An ill timed launch is nearly as bad as no small group launch at all. You probably launch groups along with everything else in the fall and in the New Year. Those are great windows to launch groups, so what’s the problem?
In most churches, the senior pastor wants to kick off a big fall series as soon as everyone has settled back into church. The pastor will give a “State of the Church” message right after New Year’s Day, then launches into a major sermon series. If these sermon series are aligned with a small group study, then when do you recruit group leaders? And, when do you form groups? Before everybody gets back?
How Does This Work?
Let’s say that everyone is back onsite in the fall around mid-August. This will vary from church to church by a few weeks either way. If your pastor plans a big fall kick off with a sermon series starting in mid-August, you have to recruit leaders and attempt to form groups in July and early August. For most churches that means you are trying to recruit leaders when many of your people are on vacation.
The same goes for the New Year. If your series begins in early to mid-January, then you are recruiting group leaders and forming groups in December. But just in case you haven’t discovered this: nothing happens in December expect for Christmas.
Attempting to recruit leaders in the middle of summer or in December is completely futile. (Okay, maybe you recruited a couple of leaders once, but for the most part it’s futile.) You have to recruit leaders and form groups when your people are actually back. What does this mean?
If your people are back in church physically and mentally in mid-August, then start recruiting group leaders in mid-August. But, what happens to your senior pastor’s fall kick off? Your pastor can still launch the fall with a great sermon series, but wait to align your small group study with the NEXT sermon series (provided your pastor doesn’t do 20-week sermon series). You recruit group leaders in mid- to late August. You form groups in early September. You launch groups with a sermon-aligned study in mid-September.
Here’s a Great Result
One church in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group made this adjustment and went from 30% of their adults in groups to 42% in groups just by launching with the next series instead of launching with the kick off series. At our church in California, our people weren’t back until after Labor Day. We recruited group leaders in September. Our Connection event to join groups was in early October. We launched our six-week aligned series on the second Sunday in October with it finishing just before Thanksgiving. Our next study started in late January or early February. The groups focused more on group life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
But, What About Semester-Long Studies?
And, this strategy relieves another problem for you: every group and every ministry wants to launch all at once. By delaying your aligned series launch for a few weeks, people can sign up for Financial Peace, Rooted, or a Beth Moore study first, then you can recruit the remainder of folks to lead or join series-based groups. After all, a group is a group is a group. As long as they’re doing something intentional about their spiritual growth, does it matter what type of group they’re in? Everyone certainly doesn’t need to do the same thing.
Think About This
Recruiting leaders takes a lot of time and effort. By adjusting your alignment schedule, you put in the same amount of effort, but you get a better result simply by changing the timing. As long as your fall series ends by Thanksgiving and your New Year series ends by Easter, you’re in really good shape.
What does your fall church calendar look like? How can you make this adjustment to maximize your recruiting?
If you need a little help working through this issue, try Burst Coaching. You get three private coaching session plus an additional resource for only $197. For more information, click here.
Isolation from the pandemic is basically over in most quarters. You can freely roam about the country and the world. But, if your church is like most, your worship attendance is not back to the where it was pre-COVID. There really is no reason to stay away, so why aren’t some of your people coming back? Here are a few reasons why.
They’re Still Staying Home Out of Caution.
Some haven’t returned because they or a loved one have a health problem and can’t risk exposure. They’re probably not just staying away from church. They’re staying away from everyone. This is understandable. How are you reaching out to these folks and helping them feel connected to the larger church body?
Once restrictions were lifted in most places, some who felt comfortable attending when masks were required, now feel uncomfortable to worship maskless. Regardless of your personal feelings on masks, part of your congregation who were worshipping in-person are now staying away. They will be back, but not right now. How are you connecting with them?
They Went Somewhere Else.
If they weren’t with you, they did you a favor by going somewhere else. The pandemic sped everything up. If people were headed for the door, then COVID gave them a push. I’ve even heard of churches splitting over everything from mask preferences to politics or whatever else. (And, you know they’re disagreeing from all sides of these issues). If you’ve had people leave out of petty disagreements, figure out a way to bless them. Then, move forward with the people you’ve got.
They’re Still Staying Home Out of Comfort.
Most people’s couches are much more comfortable than those $30 chairs your church bought online. They can sit back with a cup of coffee and watch the service. Or they can multitask during worship. It’s not uncommon to hear about people cleaning their houses and worshipping at the same time.
