Archive for category Small Group Strategy
By Allen White
I recently saw a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. Apparently, I only watch for the game. A group is working out at a crossfit gym while anothers are running a marathon or doing a spin class. There’s a lot of energy. Matched with the challenges and the celebration is the theme from Cheers. Okay, Cheers and beer would go together. But, what do Cheers and beer have to do with crossfit? The answer is community. (You can watch the commercial below.)
Trouble Viewing? https://youtu.be/Cj4NWNWLyhk
We grow in community, not in isolation.
We need others to challenge us.
We need to celebrate our wins.
The church as a whole is quick to move on to the next assignment, but slow to celebrate progress. God is a God who enjoys a good party. Just look at the number of parties God mandated in the Old Testament: Passover (Exodus 12:1-4); Hag Hamatzot (Unleavened Bread; Exodus 12:15-20); Yom Habikkurim (First Fruits; Exodus 23:19); Shavout (Feast of Weeks; Exodus 23:16); Rosh Hashana (Trumpets; Leviticus 23:23-25); Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement; Leviticus 16:1-34); and Sukkoth (Tabernacles; Exodus 23:16). That’s a lot of parties.
Before groups move quickly to the next study, it’s time to celebrate. Whether the celebration is worship and communion or a barbecue and a baptism, it’s important to reflection on what God has done because we’ll need this reminders to face what is ahead.
Beyond studies, celebrate group life: weddings, babies, new homes, new jobs, promotions, and other good things that God gives. When we celebrate with others, there is no room for jealousy. Sometimes the church does an amazing job at weeping with those who weep, but misses it when it comes to rejoicing with those who rejoice. Out of anybody in the world, the church has so much more to celebrate!
Your church does not need to start a CrossFit gym that places decades old Christian music. But, you could certainly join a gym in town. You can find community in a wide variety of places. The key is an environment where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came…
When I started talking about writing a book on small groups, I often encountered a reaction that went like this: “Really, another small group book? What else is there to say?” Truth be told, I would have thought the exact same thing. People who are smarter and more experienced than me had written really great books. What was left to say?
Then, I began to notice some things in the church world. These weren’t hidden things, but there were certainly needs. This is why I wrote Exponential Groups.
I Saw Pastors Who Were Stuck.
Some of these pastors had tried groups and failed. I’ve been there. Others connected 30 percent of their congregations into groups, then once they had the low hanging fruit, they began to spin their wheels. I’ve also been there. Others were stuck at 50 percent, and then others were stuck at 65 percent. Quite a few had topped 100 percent of their congregation in groups for a church-wide study, but then watched their numbers slide once the series was over. That doesn’t feel very good. I’ve had that feeling too.
I remember reading about a chef (stay with me), who through all of his failures and frustrations learned to not only properly make sauces, but also to teach others to make sauces. If the trainee’s sauce didn’t turn out correctly, then the chef knew exactly where the young cook had made the mistake, because the chef had failed at every point of making the sauce himself over the years. This is how I feel about groups ministry.
I remember launching 10 groups in January 1994 and seeing them all end in December 1994. I know exactly why that happened. The same for getting stuck with only 30 percent of our adults in groups after seven years of building groups. (By the way, 30 percent is a very common place for groups to get stuck). And, I have stories for every other place listed above. What I’ve discovered is my education in the school of hard knocks as well as working through the frustration that eventually helped me find success is the most valuable thing I can give any pastor and church. It’s very gratifying to me to watch what was once my ceiling become other pastors’ floors.
I Saw Christians Who Were Comfortable.
Back when we invited people to seeker services, often we encouraged folks to “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the service.” When we eventually came around to ask these folks to serve, we discovered they had taken us up on our offer to get comfortable at church. While this isn’t true of every church and every believer, it is true of many. Comfort prevents growth — personal growth, ministry growth, and church growth.
For the most part people grow when they are going through a painful circumstance or when they take a risk. Let’s face it: we are all more motivated to pray while we’re facing a problem than when things are calm. I quickly realized that Discipleship through Suffering was not going to catch on very quickly. But, what if we challenged people to take a risk? Could they leave their comfort and try something a little risky for a short period of time? More people jumped at the opportunity than I thought possible. There is a way to grow your church and grow your people without wrecking the whole thing.
I Saw a Sleeping Giant and a World in Need.
