By Allen White
Photo by Luke Tevebaugh
Allen White is the author of Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (releases February 1, 2017 from Hendrickson Publishers. Download the Introduction and First Chapter Here). He has worked with over 1,500 churches across North America in the last 12 years. Admittedly, interviewing one’s self is pretty odd, but I have interviewed many people sharing about their ministries and books, so why not?
Q1. What makes groups exponential?
Well, let’s start with strategies that don’t produce exponential groups. If small group pastors are focused on connecting people into groups, they will grow by addition. Prospective members must be provided with a group that they will be assigned to. If you’re doing this and your groups are growing, then you’re lucky.
Other churches focus on multiplying leaders, which usually implies dividing groups. A high quality group leader is recruited, who then mentors an apprentice, who will eventually take part of the group and start a new group. The problem I faced with this model was that my leaders weren’t able to identify apprentices for the most part. Oh, and our groups didn’t want to split.
Exponential speaks to equipping and empowering people to gather a group of their friends and do a study together. Imagine 10 people volunteering to lead, who then invite 10 of their friends to join them. Suddenly, you have 10 new groups and 110 people in groups, and all you did was give them permission, then help them. Now, 10 groups is tame. But, what if the number of groups equaled the number of people in your church? Think about the impact. That turns into some crazy math. In recent years, I’ve seen churches of 2,500 with 500 groups, and a church of 260 start 75 groups. That’s exponential.
Q2. In the first sentence of Exponential Groups, you say, “Everyone is already in a group.” How did you reach that conclusion? What if they’re not?
Think about your own life. If you made a list of your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, you would quickly see you are already in a group or even multiple groups. Now, if you took these groups that people are already in and gave them an easy-to-use tool that would intentionally help them grow spiritually, then you have what we typically call a “small group.”
Years ago our congregation took a health assessment. Not only did I want to see where people were growing and where people were stalling out, but I also wanted to see the impact of small groups on their growth. The assessment was based on the five biblical purposes as expressed by Rick Warren: Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship, Service, and Evangelism.
What we discovered was that everyone in our church rated themselves in this exact same order. People who were in official small groups were highest in Fellowship, but so were the people who weren’t. So, I took another survey to ask the non-small group folks who they were in fellowship with. Their responses: friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. They weren’t joining “small groups” because they were already in groups. Then the light bulb went off — what if we gave these groups a study, drew a circle around them, and called them a “group”? It worked better than we imagined.
Now, there are people who are new to the church or new to the area, who genuinely don’t know anyone. These are the exceptions. They need a little help getting connected into a group. Help them, but don’t build your entire system on the perceived needs of the exceptions.
Q3. You talk some about launching groups through church-wide campaigns. Many churches have done this only to see groups fall apart once the study is over. How is your approach different? What’s the best way to form groups that will last?
In order for groups to last beyond a church-wide campaign, three factors are crucial. First, the way the group is formed will largely determine whether the group will continue. See question #2. Second, they need a next step. Many groups don’t continue, because we didn’t ask them to. Lastly, every leader needs a coach. There’s a lot to unpack about coaching, but unless you are supporting your leaders, they will not last for the long term.
Q4. Some pastors are very cautious about lowering the bar on leadership. What would you say to them?
Don’t lower the bar on leadership. Delay the requirements.
Have you ever bought a car from a car dealer? You don’t start with all of the requirements and paperwork necessary to purchase a car. You start with a test drive. In the same way, potential leaders need to test drive small group leadership before they’re ready to seal the deal.
What’s the requirement for a test drive? A drivers license. The question you must answer is: What is the “drivers license” for a small group test drive in your church. For some, they’ll take anyone who is breathing. For others, it’s salvation, baptism, membership, an interview, and/or something else. In chapter 3 of the book, I talk about an acceptable level of risk. You must decide what your church is willing to try.
After group leaders do the test drive and decide to move forward in leading groups, then you can gently reintroduce the requirements you delayed. The end result looks a lot like what you expect from your current groups. You just have a lot more of them.
Q5. Where do you feel churches are missing it with small groups?
I believe some churches don’t think well enough of their people and assume they can’t or won’t lead. They might fear that if “anyone” can lead there will be a lot of problems. Let me assure you — there will be problems. But, the problems I’ve faced in both leading small groups at two churches and coaching other churches amount to about 2 percent of the total leaders you recruit. But, here’s the deal, you already have these problems. Small groups don’t create problems, but they can reveal the problems you already have.
The biggest mistake churches make by far is the lack of a coaching structure. This is difficult work, but it is the backbone of a lasting small group ministry. You cannot coach more than probably 30 leaders yourself. You can never hire all of the staff you need to oversee groups. But, if according to Exodus 18, you have leaders of 10s, leaders of 50s, leaders of 100s, and leaders of 1000s, you can get there. I’ve never had a small group staff. In fact, in the last church I served, we had 6,500 people, and I had one full time assistant. My leadership team was volunteer. My coaches were volunteer. The great thing is I had the privilege of working with people I could never afford to hire. Build a coaching structure or brace for impact.
Q5.5 You are a native Kansan who spent almost 20 years in California, and has now spent the last decade in South Carolina. What teams do you root for?
Well, for college basketball, it’s KU. (Rock. Chalk. Jayhawk). For college football, it’s Clemson. For MLB, it’s the San Francisco Giants. For NBA, it’s the Golden State Warriors. For NFL, I don’t care. How’s that for a mixed bag?