By Allen White
Most of us know the movie starring Bill Murray as a weatherman who is sent to cover the story of a “weather forecasting rat.” Obviously, this is not his favorite assignment. This time something is different. Every day when he wakes up, it’s once again Ground Hog Day. He’s basically having the worse day of his life over and over and over again. Until he finally gets it right.
Some churches had stellar Fall launches last year, then they failed to retain as many groups as they would have liked. The plan for this Fall is another big launch without a next step. The result will be Ground Hog Day.
Other churches are carefully handpicking leaders hoping to have an incremental increase in groups this Fall. I followed this strategy for seven years and got stuck with only 30 percent of our people in groups. After six Ground Hog Days in a row, I knew something had to change.
How will your Fall launch this year be different from your Fall launch last year? Now, you could do the exact same thing you did last year only louder, more frequent, and with great intensity, and you will probably gain a few more. But, the result will be far from exponential, and it will feel like Ground Hog Day all over again. Consider these six things as you prepare for your Fall launch:
1. What topic will attract more?
In working with over 1,500 churches over the last 11 years, some topics have been real winners in connecting not only congregations, but communities into groups. Other topics, well, not so much. Let’s start with the narrow topics.
If you’re church is going with a rather mature topic like fasting, giving, evangelism, or anything by Francis Chan, you will have a limited amount of new groups starting. After all, when most of us read Francis Chan, we wonder if we’re even still Christians. There is a place for more mature topics, topics with lots of homework, and anything to do with money, but it’s not in a Fall campaign where you have the biggest possibility of connecting people into groups.
Think about felt needs. What needs do your people and your community have? How could a Fall campaign help? Topics like parenting, relationships, stress, fears, hope, peace, and similar could certainly scratch where folks itch. This does not mean you need to cater to peoples’ needs in every curriculum you promote, but if you want to draw them in for a big Fall launch, that is certainly the direction to head. In fact, you might even think about creating your own curriculum.
2. What strategy will connect more?
What has worked in the past will not continue into the future. If your people are filling out sign up cards or web forms, get out of that business ASAP. This is the most time consuming, ineffective method of forming groups known to man. You do all the work of getting them into a group only to discover that either the leader never follows up with the person, the person never shows up, or the person doesn’t stick with a group where they have nothing in common with anybody else. In fact, this practice makes me want to change the analogy from Ground Hog Day to the definition of insanity!
Now that you’re giving up your sign up cards, how do you connect people into groups. Start with the group leaders. Who do they know that would enjoy the study? Personal invitation will go a long way to form healthier, long-lasting groups. If you have a lot of new people in your church or moving into your area, then create an environment where new people can meet group leaders face to face, then sign up for a specific group. Some people want to lead a group, but don’t want strangers coming to their house. Why not have them start a group by just inviting their friends? In fact, could your people “do the study with their friends” and not even mention “groups”?
3. What new method will recruit more leaders?
Are you still handpicking leaders? How stressed are you already about Fall? Are your leaders supposed to be training an apprentice? How well is that working? Are you still recruiting “hosts”? If you’ve been recruiting hosts for the last 14 years, your people are wise to you. They know “hosts” means leader.
Now, don’t get me wrong. These have all been very effective methods of recruiting and developing leaders. But, if you are continuing to recruit dwindling amounts of leaders with these same strategies, then you must face the fact that your people have effectively said “No” to these recruiting methods. What could you offer this Fall that they might say “Yes” to?
4. Who will coach your new leaders?
Just reading that question evokes a lot of guilt for most small group coaches. I know your coaching structure is not what you imagined or is non-existent. Some of you have even deceived yourselves into thinking that staff can handle the needs of group leaders. You’re sending out emails and inviting people to meetings. How are those meetings working out?
The most important person in the life of a group leader is his or her coach. I was the sole coach for all of my leaders for a long time. Technically, it worked. Practically, it didn’t. They didn’t receive the care and support they needed. In fact, one year all of them quit. That was not a Ground Hog Day I ever wanted to repeat, so we put coaching in place before we recruited another group leader.
The main focus of any small group pastor should be on two things: coaching and curriculum. Coaches are the only way to know what’s in the head and heart of a group leader. And, of course, coaches must be accountable to you or your small group team depending on the size of your church.
5. What training tool will be more effective?
Seminary taught me I needed to train leaders in meetings. I offered meetings. Some were better attended than others. Once I stood in an empty room at about 15 minutes after the start time questioning the call of God on my life because no one had showed up for my training. Then, I had a big realization: people hate meetings.
Heading into this Fall (and attempting to avoid another Ground Hog Day), are you in the training business or the meeting business? They are not the same thing. If your training is based on centralized meetings, then you are missing a good portion of your leaders. How else can you train? I started this blog by answering my group leaders questions. Some small group pastors create a 2 minute video they email to their leaders every week. What could training look like in your church?
A while back I was talking to a pastor who had a background in corporate training. He told me, “This might sound strange considering my background, but I’ve come to realize the best training comes from the person who is proximate to the group leader when they are facing a problem.” Now, we’re back to coaching.
6. How will more groups continue into the New Year?
Creating a lot of excitement and starting a bunch of groups for a six week series is relatively easy. The test comes at the end of the six weeks. For some reason when people are invited into a six week study, they get the impression that at the end of the six weeks their group is done. I don’t know where they would get such a crazy idea.
If we don’t challenge these groups to continue, then not only will we experience Ground Hog Day every Fall, we will have Ground Hog Day at the start of every semester and every group launch. In North America, people like to stay together. This is why the apprentice model is a struggle. This is also why semester-based groups which practice what I call “fruit basket upset” at the end of the semester create a lot more work and dissatisfaction among group members.
If you give groups an opportunity to continue in the middle of your Fall series, chances are they will take you up on it. If you execute all six points of this post well, you could have 80 percent or more of your groups continue.
Ground Hog Day isn’t just for February.
What are you willing to change this Fall that will increase your result and effectiveness in forming and retaining groups? What risk are you willing to take? Would you lower the requirements for group leaders temporarily? Would you try a new strategy to form groups? Could you try your hand at developing a coaching structure and reworking your training?
