Why We Started Redemption Groups

Over the next couple weeks, we’re dealing with some very difficult issues in sermons at Mars Hill Church: sexual abuse and pornography. Unfortunately, these are traditionally issues that the church has failed to be fully equipped in which to minister. We were no exception in our earlier days, and as the number of people dealing with these issues grew, the pastors at Mars Hill began to pray and plan earnestly on how to appropriately and effectively minister to those facing abuse and addiction. One man who was instrumental in developing our counseling programs was Pastor Mike Wilkerson.

I’ve known Mike since he and his wife, Trisha, arrived at Mars Hill when our church was very small. They immediately began serving faithfully, and Mike became a pastor in 2004. Two issues we continually deal with are sexual abuse and addiction. God led Mike to develop what today we call Redemption Groups. Over time this culminated in the Redemption curriculum on which his book, Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry, is based.

Today, Pastor Mike sits down with me to discuss Redemption Groups, their place in the ministry at Mars Hill Church, and how other churches can start similar groups through the Redemption Group Network.

MD: What are Redemption Groups?

MW: Redemption Groups are gospel-based recovery groups for the abused, addicted, and distressed of all kinds. They are intense small groups that dig deep into difficult and seldom-discussed issues. We launched Redemption Groups at Mars Hill in the fall of 2008. They have now become a regular facet of ministry at most of our churches, and through the Redemption Group Network, these groups have now expanded to other churches around the U.S. and world.

MD: What were the circumstances that led to the formation of Redemption Groups?

MW: Over the years at Mars Hill Church, our counseling ministries grew to include multiple issue-specific groups. In our desire to help everyone, we discovered that we had spread ourselves too thin and weren’t really helping people well. We also discovered that many of our groups were not unified around a similar, gospel-oriented vision of biblical counseling and that many of the groups overlapped each other.

With limited hours to help numerous counselees with various and difficult problems, the Mars Hill pastors came up with the idea of Redemption Groups. We developed original curriculum for these groups that follow the Exodus narrative, from slavery to freedom.

Taking that curriculum as a starting point, I wrote Redemption, which was published by Crossway in January 2011. Redemption Groups now use this book as the curriculum.

MD: What is the format of Redemption Groups?

MW: Ideally, Redemption Groups consist of 8 to 9 people, 2 of whom are co-leaders, 1 apprentice leader, and 5 to 6 participants. Redemption Groups are fixed in length and normally run in three cycles of 10 weeks in the fall, winter, and spring. The same group members stay together in their group for the duration of the quarter. While the issues members bring into the group may be mixed, genders are not and a group is either all-male or all-female.

Each weekly session includes a main session and a group session. The main session is a teaching or sermon that follows the content of Redemption. Everyone participates together in the main session. Afterwards, the various groups meet in separate rooms.

We like to keep the group sessions organic. They are tied to the message of the main session, but the leaders of the group have a lot of flexibility. The aim of the leader is to help the group do the heart work that needs to be done, so we trust the leaders of the groups to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, using the book and the teaching sessions for their guidelines.

The group sessions normally begin with each participant telling a short version of his or her story and what they hope to address in the group. Over the course of the quarter, leaders and group members draw out one another in the ensuing conversation.

MD: How are Redemption Groups related to Community Groups?

MW: Redemption Groups are not meant to replace or serve as a church’s small group community. For instance, at Mars Hill Church, our Community Groups serve as the primary place for pastoral care, mission, discipleship, and leadership development, whereas Redemption Groups are supplemental. They catalyze the redemptive community of the Community Groups.

At Mars Hill Church, we expect that participants wanting to join a Redemption Group are already involved in a Community Group. If not, then at the conclusion of the Redemption Group we help connect them with a Community Group for facilitating long-term community development within the church.

MD: How do you train Redemption Group leaders?

MW: At Mars Hill Church we raise up leaders from within the Redemption Groups themselves. Participants are asked to return as apprentices, which then leads them on track to become leaders themselves.

There are other ways that new leaders are found, but they are always funneled through the group process. We believe that group leadership is caught more than taught.

When assessing someone as a potential new leader, I believe it helps to think in terms of head, heart, and hands.

First and foremost is the heart. Does he or she demonstrate a need for God’s mercy? To demonstrate our need for God’s mercy is more than vocalizing it, this needs to be observed in a group environment, or perhaps in individual counseling. What we’re looking for is to see if the leader candidate is teachable, repents of sin, and receives God’s forgiveness, comfort, and cleansing.

Not only is a candidate’s heart observed in their need for God’s mercy, but it also comes out in their love for others. Do they listen? Do they emphasize with others’ suffering? Can they speak the truth in love?

Leadership candidates also need to pick up skills of group interaction and basic counseling to lead well—this is what we refer to as hands. These skills are learned through the group sessions, as well as continual debriefing with current group leaders and supervisors to help them hone their skills.

Finally, we offer training in the foundations and theory of counseling to address the head. In developing leaders this process normally occurs later after a potential leader is demonstrating fruitfulness in ministry. We do this because we have observed that would-be counselors are drawn to such classes that address the head without really being ready in heart.

For these courses, we have used Dynamics of Biblical Change, which is a distance education course from the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF). Another means we’ve used is to work through a series of articles from the Journal of Biblical Counseling, along with Paul Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands. A variety of training recommendations can be found on redemptiongroups.com.

MD: How much time should a volunteer in a Redemption Group expect to commit?

MW: The basic time commitment for the sessions each week is usually about four hours once per week. The Weekend Intensive that starts off each quarter requires a Friday evening and all day Saturday. There are the occasional follow-up issues that come up throughout the week. These times are only occasional and most work is done in the group.

Most first time co-leaders have already been through two cycles of Redemption Groups, first as participant, then as apprentice. So by the time they lead their first group, they’ve already given six months to the process.

All in all, the time a leader gives to lead a single cycle of Redemption Groups is about 55 hours over the course of 10 weeks.

MD: For people, especially local church leaders, interested in learning more about Redemption Groups and starting one in their own community, whom should they contact?

MW: For those interested in learning more should go to redemptiongroups.com. We started the Redemption Group Network in order to promote the quality and spread of Redemption Groups through training, certification, and ongoing resource development.

And again, the Redemption book is used as our primary curriculum for Redemption Groups.

MD: Pastor Mike, thanks for your time. Are there any last things that you would like to share?

MW: One of the greatest thrills in my pastoral ministry is sitting in on Redemption Groups and watching others do amazing, gospel-centered, Spirit-led counseling. There’s no way our pastors could do all the counseling that needs to be done. But even if we could, the joy of seeing others equipped for the work of ministry is reason enough to equip them and watch them thrive.