Author Archives: Kirby Holmes

About Kirby Holmes

Kirby Holmes is the Director of Group life at Gateway Church in Austin. You can follow him on his blog and on twitter @kirbyholmes.

Creating Life Changing Small Group Culture

The Starting Place of People

Are the people where you live struggling with relational trust, loneliness, brokenness, insecurity or shame? What about these struggles: addictions, abortions, adultery, sexual attractions, anger, …the list could go on.  No one is perfect. Certainly not me. Certainly not you.

When I was in high school my favorite community to hang out with was the Brew Crew.  The Brew Crew got together on the weekends getting hammered drunk and doing drugs. For us a 4.0 in school was not our grade point average…it was our blood alcohol level.

But eventually, I recognized the pain I was causing myself, and others around me, was far outweighing the pleasure I was receiving from partying. Eventually, three of my best friends were in rehab for chemical and alcohol addictions.  We were all totally out of control.

Interestingly, at the same time I was in the Brew Crew I was also in a Small Group. It might seem odd to you that I would go to a Small Group but I was. Some friends of mine invited me to attend a large weekly gathering of Christ followers that met during the week.  It was a big group of about 100 or so kids. The ministry leaders of this big group would do skits, songs, talk about the Bible, etc. In this crowd of kids I heard about a Small Group and decided to join one, with some buddies, led by a young professional named Scott.

I was reluctant about the group at first because I didn’t grow up in a Christian family. I didn’t have a biblical frame of reference for life.  I didn’t know anything about spiritual practices, how to find a Bible verse or what to say in a prayer.  I was insecure about the expectations of needing to know about these things.

Scott was new at leading but he was a great Small Group leader. He created a safe plus for everyone to be real about his or her life.  I felt like I could be authentic about who I was, I was open about the parties I went to and the craziness of my lifestyle. I never felt judged or confronted by anyone there.  Scott helped me feel like my presence in the group was really important. It was through the relationships in this Small Group, and with Scott, that after three years I put my faith in Jesus and started actively following him.

What I want all of you to hear is the power of a Small Group community and what God can do when you create the right culture. Jesus was the master at creating the right culture for messy people – Jesus went to the party at Matthews House in Matt. Ch. 9, where the sinners were partying – Brew Crew.  Jesus is comfortable with chaos of people’s lives.

Let me try and summarize some of the things Scott did well that made his Small Group so effective and life changing. Here are five principles that you can use as a New Small Group leader in creating a Small Group culture where “No Perfect People are Allowed” and life change can happen.

1. Authenticity Starts With You

Don’t be fake.  Fake people are like wax fruit.  Wax leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth. So do wax people. Don’t try to manage your image as a person who has it all together as the leader because you think that is what the leader is supposed to do.  Be authentic.

2. Be Vulnerable First

Set the pace for the group by exposing your weaknesses first… The reason people hide, and pretend in front of others, is usually because of shame or pride. These are both extremely dark and powerful emotions.  They keep people stuck from experiencing the freedom Christ came to give us. You can lead them to overcoming this by being vulnerable as the leader. Share your stories of struggle. I know you think you will lose respect by sharing your struggles but trust me…you will gain greater respect and admiration through vulnerability. Let the promise of James ch. 5 be true in your group where it says, “Confess you sins to one another so that you may be healed.” Let this verse be an accessible practice in your group. Here are some examples of what you might share vulnerably:  Share your addictions – alcohol, sexual, food related addictions.  If you come from a broken home…. you could share about feeling unlovable and the insecurity that comes with it. The key to this principle is you exposing some of the mess of your life to the rest of the group first.

3. Expect Messy People.

We live in a relational broken world. Divorce shatters relational dreams, abuse of all kinds, and abandonment have all taken a huge toll on people’s ability to relate in healthy ways with one another. Here are some of the realities from eight couples in my Small Group right now.

