Exponential growth comes in two different ways. The common
view of exponential growth relates to a trajectory. Eight people in a group
each launch their own groups after a season. Eight times eight is 64. This is
the second generation. Then, when 64 people launch their group of eight, there
are 512. The word “exponential” is generally applied when an organization
reaches the third generation and beyond. I love this thinking, but there is a
problem. Not every culture is amenable to regular group multiplication.
Small group pastors use terms like “multiply” or “birth,”
but for many people it feels more like “splitting up” or “getting a divorce.”
North America is a culture rife with divorce. Please don’t read this as an
indictment against divorce. No person entered into marriage with the intent of
divorce. Something went terribly wrong. This is not a judgment, but an
For those who grew up being bounced between two parents or
in a step family, the effects of divorce are very real. When they join a small
group which in essence becomes their spiritual family, the last thing they want
is for their family to break up.
Some intentional disciple-making groups succeed at multiplying groups to a point, but in North America this is rare to see across an entire congregation. Most people are simply not willing to give up their group in order to start another. So, if groups aren’t exponentially multiplying, where do you get more groups?
There is another way to view exponential. Groups become
exponential when you add an exponent to your goal. If you set out to start 10
groups (or 100) in the coming year, the challenge is to multiply your goal by
10. Those reaching for 10 groups would strive for 100 groups instead. And, if
you’re going for 100 groups, then stretch your goal to 1,000 groups.
Does this sound farfetched? Ask Troy Jones, pastor of New Life Center, Renton, Washington, who started 500 groups in a church of 2,500. Ask Jerry Branch, pastor of Dallas Baptist Church, Dallas, Pennsylvania, who connected 100 people into groups in a church of 50 people.
If you think it’s impossible, then it is impossible for you. No one has ever accomplished anything they perceived as impossible. But, what is possible? When our church, New Life Christian Center, Turlock, California went from having about 240 of our 800 people in groups to connecting over 1,000 people in groups, it seemed impossible to others. Truthfully, when only 30 percent of our adults were connected into groups, it seemed impossible to me too. We were stuck. How did we connect 125 percent of our average adult attendance into groups? It required a change in our thinking.
I used to think that in order to have 100 groups, I needed 1,000 people. After all, 100 groups multiplied by 10 people each is 1,000 people. But, I was looking at this the wrong way. In order to have 100 groups in a church, you only need 100 people to each start a group. If you have a leader, you have a group.
Kingdom Life Church, Baltimore, Maryland, launched a video-based series in their church, which had a weekend attendance of 600 adults. Before the series, they had seven groups. When the series started, they launched 167 groups. These weren’t ultra-small, small groups. Out of 600 regular church members, 167 stepped up to start a group. It’s not impossible. It’s exponential.
The alternative is to grow your groups incrementally. That’s easy. Well, I say that except there was a year I didn’t launch any groups in my church. And, I know that I’m not alone. For any church to start 5-10 new groups is pretty easy. But, what if you 10x that number? What if you embraced the possibility of starting 50-100 groups instead? Rather than just connecting your congregation, you could connect your community.
What’s your goal for this year? What would it look like if you 10x’d it?
The key to successful church-wide campaigns has been
lowering the bar on leadership. It’s time to stop.
Campaigns have seemed successful in the past. The numbers are up and to the right. Every campaign recruits more leaders and connects more people into groups. But, have you considered the attrition? How many people are no longer leading? How many group members are no longer in a group? If you look only at numbers and aren’t tracking the individuals involved, you are entering into a scenario of disposable small groups.
The problem with qualifying anyone to lead is that you’ll
get just anyone to lead. They aren’t equipped. They are inexperienced. They
might be new in the faith. How can they give what they don’t have? But, there
is a way to recruit an abundance of new small group leaders without lowering
Where Are You Headed?
The goal of a church-wide campaign is not to create
DVD-dependent hosts who can never open their Bibles and rightly divide the Word
of Truth. In fact, many churches have experienced a diminishing return having
launched campaign after campaign only to discover their group members are
unchallenged and frequently forced back to “kindergarten” spiritually. There is
a time to begin and a time to grow up.