Here’s the deal: if your worship service is largely built on programming, people can access programming online. Some churches have decided to end their online worship services in an effort to get people back into the building. Those folks are now watching another church’s worship service online.
As I said, if your worship service amounts to merely programming, people can get programming online. But, it takes more than programming to engage people in worship. The key is community.
If no one has reached out to them in the last two years or if no one‘s giving them a call to see how they’re doing, why would they come back? As John Maxwell says, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” When everyone was worshipping in-person, it was easier to shake a hand or give a greeting, or was it?
I attend a church of about 50 people. It’s the church that I grew up in. The pastor is a good man. I get to sit with my dad every week. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. But what I observe on Sunday at this church of 50 people is that like every other church, people tend to talk to people they already know. They tend to shy away from people that they don’t know. This is true of churches of 50, 500, 5,000, or 50,000. People gravitate to the people they know and ignore the people they don’t. Now, I’m trying my best to do my part to be friendly and welcoming. But, how do you get everybody to be hospitable?
Let me be frank: the lack of community in your weekend services has kept people away. Our holy huddles have also kept people away. You’ve got to loosen this up a little bit. You’ve got a find a place where people can connect in a meaningful way. As Roy Moran says, “The worship service is a great place to start, but a poor place to finish.” For every new person who walks through the door, what is their next step into community? How can they get to know others? How can they feel more connected.
If people felt more community in your church, they would attend more often. How are you connecting people into small groups? How are you leveraging existing relationships to start groups and invite friends and neighbors to church?
Think About This
Clearly it’s time to move forward. You have to accept the fact that the church you have is everybody you’re going to get back with just a few exceptions. We’re not going back to 2019. This is not necessarily bad news.
As your church moves forward, how do you create an environment that will welcome people, accept people, love people, and connect them into community? What do people in your area need right now? How can you connect with them? If they can’t make it to church on Sunday, then how do you help them connect with others?
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The political landscape is more polarized than it’s ever been (and it’s never been great). You don’t have to look too far before you find memes or yard signs that either strongly agree or strongly disagree with your own political position. But, how can you love your neighbor/enemy in this day and age? How do you reach people who are far from God and post an oppositional meme? What if they show up in your small group?
The challenge is to reach people with the truth of God’s word by putting politics aside. If your politics get in the way of your witness, then your politics are more important than they should be. Your concerned about political causes should be the same as Jesus’ concern. In my read of the Gospels, Jesus didn’t have much concerned for political causes. He stayed on mission regardless of the political situation.
You have a right to vote your conscience. You have a right to hold a political opinion. But, when does politics cloud the church’s mission? Here are some ideas about how groups can draw in people with opposing views and make disciples amid a hostile political environment.
By inviting friends and neighbors to a Bible study based on a relevant topic, every person in your church can reach people who are far from God and point them to the Truth. They don’t have to agree on everything. Besides, what small group actually agrees on everything anyway? By connecting with people and supporting them in overcoming practical issues in their lives, groups can break through some of the barriers that politics creates.
Stick to Jesus and What the Bible has to Say.
Over the centuries, the Church has faced a lot. Whether the church thrived with a favorable government or thrived with a hostile government, the Church has continued to thrive. But, all along the way the truth of God’s Word has held true. Jesus remains on the throne. God is a big boy. He can take care of Himself.
Once you’ve chosen a relevant study for your groups or have allowed them to choose the study based on the needs of their friends, then groups should stick to what the Bible says and avoid controversial issues. The goal is to win souls for eternity not to win the next election.
By creating an environment to accept people where they are, the group can show the newcomers the love of Christ. Jesus is very attractive. Political agendas are not. By breaking down barriers to invite others in, the Holy Spirit will do His work in their hearts just like He does in yours. This doesn’t mean that people will change overnight. This also doesn’t mean that you have to be in agreement with their political views or lifestyle choices. As the saying goes, “You catch them. God will clean them.”
Show God’s Love in Practical Ways.
What are the needs you see around you? How can your group help your neighbors? After all, Jesus boiled down all 613 commandments in Scripture to just two: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40). How can you love your neighbor as yourself?
First, get to know your neighbors. I’ve made it a personal challenge over the years to find something in common with everyone I meet. Now with some folks that’s more challenging than others. Sometimes though I’m surprised that I have a lot in common with someone I thought I would have nothing in common with.
