4 Keys to an Exponential Group Launch

By Allen White exponential groups

Some launches go better than others. Over the last 10+ years of group launches both in the churches I’ve served as well as churches I’ve coached, we have seen some significant progress and we’ve seen some incremental growth. Whether your launch feels exponential or expected really comes down to your grasp of four keys.

1. Is Your Senior Pastor All In?

Having been an associate pastor for over 20 years, I know that if I invite people to lead groups, I will get 30 percent the result of my senior pastor. How do I know this? Well, after reaching the seventh year of my five year plan, I only had 30 percent of our adults in groups. The first time my senior pastor make the invitation, we doubled our groups in a day, and within six months, we had 125 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. Now, that’s not funny pastor math. Not everyone attends every Sunday, but they will go to their group. And, we had a good number of people who had never darkened the door of our church join groups as well.

Let’s face it, if people aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend is because of the senior pastor. My family is part of NewSpring Church at the Greenville, SC campus. We don’t know a lot of people there, but Kidspring and Fuse are stellar for our children, and Perry Noble, well, he’s pretty amazing.

When the senior pastor stands up and makes the invitation for people to gather their friends and grow, it’s huge. Now, what will help both your senior pastor and your “unconnected” people get on board with groups is creating your own curriculum with your senior pastor’s teaching. Your pastor’s teaching + your pastor’s invitation + your pastor’s message series aligned with the study is a Win/Win/Win. For more on engaging your senior pastor, check out my free ebook, Exponential Groups.

2. Is Your Topic Relevant to Your Community?

The topic of your series will creating determine who is included and excluded in your launch. Obviously, there has been huge success with topics like 40 Days of Purpose by Rick Warren and One Month to Live by Kerry Shook. What is your community, not your church, but the people in the place you live concerned about? What previous sermon series have had an appeal? The right topic will make a huge difference.

A few years ago, I was coaching a church in Baltimore. I asked the pastor what his series would be for the new year. He said, “I’m thinking about doing a series on dying.”

I said, “You’re killing me, Frank.”

While everybody will die, people usually don’t want to be confronted with that reality. It ended up being a great series, but not one to launch an exponential number of groups. Whether you talk about relationships, stress management, conflict resolution, or something else, think about what would draw the most people into the topic.

3. Will Your Coaching Structure Support a New Influx of Leaders?

More groups will stall before the start of a series than will stop after the series. When someone steps up to lead, they have just painted a huge target on their back, and the enemy will try to discourage them in every way possible. They will invite friends only to discover some can’t come on Tuesday night; others are already in another groups; and a couple of them really aren’t their friends. In that moment, they need someone to encourage them or that group is toast.

A few years ago, a couple in our church, Ray and Pam, left a group they loved to start a new group. (I’m not longer in that forced birthing business by the way). I asked them on a Sunday morning how their group was going. They said, “Not very well. We think it was a mistake to leave our group and try to start our own group. We have invited 20 people to our group, and they all turned us down. We shouldn’t have left the group we loved.”

Trying to contain my panic, I said, “Ok, you guys had an idea of what your group should be. Now let’s pray and see who God wants in your group.”

A week later, Ray and Pam called me, “Pastor Allen, please stop sending people to our group. We have 14 people, so we are maxed out.” Now, how many people had I sent to their group. Well, none. God answered our prayer. Their group started around 2003 and continues under different leadership to this day. But, if I hadn’t had that conversation with Ray and Pam on that particular Sunday, that group never would have happened.

Your coaching structure (or lack of one) will be completely overwhelmed by a successful launch. But, you  cannot leave those baby groups unattended. They need care and encouragement. Ask your existing group leaders and other mature members of your church to check in on the new leaders weekly from when they say “Yes” until the end of the campaign. This will greatly increase the success rate of your group launch. After all groups that don’t start tend to not continue. For more on enlisting new coaches, check out this video interview I did with Steve Gladen and Brett Eastman.

4. What’s Next?

Now that your head is swimming about what the topic of your series should be, you also need to have a next step curriculum ready for groups to continue. The reason so many groups fell off the cliff at the end of 40 days was because they weren’t given a specific next step. If you send them to christianbook.com or a book store, they will get lost in the choices. Most new groups don’t have a real opinion of what to study next. In the middle of your first campaign, give them a next step to continue their group. If you can get a group to complete two back to back six week series, you’ve got them. They will continue from there with some coaching, training, and direction.

Your success in your next group launch will be greatly affected by which of these four keys you implement. If you go four for four, you can certainly see exponential results. If you implement two of these and neglect the other two, you’ve probably halved your result as well.

If you would like to learn more about experiencing your own exponential group launch, I’d like to invite you to a free webinar on Wednesday, August 5 at 1:30pm ET/10:30am PT. Click here to register. Registration is limited to 25 seats, so register now.

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A Lesson in Hospitality from Popeye’s

By Allen White popeyes

I met a remarkable man yesterday named Ralph.

Ralph is an employee at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen located near gate B14 at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. ATL is my second home.

Rushing between gates yesterday, I decided to stop in for some spicy chicken. The line wasn’t long, but the tables were full. My eyes darted around trying to find a spot. If I couldn’t find one, then I’d be dining at my gate, which usually results in something spilled on my shirt. I was headed home, but nonetheless. Then, Ralph walked up to me.

He said, “Would you like a table?” Of course, I did. Then, Ralph said, “I will have this table ready for you right here. And, what would you like to drink?” I hadn’t even ordered yet. I told him sweet tea, then he said, “Alright, just stay in line to place your order.”

Once I had ordered and paid, my table was ready. Ralph had provided me with my drink, napkins, a plastic spork, and a straw. This is not what I expected from Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at the airport.

