By Allen White
My guest today is Alan Danielson, the Lead Pastor of a church that’s probably a lot like yours. New Life Bible Church is a church of a few hundred people, but not long ago he was on the executive staff of Life.Church in Edmond, OK. Now, along with pastoring New Life, Alan is a consultant and has worked with many of America’s largest churches. Alan founded Triple-Threat Solutions to help leaders of and churches of all sizes grow. Learn more from Alan at http://www.3Threat.net.
Q1: You’re not new at small groups. Over the years, what trends/methods/strategies in forming groups have stood the test of time?
Oh boy, I have several things that come to mind. The first and most obvious answer is leadership. Every group that lasts needs a leader. There are “leaderless” methods for starting groups but these groups only last long-term when someone in the group demonstrates leadership. They may never actually give someone the title of leader, but make no mistake a truly “leaderless” group won’t be a group for long.
The second thing that pops into my head is coaching. I’m a huge believer in small group coaches. I’ve heard lots of people claim that coaching doesn’t work, but that has certainly not been my experience. By providing coaches to connect with and guide my small group leaders, I’ve given them all a lifeline and a partner. I once asked my friend Dave Treat why some people are down on small group coaching when it has proven to be so important to me. He said, “Coaching works, but people are lazy.” What that means is that coaching is hard work and it only works if pastors and other leaders will put in the effort needed.
Thirdly, I think of church wide small group campaigns. Campaigns are such a simple tool for launching new groups and getting new people connected. If a campaign is followed up by capable small group coaches, the new groups can last a long time and provide a great platform for discipleship.
Q2: When you think about methods like church-wide campaigns and other ways of rapidly forming groups, do you see these srategies going the long haul? Why or why not?
I’ve seen both. I’ve seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected only to see those groups fizzle out after a few months.
I’ve also seen churches run campaigns, start a ton of groups, get bunches of people connected and then see the groups last and build tremendous relationships that change lives.
So what’s the difference? The first two things I talked about after your first question: leadership and coaching. At some point someone in the group has to take up the mantle of leader (whether they want the title or not). The perfect person to guide the would-be leader through that process is a small group coach. A well-trained coach can help people make the transition into leadership well. Without leaders and coaches, small groups quickly implode, collapse, dissolve or just fade away.
Q3: You’ve served as a small group champion as both a small group pastor and a senior pastor. Where have you been the most effective in group ministry? What made it more effective?
Well, it depends on what you call effective. When I was a campus small group pastor at Life.Church we developed 544 groups on a campus of 7,000 people. 544 groups sounds really impressive, but I was never impressed. We averaged 8.45 people per group which translated 4,597 people connected. That still sounds like a lot. But when compared to our campus attendance of 7,000 it meant that just under 66% of our weekend attenders were in groups. In school 66% is a D.
When I was promoted to executive groups pastor over all of our campuses we got to nearly 1,100 groups total for all of our campuses. That came out to 9,295 people in groups. At the time we were running 28,000 on all campuses meaning we had 33% of our total attendance in groups. That’s an F.
Now I’m the lead pastor of a church of 300 and we have about 80% of our people in groups. That’s much better.
What made the difference in these three different settings? Leadership and coaching. On the one campus where I led the small group ministry, coaching was a critical component. When I was given charge of all 13 campuses, we were in the middle of implementing our coaching ministry on all campuses. If I’d stayed there longer I believe we would have broken the 66% mark and gone even further.
Here’s the big takeaway: small groups and coaching work in all churches of all size. Success is determined not by the slickness of the strategy but by the break-neck-work-ethic of every leader involved (from the pastor to the group leader) and high value of small groups in the church. My current church will one day hit, and I believe exceed, the 100% mark because, as the lead pastor, I am committed to our strategy. Then I hire staff who share that commitment, who recruit coaches who share that commitment, who train leaders who share that commitment.
Q4: What is different about Group Life in Oklahoma than in other places?
The Food! When I was a pastor in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you could be sure that every small group had some form of green chile every week. In Oklahoma there are lots of veggie trays, followed by some kind of meat and dessert.
Seriously though, I don’t really think there’s much difference. People are people everywhere you go. As I’ve consulted with churches all across the country I’ve noticed that people crave connection everywhere. Every neighborhood needs groups who will care for the neighborhood. Every person in every church needs healthy relationships and needs to grow spiritually. The biggest difference is simply one of awareness. In the Oklahoma (often called the buckle of the Bible Belt), more people in the culture are aware of small groups or Bible study groups. In Portland, Oregon the average person hasn’t heard of such a thing.
Q5: When we first met, you were the small groups pastor at LifeChurch.tv (now Life.Church). What did you small group structure look like across multiple campuses? Were groups consistent across campuses or did that matter?
The goal was to have a consistent group strategy and structure on all campuses. It was to be built on three basic building-blocks: leaders, coaches and campaigns. We did two campaigns every year, so we needed coaches on every campus who would develop great leaders in a very short time. That’s a pretty over-simplified summary, but I think you get the gist.
Anyway, when I became the point person overseeing groups on all campuses, the group ministries did not have a very consistent look. My predecessor had encouraged lots of experimentation on every campus, so there were definitely differences from one campus to the next. These differences were both good and bad. The good thing was that each of our 13 campuses was a laboratory where we could try different strategies and tactics. The bad thing was the tendency of the campus groups pastors becoming too attached to their own way of doing things. This led to quite a bit of tension.
Okay, before I continue I have to give you a little more context. What I’m saying may sound like I’m running down Life.Chruch, but that’s most definitely NOT my intent. Remember, when I was at Life.Church, the multi-site movement was still very new. In many ways we were making things up as we went along. We quickly became the biggest multi-site church in the country and had few examples to learn from, so we made a TON of mistakes. That’s why I’m very comfortable sharing that we got an “F” for only 33% of our people in groups. But in this case and “F” is not automatically a failure. We didn’t necessarily view each experiment as “success” or “failure”, but as an “opportunity to learn”. Even things that didn’t pan out like we’d hoped taught us a lot.
So through all of this I learned that the most important part of leading multi-site small group ministry came down to the campus small group pastor. If the campus small group pastor was a teachable, team-player, he/she was far more likely to utilize the basics that we wanted to implement on each campus (the basics being the things I mentioned earlier: leaders, coaches and campaigns). The independent-type campus group pastors had a tendency to try to blaze their own trails. Rather than building upon something proven effective, they often tried to start building from a new foundation. This often led to slower success. Under my leadership, the ideal personality-mix for a campus group pastor was a creative person who is willing to learn from and follow their leadership. Rather than being trail blazers (or sometimes even rebels), these types of campus group pastors implemented the basics and experimented with ideas only if they would enhance or improve the basics.
Q5.5: As the co-owner of the second largest Star Wars fan site in the world, what is your favorite Star Wars movie?
It’s episode V, The Empire Strikes Back!
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