Our guests became an audience. Audiences must be entertained or else they will find another church that is more entertaining. It’s as if the American church has retired.
Francis Chan said the American church is not “good soil,” but is really “thorny ground.” We live in an age of constant distraction. It’s an era of convenience. Even though people are busy by their own choice, what they invest their lives in typically has little to do with the Kingdom. Why?
For one, they may not know and understand the significance of God’s work. But, as Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, AL said this last week at the ARC conference, “Growth is not an option as long as Heaven and Hell are realities.” But, this leads to another problem — many Christians perceive ministry as another thing to add on to their already busy lives. They just don’t have time. But, what if ministry could be done with the friends they have during the activities they are already doing? Where’s the excuse?
Well, then they might say, “I’m not a leader. I’m not a teacher.” Give them a video-based curriculum. They don’t have to be the teacher, and you don’t have to worry about what they might teach a group of friends. The teaching came from you. If they can gather their friends for the video teaching, then they are leaders whether they give themselves that title or not.
Audiences must be entertained. But, what if we saw our church members as an army? An army must be equipped and empowered. An army must be led. What if we could awaken the sleeping giant of the American church, call them out of retirement, and give them new marching orders? What if they began to depend on God and each other instead of borrowing from their pastors’ spirituality?
If you’re willing to try something new, I wrote a book for you.
By Allen White
Summer Service Projects.
If the group plans to change up their meeting pattern over the Summer, a service project might be a great opportunity for the group to serve, learn, and grow together. They could serve in one of the church’s ministries, at a non-profit, or even find a need and fill it in their own neighborhood.
A definite pro in changing the focus from group meetings and Bible studies, a service project can help groups focus on living out their faith in a practical way. Not only will the person served benefit, but the group will benefit in several ways. Often God speaks to us when we are serving others. God can certainly work “in” each group member as He is working “through” them to serve others. The best part of serving others is taking the Gospel from a discussion to a practical expression. By serving as a group, everyone will get involved, and each individual might feel more comfortable by serving with others they know.
The only downsides of serving together would be in organizing the projects. If the groups depend on the church to schedule projects for them, then Summer may be a challenging time to coordinate their efforts. Whether the church recommends a project or the group identifies one on their own, coordinating busy Summer schedules among group members could cause a roadblock to serving.
Small Group Road Trips and Vacations.
Similar to focusing on group life mentioned above, over the years I’ve had groups go camping together, go on vacation together, or just take a day trip together. In fact, one group from the church I served in Greenville, SC went on a cruise together. They met another couple from Greenville on the cruise, who ended up joining their small group when they returned.
The pro of this is that you REALLY get to know someone when you travel together — the good, the bad, and the ugly. But, the time spent on a cruise or a week-long vacation could be equivalent of all of the time the group spends together throughout the year. And, who knows, they could meet potential group members. Their relationships will be deepened for sure.
The downside is that trips like this aren’t easy for the majority of groups. It’s one thing to offer this as one of many Summer recommendations, but it’s a little much to challenge all of your groups with. Oh, and the group that recruiting new members on the cruise, they want to deduct their fare as a ministry expense…
Forming Groups Around Summer Interests.
A number of churches create groups in a Free Market system where often groups are formed around sports, hobbies, or other shared interests. The idea here is that particular Summer sports, outings, and activities could generate interest in forming new groups.
The pro of this is that the more people have in common with each other, the better chance the group will hit it off. By offering a short term commitment around activities people enjoy doing, it could provide a great introduction to group life.
On the con side, most things formed during the Summer don’t really start well or last long term. If the purpose is a short term experience, then it will work. But, if you’re looking for on-going groups, this is not the best season to start groups.
Another downside is that common interest doesn’t guarantee that the group members will gel into a group. Started groups by leveraging existing relationships creates a stronger basis for groups than common interest. These groups will take some effort to start with no guaranteed return on investment.
Take a Break for the Summer.
As the old song goes, “Summertime, and the living is easy…” Many people will discard extra activities and obligations over the Summer in exchange for the freedom to enjoy the lazy days of Summer. Many churches, in turn, will cancel their groups over the Summer. They just don’t meet in June, July, and August.
The pro for this one is that the groups definitely have a break and will look forward to what’s ahead in the Fall. There also is no guilt for not meeting, since that is the expectation.
