Community is just as essential to spiritual growth as content. Think about this: Jesus who designed your brain also taught you how to make disciples. According to one study, Jesus spent 73% of His time with His disciples. This involved teaching, eating, serving, debating, correcting, and sending. All of this was wrapped around community. While the Enlightenment hijacked the Western church’s approach to disciple making, neuroscience is showing the importance of community in developing godly character.
Disciple making is not merely a transfer of information. It’s not simply making better choices. Disciple making is certainly not a process. After all, you’re not manufacturing widgets. And, as I’ve written before, sermons don’t make disciples. Character is formed in community. How is community formed? Here are some ways to connect your congregation into community:
Leverage Existing Relationships
“Everyone is already in a group.” That’s the first sentence of my first book, Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential(Hendrickson 2017) . When you think about your people, they are in families, workplaces, classes, sports teams, hobbies, friendships, and neighborhoods. Over the years, I discovered that some people won’t join a small group because they value these relationships more than a church small group. Rather than grousing against that pull, I embraced it. Resource and empower people to make disciples in the groups they already enjoy. You don’t have to make it hard.
The short of it is if you will give your people permission and opportunity to start a group, give them an easy-to-use resource (like self-produced curriculum with your pastor’s teaching), a little training, and a coach to walk alongside them, you can start more groups than you’ve ever dreamed. If you don’t know the leader, then don’t advertise their group. They’re gathering their friends anyway. These groups tend to form more easily and stay together longer than groups formed in other ways. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. (You’ll have to read the rest of Exponential Groups to learn the system of starting and sustaining small groups for the long haul.) Leveraging existing relationships is one way to create community.
Pursuing a Common Topic or Interest
Sometimes community starts from the other direction. Instead of gathering friends for a study, people sign up for group based on a relevant topic. You can start groups around marriage, parenting, relationships, finances, Bible studies, book clubs, and a myriad of other subjects. People are drawn by the topic, but stay for the community.
Similarly, you can start groups around hobbies, interests, or activities. What do your people enjoy doing? These groups can connect both people in your church and in your community. Again, by giving permission and opportunity, someone with an interest can start a group around it.
Now in both of these cases, you will need to know these leaders well, since you will advertise these groups. They will need to qualify as leaders in your church, so the start up process will be longer than gathering groups of friends, but it’s important to offer multiple strategies to form groups. After all, one size does not fit all.
Connecting through a Shared Experience
Shared experience can range from serving teams to missions trips to Rooted groups. These are higher commitment experiences that quickly bond people together. While every group may not start this way, it would be a waste to allow these tight knit groups to discontinue.
When your people serve in the community, they develop a connection. When they travel together outside of the country, they certainly bond together. When they spend 10 weeks in a Rooted group, they are united by a powerful experience that stretches them in many ways. All of these experiences beg for a way to continue. Give them an opportunity to continue.
Think About This
This is a short list. This is just a sample of the ways your people can connect into community. What I want you to hear is that people need more than content. If they only needed content, then you could post online videos for them to watch, and they would just grow on their own. The problem is that they won’t watch videos in isolation, and they can’t grow without encouragement, support, accountability, and relationship with others. People are just not made that way.
Offer as many opportunities as possible for people to connect in community. Start friend groups, campaign groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, topic studies, activity groups, affinity groups, support groups, and on-going groups out of shared experiences. My only caution is this: Don’t start all of these all at once. But, for everyone who tells you “no,” offer them something they might say “yes” to.
Justin Bird from Crossfit once said, “People came for the fit and stayed for the family.” (from a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Jay Kim). I wrote about Crossfit a few years back in a post called What Michelob Ultra Understands About Community: “Now, before you announce in the next staff meeting that your church is going to open its own CrossFit gym, don’t miss the point. Community comes in various shapes and sizes: small groups, activity groups, task groups, classes, Bible studies — all of these are environments where community can take place, but none are a guarantee that community will take place. Community is formed around common goals, common interests, and even common enemies. Maybe promoting community in the church is recognizing the community that is already taking place.”
How are you creating community in your church? What do you need to try?