  1. 10 Divorces (4 from one guy).
  2. 4 Sexually abused: one by football coach when he was 8 yrs. old, the same man molested three other boys. Later in life all three of those boys committed suicide.
  3. 4 are in recovery for addictions.
  4. 3 have had abortions.
  5. 1 guy was previously involved in four different cults.

Don’t be surprised by pain in people’s lives. We live in a messy, pain filled world.  Embrace creating a culture where people can share the story of their life, be fully know, accepted and loved. Here is what you need to look out for:  If people in your group are answering the question of how they are doing with: “Doing Great!” or “Couldn’t be Better!”  then repeat principle one and two…….their lying to you on some level.

4. Have a Process View of Growth.

Spiritual growth takes time. Transformation of the heart that results in new behavior is the goal and you can’t rush or microwave this process. As a Small Group Leader you can never cause spiritual growth in a person. Only God can do this. Look at 1 Corinthians 3:5-7

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

It took me being in a Small Group 3 years before I even said ‘yes’ to following Jesus.  Is three years too long?  Should someone have given up on me sooner?  Take the pressure off yourself that you are responsible for people’s growth. It’s not up to you. You are just creating a culture for God to work.

As you are waiting and looking for growth in people be sure and celebrate when you see growth in someone.  Point it out to them.  Give credit to God for it.  Affirm where you see God at work.

5. It’s Not Always What You ‘Know’ But it is How You ‘Love.’

One of the greatest fears of a new small group leader is the fear of not knowing an answer to a question or how to handle a situation that might come up in your group. Love is going to trump right answers.  A leader of love that seeks to serve others in the group will be more important than any of the content you share with them.  Especially early on in the life of a group.  If you don’t know an answer to a question about the Bible – just say “I don’t know the answer to that.”  If someone is asking for advice and you don’t know what to do, “Say, I don’t know…but I am committed to trying to help you.”  I believe content is very important but as a new group leader you will often feel inadequate.  Love will lead a group to good places.  I couldn’t tell you a single thing that I learned in my first small group…but I remember the love I was given. As a group gets to know one another deeply it will be easier to speak truth into each others lives from a place of love.

Creating Life Changing Culture in Your Small Group

I hope you were able to see and understand the value of some of these principles for leading a Small Group. Being intentional with these principles will create a culture where God grows people and you can see success at leading a Small Group where “No Perfect People Are Allowed.”

Spiritual Formation

What is a simple, repeatable, transferable and meaningful way to communicate the most important concepts for spiritual formation as a Christ follower? We have been using the term, “the way of Christ,” for spiritual formation at Gateway Church for a number of years.  Jesus invites people to not only ‘believe’ in Him but to follow in His ways. The early disciples were called followers of the Way (Acts 9:2).


Way of Christ

We define four aspects of the “way of Christ” to bring a simplicity to people’s experience of what a life of following Jesus looks like. The four aspects of the way of Christ are; Love God (GOD), Build Character (ME), Love People (YOU), and Be the Body (WE).


Jesus, himself, tried to simplify the Law in his teaching by boiling it down to two points – Love God and Love your Neighbor.  I don’t think Jesus meant to minimize his full teachings through his summary statement (Matt 22:36-39) but rather as a statement of clarity, simplicity and transferability of the big idea.


Power of an Image – Icon

I am learning about the power of icons and symbols as the means of portability of an idea or language. Icons provide a representative symbol for something. It provides easier memory recall. I am trying to add an icon to the spiritual formation language that is already present in our church culture, “the way of Christ.”   I want the language to be more memorable, repeatable, and transferable.


I am hoping the icon of an X allows these four aspects of the “way of Christ” to be quickly recalled for an individual, a Small Group or a Network about what God is up to and discern where they are going next.
An X gives a framework for the “way of Christ” that allows us to centrally remember that the work of the church is first and foremost about Jesus at the center and that only through Him do these four aspects connect with each other.



