By Allen White
Over the last 26 years, I’ve served two senior pastors and one Brett Eastman. My titles started as Minister of Christian Education, then Associate Pastor, then Executive Director, then Discipleship Pastor, and at last, Vice President. A year ago I became President of my own organization. Finally, I’m the top dog. Of course, at this point, there are no other dogs, but that’s okay. Leading from the second chair or a shared second chair with half a dozen other pastors has taught me a different style of leadership. From this vantage point, and from working with over 1,500 churches in the last 11 years, I have learned what your senior pastor wishes you knew about their stance toward small groups.
[Please note: I know there are senior pastors who are both men and women. I struggle with gender-inclusive language, so if I refer to the senior pastor with male pronouns, please forgive me.]
1. Senior pastors don’t think a lot about groups, because they hired you.
As the small group pastor, you should be the most passionate person on your team about groups. If you’re not, you might be in the wrong role. Your senior pastor does not have small groups on the brain like you do. Senior pastors don’t have to, they have folks like you. If your pastor was not in favor of groups, you would not have a job. Whisper to yourself: “My pastor must like groups, then.”
I have met many small group folks over the years who have run themselves ragged over the notion that their senior pastor just won’t get on-board with groups. “If only my senior pastor supported groups more…If only he would talk about groups more…If only he was in a group…” I’m from Kansas, so I’m just going to say it —
Your senior pastor doesn’t need to get on-board with you.
It’s his boat!
If you’re not in his boat, then guess where you are?
2. When small group pastors ask for “airtime” in the weekend services, you put your senior pastor in a predicament.
Now, I’m not a believer that all ministries in a church deserve equal airtime. Read more here. But, senior pastors wrestle with fairness among ministries. They don’t want to play favorites. They don’t want to be in a position where they have to prefer one ministry over another. When you ask for airtime for groups, you are fighting an uphill battle. It’s a battle you should fight, but you need to learn to be strategic about this.
First of all, how do most of the people in your church keep informed about church events? If you don’t know this, find out ASAP. In the last church I served, we had a variety of ways to communication with the congregation. Through an online survey, I discovered that two communication methods stood out over and above every other one: the weekly bulletin and email. At the time, the darling of our church communication was promotional videos that ran before the service. It didn’t take a survey to understand that less than 10% of our 2,500 seat auditorium was filled when the videos played. When the communications department offered to make a video for my small group launch, I declined saying I would prefer something in the bulletin and an email blast. They thought I was just being humble. I knew what actually worked.
Secondly, nothing beats an invitation from the senior pastor from the stage before/during/after the sermon. How do you overcome your pastor’s overarching need for fairness? Put your pastor’s teaching on the curriculum. (There are a variety of ways to do this). When your pastor makes an investment in the curriculum, you are guaranteed to have airtime for groups.
3. If your senior pastor is not in a group, there is a reason.
The experience of a pastor is abnormal in the life of the church. Pastors and church staff don’t experience church the way the members of the church do. Imagine the characters that would show up if there was an open call to join the pastor’s small group. Yikes! I wouldn’t want to be in that group (and I’m a pastor!). An open group for a senior pastor could be risky. If you pressure your senior pastor too far about getting into a group or leading a group, don’t sit around wondering why your pastor won’t get behind groups.
Every pastor is different. One pastor and his wife opened up their home and invited young couples to join their group. Another pastor met with two close friends and didn’t make an open invitation. In both cases, this was the pastor’s group. You have your own story.
Rather than pressure your senior pastor and other staff members to join a group if “they really support small groups,” help them identify the relationships in their lives that could be considered their group. Some may do a study together. Others may not. Either way, the pastor can talk about his group, regardless of the form.
4. Your senior pastor wishes you would relieve the burden instead of adding to it.
Every senior pastor is in favor of ministries that solve problems instead of those that create problems. Learn to solve your church’s problems with groups. What is your senior pastor concerned about? How could groups meet the need? I’m not saying this in the vein of “Let the youth group do it,” and now it’s “let the groups do it.” Rather, sit with your pastor to hear his passions and concerns, then design a way to connect those passions or concerns to groups.
If your church is growing steadily, the concern is for connection and assimilation. Groups can be the answer.
If your Sunday school and adult electives are declining, the concern is over discipleship. Groups can be the answer.
If your church needs more people to serve or give, well, people in groups tend to serve and give more than people not in groups. (For more information, see pages 45-46 in Transformational Groups by Eric Geiger and Ed Stetzer).
The first time we launched groups in a big way in our church in California, my pastor was passionate about The Passion of the Christ. He had already planned a sermon series. Advertising was set. When I asked if we could launch groups off of The Passion, he was fully on-board. (I jumped on his “ship.”) We even created our own homemade video curriculum. When my pastor invited our people to open their homes and do The Passion study, we doubled our groups in one day.
What is your pastor worried about?
What is your pastor passionate about?
How can groups help to relieve the burden or propel the vision?
By virtue of the senior pastor’s role, God speaks and directs the church through him. Get onboard with that vision. Your groups will thrive.
5. The simpler you can make the senior pastor’s involvement, the more they will be open to what you need.
If your pastor is willing to talk about groups in the weekend services, then script out exactly what you want them to say or create bullet points in advance. Then, wait until they need the direction. Some pastors want it ahead of time. Others want it just before the service. Do what works for your pastor rather than wishing your pastor would do what works for you.
At my last church, on the weeks my pastor offered to promote groups, I trotted up the staircase to his study, gave him the list of bullet points, walked through the points, then left him to execute the announcement. He was always spot on. Then, the next Sunday, I did the same thing. He didn’t need to come up with the invitation. I provided what he needed when he needed it, and it worked.