This Fall could be unlike any Fall launch you’ve lead before. Isn’t it time to get out of the cycle of Ground Hog Day. If you would like to learn more, please join me for an upcoming webinar: allenwhite.org/webinars
I was recently interviewed by Aaron Earls on the trend toward launching multisite campuses through microsites. As I have blogged previously, microsites start in homes for the purpose of gathering people for a weekend service. Microsites are not a small groups, but can certainly create small groups very readily. Below is the article that appeared in Lifeway’s Facts and Trends magazine.
By Aaron Earls
The popular image of an American megachurch as a sprawling campus surrounding a massive worship center drawing thousands of attendees every Sunday needs some updating.
Even as most continue to draw in more worshipers, the typical megachurch sanctuary is shrinking. And some of the largest churches from California to South Carolina are planting their new campuses in the smallest of sites—homes. This comes as church leaders realize sustained growth of their congregation and spiritual growth of their people will come from going small.
Multisite and Microsites
In the last five years, the typical megachurch’s main sanctuary decreased in size from 1,500 seats to a median of 1,200, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report from Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The move to smaller sanctuaries is an outgrowth of the burgeoning multisite church movement. Instead of building a large church and asking people to come to one place, megachurches are building smaller spaces in more places.
Since 2000, churches with multiple campuses have grown steadily from 23 percent to more than 60 percent of all megachurches, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report. “Megachurches have shifted their philosophy from building bigger and bigger,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, “to spreading further and further.”
In the midst of this, a new trend is emerging. Larger churches are now launching microsite campuses. “Microsite is a much smaller version of a multisite campus that meets in a home or another small space,” says Allen White, a pastor and church consultant in South Carolina. The Rock Church in San Diego, California, and NewSpring Church in South Carolina are two megachurches that have added microsites to their multisite approach, according to White.
Instead of securing a larger temporary location such as a school or movie theater, for a microsite, a church identifies an area of the city or community it wants to reach and often begins meeting in the home of a member there. “A microsite can pop up as quickly as a sandwich shop,” says White. “All that’s needed are local leaders, resources to train them, and video for the services.”
White says these microsites allow larger churches to experiment. “If it blows up, that’s how experiments go,” he says.
Megachurches may need that infusion of experimentation. A study shows that megachurches—once hailed as a new way to experience church—may be getting stuck in their ways.
In 2010, more than half (54 percent) of megachurches strongly agreed they were willing to change to meet new realities. In 2015, according to the Megachurch Report, that number plummeted to 37 percent.
As churches grow larger and older, they can lose flexibility. Adding microsites or other innovations allows churches to regain some of what was lost. Those microsites are one of the ways in which larger churches are trying to recapture the essence of being small.
Why Megachurches Go Small
Larger churches often recognize what small churches might miss—there are advantages to being little. Through small groups, multisite campuses, and now microsites, those megachurches are attempting to continue their growth while retaining small-church benefits.
“Churches are taking advantage of Dunbar’s number,” says Bob Whitesel, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and church growth expert. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, found humans can comfortably maintain only around 150 stable relationships. Beyond that, says Whitesel, “relationships don’t seem to have much depth.”
This is why he believes many churches stall around this plateau. “Once it gets bigger than that, people stop inviting others because they no longer know everyone else at church,” he says.
It’s incumbent on large church leaders to capitalize on smaller groups that organically emerge in the church. Whitesel calls these “sub-congregations,” and they mirror other numbers Dunbar found in his research. Groups of 50 can unite around a task, such as the music ministry or preschool volunteers. Small group gatherings of 15 have the feel of an extended family, and groups of five are intimate connections.
These numbers have been seen not only in sociological research but also in church history, Whitesel says. “In the Wesleyan revivals, every leader had to be involved in what they called ‘Band Meetings’ of five individuals. Larger groups of 15 were called ‘Class Meetings.’”
With this sociological and historical support, church consulting experts identify at least four areas that can be more easily developed in smaller churches.
Accountability — With larger churches, anonymity is easier. Attendees can sneak in late, sit in the back of an enormous sanctuary, and leave without interacting with anyone. But this leaves individuals prone to slipping away from the church as quickly as they slipped in.
Whitesel says smaller numbers allow people to “connect with a group that brings accountability and interdependency.” If the church goes through changes, being connected to a smaller group—be it a campus or a small group—serves as glue to hold people in place.
Community — The main benefit larger churches can gain from going small, according to Allen White, is connection and community. “Everyone desires the experience of being known and accepted,” he says.
Microsite campuses allow much larger churches to “meld together the feel of a small group with the production of a large church,” White says.
Leadership growth — As with accountability, attendees at a megachurch may be tempted to avoid leadership. They may feel intimidated by the size of the church or a lack of education and training. Going small forces new people into leadership roles.
“Once a church is able to train and deploy staff or volunteers to lead a microsite campus, then the number of campuses is limited only to available space and willing leaders,” says White. The opportunities for involvement and leadership are endless, and in smaller settings many may feel more comfortable taking the reins of a ministry.
Reproducibility — Thousand-seat arenas aren’t on every corner to start a new megachurch, but that’s not a problem for microsites or small churches. The ease at which microsites can begin makes it possible for them to go viral, according to White.
This type of planting churches and starting new sites is not exclusive to megachurches. LifeWay Research’s analysis of more than 800 church plants found more than 1 in 5 were launched from a church with an average attendance below 100. The clear majority (60 percent) were started by churches of fewer than 500.
As churches quickly reproduce, mistakes will be made, and they’ll learn what not to do. But White says this means the church is trying to fulfill her mission. “The church as a whole has spent too many years perfecting ministry, but not producing disciples,” he says.
Going small allows larger churches to produce faithful disciples in new contexts outside the gigantic arena.
UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, NewSpring Church has moved all of their microsite campuses to larger portable locations. They outgrew all of the houses!
DISCLAIMER: Before you launch microsites in your church, check with local zoning regulations as well as HOA policies and fire regulations. If microsites become too large, they can cause parking problems as well as other potential headaches for neighbors. It might be wise to rotate microsites between different homes to alleviate any neighborhood issues.
By Allen White
I have to admit that I was and I wasn’t prepared for my groups to multiply. Of course, when my pastor stood up that Sunday back in 2004 and so many responded that we doubled our groups in a day, I was ecstatic. I was also a little afraid. I didn’t have the coaching structure to support such rapid growth. My training was not quite where it should have been. I wasn’t going to turn anybody down, but now I had to move fast.
