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
By Allen White
A Balancing Act
Two dates you need to consider are slightly different in every church. First, when is everyone back in church after Summer? For some churches this is when school starts. For other churches, this is after Labor Day. When are your people back in church. While most senior pastors will want to start a new series when everyone is back in church, the dilemma small group pastors face is when to recruit leaders. If you are depending on your senior pastor to fulfill the role of small group champion and invite people to lead groups, then you really want to wait until everybody is back in church before you start recruiting. You want as many leaders as you can get, right?
If the senior pastor can be persuaded to start the series three weeks after everyone is back from Summer, then you will have the best opportunity to recruit leaders. Then, of course, Dr. Tony Evans preached an amazing sermon on community a couple of years ago on Labor Day weekend and recruited 260 potential leaders. While we can make recommendations to senior pastors, it’s not our place to dictate to them. Follow your pastor’s lead after you’ve had a chance to build your case.
The Second Date to Consider
At the risk of sounding like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, the second date to factor in is when your church members calendars start to fill up. Some of the churches I’ve worked with launched early because they knew once school started, the families’ calendars would fill up very quickly. If they couldn’t get a night of the week scheduled for a small group while other activities were being scheduled, there was a strong possibility there wouldn’t be space left for a small group. In these situations, the timing of recruiting the maximum number of new group leaders had to be weighed against the window of getting a group on a family’s calendar. After all, if you have a surplus of new group leaders, yet a deficit of new group members, we’ve defeated the purpose.
Start promoting now
Even if your launch is not until late September or early October, it’s never too early to promote the series. Now, by promote, I mean, sending out a Save the Date email or advertising the series in the service. Let your people know it’s coming. But, don’t recruit leaders or start connecting people into groups yet. It’s too early if your launch is in late September/early October. If your launch is in August, you’d better get a move on.
Allow three weeks to recruit leaders
While you want to promote the series well in advance, you only want to recruit new group leaders for three weeks. Let’s face it, if you recruited for three months, everyone would sign up in the last three weeks anyway. Don’t wear yourself and your team out with months of sign ups.
But, three weeks of recruiting group leaders is significant. The average person attends church 1.6 times per month. If you only recruit for one week, then you effectively miss more than half of your congregation. By recruiting for three weeks in a row, you have a much better chance of engaging more people to lead. But, that’s not the only reason to recruit for three weeks.
Many people can’t make a decision to lead a group when they are asked the first time. You’ve caught them flat footed. They need to think about it, talk to their spouse, or just warm up to the idea. Lorraine who cuts my hair put it this week, “The first time the pastor asked, I said ‘No way.’ Then, the next Sunday when he asked, I thought, ‘Maybe.” Then, when the pastor asked a third time, I turned to my husband and said, ‘That’s it, Rich. We’re doing it!'” And, that group is still going.
By recruiting for three weeks in a row, you are inviting more of your congregation, and you are giving people time to decide. More than three weeks is too much. Less than three weeks will handicap your reach. Three weeks is it.
Finish by Thanksgiving
Regardless of when you launch your groups this Fall, you want them to finish by Thanksgiving. Whether they are in a six-week study or a 12-week semester, you will do your groups a favor by ending the study before Thanksgiving. If your church is in Canada, I recommend launching groups after Canadian Thanksgiving, but finishing by the end of November.
People are so busy during the Christmas holidays, which really starts at Thanksgiving and continues through New Years Day. This is a great time to focus on group life rather than group meetings. Encourage your groups to serve together, celebrate together, or just take a break. Then, they will be ready for a new study in the new year.
An effective group launch is not complicated, but timing is everything. Every church will not do this exactly the same way. Consider these factors and choose the right launch day for your church.
Let me know what you decide or any questions you have in the comments.
If you’re still planning your Fall launch, learn from my 14 years of group launches with Leading an Exponential Group Launch.
By Allen White
After launching small groups with church-wide campaigns over the last 14 years, I’ve discovered there are some great times to launch groups, and there are definitely some seasons or situations to avoid. Considering the effort that’s put into a campaign whether you are purchasing someone else’s campaign or creating your own, you want to get the most bang for your buck. Why put all of that time, energy, and effort into something that will end up with a mediocre result? Here are some seasons and situations to avoid:
My men’s group met 52 weeks of the year. We met at a restaurant for lunch on Wednesdays. Like most guys, we ate lunch 52 weeks of the year, so we did a Bible study too. I’m not sure 52 weeks per year is ideal, but it worked for us. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for everyone.