When I’ve created video curriculum with senior pastors, sometimes they taught on 6 out of 6 sessions. Sometimes, they’ve taught 1 of 6 with other teaching pastors filling in. Sometimes they taught from a script. Others taught with bullets. Still others just stood up and talked. We always scheduled the video shoot around the senior pastor’s schedule. If others had to wait, then they waited. Senior pastors gladly participated if they knew everything was set from them. Some would even prefer someone else to create their scripts from past sermons. As long as they knew they didn’t have to attend 10 meetings about the shoot and sit around for two hours until the crew was ready, they were in.
Your pastor has the ability to write his own scripts and create his own invitation to groups, but your pastor often does not have the time to do these things. Give your pastor something to start with. Make his job easier, and you will have wholehearted participation.
Remember, your senior pastors don’t work for you. You work for them.
You might wish that your senior pastor was more like someone else’s senior pastor. If only my senior pastor led a group, made curriculum, announced groups, and so forth. Be careful what you wish for. If you go about this the wrong way, you will be working for another senior pastor before you know it.
Work with what you have. It’s okay if your senior pastor doesn’t have small groups on the brain as long as you do. Any place where groups can intersect with the needs and passions of your senior pastor, you’ll have success.
A lot of great things can happen during a 40 Day church-wide campaign, then comes Day 41. If you’ve just launched groups in the last few weeks, it’s time to think about what’s next.
Several years ago a small group pastor joined our coaching program. He had gone from having no small groups in his church to actually launching 233 groups for a 40 day church-wide campaign. At the end of the campaign, when it was all said and done, he ended up with three groups. What a heartbreak!
Over the years, in the laboratory of hundreds of churches across the country, we’ve learned a few things about keeping the momentum going and helping to sustain groups for the long haul.
1. Groups Need a Next Step.
Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time.
Of course, the other issue here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is.
We launched groups at our church in California for the first time in the Spring. Our fear wasn’t just Day 41, but also days 42-96. It was a high hurdle over the summer. We gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday of October. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise.
When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Wendy Nolasco, Small Group Pastor at New Life Center, Bakersfield, California, found a similar result. After successfully launching 100 groups in the Spring, they gave their groups a heads up on their Fall campaign and then said a prayer. This Fall 75 of those groups are continuing into the next step Pastor Wendy gave them.
If you are in a Fall or New Year’s campaign, the next step is not quite so daunting. They don’t need to wait three months for another study. They can start a new study the following week. Once a group does two back to back six week studies, usually they are good to continue from that point forward.
2. Give Your New Groups One Specific Next Step
If you send your new group leaders to the internet or the local bookstore, they will get lost in the plethora of selections. In fact, it will take them so long to make a decision, more than likely the group will falter before they can choose their next step.
If you started the group with a video-based curriculum, then the next step should involve a video as well. Again, if you invited folks to form groups with the idea that they didn’t have to be a Bible scholar, because the expert was on the video, they will need that strategy again. Whether the next series aligns with the Sunday sermons or not, a specific next step will take them past Day 41 and into a longer group life.
Now, you may ask, “How long can groups continue with video-based curriculum?”
Carl George put it this way, “As long as there are DVDs.”
3. A New Study is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group.
The beginning of a study is a natural time to invite new members into a group. The group could host an open house or a barbecue to invite some friends and neighbors who might be interested in joining the group. Everyone likes to start on the ground floor. A new study certainly provides that opportunity.
4. If the Host Can’t Continue…
Well, you could go the guilt route: “If you love Jesus and want to go to Heaven…” But, I wouldn’t recommend that.
If the hosts legitimately cannot continue, they are probably not considering other possibilities for the group to continue. they think if they can’t go on, then the group can’t either. But, that’s not necessarily true.
When a host informs you around Day 24 of your current campaign that they won’t be able to continue with the group, have their coach begin to investigate whether another member of the group would like to step up and host the group. If the group has been rotating leadership during the study, someone may very easily take over leadership of the group so the group can continue.
Oh, and how do you get your hosts to state their intentions around Day 24 or so? You ask them. I’ve used both a mid-campaign survey as well as a mid-campaign host huddle to determine who is interested in continuing and who isn’t. Before I walk into the huddle meeting, I like to know what to expect. Often I will send the mid-campaign survey first. It serves as what John Maxwell calls the “meeting before the meeting.” Then, when you walk into the room, you know who plans to continue and who needs to be given some options for their group to continue.
All in all, Day 41 is just the beginning of group life. With the right encouragement and next steps, groups who started to only complete a six week study, can find themselves enjoying quality group life for many studies to come.
By Allen White
How do you make a disciple? If you don’t know how, you may be living in disobedience.
Jesus in the Great Commission told us, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV).
This is one of those passages we’ve read so often that we don’t really think about it anymore. It’s become, “Yada, yada, yada” to us. Let’s pause for a minute to answer our question about how to make disciples.
If we share the Gospel with someone, and they pray to receive Christ (or whatever vernacular your theological tradition dictates), have you made a disciple or a convert? Are they the same thing? It seems that a disciple must be a convert, but could a convert not be a disciple? Let’s look at the “recipe” for making disciples.
Baptism is in there. Whether you dunk, sprinkle, or pour is determined, again, by your theological tradition. Get them wet. Step one.
Now, here’s the kicker, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Notice the wording here. Jesus did not say, “teaching them…everything I have commanded you.” He said, “teaching them to obey.” That just upped the ante. Just teaching them doesn’t guarantee obedience.
