Just as we thought everything was going back to normal, we’ve discovered that normal is not so normal. COVID seems to be returning. While I’m not an epidemiologist and don’t want to weigh in on the politics of the pandemic, COVID is yet again making a real impact on life and ministry. From empty Olympic stands to empty seats in our churches to an increase in mask wearing, uncertainty appears to be our biggest obstacle. But, not for small groups.
In-Person Worship Services are Not Essential
A big learning from 2020 is that the church can thrive amid adversarial conditions. Most churches have not returned to their pre-COVID in-person attendance numbers, and that’s okay. Some churches have yet to reopen for in-person worship. As I mentioned in a recent video, while in-person attendance is down, giving is steady across North America, and salvations and baptisms are up! Churches are doing a better job of fulfilling the Great Commission at a worse time (and that’s not so bad).
Since many people are unnerved by the Delta variant (and the emerging Gamma variant), you see more people wearing masks in public. Vacation hot spots like Orlando and Branson, Missouri have become Delta variant hot spots. One church I’m coaching in Orlando has re-closed for in-person worship due to the number of new COVID cases in their church. What does this mean for you?
Online worship services are here to stay (I hope you already knew that). Churches who are doing online services well are recording a separate online service with the pastor speaking direct-to-camera rather than merely streaming the in-person service. Streaming video is not church online. Streaming services create a passive experience for the viewer. By offering an optimized online service, you have a better chance of engaging your audience. But, don’t just give them a service. Offer next steps like your growth track, membership class, Church 101, or whatever you call it. Encourage them to give, to participate in the level they are comfortable, and to start a small group. While this is a different way to do ministry, remember sermons don’t make disciples anyway.
Community is Essential
Your church can survive without in-person worship services. It already has. But, community is essential. The problem with small groups in this variant environment is your people’s varying discomfort in the pandemic. Do they only want to meet with vaccinated people? Do they want the group to wear masks? Do they want the group to meet outside? Do they want the group to meet online? Do they believe the whole thing is made up? Fortunately, this is not your problem to solve.
It was already difficult when you were trying to place people in groups based on their preference of day, time, location, study, affinity, childcare, language, or other variable. Now COVID has upped the ante. Here’s the good news: None of this is your problem to solve. Give your people permission and opportunity to gather their people in whatever way they feel the most comfortable. They can meet with anyone, anytime, and any place – in-person or online. If you will stop trying to figure that out for them, they will figure it out!
If people don’t get invited to join a group, then create an environment for people to meet face-to-face or at least face-to-screen. Don’t resort to sign up cards or online sign ups. These are a lot of work and don’t net many results. Offer prospective members an opportunity to meet group leaders and then sign up for the group they want to try. Sign up cards and online forms set people up on blind dates. At least by meeting the leader ahead of time, you’ve moved from blind dating to speed dating!
Think About This
Like you, I had hoped COVID would be completely behind us by now. The good news is that the fall small group boom has not been cancelled. People crave community. Small groups are more important than ever. Rather than putting all of your energy into getting people back to in-person worship services, double up on getting people into groups. After all, people in groups will attend more, give more, serve more, invite more, and reach more than people who aren’t in groups (To learn more about the research on groups, listen to this episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast with Dr. Warren Bird).
Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future
Starting Online Small Groups Course
You work hard in your small group ministry. It’s great to know how well you’re doing, right? So, what is a healthy number of groups in a church? This question comes from a member of the Small Group Reset Facebook Group (Join us. It’s free!)
I’ve commonly heard that churches with 30 percent of their adult worship attendance in small groups are in the top one half of one percent of all churches in the U.S. If that’s you, then congratulations. You’re in the top of your class!
The problem here is being exceptional in an unexceptional group. It’s kind of like back when I was in junior high: I was the least dorky of the dorks. Yet I was still a dork. (Sorry to poke at that wound). But, what this stat says to me is that out of over 300,000 churches in the U.S. who are woefully lacking in making disciples, if you have 30 percent in groups, then you are at the top of the heap. Or, as I said when our daughter started attending the best rated school in our state: “She’s at the top of the bottom.” Congratulations!
Bear in mind that small groups are only one tool to make disciples. Jesus never said to “go and make small groups.” Your mission is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). But, some of the things churches do to attempt to make disciples don’t work. For instance, sermons don’t make disciples. When it comes to making disciples, I’m still depending on small groups.