As I ate, I noticed Ralph approached every customer in line and asked if they would like a table. If a couple was standing together, he would seat the lady and ask the gentleman to stand in line to place the order. I don’t know whether Popeye’s is trying a new strategy or if this was unique to Ralph, but it was quite remarkable.

Ralph was no ordinary dining room manager. Ralph was the maitre de at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen at gate B14. He provided a level of service you never expect at any fast food restaurant except for maybe Chick-fil-A.

Next time I’m in the ATL, which will be soon, I will stop by Popeye’s near gate B14 again, but not just for the spicy chicken. I’ll stop by for Ralph and the spicy chicken.

What does your organization or business do when someone’s eyes are darting around looking for a solution? The regulars will make their way to where they need to go. But, new people will be looking around perplexed. What are you intentionally doing to help them? How’s your hospitality?

You need a Ralph, or a team of Ralphs

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5.5 Questions with Rick Howerton

By Allen White RICK_HOWERTON_head-shoulders

Starting today, I am introducing a new monthly post called “5.5 Questions with…” where I will be interviewing small group experts from across the country. Today in the hot seat we have Rick Howerton and his 5.5 answers to my 5.5 questions.

Rick Howerton is the Small Groups and Discipleship Specialist at LifeWay Church Resources. He has authored many small group studies, is a highly sought after trainer and speaker, and is the author of Destination Community: Small Group Ministry Manual as well as A Different Kind of Tribe: Embracing the New Small Group Dynamic. He is also the co-author of Disciples Path: A Practical Guide to Disciple Making and Countdown: Launching and Leading Transformational Groups. But Rick’s deepest passion and his goal in life is to see, “a biblical small group within walking distance of every person on the planet making disciples that make disciples.”

Q1 Tell us about your first small group.

RH: The first small group that I led was actually a group of college students. I was a twenty-something year old seminary grad without a clue concerning what a small group was (Having come from a traditional Southern Baptist pastor’s home, I’d never even heard the term) or what a small group was suppose to do. I simply did a swan dive into relational community in the best way I knew how. The experience was very organic and, I would imagine, much more transformational for me that for those college students. They were amazingly patient and I was embarrassingly green.

Q2 You work for Lifeway who has been a stalwart for Sunday school for decades, centuries, millenia. Nowadays, Lifeway has become a major source for small group curriculum. How did that change come about?

RH: About fourteen years ago LifeWay made a strategic decision to connect with and partner with small group churches. I was hired at that time. A few years later LifeWay purchased Serendipity House, one of the premiere resource providers of small group Bible studies at the time. It was at this time that LifeWay began to build her reputation as a ministry aiding small group churches as they make disciples through small groups.

But, in the last two or so years, LifeWay has wisely realized that, in order to meet the many needs of small group churches, she needs to be more than just a Bible study provider. Because of the many helps LifeWay offers the small group world, our Bible studies are becoming more known. A quick list of offerings for small group pastors in 2015 alone is noted below. You may be shocked.

Q3 “A plethora” wow! You created the Groups Matter initiative to launch 100,000 groups. How is that going? How can pastors and churches get involved?

RH: The goal of the Groups Matter initiative was to see 100,000 new groups started in two years. At present, there are 46,296 groups registered. To join the movement go to www.groupsmatter.com.

Q4 What emerging trends are you seeing in small group ministry?

RH: I’m seeing multiple trends in the groups ministry movement.

  1. Discipleship – For at least a couple of decades the groups world had as its mantra, “creating community.” The conversation has transitioned from focusing on creating community to, “making disciples.”
  2. Doing Sunday School and Small Groups Side by Side – Not so long ago few churches would’ve even considered doing both Sunday School and small groups. As of the last two years this has become a major movement. In fact, the largest audiences I have when leading regional training conferences are when I’m doing a day of training for churches presently doing Sunday School that want to add small groups.
  3. Sermon based Bible studies – It seems many pastors long to see their groups discuss the Sunday sermon. This has led to many churches creating their own questions for discussion based on the weekend sermon.
  4. Mid-size groups – While this isn’t a major movement right now, there is some discussion in some groups circles about mid-size groups meeting in homes. These would be any groups over 12. In fact, the size of the home determines the appropriate group size.

Q5 If you could turn the clock back in ministry and start over, what would you have done differently?

RH: Allen, I think the one thing I’d do differently, is spend more time with God daily, memorizing His Word, and studying biblical theology. I’ve tried to make up for lost time but I don’t know that I will ever be able to gain the knowledge I believe is necessary for a groups pastor in today’s post-Christian era.

Q5.5 Ok, the half question: Country or bluegrass?

RH: Neither!

AW: LOL

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Why Bother with Small Groups?

By Allen White  why bother with groups people are like legos

“You should be in small groups” sounds like the modern version of “Everybody ought to go to Sunday school” to many church goers. The only problem is “ought” is not a strong motivator for most people any more. Give them a cause to champion or an environment to connect, but if “ought” is the only tool in your toolbox for connecting people into groups, then they’d probably “ought” to try another church.

If everyone else thought exactly the way small group pastors and directors did, they would all be small group pastors and directors. The problem, of course, is there would be no one left to direct. Face it. People in our churches don’t think like we do. How can we think like them?

When pastors and directors make invitations for folks to join groups, there’s usually a mixed response. Some will join up. Others can’t or won’t. If they were driven by “ought,” they would understand “if you really love Jesus, truly desire to grow spiritually, and want to go to Heaven, then you ought to join a group.” They’re not buying it, so we should quit selling it. Why are some folks resistant to our efforts to get them into groups?