Start with your neighbors’ names. If they’re just moving in, walk over and unload something from the moving truck, introduce yourself, and either continue helping or move on if you need to. Now, if you’ve lived in your neighborhood for a while and there’s a neighbor you haven’t met, then walk next door with some cookies, knock on the door, and say, “I’m a little embarrassed that we’ve lived here for so long, yet you and I have never met.” They’re probably embarrassed too.
Pray for Your Neighbors.
If you’ve met your neighbors, then pray for them by name. Pray for their lives to be blessed. Pray for openness to hear about Jesus. Pray for any needs that you are aware of. If you haven’t met your neighbors, then pray for an opportunity to meet them. The power of prayer is much greater than the power of Facebook.
Help Your Neighbors.
Do your neighbors have a practical need? Make yourself available. If it’s a big job, then invite your whole small group. Whether your neighbor needs some work done around their house or needs a night of fun, include them. People are lonely. As my wife once said, “People have more ways to connect than they’ve had, yet they are more disconnected than they’ve ever been.” Facebook and other social media provide pseudo-relationships, but lack the real personal connections that people need. By opening up and including others, you and your group are taking the first step in helping people find Jesus.
Think About This
Pastor Jonathan Hansen from Hills Church in El Dorado Hills, California recently told me, “Most Christians are only one yard sign away from destroying their witness.” How can you introduced people to Jesus when your politics keep getting in the way? Winning somebody to your political point of view is not nearly as important as winning someone to Christ. The change of a nation starts with the change of the hearts of individuals. Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). This should still be our mission. When it comes to politics, as Larry Osborne said recently on the Exponential Groups Podcast: “Your church (or your group) should be Switzerland.”
As much as you might hate to think about this, the world is on the eve of a global recession. There’s just been too much cheap money out there for too long. Now, I am a pastor and not an economist, but I play one on Facebook. (Just kidding). Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capital firms that backed companies like Apple, Google, and AirBnb, just released a presentation calling for founders to preserve cash for survival. “We do not believe that this is going to be another swift V-shaped recovery like we saw at the outset of the pandemic,” Sequoia’s partners said. What does this have to do with your church? A lot. Churches have already seen giving decline due to inflation. With the oncoming recession, things are about to take a downward turn. Here are five ways you can recession-proof your church:
1. Manage What You Can Control
What full-time roles could become part-time? What part-time roles could become volunteer? What ministries are more of a luxury than a necessity? Or asked a nicer way, where are the bright spots in your church right now? Invest heavily in what is bearing fruit. For everything else, unfortunately, it’s time to prune.
This is the time to look at all of the staff who spend their days doom scrolling on their iPhones. Their time is up. While you may have had compassion on them during the pandemic, there are plenty of jobs out there these days. They will find something. It’s time to become a lean mean ministry machine. Now if you feel at all threatened by what I’m saying, then it is time to pour your energy and efforts into becoming an essential member of your church’s team. The more value that you can add, the less likely that you will get cut. And, the more satisfaction you will get from your work.
What things in your church’s budget can you control? Periodically, it’s a good idea to look at all of the services your church subscribes to. What is still necessary? While RightNow Media and smallgroups.org can be useful, are they necessary? What if you created your own curriculum? Your studies would more closely reflect your church’s values. If you offer a digital download, you reduce the cost of printing books. Invest in some great tools for producing curriculum like How to Ask Great Questions by Karen Lee-Thorpe or join the Effective Curriculum Writing Workshop. You might even have some talented volunteers in your church who can help you write a sermon discussion guide or study guide.
2. Sell Surplus Assets
You don’t need a garage sale (but you could have one). What property does your church own but will probably never develop? Real estate is still pretty hot right now. Before things slow way down, it might be time to liquidate excess property and build your church’s cash reserves. Pay off debt. I understand that your role may not involve decisions of this kind, but these would be helpful things to suggest to your leadership.
How well do you utilize your church building? (You don’t need to sell your church building.) But, could you rent space to a non-profit with similar values? Could you rent space for events in your community? Think of family reunions, bridal showers, baby showers, and other community events. Maybe there’s a new church plant looking for a place to meet. Of course, you would need to have stated policies so the events reflect the your church’s standards. Granted, this will require some janitorial expense, but it could be a source of revenue. Stick with me here. The discipleship part is coming soon.
Look in your church’s closets. What about that stack of curriculum you have left from your last alignment series? Could you start new groups with it? Could you sell it to another church? (Maybe you’re headed back to a garage sale idea here). You may not have the authority to make these kinds of decisions, but you could make some suggestions and possibly become the employee of the month!
