“We want to connect 80 percent of our people into groups in 2021,” announced Pastor Kevin Berry. That seemed like a loaded statement. To start, the church only had 19 percent of their adult worship attendance in groups. Next, small groups had never been a high priority at the church. Lastly, did you catch the date? 2021 was just more of the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, but God gave Pastor Kevin a vision. Here’s what happened.
Mount Hope is an Assemblies of God church in Lansing, Michigan. They have an in-person worship attendance of 1,000 adults and an online worship attendance of 500 (2021). The church was founded in 1925 but became what it is today under the leadership of Pastor Dave Williams (1981-2012) and is currently led by Pastor Kevin Berry. Mount Hope is known for global missions and supports works in over 150 countries. They are also known for serving their local community. Mount Hope has a goal to reach everyone within a 50 miles radius of Lansing, which they call the “Soul Zone.” But, small groups have never been a high priority for the church until this year.
Mount Hope began 2021 without a Life Group Pastor and only 29 groups. After a conversation with Pastor Kevin in early 2021, the Mount Hope Executive Team decided to hire me (Allen White) as their outsourced Life Group Pastor for 12 months. Our goal is to connect 80 percent of the average adult worship attendance into groups, connect every leader with a coach, and develop leaders for longer term service.
The Senior Pastor Led the Charge
The vision caster for every church is the senior pastor. It just makes sense. The senior pastor hears from God and shares the vision with the people. In this case, Pastor Kevin became the spokesman for small groups. He announced the series. He invited people to gather their friends, open their homes, and host online groups. He asked them to text “Host” to the church’s text line, then asked them to meet him after the service for a host briefing, which he introduced then handed off to other staff.
This is the influence of the senior pastor. I have served in full-time ministry since 1990. Most of that time I served as the Associate Pastor, Discipleship Pastor, Vice President, and now outsourced Life Group Pastor. What I’ve learned is that even if I said the very same words as the senior pastor, I would only get 30 percent of the result. How do I know? I cast vision for groups in my church in California for seven years and connected 30 percent of our adults into groups. That number was no coincidence. The day my senior pastor invited people to host a group, we doubled our groups in one day.
In the two alignment series at Mount Hope this year, groups grew from 29 at the start to 53 groups in the first series. Then in Fall 2021, groups went from 53 to 83. When student ministry groups under Pastor Peter Reeves as well as support groups under Pastor Josh Goodman were added in, Mount Hope peaked so far at 99 groups and 59 percent of the congregation connected into groups.
The Church Created Their Own Curriculum
In order to get more people into groups and raise the value of small groups at Mount Hope, the church launched two alignment series based on the sermon series. One series ran in the spring of 2021 (May-June). A second series ran in fall 2021 (September-October). A third series is being produced now for new year 2022. This seems like a lot to create, but several important factors drove all of this forward.
First, Pastor Kevin recognized that if the groups were aligned with where the teaching team taught on the weekend, the people would follow along. For most people who aren’t connected to groups, the reason they attend worship services is because of the senior pastor’s teaching. When you connect the small group study with the senior pastor’s teaching, you are giving your people more of what they already want.
Second, Pastor Kevin shares the pulpit with a qualified team of men and women who serve alongside him. Rather than creating every lesson for every aligned small group study, the teaching pastors created the video teaching for each week they preached. This created both continuity between the pulpit and the group study as well as shared responsibility for creating the resource.
Third, the church enlisted the help of Executive Pastor Joe Mead, Communications Director Roger Ackerman, and their outsourced Life Group Pastor to create either a downloadable resource (Spring 2021) or a full study guide (Fall 2021 and New Year 2022) to accompany the video teaching. Again, with a team approach, the church has produced three high quality small group studies in just nine months along with regular sermon discussion questions for the weeks between alignment series.
Lastly, the church made a consistent effort for groups with a sequence of small group alignments. Since they did not have a strong track record with groups, the consistency of offering three alignment series in one 12 month period showed the congregation that Mount Hope is serious about groups. Also, the people who might have been reluctant when the first series was announced joined the second series. And, those who were skeptical haven’t joined yet, but should warm up to the third series in New Year 2022.
Leadership Requirements Were Delayed
Prior to 2021, Life Group Leaders had to meet some stringent leadership requirements in order to start a group. Candidates needed to complete Growth Track and become church members in addition to completing a 12-part online or in-person leadership course called Accelerate. To maximize the number of new hosts, the church leadership chose to delay the requirements. This gave folks a chance to test drive a group before they decided to move forward. Now that many groups have completed one to two alignment series, these requirements are being gently reintroduced by invitation for those who have found their niche in leading a Life Group.
