Home Group Leadership as Ethos Cultivation


Explain my role as home group leader (with college students) and senior sphere leader of 23 adult home groups.

Explain format: first session lecture; second session mainly discussion/Q & A (with non-staff adult home group leaders & college home group members).

Before we launch into our topic, I want you to know some key assumptions I hold:

  • That involvement in home groups is normative for all Christians.  Since we are members of Christ’s body and one another (Rom. 12:5), Christianity and Christian spirituality are essentially communal.
  • That the normative mission of home groups is full duplication (explain).  A healthy home group is not a perpetual daycare center; it is a growing family.
  • That the essential ingredients of effective home group leadership are the same for all roles of spiritual leadership (e.g., discipleship, eldership, etc.).
  • That therefore, home group leadership does not require the gift of leadership, and that it can be learned.  Gifted and very experienced leaders tend to cultivate this ethos intuitively, but all leaders can learn to do this.

I have entitled this talk “Home Group Leadership as Ethos Cultivation” because this describes what I believe is the primary job of home group leaders.  Let’s take a closer look at two key words from the title.

By “ethos,” I am referring to “the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society” [The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged Edition (New York: Random House, 1983)]. “Ethos” is connected etymologically to both “ether” [“Someone has compared key beliefs to an ether that permeates every aspect of the (group).”  Aubrey Malphurs, Values-Driven Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), p. 21] and “ethic.” Spiritual values are indeed taught by biblical instruction, but they are even more caught in a healthy community (EXAMPLES:  HONESTY ABOUT FAILURE & SIN vs. HYPOCRITICAL POSTURING).  If your group has the proper ethos, older members will tend to have deeper spiritual convictions, and new people will tend to imbibe these values and adopt them as a lifestyle.  This is far more powerful than special events, individual disciplines, and training seminars—which (though they have their usefulness) do not by themselves effectively transmit God’s values.

By “cultivating,” I am purposefully using an agricultural term.  We cannot cause plants to grow and bear fruit, but good gardeners introduce conditions which promote fruitfulness and address issues which threaten fruitfulness.  In the same way, leaders cannot cause Christians to be spiritually fruitful, but we can do things that make this far more likely (1 Cor. 3:6,7).  “Cultivation” also implies ongoing rather than sporadic tending.

This kind of leadership is also called transformational leadership.  Transformational leaders intentionally attract others to God’s transforming influence by incarnating God’s values and communicating God’s perspective.  They cultivate and maintain the right spiritual “ethos.”  We use this term to differentiate it from two other common but inadequate forms of church leadership: managerial leadership (focused primarily on systems and tasks), and transactional leadership (determining what the group wants and facilitating it).  Although managerial and transactional leadership do have important legitimate features (creating facilitating structures and obtaining consensus when possible), they fall short of spiritually transformational leadership.

“Barrel” Illustration

I am indebted to Christian Schwartz for the following illustration [Christian A. Schwartz, The ABC’s of Natural Church Development (Carol Stream, Illinois: ChurchSmart Resources, 1998)].  I have made significant changes to Schwartz’s illustration to better enable us to get our arms around the basic task of home group leadership as ethos cultivation.  (QUALIFY: all illustrations have limits & flaws.)

The WATER signifies the PEOPLE that God wants to add to your home group.  God wants his church to grow quantitatively, and he is always willing and able to pour new people into our home groups.

The STAVES signify the key SPIRITUAL MANDATES that God gives to his church—what the New Testament commands the church to be and do (name them).  This represents the importance/priority of qualitative growth.  Just as the water can only rise to the level of the lowest stave, so solid numerical church growth is limited by the spiritual quality of the home group.  The staves are different widths because, while all of them are important, some of these priorities are more important than others (EXAMPLES).  Just as the staves are fitted together, so these priorities are interconnected and interdependent (EXAMPLE).  Home group leader must have deep convictions about each of these!  Because a home group’s health is dynamic, home group leaders must constantly monitor the staves and lengthen the shortest stave.

The BOTTOM signifies GOD’S GRACE—what God promises in the New Testament to do to build his church.  What God wants the church to be and do (STAVES/IMPERATIVES) must be properly grounded in who God is and what he promises to do (BOTTOM/INDICATIVES: his unconditional acceptance and gracious calling, the spiritual gifts he gives us, his sovereign working, his empowering, etc.).  Just as each stave must be custom notched/fitted into the barrel bottom, so each spiritual priority must be grounded in an understanding of and dependence on God’s promises.  Just as coopers regularly “air out” the barrel-bottoms to keep them watertight, leaders must regularly “air out” grace.  If the barrel can only hold water up to the shortest stave, how much more can it only hold water if it has a solid bottom!  Leaders must continue to tend to this bottom, sealing leaks and cracks (our subtle tendency to lose sight of God’s grace) and communicating our confidence in God—that he is able to build his church and give us all we need (individually and corporately) to build effectively with him.

