By Allen White
At New Life Christian Center in Turlock, Calif., our desire is to connect 100% of our regular attenders in small groups. Many obvious reasons compel us to do this: assimilation, discipleship, span of care, and so on. What pastor wouldn’t want that?
At the invitation of David Larson, our senior pastor, many new small group hosts stepped forward to start groups. But, then we ran into some issues: rotating shifts and odd schedules; shy spouses and long commutes; special-needs children and reluctant leaders.
We made an interesting discovery when our church took the Purpose-Driven Health Assessment to gauge the growth of our congregation. Typically, we had overall high marks in Worship and Fellowship and low marks in Evangelism. We decided to break down our results according to who was in a group and who was not. Our thought was that people who are not in groups would become more spiritually healthy if they joined a small group. The results surprised us.
People who were not in a small group rated themselves just as highly in Fellowship/Connectedness as did people who were in small groups. We thought: “How do we convince people who think they’re connected that they’re not really connected? After all, they’re not even in a small group!” This thinking was entirely wrong.
We used to see our church as hundreds of disconnected souls in desperate need of community. What we discovered is that everyone in our church is connected to someone: a family, co-workers, customers, neighbors, friends and acquaintances. Maybe a few people who recently moved to the area lack these relationships, but most people have them.
Our next challenge became getting these groups of connected people in our church to do a small group study together. The solution was simple: Pastor Dave invited anyone who would like to do the study with their friends to take the materials after the service. The Experiencing Christ Together DVD’s and study guides went like hot cakes. In fact, after our second service, we ran out of materials.
One new host named Rick told his Community Leader that leading his group is the best thing that he’s done. Rick is probably one of our most passionate leaders, but he never would have done it without the DVD. During that small group campaign, the pastoral staff had never met Rick. But, he discovered something that he loved and did it with all of his heart.
When we ask people to join a small group, think about what we’re really asking. First, we ask them to do a 6-week Bible study, probably for the first time. Then, we ask them to take an extra hour out of their week. And, we ask them to spend this extra hour doing the study with a group of strangers. Sounds like a recipe for failure, doesn’t it?
By inviting our members to do a new thing (the 6-week study) with people they’re already connected to, we gave them an excuse to get together with people they already know and love. They’re doing a new thing in their comfort zone. Not only do these groups form faster and better than any other connection strategy, these groups actually last longer. They’re already a group!
Three women who meet every Thursday for coffee at Starbucks are now meeting every Thursday morning at Starbucks and doing a Bible study together. Employees in the break room of an overhead door company spend their lunch time doing the small group study. Bored commuters sitting on a train from Central California to the Bay Area began spending previously wasted time studying God’s Word together. The group has become so popular they now take up an entire section of the train.
One of our worries was how to get to know all of these people. Think about this. If you sat all of these folks in rows for six months and trained and trained, how would you know they were listening? How would you know they accepted what you said? How would you know they would do what you instructed in their groups? You don’t!
The only way to grow these groups is to get to know the hosts. Each of these new hosts receives training and support from a small group coach that we call their buddy. Remember the buddy system? The small group buddy is a leader that has some experience — at least one 6-week study’s worth. Their job description is to call the new host each week after their meeting to see how it went, pray for them, and answer any questions they might have. Each buddy receives the support of a Community Leader, if anything major comes up.
In the fall of 2004, 40% of our new small groups at New Life started by inviting our church members to pick up the curriculum and get together with their friends. In our current study, 100% of our new groups have started this way.
What’s our worst problem now? We have to convince them that they are actually small groups. But, that’s the least of our worries.
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