GOD – Love God

The greatest commandment given to us by Jesus himself. Loving God is about recognizing the priorities in our life that have squeezed God out of the center in the way we live. Living out the greatest commandment is the process of putting God as our first love and priority in life. Jesus says the greatest commandment quite simply is to:

“’Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.’” Matthew 22:36-38


ME – Build Character

Without a doubt, most of us look at ourselves and desire varying degrees of change. We see anxiety where we want peace. We see fear where we want courage. We see addiction where we want self-control. Transformation happens not by applying the latest self-help fad but by understanding and implementing the full richness of inner life change at a heart level. Jesus produces this change in each of us by his power and influence on our heart and ultimately resulting in changed behaviors.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23


YOU – Love People

Truth be told, relationships bring about the best and worst of life. Our greatest joys consistently involve people. Our greatest pains consistently involve people. How does love for God impact and influence our love for people? Christ gave two great commandments. First, we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. And second, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Life is rich when we increasingly practice truly loving people—not put up with people, not walk over people, not use people or avoid people—but truly love people.

“’Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied …. And the second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 22:36-39


WE – Be the Body

The world is a beautiful place, but it is also a broken place. How can we, with our limited time and resources, really make a difference together in a world overflowing with needs? As a community of Christ followers we are liberated by a love for God, set free from enslavement to living for instant gratification or the accumulation of things, and can passionately pour love and grace into the world around us. Astounding things happen when followers of Christ discover their spiritual gifts and mobilize into action by partnering with the body of Christ around them.

“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.”  Romans 12:4-6


Way of Christ – Holistic Spiritual Formation

We know the current realities of church language.  We are about community.  Or we are about mission.  Or we are about the gospel. Or we are about the Bible. This is all useful language, especially when creating higher value priorities for a church to give intentional focus for its people.

The reality is we must holistically go and make disciples.  I like the “way of Christ” language because it has holistic aspects that are critical for spiritual formation in individuals, Small Groups and medium sized Networks.


Multiplying X

An X is one image, the simple crossing of your fingers, that can give a clear grid of thinking about:

  • GOD | Who is God (his attributes and my relationship with Him through Jesus)
  • ME | Who am I (as an identity and growing character)
  • YOU | What am I/We Doing on in Life and Mission Together (to love our neighbors)
  • WE | Who are We (as a community with gifts in the body)

An X is a symbol for multiplication.  I want these core aspects to be simple, repeatable and transferable so that multiplying generations of disciples can be intentional about growth in the “way of Christ.”

What are the most common icons and language in your church or ministry setting that are sticky?  Are you seeing them get passed down to multiplying generations simply and easily?  Why or why not?

Out of the Culture – Missional Realities for Small Groups

If you are a church that is missionally living in the culture then you must be prepared for who you will meet. And they might not like you.  People living in the city of Austin, TX are pretty sure most Christians are hateful, narrow minded, intolerant, judgmental, hypocritical and uninformed people. This is the current and future reality of the American culture the church finds itself in.

I had lunch with a good friend last week.  Kirsten moved with her family to Austin a year ago from L.A.. They moved off Hollywood Blvd. to the South Congress SoCo area. Her and her husband are creatives in the fashion and film industry so they wanted to be with like minded people in Austin. However, as Christ followers who have a high level of acceptance for people in their creative fields they have been somewhat shocked about the level of animosity in their new city to their personal faith choice. The animosity is even higher than where they lived in L.A.!

Kirsten told me about walking with one of her new neighbors to get some exercise one evening. During the conversation Kirsten responded to a perceived difficulty in the woman’s life with the simple statement, “I will pray for you about that.”  Abruptly stopping, the other woman grabbed her arm and said, “if you say the word ‘prayer’ again I don’t think you and I are going to be able to be friends.” For the next 45 minutes the conversation was about her extreme aversion to faith, God and spirituality. It was confrontational. Kirsten has found this same attitude in other neighbors and at the local school her children attend.

Now, maybe you are thinking this is just one incident in Austin, Texas but take time to talk to others on the street where you live and you will find out that antagonism towards the church has permeated much of our post-modern culture.