The Problem with 30 Percent in Groups
This is the easiest percent to get. It’s the low hanging fruit. You have your Innovators, Early Adopters, and even some of your Early Majority (according to Everett Rogers in The Diffusion of Innovations). That’s a solid start. It’s also an easy place to get stuck.
After seven years of personally recruiting leaders and starting groups, my church in California got stuck at 30 percent in groups. Group leaders weren’t developing apprentices. Groups were unwilling to “multiply” or “birth.” We might as well have called it a “small group divorce.” At least that’s what it felt like. After much frustration, I did several things: (1) We added a new model for groups. Notice “added” and not “replaced.” (2) I joined a coaching group to support me. In our next group launch, we doubled our groups in a day.
What About the Other 70 Percent?
If you’re content to rest on your laurels with 30 percent in groups (which I know you’re not), what about the other 70 percent who aren’t in groups? Are they exempt from the Great Commission? Or put frankly, how many of your people are you willing to allow to continue to live in disobedience to the Great Commission? I don’t know about you, but the more people in my church who are living obediently, the better off everybody is!
When you think about this other 70 percent (or whatever number that is in your church), why did they reject the small groups you were offering them? What could you offer them that they might say “Yes” to? You know why you want them in a group. Why would they want to be in a group?
The problem here is that even the top ½ of 1% are doing a poor job at making disciples. This is the Church’s one job! The Church has been at it for 2,000 years. Why haven’t we figured this out?
Is This the Right Target?
Most churches are made up of far more people than are represented in the weekend service. According to a study by The Provisum Group, 80 percent of your people attend 33 times per year, while the other 20 percent attend 2.4 times per year. When you do the math, you’ve probably got about five times as many people who attend your church compared to the average weekly attendance. The task of connecting your congregation and making disciples just got a whole lot bigger. (For more on the true size of your church, go here).
When you add your online congregation to all of this, the numbers will get really crazy. Your church’s experience throughout the pandemic has radically changed how you do ministry forever. How are you discipling your online congregation? How are you forming online groups?
You are working hard. You are doing a good job. But, this is no time to rest on your laurels.
Many churches go about ministry like a cruise ship. What do you do on a cruise? You do nothing. Everything is done for you. Your church is not a cruise ship. Your church is a battleship. It’s all hands on deck! Don’t worry about the number of people you have in groups. Instead focus on two areas: (1) How are you multiplying yourself? and (2) How many people can you get to start groups? Imagine if you had 30 percent LEADING groups.
Have you thought about joining my 12 month Small Group Ministry Coaching Group. When my groups were stuck, I joined a coaching group. Not only can a coaching group help you get unstuck, it will offer you great relationships with like-minded small group point people to share the journey. For more information, click here. A new group is forming now!
People often choose a word for the year. The word sets an overall theme or a goal to pursue. The word for small groups in 2021 is flexible.
Starting in March 2020, people divested themselves of most involvement. From church attendance to a gym membership to children’s sports and grocery shopping in a store. Don’t believe me? Look at the number of churches struggling to find children’s ministry workers in order to offer more in-person services. Your people gave everything up. Now, they will be pickier about what they will bring back.
Not only are they pickier about what to spend their time on, they are also pickier about who they spend their time with. Given all of the information and misinformation about the global pandemic, your people are ready to get back together with the people they know and love. They’re not looking to connect with a group of strangers. Why forsake their friends to spend more time with a group of people they don’t know and possibly won’t like?
Other people started attending your church online. They are ready to take next steps and maybe join a group to grow spiritually and make church friends. A consistent theme that I’m hearing from pastors across the country is this: In-person attendance is down. Giving is steady. Salvations and baptisms are way up. How are you going to disciple your online congregation? (Here’s what’s still working with online small groups).
And, speaking of the global pandemic, there is still a lot of confusion. Who’s been vaccinated? Do you need to wear a mask? Is it okay to go back out? This spring in our small group launch at Mount Hope Church, Lansing, Michigan, we launched 88% more new groups, but found that people wanted to launch a group in the way they were comfortable. Regarding the pandemic this meant online only groups, invitation only groups with people the host already knew, groups wearing masks, groups meeting outside, and groups that were over it. Did we plan out all of those categories? Absolutely not. People created a group with who they wanted to meet with, where they wanted to meet, and how they wanted to meet. All we had to do was give them permission and opportunity. The group hosts did the rest.