Because of the school calendar, which was based on an agrarian society, most schools are in session from Labor Day until Memorial Day as God intended. Some schools, however, start early in August. This pre-Labor Day start is against the natural order of things, in my humble opinion. But, most schools offer the three reasons teachers have entered the profession: June, July, and August.
Families go on vacation. The evenings are longer. Even committed group members tend to forget about small groups. If getting groups to continue meetings is a challenge during the Summer, then starting groups in the Summer is even more difficult.
Summer is the weakest season of the year to launch groups. The strongest seasons for group launches are (in order): Fall, New Years, and Spring (after Easter). Summer is in last place by a mile. By launching groups in the Summer, you are faced with two issue. First, you’re not getting your bang for the buck as mentioned earlier. Second, you are taking away from the impact of your Fall campaign. Not only is Fall the start of the school year, but the Summer break before Fall helps to make a Fall launch the strongest of the year.
Now, there will be groups like mine who want to continue through the Summer come hell or high water. Let them meet. But, don’t spend a leadership coin on a Summer launch. Save it until Fall.
2. Capital Campaign.
Growing churches build. Building churches requires a lot of money and usually some sort of capital campaign. We understand this.
People who are in groups tend to give more than people who are not in groups. According to Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger in Transformational Groups, their research has shown that people not in groups give 6.07 percent of their income, while those who attended a group 4 or more times a month gave 10.34 percent (p 45). If a family earned $35,000 per year, this means their annual giving would increase by $1494.50 per year if they joined a small group.
If the church needs money, and people in groups tend to give more money, then why not get everybody into groups so they’ll give to more the capital campaign. That equation works for the short-term, but not the long term.
Once an association is made between small groups and capital campaigns, then the next time the call is made for people to join small groups, most people will think, “I wonder how much money they need to raise this time.” I’m not saying capital campaigns are wrong. They’re not. They are necessary. But, capital campaigns and small group campaigns simply do not go together.
To avoid a bad associate, get ahead of the capital campaigns. Form groups in the New Year, then start the capital campaign in the Fall. Groups can certainly study something about the church’s vision related to the capital campaign, and they’ve started well enough in advance that the association shouldn’t be made.
3. During a Church Crisis.
When a church is facing a major crisis, like the pastor’s forced resignation, a devastating financial blow, or a scandal of any kind, this is not the time to start small groups. I’m not being glib. My first pastor had to resign after I’d only been on staff for 18 months. While groups will certainly bond people together, disgruntled individuals can become platoons who will march right out of your church together. Wait until the dust settles, then launch groups.
4. Simultaneously with Another Major Initiative.
My friend, Gilbert Thurston says, “If you are casting vision for two things at the same time, you are creating Di-vision or division.” No pastor wants to promote division. The problem is if the best time to launch small groups is in the Fall and the New Year, well, it’s also the best time to launch everything else. Sigh.
To avoid creating di-vision in your church, stagger your announcements. If you’re church has on-going or semester-based groups and ministries like Celebrate Recovery, Financial Peace University, DivorceCare, GriefShare, or others, then start those before you make the call for groups. While it’s nice to have everyone in the church studying the same thing, it’s not necessary for an effective group launch. Once the support groups have started, then gear up for your big Fall or New Year’s launch.
5. If the Majority of Your Adults are in Sunday School.
Some churches don’t need small groups. Maybe they’d like to have groups, but for those churches who still run a thriving adult Sunday school, groups really aren’t necessary. Now, I’m talking about churches with 90 percent of their adults in Sunday school today. This is different from churches with declining Sunday schools who think that promoting Sunday school more will boost attendance. If that’s you, then you need to start groups. Your Sunday school ain’t coming back. But, there are those churches with well established, thriving Sunday schools. My word to you — Keep Sunday School working. If it begins to slip, then think groups.
You really have to ask yourself: Are we in the meeting business or are we in the discipleship business? You can make disciples in Sunday school. You can make disciples in groups. The goal is not groups. The goal is developing leaders and making disciples.
For many of the same reasons as Summer, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day become overloaded with activities for most people in your church. Between school programs, Christmas parties, special Christmas services, shopping, traveling, and whatever else they’ve piled on themselves, the Christmas season is a very difficult time to start groups or for groups to even meet regularly. Groups can have fun together or serve together, but weekly meetings are probably out.
7. Immediately after New Year’s Day.
Most senior pastors want to kick off the new year with a “State of the Church” type of message or “Vision Sunday,” then they want to get right into their series the second Sunday in January. If this is when the church chooses to launch groups, there’s a big problem — there is no time to recruit leaders or form groups. If you think, “We will just recruit leaders in December for the January launch,” then go back and read #6. I’ve tried this. I ended up standing in the briefing room, listening to crickets, and questioning the call of God on my life. You can’t recruit nobody for nuthin’ in December. Save yourself some headaches.