The cons are many. For those who want a Summer Bible study, they are completely on their own to put one together. Even if the group wasn’t planning a Bible study, the lack of connection over the Summer could potentially doom the group in the Fall. No meetings or interactions could be too much of a not so good thing. Once Fall arrives, the new task may be starting completely over and forming new groups. It would be easier to encourage groups to continue in some way in order to avoid this.
Summer with the right strategy can boost groups. This will vary from church to church and possibly from group to group. Offer several options to your groups, so they can choose what would work best for them over the Summer months to continue the group, but also allowing for a change of pace.
This post first appeared on smallgroups.com.
By Allen White
Summer is a tricky season for groups, but it can also be an awesome season for groups. In North America, public school has conditioned us over the last 100 years or so to take a break during the Summer. Once the days get longer and the temperatures rise, participation tends to decline. But, let’s not throw away the Summer just yet. Most people take a couple weeks of vacation, but few people have the luxury of taking the entire Summer off. Here are some pros and cons of Summer group strategies.
I started a men’s group 10 years ago that meets year-round. The guys get together every Wednesday for lunch at a restaurant and use a sermon discussion guide from the previous Sunday. Attendance is up and down, but in the fluctuations of Summer schedules, most of the guys work most Wednesdays and eat lunch as well.
For neighborhood groups and other groups that meet in the evenings the Summer schedule can be a little more challenging. With longer days and more outdoor activities, group studies can easily go by the wayside.
The pros of Summer Studies can be meaningful. The group is available when the members can attend. Even if everyone is not there every week, the group meeting is available when they are. As I mentioned before, few people are gone for the entire Summer. In fact, sometimes attendance is more consistent to the group than on the weekend when people might take mini-vacations. In the ups and downs of Summer, the group could be the stabilizing factor.
The group continues getting together for care, support, study, and accountability all year. That the group meetings don’t take a backseat during the Summer schedule. This made sense for my men’s group. You make a good point about areas with year-round school. This was the case in some of the schools in California when we lived there. Even though school might be in session June, July, and August, however, there is still the pull of Summer is disrupt the normal pattern of the group.
On the other side of things, Summer Studies can become rather disjointed. As with any time of the year, if people miss one or two lessons in a study guide, they can usually pick up and continue on with the group. If they miss too many, however, they might feel they can’t catch up and thus skip the rest of the study.
An alternative would be for groups to choose a six-week study, then decide which six weeks they can meet over the Summer months. They probably won’t select six weeks in a row, but they can put their calendars together before Summer starts to see when most of the group is available. This works for some groups.
Each group must decide if regular Summer meetings will serve their group or if it will decrease momentum for the Fall launch. The ebb and flow of the calendar is not necessarily a bad thing.
Summer Church-wide Campaigns or Alignments.
A few churches have done Summer campaigns. A church-wide campaign or alignment means the weekend message is tied to the sermon series. They hear the message on the weekend from the pastor, then they discuss the same topic in their group in the following week. Campaigns or alignments are usually great catalysts in starting new groups, recruiting new leaders, and connecting people into groups.
On the plus side of things, a Summer campaign would offer people in your church another onramp to groups. They don’t have to wait for a Fall campaign or group launch. They can join a group now while they are still interested.
There is, however, a considerable downside to a Summer campaign or alignment. For one, the senior pastor is usually the motivator in recruiting new leaders, forming new groups, and preaching the sermons to go with the campaign. In launching groups through a campaign, I highly recommended the giving the role of Chief Recruiter and Spokesperson to the Senior Pastor. While other staff pastors could preach the series, recruit leaders, and form groups, most associate pastors will only get 30 percent the result that the senior pastor would by saying the same words. (I know this from experience. After I saw the impact of my senior pastor recruiting leaders and promoting groups, I stopped recruiting in 2004 and haven’t recruited one person since.) Often senior pastors take a study break or sabbatical during the Summer months. If the senior pastor is unavailable, then a church will not gain much from a Summer launch.
The other issue with a big Summer groups push is that it takes away momentum from the Fall launch. Fall, by far, is the largest group launch season of the year followed by the New Year and then Easter. A few years ago I coached a small group pastor who insisted they promote Summer groups. I was very reluctant for the reasons stated above and as much as I advised him not to take that path, he felt it was the way for his church to go. I supported him in the launch. The end result was what I feared. The Summer launch was mediocre, and the Fall launch suffered as a result of sapped momentum. I should have insisted that he wait.