When I studied Christian Education in seminary, we learned a lot about outcomes. Do we want the student to have a change in knowledge, attitude, or behavior? The default tends to aim us toward a change in knowledge. It’s easy to portion. It’s easy to measure.
How many verses have you memorized? How many chapters have you read? Do you read through the Bible every year? How many classes did you attend? We can measure these things. But, if this is the sum of our disciplemaking, then we are either assuming what we are teaching is sinking in, or we are offering a placebo for making disciples.
As D.L. Moody once said, “The Bible was not given for our information, but for our transformation.” Why? The Bible tells us, “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). If the end result of our Bible studies and classes is a group of people who are proud of their biblical knowledge, then we have missed the mark. Unless we have to win “Bible Jeopardy” to enter the pearly gates, what good is more information doing for anyone? After all, some students of the Bible are not longing for transformation, they are Bible connoisseurs searching for something new to learn.
Howard Hendricks took things a little further when he stated, “In the spiritual realm, the opposite of ignorance is not knowledge, it’s obedience.” Now, we go back to the words of Jesus, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Discipleship is more than “book learnin’.”
A disciple is more than just a brain. Sometimes we learn to obey when we serve. Other times we learn to obey by processing strong emotions. When was the last time you poured high voltage chemicals into a low voltage situation? Why did you react that way? Did it trigger something? Did you slow down long enough to process it?
I’m not against education. I do have a few problems with how we make disciples. As a whole being, we worship and love God with our whole selves. Why can’t we learn to obey that way as well?
In looking at effective discipleship methods, I have found something new that’s actually very old. Mizizi was brought over from Kenya by Kenton Beeshore and Mariners Church in California. Known in English as “Rooted,” it focuses on experiential learning. There are large group experiences, small group experiences, daily reflection, and dedicated times of prayer, serving, and celebration. The ideas practiced in Rooted go back to the First Century church, the Moravians, the Celtics, and the early Wesleyans. Rooted is a non-Western approach at making disciples, and it’s working.
Mariners Church has seen 90 percent of their Rooted participants continue in on-going Life Groups. They are also serving more (70%) and have increased their generosity (82%). But, beyond statistics, the personal stories of life change are remarkable. There is something to the rhythms of a variety of experiences in making disciples and teaching them to obey.
Making disciples could never be summed up in one blog post, not even close. There will be more. I hope you would leave a few thoughts of your own in the comments. Please understand often the way I state things is to provoke people to think, including myself. If I’ve provoked you, please let me know.
For more information about Rooted, please attend one of the upcoming webinars: allenwhite.org/rooted
By Allen White
If you have managed to connect 30 percent of your adults in small groups, then congratulations are in order! You are among the top one half of one percent of all churches in America! Go ahead and pat yourself on the back! You deserve it!
Now that you’ve been congratulated, let’s get to work. Quite a few things could contribute to your state of stuckness. Here are the biggest factors in small groups getting stuck.
Stop Handpicking Leaders
If you are still personally recruiting every leader, you have completely maxed out this method of starting groups. When our groups got stuck at New Life in northern California, we had 30 percent in groups. I had handpicked each leader over the course of seven years. I had asked the same question for seven years: “Would you like to become a small group leader?” And, for seven years, many people turned me down.
Now, if I had 100 years to catch up with the connection needs of our growing congregation, then I would have been in good shape. The problem is that well before we reached the 100 year mark I would be dead along with most of the people who needed to be connected into groups. While I thank God for the groups I had, the recruitment strategy had to change in order to recruit more leaders faster. We changed it and doubled our groups in one day.
Consider an Alignment Series
One of the fastest ways to propel your groups forward and get out of your stuckness is an alignment series where the senior pastor’s weekend messages are aligned with the small group study. You can either purchase a curriculum like My Near Death Experiment or Transformed, or you can create your own curriculum. Either will work. The key is to tie what’s happening in the small groups with the weekend message and particularly tie the small group study to the senior pastor.
Only Your Senior Pastor Recruits New Small Group Leaders
The first time my senior pastor stood up in a weekend service and invited our people to host groups, we doubled our groups in one day. [You can read the whole story here.] After seven years, we had 30 percent in groups. After one weekend, we jumped to 60 percent in groups.
Other than Jesus Christ, the reason unconnected people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. They like his personality. They laugh at his jokes. They enjoy his teaching. Now, don’t mention this to your worship pastor. It will break his heart.
When the senior pastor stands up and offers curriculum based on his teaching (or at least aligned with his teaching, if you’re going the purchased route), you are giving your people more of what they already like — your pastor’s teaching. Then, when the pastor invites the people to open their homes and host a group, they will follow his leadership. Believe me, I’ve been an Associate Pastor for most of my 25 years in ministry. If I made the same invitation in the service, I would get 30 percent the result of our senior pastor. Once my pastor starting recruiting from the platform, I never handpicked another group leader ever again.
Get Your Coaching Structure Started
Many churches have given up on small group coaches. Even very large churches who are well-known for their small group ministries have abandoned coaching or use paid staff to coach. This is a mistake. First, most churches could never afford to hire all of the staff they need. Second, if you are not personally caring for your leaders, your leaders will eventually stop leading. I was able to coach my leaders up to about 30 percent connected into groups, but to be honest, I didn’t do it very well. But, I learned not to beat myself up.
