Posts Tagged small groups
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
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.
To download the full introduction and first chapter of Exponential Groups: CLICK HERE.
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I sat down recently with my publisher, Hendrickson Publishers, for a live interview about Exponential Groups. Well, my part was live. Their part was in print, so I have to basically interview myself. I hope you enjoy this and hear my heart for equipping and empowering our people to lead groups. The video is 15 minutes, but if you want to skip around, I’ve listed the questions below along with their time stamps.
- What is your background? (0:00)
- Who is the audience for Exponential Groups and what is the book about? (0:50)
- What has made you so passionate about expanding churches’ small groups? (1:45)
- What do you think is the biggest factor hindering churches from successful group-making? (2:47)
- What advice would you give to someone who would like to start a small group but doesn’t want to be considered its “leader”? (3:45)
- What are ways that a church can be creative in its approach to creating groups? (4:35)
- In chapter 1 you mention that a desire for control will hinder the growth of groups. For those who haven’t read the book yet, what are some other examples of factors or mental blocks that typically hold groups back from their potential to expand that you discuss in Exponential Groups? (5:42)
- What’s the best piece advice you’ve received about small groups? (8:02)
- What’s a sticky situation or failed plan that you have learned from? (9:15)
- What projects are you working on now or have planned for the future? (11:05)
For More Information on:
The Neighboring Church: theneighboringchurch.com
By Allen White
You’ve either just launched groups in your church; you’re about to launch groups; or you don’t know what you’re doing. How does that feel? If you just launched groups, you’re coming up for air. Your January fire drill has come to an end. The sprint you just ran has left you panting. Once you catch your breath, you’ll be at it again. But, what if you didn’t have to lose your mind every 12 weeks to have the leaders and groups you needed? It’s simple math: 12 months gives you more time than 12 weeks. The challenge is that it’s hard to work in it and on it at the same time. Here are some reasons to focus on 2018 instead of 2017:
1. Plan for Four Times Your Current Groups in 2018.
Many of us run our group launches hand to mouth. We get the groups going that we need, then have to start getting ready for the next go ’round hoping that many of the groups will stick, but not knowing for sure. What you do know is that you’ll have to recruit leaders again in a few weeks. You just don’t know how many yet. It’s hard to think ahead when you’re living “paycheck to paycheck.” It’s hard to come up for air.
But, what happens when your church grows larger and your groups well outnumber what you’re dealing with now? Imagine that you’re a church of 200 people and your growth takes you to 800 people. You can’t hire a bunch of staff. At least, I never could. Would you stop placing people into groups, or would you ignore your family working late nights? Would you twist the arms of the usual suspects to lead groups and get another short term win? How are you going to manage four times as many groups when you probably don’t feel like you’re doing a great job managing them now?
Stop and do the math. What does 4 times look like in your church? What would you stop doing that you’re currently doing? Stop placing people into groups. Stop handpicking leaders. Start asking your senior pastor to recruit leaders. Start your coaching structure and build on it. You would definitely need to change your process.
Here’s the point: Start leading like you have 4 times as many groups now. If you wouldn’t place people into groups then, then stop placing them into groups now. If you would ask your senior pastor to recruit leaders from the pulpit, then start doing that now. If you would back off of coaching leaders yourself, then write down three names right now of people you would invite to help you coach new leaders. Write them down.
2. Build a Coaching Structure Over Time.
If you have 10 groups, you don’t need 8 coaches today, but when you have 40 groups you will. Start preparing your group leaders to coach new leaders. Observe how they handle issues in their groups. Notice the ones who genuinely care. Effective coaching is built on a relationship. Who’s good at forming and maintaining relationships? You can train on skills, but you can’t make people care.
Don’t worry about your current leaders. If they have successful lead a group without a coach, then they will be great potential coaches. Don’t feel obligated to attach every leader to a coach just to fill in an organizational chart. The chart will look pretty, but the coaching will be pretty ineffective.
Give new leaders a coach. Remember, you’re headed to 4 times as many groups next year. How many coaches will you need? Start preparing them now.
