By Allen White
By captainvector via 123rf.com
After the dismissal of our founding pastor, our church was devastated. Everyone left who was in favor of our pastor. Everyone left who was against our pastor. And, all of the staff left, except for me. There I was with the 85 remaining members praying about what to do. It was a hard year.
On the very last Sunday of that year, our new pastor joined us, and hope reappeared. Our church started growing — not dramatically, but consistently.
When we reached 250 people, we heard our congregation say, “I don’t know everybody anymore.”
When we went to two services and reached 400 people, the comments changed to, “I can’t find the people I do know.”
Everybody didn’t need to know everyone, but everybody needed to know someone. We knew it was time to start groups.
I attended conferences, read books, and interviewed other pastors about small groups. The more information I collected, the more confused I became. We launched our groups for better or worse. Some of what we experienced was better than expected. The things we didn’t expect were worse.
Here’s what worked for us:
1. Small Groups Connected Our People Like Never Before.
As our church continued to grow, we didn’t want to see people get lost in the shuffle or fall through the cracks. Even though they didn’t come all at once, they were coming in a steady stream. We needed to start connecting and discipling folks ASAP.
As our couple of Sunday school classes and our midweek Bible study were declining, we found that groups were a great place for people to connect and go deeper into God’s Word. We offered a variety of curriculum for our groups to choose from. Since we only started with a few groups, it was easy to keep an eye on them and know what was going on. If a group started to stray toward the “loony fringe,” we very gently guided them back into the fold. Things were under control.
We made announcements in the services, sent postcards in the mail and emails, and featured groups regularly in the church bulletin. Our groups started to gain momentum.
In fact, we couldn’t recruit new leaders fast enough to keep up with the demand.
2. A Quality Group Experience Starts with Quality Leaders.
Now to make sure we didn’t set ourselves up for trouble, I took on the task of personally recruiting every group leader. I had been at the church for seven years at that time. I pretty much knew the good apples from the rotten apples. (And, God loves the rotten apples, too.)
The easiest place to start was to round up the usual suspects. You know, the folks we counted on for everything. I personally invited board members and founding members as well as other solid citizens. It didn’t take much effort to quickly find 10 willing leaders who I believed would offer a quality experience.
Admission: I also knew that they wouldn’t cause any problems for me. I was wearing a lot of other hats like children’s ministry, leading worship, and overseeing all of our ministries, plus speaking on Wednesday nights and occasionally on Sundays. I did not need any more problems. I had enough already.
We weren’t reaching for explosive growth. After all, since our church was growing steadily, but incrementally, we felt the gradual growth of groups would serve us well. I mean, we weren’t Saddleback or Willow Creek. There was something special about them. Normal churches like ours weren’t seeing huge percentages of people connected into groups…at least not yet.
We offered the groups to our people, and they signed up. Once the groups were full, then the rest of the folks who wanted to join a group had to hang out in the midweek Bible study with me or in a Sunday school class until the next batch of group leaders were ready to go. Even though we let a year pass before we offered groups again, we launched six more groups the following year and quickly filled them up as well.
Things were going well in the “trouble-free” department. Our groups were coming along. And, our church kept growing steadily.
Value: A quality group experience starts with a quality leader.
3. Don’t Skimp on Coaching and Training.
Every year I would gather my new recruits into a “turbo group” by way of Carl George and his book, Prepare Your Church for the Future. We spent six weeks as a small group with the intention of every leader or couple starting their own group when the training was over.
I trained them on why groups were important; how to deal with various issues in the group like over-talkers and conflict; how to recruit an apprentice leader; and how to birth a new group. The training was in the format of a small group, so based on a Bible study, I was modeling a group meeting while I was training the leaders.
After the training ended, and the leaders started their new groups, we met monthly for group huddles. While I did have a couple of other people helping me coach the leaders, I was still learning about group life myself, so I did all of the training and led the monthly huddles. The coaches visited groups and connected with the leaders.
Result: We developed a solid groups system with 30 percent of our adults in groups.
As our church continued to grow, our groups also continued to grow. Groups weren’t keeping pace with the growth of the church, but we achieved 30 percent in groups, which somebody told me once put us in the top 1 percent of all churches in the U.S. — not too shabby.
The plan was for every group leader to indentify and train an apprentice leader. Then, once a year, the group would help a new group get started either by the leader starting a new group, the apprentice starting a new group, or the group dividing into two groups. With group multiplication and the new recruits I was inviting, we were on a good pace to double our groups or better every year. I looked forward to the day when group attendance would exceed worship attendance.