As a church that is missional towards people living in post-modern environments like Austin we have to accept the realities we live in. I believe Jesus has been and will continue to be relevant in every culture, in every generation, around the world.  So certainly he is relevant in Austin today. But how?

A New Voice

What we are discovering is that the church needs a new voice in the city. It must build bridges of communication and relationship to overcome people’s antagonism about the church. Our communication must be with a voice of grace, hope and acceptance. It must also reasonably address people’s genuine skepticism and doubts. Throw out the old cliches and language traps of the Christian vernacular. Much of it is tired and maligned. Especially when it is in the container of a person that is spiritually arrogant about knowing the truth. People are not opposed to truth but they are opposed to those with spiritual arrogance about truth.

Loving People

To be effective loving people in this generation we must firmly commit ourselves to the practice of letting God change people’s hearts.  It is not ‘our’ job to do that for anyone. We have been asked by Jesus to love people.  His job is to change their hearts. Let God do his job. We must commit to doing ours.  Love people with a genuine affection for them.  They must know we love them if they are going to accept us telling them the truth we believe.

Meet the Needs of Pain

Practically, the church in this generation can gain greater acceptance and approval as we address people’s brokenness. We are the most addicted and depressed generation that has ever lived. The church has a role to play in addressing these real pains. When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount he did it in the unconventional environment of a hillside. He didn’t do it in the synagogue. People struggling with life’s wounds, the sinners, weren’t accepted in the synagogue. Our churches must have places where people can hear, in a new environment, that God is for them, not against them. Maybe this is in Small Groups, maybe it is at Happy Hour with co-workers, maybe it is in the Sunday morning environment. It doesn’t matter the form but the experience of these conversations need to be hillside conversations. Jesus taught on the hillside.

Small Group Ethos

Small Groups, or relational gathering places, must be willing to accept people with all of their antagonism, fears about organized religion and skepticism as normal. If you are missionally driven as a church you need to begin answering questions for yourself about how you will interact with Antagonists, Atheists, Agnostics, Addicts and the same sex Attracted. These are the people that Jesus loves and accepts. His encounter with these people in the Scriptures were filled with grace and hope. He also challenged them with the kingdom of God and joining him in it. Jesus was certainly not short on truth with them. The ethos of your Small Group or community spaces must feel accepting, open to different opinions and committed to relationship where authenticity is alive. It is in these environments where God must change people’s thinking, believing and faith. It is His job.


Are your church and Small Group gatherings places where people ‘Out of the Culture’ can find a relevant conversation amidst their skepticism and antagonism? Are you addressing the pain in people’s lives through your community?

Are you teaching the whole crowd of Jesus?

Who was Jesus teaching when he gave the sermon on the mount? This is an important question for the church. Is our Sunday morning gathering the same kind of crowd Jesus attracted on that day? Here is what I learned as I looked at the Scriptures about his audience.


Here is who was in the crowd and followed Jesus to the mountainside based on Matthew chapter 5.

  • Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
  • Chapter 4 describes these people as: ill from various diseases, suffering from severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed.
  • His disciples were there and sat with him.

Luke chapter 6 is more specific about the kinds of people who heard this teaching.

  • His 12 disciples.
  • A crowd of his disciples.
  • People from all over Judea, Jerusalem and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon.
  • This crowd of people had come to hear his teaching and be healed of their diseases.
  • Some were troubled by evil spirits.

What can be learned from this crowd that Jesus is teaching? First, there are deeply committed followers of Jesus in the crowd. He comes down off the mountain after inviting the twelve disciples to join him for his mission. Second, there is a larger crowd of his disciples on the mountain that day. They are already commited to Jesus. The last group in the crowd appear to be the harassed and helpless. They are interested in the teachings of Jesus but also healing from life’s current physical and spiritual pain.

Does your church have all aspects of this crowd present in your Sunday morning gatherings? Why or why not?

The future church, that is on mission to reach people out of the culture, will always have harassed and helpless people suffering with life’s physical and spiritual wounds in their crowd gatherings. Contrary to this, churches that only have committed followers of Christ in their crowd gatherings are missing the mission of Jesus.