Over the years I had picked up enough from John Maxwell, Peter Drucker, and others to know how to lead. In fact, I lead quite a few things at our church including everything involving adults and occasionally something random like a copier salesman. Now, I needed to put up or shut up. I could no longer hide behind the excuse that I had so much on my plate that I really couldn’t do more with groups. My pastor’s invitation blew that one out of the water.
Are you prepared to leave your comfort zone?
For most of us who’ve been in ministry for any length of time, we’ve kind of got it down to a system. Now, if you’re still running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you’re already in trouble, and you’re probably focusing on the wrong things like group member sign up cards. Get out of that business ASAP.
When I only had 30 small groups life was pretty much on cruise control. Now, I was also leading a ministry discovery process based on Network by Bruce Bugbee. (If you don’t have one, Bruce is about to release a 25th anniversary update). There was a little counseling, a Wednesday evening Bible study to teach, adult electives on Sunday morning, various other groups and studies, a discipleship pathway to manage, a new believers’ class, and about three hours a day just to read and study. Life was good. Ok, not completely.
Thirty small group leaders were way too many for me to manage alone, but I was in complete control, and that suited me just fine. Looking back, not only was I handicapping my leadership by not developing a coaching structure earlier on, I certainly was not helping or caring for the leaders to the degree they deserved.
Then, I hit a crisis. Not a bad crisis, it was a good crisis. Thirty groups became 60 groups, then grew to 103 groups in a congregation of 800 adults. I was completely unprepared.
If your groups doubled this Fall, who would you need to coach new leaders?
I wasn’t adequately coaching 30 groups, now I had twice the problem, and all of the guilt of not building a coaching structure. Now, I could have gone the easy way by just giving the new leaders a phone number to call if they got into trouble. But, the issue with a small group hotline is the new leaders are really not served, and you enter into the scenario of what I call “Disposable Small Groups.”
Then, in a stroke of insight and desperation, it dawned on me that I had 30 leaders with experience and 30 leaders without experience. I cashed in 12 years of leadership “credit” by sending a letter to my experienced leaders assigning a new leader to them. The instructions were “unless you absolutely can’t do this, I am counting on you.” And, they did it, well, except for one.
Close your eyes and imagine both a crowning achievement and an absolute nightmare — your groups just doubled. But, you have three months, so how would you prepare? Make a list of experienced leaders and mature believers who you could invite to coach all of these new leaders. You already need them, so you might as well get started.
How much training would the new leaders need and when?
Hopefully you’ve decided to delay some of the usual requirements for small group leaders this Fall. Otherwise, you should have started recruiting group leaders last Fall. Inviting people to open their homes and invite their friends for a six week commitment is a pretty low stakes undertaking for everyone involved provided you don’t advertise the groups.
The essentials of training new leaders focuses on how to gather their groups, how to lead their first meeting, and how to involve others in leading the group. That may not sound like much, but remember, you’ve already given them a coach. The experienced leader can easily fill in the gaps for the new leaders. If there happens to be an issue or question that is too much for the experienced leader, then you should get involved.
With the encouragement of the coach, a weekly two minute training video from the small group pastor should round out the training for the first six weeks of leading. By pushing the video training out in an email, the new leaders will be prompted to watch it when it arrives in their inbox. You could add a “free prize” in the video to make sure they watch it. Jim Herndon, small group pastors, Second Baytown in Texas does a giveaway in each of his videos. He used to put it at the end, then his leaders would skip to the end to find out about the prize. Naughty leaders. Now, Jim puts the “free prize” at a different spot in each video. Whoever finds it first and contacts Jim gets a gift card or some other kind of goodie. That may seem simple, but I think it’s simply brilliant! Have you tried getting your leaders to a meeting lately. Skip the meetings. Send video training.
If your pastor decided to create curriculum this Summer, are you ready?
It’s not too late to create your own curriculum for this Fall. In fact, I’m shooting two projects with a church next week. Of course, my advantage is I have a professional team. But, once upon a time, I coached a church of 50 people to create their own curriculum. Not only did they do a beautiful job, then connected 100 people into groups!
I think there’s a good, better, best of curriculum development.
The Good option is editing existing sermon video into a small group series like Andy Stanley’s series. Then, you just write the questions. Now, I say this is the “Good” option, but I really see this as the “better than nothing” option. Sorry, Andy.
The Better option is to shoot a five minute video with you senior pastor between the services on Sunday morning, then sending it out to your groups with a downloadable discussion guide. The content is still fresh in your pastor’s mind. You don’t have to create six talks in advance of the series. Just pray that no one gets sick.
The Best option is to shoot all six teaching segments in advance. You might even include a session host or some testimonies. If you start now, you could have professional looking curriculum (study guide and DVD) for this Fall. While this is a lot of work, the great thing about it is, the materials are a create recruiting tool. When your people see the effort you’ve put into the curriculum, they will want to join in!
If you need help with video curriculum, I can coach your team or send you a video production crew, or create your whole study from start to finish (or you could create your own video for one of my studies). For more info: firstname.lastname@example.org
What would need to change in your own leadership style?
I hate to admit it, but I really like being in charge of everything and having everyone report to me. No surprises. I had my pulse on my groups. I knew what was going on. Okay, I wish it had worked that well, but I thought it did. Like I said earlier, my need for control handicapped my small groups.
One week in our coaches meeting, Carlos spoke up and talked about how excited Rick was to lead a group. Rick told him it was the best thing he had ever done. I looked at Carlos and asked, “Who’s Rick?” That was a big day for me. I couldn’t have picked Rick out of a line up. But, I knew and trusted Carlos, and Carlos was getting to know Rick, so that need to be good enough.
What changes in your attitudes and actions reflected in your own leadership style might have to change to allow the coming growth of your small group ministry. What I learned about myself was that my attitude and actions were the main limiting factor in the lack of growth in our groups. When I changed my own thinking, which in turn changed my actions, then we experienced exponential growth in our groups.
Not too long ago I was working with a very capable small group pastor. We had successfully quadrupled the groups in his church. While I was celebrating, he was hyperventilating. In fact, at one point he said, “I can’t wait until this gets back to normal.”