1. I’m too busy.

Everybody is busy. Students are busy. Retired people are busy. Parents are busy. We’re all busy. Busy is not so much an excuse, but a sickness, but we’ll have to save that topic for another day.

“I’m too busy” really means “I have other priorities. I have better things to do.” People have time to do the things they want to do. If you’re getting “I’m too busy,” then they are choosing something else over small groups.

In order to put small group higher on their lists, they will need to demote or eliminate something else. Most people don’t make changes like this unless they are convinced there are compelling reasons a group will benefit them, or if they are in a considerable amount of pain and need support. People who are busy, but generally okay, won’t feel the need.

In order for people to say “yes” to a group, they will have to say “no” to something else. In order for people to make that “yes,” they need a clear and compelling reason to join. If you offer groups for a limited time period, a trial run, and offer groups at times that could fit in their schedules, they might give it a try. But, there are even better reasons to join. Read on.

2. I already have friends.

Years ago, Leith Anderson gave an illustration of people being like Lego bricks. Every Lego brick has a certain number of dots on the top of it. Some have one or two. Others have eight, ten or more. In a person’s life, each dot represents a relationship. So, think about your relationships: spouse, children, parents, other family, friends, co-workers, sports team, book club, parents of your kids’ sports teams or activities, and the list goes on. Most people have all of the dots on their Lego bricks filled. Where do you put a group?

But, think about it this way: how can you help people leverage their existing relationships to form small groups? They don’t need to divorce their friends to join a small group. Their friends are their small group There is great power in asking people,  “Who in your life would enjoy or benefit from a group study?” Very quickly, group formation will go well beyond the four walls of any church. Why reconnect people who are already connected?

3. We have kids.

The easier your groups make childcare, the easier it is for people to join a group. Whether the group pools their money to hire a babysitter or rotates responsibility for the kids among group members, this is a necessary part of groups for young families. Once the group is established, then everyone might be able to secure their own babysitter, but especially at the beginning, childcare should be made as easy as possible. For more on childcare solutions, go here.

4. I’m already involved in ministry.

Serving is a great way to engage with the church body and allow God to use them. A ministry responsibility is also a great way to get people connected to the church. Serving responsibility creates a real sense of ownership. But, activity doesn’t guarantee community. This can be addressed in a couple of ways.

Think about this: what are the goals for your groups? Most groups are built on the idea of community around a Bible study. The idea is to create a place where people are known and know each other. They care for each other, support each other, and share God’s Word together. If those are your goals for groups, can those goals be accomplished in a serving team?

This is more than ushers joining hands before they pick up their stack of bulletins, but that could be a start.  Serving teams can share personal needs and God’s Word together. This may involve a meeting apart from the serving opportunity. The last thing any church wants is for folks to feel the church only cares about what they do, but doesn’t care about them.

Serving is better than just talking, but a balanced approach is better still.

5. I had a bad experience with a group before.

Most people who’ve participated in groups over the years realize groups aren’t perfect. As Steve Gladen from Saddleback Church says

There are good small groups, and there are not so good small groups. Every group has a different style and personality. One size does not fit all. But, a bad experience in one group doesn’t guarantee a bad experience in every group.

A six-week commitment to one study is a great way to test drive a new small group. If the group works, then they can stick with the group. If the group doesn’t work, it was only six weeks and not the rest of their lives. They can leave the group in good conscience for having completed six weeks and now consider themselves off the hook.

6. I don’t trust other people with my life.

This statement comes from a lot of pain. Granted, there are some people who aren’t worthy of trust. But, when someone globalizes distrust to nearly 7 billion people on the face of the earth, there’s certainly a deeper issue.

Distrust comes from fear. “If I let others in my life, they will only hurt me.” Fear requires a very compelling reason to even think about opening yourself up. If the person recognizes this is a personal issue, then the first step . A regular small group won’t be the cure. In fact, this person’s presence in a life group or Bible study might create a bad experience for everyone else.

When this person has worked through the root issues, then they should be welcomed into a group with open arms. For the present, if the person literally trusts no one, then counseling would be the recommended route. If the person does have a couple of friends, then he or she should start the study with just those friends. Obviously, this person isn’t going to start in an uncomfortable place. Where is a comfortable place to start?

7. I’m wise to small group pastors. They just wants to form groups just to break us apart.

I’m all in favor of multiplying groups, but I’m also aware of some very effective group models from other parts of the world that don’t work so well in North America. People are aware of these strategies. Some have survived them. Others have strongly resisted. Small Group Pastors: It’s time to turn over a new leaf.

What we callously refer to as multiplying, dividing,  and birthing groups is translated as encouraging people to develop close relationships only to later rip out their hearts and make them change groups. The positive spin of the term “multiplying” really feels like a divorce.

While we would never want a group to become ingrown or stagnant, unless a group feels the pain of an overcrowded house or a declining group, they are not willing to change simply to fulfill our agenda. To address this issue, simply vow to your groups that you will no longer ask them to multiply, divide, split or birth. Over time, the need will arise on its own.

Look at it this way: the world is fully populated all by natural means. No family needed their pastor’s coaching to fill their quiver. By encouraging the positives of inviting and including others, groups will eventually see the need to subgroup and then form new groups.

8. My relationship with God is personal.

A believer’s relationship with God is personal, but it’s not private. While every believer should experience quiet times alone with God, God didn’t intend for us to live our lives alone. Jesus, Himself, lived a life in community with His disciples. God lives in community as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Before I was in a group and before I was even married, I was a great Christian in my own mind. According to the feedback I was receiving, I was an awesome Christian. I kept away from the things I shouldn’t do and did many things I should. But, back then, most of the feedback was coming from me. I was very understanding of myself. I knew why I excelled at some things and failed at others. Sure, I could have worked harder, but I was tired. I needed to give myself a break.

