Vertical Church is an over 30 year old church in West Haven, Connecticut. The worship attendance is 1,600 adults in a diverse congregation made up of 38 different nationalities. No one ethnicity is dominant. Prior to implementing the principles found in Exponential Groups, the church had 34 groups following the Free Market model of groups.[
“The verbiage in the Northeast is small groups don’t work
here,” says Randal Alquist, Discipleship Pastor. “Nobody wants to open up their
houses. You’re not going to get them to join. We’re not a front porch
community. We’re a back deck community with fences. We’re going into our
backyards and have our own little space.”
After digesting the content of Exponential Groups, the church was challenged to add a new
approach. “My biggest revelation was this idea that people are already in
groups,” Alquist said. “There are distinctives we want to accomplish within a
group. We want people praying together, people gathering together for community
and to draw closer to Jesus. We’re activating faith together in the group. If
we know that’s happening, and they’re attending church regularly and serving
once in a while, then we know they’re growing. This revolutionized my approach
in how to talk about groups and promote them.”
Previously, the church sought out people with high
qualifications to lead a group. The new leaders were given a 52-page manual
they were expected to follow. Alquist says, “We started giving people
permission to jump in. We’re asking for people who love people and love God.
We’re not asking for elders here. We want people who are willing to facilitate
a healthy environment where connections can happen.” The 52-page manual was
replaced with a 10-page manual and a short briefing meeting at the church.
Training videos were created to answers common questions from the small group
leaders. Each new leader received a coach to help them.
In their most recent alignment series, Vertical Church had
over 90 groups with 920 group members. Additionally, another 240 people are
involved in eight short-term Growth Groups at the church. “This approach opened
up a world to us,” Alquist enthused. “We knew community was happening on the
periphery, but we’ve been able to look at all of these little communities in
our church and identify some basic things for those leaders to start practicing
and to make sure it’s happening. It’s been amazing.”
I was first introduced to Pastor Matthew Hartsfield and Van Dyke Church, Lutz, FL in 2011. We had a great run at getting over 100% of their then 1,800 adults connected into groups. [Read the Original Case Study Here] Five years later, Van Dyke Church has grown to 3,300 members and 2,300 adults in weekly attendance. [Read the Updated Case Study Here] They have maintained 80-90% of their adults in groups. Here is my interview with Matthew Hartsfield:
If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you are probably wondering:
Does this really work, or is this all talk?
I’ve talked about the churches I’ve served and all of the churches I’ve coached. Today, I want to introduce you to one of those churches.
The Case Study
Back in 2011-2012, I had the privilege of coaching Van Dyke Church in Lutz, FL.
(If you want to read the original case study I wrote about them back in 2012, CLICK HERE).
Why am I using an example that’s five years old? Because I want you to see what happened then, and where things are five years later.
Believe me, it’s easy to create a lot of excitement for one six-week church-wide campaign or 40 Days series, but what happens after that series ends, the number of groups you retain, and the way you support them, is more important than starting dozens or hundreds of new groups for a campaign.
This is a marathon, not a sprint. We want to build things that will last.
Back to Van Dyke Church, in 2011, they had 1,800 adults in their weekend services and about 400 people in groups. After working with them for 9 months, Van Dyke grew to over 2,000 people in groups. That’s 110% of their adult attendance. This is what Pastor Matthew Hartsfield says about the experience.
“Like most churches, Van Dyke Church had a small group ministry for years. However, group ministry was not deeply imbedded in the culture of our church, and we never exceeded 22% of our adult weekend worship attendance in groups.
“That all changed when we started working with Allen White as a coach for our small group ministry. With his help, we created and launched our own sermon-based curriculum and developed a systematic approach to creating a small group culture of adult discipleship. Within one year, we saw dramatic impact:
• Our first launch we moved us from 22% to 56% in groups (1,000 adults)
• Our second launch took us from 56% to 89% in groups (1,600 adults)
• Our third launch went from 89% of adult weekend worship attendance to over 100% (over 2,000 adults).
“Today, four years later, we are still sustaining close to 90% of our adult weekend worship attendance in small groups!
“Allen’s coaching helped us create a small group ministry that generated results across the board:
• People get connected in community.
• People grow in their study of the Bible.
• People serve in mission together through their small group.
• People develop leadership skills as small group hosts.
• People become more evangelistically motivated to invite outsiders to small groups.
“Allen White was used by God in an essential way to help us move to an entirely new level of spiritual growth and impact as a church.”
