Pastor Dean Curry, Life Center, Tacoma, WA shares personal conversations with group leaders to cast vision for groups at his church. This simple short “aside” at the beginning of his weekend message both celebrates what God is doing through groups at his church as well as raises the value of small groups among the rest of the congregation.
In this church of 4,000, Pastor Curry’s first invitation for his members to gather their friends for the Jesus Basics study netted 1,200 new group leaders. While they are still tallying up the final number of groups, the pastor’s teaching on the video curriculum, alignment with the weekend message, and promotion of groups from the platform has created a grand slam home run for this church and has greatly multiplied the groups culture. Stay tuned for more!
The new year is an awesome time for new starts. Everyone is planning to lose weight, lose debt, learn a foreign language, and of course, grow in their faith. The new year is an ideal time to start new groups too. Why not leverage the momentum before mid-February hits and new year’s resolutions crash and burn?
The way you launch groups in the new year, however, will greatly affect your success. While this is an ideal time to form new groups, how and when you form groups will largely determine whether or not those groups last for more than one series, or in some cases, even get started. Here are some mistakes to avoid in new year’s launches.
Mistake #1: Launching in Early January.
Senior pastors love to start new sermon series after the first of the year. While the first Sunday of the year may be for vision casting or giving a “State of the Church” address, when it gets to the second Sunday, they are ready to get their preach on and dive into a new series. This is great for sermon series timing, but terrible for group timing.
If your church launches groups in early January, it forces you to form groups in December. Have you lived through a December at church? No one is thinking about January. If they were, then they wouldn’t be buying so many Christmas presents on their credit cards.
Over the years, I’ve tried to recruit and train new small group leaders in December. I’ve also found myself standing in an empty room wondering if I had missed God’s calling on my life.
People don’t think about the new year until they are actually in the new year. To effectively launch groups in January, you need to use the first three weeks to form groups, then launch in late January, or better yet, launch in early February.
Mistake #2: Failing to Leverage the Christian Holiday of Super Bowl Sunday.
I know some of you might immediately be objecting to associating something as holy and spiritual as a small group with something as hedonistic as Super Bowl Sunday. After all, promoting anything about the Super Bowl will only weaken the attendance of the Sunday night service. At least, that’s the way I grew up.
But, think about this: how would your members respond to the idea of small groups if it resembled something that looked more like their Super Bowl parties and less like what they fear a small group might be? No one calls the church to see who they should invite to a Super Bowl party. They invite their friends, co-workers, neighbors and family members. That’s the same group they should invite to their, well, group. In fact, if groups were launched after the Super Bowl, maybe the Super Bowl party could serve as an “open house” for a group and then the next week, the study could start.
You may be saying, “Well, not every Super Bowl party would be suitable to introduce people to small groups. They might overeat or something and be a bad witness.” These things could happen. But, what if a small group became more “normal” to the average Christian’s life?. That would be a huge win.
Mistake #3: Launching Groups in January without an Easter Plan.
The downfall of most church-wide campaigns, including some I’ve launched over the years, is you can experience great success for 6 weeks, then the whole thing falls off the cliff. But, it doesn’t have to. If in the middle of your post-Super Bowl series (formerly called “New Year’s series”), you announced a next step series which would run between the Christian holidays of Easter Sunday and Memorial Day, you could easily retain 80 percent of the groups that start in your Super Bowl series. By offering a next step, your groups are given a good reason to stay together.
Now, if your church is about to launch groups this Sunday, it might be time to take a timeout and regroup. Call an audible. Do what you need to do before you have to throw a Hail Mary or punt!
If you try this, you should get at least 50 percent of your people connected into groups. If you don’t, call me. We’ll figure something out!
Fall is a prime season to launch groups in churches across the country. In my consulting work, I am working with churches from Florida to Washington and Southern California to New York City. Among churches of various sizes and denominations, we are seeing some tremendous results. But, not every church hits a home run with their group launch. Here are some reasons why.
You picked the wrong topic.
Small groups are a great vehicle for people to grow spiritually. But, in order for people to grow in a group, they need to actually be in a group. If a church’s goal is to connect their congregation into groups, then a felt needs topic is very attractive. If you give people something they want to study, they will jump right in. If you offer something they “should” study, it may not go so well.