There is one big implication in this for us as church leaders. Be aware of the dangerous demands of the deeply committed followers of Christ. They will demand ‘deeper’ teaching, longer singing worship sets and more personal bang for their tithing buck in their crowd gatherings. Their voice will push you as a church leader to meet their needs ‘first’ at the expense of those who are extra-grace-required in the crowd. You must guard the mission of Jesus from these voices and influences.

What is at stake are those attracted to Jesus who are harassed and helpless. They need hope for a new way forward in life. They need to be ‘touched’ by Jesus and healed. Post-modern Americans, who are skeptical of church and religion, need to experience God. They don’t always need rational arguments to be convinced of truth. Longer singing of choruses about ‘the blood of a lamb’ do not heal the harassed. We must move them to truth through metaphor, through the arts, through music, through video, through lighting and through stories. It is all a part of God’s work but these are the tools he is using in the American cultural landscape to ‘touch’ and heal the hurting.

Jesus gathered his deeply committed followers of Christ and included them in his mission, in his teaching, and the process of healing those who were farthest from him. As church leaders we must continually cast the vision of being a church on mission to the least-of-these in our communities and city.

What does the crowd look like in your church or ministry right now? What voices are you listening to that guide your decision making about your crowd gatherings?

Is America More of an Acts 17 than Acts 2 Environment?

By: Kirby Holmes

What is the cultural context the early church started in?

The Acts 2 environment is very different from the Acts 17 environment. I believe America has become an Acts 17 environment in many places around our country. But unfortunately the church is still operating like it is an Acts 2 world out there.

In Acts two (2) we see the church gathered in Jerusalem. This is the religious center of the world for Jews. Most people knew about God, the Hebrew theistic history, the community of Hebrew tribes, and the commandments. In this environment the disciples taught how Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and the continuation of the Jewish history into a new church age. It was a religiously educated and informed environment for them to communicate in. People in Jerusalem were given a chance to decide if they believed in Jesus as their Messiah and if they would follow his expanded/explained teachings on the Jewish traditions.

In Acts seventeen (17) we see Paul on a missionary excursion into a new cultural context. No longer is there any clear religious connection between Jesus and the people of Athens, Greece. In fact Paul walks the city streets looking at clues about the spiritual condition of the people. He sees a statue, or idol, to an ‘unknown’ god. There was a rich intellectual environment with prestigious universities where people engaged publicly in debates with the philosophical influences of Plato and Aristotle. There is a highly sexualized culture in Athens where temple prostitution was legal and sexual deviance was available to all. People in Athens not only needed to understand Jesus but how he intersects with their lives, history and traditions, which were very different from life in Jerusalem.

In Acts 2 it appears the mission of the church is to use the commonly understand religious language and history to inform and invite people to believe and follow Jesus as the Messiah. In Acts 17 it appears the mission of the church is to understand culture, inform people in that culture using their own cultural language of poets and philosophers about the person of Jesus and then call them out to explore this new idea and reality of God.

I read a blog post over the weekend about a pastor who had been in a ministry context of Acts two (2) for most of his professional ministry life. He recently left the church to plant a new church with an Acts seventeen (17) perspective. Here is the blog post if you want to follow up on Ron Mackay’s decision to plant Harbor Community Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

In a growing Acts 17 cultural environment in America I am afraid too many churches are operating like it is still an Acts 2 world. The reality is people no longer have strong traditions and roots in a Christian family, with knowledge of the Scriptures, and an accurate understanding of the person of Jesus. People are from broken homes (many are ‘Christian’ homes), a product marketing saturated mindset and a long list of potential god’s to worship.

How does the cultural context of your city inform the way you live and speak in it as a Christ follower? Are you in an Acts 2 or Acts 17 American culture? Does your church or ministry reflect this difference?

Kirby Holmes is the Director of Group life at Gateway Church in Austin. You can follow him on his blog and on twitter @kirbyholmes.