While Pastor Matthew is very generous about his words regarding my coaching, I would say God had a much bigger role in this than I did. But, then again, the reason I was even coaching this church and so many others is because of what God taught me through the Exponential Group Launches in my own churches.
What made the difference from Van Dyke Church? They were committed to groups, but in 2011, they made some significant changes which produced exponential growth. Here’s what they did:
Tip #1: Focus on a Long Term Win.
Let’s be honest here. Launching one church-wide campaign or series for six weeks creates a lot of excitement, but often it doesn’t produce lasting results. For some strange reason, people get the idea that after the six weeks is over, they’re done. Where would they get an idea like that?
Notice how Van Dyke’s groups few. They went from 400 in groups to 1,000 the first time around. But, they didn’t wait a year to do it again. In fact, the Fall 2011 series ended before Thanksgiving, and the next series began in January. Not only did they add another 600 people in groups, they kept the 1,000 who were in the Fall groups.
Before the Fall series ended, they announced the Winter series. Before the Winter series ended, they announced the Spring series, and ended up with over 2,000 people in groups, which means they had more people in groups than in their worship services.
If you’ve launched one church-wide campaign, then you lost those groups, you would be led to believe that doesn’t work.
And, you are right! It doesn’t work.
But, if you put in the effort the first year, whether you launch in the Fall or in January, your groups will continue, and you will add more groups each time. If you’re only doing one campaign every Fall or every New Year, even though you are committed to groups and campaigns, you have placed your church in an endless cycle of Ground Hog Day.
You know the definition of insanity, right?
The key is a sequence, not just one series.
Tip #2: The Senior Pastor is the Groups Champion.
Pastor Matthew and Van Dyke Church actually created their own curriculum, which is possible for any church, even if you shoot it with an iPhone!
I remember the day after our team coached their first video shoot. Pastor Matthew called us into his office and asked, “Now that we’ve shot this video and are making curriculum, how do we recruit leaders? And, how do we get people connected into groups?”
His Discipleship Pastor had tried to generate this kind of interest in groups for two years. What did it? The senior pastor made the investments.
So, how do you recruit leaders and connect people into groups?
If you’re the small group pastor or director, you don’t recruit leaders. In fact, if you do recruit, you’ll get 30% of what your senior pastor will get.
Pastor Matthew stood up in his weekend series and invited people to open their homes and do a group. Think about this: at that time, he had been the pastor for 18 years. If someone wasn’t connected to other people in the church, why were they there (other than Jesus)? They were there because they connected to the senior pastor! They liked his personality and his teaching. They laughed at his jokes. The senior pastor is the reason they’re there. (Now, don’t tell this to your worship pastor. It will break his heart.)
When Van Dyke Church launched their first study, Pastor Matthew recruited 60 new leaders. When they launched the second time, he recruited 60 more. Then, on the third time around, he recruited over 40 leaders, which put them way over the top in the ratio of groups to service attendance.Their small group director trained and supported the leaders, but their senior pastor did all of the recruiting.
Tip #3: Groups have Remained on the Front Burner of Ministry.
After the first year, Van Dyke Church didn’t offer three self-produced curricula in a single year, but they still kept their energy focused on groups. They offered a weekly discussion guide. They produced one series a year. Their groups went up and down, like everybody’s, but after five years, they still retain a much higher number of on-going groups than where they started.
Pastor Matthew saw the benefit of groups for Van Dyke Church as he stated above: connection, growth, serving, leadership development, and evangelism. What other ministry in the church does all of that? There was no looking back for them.
So, what about you? How do you double, triple, or quadruple your groups? How do you get your senior pastor on-board?
This is why I created the Leading an Exponential Group Launch course. The principles and strategies that brought success to Van Dyke Church can also bring success to your church.
Before we started together, Pastor Matthew was friendly toward groups, but he wasn’t the champion. Let’s get your senior pastor to champion groups in your church.
“I’m a great believer that everything happens for a reason,” a new member writes, “God sees that I’m seeking Him. Having just moved from out of state and not knowing where to go to church– to a place where I can find comfort — has been a challenge. You were able to bring it to me here at work, God knows that I’m seeking Him and need Him close in my heart. Not only for me but for my son! Again thank you, I felt great after yesterday’s gathering.”