When we doubled our groups in a day, I was in a coaching crisis. Then, it dawned on me, since we doubled that meant half of the small group leaders didn’t know what they were doing, but the other half did. I matched them up like the buddy system, and it worked. Then, I built the rest of the coaching structure on that. Read more about small group coaching here.
Leave Established Groups Alone
Now, here is what I didn’t do. I didn’t invite my established small group leaders to do the new series. I didn’t ask my established small group leaders to change anything. In fact, I didn’t even tell them. Why?
I already had them. They didn’t need to change. They just needed to continue. If it ain’t broke… Now, many of the established small groups did participate in the alignment series, but I never asked them to. They asked me!
If you are killing yourself and only have 30 percent of your adults in groups, it is time to make a change. Now, you could change to another church who has no groups and become a big success by connecting 30 percent of their people into groups. Or, you could change up your strategies of how you recruit small group leaders and make huge progress right where you are.
Where are you stuck?
Wednesday, September 14 – 1:30pm Eastern/ 10:30am Pacific
By Allen White
I was first introduced to Pastor Matthew Hartsfield and Van Dyke Church, Lutz, FL in 2011. We had a great run at getting over 100% of their then 1,800 adults connected into groups. [Read the Original Case Study Here] Five years later, Van Dyke Church has grown to 3,300 members and 2,300 adults in weekly attendance. [Read the Updated Case Study Here] They have maintained 80-90% of their adults in groups. Here is my interview with Matthew Hartsfield:
Trouble viewing? https://youtu.be/VQD88YrL1fM
The offer at the end of this webinar has expired. To add your email to the waiting list for the next course enrollment: exponentialgroupscourse.com/sales
By Allen White
Greg Atkinson is the founder of Worship Impressions and author of Church Leadership Essentials, Strange Leadership, and Secrets of a Secret Shopper. Over his 20—plus years of ministry experience, Greg has served as the director of WorshipHouse Media and editor of Christian Media Magazine, as well as serving as a worship pastor, technical director, and campus pastor. Greg has worked with churches of all stages and sizes, including some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country, as well as with businesses, non-profits, and organizations such as Josh McDowell Ministries.
Q1: You’ve done a lot of ministry in a lot of places over the last 22 years. How did you land on Guest Services?
I was coaching church planters through ARC (Association of Related Churches), and the President of ARC was Billy Hornsby. Billy and I were talking in a hotel lobby one day and he said, “Greg you ought to be a secret shopper.” At the time, I only new of one other secret shopper. Billy said, “You’ve been around the church for a while, you’ve served in various roles, and you know what to look for – you know what excellence looks like.” “And,” he said, “I’ll give you your first endorsement.” So Billy sent out a mass email to all the ARC churches telling them they ought to bring me in. Churches started contacting me and the rest is history.
Q2: What does your “Secret Shopper” process look like?
I evaluate everything as it relates to the weekend services. I start with an online presence evaluation before I ever arrive at the church in person. I evaluated the church’s use of social media, and I thoroughly go through their church website and offer feedback. Once I arrive on campus, I start with the parking lot and from there to everything you can imagine – from greeters and ushers, information center, children’s ministry, security, and a big eye towards the worship service itself (evaluating and giving feedback on music, sound, video, lights and the sermon – as well as service structure and flow). I even look at the restrooms and write about the smell of the facility. One church of 12,000 that I did a secret shopper for said, “He doesn’t miss a thing.” Another church of 17,000 said, “It was probably the best money we spent all year.” I take my job very seriously and it is my mission to turn first-time guests into second-time guests.
Q3: What are some common issues you find churches make with their First Impressions?
Of course, every church is different, but there are common issues that I see at a majority of churches. Things like: The wrong people serving in hospitality, assuming people know things (guest services, signage, communication), not taking security seriously, and not thinking through their website strategically. These are just a few of the things I notice frequently. I’m going to write a full feature article for Christianity Today on this subject and will go into much greater detail.
Q4: You’ve really learned a lot about what makes guests feel welcome. You should write a book.
Yes! I did actually. My next book entitled Secrets of a Secret Shopper is set to come out this September. I wrote this book for small to medium-sized churches that can’t afford to bring in myself or another consultant. I go into great detail of everything I look for when I do a secret shopper. There are things in the book that are beneficial and practical for large churches as well. This book is very practical and is something every pastor, church leader and guest services director and first impressions volunteers need to read. It’s a book that has been 9 years in the making. You can check my website: GregAtkinson.com for details on the book release. You can also check my secret shopper website (WorshipImpressions.com), to read more articles on first impressions and find out about when the book releases.
Q5: What is the strangest experience you’ve had secret shopping a church?
Almost getting arrested would be one. Almost getting tazed would be two. And getting a background check ran on me would be three. For obvious reasons, I can’t tell what led to the following “fun times.” All I can say is that I will test your church’s security and find its weaknesses. I just did a church secret shopper consultation for a medium-sized church two weeks ago and their “security team” saw me walking around and going places I shouldn’t. They just watched me, but didn’t engage me. At the end of the service, with every one their security team’s eye on me, they watched me go straight down the center aisle and approach the senior pastor. They were relieved when I hugged him. They should have had a security person present, standing next to the senior pastor. I thought it was strange that they didn’t engage me and say, “May I help you?” – Those 4 words are the biggest weapon or deterrent that any person in a church has on any given week. Please don’t forget that.
Q5.5: Being a Greer, South Carolina boy, Clemson or Carolina?
South Carolina Gamecocks all the way. Ever since I started watching football games with my grandfather as a young child, I’ve been a huge Gamecock fan and am excited for our future.
By Allen White
If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you are probably wondering:
Does this really work, or is this all talk?