Your people will be gone this summer, if they haven’t gone already. Don’t plan on a big small group semester this summer. Let them go. They’ll be back. I predicted this back in March 2021.
The other thing I see coming is the fall small group boom. People have been kept apart for a long time. People are ready to take spiritual next steps. But, people are pickier, so you must be flexible in what you offer and how you offer it.
This doesn’t mean that you need to wreck your current small group system. That would be stupid. Here’s why. But, you do need to add some options for how your people can start new groups that are more flexible. Maybe you don’t even call them “groups.” Maybe you delay some of the requirements. If you’re not open to those ideas, then start groups of three people. Invite people to start with “you plus two.” For most churches that’s too small to be a small group, so you can dodge the leader requirements for a season.
The more flexible your approach to groups, the more people you will have living in obedience to the Great Commission. The more people you have living in obedience, well, the better your church is!
How can you be more flexible in your next group launch?
For more information on a flexible approach to starting groups, join the Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This free, on-demand workshop will walk you through how to start, sustain, and strengthen your small group ministry. The small group boom is coming. Get ready! Click here.
A new 2021-2022 Small Group Ministry Coaching Group is forming now. There are only a couple of spots left. The group launches in July 2021. For more information, click here.
You’ve experienced your small groups getting stuck. It’s very common for groups to get stuck with only 30% of your people connected. Some churches get as high as 50% in groups, then get stuck. A rare few achieve more than that. But, this year brings a different kind of stuck to small groups.
The Stuckness of 2021
Willingness to start and join small groups is beginning to thaw, but not everyone is there yet. As I talk to pastors across North America, I’m learning that everyone is experiencing their own version of small group ministry in 2021. Even in states that removed restrictions a while ago, there is still a reluctance to join or lead a group.
Vaccination, fear, denial, and new strains of COVID have increased the complexity of launching groups. While some are actively fearful, others are just over it. Some churches have even split over COVID precautions. It’s a complex time.
You can simplify the complexity of starting groups by offering flexibility and variety. Invite people to form groups they’re comfortable with. Invite them to start an in-person group or an online group. What suits them best? Encourage them to invite people they are comfortable being around. Whether it’s members of their “pod” or people they already know and love.
By giving your people permission and opportunity, they will figure out what’s right for them. Demanding that all of your groups meet on-campus or online won’t work. Throwing strangers together in hopes that a group might form is risky business. But, in addition to the COVID complexities, there are other reasons why your groups might be stuck.
Why Groups Typically Get Stuck
Groups get stuck for a variety of reasons. Using only one small group model routinely loses steam at around 30%. This is usually when you’re ready to abandon your current small group model for the newest, shiniest one. After you change models two or three times, your next announcement will be met with more of an eye roll than a drum roll.
As the small group point person, if you do all of the recruiting, your groups will get stuck somewhere around 30%. (I worked hard for seven years to only get stuck at 30% in groups). Any staff member, regardless of their longevity or likability will only get 30% the result the senior pastor would get.
In the last 31 years of ministry, I have served twice as an associate pastor and twice as a vice president. I know what it’s like to be the #2 guy. Once my senior pastor started recruiting leaders, our groups jumped from 30% to 125% in just six months. Same words. Same invitation. Different inviter.
Then, there are all of the other things you’ve experienced in getting stuck. You can’t recruit enough leaders. It’s difficult to connect people into groups. People are busy. Groups aren’t a priority at your church. You don’t have enough help. You don’t have enough budget. You don’t get enough airtime on Sunday morning. I’ve checked all of those boxes. Then, once you get the leaders, they burnout. They get busy. They leave the church or start working in another ministry area.
You have a lot to build in small group ministry. You have to recruit leaders, form groups, and build a coaching structure to support it (don’t try coaching everybody yourself). Maybe you’re writing curriculum. Maybe you’re desperately trying to get your church leadership’s attention. You have to offer the right training at the right time for your leaders who are at so many different levels of experience that half of them don’t show up most of the time. It’s a lot.
Culture Shifts are Hard
The reasons small group ministries get stuck at 30% goes back to research from the 1940’s. You may not have picked up a copy of the Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers, but you have heard of “early adopters,” “mid adopters,” (or “early majority” and “late majority”) and “late adopters” (Rogers calls these “laggards.”) Stay with me. Even if you’ve heard these terms, you haven’t heard what I’m about to say.