Letting other believers in helps us to discover things we might have been denying. We also get folks to encourage us and allay our fears. The Bible has much to say about encouraging one another, building each other up, spurring one another on and so much more. Faith is lived out in relationship, not in isolation.

People resistant to group life need help crossing the bridge. Some need a challenge. Some need encouragement. Some need an easy entry point. Everyone in our churches comes from a different place – spiritually, emotionally and geographically. By offering multiple entry points into groups, we can serve their needs for community rather than expecting them to fulfill our need for effectiveness or success.

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How High is Your XQ?

By Allen White Missing coach

Have you ever worked with a flaky youth pastor, or an uncaring care pastor? Has your church, business, or organization left precise tasks to someone who settles for “good enough?” They aren’t necessarily bad people as they are in the wrong roles or are attempting to live up to an unrealistic set of expectations.

Your flaky youth pastor may just be the next visionary leader in the church. Visionaries are rarely organized or schedule. Do you fire him and get a boring youth pastor, or do you staff around his weaknesses?

Your uncaring care pastor is quick to size things up, yet impatient with the process of counseling others. Since those in need probably won’t quickly shape up, the uncaring care pastor needs to be reassigned to a project where he can charge the hill rather than stroll through the meadow.
What if you knew what you were going to get before you made a hire? What if you looked at the best staff you had and determined what personality traits they had, so you could determine who to add to your team? What if your small group had better insights into each other and became more understanding of each other?

How high is your XQ?

Time Magazine asked this question in their June 22, 2015 issue. The answer actually goes back for years. Yet, people analytics is not as commonly used as it should be, especially in the church world. The new trend toward studying Behavioral DNA is significant for hiring the right people, leading them, and helping them to understand each other.

Human-resources professionals in major companies are now looking for the X quotient in hiring, promoting and even terminating employees, according to Time. The article coined the term “XQ” or “X quotient” simply because there is no other way to quantify it. Maybe that’s the point.

In order to fight employee turnover, increase productivity, and raise customer satisfaction, companies and organizations are turning to expensive, time consuming solutions like Cattell’s 16 personality factors, the Hogan Personality Inventory’s seven scales, StrengthsFinder, or the Caliper Profile’s 22 traits. Online resources such as Infor claim to analyze over a million job candidates a month. Why does this matter? Can’t you just go with your gut?

People analytics will help you in an important range of team dynamics.

1. Adding new staff or team members.

Whether finding qualified candidates is feast or famine, more than a strong resume is required to find the right fit. People with the right schools, degrees, and experience may or may not fit the bill. The metrics from People Skills, who I’m certified with, point to the core of who the person is, how they go about things, and how they will fit with the current members of your team. While anyone with determination can work hard to fulfill any role, eventually that person will burnout and will probably take the team down with them. If you put a highly relational person in a cubical with a computer for data entry, they will last for a while, but they will either wander away from the cube to find people or they will find another job, even lower paying, where they can interact with others. Behavioral DNA has much to do with job satisfaction and performance. Having this info at the beginning of the interview process will help you to select the right candidates and can confirm some things you are probably already sensing.

2. Improving staff and team interactions.

John Maxwell says, “People don’t see things are they are. We see things as we are.” If I am a very driven, performance oriented person, then I see people who are highly relational as being slackers. I think: “Why can’t they just cut to the chase? Why can’t they make a decision? Why do we have to have another meeting about the same thing, again?” But, they aren’t like me, nor I them.

The person I’m looking at is probably looking back at me saying, “Why doesn’t he take time to really get to know people? Why does he only care about the work and not the team? Why doesn’t he take time to make sure everyone is on the same page before charging forward?” It’s two sides of a coin. Well, actually, it’s 16 sides.
By taking your team through people analytics, they will gain a better understanding of themselves as well as why other people on the team bug them. In fact, Behavioral DNA gives teams a language to filter and interpret other people’s behavior. They begin to view personality differences in a more amiable way. While there are certainly people with personality disorders, personality differences are a far cry from disorders.

3. Setting people up for success.

A quote often attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Putting right people in the wrong roles is a recipe for disaster. But, the right people in the right roles is magical.

If someone has the personality of Attila the Hun and is given a role to precisely detail the steps of a process they invented, it won’t work. You need a detail person to document the process, and you need to allow Attila to charge the next hill. If you take someone who doesn’t want to rock the boat and put them in charge of innovating something, it will never move forward. The innovation will rock the boat, which is exactly what they are trying to avoid. There are many more examples. Think about the folks who are thriving in their role, then think about the folks who are withering in theirs. What’s the difference? It could be misapplied people analytics.

Whether you lead a staff, a team, or a small group, the X quotient is significant to the effectiveness and harmony of the group you lead. An understanding of their X quotient will help determine the appropriate role for each person and the way they go about it. As the Time article says, “A meticulous thinker is no better or worse than a big-picture mind, but it’s pretty clear which one you would like to have doing your taxes.”

4. Use People Skills.

A friend of mine, Vicki Barnes, developed the People Skills inventory about 25 years ago. By validating the findings with other well-known people analysis tools, she developed an easy, affordable solution for human resources professionals, non-profit organizations, churches, and even small groups. The one hour staff, team, group, or volunteer training offers a great alternative to lengthy online profiles and assessments which essentially provide the same information.

The only way to get a better sense of the tool is to try it yourself. Click Here to sign up for a one hour webinar on Wednesday, June 24 at 1:30pm ET/10:30am PT. You will need to take the online assessment before the webinar.