NOTE: When home group leaders tend properly to the STAVES and the BOTTOM, the spiritual atmosphere of the group is a powerful paradox.  On the one hand, there is consensus of commitment—people sense that serious commitment to Christ and his mission is right and normal.  On the other hand, there is a sense of relaxed confidence that flows from knowing and believing that God is with us and in control.  This paradoxical ethos is the essential and dynamic tension of the indicative and the imperative (Col. 1:28,29; 1 Cor. 15:10).

The BANDS signify CHURCH STRUCTURES.  Structures (both solely within the home group and in the larger church) should facilitate spiritual mandates grounded in God’s grace.  Structures that are not rooted in mandates will become dead structures (EXAMPLE: CT for home group members).  At the same time, mandates without structures are a dead letter (EXAMPLE: Body-life without home groups)!  As the bands go around and across all the staves, so good structures usually facilitate many spiritual priorities rather than just one.  Conversely, poor structures inhibit the formation of proper ethos.  Leaders must therefore explain how structures are related to the mandates, and monitor the effectiveness of their structures—making adjustments as needed (more below).

SUMMARIZE: Tending to these three areas are the primary ways that home group leaders cultivate and maintain the proper ethos, and thereby work with God to build his church (1 Cor. 3:9,10).  Now let’s develop this and talk about what’s practically involved . . .

Elaboration of “Barrel Staves” & Examples of “Bands”

First, let’s elaborate on the STAVES (seven New Testament mandates for what should characterize every home group) and the BANDS (examples of structures that we use to facilitate these mandates).

OUTREACH (Matt. 28:19; Jn. 13:34,35; 17:21,23; Acts 1:8; 2:47; 1 Cor. 9:19-23; Phil. 2:14-16; Col. 3:17ff.): ethic that everyone should be active in both evangelism and follow-up; wider stave because if we don’t have new people coming in everything grinds to a halt; includes cultural identification; ambassadorial awareness; witness of the BOC

STRUCTURE EXAMPLES: seeker-sensitive large and home group meetings; home group outreach events; cell groups that review outreach progress; “Sharing Your Faith” (see PATCH’S WORKSHOP)

COMMUNITY (Jn. 13:34,35; Jn. 17:21,23; Acts 2:42,46; Phil. 1:27-2:4; 1 Cor. 14:16-26): home group leaders modeling unity; through-the-week Christ-centered love relationships (“one another’s” – especially appropriate encouragement and challenge); truly interactive meetings & afterward; church discipline; enjoying one another—including fun and laughter

STRUCTURE EXAMPLES: home group meetings; cell groups; corporate prayer; vacations; one-on-one regular time; ministry houses; hospitality

EQUIPPING (Matt. 28:20; 2 Tim. 2:2; Eph. 4:11,12): expectation that all Christians can and should become workers; intentional training of younger Christians by more experienced Christian workers

STRUCTURE EXAMPLES: personal discipleship within the same home group (must include ministry coaching); cell group (including mission & requirements); Lead-Team meetings; discipleship requirement for Servanthood classes; leadership classes; ST meetings & retreats; Challenge Groups

BIBLICAL DEPTH (Jn. 8:31,32; 15:7; 1 Cor. 2:15-3:3 & Heb. 5:11-14): argue for standard that all Christians should reach; includes seeing home group members in the Word for themselves (especially in this age of IT non-readers/reflectors)

STRUCTURE EXAMPLES: Bible study focus of various meetings; core classes; through-the-week reading (LTG; Carson plan—do with others wherever possible)

CORPORATE PRAYER (Matt. 18:19,20; Acts 2:42 and other Acts examples; Col. 4:2,12): spiritual work must be birthed and bathed in prayer; since God works through the BOC, the BOC must pray together; interweaves intercession and praise/thanksgiving

STRUCTURE EXAMPLES: key part of personal discipleship; weekly prayer meeting; pockets of prayer; initiating spontaneous prayer; communion at prayer meeting

FINANCIAL STEWARDSHIP (Lk. 16:1-13; Acts 2:44,45; 4:32-35; 1 Tim. 5:17,18; 6:7-19; 2 Cor 8:7): relationship of money & ministry; generosity & responsible giving to local church, the poor, & missions; critique of materialism

STRUCTURE EXAMPLES: Pledge program; FST as requirement for ST; FST retreat

MISSIONS (Matt. 28:19,20; Acts 1:8; 2 Cor. 8,9; 10:15,16): concern for & investment in BOC outside one’s own home group & local church

STRUCTURE EXAMPLES: CT, FST retreat, Harvest Bash; Mission Mobilizers, workers for UC; why minimum FST pledge is 5%

“Where is CORPORATE WORSHIP?”  Explain our understanding of New Testament worship as a corporate lifestyle that embodies the above spiritual priorities as our expression of gratitude for God’s grace through Jesus (Rom. 12:1ff.).