Let me go on the record: Healthy, balanced small groups cannot live by felt needs topics alone. But, kicking off groups usually doesn’t go well with series on evangelism, stewardship, fasting, or other self-sacrificial studies. You need to establish your goal. If you want to increase the number of groups, then go felt needs. If you want to grow your people deeper, then offer these topics to your established groups.
You set the bar too high.
The more requirements for group leadership, the fewer leaders you will recruit. If you required all of your new leaders to be church members, complete a lengthy leadership training process, or graduate with their Master of Divinity, you certainly limited the number of groups you could launch this Fall.
Your level of acceptable risk will greatly determine the reward. If you invite people to do a study with their friends, then you are only limited to people with friends. If you increase the requirements, you lessen the impact.
If you choose to lower the bar next time, then lessen the risk by forming “unpublished” groups. If the groups don’t appear on your church’s website, group listing, or bulletin, you are not implying any kind of official endorsement of the groups. If friends invite friends, you will form good, lasting groups, and if someone gets in a bad group, well, it was their friend’s group after all.
You focused on recruiting group members.
As a pastor, if the invitation is for potential group members, you may or may not actually start groups. You will certainly give yourself a lot of busy work trying to find enough leaders to accommodate the prospects or trying to place people in the right group. But, you’ve missed the mark and the point.
If you have a bunch of prospective group members, you might have a group. If you have a leader, you WILL have a group. In fact, the best way to get into a group is to start a group — you’re automatically in! When the focus is on recruiting leaders, you will greatly increase your number of groups. If your focus is on members, you will probably just end up with a mess.
You put too much distance between the invitation and the response.
When you or your senior pastor made the invitation for people to start a group, how and when did they respond?
If they were sent to the church website to register, they didn’t go.
If they were sent to the church lobby, they walked right by.
If they were invited to a meeting in the near future, they forgot.
If they had a sign up card in their hand during the service, bingo, they’re in!
If they were sent an email to remind them to sign up at church on Sunday, they forgot again.
If they were sent an email with a registration link, then they signed up.
The less distance between the invitation and the response, the greater the result.
You gave too many steps from “Yes” to starting the group.
If the pathway from the response to the group starting took too many steps, then you lost leaders at every phase.
If you recruited months in advance of your group launch, there were too many days before they started. Cold feet and good intentions didn’t get them there.
If you required a training class, a membership class, a pastoral interview, a group orientation, a group connection, and a final debrief meeting, you lost, lost, lost, lost and lost new group leaders.
If you kept the steps to a minimum, based on your own acceptable level of risk, you kept far more than any of the above scenarios.
Your recruitment period was too short.
A few years ago, I was working with two churches of similar size who were launching groups on the same week. One church recruited 20 new leaders. The other recruited 60. The first church recruited leaders for one week. The second church recruited for three weeks in a row. Triple the recruiting equaled triple the result. You do the math.
Your senior pastor was not on board.
If your senior pastor was hesitant about your next series in any way, it hurt you. Half-hearted appeals and hit or miss invitations lead to lackluster results.
If your senior pastor didn’t make the invitation for leaders, that was a huge miss. The senior pastor will get three times the result of any other staff member. I’ve served as an associate pastor for 20 of my 24 years of ministry. As soon as I learned this, I never made the invitation again.
How do you get your senior pastor on board with the series you recommend? You don’t. If you want your group launch to succeed, you have to get on board with where your senior pastor wants to go. If you respect your senior pastor’s direction, you will see respectable results. If you try to pressure your senior pastor into a series that is not his idea, you are on your own (literally).
Last Sunday, I worshipped with a church who had never had small groups. Their senior pastor decided it was time. He cast vision for groups.He kept the response close to the invitation. He focused on recruiting leaders. He did it all right. Then, on Sunday afternoon, 360 new group leaders showed up for training (and they have two more weeks to recruit!)
Learn the lessons from your failed attempt. There is no shame in failure, but there is shame in not learning.
