Dog Training, Fly Fishing, And Sharing Christ In The 21st CenturyBefore he was terminated from the National Association of Evangelicals and his pastorship at New Life Church for lying about his use of crystal methamphetamine and a gay prostitute, Ted Haggard wrote a classic on church growth: Dog Training, Fly Fishing, And Sharing Christ In The 21st Century: Empowering Your Church To Build Community Through Shared Interests. Haggard knows something about church growth: his own church grew from a dozen people to 8700 members in about a decade. The back cover claims: “Unfortunately, 80% of all the churches in America have less than 200 members. Ted Haggard has a solution.”

That line may not attract those who consider church growth a pervasive idol in the body of Christ, but Haggard’s strategies for Christian community and relational evangelism/discipleship (who will argue with those values?) can strengthen the body of Christ. I’ll be the first to say that his ecclesial philosophy is very different from my own, but he does have something useful to say. His ideas need not be applied in a strict, congregational model. (His previous book, The Life Giving Church, discusses church government.)

For example, Haggard opens with a group of guys who are fly fishing. But “they aren’t just recreating. They’re connecting through their local church. In fact, they are holding an officially registered New Life Church Small Group.” I know a group of guys who regularly go rock climbing together and practice intentional discipleship. Their fellowship has been very forming for each of them. And none of them belong to the same church, not even the same denomination! Christian community and relational discipleship can be just as effective outside congregational models – perhaps even more effective due to the variety of ideas and experiences in an interdenominational group.

Another friend heads up an interdenominational, youth-led worship team, which allows the kids to have fun learning instruments and songs, gives my (adult) friend an opportunity to disciple them, and gives them all an outlet to worship God. They hold special worship services on a regular basis in their community.

Those are discipleship groups. There are also evangelism groups in which only the leader(s) is/are Christian at the start. Haggard cites example groups that are particularly welcoming to non-Christians: pickup basketball groups, topical home-school study groups, a financial counseling group for young couples, etc. These groups are attractive to non-believers, and the leaders can use them as an opportunity to love and serve, to provide a model of Christ’s love, and to infuse their teaching and discussion with God’s truth – even without ever mentioning God! The explicit evangelism may then happen in the context of genuine, trusting relationships – where it is most powerful.

Sometimes the most surprising groups can succeed. Haggard tells of a pastor’s wife in Houston who suggested, “We have so many angry women who bicker with one another… they need a small group to get together and get healed!” Haggard continues: “To my knowledge, that church didn’t do anything with the idea. But soon after in another city, I was telling that story, and one of the ladies… picked up on the idea and started offering a mean-women small group for women who had been hurt or wounded and were more angry than they wanted to be… now this church has a large series of mean-women small groups.”

Another example: “[a woman] started a group called ‘Clowning Around’ for the purposes of learning how to apply clown makeup, constructing clown costumes, and learning clown tricks to spread the gospel in a new and different way. The response was huge. Today, two ‘Clowning Around’ small groups average about 25-30 people each semester. They started by serving the children’s ministry at New Life, but they soon expanded to city arks, parades, and festivals throughout Colorado Springs.”

Haggard goes on to describe properties of successful groups, properties of churches with successful groups, and ways in which free market small groups encourage George Barna’s 9 baseline elements of discipleship (from Growing True Disciples, which I’ll read next). He also talks about the details of administering free market small groups, converting from a facility-based program church to free market small groups, lay leader training, etc.

For me, it all comes down to two things: (1) relationships and (2) engaging the whole body of Christ in Kingdom work. When people are given permission to serve God in their passions and skills rather than those of the senior pastor, when they are briefly equipped with training to do so, when the default answer to empowering their work is “Yes”, when their individuality and innovation are valued, and when discipleship and evangelism spring from a fount of special passions rather than obligations, the talents and God-given desires of every member of the body of Christ can be put to work for his glory.

Though useful, I can’t really recommend Haggard’s book. There are too many quibbles I take with the text, there are too many other books we should all read instead (I hear Romans is good), and Haggard just ain’t that great a writer (still better than I am, of course).

But the book really made me wish I’d kept up with web development training so that I could code a website that would allow small group leaders to add and manage their group’s data (location, topic, contact info, etc.) in an online, worldwide database of millions of small groups, searchable by keyword and location. I can imagine a fully-fledged Facebook-like database, and each group listing could include links, photos, discussions, event listings, etc. As I suggested earlier, it could be like New Life Church’s Group Finder, but worldwide and even more powerful and extensible. And definitely, definitely free.