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4 Ways to Keep Your Groups Alive This Summer

By Allen White

When I was a kid, summer started when school was out just before Memorial Day and ended just after Labor Day. We had enough time to actually wonder what we would do with ourselves. Sure, there was a week of church camp and a family vacation in there, but there were weeks and weeks of playing outside and watching old reruns, if we were fortunate enough to have a mom who wasn’t hooked on soaps.

Today, summer starts the second week in June and ends about the middle of August. It’s about six to eight weeks, if you’re lucky.

Many groups automatically decide to break for the summer. It’s just what they do. They assume that it’s too hard to get together or that they’re group members are too busy, so why bother gathering as a group? But, when was the last time you rethought your assumptions?

1. Who’s gone for the entire summer anyway?

We go into summer making a few assumptions like “Everybody’s busy traveling, so we might as well not even try to get together as a group.” In a normal year, most families do one big vacation and maybe a few day trips. While everyone in your group probably won’t take vacation on the same week, they also won’t be gone for the entire summer. Before school ends, ask your group about their summer schedules, who knows they might be available after all?

2. Your group may be the spiritual resource for the summer.

In this age of staycations and day trips, people tend to be busier on the weekends than during the week. Few of us could be categorized as the idle rich. Yes, it’s summer, but we’ve got to keep our day jobs. While your group might be headed to the mountains or the beach on the weekends, they’re in town Monday through Friday. They might not be around for church services on Sunday, so your group gathering might be the consistent touch they get during the summer.

3. Your group doesn’t need to meet every week to be spiritual.

If your group meets every week, then meet every other week or meet once a month during the summer. The key is to keep the relational connections up. Ask your group to bring their calendars and see when most of the group will be in town. Even if you can only get together once or twice during the summer, do it. I’ve even seen groups spend vacations together, go on camping trips, and even take a cruise together.

4. Your group doesn’t need to have a Bible study every week to be spiritual.
Have a party and invite prospective members. If you live in the South, grill out. If you live in the rest of the world, have a barbecue. Ask everyone to bring something. Invite the neighbors, but be sure to only invite people that you actually like.

Serve together with a local organization. Is there a neighborhood school with projects, but their funds were cut this year? Is there a yard in your neighborhood that needs work? Is there a single mom or an elderly person who could use a hand? Is a member of your group moving?

Change it up with your group. While some groups will meet 52 weeks of the year, the frequency of the meetings is not nearly as important as keeping in touch over the summer. You never want to give your group the impression that you only care about them September through May, and not as much during Christmas break.
Oh, and on the being spiritual part, we are spiritual beings, so everything we do is spiritual. Our spirituality involves every part of us, not just worship services and Bible studies.

As your group heads into summer, take time to ask what the group would like to do together. Don’t assume that everyone is busy and that no one wants to get together. If you as a leader need a break, then ask other group members to host a party or head up a service project. You’re not alone.

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Farewell, DVD Curriculum

By Allen White taking the guesswork out of groups no dvd

The advent of DVD-based curriculum, and its predecessor VHS-based curriculum, sparked the church-wide campaign movement. All of a sudden, the person leading/hosting/facilitating/in-denial-of-leading no longer needed to feel the pressure to teach or lead. The DVD/VHS did it for them. Remember Pastor Rick Warren’s line, “Be a star with your VCR”? Those were great days.

But, now VCRs are long gone. Our family has one built into a TV, but it no longer works. The future is not bright for DVDs either. Just ask Blockbuster Video, except you can’t because they are out of business. Today, we stream video on Hulu, Netflix, On Demand, and Crackle. DVD players are being replaced by Apple TV, Roku, Fire Sticks, and Chromecast. Members of the churches we work with these days are asking if teaching videos are available online because they don’t have a DVD player any more. What do you do?

1. Create Your Own Video Content

Other than Jesus Christ, the reason people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. Now, don’t tell your worship pastor. It will break his heart.

When a senior pastor stands up and invites the congregation to do a series based on his/her curriculum, you are just giving your church more of what they already want. When the pastor invites them to gather a few friends and grow, permission has been given to get very creative with group life. There are many great reasons to create your own curriculum.

By creating your own curriculum, you own the content. You aren’t bootlegging a Christian author and publisher’s project, it belongs to you. You can do whatever you want with it. There are many low cost ways to create curriculum, you don’t need a big budget or even a professional crew. Get creative.

2. Stream Your Content Online.

By streaming curriculum online, you avoid the cost of creating a DVD menu as well as burning and packaging DVDs. Online content enables your groups to access curriculum anywhere in the world on any device. If you had told me five years ago that one day I would be streaming content primarily on my Android phone, I wouldn’t have believed you. Today, I view media on my phone more often than not.

Now your groups would need to choose a medium that best suits the size of your group. After all, 20 people can’t really gather around a phone or tablet. But, they can stream content on their televisions. Maybe you should help them with this.

Back when we were making the transition from VHS to DVD, our new series at New Life in Turlock, CA was exclusively on DVD. A few people would wonder up to the small group table and ask if they could get the video on VHS because they didn’t have a DVD player yet. I told them unfortunately that was not an option, but, then I’d smile and say, “This is your lucky day.” I reached under the table and pulled out a brand new DVD player for them. I’d bought 10 of these for $30 at Walmart just in case. Their eyes lit up. It was their lucky day! You can do the same thing with Amazon Fire Sticks, Chromecast, AppleTV or Roku boxes. If a Fire Stick costs $39 and burning and packaging a DVD is about $2.00 per unit (not to mention the cost of creating the DVD), well, you do the math.