When you launch groups, all of the Innovators in your congregation jump on board. This is the first 2.5% of the church. These are followed fairly quickly by the Early Adopters (13.5%). If you get the Innovators and Early Adopters to join groups, then you have 16% of your church in groups. This may not be the right place for them. As you persist in promoting groups, you start to reach the Early Majority (34%). You don’t get all of the Early Majority, but you get a start. The Late Majority are skeptical. It will take a while to win them over. The Laggards are traditional and stubborn. Don’t waste your time on Laggards.
You launch groups. You get the low hanging fruit (Innovators, Early Adopters, and some Early Majority). Then, you get stuck. I’ve been stuck. And, I stayed stuck until I made one crucial change.
Instead of inviting that first 16% (Innovators and Early Adopters) to join groups, invite them to LEAD groups. Just imagine the difference if 16% of your adults were leading groups. Even if you only have five or six people in the groups, you have groups for 100% of your congregation. How can you get that 16% to lead groups? Go back and look at the previous section of this article.
Once upon a time, my groups were stuck at only 30% for exactly the reasons I just described. In just 18 months, we went from only 30% in groups to having nearly 40% of our adults lead a group for at least one six week series. Our final result was 11% of our adults leading groups and 125% of our worship attendance in groups. The good thing about feeling stuck and frustrated is that it led me to figuring out how to get unstuck. These are the lessons I share with my coaching groups and help small group pastors adapt to their church’s unique culture.
If you are feeling stuck right now, I am ready to help you. Do you want my help?
Click here to learn more about my next Small Group Ministry Coaching Group.
Click here to set up a time to talk.
Wouldn’t it be great just to erase 2020 and its sequel, the first half of 2021, and get back to how things were before? After the last 14 months, you’re ready to get back to normal. Everybody is. But, normal won’t look like 2019 for churches or small groups. Here are a few new normal things to weave into your plans:
People Have Given Up a Lot of Things
Most people’s calendars were whipped clean in the last year. This didn’t keep them from being very busy. Between virtual school and endless Zoom meetings, people were certainly occupied. But, their calendars were divested of serving at church, volunteering in the community, travel sports, and so much. Families who were once out every evening of the week were now home watching Disney+.
While everyone longs for normalcy, most people’s involvement won’t snap back to 2019 levels. They ruthlessly eliminated hurry from their lives. Isn’t that a good thing? Why would they volunteer to resume hectic lives?
Part of this comes from the phenomena of being out of the habit. Sort of like when you stop going to the gym, but continue to pay for your membership. You intend to return. But, getting there is another matter. The same is true for church attendance. Should churches start allowing their members to eat brunch and wear their jammies during in-person worship? That’s just hard to pass up.
Some churches haven’t returned to a full slate of worship services yet. This isn’t due to COVID restrictions. They can’t add services due to the lack of children’s ministry workers. So many loyal people just haven’t returned. Now what?
People are Ready to Regather on Their Own Terms
Your people have been separated for a long time. While every state’s regulations are different, a significant number of people are still reluctant to gather. Different parts of the country have seen very different results, but the bottom line is that people are ready to return to community.
Fall 2021 just might be the biggest small group surge that you’ve ever seen. Are you ready? But, don’t expect the return of 2019. This will be different.
Remember that people have divested themselves of a great deal of activity. Why would they add a small group if they’ve never done that before? Why spend time with a group of strangers when they’d rather hang out with their friends?
Then, there’s the continued debate between the maskites and anti-maskites, and now the vaxers and anti-vaxers. Some people are ready to meet in-person with their groups. Others want to stay online. Some online groups can’t regather because people moved out of state. They can only meet online.
You don’t need to resolve these debates or solve all of your people’s problems related to groups. You just need to give them permission and opportunity to create a group on their own terms. Where are your people finding community? How can they start a group in that community – in-person, online, hybrid – wherever.
Hybrid is the New Normal
After the last 14 months, there are a few things I don’t want to do any more. I don’t want to wait in line at Walgreens while they’re trying to find the cashier. I would rather place my order through the app and have someone bring it to my car.
I no longer want to wait in the Chick-Fil-A drive thru. There’s an app for that too. I don’t want to wait in the lobby at my mechanic’s. I drop off the car, check the boxes in an email listing the suggested repairs, pay online, and pick up the car after hours. It’s an introvert’s paradise.
Think of all of the reasons you ask people to come to the church building. How many of those things could happen online? How many one-hour meetings could be a 20 minute Zoom meeting? How many Zoom meetings could have been an email? In-person meetings aren’t better if the room is empty. People’s habits have changed.