Every New Leader Connected to a Coach
There is a risk to starting groups with unproven group leaders. There I said it. It’s a calculated risk, in that, only about 2 percent of the people recruited in over 1,500 churches in the last 17 years have been any kind of a problem. And, by problem, I simply mean having a warm pastoral conversation about an issue they might be struggling with. To reduce the risk and to help more groups get started, each new leader was given an experienced leader to walk alongside them from when they first attended the briefing through the end of the alignment series. This experienced leader made a phone call to the new leader once a week to answer their questions, encourage them, and see how they were doing. This was also a great format for identifying and recruiting new on-going coaches. (Here’s more on why coaching matters).
The Rest of the Story
Mount Hope has accomplished a lot in building their Life Groups through a very difficult year. But, rather than waiting for everything to get back to normal (which it’s not so start leading the church you have), the pastors at Mount Hope are moving forward in leading the church they have into community, care, and growth through their Life Groups.
Mount Hope’s journey toward reaching 80 percent in Life Groups is still being written. Check back for updates. In the meantime, for more complete details of what’s working right now with small groups, join the Small Group Restart.
Christ Church is a United Methodist Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois. They have been ranked as the third fastest growing UM church in the U.S. “We have a transient church. Our town is around a military community, so we get a lot of visitors. We have experienced some rapid growth over the years,” said Pam Huff, former Director of Connection and Discipleship (now retired).
When she first came to the church, groups were pretty disorganized. “There was no organization whatsoever. Small groups were pretty new in the beginning. There had been a lack of leadership. If I did anything else, I put some organization into the small group ministry.” Not only that, but she learned to leverage relationships in both forming groups and partnering new leaders with coaches.
To connect people, the church started using church-wide campaigns, but found that only a limited number of groups would continue. “At this point, we started to introduce the whole coaching system. I didn’t have good luck getting them established with my old groups, but our new groups responded well.” Pam looked over all of the church’s experienced leaders and invited those she believed would be the most supportive of the small group ministry. “The new leaders would come to a training event and meet the coaches there. Originally, I would assign new leaders to coaches, but then the leaders didn’t know who was calling them or why, even though I had told them they would get a call.” By providing an opportunity for coaches to connect directly with the new leaders, natural connections formed, and the coaching relationship began.
For group formation, the church didn’t put a lot of requirements on new leaders except for inviting members to their groups. “My only real requirement was that someone was a Christian. I would usually have a face-to-face contact with them, but there was no real vetting process for new leaders. We really encouraged people to do a lot of inviting themselves.”
The church supplemented personal invitations with opportunities for the congregation to sign up for specific groups after the worship service. “We would introduce the leaders during the service so people could put a face with a name. Then, the leaders would stand by their sign-up sheets in our Scripture Hall, which was a big gathering area.” People would sign up for the specific group they wanted to join.
The church found personal invitation and personal introduction at these sign-up events was far superior to assigning people to groups. “Sometimes people would fill out a card in the service indicating they wanted to join a group. When I reached out to them, I would never hear back from them. It’s almost like they were surprised that somebody actually contacted them.” By providing more active methods of forming groups like invitations and in-person sign-up opportunities, more people found their way into groups without all of the work of processing sign-up cards that never really netted many results.
The way Christ Church chose to form groups greatly determined the groups on-going success. Groups of friends indeed lasted longer than groups of strangers. Coaches gave new leaders the encouragement and support they need to both start and continue their groups. These simple adjustments helped Pam to start and keep more groups than ever before.
For more information on helping your groups to continue, check out the 3 Keys to Lasting Groups online course.
This case study is an excerpt from the Exponential Groups Workbook (Hendrickson 2020).
Hoboken Grace is a church of eight hundred adults in Hoboken, New Jersey, near New York City. This region is known for young, single, upwardly mobile residents who eventually marry and move to the suburbs. The church is eleven years old and has offered small groups since its beginning.
The church’s previous effort at groups had connected about five hundred of their eight hundred members into groups. But the operative word here is effort. “At that point, identifying new group leaders was heavy apprenticing and heavy individual recruiting,” said Nick Lenzi, the church’s community director. “We had reluctance to church-wide campaigns. We felt it was really hard to create our own curriculum, or at least we thought the barriers for that were really high.”
For their first church-wide campaign, the church chose to purchase curriculum for their Be Rich series. The topic was finances, and the curriculum choice was from Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU). This was the direction the lead pastor was going, so the small group campaign followed suit.
What’s more, FPU required the facilitators to have advanced training. Nine months before the campaign, they let the group leaders know about the series. “In January, we had the pastor put together a vision video,” Lenzi said. “He told them, ‘I want you guys to get into FPU because we need as many qualified people this fall to take the entire church through FPU. If you know the material, you’re going to have a huge leg up and be able to help so many people.’ When our people heard from the lead pastor, they accepted that call to action.”
“We were starting community and talking about the most intimate thing in today’s society,” Lenzi admits. Yet, in this first alignment series, the church was able to connect a total of 91 percent of their adults into groups. They had connected an additional 28 percent of their adults into groups using a relatively difficult topic. (63% were previously in groups.)