3. Offering Higher Resolution.

As technology continues to advance, the DVD lags further and further behind. Even on our project for The Daniel Plan small group curriculum, the end result was a Standard Definition DVD. Most publisher only produce SD DVDs. Otherwise, like Disney, they would have to offer the Blue Ray combo pack which also contains an SD DVD. Most people with a flat screen TV are consuming content in HD. Some have moved on to Ultra High Definition. Now, imagine watching a Standard Definition DVD on an Ultra High Definition monitor. It’s not looking too good. Now, this is definitely a first world problem, but it is a growing problem. The church cannot afford to offer only second or third rate media to a culture who is consuming the best of the best. Poor video quality takes away from the message. Streaming video can help to resolve this issue.

4. The Advantage of Weekly Content.

When we create DVDs for churches and publishers, we have to capture all of the content for the entire project well in advance of a group launch. By streaming video, you can shoot, edit and post what you need as you need it, even if you are just one week ahead of the groups. Some churches are even shooting 6-8 minute teaching sessions between or after services on Sunday morning while the message is still fresh in the speaker’s mind. Services like MediaFusion offer great solutions for both streaming and on-demand video as well as high quality, low cost video production options.

5. Leave No Late Adopter Behind, aka Old People.

Some folks haven’t made the leap to streaming video. Some folks never will. It’s a good idea to have a few DVDs on hand for those without the ability to stream video. Make this the exception, but not the rule. One church we’re working with actually burns a small group DVD every week for this exact reason. There is no menu. They just pop it in and it plays. There is no need to exclude late adopters who are willing to participate. You should really only have to do this for another 5-6 years, then DVDs should be gone for good.

6. Embrace a Literal World of Possibilities

Streaming video has the power to reach the entire world in an instant. Once a video is posted, there are no boundaries. If you offer a downloadable discussion guide, you could be providing a great service. A few years back we experimented with an online group study sharing site similar to Sermoncentral. An unexpected outcome was receiving thank you emails from people in other parts of the world who no longer had to wait weeks to months for physical products to be delivered. They could go online and download what they needed for their group that night. Now, you can easily add world missions to your church’s discipleship ministry.

When I started into Bible college and then seminary over 30 years ago, I never imagined the role technology would play in ministry. The only available technology back then was really just radio preachers and televangelists. At one point, I was a pretty strong advocate for the separation of church and television. But now, with so many people constantly unavailable for onsite meetings, yet continually available online, it would be irresponsible to not use technology to disciple not only our church members, but also anyone else in the English-speaking world. But, why stop there?

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What If Robin Williams was in My Group?

By Allen White Robin Williams red background
We lost Robin Williams nearly a year ago. He was a beloved comedian and actor. In fact, he was so beloved that his name was one of the most searched in all of 2014 on Google. I wrote a post a few days after his death as a response to so many hateful things Christians were saying on the internet. That post was not only the most read post ever on my blog, but was also the most read post ever on Rick Warren’s pastors.com with over 1 million views. If you haven’t seen it, you can read it here.

As I conclude this series on the temperaments of group members and the potential for conflict and misunderstanding, I want us to look at the epidemic of mental illness. It’s not a temperament, but an illness that personally affects 1 in 4 adults or 61.5 million Americans (according to a 2013 report by the National Alliance of Mental Illness). Mental illness affects even more people than that including the family members, neighbors, co-workers, fellow group members, and many others in relationship with those who suffer.

So, what if Robin Williams was in your group?

1. We would have a lot of fun.

If you’ve ever seen Robin Williams on a talk show, you know he was a man of a thousand voices. He would move from one comedic rant to the next and never miss a beat. He really didn’t even need the talk show host. Robin was a one man show who only needed an audience, but it didn’t have to be a large audience.

The best man in my wedding has a brother who was the pilot of Disney’s jet. Most of his job was flying Michael Eisner, president of Disney at the time, around the country. On one flight, Robin Williams was a passenger. He was just as animated and dynamic with a few people on the plane as he ever was on any talk show.

If Robin was in my group, we’d certainly have our hands full, but we would also have a great time.

2. He would want to be “Robin” not Patch Adams or Mork from Ork.

Robin is known for so many beloved and sometimes zany characters, but like all of us, we just want to be accepted for who we are. He probably wouldn’t want us to impersonate his characters or rattle off zippy one liners. In my groups, I’ve never wanted to be regarded as “Pastor Allen.” For the group to work, I need to come to group and be “Allen.” Like all of us, he would like to be accepted as Robin, not a clown, not a showman, not our evening’s entertainment, but just himself.

3. We would learn to be more generous.

Both before but especially after his death, stories flowed about Robin William’s generosity. He required movie studios to hire a certain number of homeless people on the crew as part of his contract for a picture. So many personal stories have surfaced like buying a bike for Conan O’Brien when he was going through a rough time or giving Jessica Chastain a scholarship to attend Juilliard or tirelessly fundraising for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

Every year at Christmas Robin would visit the UCSF Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. In 2001, my son was a baby in the Intensive Care Nursery at UCSF and received a visit from Robin Williams along with all of the other children there. My wife and I missed the visit. Sam was only a month old and has no memory, but after Robin’s death, when I told him that special man had visited him when he was a baby, he was very touched.

I know of a lot of small groups who are very generous. Here in Greenville, South Carolina, the Holy Smokers from Brookwood Church cater an amazing meal for the homeless in the community. Groups have done so many things. But, I believe, Robin could show a group how to go even further.

4. The rest of us would have to remove our masks first and be patient.

The public was very shocked by the extent of Robin Williams’ depression that drove him to suicide. Suicide is a terrible decision in any life. Most of us can’t imagine the state of mind one would need to be in to feel you had no other choice, because we don’t struggle with the things he struggled with.

