In Review: Activate by Nelson Searcy & Kerrick Thomas

I love to review good books on small groups. This ain't one of them...

• The subtitle, "An entirely new approach to small groups" is debatable at best. Their approach is much like Andy Stanley/Bill Willit's approach... semester groups.

• The book is filled with how-to's for advertising groups effectively and structuring them with coaches, etc. None of it is new or innovative.

• Apparently, the goal of the small groups at The Journey (home church for the authors) is fellowship and relational association. The back cover copy stated I would learn how to get groups involved in serving and evangelism, but I couldn't find that anywhere in the book. If it's there, I must have missed it.

• This is nit-picky, but the cover art and printing on this book absolutely sucks. I can't believe Regal released a book with such low quality artwork and printing.

The book doesn't say anything I disagree with, but it doesn't say anything I wanted to "Amen!" either. It's just another "do small groups like we do them here" kinda book with some hints as to how to tweak what you're currently doing to make fellowship groups work better or have more congregational involvement.

I would normally give a book a one to five star rating. This book gets no stars because the goal of the book is clear: congregational assimilation. Had the goal been personal transformation or kingdom expansion or both, it would have merited at least one or two stars, maybe five!

I'm sure the authors would love to argue with me and say the groups are very transformational and evangelistic, but neither of them wrote about it.

If you want to read a good book on holistic small groups implementation that focuses on relational evangelism and mentor-driven discipleship (as opposed to congregational assimilation into fellowship groups that may or may not serve the community) I recommend you pick up a copy of my new book. I address these issues and go into great detail as to why I do not favor the strategy outlined in Activate.

[Note: I have added a LOT of explanation in the comments area, so do read through them as well to learn more. It might answer a few more of your questions.]


Jon Stolpe said...

Let me preface this by saying, "I'm just a dumb engineer."

Seriously, I'm an engineer in the construction world. I'm also a small groups leader/volunteer at my church.

While I think that I understand the message behind your post, I'm going to disagree. I am 4/5 of the way through Activate, and I'm excited by the approach that Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas are describing. Do I agree with every single thought and detail of their plan? No, but I think it provides another approach or at least another go at an approach that we can use to help connect people to each other and to God.

Based on your post, I'm assuming that you have a much better resource that you would recommend for small groups. I'm new to your blog, so I apologize if you already shared it, but I'd love to hear your approach.

Connecting people to each other and to God is not a formula; however, I believe that we can learn from the efforts of others. This is why I think Activate is worth the read.

May God bless you as you serve and purse Him.

Randall Neighbour said...

Jon, if you read some of my other blog posts, you'll quickly learn that I am not a fan of using small groups for retention or fellowship as the main goal of having groups.

They are the church in operation... and when healthy, the members of the small group experience Christ's presence, power, and purposes to such an extent that they confess sin, reach friends for Christ, disciple them in the midst of community, and see themselves as more than members of a brick and mortar church congregation.

Searcy and Thomas may have this at their church, but they sure didn't invest any ink talking about how to produce small groups of people who gathered to focus on Christ in their midst and increase the kingdom of God. They simply went on and on about how to get everyone in the church services involved in a small group by lowering the bar for involvement to a short term commitment and to a specific kind of group of interest.

It panders to consumers, not producers.

Jon Stolpe said...


Fair enough. But here is my question for you. You state that small groups are supposed to help people reach "friends" for Christ. What is the success of this in your ministry? And more importantly perhaps, what about reaching those beyond our friendships?

There are hundreds, thousands, and millions of lost people in the world who need Christ and need the kind of community that a small group can offer. I agree with you that we have a responsibility as Christian leaders to be serious about discipleship. But I'm a firm believer that we need to be creative, out of the box thinkers - willing to try something new - willing to do whatever it takes to reach the lost - first drawing them into community - and then leading them and equipping them for a life transforming journey in Christ. If you think that catering to the lost "consumers" of the world is wrong then I'd like to hear more about your approach and about how successful it has been in reaching the lost (and transforming the lost) for Christ. I'll certainly stay tuned for your thoughts (and I'll go back to your previous posts as well).

I'm thankful for the chance to dialogue with and learn from other leaders like yourself who want to see people know and grow in the saving grace of our Savior.

Your Brother in Christ,

Randall Neighbour said...

Excellent comments, Jon.

I think what I did not phrase correctly in my earlier response was the last line. I wrote, "It panders to consumers, not producers."

It should have said, "It panders to consumers, and does not create producers."

So much of what I read about small groups today is geared toward congregational assimilation—not kingdom expansion. The members of the groups are not encouraged to join a group to better reach friends for Christ and disciple them. The focus is on reducing member attrition and increasing visitor retention, making the small groups all about the support of the pulpit ministry.

I firmly believe the pulpit ministry should support and augment the life of the body, which I also believe most churches and most pastors would agree with. However, a consumer Christian doesn't see it that way or want small groups to expand their ministry... they want small groups to gain a sense of family, kindle relationships, and give them what they feel they are missing as consumers.