Ultimately, small groups should be environments where
disciples are made. How do you make a disciple? According to Mike Breen,
“People learn by imitation, not instruction.” To make disciples you must make
disciples of the group leaders. Felt needs topics on video-based curriculum is
a great test drive for admitted non-leaders to try their hands at leading
groups, but it’s not a long term strategy.
But, if you go back to “quality” groups, then what happens
to connecting everyone into groups?
Where Do You Start?
The benefit of church-wide campaigns and small groups for
that matter is leader development. The dilemma comes; however, most people
don’t regard themselves as being any kind of leader. I’ve had numerous people
turn down the invitation of “Would you like to lead a group?” It’s the wrong
question. Many avowed non-leaders have leadership qualities that they haven’t
recognized as leadership gifts. This is where the campaign comes in.
By offering a short-term opportunity for someone to gather
people they are comfortable with and do a study together, they demonstrate the
ability to lead a group without asking them to lead a group. Yea, but, didn’t
that just lower the bar? This is more than semantics – you didn’t invite anyone
to become a leader. You invited them to recruit themselves for a trial run at
leading a group without saying “lead.” Unfortunately, this is where most
church-wide campaign efforts stop. This is not the finish line. This is the starting
Now, It’s Time to Raise the Bar.
Once a “leader” and group have a couple of series or
semesters under their belts, they are effectively indicating that they want to
continue. Now it’s time to bring back the requirements you might have delayed
initially. There’s a big difference between lowering the bar on leadership and
delaying the requirements. When leaders have proven themselves and have
fulfilled the requirements for leadership in your church, then it’s appropriate
to call them a leader.
Calling anyone a “leader” right out the gate is risky. As
Paul told Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands…” (1 Timothy
5:22). Before anyone is commissioned or given a title, they need to prove
themselves through some kind of trial run. If they pass the test, then invite
them to more. If they don’t do well or exhibit the wrong attitude, then thank
them for fulfilling their commitments. You see, there was something to that “host”
strategy after all.
Grow your leaders. Grow your groups. Turn up the temperature
in the curriculum and in expectations of the groups. Challenge them to take
risks, to serve, and to do things that scare them. Encourage them to face hard
conversations and to tell the truth – good or bad.
Jesus commissioned His disciples to “go and make disciples” – not connect people into groups and not to assimilate newcomers. That may be part of it, but how is discipleship coming along in your church? How many are connecting? How many are growing? How many are leading? Where is your bar set?
Want to continue the conversation? Join the Stop Lowering the Bar Webinar on Thursday, June 6 or Tuesday, June 11 at 2 pm EDT. Register Here.
There’s an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care.” You’ve heard it a thousand times. It’s old, but the meaning is relevant. No matter how well you coach and train your leaders, they need to know that you care. Lack of care often leads to burnout. You don’t want to go there.
As the typical ministry season (September – May) beings to
wrap up, it’s a great time to show your appreciation to your group leaders. You
don’t necessarily need to make over-the-top gestures, but it’s important to do
something. After all, there are only two parts to small group ministry: (1)
Recruiting Leaders, and (2) Keeping Your Leaders Motivated, Equipped, and
Happy. They’ll gladly do their job, when you do yours. Here are some ways to
show your leaders that you care:
Plan a Fun Event.
When you think about events, they really can run the gamut
depending on your budget. You could go the route of team building events like
ropes courses, trampoline parks, or escape rooms. If you’re in the vicinity of
a campground, they might have an affordable facility available for your event.
If you’re on a budget, think about a picnic or tailgate. You
could either cater the event or invite all of the group members along with the
leaders to the event. The group members can provide the food for their groups,
so there’s nothing to budget for.