I’ve talked about the churches I’ve served and all of the churches I’ve coached. Today, I want to introduce you to one of those churches.
The Case Study
Back in 2011-2012, I had the privilege of coaching Van Dyke Church in Lutz, FL.
(If you want to read the original case study I wrote about them back in 2012, CLICK HERE).
Why am I using an example that’s five years old? Because I want you to see what happened then, and where things are five years later.
Believe me, it’s easy to create a lot of excitement for one six-week church-wide campaign or 40 Days series, but what happens after that series ends, the number of groups you retain, and the way you support them, is more important than starting dozens or hundreds of new groups for a campaign.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. We want to build things that will last.
Back to Van Dyke Church, in 2011, they had 1,800 adults in their weekend services and about 400 people in groups. After working with them for 9 months, Van Dyke grew to over 2,000 people in groups. That’s 110% of their adult attendance. This is what Pastor Matthew Hartsfield says about the experience.
“Like most churches, Van Dyke Church had a small group ministry for years. However, group ministry was not deeply imbedded in the culture of our church, and we never exceeded 22% of our adult weekend worship attendance in groups.
“That all changed when we started working with Allen White as a coach for our small group ministry. With his help, we created and launched our own sermon-based curriculum and developed a systematic approach to creating a small group culture of adult discipleship. Within one year, we saw dramatic impact:
• Our first launch we moved us from 22% to 56% in groups (1,000 adults)
• Our second launch took us from 56% to 89% in groups (1,600 adults)
• Our third launch went from 89% of adult weekend worship attendance to over 100% (over 2,000 adults).
“Today, four years later, we are still sustaining close to 90% of our adult weekend worship attendance in small groups!
“Allen’s coaching helped us create a small group ministry that generated results across the board:
• People get connected in community.
• People grow in their study of the Bible.
• People serve in mission together through their small group.
• People develop leadership skills as small group hosts.
• People become more evangelistically motivated to invite outsiders to small groups.
“Allen White was used by God in an essential way to help us move to an entirely new level of spiritual growth and impact as a church.”
While Pastor Matthew is very generous about his words regarding my coaching, I would say God had a much bigger role in this than I did. But, then again, the reason I was even coaching this church and so many others is because of what God taught me through the Exponential Group Launches in my own churches.
What made the difference from Van Dyke Church? They were committed to groups, but in 2011, they made some significant changes which produced exponential growth. Here’s what they did:
Tip #1: Focus on a Long Term Win.
Let’s be honest here. Launching one church-wide campaign or series for six weeks creates a lot of excitement, but often it doesn’t produce lasting results. For some strange reason, people get the idea that after the six weeks is over, they’re done. Where would they get an idea like that?
Notice how Van Dyke’s groups few. They went from 400 in groups to 1,000 the first time around. But, they didn’t wait a year to do it again. In fact, the Fall 2011 series ended before Thanksgiving, and the next series began in January. Not only did they add another 600 people in groups, they kept the 1,000 who were in the Fall groups.
Before the Fall series ended, they announced the Winter series. Before the Winter series ended, they announced the Spring series, and ended up with over 2,000 people in groups, which means they had more people in groups than in their worship services.
If you’ve launched one church-wide campaign, then you lost those groups, you would be led to believe that doesn’t work.
And, you are right! It doesn’t work.
But, if you put in the effort the first year, whether you launch in the Fall or in January, your groups will continue, and you will add more groups each time. If you’re only doing one campaign every Fall or every New Year, even though you are committed to groups and campaigns, you have placed your church in an endless cycle of Ground Hog Day.
You know the definition of insanity, right?
The key is a sequence, not just one series.
Tip #2: The Senior Pastor is the Groups Champion.
Pastor Matthew and Van Dyke Church actually created their own curriculum, which is possible for any church, even if you shoot it with an iPhone!
I remember the day after our team coached their first video shoot. Pastor Matthew called us into his office and asked, “Now that we’ve shot this video and are making curriculum, how do we recruit leaders? And, how do we get people connected into groups?”
His Discipleship Pastor had tried to generate this kind of interest in groups for two years. What did it? The senior pastor made the investments.
So, how do you recruit leaders and connect people into groups?
If you’re the small group pastor or director, you don’t recruit leaders. In fact, if you do recruit, you’ll get 30% of what your senior pastor will get.
Pastor Matthew stood up in his weekend series and invited people to open their homes and do a group. Think about this: at that time, he had been the pastor for 18 years. If someone wasn’t connected to other people in the church, why were they there (other than Jesus)? They were there because they connected to the senior pastor! They liked his personality and his teaching. They laughed at his jokes. The senior pastor is the reason they’re there. (Now, don’t tell this to your worship pastor. It will break his heart.)
When Van Dyke Church launched their first study, Pastor Matthew recruited 60 new leaders. When they launched the second time, he recruited 60 more. Then, on the third time around, he recruited over 40 leaders, which put them way over the top in the ratio of groups to service attendance.Their small group director trained and supported the leaders, but their senior pastor did all of the recruiting.
Tip #3: Groups have Remained on the Front Burner of Ministry.
After the first year, Van Dyke Church didn’t offer three self-produced curricula in a single year, but they still kept their energy focused on groups. They offered a weekly discussion guide. They produced one series a year. Their groups went up and down, like everybody’s, but after five years, they still retain a much higher number of on-going groups than where they started.
Pastor Matthew saw the benefit of groups for Van Dyke Church as he stated above: connection, growth, serving, leadership development, and evangelism. What other ministry in the church does all of that? There was no looking back for them.