Personally, I don’t think a Summer campaign or alignment is the right timing, but there are churches with Summer semesters who would disagree with me. Again, the trade off is gaining a little during the Summer to potentially lose a lot in the Fall.
Focus Solely on Group Life.
While some groups are willing to take on a study during the Summer, other groups will turn from group meetings to group life over the Summer months. These groups will have barbecues together and other activities just to hang out and stay connected over the Summer. Many churches encourage their groups to meet together at least once per month socially over the Summer months, then get ready to dive into another study in the Fall.
The tension lies in the fact that some churches equate Bible study with discipleship. Personally, I believe discipleship is more holistic and that our spiritual growth is influenced by the Bible, other people, our attitudes and actions, our feelings, our circumstances, our backgrounds, and many other inputs. (There is a book brewing in my head). All of that to say, I believe there is much more to discipleship than Bible study. Some pastors hold that the absence of group meetings and Bible study indicates the absence of discipleship. Group life without meetings contains many opportunities for discipleship as group members encourage each other to live out God’s Word in practical ways. While the group may not be participating in a formal Bible study, they are involved in care, support, and accountability in the practical outworking of biblical principles in the lives of each group member.
The upside of this strategy is that taking a break from group meetings and studies over the Summer gives group members an opportunity to live out what they’ve learned the other nine months of the year. It also provides a necessary break from the regular meeting pattern between September and May. Groups will be ready to hit another study hard in the Fall, if they’ve taken a break over the Summer.
Groups socials are also a great opportunity to invite prospective group members. The prospects can get to know the group in a casual setting before they decide to join the group in on-going meetings.
Of course, the downside of cancelling meetings is that the focus on discipleship through learning is limited to about 30 weeks of the year (September to November, then January to May). Some will argue that we are disciples 52 weeks of the year, so why do we only focus on growth for roughly two-thirds of the year. The counter to this is discipleship is not just produced through studies, but also in life’s interactions, praying for group member’s needs, and living out what they’ve learned.
This article originally appeared on smallgroups.com.
By Allen White
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.
Curious? Join me for a webinar called The Easter Hangover Cure this Thursday, April 20 at 11am ET/10am CT/ 9am MT/ 8am PT. To register: CLICK HERE.
Pick up your copy of Exponential Groups: Unleasing Your Church’s Potential by Allen White at exponentialgroupsbook.com, Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Cokesbury, and Christianbook.com.
7 Questions Sunday
LifeLetter Cafe: Where did the passion to author “Exponential Groups” came from?
Allen White: The passion really came from a lot of my own frustration in recruiting leaders, connecting people into groups, and getting groups to continue. I had also bought into the notion that one strategy would help our church connect everybody into a group. When that strategy failed to connect everyone, we would keep the best of what we learned, but then switch to another strategy. By continuing to change strategies we were all becoming frustrated — staff and group members. Then, it dawned on me, what if there wasn’t a way to connect everyone into groups and disciple them? There isn’t. But, whoever said you only had to use on strategy? We let one strategy connect 30% of our people into groups so they would grow spiritually. Then, we used another strategy to connect the next 30% into groups, then we used a couple more strategies to get our church to 125% of our average adult attendance in groups.
What if I could share my learnings from the school of hard knocks with other pastors and churches? What if they could help their people connect and grow without wrecking their church? What if they could form more groups than they ever dreamed of too?
A few weeks ago, a church with a weekly adult attendance of 600 people launched 147 groups. That’s why I wrote the book.
LifeLetter Cafe: Love the phrase “everyone is already in a group” – what are the upsides and downsides to this approach towards enlarging a local church’s groups ministry?
Allen White: The upside is the local church doesn’t need to work hard at launching any more groups. Everyone is already in a group. They have friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and others already in their lives. The pastor’s job now is to give these groups that people are already in an easy-to-use tool and a little training so they will do something intentional about their spiritual growth. Draw a circle around them, and boom – they are a recognized group! It’s not actually this simple, but this is the gist. Then, we focus on encouraging groups to gather, creating resources, establishing a coaching structure, and providing on-going training.
The downside is that some people are in the wrong group. Those closest to them may not be encouraging them in their relationship with Christ. They might be taking them in the opposite direction. If this is the case, then they may need to join another group, at least for a season, then when they are more established in their faith, return to the group and lead them to Christ.