The temptation to start new groups after Easter is fairly irresistible. Easter is by far the largest Sunday of the year. Why not launch groups from the largest crowd you’ll see all year? You might not see them again until Christmas.
But, there are three group killers after Easter: June, July and August. Why start groups in the Spring only to watch them die out over the Summer? It seems they would have a better chance of survival in the Fall.
I have to admit this is exactly what I used to think about launching groups off of Easter, but I had a change of heart once I discovered ways to sustain 80 percent of those new Spring groups in the Fall. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Groups Need a Next Step.
Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time.
Of course, the other factor here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is.
The first time we launched groups in the Spring, we gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday of October. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise.
When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it.
2. Very Few People Take the Entire Summer Off.
Only a handful of folks spend the entire summer at the beach. For the rest of us, chances are we will miss more weekend services in the Summer than group meetings. Before the group hits Memorial Day ask everyone to bring their calendars. Then, find six dates during the Summer when the group can meet. You might choose a six session study or you might choose one of the options below.
The six dates probably won’t fit neatly in a row, but that’s okay. Even if the group can only meet once per month, it’s a great way to stay connected to group life, even if you don’t have a formal group meeting.
3. Summer is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group.
You will find more neighbors outdoors during the Summer than any other time of year. With longer days and kids out of school, why not host a neighborhood block party with your group? Roll the barbecue grill out onto your driveway to grill a few hot dogs. Rent an inflatable bounce house for the kids. Bring plenty of lawn chairs. Maybe even have a little music. Invite everybody.
People will wonder by and join in before you know it. This is a great way to meet your neighbors, and maybe even invite them to your group. By putting the party in the front yard rather than the backyard, neighbors will come and see what’s going on.
4. Get Your Group Outside.
Group discussions don’t work so well outside. The neighbors haven’t agreed to confidentiality for what they hear over the backyard fence. Outdoor Bible studies usually don’t work, but there are plenty of other reasons to go outside.
Who does your group know who needs help? Plan a service day and help a neighbor. If you’re not aware of someone in need of help, go to wydopen.com and see if there’s a project in your area. Or, volunteer a day with Habitat for Humanity or another community organization.
Experiencing life together in a different setting will add depth and richness to your group. Once everyone sees the group in action, the dynamic of your meetings and studies will become dramatically different.
Summer shouldn’t be the death of small groups. In fact, June, July and August can breathe new life into both new and existing groups. With a little planning and a lot of flexibility, Summer could become the best time of year for group life.
Over the years, the traditional method of recruiting coaches has always tended to fail me. I would select a reputable candidate, then I would sit down with them and talk about the role of a small group coach as outlined in a job description. Some were overwhelmed by the responsibilities. Others were enamored by the title, yet later proved to not actually do anything. As hard as it was to “hire,” it was considerably harder to “fire” them. So, I gave up on this method and found something better.
The solution was discovered in a moment of crisis. My senior pastor and I had just successfully doubled our groups in a single day. Now, I had double the coaching problem. If we weren’t adequately coaching the existing groups, then how could we possibly coach an equal number of new groups. My minor coaching problem had just turned into a major problem. Then, the light bulb turned on.
If half of my leaders were experience and the other half were brand new, then half of my leaders knew what they were doing and the other half didn’t. The solution was sort of a buddy system. I paired them up and let them coach each other. After the campaign, the folks who showed interest and ability to coach were invited to coach more formally. Those who didn’t get around to coaching were thanked for their valuable time….
Since then, recruiting coaches has become a more effective, though unconventional, process. Here’s what I recently shared with Brett Eastman, founder of Lifetogether.com, and Steve Gladen, Small Groups Pastor at Saddleback Church on The Small Group Show:
I have never recruited another coach with a job description or based on their resume. We would start them with “helping” leaders. If they enjoyed it and were effective, then they would become coaches in a more formal role.
The initial job description for helping new group hosts and leaders simply became:
1. Call your new hosts and leaders once per week.
2. Answer their questions.
3. Pray for them.
The “helpers” who can accomplish these things over a 6-week campaign are prime candidates for coaching. Those who can’t pull this off are not the right ones. You’ll be glad you didn’t give them a title that you’ll just have to take away later.
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