Practical ways to cultivate proper ethos

How can home group leaders transmit this ethos to the people they lead?  How do people actually learn what is important?  What inspires them to embrace these same values for themselves?  Not surprisingly, the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy; Titus) have much to say about this.  Paul reminds Timothy and Titus how he leads spiritually, and he emphasizes key steps they need to take to be good transformation leaders/ethos cultivators.

1 Tim. 4:7-16 provides us with two of the most important ways to do this.  Paul reminds Timothy that his relative youth and constitutional shyness need not prevent him from being an effective transformational leader.  We can ensure spiritual growth both for himself and for those who listen to us—if we makes evident progress in two key areas.

We must focus on teaching and preaching God’s Word (4:13).  The Word has power to convict, inspire, etc. (2 Tim. 3:14-17) that we can never generate by ourselves.  Both publicly and privately, we have to keep bringing people to what God says—explaining it, arguing by it against other ideas, and reminding of it (2 Pet. 1:12-15; Phil. 3:1).

We must be an example of Christian character (4:12).  This is modeling—and people learn what is truly important even more by what we do than by what we say.  Over the past year, would the Christians who know you best say you are progressing in:

  • SPEECH - Is Eph. 4:29 something you aspire to and have made progress in?  Are you losing the cynicism, jabs, self-pity, gossip, etc.?  Are you gaining in the ability to spiritually edify and give grace to those who hear?
  • CONDUCT – Are you a better ambassador for Christ in your work, neighborhood, etc.  Are you more respectful at work, with parents, roommates, etc.?  Are you more responsible with work, schoolwork, finances, etc.?
  • LOVE - Are you more living to give—and thriving more off of this way of life (Acts 20:35)?  Have you made progress in those areas of biblical love that are especially difficult for you (LOVE THERAPY)?
  • FAITH - Have you improved in persevering through trials with a good attitude?  Have you taken more scary steps of faith and seen God come through?
  • PURITY - Do your thought-life and actions reflect a higher view of the opposite sex and human sexuality than you had last year?  If married, is your sex life better?

Be sure that you relate personally to individuals with both high support and appropriate challenge.  Paul summarizes these most concisely in 1 Thess. 2:7-12.  

On the one hand, you need to be personally supportive (read 1 Thess. 2:7,8).  This includes affection, gentleness, etc.  We also see Paul expressing real affection toward and confidence in Timothy (2 Tim. 1:2-5).  He reminds Timothy to “appeal” to others rather than “sharply rebuke” them (1 Tim. 5:1ff.).  He reminds him to be patient, kind and gentle (rather than quarrelsome) when dealing with opponents (2 Tim. 2:24,25).   He urges him to exercise “great patience” with those under his charge (2 Tim. 4:2).  This is communicating and reminding people of God’s grace.

People sense whether you love them and believe in them, and they will not follow people who don't love and believe in them.  Ask God for this love and vision, and then get in there and invest by faith.  God will enable you to feel love for the people, excitement about being with them, belief in their potential.  He’ll also give you more insight to how you can help them develop.

On the other hand, you need to be willing to challenge your people for their good to be good representatives of Jesus in a watching world (read 1 Thess. 2:11,12).  Paul reminds Timothy that he has to be strong and authoritative.  Note all the times he urges this non-charismatic leader to speak with authority about important matters (see 1 Tim. 4:11; 5:7; 6:2).  Note his insistence that he not only correct and reprove and rebuke people who are in sin, but also exhort/challenge people to take the next step (1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; 4:2).  This is keeping the “bar” high—upholding the STAVES, insisting on progress.

You have to be willing to speak with the force and volume that are appropriate for matters of decisive importance (ESSENTIAL DOCTRINE; ETHICAL PRIORITIES; COMMITMENT).  You don't have to be fearless, but you dare not take the counsel of your fears in this area.  If you know what God says about this issue, if you know you are personally committed to it, and if you love the person—you can (and you need to) speak with authority!

People also learn values by their leaders’ response to both positive and negative examples.  Good leaders are always watching the flock to note how people are responding to God—not only because they care about these individuals’ spiritual growth, but also because the leaders’ response to these individuals teaches others what is really important.