LifeLetter Cafe: Can you unpack what healthy leadership development looks like in a church that chooses to move past group growth by addition or multiplication?
Allen White: Health has nothing to do with how groups are formed. Leaders can be just as unhealthy whether the church handpicks them, apprentices them, invites them to host a group, or throws caution to the wind.
Health must be monitored and nurtured. We could come up with a set of health indicators and poll our leaders annually, but we probably wouldn’t get to the root of their healthiness or unhealthiness. The only way to truly measure the health of leaders is in their relationships with coaches. While leadership development involves training, healthy and effective leadership development involves a mentor. They need someone who cares enough to encourage them at times and to exhort them at other times.
When we talk about leadership development, we usually think about training. We have this idea that the more we train, the better the leaders will be. This is not true. Training apart from serving is meaningless. Leaders don’t care about dealing with a difficult person in their group in a training meeting six months before their group starts. They care about dealing with a difficult person, when they have one in their group.
“The biggest change for me between coddling our people
and creating groups for them
versus commissioning our people and challenging them
to form their own groups was in my own thinking.”
– Allen White –
LifeLetter Cafe: What are the typical barriers to getting past the idea of a church body is not so much “an audience to be served but an army to be empowered’?
Allen White: Who likes audiences? Speakers like audiences. Performers like audiences. After all, isn’t the audience proof of the speaker’s talent? I don’t want people to give up on worship services. But, what are we leading our people toward? Are bigger auditoriums and larger audiences transforming lives? Yes and no. Yes, the Gospel is being proclaimed and people are being encouraged. But, no, in that, once we leave the doors on the auditorium we’re on our own to work all of this out, or we just become more preoccupied with the worries of life.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, churches began to create worship environments to reach their communities. We call this theattractional model, and it worked for Baby Boomers. We invited them to come in, then sit back, relax, and enjoy the service. I’ve said those words. Then, we asked them to serve, they said, “No thanks.” We had invited them to come to church and be comfortable, and they took us up on it. Today, ministry to Baby Boomers is called “Senior Adult Ministry.” While we love our seniors, Senior Adult Ministry has never been the future of the church.
The church is not as “attractive” as it used to be. The direction has changed. Instead of bringing folks to church, we, as the church, go to them – not on contrived service days in matching t-shirts – we love our neighbors as ourselves. What neighbors? The ones in our neighborhoods. We can commission the entire church to love their neighbors. We can commission the whole church to go and make disciples by gathering a group of friends and doing a Bible study.
I’m going to try to be careful here, but I am a native Kansan, who tends to be very direct. Some pastors don’t want to empower their people because they need their people to be dependent on them. They like to be liked. So here’s the Kansan coming out — some pastors are co-dependent on their congregations. They need to be needed. The fear is if I release my congregation to do the work of the ministry: (1) They might do it wrong — they’re not trained, but also (2) they might not need their pastor as much anymore.
This answer has gone long, but the biggest change for me between coddling our people and creating groups for them versus commissioning our people and challenging them to form their own groups was in my own thinking. The only thing that kept our people dependent on me instead of giving them permission to start a group were my own fears and need for control. Once I let go of that, groups took off like a rocket.
LifeLetter Cafe: Share with us a personal favorite moment in the book?
Allen White: I tell a lot of stories in the book, so there are a lot of them. My favorite moment is actually reflected in the book’s dedication. One of my group leaders named Doug had an amazing ability to manage relationships. I saw this not just in his small group, but also in his part-time work in multilevel marketing (I know…danger! Danger!). I invited him to join our coaching team. He did an amazing job. At one point, Doug said to me, “Thank you, Pastor Allen, for showing me I was the leader I never knew that I was.” That was the best compliment anyone had ever paid me.
You see Doug always thought of himself as dumb. He dropped out of high school and never graduated. Doug worked in construction his entire adult like. He drove a construction crane through San Francisco Bay Area traffic every day, set it up, did the job, then drove it back. Now, that takes more smarts than I have. But, Doug always thought he was dumb, and certainly not a leader. To recognize Doug’s innate leadership gift, to call it out, and to encourage him to success is one of the most gratifying things in my ministry. Talk about expanding your influence. It’s exponential!