But, here’s the other thing, if our groups are just skimming the surface of a Bible study, we don’t really know what’s going on with anyone unless they are in enough pain to cry out for help without being shamed by the group. Participating in a small group is not a magic cure for anything. People can pretend to be okay in a group meeting just like they can pretend to have it all together in church, but that’s not okay.

If we ever expect anyone else to open up, we need to open up ourselves. We need to talk about what’s real, what’s hidden, what’s secret — these are the things with power over us. The things hidden in darkness must be exposed to the light. After all, the only thing that thrives in darkness is mold.

Let’s be honest — we’ve been in groups where a member announces a divorce and we didn’t even know there were marital problems. Or, someone files for bankruptcy and we didn’t know the extent of their struggle. There is no room for lone rangers in a group. You and I are not any better than anyone else. It’s time to let down our guard and admit that.

If we wanted Robin Williams or anyone else to open up, we would need to create the right environment. That includes showing our own vulnerability.

5. We would be out of our depth, but we would love everyone generously.

Most small groups are not equipped to deal with mental illness. From Schizophrenia to Bipolar Disorder to Depression, Substance Abuse, Autism and so much more, groups don’t know what to do or how to help. And, that’s okay.

There are doctors and medication and mental health professionals to help with mental illness. Groups are designed for belonging, acceptance, care and Bible study. Group leaders and members don’t need to become mental health experts, but they do need to show Christlike love to everyone God sends their way. While all of us can certainly learn more about mental illness, groups need to fulfill the purpose they are intended for and seek help when the needs go beyond the group’s goals.

If a group’s purpose turns to helping a single member who is struggling, then that person becomes the group’s “project,” and the group members reveal their own co-dependency. No one wants to be someone’s project. If the group is in over their heads, then they need to admit where they can help and where they can’t. There is a time to get other help.

We miss you Robin Williams. Thanks for bringing so much joy to the world. Our regret is you had to suffer so much.

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Why Off Campus Groups are Just Better

By Allen White

A group’s location says a lot about the group. If a group meets in a classroom at church, it feels like Sunday school. It’s formal. Sometimes the room is distracting because it’s normally used as groupchildren’s space. I remember leading a group for Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in a third grade classroom. A child had created a poster for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. While I really wanted to help people work through their ennagrams and get to their family dynamics, I kept thinking, “No, it’s chocolate. Really!”

This is why off-campus groups are just better:

1. Better for the Group.

A home is more personal than a classroom. While a group could cover the exact same content in both environments, there is something about a home that reframes the meeting as “group life” rather than just a class. Hospitality has become a bit of a lost art. Growing up families would regularly have each other over for dinner. Today, families are generally too exhausted to think about volunteering for another thing. Inviting a group into a home is a meaningful gesture. Group members can get to know the group leader by asking about family pictures or mementos from years gone by. What’s even better is having the group trade off homes. This way the group can meet in every member’s home and get to know them better as well.

A home is a more casual environment. The meeting doesn’t necessarily feel like a “church thing.” They are meeting with a group of people to encourage each other, study God’s Word, and pray for each other. Granted, it’s not a Thursday night poker game, but you can have that kind of community.

This can also apply to a third place like a bookstore, a coffee shop or a community room at an apartment complex. While these settings are not as personal as a home, they certainly are not as formal as a classroom. The other great thing about meeting in a third place is there is no cleaning up before or after the meeting, and possibly no refreshments to provide. Latte anyone?

2. Better for the Church.

Now, by better for the church, I don’t mean less wear and tear on the building or giving the childcare workers a night off, but that’s not a bad start. Most churches do not have adequate educational space to house every small group who meets. When I served at Brookwood Church, groups met every day of the week, Sunday through Friday, morning, noon and night. Even though there were a couple hundred groups, we completely ran out of space. We weren’t going to build anything else, so where do you turn?

Once we embrace the idea that the church is not merely a building, but the body of believers, suddenly the church has all kinds of space. In fact, churches have millions and millions of dollars worth of property that they aren’t even utilizing — the homes of their members. No need for a capital campaign or building a new building, the church has buildings. They just need to plant group life there.

3. Better for the Neighborhood.

Pastors debate whether their churches should be missional or attractional. I would argue they need to be both. Churches should offer a weekend service where unchurched people would feel welcomed and interested. A place where they friends can invite them, and they can hear the Gospel. But, the church should also go to them. When our church in California, New Life Christian Center, launched our first self-produced curriculum (read more here), we encountered a result we didn’t count on — people who had never darkened the door of our church were meeting our pastor in the homes of their friends. As our group leaders reached out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers, they were invited into a comfortable place, their friend’s home, rather than a church service where they might not feel as comfortable. After a few weeks of watching our pastor on video, the leader asked if they like to come to church with them. When they came to a service, they felt like they already knew our pastor because they had just spent a few weeks with him at their friend’s house.

4. Transitioning Your Groups without Transitioning Yourself Out

There are some exceptions to where groups meet. There will certainly be some resistance. In some places, there will be a flat out sense of entitlement. After all, didn’t the church members fund the building campaign, so why can’t they use the building?

As I mentioned, when I first arrived at Brookwood Church, the vast majority of groups met on campus, and I wasn’t about to change that. It’s not that I’m a chicken. I just lack the gift of martyrdom. After all, what we were doing was working for a lot of the groups. If it ain’t broke…

I made two commitments to the existing on-campus groups. First, while we were starting many new groups off-campus, I would never ask them to move off-campus. Second, I promised them I would never split up their group if they exceeded 12 members. That’s for another day. Remember, if you kick them out, they might just kick you out.