This man recently joined a workplace group started by a member of Van Dyke Church, Lutz, Florida. The host leader took it on himself to bring the church’s current series and small group study to his workplace. The church staff was so excited. They announced publicly that he already had 20 group members. He only had 10 at the time. Then, he called to say he had 14. He isn’t finished yet. Maybe the platform gaff was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy
Van Dyke United Methodist Church is a 25 year old church in Tampa, Florida pastored by Matthew Hartsfield, who has lead them for 18 of those years. As of this writing, their weekend adult attendance averages 1,800. Three weeks ago, they had 39 home groups with approximately 400 group members. That was three weeks ago. Today, everything has changed.
Align the Weekend Service with a Curriculum
What started as a strong Fall series called Q&A quickly morphed into a discipleship and evangelistic tool placed in the hands of Van Dyke’s members. Pastor Matthew had crafted a series to answer life’s big questions, such as: What is God’s Will for My Life? Why are there so Many Different Religions? and What Happens the Minute After You Die? The weekly messages definitely had a broad appeal. The congregation would be eager to bring their friends to the weekend series. Then, Pastor Matthew created a tool to take the message to the community.
With just four weeks until the series launch, Pastor Matthew with the Van Dyke team created an easy to use DVD-based curriculum in partnership with Lifetogether. In one day, they shot six teaching segments, six session intros, and six leadership training segments. That’s a lot for one day.
In the next 10 days, Lynne Fukutani and Rob Rose used the Lifetogether template to create a complete six-week study guide. In addition to great discussion questions, they included the support and training any new leader would need to start their group. They were off to print.
Recruit an Unlimited Number of Leaders
The day after the shoot, Pastor Matthew engaged in a crucial next step conversation. The video was recorded. Now what? On the next two Sundays, he challenged the entire congregation to host a group in their homes. With a little tongue in cheek humor, he assured his members that “All you need to do is push play and brew a pot of coffee.” In two weeks, 63 new host homes (and host workplaces) were created. From an established base of 39 groups, Van Dyke Church now boasted 103 groups in just two weeks time. And, they’re just getting started.
Support New Leaders with a Coach
The success of new hosts and leaders depends on the encouragement of a coach. Three weeks ago, Van Dyke Church had only one staff member who coached all of the groups. This system was quickly overwhelmed – not to mention the staff member.
We challenged key staff members to think of the influencers in the congregation. Brett Eastman calls them the “E.F. Hutton’s.” (Brett’s getting a little old.) In a matter of 15 minutes, Pastor Matthew and his staff had cherry picked the top candidates in their congregation. Then, the pastor picked up the phone and invited these influential folks to help the new group hosts for the six weeks of the campaign.
They pulled the new coaches together for a 45 minute huddle and outlined the expectations: (1) Call the new host once a week. (2) Answer their questions. (3) Pray for them. They agreed. As soon as the coach meeting ended, the new hosts filed in for a host rally.
We built up the curriculum, built up the team, and built up the church. Then, we introduced the new hosts to some very important people who would help them get their group started – their coaches. A little less awkward than the junior high dance, each new host was paired with a coach. They talked briefly, exchanged contact information, and they were ready to start.
Connect the Congregation into Community
Immediately after each weekend service over the next two weekends, the new hosts were arranged in the church lobby by city and zip code. As prospective group members filed out of the services, they met a group host who lived near them and signed up for their group for the six weeks. While most group prospects found a group to join, a few were lost in the shuffle.
The coaches and church staff were on-hand to direct these lost sheep into the right place. By the end of the first weekend, Van Dyke Church had nearly doubled their group participation. By the second weekend, they were close to tripling that number. Their group members had grown from 400 to right around 1,000 in groups. And, new people are being added daily.
One Size Does Not Fit All
In connecting their congregation into groups, Van Dyke Church leveraged existing groups, formed new host homes, created “family and friends” groups, and marched off the map of what was known as group life in their church. They even discovered a few groups who were meeting under the radar, but identified themselves for this series.
Now, they are tackling the last 30 percent – the independent, the introverted and the isolated (Read more about these groups here). Rather than arranging another week of small group connection in the lobby, the Van Dyke team is giving away DVDs and books to anyone who will do the study with two or three friends. These off-the-record groups will accommodate folks whose schedule doesn’t fit with a typical group. Introverted people can do the study with the friends they already have rather than face a group of relative strangers. Independent folks, well, they can do whatever they want within reason.
Let’s Go International
Lynne Fukutani, VDC’s small group director, already posts a weekly discussion guide on Van Dyke’s website called the AfterWord. This is available for any group or individual to apply the weekend message in a practical way. Participants in the church’s internet campus viewed the messages from near and far, then downloaded the AfterWord for study and discussion. Who said a Bible study had to come in a book? This led to another question.