So, what about you? How do you double, triple, or quadruple your groups? How do you get your senior pastor on-board?
This is why I created the Leading an Exponential Group Launch course. The principles and strategies that brought success to Van Dyke Church can also bring success to your church.
Before we started together, Pastor Matthew was friendly toward groups, but he wasn’t the champion. Let’s get your senior pastor to champion groups in your church.
What are your thoughts?
By Allen White
After the dismissal of our founding pastor, our church was devastated. Everyone left who was in favor of our pastor. Everyone left who was against our pastor. And, all of the staff left, except for me. There I was with the 85 remaining members praying about what to do. It was a hard year.
On the very last Sunday of that year, our new pastor joined us, and hope reappeared. Our church started growing — not dramatically, but consistently.
When we reached 250 people, we heard our congregation say, “I don’t know everybody anymore.”
When we went to two services and reached 400 people, the comments changed to, “I can’t find the people I do know.”
Everybody didn’t need to know everyone, but everybody needed to know someone. We knew it was time to start groups.
I attended conferences, read books, and interviewed other pastors about small groups. The more information I collected, the more confused I became. We launched our groups for better or worse. Some of what we experienced was better than expected. The things we didn’t expect were worse.
Here’s what worked for us:
1. Small Groups Connected Our People Like Never Before.
As our church continued to grow, we didn’t want to see people get lost in the shuffle or fall through the cracks. Even though they didn’t come all at once, they were coming in a steady stream. We needed to start connecting and discipling folks ASAP.
As our couple of Sunday school classes and our midweek Bible study were declining, we found that groups were a great place for people to connect and go deeper into God’s Word. We offered a variety of curriculum for our groups to choose from. Since we only started with a few groups, it was easy to keep an eye on them and know what was going on. If a group started to stray toward the “loony fringe,” we very gently guided them back into the fold. Things were under control.
We made announcements in the services, sent postcards in the mail and emails, and featured groups regularly in the church bulletin. Our groups started to gain momentum.
In fact, we couldn’t recruit new leaders fast enough to keep up with the demand.
2. A Quality Group Experience Starts with Quality Leaders.
Now to make sure we didn’t set ourselves up for trouble, I took on the task of personally recruiting every group leader. I had been at the church for seven years at that time. I pretty much knew the good apples from the rotten apples. (And, God loves the rotten apples, too.)
The easiest place to start was to round up the usual suspects. You know, the folks we counted on for everything. I personally invited board members and founding members as well as other solid citizens. It didn’t take much effort to quickly find 10 willing leaders who I believed would offer a quality experience.
Admission: I also knew that they wouldn’t cause any problems for me. I was wearing a lot of other hats like children’s ministry, leading worship, and overseeing all of our ministries, plus speaking on Wednesday nights and occasionally on Sundays. I did not need any more problems. I had enough already.
We weren’t reaching for explosive growth. After all, since our church was growing steadily, but incrementally, we felt the gradual growth of groups would serve us well. I mean, we weren’t Saddleback or Willow Creek. There was something special about them. Normal churches like ours weren’t seeing huge percentages of people connected into groups…at least not yet.
We offered the groups to our people, and they signed up. Once the groups were full, then the rest of the folks who wanted to join a group had to hang out in the midweek Bible study with me or in a Sunday school class until the next batch of group leaders were ready to go. Even though we let a year pass before we offered groups again, we launched six more groups the following year and quickly filled them up as well.
Things were going well in the “trouble-free” department. Our groups were coming along. And, our church kept growing steadily.
Value: A quality group experience starts with a quality leader.
3. Don’t Skimp on Coaching and Training.
Every year I would gather my new recruits into a “turbo group” by way of Carl George and his book, Prepare Your Church for the Future. We spent six weeks as a small group with the intention of every leader or couple starting their own group when the training was over.
I trained them on why groups were important; how to deal with various issues in the group like over-talkers and conflict; how to recruit an apprentice leader; and how to birth a new group. The training was in the format of a small group, so based on a Bible study, I was modeling a group meeting while I was training the leaders.
After the training ended, and the leaders started their new groups, we met monthly for group huddles. While I did have a couple of other people helping me coach the leaders, I was still learning about group life myself, so I did all of the training and led the monthly huddles. The coaches visited groups and connected with the leaders.
Result: We developed a solid groups system with 30 percent of our adults in groups.
As our church continued to grow, our groups also continued to grow. Groups weren’t keeping pace with the growth of the church, but we achieved 30 percent in groups, which somebody told me once put us in the top 1 percent of all churches in the U.S. — not too shabby.
The plan was for every group leader to indentify and train an apprentice leader. Then, once a year, the group would help a new group get started either by the leader starting a new group, the apprentice starting a new group, or the group dividing into two groups. With group multiplication and the new recruits I was inviting, we were on a good pace to double our groups or better every year. I looked forward to the day when group attendance would exceed worship attendance.
But, it started to feel like I needed another 100 years to catch up with the increasing size of the congregation.
Secret #1: Small Groups Connected Our People Like Never Before.
Secret #2: A Quality Group Experience Starts with Quality Leaders.
Secret #3: Don’t Skimp on Coaching and Training.
Where We Failed: Bottleneck!
Failure #1. The way we recruited leaders and launched groups couldn’t keep pace with the growth of the church.
The harder I tried to recruit more leaders and launch groups, the behinder and behinder I got. Some years we started 10 groups. Other years we started two groups. One year my training yielded zero new groups.