While we had a great strategy in place to help groups continue, it wasn’t executed well. In fact, the small group pastor went on vacation during a crucial week of the plan. Pretty soon the groups dwindled down to something that was still double of normal, but way off from what it should have been. He wasn’t ready. He hadn’t mentally prepared for what was coming. Things leveled out at a comfortable place for him, but at what price?
John Maxwell talks about The Law of the Lid. This takes place when a leader’s ability becomes the limiting factor in the growth of the organization. There are some options. Leaders can always grow their leadership through books, podcasts, seminars, and coaching. That’s what helped to grow my leadership. But, the other options are not so good. Either your ministry will stagnate under your current level of leadership, or your ministry will outgrow you. If you’re job outgrows you, then you’ll be looking for another job. Wouldn’t you rather grow your leadership?
By starting now to prepare for Fall, you can have a huge jump on what’s ahead. Start your coaching structure. Plan out your training. Then, when your groups begin to dramatically increase, you will be ready. If you need help, I can get you ready. Just ask: email@example.com.
By Allen White
I’ve seen small group launches go really well. And, I’ve had churches come to me after the launch or a series of launches and ask for help. Not so secretly, I really wish I had the opportunity to talk to them first. Any church only has so many opportunities to successfully launch groups and connect the majority of their members. Failure to launch in these circumstances is fatal for future launch attempts.
As I’ve worked with churches, large and small, across North America, I have discovered seven things that help churches successfully launch groups. By having these things in place, you have a better chance of recruiting the leaders and coaches you need, forming groups that will last, and make your senior pastor a raving fan of groups.
Insight #1: Choose the Right Topic.
The right or wrong topic will make or break your launch. Think about who you are trying to connect: church members or folks in the community. If you chose a mature topic like tithing or fasting, more than likely you’ll have a tough road getting your members to participate let alone anyone from outside of your church. Think about topics that would be a felt need for your people and your community.
I’ve coached churches who have done a two step strategy with this. The first campaign was used to connect and cast vision to the church body. The second campaign was designed for the church to reach the community. For instance, Capital Area Christian Church in the Harrisburg, PA area launched a New Year’s series in 2015 called Manifesto. This series laid out the vision and mission of the church to their people. Then, after Easter 2015, the launched a second series called Monsters Under the Bed, which addresses the topic of fear — now that’s a significant felt need. In the second series, they connect more in their congregation, but also quite a few in their community.
Insight #2: Lower the Bar on Leadership.
That doesn’t mean throwing people who are completely unprepared with no coach into the deep end. When I say, “lower the bar” I mean temporarily setting aside your requirements for short term series groups. These groups aren’t advertised. You don’t send people to these groups. You invite people who are open to doing a study with their friends give small groups a try. Maybe for the first time.
If they have a good experience leading a group, then invite them to do more. Eventually, you will offer them a leadership track to make them official leaders. If things didn’t go so well for them, then thank them for giving it a try and encourage them to try another ministry.
As Neil Cole says, “We need to lower the bar on what it means to be a leader and raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple.” Not everyone has a leadership gift, but we are all called to “go and make disciples.” No one is exempt from the Great Commission. By giving your people an easy to use tool like a video-based curriculum, you can help your people live in obedience to God by equipping them for what God commands them to do. When did this become an option?
Insight #3: Focus on Recruiting Group Leaders.
If your pastor is willing to give “airtime” in the weekend service to talk about groups, recruit leaders. If your pastor gives you airtime for multiple weekends, recruit leaders. If you are recruiting leaders, people will figure out the church is launching groups or doing a church-wide campaign. Don’t waste this precious airtime promoting groups. And, certainly don’t waste this precious airtime promoting classes and Bible studies that are on their way out. Recruit leaders.
Insight #4: Keep the Invitation and the Response Close Together.
People only think about church when they are in church. When the pastor invites folks to lead a group, then provide a way IN THE SERVICE for them to respond. Don’t send them to the lobby. Don’t send them to the website. Don’t send them out the door without collecting their response.
Whether you use a response card which is placed in the offering, an online survey taken on a smartphone, or texting a message to a designated number, you want to get a “Yes” from every willing person before they head out the door. If you send an email invitation from the Senior Pastor during the week, provide a link for them to sign up online.
Insight #5: Shorten the Distance Between Their “Yes” and Starting the Group.
Since we’ve already waved the requirements, the new leaders are already one step closer to starting their group. Whether the Senior Pastor encourages them in the service to begin inviting people to their groups or they are instructed on how to form their groups in a briefing immediately after the service, don’t allow any time to pass from when they say “Yes” to when the new leaders put things in motion.
The longer you wait, the sooner they will get cold feet. Don’t schedule a briefing or orientation a month from the invitation because it’s efficient. I would rather host three briefs per weekend for three weeks in a row with a handful of people at each than wait a month and lose half of the prospective leaders in the process. You’ve made it easy for people to start groups, now get them started!
Insight #6: Recruit During the Month Prior to Your Launch.
While you can promote well in advance of the series, don’t take signups for months. I learned this from a PTA president. Promote early and often, but only take signups right before the event. Otherwise, you can recruit and recruit only to discover most people will sign up in the last three weeks before the start of the launch.
One month out gather your existing group leaders to give them the first look at the series. I call this a Sneak Peek. This will honor your leaders by giving them an exclusive opportunity to check out the new study. This will also take pressure off of your new leader briefings by briefing your established leaders ahead of time. This is also a great opportunity to recruit your established leaders to coach new leaders.
Then, recruit new leaders for the three weeks leading up to the launch. Not everyone attends every weekend, so you want to ask for more than one weekend. Also, some people will need time to warm up to the idea. The first week they might say “No” to leading a group, but by the third week, their “No” might turn to a “Yes.”
Insight #7: Your Senior Pastor Must be Your Church’s Small Group Champion.
Going back 20 years, I used to personally recruit every small group leader in my church. While I had stellar group leaders, my church also got stuck at 30 percent of our people in groups. Then, I asked my Senior Pastor to invite people to lead groups. We doubled our groups in a day. I have not personally recruited another small group leader since 2004. And, I served in a whole other church since then!
To gain your Senior Pastor’s interest in groups, put your pastor on the curriculum. If you do, your pastor will be more interested in groups because he will want people to use his curriculum. Also, your people will be far more interested in joining a group, because they already like your pastor’s teaching.