But, it started to feel like I needed another 100 years to catch up with the increasing size of the congregation.
Secret #1: Small Groups Connected Our People Like Never Before.
Secret #2: A Quality Group Experience Starts with Quality Leaders.
Secret #3: Don’t Skimp on Coaching and Training.
Where We Failed: Bottleneck!
Failure #1. The way we recruited leaders and launched groups couldn’t keep pace with the growth of the church.
The harder I tried to recruit more leaders and launch groups, the behinder and behinder I got. Some years we started 10 groups. Other years we started two groups. One year my training yielded zero new groups.
As the church continued to grow by 13 – 33% per year, our group formation just couldn’t keep up. More people were getting lost in the shuffle, and more leaders were not stepping up at the rate we needed them.
I thought I had a good thing going by recruiting well-known people myself. The problems were kept at a minimum. But, now we faced a much bigger problem — where were the leaders going to come from?
Failure #2: Our leaders couldn’t identify an apprentice leader.
I put a lot of pressure on the group leaders to identify and train their apprentice. After all, the future of our small groups depended on apprentices, or at least, that’s what it seemed like. In every huddle and every encounter with the group leaders, I would emphasize the significance of raising up an apprentice leader. My words didn’t fall on deaf ears. They fell on stressed ears.
My leaders would pass me in the hallways on Sunday morning and say, “I’m working on my apprentice.”
I thought, “Whatever happened to ‘Hello’?”
The apprentice strategy was going nowhere good.
Failure #3: No one wanted to give up their group to start a new group.
Since the group leaders weren’t recruiting apprentices, I took the initiative to recruit potential leaders right out of their groups. There were great candidates right under the noses of the group leaders, but they just didn’t see them. I did!
Before they knew it, the new recruits were in my Turbo Group and headed toward leading their own group. The only problem was that while these potential leaders agreed to participate out of loyalty to me and the church, their hearts weren’t in it. They didn’t want to give up the group they loved. They were torn.
After the six weeks of training was complete, instead of going forward with a new group, many of them went back to the group they came from. This wasn’t progress. This was regress. My efforts were actually working against me.
Failure #4: After seven years of effort, our groups were stuck…
While we had 30 percent of our adults in groups, and our church was allegedly in the top 1 percent of all churches in the U.S., I felt like a loser. The church continued to grow. The groups were stuck. No new leaders. No new groups. No apprentices. So, I gave up on this strategy.
At the end of my time at this church, 125 percent of our weekly adult attendance was connected in groups.
I want to share with you a new strategy we created to recruit more leaders, form more groups faster, and maintain a quality group experience.
What giving up control taught me about effective group ministry
By Allen White
I hear a lot of pastors who debate the need for a quality experience at the expense of connecting and growing the vast majority of their congregations and their communities into their group system. I also hear the reverse of this which is in order to embrace a large quantity of groups, then quality must somehow be sacrificed.
We approach ministry as if we have all of the time in the world. Somehow we think our people will live forever, and so will the people our people need to reach for Christ. But, let’s be honest, we don’t have the luxury of time.
The Apostle Paul didn’t have the luxury of time either. Reviewing his journeys in the Book of Acts, Paul never spent more than 6-18 months in any one location, yet in his quest to spread the Gospel throughout the known world and to reach Spain, he put leaders in place everywhere he planted a church, then gave them the crash course on ministry. We would call this “quick and dirty” before we would call it “quality.” Paul gave them their marching orders, then basically instructed them, “Do the best you can. The Holy Spirit will guide you. If you run into trouble, then send me a letter.” Then, Paul was off to the next place.
In living with the tension between the quality and quantity of ministry, I want you to consider these words from Peter Drucker on the Profession of Management:
“…there are two different kinds of compromise. One is expressed in an old proverb, ‘Half a loaf of bread is better than no bread.’ The other, in the story of the judgment of Solomon, is clearly based on the realization that ‘half a baby is worse than no baby at all.’ In the first instance, the boundary conditions are still being satisfied. The purpose of bread is to provide food, and half a loaf is still food. Half a baby, however, does not satisfy the boundary conditions. For half a baby is not half of a living and growing child.
“It is a waste of time to worry about what will be acceptable and what a decision maker should or should not say so as not to evoke resistance…In other words, the decision maker gains nothing by starting out with the question, ‘What is acceptable?’ For in the process of answering it, he or she usually gives away the important things and loses any chance to come up with an effective — let alone the right — answer.”