This is a far cry from providing a small group environment and structure for producer Christians, who want to band together with others to do a much better job of reaching friends for Christ and discipling them. In this very different kind of group, fellowship and intimacy are found, but they are not considered the primary reason for joining that group... they are the icing on the cake so to speak.

My ministry has worked with many churches to have the kind of groups of which I write. One book that highlights many models of this kind of church is written by Joel Comiskey, entitled Churches That Multiply. Other great books on the kinds of small group based churches of which I write are:

The Relational Way by Scott Boren
Where Do We Go From Here by Ralph Neighbour, Jr. (my Dad)

Specifically, you can find churches comprised of holistic small groups (groups that have the great commission component built into it as well as the great commandment component) in Baton Rouge, LA (Bethany World Prayer Center), New Orleans, La (Celebration Church), Broadway, VA (Cornerstone Church), and the list goes on.

Overseas, you will find much larger churches than Willow Creek and Saddleback who have adopted a far more missional and holistic model of small group life. Elim Church in San Salvador has 160,000 people in holistic small groups who reach people for Christ and disciple them by harnessing the power of biblical community... the staff of Elim create services and training to support what they are doing. It's a clear case of a church supporting ongoing ministry done by members, not the other way around.

The leaders and members of these churches, domestic and foreign, would be offended if someone called them church volunteers. They are kingdom activists, and need the support of their church to continue to storm the gates of Hell to set captives free.

So, Jon, there's more reading to do if you like, and churches to visit online and in person if you are close by or want to travel.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of books out there. I am of the not pandering to consumers school of thought. Thanks for your book review Randall. Just another book to avoid. Seriously I don't buy small group type books from the USA any more, unless I can get a good review/recommendation. That's because there isn't much coming out that hasn't been said before. Namby pamby consumer christianity - it's a disease I tell you. The book that Randall reviewed, it's just a virus. Sounds like one to avoid! That doesn't mean that the reader might not get something from it, it just sounds like the book in question is going to lead the reader down the wrong path.... Well who is to say it is wrong? It's just Randall isn't going down that path (consumerism). Neither am I. That's why I read Randall's blog......

Randall Neighbour said...

Iain, while I appreciate the enthusiastic support, I would not characterize the book or the content of the book as a virus.

It is simply a book written to promote small groups as a program to create fellowship and friendship among the members of a congregation. It details how to set up groups in programmic fashion, keep it fun and the bar very low to get as many people involved as possible, and keep it from becoming boring by having the groups stop and restart every three or four months.

If I were a lead pastor who preaches "the church is the people and not the building" then I surely would not want to use the process outlined in this book to start small groups to capture and provide relational maintenance for consumer Christians.

You are spot-on though... there's a LOT of books being published right now on small groups that are not worth reading if the goal is developing the priesthood of all believers... unless one's church is nearly full of soul winning prayer warriors already. If that's the case, this book would be great for starting healthy small groups. However, THIS IS NOT THE CASE IN 95% OF AMERICAN CHURCHES.

I've said it once and I will never tire of repeating it...

Small groups will not make your members healthy. However, small groups will keep your healthy members healthy and give them a more powerful ministry, If they are not "kingdom activists" today, they will not magically turn into one when they join a small group!

Man, I'm dogmatic on this. I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Barry Hughes said...

Thanks for the review, but I've got to say that this is an excellent book. This book has helped us reinvent small groups at our church. I'd recommend it to anyone who leads a groups ministry. I'd also recommend any of the groups materials from

Randall Neighbour said...

Barry, do explain what kind of groups it produced at your church. Are the group members actively reaching people for Christ? Are they spiritually parenting the new believers and discipling them? Are the groups functioning as the church, or a program that supports your weekend services?

I venture to guess that if they are successfully fulfilling the Great Commandment and Great Commission, the members of your groups were doing this to some extent (and with some success) before you relaunched small groups.

As I have commented above, if you programmically launch small groups among healthy believers, it helps them and expands health. However, putting people in groups and telling them to be the church, not attend it does not create a biblical community whose members are actively building God's kingdom sacrificially.

If you don't see conversion growth through relational evangelism and discipleship, then your small groups are probably a good programmically driven "back door closer" for the congregational services and provide fellowship for the members. If this was your goal and you achieve it, so be it.

I believe differently. God's called us to harness the power of biblical community to save the lost and show converts how to overcome the power of sin and reach others for Christ. Biblical community IS THE CHURCH and a precious gift from God we must not squander to simply support our man made structures.

Unknown said...

Very interesting thread! I read Activate years ago, and, like Randall, was unimpressed. I just did not see anything really new or exciting in the book. I guess if you want to run groups as a program in your church, then this book is as good as many others that teach the same things. But if you want to develop healthy, Christ-centered groups that are all about God's mission--in other words, groups that are the body of Christ in action--then I don'[t think you'll gain much from reading Activate.

Randall ha=s provided many good resources in his comments, books I've read which really helped me develop the kinds of groups I'm describing above. More recent books by Scott Boren such as MissioRelate and Missional Small Groups are excellent. An I may be a bit biased, but I believe my newest book from TOUCH, Small Group Vital Signs will help you and your church develop healthy groups that grow and multiply. You can check it out at