I know I gave you these seven insights in rapid fire succession. If you hit these seven points, you will have a great small group launch. If you want to hear more, then register for my next webinar at allenwhite.org/webinars.
By Allen White
My guest today is Alan Danielson, the Lead Pastor of a church that’s probably a lot like yours. New Life Bible Church is a church of a few hundred people, but not long ago he was on the executive staff of Life.Church in Edmond, OK. Now, along with pastoring New Life, Alan is a consultant and has worked with many of America’s largest churches. Alan founded Triple-Threat Solutions to help leaders of and churches of all sizes grow. Learn more from Alan at http://www.3Threat.net.
Q1: You’re not new at small groups. Over the years, what trends/methods/strategies in forming groups have stood the test of time?
Oh boy, I have several things that come to mind. The first and most obvious answer is leadership. Every group that lasts needs a leader. There are “leaderless” methods for starting groups but these groups only last long-term when someone in the group demonstrates leadership. They may never actually give someone the title of leader, but make no mistake a truly “leaderless” group won’t be a group for long.
The second thing that pops into my head is coaching. I’m a huge believer in small group coaches. I’ve heard lots of people claim that coaching doesn’t work, but that has certainly not been my experience. By providing coaches to connect with and guide my small group leaders, I’ve given them all a lifeline and a partner. I once asked my friend Dave Treat why some people are down on small group coaching when it has proven to be so important to me. He said, “Coaching works, but people are lazy.” What that means is that coaching is hard work and it only works if pastors and other leaders will put in the effort needed.
Thirdly, I think of church wide small group campaigns. Campaigns are such a simple tool for launching new groups and getting new people connected. If a campaign is followed up by capable small group coaches, the new groups can last a long time and provide a great platform for discipleship.
Q2: When you think about methods like church-wide campaigns and other ways of rapidly forming groups, do you see these srategies going the long haul? Why or why not?
I’ve seen both. I’ve seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected only to see those groups fizzle out after a few months.
I’ve also seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected and then see the groups last and build tremendous relationships that change lives.
So what’s the difference? The first two things I talked about after your first question: leadership and coaching. At some point someone in the group has to take up the mantle of leader (whether they want the title or not). The perfect person to guide the would-be leader through that process is a small group coach. A well-trained coach can help people make the transition into leadership well. Without leaders and coaches, small groups quickly implode, collapse, dissolve or just fade away.
Q3: You’ve served as a small group champion as both a small group pastor and a senior pastor. Where have you been the most effective in group ministry? What made it more effective?
Well, it depends on what you call effective. When I was a campus small group pastor at Life.Church we developed 544 groups on a campus of 7,000 people. 544 groups sounds really impressive, but I was never impressed. We averaged 8.45 people per group which translated 4,597 people connected. That still sounds like a lot. But when compared to our campus attendance of 7,000 it meant that just under 66% of our weekend attenders were in groups. In school 66% is a D.
When I was promoted to executive groups pastor over all of our campuses we got to nearly 1,100 groups total for all of our campuses. That came out to 9,295 people in groups. At the time we were running 28,000 on all campuses meaning we had 33% of our total attendance in groups. That’s an F.
Now I’m the lead pastor of a church of 300 and we have about 80% of our people in groups. That’s much better.
What made the difference in these three different settings? Leadership and coaching. On the one campus where I led the small group ministry, coaching was a critical component. When I was given charge of all 13 campuses, we were in the middle of implementing our coaching ministry on all campuses. If I’d stayed there longer I believe we would have broken the 66% mark and gone even further.
Here’s the big takeaway: small groups and coaching work in all churches of all size. Success is determined not by the slickness of the strategy but by the break-neck-work-ethic of every leader involved (from the pastor to the group leader) and high value of small groups in the church. My current church will one day hit, and I believe exceed, the 100% mark because, as the lead pastor, I am committed to our strategy. Then I hire staff who share that commitment, who recruit coaches who share that commitment, who train leaders who share that commitment.
Q4: What is different about Group Life in Oklahoma than in other places?
The Food! When I was a pastor in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you could be sure that every small group had some form of green chile every week. In Oklahoma there are lots of veggie trays, followed by some kind of meat and dessert.
Seriously though, I don’t really think there’s much difference. People are people everywhere you go. As I’ve consulted with churches all across the country I’ve noticed that people crave connection everywhere. Every neighborhood needs groups who will care for the neighborhood. Every person in every church needs healthy relationships and needs to grow spiritually. The biggest difference is simply one of awareness. In the Oklahoma (often called the buckle of the Bible Belt), more people in the culture are aware of small groups or Bible study groups. In Portland, Oregon the average person hasn’t heard of such a thing.
Q5: When we first met, you were the small groups pastor at LifeChurch.tv (now Life.Church). What did you small group structure look like across multiple campuses? Were groups consistent across campuses or did that matter?
The goal was to have a consistent group strategy and structure on all campuses. It was to be built on three basic building-blocks: leaders, coaches and campaigns. We did two campaigns every year, so we needed coaches on every campus who would develop great leaders in a very short time. That’s a pretty over-simplified summary, but I think you get the gist.
Anyway, when I became the point person overseeing groups on all campuses, the group ministries did not have a very consistent look. My predecessor had encouraged lots of experimentation on every campus, so there were definitely differences from one campus to the next. These differences were both good and bad. The good thing was that each of our 13 campuses was a laboratory where we could try different strategies and tactics. The bad thing was the tendency of the campus groups pastors becoming too attached to their own way of doing things. This led to quite a bit of tension.
Okay, before I continue I have to give you a little more context. What I’m saying may sound like I’m running down Life.Chruch, but that’s most definitely NOT my intent. Remember, when I was at Life.Church, the multi-site movement was still very new. In many ways we were making things up as we went along. We quickly became the biggest multi-site church in the country and had few examples to learn from, so we made a TON of mistakes. That’s why I’m very comfortable sharing that we got an “F” for only 33% of our people in groups. But in this case and “F” is not automatically a failure. We didn’t necessarily view each experiment as “success” or “failure”, but as an “opportunity to learn”. Even things that didn’t pan out like we’d hoped taught us a lot.
