Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Notice I said “start” a group and not “lead” a group. “Leader” is a loaded word. Maybe you don’t need a “leader” to start a group. But, beyond semantics, what is a risk you are willing to take? And, what seems too risky?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
When you look at your current leaders and other mature people in your church, who cares enough to walk alongside leaders? Oh, and here’s a great resource: Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Coming Alongside by Robert E. Logan and Tara Miller.
#6 What will the groups study?
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
Some churches prefer to have their groups follow a weekly sermon discussion guide. There’s a certain genius in this approach. Some churches offer seasonal church-wide campaigns. This is a great first step in a leadership development process. But, in all of these efforts, as Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” Not every group needs to do the discussion guide or join the church-wide campaign…and that’s okay.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
What is your church’s leadership passionate about? Align small groups to follow those passions. After all people in groups will serve more, give more, attend more, reach more, and grow more than people who are not in groups. These findings are research-based: Sharing the Journey by Robert Wuthnow, Transformational Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, the 2020 Megachurch Report by Dr. Warren Bird and Dr. Scott Thumma. (One study is 30 years old and another is a year old — all three validate each other).
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
Looking to start or restart your small group ministry, let me guide you step by step. The Small Group Reset is a free, on-demand video resource. Get started now!
Is your church already beyond church-wide campaigns? Before you start demonizing campaigns, first, you need to consider some solid reasons to launch campaigns in your church. Your progress will determine whether you need a church-wide campaign or not.
Why You Need Campaigns
First, if your church is rapidly growing, you will constantly need campaigns just to keep up. While the weekend service is a great attractor, groups are the place where you keep people and disciple them. Campaigns are the best way to recruit new leaders and get a lot of your people connected into groups very quickly. If you’re growing, then keep campaigns going.
Second, if your congregation faces continual turnover, campaigns are necessary. If your church is near a military base or in a college town or full of Millennials, your members are regularly deployed, graduating, or getting married and moving to the suburbs.
Manna Church, Fayetteville, NC sits next to Fort Bragg. They regularly lose 1,000 people every year who are either deployed or reassigned. Campaigns have helped them connect the regular influx of new members. Manna has “deployed” their groups all over the world. Then, they got really smart and started campuses near military bases across the U.S. Different bases, but the same church!
Rapid growth and steady turnover are fertile environments for church-wide campaigns. Every year you will need new groups. In order to have new groups, you need new leaders. After all,
The primary purpose of church-wide campaigns is leader recruitment.
Most of your people don’t see themselves as leaders. A six-week campaign gives them the opportunity to test-drive a group and show them they were the leaders they never knew they were.
When to Start Using Campaigns
Through my book, courses, and coaching groups, pastors learn how to launch and maximize church-wide campaigns. These are churches who have never done campaigns or who have just started. After 16 years of campaigns, we know a lot more about how to keep groups going once the six weeks is over. We can definitely begin with the end in mind. In fact, I encourage pastors to develop their coaching structure before they recruit a single leader or start a group. That’s one key to lasting groups.
If your church has a wide gap between your weekly attendance and your group participation, you need a church-wide campaign to catch up. Now, if there are other Bible study options available at your church, don’t count them in your group numbers. People who are committed to Sunday school, Midweek Bible studies, other Bible studies, or women addicted to Beth Moore don’t need to join a small group. That is their small group. Your concern should be for the people who are only attending the weekend service but are not connected otherwise. If it ain’t broke…
Once most of your people are connected into groups, you can certainly use campaigns with relevant topics to reach your community. You can also use campaigns occasionally to launch a new initiative in your church or just reinvigorate your groups. But, the continual use of campaigns will eventually produce a diminishing return.
Is it Time for Your Church to Move Beyond Campaigns?
Church-wide campaigns are great sprints toward connecting a lot of people in a hurry. But, disciple-making is a marathon, not a sprint. The ultimate goal of groups is to make disciples. Disciples are not the end result of a process. Disciples are crafted [Read more here]. Eventually, you want your video-based-curriculum-dependent newbies to be able to rightly divide the Word of Truth and facilitate a discussion leading toward on-going life change. You can’t grow disciples in fits and starts. As Eugene Peterson once titled a book, it’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.
Where is your church? Do you need to recruit a bunch of new leaders and launch groups? Have you been doing campaigns for years? Are you seeing your groups going the right way? How well are you making disciples?