In retelling this story, my friend and mentor, Carl George once asked this question which changed the course of my thinking about small group ministry: “Are your groups more like a baby or a loaf of bread? Because if it’s like a baby, then half a baby won’t do. You want a perfect baby. But, if it’s more like a loaf of bread and you’re starving, any amount of bread will help to alleviate the hunger.”
In managing the tension between quality and quantity, we must figure out a way to embrace the Genius of the And, as coined by Jim Collins in Built to Last. This isn’t an either/or circumstance, in that, if there is no quantity, then quality doesn’t actually matter. The question is whether the limitation on the quantity is a matter of necessity or a personal need for control.
As I wrestled with this tension when I was first introduced to the idea of rapidly expanding group system, I pleaded with God, “But, I need quality control.”
God called me on it. He spoke to me and said, “Allen, when you say ‘quality control,’ quality is your excuse.”
God doesn’t go easy on me. But, I got the point, and moved forward.
What do you think?
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By Allen White
There is a reason you have the groups you currently do. They are working for somebody. Whether they are connected in Adult Bible Fellowships, Inductive Bible Studies, Sunday School (gasp…more on this later), or women addicted to Beth Moore groups, it’s working for them. As long as the groups aren’t worshiping the devil or talking bad about the pastor, leave them alone.
At Brookwood Church, we had a very large women’s group, about 200+, who met every Wednesday morning and called themselves WOW. They would meet in a large group setting to view teaching by Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Kay Arthur and others, then they broke into 17 different groups that met in the adjacent rooms. When it came time for a church-wide “campaign” with the group curriculum aligned with the weekend messages, I didn’t even ask the WOW women to participate. Why?
First, I didn’t need to enter into a fight that I wasn’t going to win. You can call me a wimp. I call it wise. Why volunteer for unnecessary trouble? Next, I knew if the WOW women did the church-wide study on Wednesday morning, I was giving their husbands an out. If the ladies were already doing the study, then more than likely, the men weren’t going to join a men’s group, and she wasn’t going to do the same study on the same week in a couples group.
By encouraging WOW to continue on their path of study, the ladies and their husbands also participated together in a couples group for the church-wide study. Not only were the men involved in groups, I got to count the women twice! Ok, not really, but you understand what I’m saying.
A day will come when group membership to a failing initiative will decrease. That is the time to consider a hard conversation about ending the group, class or ministry. But, as long as it’s helping someone, it’s worth keeping around. If you attempt to transition a ministry to quickly, you will upset its constituency, which could come back in many ways from reduced giving to personal “political” fall out. Don’t fight battles you can’t win or will greatly injure you. Be patient.
Why Do Pastors Long for a Magic Bullet?
If one strategy could connect every member in our church, if one model could work for everyone, it would be a pastor’s dream come true. Why? Because it’s efficient or dare I say, convenient. For busy pastors, it’s easier to manage one system, not three, four or five.
Your members are looking for variety, not uniformity. Look at how many car models were made last year. Look at how many new books appear on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Look at how many ways you can drink coffee at Starbucks. The Blue Plate Special died 50 years ago.
What is a Small Group Anyway?
Why do you have small groups? Coolness is not the right answer. Merely forming small groups could contribute to more problems. Rather than individuals leaving the church, now they might leave linking arms. (Keep reading. It’s okay.) If groups offer care, encouragement, fellowship, Bible study and leadership development, can that only happen in a small group? What if a Sunday School class was accomplishing those things? What if your existing groups were already doing that? Isn’t this meeting your goal? Isn’t this building people up?
Do New Things with New People
Rather than forcing them into the existing model, discover what will work for them. Men don’t join groups for the same reasons as women. Younger generations are motivated differently than older generations. Some folks will join because they ought to. Others will see what’s in it for them. Still others will see a chance to make a difference together. And, some will think the whole thing is lame. That’s okay.
When new freshmen enter college, they are given a college catalog. The catalog delineates all of the requirements to graduate with a chosen degree. If the college chooses to change any of the requirements along the way, they do so with the incoming freshmen. They can’t make the changes with the upperclassmen. Their contract, if you will, was established during their freshman year.