Carolyn Taketa is the Small Groups Pastor and a member of the Executive Team at Calvary Community Church, Westlake Village, California. Her responsibilities include leadership development, vision, strategies, and curriculum. She is a former attorney with a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley Law School, who has been leading small groups for over thirty years. She is a contributing author for Disciples’ Path from Lifeway Christian Resources, part of the editorial advisory team at Christianity Today’s smallgroups.com, and host of GroupTalk: Here to There monthly podcast for the global Small Group Network. Carolyn, her husband Donn, and their two daughters have been part of Calvary since 2001.
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.
Connecting the congregation into groups is a big challenge. I love this question from one of the members of the Small Group Reset Facebook Group (It’s free. Join here!) Today, it’s an even bigger challenge because you also need to connect your online congregation into groups.
Why Do They Like the Worship Gatherings?
Let’s start by what people like about your worship gatherings. (Hint: It’s not the fog machine.) If people are not connected to each other, the reason they attend your worship gatherings is because of the senior pastor. They laugh at the jokes. They like your pastor’s teaching style. They enjoy your pastor’s personality. They are there because of your senior pastor. (Caution: Don’t mention this to your worship team. It will break their hearts).
To get your people interested in small groups, give them more of what they already like: your senior pastor’s teaching. Put your pastor’s teaching on video-based curriculum. Get your pastor to shoot 5-10 minute teaching segments for the groups to watch before they launch into the study. This takes the pressure off of the people starting groups. They don’t need to be the teacher. (And, you don’t want them teaching in the group anyway). People who start or join groups get exclusive content from your senior pastor. That’s a big win. But, how do you get your senior pastor to do it?
Well, this is just a guess, but I imagine if you tell your senior pastor that your congregation and your small groups want more of the pastor’s teaching, your pastor will find that pretty irresistible. With video-based curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, not only will your people be more interested in small groups, but your pastor will be more interested in small groups. That’s a huge win!
Where is your senior pastor headed with a series this fall? Chances are your pastor has preached on some version of this topic before? Dust up a few sermons from the files. Create 5-10 minute scripts from the sermons. Ask your pastor to commit two hours and six clean shirts, and you’ve got your video-based curriculum. Now just write a downloadable discussion guide or create a study guide for your congregation to purchase. (If this sounds like too much work, I can either coach you to do it, or do it for you).
What are Your People Interested in?
Since you are reading this post, chances are you’re a little “small groups on the brain” like me. You know all of the reasons why your people SHOULD be in groups. Yet, are your reasons the same as their reasons?
What do your people need? How do they believe a small group could help them grow spiritually? What kind of small group might they consider? What conditions would need to be in place in order for them to join?
I’m not giving you any answers on this one. But, now that I’ve given you some questions, go and ask your people what they might consider or what they are looking for. Listen to their objections. Listen to what would work for them. Then, offer them what they’re interested in. Remember: one size does not fit all.
How do you get this information? Send out a survey. Conduct a focus group (without calling it that). Talk to people who you think should have started a group by now, but haven’t. What’s going on with them? Once you’ve heard from your people, then create a new offering or multiple offerings for starting and joining groups. You don’t need to think through every possible contingency. As Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You just need to give your people permission and opportunity to start a group on their terms.
Let’s Connect the Dots
How do you get people who enjoy your worship gatherings to take interest in groups? By creating curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, both your pastor and your people will be more interested in groups. Then, by offering permission and opportunity to your people to start a group on their terms – how they meet, where they meet, who they meet with, and so on, you can get your people to take interest in small groups.
But, this is not without guardrails. You are determining what the group will study. It’s also wise to give a new leader an experienced leader to walk alongside them. You need enough of a structure to support your small group expansion without overwhelming the growth of your small group ministry. With the right system in place, you can start, sustain, and strengthen more groups in your church.
As you think about the fall small group boom, one of the best ways to recruit new leaders is with a church-wide campaign or small group in a box. We’re just going to talk about curriculum in this post, but curriculum alone won’t get big results. You also need strategy. Add to strategy, prayer. Then, you’ll have something.
Campaigns or alignment series can be rolled out in several different ways. I see sort of a Good, Better, Best in the approaches:
Good – Purchase a video-based curriculum that your pastor promotes.
Better – Purchase a video-based curriculum that aligns with your pastor’s sermon series and that your pastor is willing to promote.