3. Think Sequence, Not Series.
Any church can generate a lot of excitement over a six week series. It’s like inflating a balloon. Building up to a six week campaign, the balloon gets bigger and bigger and bigger, then it POPS! Now what? If your balloon has already popped, then you’re asking the “Now what?” question too late.
Start groups with an expectation that they will continue. In order for them to continue, they need a next step. Before you launch the first series, plan for what they will study next. If you offer the next step during the first six week study, then 80 percent or better should continue. If you offer the next step after the series has ended, you won’t do so well.
The best seasons of the year to launch groups are Fall, New Year, and Easter. But, to retain groups, you need to plan for 52 weeks, not just three 6 week series. Now, it’s not 52 weeks of meetings. There’s variety. There’s ebb and flow. Keep the groups informed on what’s next, and they will take the next step.
I would even go so far as to say if you don’t plan a next step for your groups, then abort your group launch now. Don’t get into the Ground Hog Day phenomena. Don’t connect them into groups only to watch them ungroup, then later try to regroup them. If this is what you’ve been doing, no wonder they’re turning you down now.
Launch. Next Step. Repeat. (except for Summer)
4. Recruit Leaders for 12 Months, Not Just a Few Weeks.
If you’re focused only on your next group launch, then you need to recruit leaders for your next launch. You’re playing the short game. If they won’t lead for this round, then maybe you ask them again for the next round. But, won’t you need leaders 6 months from now? Won’t you need leaders a year from now?
Years back I was recruiting a member of our church to oversee our support groups. He was a great guy who led groups well. He was also a licensed counselor, which would be perfect for coaching our support groups. I called him and invited him to help these groups. He told me he couldn’t do it. Between completing a degree and the season his family was in, he just couldn’t do it. But, he might be able to take on the role in 2 years. I put a date on the calendar.
Two years passed, then I called him. He said, “I knew you were going to call me.” The timing was better, so he said yes. He was the right person for the right position, but it was the wrong timing when I asked the first time. Rather than twist his arm, I waited for the right timing. It was certainly better than having someone lead under duress or not have time to lead at all. It was also better than having the wrong person in the role because I was running a fire drill.
Ask yourself this: Am I interested in achieving my goals, or am I committed? There’s a difference. John Assaraf says, ” “If you’re interested, you come up with stories, excuses, reasons, and circumstances about why you can’t or why you won’t. If you’re committed, those go out the window. You just do whatever it takes.”
I know that you are committed. You have given your whole life over to God to be used for His service. I understand. I have too. But, I spent so many years spinning my wheels in season after season only to find rather pathetic, incremental results. Out of that frustration was born a more impactful way of doing things. I would love to join you in your journey.
By Allen White
Allen White is the author of Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (releases February 1, 2017 from Hendrickson Publishers. Download the Introduction and First Chapter Here). He has worked with over 1,500 churches across North America in the last 12 years. Admittedly, interviewing one’s self is pretty odd, but I have interviewed many people sharing about their ministries and books, so why not?
Q1. What makes groups exponential?
Well, let’s start with strategies that don’t produce exponential groups. If small group pastors are focused on connecting people into groups, they will grow by addition. Prospective members must be provided with a group that they will be assigned to. If you’re doing this and your groups are growing, then you’re lucky.
Other churches focus on multiplying leaders, which usually implies dividing groups. A high quality group leader is recruited, who then mentors an apprentice, who will eventually take part of the group and start a new group. The problem I faced with this model was that my leaders weren’t able to identify apprentices for the most part. Oh, and our groups didn’t want to split.
Exponential speaks to equipping and empowering people to gather a group of their friends and do a study together. Imagine 10 people volunteering to lead, who then invite 10 of their friends to join them. Suddenly, you have 10 new groups and 110 people in groups, and all you did was give them permission, then help them. Now, 10 groups is tame. But, what if the number of groups equaled the number of people in your church? Think about the impact. That turns into some crazy math. In recent years, I’ve seen churches of 2,500 with 500 groups, and a church of 260 start 75 groups. That’s exponential.