So through all of this I learned that the most important part of leading multi-site small group ministry came down to the campus small group pastor. If the campus small group pastor was a teachable, team-player, he/she was far more likely to utilize the basics that we wanted to implement on each campus (the basics being the things I mentioned earlier: leaders, coaches and campaigns). The independent-type campus group pastors had a tendency to try to blaze their own trails. Rather than building upon something proven effective, they often tried to start building from a new foundation. This often led to slower success. Under my leadership, the ideal personality-mix for a campus group pastor was a creative person who is willing to learn from and follow their leadership. Rather than being trail blazers (or sometimes even rebels), these types of campus group pastors implemented the basics and experimented with ideas only if they would enhance or improve the basics.
Q5.5: As the co-owner of the second largest Star Wars fan site in the world, what is your favorite Star Wars movie?
It’s episode V, The Empire Strikes Back!
By Allen White
In leading small groups and tracking trends over the last 25 years, I’ve done all kinds of things to recruit leaders and get people connected into groups. Some of those things, I had to apologize for. Others, I simply avoided from the start. While this post is not meant to cast aspersions on other well-meaning practitioners, it might be time to slow down and rethink some of the things we’ve been doing.
1. Telling People, “Your small group will be your new best friends.”
Sometimes in our zeal of connecting people into community, we overreach and make unrealistic promises about small groups. Let’s face it, we’ve all been in small groups. Some of those groups rocked. Some of those groups don’t rock. The more random the method in forming small groups, the less likely people will become friends, let alone, close friends. I’ve actually had to apologize for this one.
Maybe a better way to say this is that prospective group members will meet some friendly people in groups. That’s a safer bet. But, you can even go one better.
Encourage people to form a group with the friends they already have. This way they are doing something intentional about their spiritual growth and getting together with their friends. This is much better than forsaking their current friends for a group of possible future friends. After all, why reconnect people who are already connected?
Now there may be some new folks in your church who honestly don’t know anyone. People who have just moved into the community or are new to your church might not get invited into a group. These tend to be the exceptions and not the rule. Make allowances for these exceptions, but don’t oversell groups in the process.
2. Recruiting Leaders by saying, “Hosting a group is simple.”
Fourteen years ago, we were introduced to a new strategy to recruit hosts instead of leaders. The idea was that if people would open their home, provide some refreshments, and push play, then they can very easily host a group.
Then, we ran into an issue — everybody is normal until you get to know them (Thanks, John Ortberg for that line). Once people got into groups and got to know each other, we discovered there were a few problems. These issues went well beyond pouring coffee and pushing play. Now, what do we do?
The issue really comes down to how well the hosts were prepared and what kind of backup you’ve provided. Starting with the first briefing or orientation the new host attends, they need to understand when something comes up, they will have a coach to turn to, and not just a phone number. They will also receive on-going training, and not just jump into the deep end and have fun! Something as simple as sending out a short training video on a regular basis to answer common questions or to direct hosts in where to turn for help makes for suitable backup.
The risk of not offering coaching, training, and help is hosts who end up with a bad experience, no group, and no plans for hosting a group again. These causalities can and should be avoided at all costs. Regardless of the whether the church has dozens, hundreds or thousands of new groups, it’s necessary to effectively support them. Otherwise, you end up with the dilemma of disposable groups.
3. Believing New Leaders can Survive Without a Coach.
One of the biggest factors in the failure of new groups is discouragement. The friends who a new leader invites can’t join the group. Twenty people signed up, but only a few showed up. The enemy beats the new leaders up and convinces them they aren’t good enough to lead. Discouragement is devastating to new leaders.
Most new leaders aren’t going to pick up the phone and seek out encouragement. In fact, if they did, they might feel they were confessing a fault rather than seeking help. But, a coach who checks in on them regularly is far more likely to hear the new leader’s need first and respond. The new leaders will be more open with their coaches, since they have a relationship.
Building a coaching structure is the real work of small group ministry. Regardless of the size of your church, if you follow the principles of Exodus 18, you will have more groups and better leaders. Neglecting new leaders is unwise.
4. Inviting People to Join Groups, then Making Them the Leader.
Years ago I came across a strategy where you put prospective members in a room, went through a series of exercises, then at the end of the evening, groups were formed including a newly designated leader chosen by the group. I’ll be honest. The first time I heard this idea, I put the materials in the bottom drawer of my desk and didn’t look at them again for three years!
While I am a huge advocate of inviting any willing soul to lead a group or to do a study with their friends, I have to admit, this idea of walking in as prospective members and walking out as group leaders makes me uneasy. I understand people need to be challenged to step out of their comfort zone. I’m not sure that putting them on the spot is the best way to do it.
In all of our efforts to recruit leaders and connect people into groups, I believe we need to be careful and not cross a line into questionable practices. There are plenty of strategies which will achieve better results that are more forthright. And, of course, launching new groups without a coach is just a bad idea.
There is huge potential for groups and group leaders in your church. And, I will admit, I am a big fan of anyone who will take risks to make that happen. But, rather than focusing on a short term win, we need to look at the long game. If someone gets burned in a group experience early on, how likely will they try it again? Let’s keep from over-promising and under-delivering in groups. Group life is so amazing, there really is no need for shortcuts.
Now, in today’s post, I may have picked on one of your favorite strategies. You may disagree with me. Let me know by leaving a comment. Let’s talk about it.
By Allen White
Theories and strategies abound regarding the primary purpose of small groups. There are so many great reasons to promote groups. Small groups solve the assimilation problem in a church. They increase connection and spiritual growth. People in small groups tend to serve more than people who are not in groups. And, people in groups also tend to give more than people who are not in small groups. (Based on research by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger in Transformational Groups and Robert Wuthnow in Sharing the Journey). But, none of these is the primary purpose of small groups.
The primary purpose of small groups is leadership development.
Small groups rise and fall on leadership development. Now, this isn’t just recruiting leaders for a six week churchwide campaign. That’s a start. Developing leaders requires training, coaching, and processing experiences. I would even go so far as to say leadership development is the end result of effective discipleship.
Meet Doug. When I first met Doug, he didn’t consider himself to be a leader at all. In fact, Doug had always thought he was dumb. You see he had never finished high school. Doug was now retired in his sixties and had spent his carrier driving and operating a construction crane. He drove this huge crane all over the San Francisco Bay Area, which to be honest, it’s difficult enough to commute there with a car sometimes — let alone a huge crane!