Campaigns can help you or hurt you. Just like hot sauce, you’ve got to know how much to use and when. Otherwise, you’ll numb your taste buds for campaigns. Is it time to start a church-wide campaign? Or, is it time to stop?
Join Allen White for a Free Webinar: Beyond Church-wide Campaigns on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 3pm EST or Wednesday, Nov 14 at 12:30pm EST. CLICK HERE for more information
It’s time for your church to move beyond church-wide campaigns. The first widely publicized church-wide campaign, the 40 Days of Purpose by Rick Warren was launched in 2002. By far, it has been the most popular campaign to date. I am grateful for every person who ever “hosted” or joined a group for that season.
At this point, some of you may be confused. I wrote a book called Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (Hendrickson 2017), which is all about church-wide campaigns or alignment series. You might ask, “Now you’re telling us that campaigns don’t work.” That’s not what I’m telling you.
Church-wide campaigns used to work. But, there was a time and a season for campaigns. Here are the reasons for those seasons.
When to Stop Using Campaigns
There are two measures for when campaigns are no longer effective. Your church will hit these marks, and then campaigns will no longer be helpful.
First, if a high percentage of your members are in groups, you no longer need to use campaigns. For most churches, there is a 1-3 year window when campaigns are highly effective to recruit leaders and connect people into groups. Beyond that three year window, your church will experience “campaign fatigue.” It’s a strange phenomenon.
Every week, your people will hear a message in the weekend service. Every week, your people will meet in their group and probably study something. But, the idea of continually aligning the weekend service with the group study gets exhausting for people. This seems strange since there is a sermon and a study every week. But, it’s a reality with a few exceptions.
Some churches use sermon-based groups, which I believe is genius from a Christian education point of view. The normal course of sermon-based groups is steady. You don’t face all of the ups and downs of church-wide campaigns. While there’s a push to join groups every semester, it’s not the bandwagon effect over and over and over again. The bandwagon is fatiguing, which leads to the second point.
If your church has used campaigns for more than 3 years, you will experience a diminishing return. For about 8 years now, I’ve told the story of a church who had dramatic success in connecting all of their people into groups within a 9-month 3-campaign push. The pastor was engaged. They were naturals at creating their own curriculum. They launched multiple campaigns year after year. They began facing a steady skid downward. When I caught up with them about a year ago, groups were at an all-time low. Did the campaigns fail?
Their campaigns succeeded for the first year or two. But, by year 3 campaign fatigue had set in. They were excellent at the sprint of the campaign, but suffered when the sprint became a marathon. Your church will suffer this too.
Once the majority of your congregation is connected into groups and you’ve run campaigns for two or three years, it’s time for a change. If you don’t make the switch, your groups will decline, except for two scenarios…Click Here for Part 2.
Join Allen White for a Free Webinar: Beyond Church-wide Campaigns on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 3pm EST or Wednesday, Nov 14 at 12:30pm EST. CLICK HERE for more information
By Allen White
I wrote this post one Fall as a postmortem of a church’s group launch after a colossal failure. They ignored some fundamentals, allowed their communications department to take over the messaging, and the whole thing would have tanked except for an 11th hour appeal. Please take the following into consideration, so they next postmortem won’t be about your launch!
Fall is a prime season to launch groups in churches across the country. In my consulting work with hundreds of churches across North America, I am working with churches from Florida to Washington and Southern California to New Hampshire. Among churches of various sizes and denominations, we are seeing some tremendous results. But, not every church hits a home run with their group launch. Here are some reasons why.
- You picked the wrong topic.
Small groups are a great vehicle for people to grow spiritually. But, in order for people to grow in a group, they need to actually be in a group. If a church’s goal is to connect their congregation into groups, then a felt needs topic is very attractive. If you give people something they want to study, they will jump right in. If you offer something they “should” study, it may not go so well.
Let me go on the record: Healthy, balanced small groups cannot live by felt needs topics alone. But, kicking off groups usually doesn’t go well with series on evangelism, stewardship, fasting, or other self-sacrificial studies. You need to establish your goal. If you want to increase the number of groups, then go felt needs. If you want to grow your people deeper, then offer these topics to your established groups.
- You set the bar too high.
The more requirements for group leadership, the fewer leaders you will recruit. If you required all of your new leaders to be church members, complete a lengthy leadership training process, or graduate with their Master of Divinity, you certainly limited the number of groups you could launch this Fall.