LifeLetter Cafe: How important is it for churches to have multiple “on-ramps” for group launches throughout the year? What are some of the most successful models currently?
Allen White: I don’t believe churches need to offer weekly opportunities to join groups. In fact, I think 3-6 on-ramps per year is sufficient. Most people are not looking for a group during the Christmas holidays or in the Summer. The best strategy is to leverage the three best times of the year: Fall, New Year, and Easter. You might offer a few other opportunities, but for many churches three times per year is sufficient. There is a lot more thought behind this answer than what I can include here. But, if people are truly interested in groups, waiting for a few weeks is not going to change that.
LifeLetter Cafe: How strategic and necessary is it for churches to have year-round video-based curriculum options for groups that wish to push past connect-level or affinity-based orientation?
Allen White: My secret ambition is to train every believer to open up God’s Word and lead their group in a discussion which will cause them to obey all that Jesus’ commanded us (Matthew 28:20). That’s the heart of discipleship. If they need a video, then make a video. Most people don’t need a video because they are ignorant. Videos are helpful because people are busy (and pastors can keep control of what’s taught in groups — there’s my control freak coming out). I encourage churches to create a 52 week per year downloadable discussion guide that any member of the church can use to take their weekend into their week. If that comes with a short teaching video, then all the better. But, remember, some people will never lead a discussion without a video, and others will never lead a discussion with a video.
By Allen White
Exponential Groups is not so much a strategy or model as it is a focus and an attitude. Your focus determines your result. Exponential results require exponential thinking. What are you thinking about?
1. Are You Focused on Group Members?
If your focus is connecting people into groups, you are not thinking exponentially. Your groups are growing by addition. Think about it. You handpick the leaders and train them. You collect sign up cards or have a website to connect people into groups. It’s not a bad way to go, except that you work hard to start a few groups at a time or to plug people into groups only to find the leader doesn’t call the prospective members, the new members don’t show, or they do show, but they don’t stick with the group.
Now, you can arrange the connections by geography, affinity, age, hobby, and so on, but let’s face it: growth by addition is a lot of work with very few results. Just the administrative task of processing all of those sign up cards is nightmare enough. Then, you face the heartbreaking result of how ineffective all of your efforts were. It’s time to change your focus.
2. Are Your Focused on Group Leaders?
If your focus is on group leaders developing apprentices and multiplying, dividing, or splitting your groups, your focus is not exponential. Your groups might be growing by multiplication…maybe. At one point, I had encouraged, challenged, and possibly threatened my group leaders to find an apprentice for seven years. They couldn’t find one. No one in their groups looked like an apprentice. The irony was that I recruited members out of their group to train to become leaders, so we could at least continue growing by addition. Finally, one of my leaders, Carlos, trained an apprentice and launched a new group. After seven years of effort, that was the only one. Some multiplication, huh?
Now there are places where this focus is successful, but I have found this is less common. If this is what you’re doing, and it’s working for you, then you might not need to listen to me. Multiply away, but you’re still not thinking exponentially.
3. Are Your Focused on Church-wide Campaigns?
If your focus is on recruiting leaders, you still aren’t thinking exponentially. Maybe your pastor makes the cattle call for leaders or hosts to lead your next church-wide campaign. Now this thinking is more exponential than addition or multiplication, it’s on the right track, but it’s still not there.
On the positive side, church-wide campaigns delay the requirements for leadership, so there are more potential leaders. These leaders self-identify, which eliminates the task of recruiting. They can even gather their own groups. After all, followers are the requirement for leadership. As John Maxwell says, “If you think you’re a leader and have no followers, you’re only taking a walk.”
The other thing a campaign brings is a easy to use tool, like a video-based curriculum, which enables the new leader to be more friendly than scholarly, but it also maintains quality, because you have determined what is being taught in the group. The non-teacher feels good about teaching, and pastors feel good about letting them lead.
But, when the campaign ends, even if the groups continue on with another study, this growth is still more like multiplication and less like exponential. It has the potential to be exponential, but it’s not there. The goal is usually to connect 100 percent of the people into groups. But, what if this thinking is too small?
4. Are You Thinking Exponentially?
Exponential thinking is a shift in how we view our congregations. Are they sheep who need a shepherd? Can their needs only be met by a pastor? Careful: that might betray some co-dependency on your part. Is your congregation full of people who are unqualified to lead? How do you see them?
