7 Questions Sunday
Photo by Luke Tevebaugh
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
[excerpt of Exponential Books: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential]
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.
To download the full introduction and first chapter of Exponential Groups: CLICK HERE.
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