Who said a teaching video had to come on a DVD? By uploading the teaching videos to their site, the staff now embeds the video on the AfterWord page of their website. Now, anyone can study along with Pastor Matthew in the Q&A series at no cost to the church or the participant.
Four Weeks Later
What started as a pastor with an interesting sermon series led to the multiplication of those messages through group curriculum and online resources. A pastor who believed in small groups became the champion for groups in his church and increased their group leaders by nearly 200 percent. Faithful members, who have studied God’s Word for years, got their gifts in the game by opening up their homes. And, members, who sometimes got lost in the shuffle after the service, are connected into community by the hundreds. This was just the beginning of the Van Dyke story. By the end of their third series in that ministry year (Fall launch, New Year’s Launch, Easter Launch), they had connect 2,000 adults into groups with only 1,800 in their weekend adult attendance.
In partnership with Greg Hawkins, our team created a Pathway series for churches who wanted to draw their members into greater intimacy with God. Drawing from the work Greg and the REVEAL team conducted when he served as Executive Pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, IL, We created a three part study based on the well-documented principles of REVEAL. The idea was to create a framework for any pastor to customize the series for their local church.
Pastor Don Wink, The Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Barrington, IL, came to us wanting this exact series. He wanted to see the 300 adult members of his ELCA congregation draw closer to God and to form an on-going small group ministry there.
Don along with his staff pastors and volunteers shot all 18 complete sessions including teaching, host introductions, testimonies, and leader training in a two day shoot at their church. All of the sessions were both scripted and personalized for their team and their church.
The Atonement team revised the original study guide manuscript to fit the language and culture of their church. This included a personal introduction from the pastor along with hundreds of photos representing church life. Our team compiled all of these materials and designed full color study guides to go along with the series.
The first study in the series, Faith, was launched in Fall 2014. Pastor Don and his groups team challenged their congregation to fully participate in the series by gathering their friends in their homes for not just a six week study, but a year of transformation! Don held interest meetings with stakeholders both in his home and at the church. He also made an invitation to the entire congregation. Group hosts attended briefings where they received their marching orders and materials.
The church had duplicated 600 copies of their study guide. When the dust had settled, this church of 300 adults had distributed 580 study guides. But, the story gets even better.
In January 2015, the second installment of the Year of Transformation series was launch, Hope. All of Atonement’s current groups continued except for one group. Not only that, all of the existing groups added members for the second study. This continuation was far more exciting than the original launch.
When our team first met Steve Poe, Lead Pastor of Northview Church, Carmel, Indiana, Steve already had 75 percent of their 4,000 adults connected into groups. They were intrigued with what we were doing with churches and how we were developing curriculum, but did they really need us?
The answer was “Yes,” but it was a different kind of partnership from many churches we work with. Rather than starting with a blank slate and launching a ton of new small groups with a church-wide video-based series, we had to come up with a solution to help the 1,000 plus remaining adults say “yes” to groups when they had been saying “no” for a while.
Pastor Steve had the idea for creating a family series, but didn’t really have the bandwidth to write six new talks for the curriculum video. Like many pastors, Steve had years and years of great content, so our team mined his previous sermons and created scripts for the 10 minute videos we needed for the series curriculum. Once the scripts were written, they were passed back over to Steve to make sure they sounded like him and not someone else.
With scripts in hand, the church gathered a group of 30 people to participate with Steve in the teaching portion of the shoot. Now, this wasn’t just an audience to teach to, it was a group to interact with. This went even one step further, not only did the group offer feedback and their experiences on camera, the setting also provided Steve with a way to model groups for the entire church.
Once Family Matters was completed with a small group DVD and study guide, we came to the challenge of turning 1,000 “No’s” into “Yeses.” Rather than recruiting “host homes” where people were either assigned to groups or prospective members chose a group from the church’s website, the new strategy took things entirely organic in approach.
Every member of Northview Church was invited to gather a group of friends together and grow spiritually. Then, we all waited. Had we reached the saturation point? Could we break the ceiling above 75 percent in groups?
After three weeks of recruiting “hosts” for “groups” without using either of those words, 200 new groups were started in addition to the 3,000 folks who were already in groups. A new series launched shortly after Family Matters ended helped to retain the vast majority of new groups. We think any church would be happy with that.
With little time for preparation and a challenging target for groups, our team innovated on both the pre-production for the shoot and the strategy to start groups. The result was a huge win for Northview Church and Pastor Steve.