POSITIVE EXAMPLES: “Good gossip” about someone who witnessed, took a scary step of faith; praising someone in others’ presence for a godly character quality; using someone in your home group as a positive example in a teaching (use yourself as a negative example usually!); urging people to get help from a worker who is exemplary in the area in which they want to grow.  NOTE: This is most powerful (for the individual and the group) is the one doing it is also willing to criticize (GOOD COACHES) . . .

NEGATIVE EXAMPLES: Disagreeing publicly when someone espouses softness, selfishness, or serious error (Jesus with Peter in Matt. 16); lamenting and deploring someone’s carnality to others (as long as you are taking steps to address the person); talking to other workers about how you confronted someone about their hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-14); all forms of formal church discipline (1 Tim. 5:20).

NOTE: Refer to “Confidentiality & Conferral” paper.

Closely related to the above is leaders’ appropriate emotional expression over key priorities.  If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may have learned by Dad’s anger that it was important not to inconvenience him while he was watching TV.  Likewise, younger Christians learn what is spiritually important (in part) by what their leaders express emotion about.  We need to have our emotional lives attuned to God’s priorities (NEHEMIAH), and we need to express God’s heart of joy, grief, anger, etc.  As younger Christians, we have to learn not to blindly believe or act on our faulty emotions.  As leaders, we have learn to express these proper emotions.

What do your people see you get excited about (THEIR WITNESSING ATTEMPTS; ANSWERS TO CORPORATE PRAYER; CELL GROUP SPLITTING—OR YOUR NEW CAR.)?  What do they see you mourn about (SOMEONE GOING TO THE WORLD; DISUNITY—OR THAT YOU GOT PASSED UP FOR A PROMOTION)?  What do they see you get upset about (IMMORALITY; DISHONESTY; LAZINESS—OR THAT PEOPLE AREN’T GIVING YOU ENOUGH RESPECT)?  Do you cry (Acts 20:19,31)?  Do you cry in the presence of those you lead?  What do you cry about?

People also learn what is important by what their leaders track and report on.  My dad carefully tracked the baseball standings and the box scores.  I still do it today!  Dennis tracked new people at the early Bible studies—what did I learn?

WORKERS MEETING/COMBINED CELL GROUP (bi-annually): We remind people of the mission of the home group, and ground it biblically.  Sometimes we ask how the home group structures relate to this mission.  We report on progress toward this mission along several axes (home group meeting attendance; salvations; new cell group members; new cell groups; new teachers; people taking &/or completing equipping classes; new ST members; new FST members; workers serving in other key ministries outside the home group), and we rejoice about this.  We point out where we are failing or in danger—and we express concern about this and explain how we’re going to turn this around with God’s help (satanic attack; full room but not able to plant yet).  We pray, thanking God for the progress he has granted, and petitioning for the help we need to overcome the challenges.  The biggest value of this meeting is transmitting and reinforcing the STAVES & BOTTOM.

CELL GROUP OUTREACH DISCUSSION: We agree to spend time at each meeting sharing what step we did/didn’t take with someone, and what step we plan to take next.  We are under grace and do not beat ourselves or one another for failures—but we do have loving accountability to seek the lost.  And we learn through this how important outreach really is.

Never underestimate the power of structures to transmit the proper ethos.  As noted earlier, mandates without structures are a dead letter (e.g., COMMUNITY WITHOUT CELL GROUPS & THROUGH-THE-WEEK ONE-ON-ONE).  This is the major area of delegated authority for home group leaders.

This includes creating new structures (FST), defending and promoting existing structures (CT FOR HOME GROUP MEMBERS), modifying structures (INTERACTIVE HOME GROUP MEETINGS), restricting structures (1 Tim. 5:3-18 >> NO NEW MISSION FIELDS LATELY), and terminating structures (CELL GROUPS & CLASSES DURING OUTREACH CAMPAIGN; CHRISTIAN-ONLY SMALL GROUPS & TEAM FELLOWSHIP GROUPS; PLURAL LEADERSHIP REQUIREMENT FOR EXPERIENCED HOME GROUP LEADERS).

The requirements that you have for leadership and other key roles are another key way of transmitting values (but only if you explain these requirements and enforce them!).

EXAMPLES: Teaching rotation requires personal shepherding/discipleship; teaching rotation & cell group leadership requires faithful CT participation; home group leadership requires discipleship and character over gifting, charisma or seniority; Servanthood requires discipleship ministry; ministry house membership requires signing MH covenant; etc.

Recommend attending or getting tape of Dennis’ workshop on creating tension.  This is a key part of ethos cultivation that deserves it own workshop!