Best – Create your own video-based curriculum with your pastor’s teaching. Not only will your pastor promote groups more enthusiastically, but your people will respond more enthusiastically.
What Curriculum Will You Use?
Will your church purchase curriculum or create curriculum? If you purchase curriculum, then you need to plan for $70-$100 per group. Creating curriculum varies widely as you’ll see below.
Will you sell the curriculum to the group members? I recommend providing the video and a study guide to the group leader at no cost, then charging the group members for their study guides at cost or less. Also, plan to give away a few study guides to those who cannot afford them.
If you are purchasing curriculum, what platform carries the video? Once upon a time, we bought DVDs at $25 each. That adds up. Is there a curriculum on Right Now Media, Studygateway, Amazon Video On Demand, or another source? If so, your current subscription might already cover the video costs. Otherwise, you’ll have to rent or purchase the content. This adds up quickly.
Creating Your Own Curriculum
The methods of creating curriculum vary widely. I’ve helped churches develop video-based curriculum with budgets ranging from $25,000 – $50,000 or more. I’ve also coached churches who created their curriculum with an all volunteer team or even shot the video with an iPhone. It all worked. It just depends on how you want to work it! Here are a few things to consider:
Who will produce your video? A professional videographer, a wedding videographer, your in-house production team, your volunteer team, you and your pastor (that’s how I produced my first one!), or an iPhone user? There are pluses and minuses with each option. Hiring outside expertise can cost a lot of money, but also guarantee a finished product on time. In-house production teams can save money, since the church is already paying them, but you are at the mercy of the 156 other projects on their list. The same flexibility goes with a volunteer team. They may have the skills, but they’re moonlighting. Patience is required. You have to allow plenty of time (read: If you’re shooting a fall campaign with staff or volunteers, start now!)
What equipment do you need to purchase or rent?
Where will you shoot the video? Is there a cost? (I recommend shooting in a large home and NOT at the church).
What are the costs of feeding the crew? A fed crew is a happy crew. A hungry crew will think twice about your next project.
How will you provide the video to your groups? Streaming on Youtube or Vimeo? DVDs? You can also stream your videos through your Right Now Media account.
Creating Study Guides
Will you produce a physical study guide or provide a digital download? If this is a major launch, then a physical study guide in people’s hands will show the effort you put into the study. For any other launch, a download will do.
Who will design your cover? You are not a designer. Don’t design your own cover.
How will you print your books? On demand printers like Kindle Direct Publishing or Ingram Spark charge about $2.25 each for a 120-page study guide whether you purchase one copy or 1,000 copies (plus shipping). You do need to allow 30 days for printing and shipping. You could go with a conventional printer, even a local printer, but to get $2.25 per book, you’d have to order 2,000 copies. And, if you need more copies, the price goes way up!
The most affordable way to deliver curriculum is with streaming video and a digital download. There are no costs. This is perfectly suitable for regular seasons and semesters. For major group launches, the extra effort of producing a physical book will create more interest in your church and net huge dividends.
As you work through these questions, you will find clarity for planning and budgeting your next church-wide campaign. If you need any help, I have produced curriculum for a wide variety of pastors and churches including Rick Warren, Dr. Tony Evans, Chip Ingram, Gene Appel, and many others. For more information, click here.
Elliot Diaz has served at Manna Church, Fayetteville/ Fort Bragg since March 2013. He has served as the Small Groups Pastor, and is currently the Site Pastor of the Cliffdale Site and is a member of the Lead Team. Manna Church is a multi-site church of over 2800 people in weekly attendance led by Senior Pastor, Michael Fletcher. Elliot is a 19 year Army veteran, who currently serves as a Chaplain in the North Carolina National Guard.
With so much curriculum available from so many great authors, why would anyone undertake to write curriculum for their church. While you may not achieve the production levels of some professionally produced curriculum out there, unless the speaker or teacher is very well known, chances are you’ll have to introduce them to your people anyway. But, when you create curriculum with your pastor and your teaching team, your people will become very excited about getting more of what they already like – your pastors’ teaching!