One year our church in California had a picnic like this and
asked each group to present an award to their group leader. Every group got up
and expressed appreciation for their leaders publicly. Then, they would present
either a homemade award like a plaque or a trophy. One group even created a
Barbie doll to resemble their leader. Some groups went way over the top and
gave restaurant gift certificate, a weekend away, or something else their
leader really enjoyed. No matter how it was done, every leader left feeling
very appreciated by the church and by their group.
Give a Small Gift.
small gift communicates a lot. You don’t need to give away a car for leaders to
feel appreciated. Think about what the leaders might enjoy – a Starbucks card,
movie tickets, or an ice cream cone.
One year I gave every one of my leaders a book. I purchased two cases of John Townsend and Henry Cloud’s Making Small Groups Work and gave one to every leader. Not only did they feel appreciated, I also put some training into their hands. Many churches have done the same with my Leading Healthy Groups book.
don’t need to be large. But, even something small communicates a lot.
Give Public Recognition.
In addition to a small gift or some other form of
appreciate, publicly recognizing your group leaders in a worship service is
meaningful to leaders. If this comes from the senior pastor, you get bonus
Asking group leaders to stand, come to the front, or come up
on stage, communicates the importance of small groups and the role of small
group leaders in your church. Either you or your senior pastor can publicly
thank leaders for letting God use them in the past year. You could even give
some statistics like the number of people who came to Christ as a result of
groups, or the number of people currently involved in groups.
While you’ve got your congregation’s attention, this would
be a great opportunity to give them a heads up about your next group launch,
even if it comes in the Fall. People like to plan ahead. And, remember, what
you are saying to your current leaders is also being said to your future
leaders sitting in the congregation.
Leader appreciation is only limited to your creativity. If
you have no budget, then get even more creative. Even simple things like a
handwritten note are significant. After all, who gets personal mail anymore? A
personal email is not the same.
How will you appreciate your leaders this year? What have
you done in the past? I would love to hear what you’re doing.
Most pastors realize their church’s Easter attendance is a
better indicator of the church’s true size than its weekly attendance. Albeit
there are a significant number of visitors on Easter Sunday, the reality is
many of these visitors are not visiting. This is their church. They don’t
attend another church. They claim yours.
In his new book, Connect: How to Grow Your Church in 28 Days-Guaranteed, Don Corder writes, “On any given Sunday, eighty percent are regular attendees and twenty percent are non-regular attendees” (p. 30). He goes on to explain that the 80 percent attend about 33 times per year, while the 20 percent of non-regular attendees are there only 2.4 times per year based on researching The Provisum Group’s database of church clients. What does this mean?
An Attendance of 100 is Really More Like 559.
A church of 100 people is really made up of 559 people. By
Corder’s calculation, 126 people attend 33 times per year on average, while
another 433 make up the other 20 percent of weekly worship attendance. So, how
many people actually attend your church?
If your church averages 1,000 people on the weekend, then
your actual attendee number is somewhere around 5,590. By the same calculation
used above, 1,260 of your people attend about 33 times per year, while another
4,333 attend about 2.4 times per year. If you have any doubts, look at the
total number of records in your church’s database. It’s not so farfetched, is
What Does This Mean for Discipleship?
Often the measuring stick for groups is compared group
membership to the weekend attendance. If you’re in a church of 500 and have 250
people in groups, then you could claim that 50 percent of your people are connected
into groups. But, that’s not realistic in light of this new calculation.
A worship attendance of 500 really represents 2,167 people
who attend your church over the course of the year. If you have 250 people in
groups, you actually have about 12 percent of your people in groups. Well, you
weren’t supposed to be proud of numbers anyway, right?
The church’s mission is to “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:18-20). Sermons don’t make disciples. How do you engage the 77.46% of your congregation who only attends an average of 2.4 times per year?
Get Them While They’re There.
What are your church’s peak worship services of the year?
Christmas and Easter, right? The first pastor I served would often say in
Easter services, “Well, if I don’t see you for a while, I want to wish you a
Merry Christmas” and the reverse at Christmas. Rather than ridicule your
infrequent attendees, why not invite them to something?
