Andy Stanley: Catalyst for Growth

“You do the right thing, and you trust God with the consequences. Period. It’s just that simple.”

During that time you were thinking about more than how the worship or teaching experience might be enlivened. Weren’t you also reassessing spiritual formation?

During those years, I began to discover the deficiencies of strictly a knowledge-based approach to spiritual formation. We have tons of conferences and seminars. There was teaching and teaching and teaching and teaching. And teaching and teaching. But I experienced personally what I also observed in ministry: Piling on the knowledge does not make a person spiritual, and it doesn’t necessarily build faith.

During those years of student ministry, I began a series of discipleship groups where I asked guys to chart their spiritual development. What were the highs? What were the lows? Through that ministry experience, we defined five catalysts of spiritual growth. We saw the same thing over and over again: Learning is a part of the process, but it’s only one part. There’s far more to spiritual development than just knowledge. So that was very formative, which, of course, is highly reflected in the model I have now.

Let’s list those five catalysts—the alliterated version—as you define them in the book: practical teaching, private disciplines, personal ministry, providential relationships and pivotal circumstances.

Those five things really just surfaced experientially and anecdotally as we kept talking to more and more people about their experience. It wasn’t a list we found in some book or seminar. Obviously they don’t appear in the Scripture in any way. And I’m quick to say there may be seven things; there may be 10. But those are the five that surfaced over and over. So early on, I tried to build our student ministry around those five things as opposed to, “Hey, let’s get all the kids together and teach them some more stuff they’re going to forget.”

What did you do differently because you had defined those key elements?

We focused a lot on teaching kids their private disciplines. We created prayer journals, quiet-time journals. Every time I did a series, we gave them memory verse cards—trying to send them back into their personal world with something to study or think about or pray or remember.

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That’s also when we came up with the idea—and I still do this—this is one of these best things we do: We always promote kids with their small group leaders. In typical Sunday school, you have a group you teach for a year, and then the next year, you get a different group of kids. We decided that for relationship to potentially be providential relationship—where it would be meaningful—you have to have more than a school year with kids. So we would plug kids in with small group leaders, and we’d tell the leaders, “You’re with these kids until you move or die or they leave. OK? This is your group. This is not about a single school year cycle.” That made a profound difference. In fact, I run into kids that were in Sandra and my group, and they’re all adults and have kids now, and just those four years in small group—I mean, we’re friends for life.

So now at North Point, at all of our churches, that’s just standard fare when you plug into our family ministry. The significance relationally that happens in our model far surpasses the content of any curriculum.

You can’t force providential relationships to happen, but you can set the stage and hopefully create the context for them to develop naturally.

How does that express itself in, say, adult small groups at North Point?

Same principle. This is why we do not have open groups. When we first started our group model, we looked at and studied what everyone was doing. We decided that the value of groups was not content; the value of groups was community. And the only way to have community is to have a predictable environment. We closed our groups, which everyone said wouldn’t work. We asked our groups to commit to a two-year cycle before they multiplied. Now we’ve been doing this 17 years, and the richness of relationships—content and curriculum are important, but there are so many stories, thousands of them, of significant things that have happened relationally in our groups. But it’s because they were not just in a group, they were in relationships.

The way we structure the multiplication of groups and the way we structure our group cycle is totally driven by our desire to create potential for providential relationships.

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So how do you connect new people and bring them into a cycle so they become involved in these long-term relationships you are seeking to establish?

Most of what we know about groups we learned on our own along the way through our own experience. For instance, in our groups that Sandra and I were in, when we would bump into someone in the community where we thought, Wow, we would love to get them into our small group—and this happens all the time—what we discovered is to say to them, “Hey, next summer or next spring or in six months, our group is going to divide, and we’re going to start a new group. We would like for you to be in our group.” Even if we are looking six months out, that invitation is still significant.

First of all, six months is gone in a heartbeat. Secondly, giving up a night a week is a big commitment; people can’t generally do that with just a month’s notice or two weeks. They need time to think about it and plan for it. So we discovered we don’t have to say, “Hey, can you come next week?” or “In two weeks, we’ll give you an opportunity.” We’ve learned once a person’s been invited, they begin to feel connected.

For people who are not Christians or are new to the church or coming back, we do have Starting Point, which we ask everybody to go through. So that’s an easy way to quickly integrate somebody into a group experience.