As the church continued to grow by 13 – 33% per year, our group formation just couldn’t keep up. More people were getting lost in the shuffle, and more leaders were not stepping up at the rate we needed them.
I thought I had a good thing going by recruiting well-known people myself. The problems were kept at a minimum. But, now we faced a much bigger problem — where were the leaders going to come from?
Failure #2: Our leaders couldn’t identify an apprentice leader.
I put a lot of pressure on the group leaders to identify and train their apprentice. After all, the future of our small groups depended on apprentices, or at least, that’s what it seemed like. In every huddle and every encounter with the group leaders, I would emphasize the significance of raising up an apprentice leader. My words didn’t fall on deaf ears. They fell on stressed ears.
My leaders would pass me in the hallways on Sunday morning and say, “I’m working on my apprentice.”
I thought, “Whatever happened to ‘Hello’?”
The apprentice strategy was going nowhere good.
Failure #3: No one wanted to give up their group to start a new group.
Since the group leaders weren’t recruiting apprentices, I took the initiative to recruit potential leaders right out of their groups. There were great candidates right under the noses of the group leaders, but they just didn’t see them. I did!
Before they knew it, the new recruits were in my Turbo Group and headed toward leading their own group. The only problem was that while these potential leaders agreed to participate out of loyalty to me and the church, their hearts weren’t in it. They didn’t want to give up the group they loved. They were torn.
After the six weeks of training was complete, instead of going forward with a new group, many of them went back to the group they came from. This wasn’t progress. This was regress. My efforts were actually working against me.
Failure #4: After seven years of effort, our groups were stuck…
While we had 30 percent of our adults in groups, and our church was allegedly in the top 1 percent of all churches in the U.S., I felt like a loser. The church continued to grow. The groups were stuck. No new leaders. No new groups. No apprentices. So, I gave up on this strategy.
At the end of my time at this church, 125 percent of our weekly adult attendance was connected in groups.
I want to share with you a new strategy we created to recruit more leaders, form more groups faster, and maintain a quality group experience.
By Allen White
“If I did that for small groups, then I would have to do the same for everyone else.” Have you ever heard those words before?
When it came to getting airtime in the weekend services for small groups, I’ve faced a few culprits over the years. First, I thought the problem was the Worship Pastor who didn’t want to interrupt “the flow” of the worship service. Then, I thought the problem rested with the Communications Director, who just wanted to control everything. I’m not ready to rule them out entirely, but I have found the true troublemaker:
The Idea of Fairness.
Fairness says, “If I promote your ministry, then I have to promote everyone else’s ministry at the same level.” It also says, “I can’t promote only your ministry on one weekend or else others will think I’m playing favorites.” I am personifying Fairness here, because I think it’s demonic. Now, some of you may be thinking that I’m overstating my frustration with Fairness, but the rest of you are glad that I called it out.
If Fairness determines what gets promoted in your church, then don’t wonder why your church continues to flounder at small groups or anything else. If you’re ready to move forward and get unstuck from Fairness, then ask yourself a few questions:
1. Where is Your Church Headed?
Now, before you hike off into the woods and spend three days going ’round and ’round about the same things you discussed last year, let’s face it, most church mission and vision statements are practically identical. Our mission is Christ’s mission. Love God and Love People or Love, Serve, Share, or something similar. We’re all clear.
But, how is your church doing that? Maybe you’re not. I hope that’s not true.
Most churches “Love God” through worship services and through our relationships with each other. “Loving People” comes through serving them, caring for them, helping them grow in their faith, and so on. What is helping your people achieve what God has called them to in your church? If it’s Sunday School, then promote Sunday School. If it’s Serving the Community, then promote Serving the Community. If it’s Small Groups, then promote Small Groups. If it’s a combination of things, then promote a combination of things.
But, you don’t need to promote everything all at once or equally.
2. What is Growing in Your Church and What is Declining?
For most churches in North America, traditional means of discipleship like Sunday School classes and Midweek Bible Study are on the decline. People just don’t want to commit four hours every Sunday morning or come back on Wednesday night. Now, if these things are working for you, then don’t shut them down. But, no amount of additional airtime in the weekend services is going to get more people into Sunday School or Midweek Bible Study.
Now if you have a rockin’ Sunday School or Midweek and nearly 100 percent of your adults are being discipled that way, then promote what’s working. Don’t worry about Small Groups. When was the last time you stopped to compare your church’s discipleship options with your average weekly adult attendance? If there is a gap of more than 30 percent between your worship attendance and your discipleship options, then it’s time to promote groups. And, de-emphasize the other offerings that aren’t growing.
3. What Ministries Impact the Most People in Your Church and in Your Community?
In many churches, their church bulletins and websites are like the old Sears catalog. It lists about every possible thing anyone could ever want. The only problem is you can’t find it. At least the Sears catalog gave us an index.
A while back a study was conducted to determine ice cream sales. At one store, 20 flavors were sampled by customers. At another store, four flavors were offered. Which store sold the most ice cream? The store that was sampling only four flavors sold more ice cream. They found choosing one out of four flavors was a much simpler decision than choosing one flavor from 20 kinds.
If you took a hard look at the ministries your church offers, which ones impact the greatest number of people or have the potential to? It’s probably not “Paws for People.”
In the last church I served, we had a ministry called “Paws for People.” People brought their dogs to nursing homes to cheer up the residents. I am a dog lover. When I’m in a nursing home one day, a canine visitor would be very welcome. But, why would this ministry ever be promoted to our entire congregation of 5,000 adults?