A pastor’s immediate reaction is “But, it’s impossible to
get any airtime on Easter Sunday (or Christmas)…” That’s true. And, it’s okay.
If you could get airtime in the worship service, that would be great. But,
what’s more important than airtime is a plan.
Make a Plan to Connect Your Infrequent Attendees.
Your infrequent attendees took a step to attend a service.
You just need to give them another step. What are their needs? Where do they
need help? What issues in their lives do they need answers to? If they checked
their children into your children’s ministry on Easter, then a parenting group which
is appropriate to their stage of parenting might be of interest. Are they
married or single? How far do they live from the church? Is there a small group
in their neighborhood? What groups could you promote to these folks? As long as
you have their contact information, you can promote a group that meets their
needs. Or, better yet, a group leader could call and invite a few to their
group. Better still, a person who knows an infrequent attendee could call and
invite them to a group (or start a group).
It doesn’t matter if an announcement wasn’t made in the
service or didn’t appeared in the bulletin on Easter Sunday. For most parents,
their children have overdone the sugar and just want to get home. They’re not
thinking of signing up for a group on Easter or Christmas anyway. But, since
they’ve just attended a recent service, the church is on their mind. Then, when
they receive an invitation by email or a phone call from a warm, friendly group
leader, they might be open to join a group.
While You Have Their Email Addresses…
Remember, infrequent attendees are only coming to your
church for the most part. They may not attend very often, but they aren’t going
anywhere else. If you invite them to a group launch or connection event, they
just might join a group.
Many pastors look at that overly bloated part of the church
database and wonder why they keep all of those records anyway. Many folks don’t
appear to attend much or give anything, so why not purge the database? Don’t
purge the database. These folks are familiar with your church. They are more
likely to attend a service or join a group than people who have never attended.
Invite them to your next connection event. Use the Summer for groups to host
open houses and invite infrequent attendees who live in their neighborhoods.
Don’t rest on your laurels. Your connection percentage just got blown out of the water. Start thinking about turning every group member into a group leader (or every church member into a group leader). The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few.
Easter services are the biggest of the year in most churches. Everyone who calls your church home, their friends, and plenty of visitors pack the house. You and your staff give it your all. The music, the creative elements, the sermon — everything is planned, prepared, timed, and executed to a tee.
Our buildings are packed with dozens to thousands of people. A good number of those folks met Jesus for the first time. Now, we need to go lay down.
In fact, in our exhaustion, we might even question why we did everything we did. Some have even plunged from delight into despair. If Easter was the peak, then next Sunday will be the valley. In a culture where people attend an average of 1.6 times per month (or less often), we won’t see many of them again for at least six weeks or six months. Should we just throw in the towel?
Okay, what if I told you what you are experiencing is actually normal? You have an Easter hangover. Here’s what to do:
Take Care of Yourself.
After a big event, we all go through what Dr. Archibald Hart refers to as post-adrenaline depression. Dr. Hart said his most dreaded time of the week was the Sunday night at the airport after a successful weekend conference. He questioned himself. He questioned his content. He wanted to jump out of a plane at that point without a parachute (my words, not his). Why?
Once we’ve expended our energy and given it all we’ve got, our bodies and emotions tend to shut us down. We can’t do any more. The body needs to recover, so it will do what it takes to discourage you from taking on any more in the near future. Don’t fight it. Take a nap. Eat. Relax. Go hide somewhere. Your body will thank you. But, if you don’t, your body and emotions will punish you. You’ll question your calling. You’ll type out your resignation. You’ll grouch at your wife and kids. Your dog will resign as your best friend. It can get dark.
Drs. Minirth and Meier in their book, How to Beat Burnout, said we should take care of ourselves in this order: First, physically. If we don’t feel good physically, then we don’t feel good about anything. Second, emotionally. Do something you enjoy. Watch a comedy. Putter around your house. Veg out. Lastly, spiritually. Don’t take on any issue related to your calling, your mission, your effectiveness, and your ministry until you have recovered physically and emotionally.
When Will You See Your Easter Crowd Again?