Your level of acceptable risk will greatly determine the reward. If you invite people to do a study with their friends, then you are only limited to people with friends. If you increase the requirements, you lessen the impact.
If you choose to lower the bar next time, then lessen the risk by forming “unpublished” groups. If the groups don’t appear on your church’s website, group listing, or bulletin, you are not implying any kind of official endorsement of the groups. If friends invite friends, you will form good, lasting groups, and if someone gets in a bad group, well, it was their friend’s group after all.
- You focused on recruiting group members.
As a pastor, if the invitation is for potential group members, you may or may not actually start groups. You will certainly give yourself a lot of busy work trying to find enough leaders to accommodate the prospects or trying to place people in the right group. But, you’ve missed the mark and the point.
If you have a bunch of prospective group members, you might have a group. If you have a leader, you WILL have a group. In fact, the best way to get into a group is to start a group — you’re automatically in! When the focus is on recruiting leaders, you will greatly increase your number of groups. If your focus is on members, you will probably just end up with a mess.
- You put too much distance between the invitation and the response.
When you or your senior pastor made the invitation for people to start a group, how and when did they respond?
If they were sent to the church website to register, they didn’t go.
If they were sent to the church lobby, they walked right by.
If they were invited to a meeting in the near future, they forgot.
If they had a sign up card in their hand during the service, bingo, they’re in!
If they were sent an email to remind them to sign up at church on Sunday, they forgot again.
If they were sent an email with a registration link, then they signed up.
The less distance between the invitation and the response, the greater the result.
- You gave too many steps from “Yes” to starting the group.
If the pathway from the response to the group starting took too many steps, then you lost leaders at every phase.
If you recruited months in advance of your group launch, there were too many days before they started. Cold feet and good intentions didn’t get them there.
If you required a training class, a membership class, a pastoral interview, a group orientation, a group connection, and a final debrief meeting, you lost, lost, lost, lost and lost new group leaders.
If you kept the steps to a minimum, based on your own acceptable level of risk, you kept far more than any of the above scenarios.
- Your recruitment period was too short.
A few years ago, I was working with two churches of similar size who were launching groups on the same week. One church recruited 20 new leaders. The other recruited 60. The first church recruited leaders for one week. The second church recruited for three weeks in a row. Triple the recruiting equaled triple the result. You do the math.
- Your senior pastor was not on board.
If your senior pastor was hesitant about your next series in any way, it hurt you. Half-hearted appeals and hit or miss invitations lead to lackluster results.
If your senior pastor didn’t make the invitation for leaders, that was a huge miss. The senior pastor will get three times the result of any other staff member. I’ve served as an associate pastor for 20 of my 24 years of ministry. As soon as I learned this, I never made the invitation again.
How do you get your senior pastor on board with the series you recommend? You don’t. If you want your group launch to succeed, you have to get on board with where your senior pastor wants to go. If you respect your senior pastor’s direction, you will see respectable results. If you try to pressure your senior pastor into a series that is not his idea, you are on your own (literally).
Last Sunday, I worshiped with a church who had never had small groups. Their senior pastor decided it was time. He cast vision for groups. He kept the response close to the invitation. He focused on recruiting leaders. He did it all right. Then, on Sunday afternoon, 360 new group leaders showed up for training (and they have two more weeks to recruit!)
Between January and May this year, we have helped 12 churches launch nearly 3,000 small groups. One church of 2,500 adults now has 500 small groups. Another church of 4,000 adults recruited 1,200 people to LEAD groups. A church in the Harrisburg, PA area has grown by 7.5 percent over last year, and giving has increased by 7 percent because of connecting people into groups. Big things are happening if you follow these principles.
Learn the lessons from your failed attempt. There is no shame in failure, but there is shame in not learning.
Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.
Read how Dr. Tony Evans recruited 500 new group leaders in just 3 weeks.
The Case Against Sign Up Cards
Why Reconnect Members Who Are Already Connected?
By Allen White
Stop recruiting group leaders. Am I crazy?
If we stop recruiting group leaders, then where will they come from then? From within a group? Maybe. Will they just line up my door and demand to lead? Probably not. Will they just appear from outer space? Definitely not.
In our efforts to connect everyone into groups we forget one basic thing — everyone is already to group. (That’s the premise of my book, Exponential Groups). People are in groups called families or friends or neighbors or coworkers or some combination of those. If our church members would gather these groups for a Bible study, then they are group leaders. As Steve Gladen says, “Leaders have followers.”