Your existing groups are like the upperclassmen. They came in while you were doing groups, classes or Bible studies a certain way. While you can always invite them to try something new, you should refrain from making the change mandatory. Again, if you lose what you have for the sake of something new, you’re just being stupid. (Some take offense when I say this, “Are you calling me stupid?” I tell them, “No, because you’re not going to do that.”)
When we launched our groups for The Passion of the Christ at New Life years ago, we didn’t even tell our existing groups what we were doing. Partly because we were in a bit of a rush having decided to launch the groups only three weeks before the series started, but also because we already had the existing groups. We just needed to build on that.
My leaders came to me and asked, “Can our group do the Passion study or is it only for new groups?”
Being the kind, compassionate pastor I am, I said, “What’s it worth to you?” Nearly all of our existing groups participated in the study. They didn’t have to, but they wanted to. You attract more flies with honey…
One Size Does Not Fit All
When I arrived at Brookwood Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina, about 30 percent of the adults were in groups. It was a solid foundation. We had on-campus groups, off-campus groups, Beth Moore Bible study groups, and the Holy Smokers, who focused on Bible and barbecue. Remember them? We launched lots of new groups through church-wide campaigns. We connected hundreds of new folks to groups. We gained another 30 percent in groups. Sixty percent ain’t bad.
But, as I became better acquainted with the congregation, I discovered that some in the Bible belt really were intimidated by the Bible. They resisted small groups because they were afraid they would have nothing to contribute to the discussion. Whoa. In California, we just asked folks to do a study with their friends. They did it. But, this was a whole other deal.
We created large groups for men, women, young couples, business people, law enforcement, and senior adults. These are what Carl George calls “fishing ponds.” In these large groups people could move from the crowd of a 2,500 seat auditorium to a living room of a few friends, old or new.
We offered a solid recreation ministry for adults and children. We created a system of classes called BrookwoodU where people could get to know each other while they learned cooking, digital photography, leadership, Microsoft Word, sign language and even Hermeneutics. (Many friendships were forged in their hermeneutical fox holes.)
I didn’t join the staff of a megachurch to start classes or to send seniors to Branson, Missouri. But, those not connected into groups didn’t necessarily care about what I wanted. What did they need?
After four years, we reached 78 percent of our, then, 5,000 adults connected in small groups, large groups, and BrookwoodU. We didn’t get to 100 percent, but maybe someone else can take them there in the future.
You wouldn’t transition small groups to a Sunday School model, would you? Build on what’s working. Then, figure out what you can add to that. And, for the pastor on that webcast, I wish you well.
By Allen White
For people who know me and know what I do for a living, the title of this post probably seems pretty ridiculous. After all, I am Mr. Small-Groups-On-the Brain. In this last season, I have help a couple of dozen churches recruit leaders and launch thousands of groups across the country. Did something go wrong?
No, but let’s think about the purpose of groups for a minute. Why are we so obsessed about group life? I am a big fan of groups because it creates a place for people to care for each other, apply God’s Word, serve together, and reach others. The emphasis is on the “small” part. A group fulfills the second part of the early church’s paradigm: they met in temple courts and house to house (Acts 5:42). There was a large public space and a smaller personal space. Groups work. But, maybe not for everyone.
Most churches already have something in place for these functions of care, application, service and outreach. Not all of these functions are in the same place, however. Adult Sunday School might focus on teaching and then care, but maybe not on service and outreach. A task group might focus heavily on serving, but not incorporate the other three functions. A softball team might have a care and outreach function, but not a Bible application or serving component. The question is do we swing the wrecking ball at the ministries that partially fulfill the list, or do we challenge them to become more well rounded? Before you give an answer, answer this question: If It Ain’t Broke, Break It?
This is really a question of form and function. Churches who embrace the form of small groups will sometimes go overboard and call everything a small group. If your church has 200 adult members with 30 in Sunday school, 40 on service teams, and zero groups, suddenly you can have 70 out of your 200 in groups. That’s 35 percent, which is much higher than the national average. But, just because Sunday school classes are now “small groups,” and service teams are now “task groups” doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything “groupish” happening at all.
Of course, you can also go the other way. You can throw a bunch of ill prepared people into a living room in a sink or swim fashion and suddenly have a high percentage of the much coveted “off-campus small groups,” yet what are they doing? Is care happening? Are they applying God’s Word and serving?
I’m not saying avoid small groups. I’m definitely not. But, what will small groups accomplish in your context? Why do you want small groups? And, “just because growing and effective churches have them” should not be your answer.
What is your answer? I’d love to hear it!