The “New Year’s” launch will go much better if there is time in January to recruit leaders and form groups before the series starts in late January. Better yet, use the whole month of January to recruit and form groups, then run your series between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter.
Every church is different. For instance, Canadian churches will want to start their Fall series after Canadian Thanksgiving. If you live in Seattle and the mountain is still out in September, you might want to wait until October to start your series. If your people’s calendars fill up very quickly at the start of the school year, then you’d better launch groups when school starts, so folks still have an evening available.
Use these seven suggestions to guide you. I want you to succeed with your next group launch, but in the end, you need to do what works best in your neck of the woods.
By Allen White
My pastor, Perry Noble, got fired. You can find the details at newspring.cc. But, this isn’t the first time a pastor of mine got fired.
The first pastor I worked for was fired at the first church I served after I’d only been there a year and a half. I was 27 years old. I won’t give all the details of what happened because the pastor and his family are still around. It was devastating to me personally. It was especially devastating to our congregation. It was devastating to our pastor and his family.
Everyone had to grieve the loss. Some of that grief came out as anger. Some came out of sadness. Some came out as distrust. For everybody it was a little different. And people went from one stage to the next in grieving our loss.
I’ve been in the church all of my life. When I was young, I thought pastors were cut from a different cloth. Somehow God’s calling and anointing on their lives made them invincible or something more than human. My years in Bible college cured that.
For a few years in a row in college, every guest speaker we had for any kind of spiritual emphasis ended up having an affair and being fired by his church. Finally after about three years of this, we had this goofy red-headed preacher speak for our spiritual emphasis. We knew we were safe with him.
My Bible college years concluded with the whole disaster of Jim and Tammy Bakker, which was followed by the next disaster with Jimmy Swaggart. I found myself filled with a mix of disgust and sadness. People who had been responsible for so much…People who had a vast spiritual influence over so many other people…They lived their lives in irresponsible ways. They took their calling for granted. They assumed that they were God’s special boys and somehow deserved special treatment. They got mixed up.
God doesn’t call the gifted. God gifts the called. Sometimes people confuse God’s gifts as their own personal gifts. They become deceived by the fact that God will continue to use them even though they are allowing sin to continue to manifest in their lives. The Bible gives us a long list of broken people who are mightily used by God. I always wondered why God couldn’t find better people. As I’ve grown older I’ve discovered that God was using regular people, and there weren’t better ones.
So after witnessing years of people with influential ministries being fired, I became somewhat numb to all of this. But what I hadn’t experienced was facing this in my own church. I hadn’t experienced watching two-thirds of our congregation leave and all of the staff as well. I hadn’t experienced people apologize as they left the church because their lives were stressful enough, and they just couldn’t add church stress on top of all of that. I hadn’t experienced being a 27-year-old pastor with 85 people left not knowing what the future would hold. Fortunately for us that wasn’t the end of the story.
What’s interesting is we lost everybody who was in favor of the pastor, and we lost everybody who was against the pastor. The group we had left were the ones that were in favor of the church. Now some of the old timers will try to give me credit for holding the church together. The truth is God was the one holding the church together. I was just trying to hold myself together.
At one point I even sent out a few resumes to find a different job. In the type of church I’d grown up in, the new pastor always seem to want to select their own staff and would dismiss the old staff in sort of a Machiavellian fashion. I thought before the new guy shows up I better find a job and have some place to land. As I prayed about where to go next, God asked me “Who told you to send out resumes?” I knew I hadn’t been released. So I picked up the phone and called the churches that I had sent resumes to and ask them politely not to consider me for their positions. God meant for me to stay where I was.
But staying was a lot to deal with. Every person I ran into, whether they stayed with the church or had left, were still dealing with their grief from the experience. I got to the point that for a few weeks I would show up at the office around the crack of noon and leave by 3 p.m. because that’s about all I could take. I couldn’t even go to the post office or the supermarket without being cornered by someone who was either sad or angry or accusatory. I learned to listen a lot and not talk very much. I had to put my own grief aside in a way so that I could help others process theirs. I spent a lot of late nights looking up at the ceiling asking God if this was part of His Plan or somehow there’d been a mistake. It was part of His Plan
Our people more motivated. They wanted to change. They wanted anything other than what they already had. We changed the name of the church with no problem. We changed the ministry style of the church with no problem. We changed the music in the church with no problem.