Doug and his wife, Kay, started a group during one of our churchwide campaigns. They were great. Very hospitable. They were naturals.
As our small group ministry grew, I developed a leadership team to help me oversee and coach our small group leaders. Around this time Doug was heavily involved in a multilevel marketing company. I noticed how well he managed relationships. He worked with so many people, yet kept in constant contact and kept both his down line motivated and his customers rolling in. I saw Doug had what it takes to coach others and serve on my small group team. I just asked him to keep his product out of the coaching. He agreed.
After working with Doug for a few years, first as a small group leader, then as a coach on our small group leadership team, it came time for me to leave the church I had served for 15 years. Doug left me with these words, “Thank you, Pastor Allen, for showing me I was the leader I never knew I was.” That’s probably the best compliment I’ve ever been given.
I don’t remember who was in Doug’s group or the leaders he coached. I don’t recall all of the great things that happened in these groups, but I do remember the great thing that happened in Doug. He went from a guy who thought he was dumb to a leader who multiplied his life in the lives of hundreds of other people.
If as a small group pastor or director, you focus on connecting a bunch of potential members into groups, you’ll end up with a huge stack of sign up cards and an ineffective system to manage them. Read about my hatred for sign up cards here. If your senior pastor gives airtime to small groups in the weekend service, recruit leaders. Don’t waste that precious commodity inviting prospective members to join groups. If the new leader has the stuff, they can gather a group.
You can spend all of your time creating curriculum. Curriculum is not a bad thing. But, then your groups turn into life on curriculum instead of life on life.
But, make an investment in your leaders, and you have something that will build your small groups life nothing else. As Simon Sinek says, “You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.” If you find people with a heart for others and the relational warmth to gather a group or reach out to group leaders, then you can equip them with everything they need to do it. Find the right people and make the investment.
By Allen White
The Fall and the New Year offer key windows to launch small groups in a big way. Most churches struggle with the dilemma of connecting a large number of people in a short period of time. When we (pastors and directors) become overwhelmed, the temptation to offer a programmatic solution looms large, a.k.a the sign-up card in the bulletin. Here’s why it’s a bad idea:
Cards Create an Immediate Delay
We live in a culture of immediate access. When we purchase a song on iTunes or a book on Kindle or Nook, the download begins immediately. The days of waiting for a package to arrive are quickly disappearing. Don’t believe me. Where’s the Columbia House CD Club?
When a prospective group member turns in a sign-up card, nothing happens immediately. Most likely, nothing will happen that day or the next day or maybe even the next week. People will wait for the college admissions office, but probably not to join a group. The sign up card creates a delay that you’d rather avoid.
Raising Expectations Increases the Risk of Disappointment
When a church provides a sign-up card as the means for group connections, the prospective group member will expect a solid fit right away. After all, who’s a better matchmaker than the church? Now, I know what you’re thinking – offer a disclaimer like “the church does not guarantee a perfect match in any group.” No thanks. I’d rather just take my chances on my own.
Rather than creating the small groups version of eharmony, create an environment where groups and prospective members can meet each other face to face. People will get a sense, even in 30 seconds, whether a group will be right for them over the next six weeks.
Death by Typo
Today, I tried to help a church member who was looking for a group. I’m helping a buddy with a church he’s consulting with. From literally 3,000 miles away, I’m trying to share possible groups with the prospective member. I had the right options, but the wrong email address. An “r” was read as a “c,” so my good information wasn’t making it through. Why did I get involved? Because my buddy was unavailable today and the prospective member had the ear of a key church staff member. This church member thought he had been neglected, since no one responded to him. It’s not worth losing a person over a jot or a tittle.
Everyone Hates Cold Calling (including you)
So, let’s say that you’ve ignored the first three points in this post, and you’ve collected sign-up cards. You or your assistant or an intern or a dart board have now determined which groups each of these prospective members should try. You or your assistant or your intern send a list of new members to your group leaders. You would think the group leaders would be excited. Think again.
How would you feel if a list of six or seven names arrived in your inbox? You might send an email. You probably wouldn’t make a phone call. You might Google the names or check for criminal records. The last thing you want to do is pick up the phone. How do I know this? Because you just pawned off the assignment on your small group leaders. No one likes cold calling – not even salespeople.
It’s Bad for the Environment
Let’s say that you luck out in connecting sign-up card prospects with group leaders and half of them stick in a group. I’m a pastor. I am prone to exaggerate. Bear with me. If half are happy, then the other half are, well, unhappy. So, half of 50 people or 100 people or 1,000 people adds up to a lot of disappointed people. Oh, and who’s at fault? You are. You placed them in the group.
When the recently burned group member has left the group they didn’t like, what are the chances that they will try another group? Slim to none. As you extrapolate out the sign-up card fiasco over the years, well, a lot of people have a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to your groups.
And, as a concerned citizen, how many trees had to die to print your sign-up cards? (Sorry, after 18 years in California, I just can’t help myself.)
How do I know sign-up cards don’t work? I’ve had a small stack of sign-up cards sit on my desk for a week before. I secretly hoped they would fall into the trash can. I didn’t want to follow up on them, so I sent them to my group leaders. My group leaders didn’t want to fall up on them. No one was served very well and many people were frustrated with the whole process.
What should you do? Send $25 to…(just kidding). But, you will have to wait until tomorrow.
Pastor Kenton Beshore and Mariners Church started something six years ago that intrigues me.
I’m more than a little leery when a ministry presents a new strategy which they claim is the best thing since sliced bread. (I also wonder what the best thing was before sliced bread). I’ve been in ministry for a long time. I preached my first sermon 34 years ago. I’ve been part of the small group movement for the last 20 years. It’s not that I’m old — I’m only 51 and I have a two year old — I was called to ministry early in life.
There have been so many faddish things over the years. Some of them produced temporary results. Some produced no results. Just a few produced lasting results. I’m talking everything from the launch of bus ministry to the introduction of praise music to the comfort of seeker services to the impact of church-wide campaigns. Each one of those basically claimed their own decade from the 1970’s on.
People were saved. Churches grew. Impact was made. But, then they disappeared. Some strategies and ministry ideas had a much shorter shelf-life.