Q2. In the first sentence of Exponential Groups, you say, “Everyone is already in a group.” How did you reach that conclusion? What if they’re not?
Think about your own life. If you made a list of your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, you would quickly see you are already in a group or even multiple groups. Now, if you took these groups that people are already in and gave them an easy-to-use tool that would intentionally help them grow spiritually, then you have what we typically call a “small group.”
Years ago our congregation took a health assessment. Not only did I want to see where people were growing and where people were stalling out, but I also wanted to see the impact of small groups on their growth. The assessment was based on the five biblical purposes as expressed by Rick Warren: Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship, Service, and Evangelism.
What we discovered was that everyone in our church rated themselves in this exact same order. People who were in official small groups were highest in Fellowship, but so were the people who weren’t. So, I took another survey to ask the non-small group folks who they were in fellowship with. Their responses: friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. They weren’t joining “small groups” because they were already in groups. Then the light bulb went off — what if we gave these groups a study, drew a circle around them, and called them a “group”? It worked better than we imagined.
Now, there are people who are new to the church or new to the area, who genuinely don’t know anyone. These are the exceptions. They need a little help getting connected into a group. Help them, but don’t build your entire system on the perceived needs of the exceptions.
Q3. You talk some about launching groups through church-wide campaigns. Many churches have done this only to see groups fall apart once the study is over. How is your approach different? What’s the best way to form groups that will last?
In order for groups to last beyond a church-wide campaign, three factors are crucial. First, the way the group is formed will largely determine whether the group will continue. See question #2. Second, they need a next step. Many groups don’t continue, because we didn’t ask them to. Lastly, every leader needs a coach. There’s a lot to unpack about coaching, but unless you are supporting your leaders, they will not last for the long term.
Q4. Some pastors are very cautious about lowering the bar on leadership. What would you say to them?
Don’t lower the bar on leadership. Delay the requirements.
Have you ever bought a car from a car dealer? You don’t start with all of the requirements and paperwork necessary to purchase a car. You start with a test drive. In the same way, potential leaders need to test drive small group leadership before they’re ready to seal the deal.
What’s the requirement for a test drive? A drivers license. The question you must answer is: What is the “drivers license” for a small group test drive in your church. For some, they’ll take anyone who is breathing. For others, it’s salvation, baptism, membership, an interview, and/or something else. In chapter 3 of the book, I talk about an acceptable level of risk. You must decide what your church is willing to try.
After group leaders do the test drive and decide to move forward in leading groups, then you can gently reintroduce the requirements you delayed. The end result looks a lot like what you expect from your current groups. You just have a lot more of them.
Q5. Where do you feel churches are missing it with small groups?
I believe some churches don’t think well enough of their people and assume they can’t or won’t lead. They might fear that if “anyone” can lead there will be a lot of problems. Let me assure you — there will be problems. But, the problems I’ve faced in both leading small groups at two churches and coaching other churches amount to about 2 percent of the total leaders you recruit. But, here’s the deal, you already have these problems. Small groups don’t create problems, but they can reveal the problems you already have.
The biggest mistake churches make by far is the lack of a coaching structure. This is difficult work, but it is the backbone of a lasting small group ministry. You cannot coach more than probably 30 leaders yourself. You can never hire all of the staff you need to oversee groups. But, if according to Exodus 18, you have leaders of 10s, leaders of 50s, leaders of 100s, and leaders of 1000s, you can get there. I’ve never had a small group staff. In fact, in the last church I served, we had 6,500 people, and I had one full time assistant. My leadership team was volunteer. My coaches were volunteer. The great thing is I had the privilege of working with people I could never afford to hire. Build a coaching structure or brace for impact.
Q5.5 You are a native Kansan who spent almost 20 years in California, and has now spent the last decade in South Carolina. What teams do you root for?
Well, for college basketball, it’s KU. (Rock. Chalk. Jayhawk). For college football, it’s Clemson. For MLB, it’s the San Francisco Giants. For NBA, it’s the Golden State Warriors. For NFL, I don’t care. How’s that for a mixed bag?