How many were dog owners? How many were already involved in a ministry? How many had a heart to go to nursing homes? (When was the last time you visited a nursing home outside of work?) The subset of potential candidates gets smaller and smaller.
While “Paws for People” would be great in a booth at a ministry fair, they don’t need airtime in the weekend services. Why? What they offer doesn’t impact 50 percent or more of the people in the service. But, if Fairness had its say, “Paws for People” would get equal airtime with everyone else.
What does impact 50 percent or more? Small groups, of course. Maybe Women’s Ministry or Men’s Ministry, if you have them. (If you don’t have these, don’t start them). All church events. You get the picture.
4. How Do Your People Stay Informed?
Most churches have a variety of ways to communicate to their people: bulletins, slides before the service, videos, inserts, ministry tables in the lobby, e-newsletters, other emails, church apps, church website, etc. But, which ones are actually effective in getting the word out about your ministry?
Often I survey the churches I work with (and those I have served) and ask how people stay informed about church events. While every church is a little different, this is important information. If you expect your church’s website to do all of the heavy lifting on keeping people informed, well, 1995 just called and they want their AOL back.
In the last church I served, they were big on video announcements. But, the video announcements were played before the service when less than 10 percent of the congregation was even in the auditorium. What I discovered through a survey was that our people stayed informed through the church bulletin, a weekly email newsletter, and announcements made in the service.
When we met to plan our events, they thought I was being humble when I told them a video announcement wasn’t necessary. I only wanted an ad in the bulletin and the e-newsletter. And, leading up to a campaign, the Senior Pastor made announcements to recruit leaders (and there were no other announcements on those three weeks). Worked every time.
A Few Thoughts
As a pastor, it’s hard when anyone accuses you of anything, let alone playing favorites. You face enough pressures just from ministry. Who needs the pressure?
Fairness says, “Everything is important.”
Let’s face it, if Everything is Important, then Nothing is Important.
But, there are plenty of pastors who cower behind Fairness. They would rather make the announcement for “Paws for People” rather than face a confrontation. It’s too bad. They are doing a disservice to their churches.
Promote what you want to see grow in your church. Stop promoting what is declining or dying. No amount of life support is going to bring it back. Then, set priorities for your promotion. And, please don’t relegate these decisions to the Worship Pastor or the Communications Director.
Let me know what you think?
By Allen White
The goal of every small group launch is recruiting new leaders and forming new groups. Maybe you are launching a church-wide campaign, a sermon-based series, or a variety of different types of groups, the commonality is getting a lot of new groups started very quickly. Whether you’ve chosen to lower the bar on leadership or to keep your requirements high, there are three priorities in briefing every new group leader. The establishment of these priorities will determine how many of these new groups continue.
Priority #1: Encourage Your New Leaders to Gather Their Own Groups.
The best way to determine the quality of new group leaders is by their ability to invite and gather their own group members. If they can gather their own groups, then more than likely they can keep their groups going. After all, the second best way to get into a group is by personal invitation.
While some small group pastors depend on church websites or signup cards to form groups, these methods are far inferior to personal invitation. I’ve served two churches over the last 25 years, a church of 1,500 in California and a church of 6,500 in South Carolina. Personal invitation worked best in both churches despite the size.
Groups of friends tend to outlast groups of strangers. Ask the new leaders to make a list of people they know who would enjoy the study. Have them pray over their list. Then, get them out there inviting.
Priority #2: Discourage Your New Leaders from Trying to Do Everything.
A lot goes into a group meeting — preparing and leading the discussion, cleaning a house, making a dessert, arranging childcare, reminding group members about the meeting, and there’s more still. If you’ve successfully recruited a bunch of co-dependent, “Martha-type” leaders, then they will very quickly burn themselves out in serving the group. If you don’t have a leader, then you don’t have a group. So much for all of that hard work on Priority #1…
Give the new leaders a chart listing the group meetings and the group responsibilities including all that were mentioned in the previous paragraph. Then, instruct your new recruits to inform the group that everyone is expected to sign up for something. If they ask, “Would anyone like to…?” The answer is an unequivocal “No!” But, if it’s expected of the group, then the group members will sign up and share responsibilities. Not only do you keep the new leaders from burning out, you can also identify potential leaders in the group.
Priority #3: Introduce Every Group Leader to His/Her Coach.
The Coach is the new group leader’s lifeline. Without a coach, probably 30 percent of your new groups won’t even get started. How do I know? It happened to me when I started hundreds of new groups at a time. Then, you’ll lose another 30 percent after the campaign, because things came up they didn’t know how to deal with. That means only 4 out of 10 new groups will make it. It’s progress, but it’s not what it could be with a coach in the leader’s life.
Every new leader will face discouragement at some point. Some will struggle inviting group members. Others will face nights when half of the group doesn’t show up. Some will get stumped by a member they won’t know how to deal with. An experienced leader coaching a new leader will go a long way in resolving these issues and keeping the group moving forward.
One last thought.
A group leader briefing should be BRIEF! People don’t like meetings. Make the briefing convenient and brief. Whether it’s 15 minutes after a weekend service or a video you’ve posted online, think of what your new leaders need to succeed and not everything you could tell them.
If these are your three priorities to guide your new group leaders, you should have closer to 8 out of 10 new groups continue, if you offer them a next step.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Are you ready for your Fall Group Launch?
If you’re not sure your launch plan will help you reach your goals, schedule a time with Allen White to help you think through where to go this Fall. Whether you need a few tweaks or a complete overhaul, Allen will guide you through the steps you need to launch Exponential Groups this Fall.
Find out more at: allenwhite.org/checkup