When I left our church after 15 years, we had grown from 85 people to about 1,500. Our church was serving in the community in various ways. The church was steadily growing. There were more people in small groups then we had attending on the weekend service. I’m glad I stayed.
Today, opens a whole new chapter for NewSpring Church. Amid much sadness, confusion, and speculation, there is hope. “We also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:3-5, NASB).
We love you Perry Noble. We are praying for you.
By Allen White
After spending the year pouring into others, often we get to Summer and dream of a tropical paradise. For more of us, that tropical paradise amounts to a week in Myrtle Beach. (There are better places to vacation in South Carolina, but as a resident for nine years now, I’m not allowed to tell you, especially if you’re from Ohio.)
Let’s face it for those of us overseeing discipleship and small group ministries in a church, Summer is really sort of an annual sabbatical for us in a way. After that week of vacation, what do we do? Sure we pitch in at VBS or youth camp. We might lead a mission trip or speak on a weekend or two. But, often we have more discretionary time in the Summer than in most other times of the year. What you invest in yourself now could make a huge difference this Fall.
Now that you have six weeks of your “sabbatical” remaining, here are a few thought about making your time productive and your Fall awesome.
Contagious by Jonah Berger. A professor at the Wharton School of Business discovers the best approaches and appeals to marketing. With great stories like the $100 Philly Cheese Steak and a Youtube sensation called “Will It Blend?” the author will take you through the six key areas of effective promotion. As you think about promoting your small groups this Fall, you will uncover some interesting thoughts from Berger about what to present and how to make it work.
Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley. This is Andy Stanley’s “Gentlemen, this is a football” speech. Starting with the incredible stories of the inauspicious beginnings of North Point Community Church and challenging the church to be the church, Stanley delivers a solid whack on the side of the head.
Small Groups for the Rest of Us by Chris Surratt. My friend, Chris, released this book last year. He offers a unique approach to groups in an approachable and transferable way. So many small group models just don’t work other places. Chris’ thoughts will work in churches large and small.
Living Forward by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy. As pastors we are focused on fulfilling God’s plan for our lives. But, often we spend our days spinning our wheels and crying out to God for direction. While we should never be presumptuous about our own plans, the reality is if we don’t have a plan, then not very much gets accomplished. Living Forward helps you plan ahead for every aspect of your life. It’s not about getting rich quick or reaching the pinnacle of success as much as it’s about planning to give every area of your life what it needs when it needs it. How do you know how to do that? You have a plan.
Take an Online Course.
By Allen White
If your church is like most churches, you’ve tried everything you know to do to start groups and you have about 30 percent (or maybe 50 percent) of your adults in groups. You’ve often wondered…
If only my groups would develop an apprentice leader…
If only my Senior Pastor would get serious about promoting groups…
If only my groups would become unselfish and multiply/divide/give birth…
If only we could close the backdoor to our church…
If only we had more groups leaders to start groups…
You’ve read books. You’ve attended conferences. You’ve learned from the best and the brightest, but the lingering question is WHY DID IT WORK FOR THEM BUT IT’S NOT WORKING FOR ME? You are one well-educated and overly-frustrated person.
How do I know?
This is exactly what I was experiencing 12 years ago, then my groups DOUBLED in one day.
You can avoid the frustration. You can double your groups this Fall with all of the leaders you need and with all of the support your leaders need. What I would like to share with you are the six essential strategies I have learned over the last 25 years of ministry. My ceiling can become your floor!
Here’s the best part: You can customize the strategies to work in your church. You may decide to require more or less of leaders than others. That’s okay. We can still double your groups. Your church might create your own curriculum, or you might not. That’s okay. We can still double your groups. You may have tried large scale group launches before with mixed results. That’s okay. We can still double your groups.
Beginning Wednesday, July 13 at 1:30pm Eastern/10:30am Pacific, we will walk together on a six week journey to lay the groundwork for you to DOUBLE YOUR GROUPS THIS FALL.
Week 1: Setting God-Sized Goals and Making a Plan to Double Your Groups.
Week 2: Recruiting Your Launch Team and Finding the Help You Need to Double Your Groups.
Week 3: Recruiting the Group Leaders You Need to Double Your Groups.
Week 4: Connecting Your People into Groups.
Week 5: Coaching Your New Group Leaders.
Week 6: Training Your New Group Leaders.
Each week will consist of a 60 minute group coaching session with churches from across the country. You will receive both training and interaction in each session as well as practical tools to help you double your groups. From timelines to templates, you will have what you need to lay the groundwork for doubling your groups.
To hear more, join one of three Live Webinars This Week: allenwhite.org/webinars
If you’re ready to jump in to the Course: allenwhite.org/double
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