Formation | Culture | Mission

CG 101: Top 10 Books for Small Groups Pastors

Since becoming Sojourn’s community groups pastor in the Spring of last year, I’ve been asked for a reading list by a number of our non-staff groups pastors as well as full-time small groups pastors around the country. Much like my XP101 (a syllabus for executive pastors), here are my top books for small group pastors.

Note that this isn’t a reading list for small group leaders, but pastors who oversee group leaders, whether they’re on staff or lay elders. Our small group leaders are only required to read the first book on this list, and beyond that, we typically just recommend articles, sermons, and other short resources, like my brilliant essays.

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Groups Vision & Strategy

Brad House, Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support (2011)

I start with Brad’s book, not just because he’s my boss, but because it really is the most biblical, well-balanced book on small groups. His model of community groups has been adopted by a number of evangelical churches in the past ten years, and this book serves as the groups textbook for Sojourn Network and most Acts 29 Network churches. And if you have any questions about applying the book’s principles to your church or ministry, feel free to call Brad—but unfortunately, you’ll end up at my voicemail. Brad and I are hoping to put out more small group resources in the future, so the rest of these books here are just placeholders. Just kidding; it’s going to be a while. Buy all these now… 

Steve Gladen, Small Groups with a Purpose: How to Create Healthy Communities (2011)

My guess is that this is the best-selling small groups book of all-time, which means the last twenty years. Gladen is the longtime groups guy at Saddleback, where he (according to the back of the book) was overseeing more than 3500+ adult small groups at one time. Gladen gives us Saddleback’s ten principles of small group leadership and innumerable practical strategies for launching and leading small groups. You can’t be an evangelical small groups pastor and not have been influenced by Saddleback’s model, so you might as well read their book!

Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Making Small Groups Work: What Every Small Group Leader Needs to Know (2003)

Cloud and Townsend are the authors of well-known evangelical mega-sellers Boundaries and How People Grow. Here, they apply their balanced formula (growth = grace + truth + time) to small group participation and leadership. If Cloud/Townsend are outside your usual stream of reading (such as the Under 40 Reformed Stream), I strongly encourage reading this book and applying many of its principles to help balance your ministry efforts.

Theology

Elyse Fitzpatrick, Found in Him: The Joy of the Incarnation and Our Union with Christ (2013)

My people will know that I am a huge E-Fitz fan. She’s maybe my favorite contemporary author not named Tim Keller or Wendell Berry. And this is my girl’s best book yet: she explores the doctrines of the incarnation and union with Christ in a readable, life-giving way. I strongly recommend this book to all of our community group leaders and quote from it often in my trainings. It doesn’t make direct connections to small groups, of course, but you’ll find it to be an incredible resource for building community around our deep oneness in Christ together.

Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (2012)

This short book (only 125 pages) invites us to look deep into the center of the Christian fath: our triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By reminding us that our God is Three-in-One, eternally existent in loving community, Reeves reminds us pastors to understand every aspect of our lives as relational. Along the way, we do get “an introduction to the Christian faith,” but the book’s major contribution is as a well-written overview of the Trinity that impacts us both intellectually and emotionally.

Joseph Hellerman, When the Church was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (2009)

Hellerman—a New Testament professor at Biola University—provides us with a deep look into the early church community. He examines the New Testament era church from a sociohistorical perspective, so this is probably the most technical book on my list. But it remains highly readable and, overall, the book is profoundly encouraging for us 21st Century pastors.

Discipleship & Community

Dietrich Bonheoffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (1954; 2009)

It’s hard to believe Bonheoffer’s classic has had the influence that it rightly has, while being only about 80 pages by today’s printing standards. (That should be a good lesson for most contemporary authors.) If you’re a small groups pastor and you haven’t yet read this little book, you should be deeply, deeply ashamed of yourself. Just kidding, but you should read it.

Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism (1963; 2010)

This is THE classic work on discipleship. It’s the only book on this list with a foreword by Billy Graham, if that tells you anything. Coleman was a campus ministry icon and this brief book (no longer than Bonheoffer’s) covers stages of selecting, teaching, and reproducing Christ-like disciples–all following the pattern of Jesus in the gospels. It’s a brilliant and challenging little book, all for less than the cost of a burrito.

Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, Faithmapping: A Gospel Atlas for Your Spiritual Journey (2013)

Faithmapping is basically Sojourn Community Church in 200 pages. It’s Keller for Dummies, as my friends Daniel and Mike say in the introduction. If you’re looking for a holistic vision of the gospel, the church, and the world, this is for you. It’s my favorite resource on the gospel in its three perspectives (kingdom, cross, and grace), and our “five identities” (family, disciples, servants, worshipers, and witnesses) could provide a helpful vision for your church.

Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community (2008)

Total Church is one of maybe ten books I’ve read that I can honestly say have changed my life. I remember where I was when I first started this book—at a small table at the bottom of the stairs at the Cherry Street Artisan in Columbia, MO—and I’m pretty sure I read the whole thing (the original IVP UK printing) cover to cover in that sitting. I had been thinking for years about the church and hadn’t yet fully committed to pastoral ministry. I was stuck between a model of evangelism and discipleship I loved (via Campus Crusade) and a desire to see the local church renewed. This book was probably the first vision of what I had longed to see, and then, by God’s grace, I was able to join a church plant that actually embodied Total Church’s principles: Karis Church there in Columbia. It’s hard to overstate how well timed this book was for me personally. I know that’s not a summary of the book, but if you’ve never read it, just trust me and buy it.

Tony Payne and Colin Marshall, The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything (2012)

This is essential reading for managing organic ministries in a complex church. If you think “managing” and “organic” can’t go in the same sentence, then this Australian discipleship book is especially for you. My only knock on the book is that it could have been just as effective in about 40 pages, but then again, Christian publishing is what it is, so this remains essential reading for groups and discipleship pastors.

Member Care & Counseling

Tim Chester, You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions (2010)

This is my favorite book out of the recent biblical counseling movement. Chester is another of my favorite authors. I assume that Chester, being British, just sits around drinking tea, chatting with Steve Timmis, and writing books all day long. You Can Change is a gracious vision of personal renewal that captures all of the strengths of biblical counseling literature (idols of the heart, repentance, relationships, etc) and is the go-to book on personal change and growth for most of us at Sojourn. It’s also a great book to read with your spouse or small group.

Rich Plass and Jim Cofield, The Relational Soul: Moving From False Self to Deep Connection (2014)

My friends Rich and Jim, wise and seasoned pastors of more than three decades each, have written the best contemporary spiritual formation and soul care book. Like Reeves, they begin with a picture of our triune God in divine fellowship, then show biblically and psychologically how we have been made in God’s image and thus created for connecting. This is the most compelling and readable book out of the “Christian psychology” camp, and if you haven’t done much reading on spiritual formation (guys like Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, or John Ortberg), I strongly encourage you to read this book, be refreshed, and seek to apply much of its generosity and wisdom to your pastoral work.

Mission & Culture

C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (1986)

My boy Jack Miller, the founder of World Harvest Mission and long-time evangelism professor at Gordon-Conwell, was too busy preaching and making disciples to write more than a handful of books. (Another good principle for us current pastors.) But his few books are gems. He speaks of a church’s “ingrownness” as a parasite, and gives us a fresh vision of a church on mission. Miller was one of the greats of the late 20th Century church, and I hope more people re-discover his writings (like his Sonship curriculum) long after his death.

Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (2012)

It wouldn’t be a Fidelity top ten list without a book by the Prodigal Godfather, Dr. Tim Keller. As I’ve said many times, Tim could write out a grocery list on a post-it note for Kathy, and I’d spend $19 to get a copy of it on Amazon. In 500 years, I’m convinced that Keller will be the considered the most influential evangelical Christian in our generation (post Billy Graham). And he should be. Here, he gathers a few decades of writings on the gospel, the church, culture, and mission for a textbook on gospel centeredness. The chapters on theological vision, congregational renewal, and ministry alignment are downright pleasant.

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There you go, folks! That’s actually 15 books, because I’m just a generous guy. Feel free to comment to suggest books I need to add to this list. I think I’ve bought and read every book written on small groups (it’s only about 10-12), and I could add a huge Honorable Mention section with another 15+ books under each category, but I have to get back to actually leading these groups.

Coming next for groups guys, a life-changing essay called The Three Functions of a Small Groups Pastor. Stay tuned, faithful readers.

Much love,
JSL

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