With one series under their belt, the church took the next step to create their own teaching videos to align with a published series (with permission). “I got a teleprompter,” Lenzi said. “My pastor asked, ‘Where has this thing been my whole life?’”
The church also decided to try a new strategy in recruiting group leaders. “One of our values is that everyone in the church takes responsibility for their own spiritual growth. Now I’m looking for leaders who are able to encourage a group and support people in their own spiritual growth. When we invite people to lead groups, we invite them to encourage people and help these gatherings to happen. The church is going to partner with them. We’re going to give them the questions. We’re going to offer the video teaching. We’ll put the leaders in touch with the care pastors if something comes up. This has been so fruitful. My ‘close rate’ is 90 to 95 percent, because everyone believes they can encourage someone else. The nature of the groups is going from house to house, or restaurant to restaurant. We’ve found that we just need to get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit be the Holy Spirit.”
With their pastor’s video teaching and an openness to give their people permission and opportunity to lead these gatherings, Hoboken Grace continues to make a kingdom impact in a neighborhood of the biggest city in the United States.
Nick Lenzi and Hoboken Grace Church were part of the 2018 Small Group Ministry Coaching Group.
This case study is an excerpt from the Exponential Groups Workbook.
This year has been just as crazy of a year for Rock Church in San Diego, CA as it has for everybody else. They have not conducted in-person services since March. Pastor Miles McPherson streams his message every Sunday morning to a growing online congregation. Then, in addition to quarantine, the US began to experience racial unrest to a high degree. Pastor Miles just so happens to be the author of The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation. Suddenly, he knew what his next sermon series would be. The church also decided to launch book groups to go along with the series. Even if your church isn’t a megachurch or your pastor has not written a book, the principles Rock Church used will help you launch more online and in-person groups. This is how they launched 119 new online groups in July:
The Senior Pastor Invited People to Join Groups.
Every week Pastor Miles invited people to start or join a new online small group during the online worship service. This invitation wasn’t relegated to the announcements or made by another staff member. Over the years, I’ve seen that when an associate pastor makes the invitation, the church gets about 30% of the result. In 30 years, of full time ministry, I’ve experienced the same. This is why a lot of churches get stuck with only 30% of their adults in groups. Pastor Miles gave the invitation, and he got a big response.
They Chose a Compelling Topic.
You want a topic that has a broad appeal to a large group of people. This is not the time to choose a mature topic like fasting or anything to do with money. There are times for those series. By choosing a topic on racial tensions and reconciliation, Rock Church was positioned well to start a maximum number of groups in the middle of the summer. Now, it helped that Pastor Miles was the author of a book on racial reconciliation, but your church could also start groups using Miles McPherson’s book or start groups with a weekly teaching video and discussion questions from your pastor. The more relevant the topic, the greater the appeal.
They Reframed the Invitation to Start a Group.
Rock Church did not start “small groups.” They started book clubs or book groups. Small groups already had a certain meaning in their church’s culture. Small groups implied high qualifications and a lot of training in advance. By inviting people to Book Clubs, they didn’t need a small group leader. They needed friends to discuss a book. Language defines culture. To change the culture of groups in your church, change the words you use.
They Gave Their People Permission and Opportunity.
People interested in starting book clubs simply invited people they knew who would be interested in the book. There was no lengthy sign-up process or website to build. People just leveraged their existing relationships to meet online and discuss a topic that was relevant to them at their pastor’s invitation. It doesn’t really need to be more complex than that. That’s how most of these got started.
Now Rock Church is a large church. Chances are that there were many people who wanted to join a book club, but didn’t feel they could start one and didn’t get invited. The opportunity was given to register to join a book club. About 600 people took them up on this offer. The risk comes when you assign prospective group members to book club “leaders” that the church doesn’t know well. Instead, the book clubs for those 600 are being led largely by the church staff. (The campuses are closed. Services are online. What else is the staff going to do….?).
They Gave New Leaders an Experienced Leader to Coach Them.
To prepare for this launch, Mark Richardson, the small groups pastor at Rock Church, began to recruit experienced group leaders to walk alongside these book group leaders during the series. With the pandemic everything is decentralized. They didn’t have the ability for large training meetings, so they delivered the training through experienced leaders who can support and encourage these new leaders and answer their questions as they come.
If you can get these five keys in place, you will see a big result: Senior Pastor’s invitation, relevant topic, reframe the invitation, give permission and opportunity, and give the help of a coach. It’s not as difficult or complex as you might think. In this past year, Mark Richardson and Rock Church were prepared through my small group ministry coaching group. When we started the year, none of us knew what this year would hold. In January, Mark didn’t know he would be starting book clubs in July. But, by being ready to try something new and having coaches standing by, when Pastor Miles decided on The Third Option series, Mark was ready. Their people and their groups have benefitted greatly.
If you are interested in a 2021 Small Group Ministry Coaching Group, we’d love to have you. Click here for more information.
For more information on online small groups, check out Leading Online Small Groups by Allen White
By Allen White
“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.