So, now that you understand my jaded, skeptical point of view, you can certainly understand why I very rarely endorse anything. I want to see how it plays out. Is this just the next new shiny thing that we pastors tend to chase after? Is this an attempt to copycat what’s working somewhere else in hopes it will work here? Then, I get real honest — is somebody just out to make a buck?
My Introduction to the Rooted Experience.
About nine months ago, Caleb Anderson, Lead Pastor of Mariners Church, Huntington Beach, CA, introduced me to Rooted. I was blown away. It’s not a program. It’s not merely a curriculum. It’s a catalyst that produces dramatic transformation. He had my attention, but I did go to school in Missouri, so he needed to show me.
Then, I began to hear story after story of transformed lives. People coming to Christ. Marriages saved. Addictions forsaken. Bodies and minds completely healed. Lives and finances surrendered to God. But, here’s the most intriguing thing — all of this was happening over a 10 week experience. Now, I really had to see this to believe it.
I was part of the Rooted Training in November of last year and met churches of many denominations, sizes, and locations who were telling similar stories. I’ve spent the last month on the phone with pastors from across the country talking about how lives are transformed, congregations are emboldened, and communities are impacted because of a simple 10 week experience in Rooted. My doubts were quickly erased.
What a Kenyan Church Taught Kenton Beshore about Discipleship
In partnership with a Kenyan church, Kenton Beshore was introduced to a non-Western, experiential learning process which was seeing dramatic transformations in Africa. Having exhausted many means of discipleship, assimilation, and church growth in the U.S., Kenton thought, “Why not bring Rooted (or Mizizi in Swahili) to Mariners?” The results have been remarkable.
After six years of leading the congregation of Mariners Church through Rooted, 90 percent of Rooted groups have gone on to become on-going Life Groups at Mariners Church with 70 percent of the group members continuing in the Life Groups. Rooted graduates have increased their giving by 82 percent and 70 percent have increased their serving. Now, imagine those kinds of results in your church.
Here’s the thing about Rooted, if you just perused the curriculum, you would probably find it fairly unremarkable in and of itself. In fact, at first glance it appears fairly uncomplicated, and yet those who have completed the 10 week Rooted journey have discovered the experience is bold, focused, and powerful. They have seen health in their members, their churches, and their ministries unlike what they’ve seen before.
Like I said, I am leery of new shiny things. But in Rooted, I have found something so remarkable and so special that I actually joined the Rooted Team.
Find Out More About Rooted
If my experience with Rooted has peaked your interest, I would like to invite you to a 45 minute webinar with Caleb Anderson, Lead Pastor of Mariners Church, Huntington Beach; Robin Riley, Chief Strategist, Mariners Church, Irvine, CA; and me on Thursday, May 5 at 1pm Eastern/ 10am Pacific. To register: CLICK HERE.
To truly experience Rooted, mark your calendars for the Rooted Gathering on June 16-17, 2016 at Mariners Church, Irvine, CA. For more information: CLICK HERE.
By Doug and Cathy Fields
If you’re a parent, most likely you joined the parenting ranks with good intentions and excitement. But then somewhere along the way, you lost your confidence. If this describes you — don’t worry — you’re not alone. Every parent struggles at some point because the truth is, parenting is difficult! After all, our children didn’t arrive wrapped in a how-to instruction manual.
So it makes sense that most of us wind up relying on something we refer to as Quick-Fix Parenting, which is exactly like what it sounds — a quick fix to a problem. It’s not necessarily a good fix or a healthy fix or an empowering fix, and it’s definitely not an effective long-term strategy.
At its foundation, Quick-Fix Parenting becomes about stopping your children’s behavior or the agony connected to it — which is often the your pain. It focuses on fixing your kid’s problem behavior, usually through verbal reprimands (often out of anger or frustration), negative instruction, and discipline for the sake of compliance.
But using these quick fixes to solve problems does not help kids grow up to become healthy and independent young adults.
So why do we resort to Quick-Fix Parenting?
Most parents embrace Quick-Fix Parenting for the following reasons:
• Their parents modeled it, and that’s all they know.
• It’s easier, more convenient, and relies on impulse rather than intellect.
• It can be effective in stopping and correcting a child’s behavior in the moment to quench potential conflict.
So, how about you – do you frequently find yourself using Quick-Fix Parenting? If you do, that’s okay for now. Most parents start here… but we don’t want you to stay here. Instead, we’d like to suggest that there’s a better way to navigate through the parenting landlines we all face with an intentional approach.
In contrast to Quick-Fix Parenting, which is reactive and spontaneous, Intentional Parenting is about having a long-term plan for how you want to parent your kids.
All of us have dreams for our kids. And caring parents passionately want their kids to become a certain type of person — one that’s prepared and well equipped to succeed in life. But they won’t actually become that person unless we as parents first define what we want them to be like.
To be an intentional parent, we would encourage you to make a plan for your children by beginning with the end in mind. Think about what types of qualities and values that you want you children to have by the time they get out of the house. Then, write them down.
These qualities should be based on inner values and not outer performance (i.e. grades, athletics, popularity, etc.). For instance, we decided that we wanted our kids to possess the “5 C’s”: Confidence, Character, Convictions, Compassion, and Competence. Yours could be similar or completely different. What’s important is that you articulate the qualities you’d like for your child to embody.
Deciding which qualities you want to instill in your kids for life will inform everything that you do as a parent, whether it’s being a role model, creating a peaceful home, using encouraging words, or providing discipline. We can’t promise that being an intentional parent will always be easy, but if you keep the end in mind and ask God to guide you along the way, you are on your way to having a huge, positive impact on the life of your child.
Doug and Cathy Fields
Doug & Cathy Fields have been married over 30 years and have three grown children. Their primary passion and joy have been family, but along the way they spent their years helping others — especially young people. They have worked at both Mariners and Saddleback Church in Southern California for three decades as youth, family, and teaching pastors. Doug is an author of more than 60 books, consultant, co-founder of Downloadyouthministry.com, and he the Senior Director of the HomeWord Center for Youth & Family at Azusa Pacific University.
Cathy and Doug speak together on marriage and parenting and have more information available at www.DougFields.com. For more information on Intentional Parenting pilot: allenwhite.org/ip-pilot