It really depends on your next step. I just talked to a pastor today, who is launching a series alignment next Sunday. His sermons for the next eight weeks will go along with a small group study. Groups are forming next weekend at a luncheon. He announced the series on Easter and is ready to give everyone a next step so they can grow spiritually in a group.
Easter services can’t just be about Easter services. You have everyone who calls your church home and quite a few others under the same roof at the same time. While those make amazing worship services, it’s an even more amazing launch pad for groups. Just ask Gene Appel who launched 460 groups off of Easter weekend with his Hope Rising curriculum.
Okay, I’m frustrating you. Unless you have a modified DeLorean, Easter 2017 is now in the rearview mirror. What can you do now?
You could choose a small group study that goes along with your next message series or create your own THIS WEEK to launch with the groups next weekend. I might be crazy, right? But, you could write five or six questions to send out with a five minute video for your new groups to discuss. Next Sunday invite your congregation to get together with their friends and a few new friends, then have a get together. Promise them that you will have curriculum in their hands or in their Inbox by the next Sunday.
When it comes to discipleship and small groups, there is a
tension between series, seasons, and semesters. On the one hand, you don’t want
to fight against the community calendar. But, on the other side of things, you
can’t have only 8-12 weeks for discipleship in a year. What’s the balance?
Don’t Fight the Losing Battle of the Calendar
Most people have been conditioned by the academic calendar,
even if they are no longer in school. You’re hard at it from Labor Day to
Thanksgiving, and then from the New Year up to Memorial Day, but between those
holidays there are breaks. People are conditioned to this. There are a few
exceptions, but even communities with year-round school still see an ebb in
attendance and participation in the Summer.
Where I live in South Carolina, everyone goes on vacation
either in the week before or after the Fourth of July. Back in the days of the
textile industry, the mills closed for the weeks on either side of Independence
Day. Now, all of the textile mills are long gone, but the pattern remains.
Your community also has seasonal rhythms like this. But, do
you give up on discipleship during the Summer. Think of alternatives like a
Summer devotional that people can take to the beach or the lake (or on their
phone). Discipleship doesn’t need to stop, but the form might need to adjust
for the Summer months.
Don’t Win the Battle and Lose the War.
I’ve seen churches do semesters or even church-wide
campaigns during the Summer months. As you might expect, participation was a
third or less from either a Fall series or a New Year’s series, but there were
some folks who benefited. The problem was the Summer launch reduced the
momentum for the Fall launch when everyone is back in church and available.
They saw less participation and fewer new leaders than in previous Fall
launches because the Summer study took the steam out of it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I led a group for four years that
met for all 52 weeks of the year for Bible study. It is possible, but is it
practical or necessary? You have to decide for your church.
How Do You Use the Summer?
The effort to make well-rounded disciples requires more than
group meetings and Bible studies. Relationships and group life play a big part
in offering the encouragement and accountability that each member needs to
grow. While there is a place to learn what Jesus commanded, His command to us was
to “teach them to obey what I’ve commanded” (Matthew 28:20). You have to know
the commands to obey them, but you have to obey them to become the kind of
disciple Jesus had in mind.
Summer provides the opportunity to grow by other means.
Groups could serve together. Is there a Summer youth event or camp where they
could help? How about a missions trip? Does a neighbor have a neglected yard? Maybe
the group could pitch in to help? But, it doesn’t need to be all work.
I’ve seen groups go on vacation together, go camping together,
or go exploring on a day trip. One group in our church went on a cruise
together. They met another couple from our town on the cruise, who ended up
being part of their group when they returned.
Groups need to work hard together, but they also need to
play hard together. Often you catch a better glimpse of someone outside of a
meeting. Meetings are important, but group life is equally as important.
Make Summer your ally, not your enemy. Don’t fight the
calendar. But, remember, chances are people will be more faithful to their
group over the Summer than they will to weekend services. Don’t stop your
groups, but maybe make an adjustment.
What will your groups do this Summer? Leave your comments below.