I’ve written a lot of small group curriculum over the years. Just to show you that I know what I’m talking about, I’ve created curriculum for Chip Ingram, Doug Fields, John Ortberg, and even Rick Warren. (Now, all of these guys might not have known that I was writing for them, but I did). Starting from our home-grown campaigns for our church in California to writing a weekly sermon discussion guide for our church in South Carolina to creating video-based studies for churches across the country, I’ve found that writing your own curriculum gives you some great advantages.
Write from Your Church’s Doctrine and Teaching.
While there’s a lot of great curriculum out there, some of it comes from a very different doctrinal perspective. While Calvinists and Arminians might agree on a few things, once they start debating doctrine, they just might end up losing their salvation! Pentecostals and Fundamentalists will struggle with each others’ teaching. While you can use curriculum based on a different doctrinal viewpoint, you’ll spend a lot of time explaining away things that don’t fully agree with your beliefs. Rather than working around doctrinal issues in curriculum, when you write your own curriculum, you create resources that teach what your church believes.
Reflect Your Church’s Vision and Values.
Every church is unique. You have a unique culture. So many factors come into play in the makeup of any church: region, ethnicity, age, history, personality, vision, values, passion, and so many other things. Your church is not like the church across the street let alone a church across the country.
Your curriculum can reflect your church’s uniqueness. You can write about what your church values in your curriculum. You can reinforce your vision statement in the curriculum. You can base the objectives and application of your lesson on where you want to lead your church. You shouldn’t follow someone else’s vision. Write about your own.
Curriculum is expensive. I remember at my church when a new Beth Moore series was released, I’d have five or six groups requesting a copy. At about $200 a pop, I wasn’t buying six copies. I think I settled on two copies. They either took turns or shared.
Even in a scenario where group members pay for their own books, there are still costs for streaming video or DVDs (although DVDs are slipping away…finally). And, even with books, the church ends up paying for the leaders’ books and for group members who can’t afford a book (as they should). And, there are always overages. As much as a small group pastor tries to look into the crystal ball and accurately predict the exact number of books to order, you always order too many. This also takes from your budget. Oh, and did I mention this was only for one alignment series or one semester. There’s at least 30 weeks total to cover!
By creating your own curriculum, you can save a great deal of money. The most affordable and easiest way to distribute curriculum is by digital download. You just create a pdf of your lesson, then either upload it to your church’s website or email it to your leaders. There are no physical materials to distribute. You can even create a teaching video and put the link at the top of your pdf.
If you’d prefer printed books, then print-on-demand is a simple and affordable solution. Services like Kindle Direct Publishing or Ingram Spark allow you to print your books for about $2.25 each (120 page study guide with a color cover and black and white pages). Whether you order one book or a thousand, the price is the same. You do need to plan in advance and allow about 2-4 weeks for shipping and delivery.
Writing your own curriculum will definitely save you money.
Publish It Anywhere You Want.
When you write your own curriculum, you can post your curriculum online. You can email it to your group leaders. You can sell your books on Amazon. You can print your books on-demand. Since the curriculum is yours, you can do whatever you want with it. If you do this with somebody else’s curriculum, you’re breaking the law.
Writing your own curriculum gives you flexibility. You can offer the study to your groups for free, and then sell it to other churches. You can make your studies available online and suddenly serve the global church. They no longer need to wait three months for study guides to arrive by boat.
Writing your own curriculum gives you flexibility in distribution, a possible revenue stream, and it keeps you out of jail! Whether groups are meeting in-person or online, this alleviates the difficulty of distribution.
Writing Your Own Curriculum is Not Difficult.
Like anything else curriculum writing seems difficult before you’ve done it. Personally, I’m a self-taught curriculum writer (and I earn a living at it). Once you master the basics and put in the practice, you are well on your way to becoming a curriculum writer yourself. You can test your curriculum with focus groups in your church to get their feedback and improve your studies. You can find someone to edit and proofread your studies. You probably already know someone who can design your cover and layout you pages. (If you don’t, that’s not so hard either).
Are you ready to get started?
In fact, in my Writing Effective Curriculum Workshop, you will learn to write great questions, write sermon discussion guides, write complete study guides, and write to make disciples. Not only will I teach you how to write and organize your studies, I will give you assignments, then offer my feedback on your writing. This is not a course. This is a WORKshop. You have to work! If you’re ready to jump in, the Writing Effective Curriculum Workshop is enrolling now.