truth About Small Group Leadership: it's time to break with tradition. Having a group leader take the majority of responsibility within a group leads to burnout and a lack of leaders. The solution is developing a team of "core leaders" that manage a group.
6.The Naked Truth About Intergenerational Small Groups: children are your most powerful small group members. Co-written with Daphne Kirk, this chapter implores churches and small groups to view children as the church of today, not the church of tomorrow.
7.The Naked Truth About Small Group-Driven Churches: guiding principles that produce healthy small groups. Pretty self-explanatory. This chapter serves as half review of the previous book, half collection of miscellaneous tips for producing healthy small groups.
One of the most valuable aspects of this book is that it highlights many of the key decisions that churches and church leaders need to make when it comes to small-group ministry. Randall has been listening to churches and church leaders for a long time, and he knows where the fault lines tend to form.
More than addressing the issues, though, this book provides a wealth of information in terms of practical tips and strategies. Here are some of my favorites:
- The recommendations for prayer groups in chapter 1 are very cool. I read them with a feeling just short of awe, and I have no doubt that a church filled with people willing to dedicate that kind of energy to prayer would be a church that impacts its community in a real way.
- The emphasis on relationship discipleship in chapter 4 (and throughout the book) is refreshing.
- Chapter 5 proposes team leadership as a way to fight against burnout and ineffectiveness among small-group leaders, and Randall presents a realistic way of accomplishing that.
- The idea of children being your most important small-group members (chapter 6) is very powerful to me, and I hope people run with it.
As helpful as the practical aspects of this book may be, I'm afraid they will be buried in the minds of readers because of the book's overarching tone and presentation.
First the tone. At its best points, the book is written in a way that could be described as bold, prophetic, and even as "speaking the truth in love." At other times, however, the tone becomes abrasive, confrontational, and even a little smug. There are hard-working, genuinely caring pastors and church leaders who will pick up this book, read a little bit, feel offended or attacked, and then put the book away for good. And that would be a shame.
Of course, a little gruffness can be forgiven in any book if it presents core content that is undeniably true and universally applicable. But I don't think that is the case with The Naked Truth About Small-Group Ministry. Specifically, the book too often drifts into an "us verses them" frame of argument that presents Randall's vision of holistic small groups as the only correct way to structure a community ministry:
- Mainstream small groups in the West are program-driven and full of spiritual zombies, while holistic small groups are perfectly organic and healthy.
- American small groups have no plan for discipleship, while holistic churches are perfectly designed for relational ministry.
- Funnel strategies and small-group campaigns never produce healthy groups or fruitful leaders.
- Having group leaders develop apprentices is an unrealistic strategy, but developing a core team within each group will make things run smoothly.
Now, the "either or" presentations made throughout the book may in fact be totally true—smarter people than me have argued back in forth over the key points in each chapter, and I am not willing to say I know which answers are correct and which are not. But that's not really the point.
When you gather together a bunch of prescriptions about small-group ministry and say that they are the best way to accomplish discipleship, you are creating a model of small-group ministry. And when you point out the weaknesses of other models and contrast them with the strengths of your model, you are encouraging other people to follow in your footsteps and do what you have found to be the "best way."
But, as the book rightly points out in chapter 3, attempting to squeeze your unique church into the rigid prescriptions of a small-group ministry model almost never works. There are too many variables within the culture of every church to say that one method works best all of the time. And that is the major flaw of this book.
The big question at the end of reviews like this is usually, "Should other people read this book, or is it just a waste of their time?" And my recommendation is that anyone involved in charting the course and vision of a church's small groups should certainly read The Naked Truth About Small-Group Ministry. It's an important book that will help you grapple with important questions.
But read it with an open mind. If you feel yourself getting offended or frustrated, let it go. If you feel a sudden craving for a glass of Kool-Aid and want to begin implementing every tip and strategy in the book right away, take a step back. Read to see what the book says about your unique ministry, and then experiment with its ideas in order to improve the efficacy of that ministry for the Kingdom of God.
—Sam O'Neal; copyright 2010 by the author and Christianity Today.