Unfortunately these leaders don’t spontaneously appear. They need a little help. They need a little incentive. This is where our Senior Pastors comes in. If we would give the same words we might say to our Senior Pastors, we would have triple the result. How do I know that?
Well, after recruiting group leaders myself for seven years, we managed to connect 30 percent of our adults into groups. When my Senior Pastor recruited leaders, we doubled our groups, then we tripled them. I haven’t personally recruited a group leader since 2004! (And, I served a whole other church since then).
But, how do we get our Senior Pastors interested in recruiting groups? Read more here.
Often our focus in the Fall is to connect as many people in groups as possible. We do a big church wide campaign with the goal of getting a hundred percent or more connected into groups. In order to have groups we have to have leaders. In order to have groups we have to have members. So we focus all of our energy on recruiting leaders and connecting people into groups. Then after the six-week campaign is over we find that we have very little to show for it. We work so hard to connect all these people into group, only to see groups just as easily fall apart.
Stop recruiting group leaders. Spend your time and energy on something that will actually help your groups and leaders last. Namely coaches and training. If you put the same amount of effort into coaching and training as we used to put into recruiting leaders and forming groups, you will keep far more groups for the long term.
By Allen White
People hate meetings. Meetings are inconvenient. People are busy. So, we really need to ask the question: What is training?
Training can be a blog post. In fact, that’s how my blog at allenwhite.org got started. I would answer one of my leader’s questions each week and send it to all of the rest.
Training can also appear in your video-based curriculum, if you are developing your own. By adding weekly training to the video, leaders have what they need when they need it as they go through the materials.
Training can be sent by video through an email. Any small group pastor/director with a smartphone, a tablet, or a laptop can record a 2 minute video (not longer) and send it out to his/her small group leaders each week. This is even better than training delivered with video-based curriculum, because you can answer timely questions as they are asked rather than anticipating what questions they might ask.
Yes, we still need initial training to get a group started. This could happen between services or even during a service, but we need to rethink small group training. If leaders are learning through blogs, books, articles, or video emails, then that IS training.
One day I was talking to a pastor who came from a career in corporate training. As we talked about delivering training to group leaders when they needed it, he said, “You know, considering my background, this is going to sound funny, but the best training comes from the person who is proximate to the group leader when he or she is facing a problem.”
Rather than creating a seminar on common group issues and rounding everybody up at the church on Tuesday night, a conversation with an experienced leader or coach at the right time produced more meaningful training. Group leaders are best served when the training meets a current need as they are facing it. Leaders aren’t concerned with difficult group members until they have one. Leaders can be trained and prepared to a certain extent, but chances are they won’t remember what’s given to them if they are not currently facing the problem.
One Sunday morning a group leader who was a former member of my small group came up to me in the church lobby. She was concerned about an overly talkative member of her group and how to handle the situation. I had to laugh to myself because this former overly talkative member of my group was asking her former overly talkative group leader about a problem she was having with an overly talkative person in her current group. Ironic, huh?
In just a few minutes, I gave her a couple of tips on how to handle the situation. She thanked me. After the next meeting, the problem was solved. The over talkative group member felt insulted and never came back. Okay, that’s not true. The group member received the message loud and clear and cooperated from then on.
This group leader didn’t need to wait for the next training to come around, she came directly to me. She didn’t need to take copious notes from my training, it stuck in her head. Why? Because I gave her the training she needed when she needed it. Those are the lessons that stick.
While there is certainly a place for centralized Basic Training, the best training comes from the coach when group leaders need solutions to their problems. Rather than conducting meetings, develop relationships. Blogs and video training can certainly supplement what the coaches are doing, but the coach is the primary trainer. Small Group Pastors and Directors should invest their time in training coaches and developing their Small Group Team rather than overshadowing their coaches and micromanaging group leaders.
The world of training has changed. Online courses are replacing university campuses. Crash courses in some fields are all someone needs to build a successful career. If centuries-old educational institutions can innovate how they train and equip the future workforce, then it’s time for the church to innovate as well. Training tools should be developed for individual leaders through digitally, interactive technology. Groups of leaders can be trained online, but meet individually with their coach in person. Mobile devices, social media, and voice mail have made it possible to literally “encourage one another daily.”
Excerpt from Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential by Allen White. Published by Hendrickson Publishers. Copyright (c) 2017 by Allen White Consulting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.