People Will be Pickier About Their Commitments
Your people have had 14 months to reevaluate their commitments. Some things will stay. Some things will not come back. Some new things will continue.
Signing up for small group will be a harder sell. As I say, setting your people up for “blind dates” with a group of strangers is just not appealing. But, if your people could gather a group of friends who they miss spending time with and do something intentional about their spiritual growth – they’ll jump for that.
This is not the dumbing down of small groups. Gathering with people they already know and love is part of it. The other part is gathering for a worthwhile reason. What really matters? What’s a compelling reason to invest their time? What’s truly going to help your people grow to become like Christ? What is meaningful to them?
What will this look like at your church?
If you could use a little help navigating this new season of small group ministry, my next Small Group Ministry Coaching Group is starting soon. Click here for more information.
I am foreseeing the post-COVID small group ministry happening in a big way. Actually, I see a small group boom in fall 2021. For some this is starting now. One church in my coaching group recruited 50 new hosts for their spring 2021 launch. Things are looking good for groups, but things are looking different for groups.
Small Group Ministry is More Decentralized Than Ever
As a small group pastor or director, you have been longing for a decentralized ministry. Well, COVID decentralized your ministry, now don’t reel it back in. Keep your small group ministry outside of the building. Here are a few things to think about:
Put your training online and push it out to your leaders.
Empower your coaches to serve the leaders. Don’t wrap this all around you. You’ve got to multiply yourself.
Get training into your leaders’ hands. Give them a copy of a book like Making Small Groups Work by Cloud/Townsend or Leading Healthy Groups by Allen White.
Keep your groups in neighborhoods as much as possible. There’s something personal about meeting in someone’s home. There’s also something powerful about meeting in a neighborhood. Let their light shine!
Pivot to a Hybrid Groups Ministry Amid This Unprecedented Pandemic
There, I got all of the COVID clichés into one subhead. The word for you to focus on is hybrid (online and in-person). It will be a while before everyone is ready or able to meet in-person. But, here’s the other thing – some people like this online world. If I don’t have to get myself to church for a meeting and arrange for childcare because the meeting is online, I’m in!
The same goes for groups. Some people are tired of being apart and are ready to get together. Let them figure it out. Encourage groups to review their group agreement and see what works best for everyone.
Some groups meett online and couldn’t get back together even if they wanted to. People moved away. But, the group can keep meeting together online. If schools no longer have snow days due to online classes, then online groups no longer have snow birds. Online groups keep everybody together.
The new debate is meeting in-person or staying online. Just like we had the debate between the maskites and anti-maskites last year, this year we have groups splitting over some wanting to meet in-person and others wanting to stay online (I posted about that issue here). Now, imagine if every group in your church became two groups. (Read that again: Imagine if every group in your church became two groups!) You would have twice the groups. You would have more opportunity for people who prefer to meet in-person to join the in-person half of a group. You would also have more opportunity for people to join online groups. HINT: Don’t combine your groups. Even if they’re small. Keep them separate. Let them grow. Double your groups.
Something I’m Piloting Right Now
This past weekend I led a host briefing at two physical campuses as well as an online campus simultaneously. I am serving as the Life Group Director for a church that is 747 miles from my house. Fortunately, it’s in the same time zone!
The senior pastor made the invitation for new hosts during the service. Folks responded by text to the church’s text service. They were given instructions by text about how to join the briefing – the room on-campus or the link online.
From my home in South Carolina, I led the three campus host briefing over Zoom. I was on the big screen at the physical campuses, then interacted with the folks online as well. Each physical location had a person assisting me. I could see the room. My assistants had a mic to pass around for people who had questions. I also answered questions in the chat on Zoom.
The prospective hosts at the physical locations had a hard copy of the briefing packet and the host application. Those who met online had a pdf of the briefing packet and a link to register online.
Experienced leaders were present at all three locations to meet the new hosts and begin walking alongside them for the next 12 weeks (a three week ramp up, then a nine week series. Nine weeks? – I’m just following the senior pastor’s lead).
I will keep you posted on what else I learn.
What are you learning about small group ministry right now? Leave your response below.
Join me for a webinar: Small Group Restart: Ministry in a Post-COVID World on Wednesday, April 21 at 2pm Eastern/ 1 pm Central/ Noon Mountain/ 11 am Pacific. Click here to register.