Some pastors see their congregations as an audience. The people are given worship and teaching on Sunday. They receive Bible studies throughout the week. The pastors direct the ministries they serve in. The people are cared for by the pastors: hospital visits, counseling sessions, cups of coffee. For some pastors this is a comfortable situation. Then, your church grows beyond 10 people, and you have a problem.
But, what if your congregation wasn’t an audience to be served, but an army to be empowered? What if every person in your church was empowered to gather a few people, maybe just one person, and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? What if pastors focused more on equipping people and not doing the ministry themselves? Please keep your excuses at bay for a minute and dream with me.
If everyone — church member or attender — is leading a group, who is in their groups? Good question. People who are not in your church. This doesn’t mean stealing sheep from another flock. There are plenty of people with stressful lives, marriage problems, parenting challenges, life controlling problems, and spiritual questions who could be invited to these groups. The challenge is providing resources that are biblical, yet less churchy to those who need help.
I’ve seen glimpses of this. Neighbors gathered. People with similar hobbies and interests. Whether the group is the Holy Smokers in South Carolina who make barbeque or the Holy Smokes in Colorado who light up cigars. I’ve seen commuters on the same morning train doing a Bible study and coworkers meeting at lunch.
This doesn’t need to be coerced. This doesn’t require a grand strategy. It only requires a shift in the pastor’s thinking and an opportunity for their people to lead a “group.”
Not everyone will do this all at once. In fact, I’ve never seen 100 percent of any church do anything all at once. Start with your innovators — that 4 percent who are willing to try anything. Then, tell their stories to your early adopters, the next 12 percent. Now, you have 16 percent of your church leading. If you’ve got 16 percent leading, then you’re becoming exponential already. They will influenced the next 34 percent of early mid-adopters. You’ve made it past 50 percent. The other half will take a little more time, but it’s worth it.
God wants to use your people. Whether you focus on addition or multiplication, imagine how God could use them. But, imagine if the impact of your people touching the lives a four, six, ten, or twelve people outside of your church. Imagine. That’s exponential.
By Allen White
Many methods of connecting people into groups fail. By fail, I mean they don’t create lasting connections, which means every time you launch groups, you’re recruiting new leaders and connecting people to new groups. Here’s how this usually goes:
Step 1. A prospective group member turns in a sign up card, or requests a group on the church’s website, or selects a group from a small group directory.
Step 2. The church staff must either place the person in a group or send their information to the leader of an open group.
Step 3. The group leader may or may not contact the prospective member.
Step 4. If the prospective members are contacted, they may or may not show up to the group.
Step 5. If the prospective members show up for the group, they may or may not continue with the group.
Step 6. The Small Group Pastor/Director wants to jump out the nearest window.
At least this is how it’s gone in the churches I’ve been a part of. Typically, each step down the list cuts the previous number in half — 100 people sign up, then 50 are contacted, then 25 show up to a group, and then 12.5 continue with the group. Talk about diminishing returns!
But, this isn’t the worst of it.
In my zeal to connect people into groups, I’ve said things like, “Join a group. You’ll make some of the best friends you’ve ever had.” Yikes! I’ve actually had to go back and apologize for statements like that. Besides most people already have friends.
So, how do we connect people into groups if sign up cards, websites, and directories don’t work very well?
Everyone who has friends should start a group.
“Everyone is already in a group.” That’s the first sentence in my book, Exponential Groups. People have friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and others they can do a study with. The people in your church are already connected. They just need some direction in intentionally doing something about their spiritual growth. An easy to use curriculum and an experience leader to coach them will take these leader-friends a long way in developing a “small group.”
If they don’t want to “lead”…
Then, they should join the group led by their friend. Personal invitation is an amazing tool for connecting people into groups that last. Even groups who will be open to new members should start with the leader personally inviting people.
Now, if you have someone who wants to lead a group but excepts you to give them a group, they probably have a teaching gift and need a class to instruct. This will not make for a good small group.
As Steve Gladen says, “Leaders have followers.” Encourage them to bring together their own group.
If they don’t have friends…
A group may not be the answer for them. Okay, let’s face it, counseling could go a long way. But, this isn’t everybody. Some folks are new to the community or new to the church, and they legitimately don’t know anybody. How do they get in a group? If they don’t know anyone, they can’t invite people, and they won’t get invited. Now what?