3. Stir Up Your Members’ Gifts
When money gets tight, more than ever you need to get your church members’ gifts in the game. Now that the pandemic has clearly defined the committed core of your church, give them meaningful ways to serve. You have church members with gifts and talents that need to be used. This never should have been an option. The church never should have been divided by clergy and laity or staff and “volunteers” (Oh, how I hate that word! We are all members of the Body of Christ!) Your consumers changed the church channel during COVID. Don’t be afraid to ask the people who stuck with you to serve.
Once people know what they’re good at and gifted for, they need a placement process for ministry. I would recommend offering a trial run to see if they are a good fit for the role. Once they’ve fulfilled the trial period (don’t tell them this), you can decide whether to offer them more or thank them for fulfilling their short-term commitment. (It’s sure better than firing someone who volunteers their time).
If you have meaningful work that’s a right fit, people will offer you their time. In a recent assessment for a church with 1,000 in weekly attendance, their members Indicated that they could serve 449 total hours per week in addition to when they were currently serving. (These responses were from only 400 of their members!)
Your people will help if they are given meaningful ways to serve. From the first item on this list: what part-time roles could become volunteer roles? You have people with the time and ability to take on “official” roles in your church. What does your church need to prepare for in helping your community in the coming recession? Think about parents needing low cost childcare or after school programs. You can reach the next generation and get their parents to try church. How can your members serve? Ask them.
4. Strategically Outsource Staff Roles
One way to reduce your church’s overall expenses and retain good ministry leadership is to outsource certain roles to other organizations. Often by outsourcing, you can retain a more talented player on your team for a lot less money. For instance, you don’t have to pay benefits, because the outsource employees’ organization covers that.
The Provisum Group offers accounting and communications services. Their founder, Don Corder, told me about one church who paid someone in their office $65,000 per year to create the weekly church bulletin. The church contracted with The Provisum Group and did the same work for far less. Belay Solutions offers outsourced personal assistants, bookkeepers, social media managers, and website specialists. These are just a couple of possibilities.
You can even outsource your small group pastor or director position. Over the last decade, I’ve served several churches as their outsourced small group pastor. I discovered while serving on staff at a church of 6,500 that most of my communication with my small group team, coaches, and group leaders was by email, phone call, and Zoom. You can do those things from anywhere. I started helping churches hundreds of miles away from me. With occasional onsite visits, in the last year, I led the small group ministry at Mount Hope Church, Lansing, Michigan just like this. We tripled their groups in 2021, which was not a great year for groups overall. Every leader had a coach. Every member who wanted one had a group. If you need help with your groups, then let’s talk. Click here to schedule an appointment.
5. Invest in Small Groups
Your investment in small groups bears a great return. You are probably aware of all of the great benefits to small groups. People in groups serve more, give more, grow more, attend more, and reach more than people who are not in groups. Don’t you want more of all of those things? (Don’t believe me. Download the research here in The Senior Pastors Guide to Groups).
You can build your small group ministry on a 100% volunteer leadership and coaching structure. This worked well in both churches I served (a church of 800 in California and a church of 6,500 in South Carolina). As you empower people to take on the tasks and authority of discipling others, you will find willing people who will gather their friends and start a group. You will find experienced leaders willing to coach other leaders. And, you will identify leaders of leaders of leaders who will help you run the whole thing. This is the system presented in the Exponential Groups book and workbook.
When giving goes down, care needs to go up. When care goes up, then giving goes up. In the most recent megachurch survey, Dr. Warren Bird shared how people in groups gave 11% more than people who are not in groups. On top of that, churches with 60% or more in groups grew by 79% between 2015 and 2020. Now, those are pre-COVID numbers, so it will be interesting to see the results of the next survey in 2025. But, did your church grow by 79% between 2015 and 2020? And remember that the fall small group boom is on its way.
Think About This
God is sending His Church a message. It’s time to change. What worked in 2019 won’t work now. The first message was through COVID. You began to see digital missionaries. You saw people getting pickier about who they spent their time with. You saw the culture as a whole get a little more comfortable out of sheer exhaustion. Now, the second message is this coming recession. Scarcity brings clarity. During COVID, people were scarce. In the recession, finances will become scarce. It is time to rethink ministry. What does your community need? How can you reach them? How can you show them the love of Jesus in practical ways? How can you and your members engage in meaningful conversations about tough issues?
People are very overwhelmed and confused right now. The speed of cultural change has been intimidating to say the least. But, the church has something solid. The church has something eternal. The church has the Gospel, which does not change. But, it’s time to rethink the methods.