Now, over the course of the next four years, we started hundreds of new groups off-campus. And, we started a few groups on-campus. Now by “few” I mean four groups. A couple of people could not figure out another way to have a group, so I gave them a room. Then, we started a group for single moms. Not only did I give them a room, I gave them free childcare, free curriculum, tickets to a Chonda Pierce concert (with free childcare) — the whole works. After all, single moms and their kids are our modern day “widows and orphans.”

Once we changed the expectations for most groups to meet off-campus, they figured it out: meeting place, childcare, and whatever other objection they had. They didn’t feel like second class citizens. They just understood that we were out of space. We may have missed starting a few groups along the way, but the groups we started were better in so many ways.

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Must Haves for New Small Group Leaders

By Allen White

In a meeting with the pastors and small group leaders at Element Church, a great new church plant in Woodruff, South Carolina. Their church and small group ministry is just months old. Josh Bradley and his team are doing a great job bringing a contemporary church into a small community. Here are some essential building blocks for a successful small group ministry that I shared with them last week:

1. Balance Produces Growth

Everyone who joins a group has different needs. Others have an actual agenda. Some members want to create an exact duplicate of a group they were in years ago. Still others want a group to meet their needs. Still others will want a group that is more social or more spiritual or more evangelistic or more, more. The good news is that each group can accomplish a great deal, if they agree on the direction together. Well, except, for resurrecting the great group from the past. You would need a time machine for that one.

The first groups of believers in Acts 2:42-47 met together for Discipleship, Fellowship, Ministry, Worship and Evangelism. Some have tried to say that Acts 2 represents the epitome of what an accomplished church or group should be. The truth is that this passage reveals what the church was doing on its first day! These weren’t things built over time. These were things that needed to happen all at once.

That doesn’t mean that each of these five things should happen in every meeting. But, your group needs to decide together when these things will happen. A group agreement is a great place to start. Read more about forming group agreements here.

2. Shared Leadership

Ownership is huge in developing and sustaining groups. Every member needs to have some skin in the game. As the leader, you should do everything you can to give away every task in the group to a willing volunteer. The only thing a leader shouldn’t give away is responsibility for the group. But, everything else from leading the discussion and hosting the group to bringing refreshments and following up on prayer requests should be delegated.

In the group I lead, I will announce to the group after the first lesson in a new study, “Today is the only day I will be leading the discussion. I’m passing around the calendar, and everyone needs to sign up for a week to lead.” It works every time. Now, a group member can pass, but they all can’t pass.

Another way to share leadership is to listen to what your group members care about. “I think our group should have more socials” or “It would be great if we could all come out on Saturday and help my neighbor build his fence.” Rather than the leader taking on one more responsibility, ask the person who suggested it to put something together. This strategy is known as “you spot it, you got it.” It works well.

3. Group Life Cycle

Every group goes through distinct stages in group life. Just like understanding the path from infancy to adulthood, every group needs to understand their awkward teenage stage and that their mid-life crisis is coming.

Steve Barker from InterVarsity maps out the group life cycle this way: Exploration, Transition, Action and Termination. In Exploration, the big issue is inclusion. Group members want to know that they fit in. They need to feel wanted and accepted.

Next is Transition, which is characterized by conflict. Hopefully, the end result of conflict is shared goals and objectives. This is the review and implimentation of your group agreement.

The third stage is Action. Once the group has agreed on the steps forward, now they have the freedom to act and move ahead together in ministry. The final stage is termination. This is the time to celebrate the time the group has enjoyed together.

The Group Life Cycle usually lasts about two years. Unless the group has made a concerted effort to invite and include new people in the group, most groups will stagnate and eventually fold at the two year mark. Rather than keeping a group limping along, it might be a good idea to plan when the group will end, then regroup and start over again.

While most of us are aware of groups that have lasted for decades, these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. The same leader might still be leading a group, but odds are that the group membership is quite different from where they began. There is nothing wrong with lifelong groups as long as they are bearing fruit.

4. Group Mission

The mission of the group is no different than the mission of the church: “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20). The goal of group life isn’t the comfort of the group members. The goal is to reach others for Christ and grow them up in the faith. And, that makes group members uncomfortable.

The issue groups face is that they develop close relationships over time and want to continue with the group members they are close to. The reality is that given the Group Life Cycle, most groups will stagnate or end after two years. If the group continues to invite and include new people, they can avoid this two year deadline. But, if the group continues to invite and include others, then the group will outgrow its meeting space, overload the leader, and bloat the discussion. These are good problems.

As soon as your group reaches eight people, sub-group. This will allow everyone to get their word in. This is also a great opportunity for an up and coming leader to get their feet wet by leading all or part of the discussion. Who? Since you have rotated leadership in your group, you have an idea of which members are on their way to leadership. Some will do a great job. Maybe they’re 75-80% there. Others will show some potential and might be 40-50% there. A few might need a lot of help.

John Maxwell said, “If someone can do the job 30% as well as you, give them the job.” The reality is the person can probably do it 60% as well, but we haven’t given them credit for it. As your group grows, sub-grouping is essential for discussion, group care, and leadership development. If your meeting place is big enough, keep growing the group. When the meeting situation becomes a problem for the whole group, then it’s time to figure out something else. Caution here: this will be a problem for the leader before it’s a problem for the group. Hang in there. When the group feels the need to change, change will come.

There are many other questions on the minds of new leaders, but this is a good summary of where to start. When you feel overwhelmed, pray and ask God for help. When you need training, seek out your coach. If you need a little information, check out the other posts on this blog.

Great Resources for Getting Groups Started:

Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen (Read my review here).

Connecting in Communities by Eddie Mosley (Read my review here).

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EXPONENTIAL GROUPS

by Allen White

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