This is where a Connection event or Sampler comes in. By this, I mean an Open House environment where prospective members can meet group leaders face to face. They may recognize the leader from somewhere or vice versa. At a minimum, they get a sense of whether or not the leader is someone they want to hang out with for the next 6-12 weeks. Once they’ve decided, the prospective members sign up for the specific group they want to be a part of. No cards. No cold calls. The relationship has started. They know whose house they’re going to, and the leader knows who’s coming.
Efficient means of connecting people are not the same as effective means. Usually a task-oriented approach to forming relationally-based groups falls short. Forget group formation as a task. By forming groups in a relational way, groups will outlast how you were forming groups previously.
This last weekend, Tim Twigg, Small Group Pastor at Victory Worship Center, Tucson, AZ, held an awesome Connection event for prospective members to join groups (pictured). As a result of this event, around 500 people were connected to groups. Now, we’ll check back with him on this blog in a few weeks and see how many continued.
By Allen White
Everyone is already in a group.
When I say “group,” something from years of church Bible studies come to mind. You might protest that there are plenty of people who aren’t in groups like this. But it’s true. Everyone is already in a group, it’s just not the group you have in mind. People are in groups called families, friends, coworkers, neighbors, soccer moms, and many others. If your question is how are these church groups? I want to suggest you change your question to what can these groups do intentionally about their spiritual growth?
When Pastor Troy Jones from New Life Church, Renton, WA, stood up and invited his 2,500 adults to gather their friends for a six-week study, 300 adults responded to lead a group. At first glance, hundreds and hundreds of people immediately “joined groups.” But the truth is, they were already in these groups. The addition was a sermon-aligned curriculum, on-the-job training, and a support structure to help them, but, overall, these groups weren’t strangers who became friends. They were friends becoming closer to each other and closer to God.
I’ve seen this happen in churches of 50 members and churches of over 20,000, but I didn’t start thinking about groups this way.
Over twenty years ago, when we first launched groups at New Life Christian Center in Turlock, CA, I believed all of our “sheep” were lost without a “shepherd,” and there is definitely some truth to that. I looked out at our congregation of 250 or so adults and felt we needed to do something to get our people connected, as our church had rapidly grown from eighty-five to 250. As Rick Warren says, “Our church must always be growing larger and smaller at the same time. . . . there must be a balance between the large group celebrations and the small group cells.”
My senior pastor and I handpicked nine mature couples to join me and start groups. We invited our congregation to sign up for one of these groups for twelve months. Every group chose their own curriculum. I led a monthly huddle and, for the most part, was the sole coach. The groups went strong for twelve months, then all ten of them quit, including mine.
Not only was my method not multiplying groups, it wasn’t even adding. It was time to get serious about groups if they were ever going to work at our church.
I spent the summer of 1997 on sabbatical and studied churches and their groups. I attended fifteen different church services and interviewed a dozen pastors. I read about a dozen books. At the end of that research effort, our church set out to start groups in a dif-ferent way from our previous attempt. We decided to start groups using the findings Carl George presents in Prepare Your Church for the Future that were popularized by the small group model at Willow Creek Community Church. I recruited two mature lead-ers to coach and ten more leaders to lead, and we started a turbo group—a temporary group designed to give leaders a crash course in group life, then help them launch groups of their own. In the six weeks of the turbo group, we covered all of the basics of group life. (Well, at least as many basics as you can cover in six weeks.) Then we launched groups.
People filled out sign up cards to join groups, and all of the groups started on the same study about building community. This time all of the groups were starting from the same DNA. All of our leaders were expected to identify apprentice leaders who would be trained, then eventually released to start their own groups. This time we were going to move from a group method that produced no new groups to a system that would give us new groups hand over fist. Our total number of groups would grow by double or better every year. We dreamed that in just five years all of our adults would be connected into groups.
But none of my leaders could find an apprentice.
I plugged along with a new turbo group every year. I would handpick the new recruits. Some years we launched ten new groups. Other years, we launched only two. A couple of years we launched none. After seven years of pounding this nail, we had thirty percent of our eight hundred adults in groups, but we were stuck.
The thought of connecting everybody in a group was my dream, but we weren’t growing past thirty percent. We were slugging it out the old-fashioned way—raise up an apprentice, birth a group, and deal with the aftermath—but we were headed nowhere.
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