If you are honest with yourself, the good old days were really not that good. Sure you would love to see your church’s worship center filled again. Of course you would love to see all of the people come back that you used to see for 20 seconds every Sunday morning. But in romanticizing the past, you’re forgetting about all the things that were broken and all of the things that you didn’t like. Now is the opportunity to fix them.
Maybe this is not the season to rebuild your church. Maybe this is the season to start over. You’ve had daydreams about that. You thought about if I could start this church from scratch this is what I would do. Right now your church as it is as close to scratch as it’s ever been. Take this opportunity to start over.
If You Could Start from Scratch…
If you could start from scratch, what would you do? If you had a blank slate, how would you make disciples? How would you conduct worship services? How would you serve your community?
If you put all of your energy into regaining what you had in 2019 or 1995 or 1955, you are expending a lot of energy on something that just doesn’t work anymore. Don’t get me wrong. What worked in 2019, 1995, and 1955 worked back then. But, it won’t work now. The world has changed. The culture has changed. The church should change. The Word of God, however, never changes.
Now, moving forward instead of moving backward, how are you going to make disciples? How are you going to reach your community?
Look at What You Have
Your church has a facility. Your church has funds. Your church has committed people who’ve survived the last two years with you. Imagine if you were planting this church right now for the very first time. You’re in great shape! Most church plants start with no facility, a small core group of people, and little funds. You’ve got a huge advantage.
Let’s take a minute to look at your people. For the most part, your people aren’t newbies. They aren’t consumer Christians. All of the consumers “changed the channel” during Covid. This is not the group you need to entertain to keep them coming back. This is the group that fought the war with you. They are ready to serve. They are ready to engage. They are ready to do something significant in your community. Give them their marching orders!
Where Is Your Church’s Ministry Bloated?
It’s easy to add things to a church’s ministry. It’s very difficult to end things. Ministry creep is a real thing. But what makes a church’s ministry effective is often not adding more, but removing some things. When was the last time you and your leadership questioned why you did something? This is not to stir up trouble, but to make sure your church is getting the most out of your church’s investment in time, talent, and treasure. Sometimes you just need to ask why?
For instance, my family has had a connection to the church we attend dating back to 1969. Back then, the morning worship service started at 11 am and ended promptly at Noon. We sang three hymns and listened to a sermon. One hour and done! Then, the worship movement hit our church in the 1980’s. I supposed since you have to repeat the choruses of modern worship songs five times, the pastor needed more time on Sunday morning, so the service was extended by 15 minutes to start at 10:45 on Sunday morning.
Somewhere along the way during the 38 years I was away from my hometown, the church added another 15 minutes to the worship service. What was previously accomplished in one hour now takes 90 minutes. At this stage of my life, I think the whole thing could be tightened up. Half of the congregation can’t stand through the entire singing part anyway. I’m trying to figure out a polite way to ask why the 90 minute worship service persists. So far, I’ve only come up with impolite ways, so I’ll wait.
The length of the worship service may not be a big deal in your church. Maybe it’s shorter. Maybe it’s longer. But, why is it? If I were starting a church right now, everyone would meet at round tables, and we’d enjoy brunch with a little music, spiritual content, and lively discussion. Maybe you think I’m apostate for suggesting this. Do what’s right for your church, but ask why once in a while.
Think About This
Covid ended a lot of things. If a ministry activity didn’t survive Covid, don’t bring it back. How has God used Covid to prepare your church for what’s next? How has the pandemic you helped to clarify what’s truly important in your church? What old things need to go away? What new thing needs to start? What sacred cow needs to be barbecued?
What have you already rethought or re-engineered in your church? Let me know in the comments below.
Before I go, I want to tell you about something I am planning for this summer. I want to give you the tools you will need for what I believe is the biggest fall small group launch we’ve ever seen. Right now as school is ending and the weather is warming up, people are headed out. They are going on vacation. They are making day trips. They are enjoying their backyards and sunshine. They are traveling on planes in unmasked freedom. But, once summer is over, they will be ready to connect in community in unprecedented ways.
To help you prepare for this fall small group boom, I am offering the Exponential Groups Intensive starting on June 1. This six week Live group coaching cohort includes a copy of both the Exponential Groups book and workbook as well as a one-on-one private coaching session with me. The price is $397. We start on June 1st. Don’t miss out. Register at allenwhite.org/intensive.