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[Podcast] Episode 1: Dr. Warren Bird on How Small Groups Help Churches Grow from the 2020 Megachurch Report

Dr. Warren Bird on How Small Groups Help Churches Grow from the 2020 Megachurch Report Exponential Groups Podcast with Allen White

Dr. Warren Bird is one of the foremost experts on megachurches and is the author of 33 books. In the 2020 Megachurch Report, small groups were at the forefront of the church's growth, service, and giving. Warren explains the implications of these findings in this episode.
  1. Dr. Warren Bird on How Small Groups Help Churches Grow from the 2020 Megachurch Report
  2. Pre-Episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast

Show Notes for Episode 1: Dr. Warren Bird on the Small Group Findings in the 2020 Megachurch Report

Warren Bird is the vice president of research and equipping at the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Just prior to his work at ECFA, Warren served for 13 years at Leadership Network. He is the author or co-author of 33 books including Hero Maker with Dave Ferguson, How to Break Church Growth Barriers with Carl George, Next: Pastoral Succession that Works with William Vanderbloemen and Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work with Jim Tomberlin. Warren is widely recognized as one of the nation’s experts on megachurches. As @lensweet tweeted, “No one knows more about megachurches than @warrenbird.”

Megachurch 2020: The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches

ECFA Church Resources

Additional Research on the Benefits of Small Groups in Churches:

Transformational Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger

Sharing the Journey by Robert Wuthnow

Featured Resource:

The Big Ministry Shift in 2021

Happy New Year! 2020 is officially behind us, but we all know that flipping the page of a calendar isn’t the same as hitting the restart button. I talk to pastors every day. (If you’d like to talk sometime, click here to schedule a meeting.) Some are really struggling. Some are hanging in there. Some are making some interesting progress.

Our mission didn’t change in 2020. We are still called to go and make disciples. Our methods have changed significantly. Our metrics have changed. Our effectiveness is not longer measured in nickels and noses. But, it’s more than that. We didn’t just get a new scorecard. We are playing an entirely different game. In all of this change, it is easy to get discouraged. Today’s video will encourage you as you launch into 2021.

Planning in Pencil and Prayer

Planning in Pencil and Prayer

The phrase “planning in pencil and prayer” is borrowed from a pastor who serves in of all places, Corona, California. The sentiment rings true. It’s hard to know how or what to plan at this point.

Back in March when our church, NewSpring, announced that worship services, KidSpring, and Fuse (student ministries) would be opened in mid-July, I felt they were operating out of abundance of caution and wisely chose to regather once the pandemic was well behind us. Well, that’s next weekend, and the fact that they are persisting makes we question their wisdom at this point. But, it’s not just my church.

Photo by rawpixel via 123rf.com

Considering the uptick in Coronavirus cases since Memorial Day, I can’t imagine the number of cases that will appear in the 14 days following the Independence Day weekend. Someone online questioned the validity of all of this precaution. He asked his followers, “Have you seen anything different this year than during a normal flu season?” I have. I know of more people in the hospital and more people who have died than during a typical flu season. These aren’t statistics: a friend’s 35-year-old healthy co-worker and others have died.

So, how do you plan during a pandemic? Are we looking at online Christmas services? (Honestly, I was surprised by the idea of online Easter services at one point). It seems nearly impossible to plan during such a continuously ambivalent period. What does planning in pencil and prayer look like?

Your people will be worshipping somewhere.

Imagine your congregation was forced to meet at a different physical location. What would you do? Would you wait for them to return to your building before ministry could resume? Of course not! You would follow them to the new location and conduct services in the building that is currently housing them. Well, your congregation moved.

They moved online. They may or may not be able to regather in the remainder of 2020. Either way, they need a place to worship. The good news is that more people will participate in your online services than will ever join your on-campus services. When your congregation eventually regathers will you slam the door on your online followers?

The future will be a hybrid off online and on-campus services — but hear this — these are two different kinds of services. Streaming a regular worship service doesn’t work, but ignoring the people in the room to speak directly to the camera doesn’t work either. Two services are necessary just like you might have a traditional worship service and a contemporary service. The message is the same but the method is different.

The only true loser in all of this is the multisite campus. If people can watch the service online at home or even with friends, why would they need to watch online at a building the church rents? Streaming is streaming, right

Small groups are essential for your church’s continuity.

Again, in the vein of planning in pencil and prayer, we don’t know if small groups will be online, offline, on-campus, or off-campus. Groups are important for a variety of reasons as you can review in the Senior Pastor’s Guide to Groups. Groups are normally important because it’s a great format for disciples to make disciples.

During the pandemic, groups are especially important because in addition to content people also need conversation. They need a place to process what they’re dealing with. They need to discuss what was presented in the weekend service. Groups have always been a great means of taking your weekend into your week, but this is more important now than ever.

In order to start as many groups as you possibly can, you need to recruit as many people to start them as you possibly can. I don’t say “leader” here because I do not believe you need a leader in order to start a group. I do believe that if you give people permission and opportunity they will they will gather a group. To get you started with online small groups: Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future.

Unleash your people to serve.

Since churches have been unable to gather, many of the entry-level service roles such as ushers, greeters, parking lot attendants, guest services, coffee station workers, and so forth have disappeared. For churches who are depending on serving opportunities to assimilate their guests, that strategy just went out the window. But just because the church isn’t meeting in the building doesn’t mean the church has closed.

Again by giving your people permission and opportunity, you can empower them to do something about the needs that they are discovering. How can they love their neighbor when they have to social distance? What needs are they seeing in the community, what can they do about it? The more you get people engaged in ministry instead of arguing on Facebook, the better off everyone will be.

Personalized your ministry.

Closing church buildings resulted in the shift from centralized to decentralized ministry. You are well aware by now that people will only tolerate a certain number of zoom meetings in a day. But there are a lot of other ways to connect with people and help them other than more online videos and more zoom meetings.

With your smart phone, you can connect with more people in a more personal way than at any other time in history. You can call them, text them, message them, sing them a TikTok song (Maybe not that last one). In a previous post, I showed how you can accomplish all of the one another’s of the Bible with a smart phone. You just can’t greet one another with a holy kiss.

When the church doors closed, ministries got smaller and larger at the same time. We’ve already talked about the larger part with online services. But the smaller part is focusing on a select group to disciple personally. The smaller part is connecting regularly with the top 25% of your givers. The smaller part is focusing on the committed core of your church, serving for the crowd through online worship services, and caring for them through small groups. Your ministry priority should be clearer now and than ever been.

Concluding Thoughts

Many pastors have greatly overestimated what the weekend service could accomplish. Buildings closed and the church marched on. The church’s mission was never dependent on a building anyway.

On-campus worship services got a bunch of people in the room, but they were deceiving in two ways. First, sermons don’t make disciples, and second, the shoe was limiting the size of the foot. There are far more people to serve “out there” than could ever fit “in here” (or would even darken the door of a church).

In your planning, plan for necessities, but also plan for opportunities. The normal you are longing to see return won’t be the normal you remember. That’s okay. As long as your open to learn new things, you’re future is brighter than it might seem.

This is a season to try new things. This is the time to hit play while the rest of the world is hitting pause. What opportunities do you see? What are you doing to make the most of those opportunities? I’d like to hear what you’re thinking. Respond in the comments.

For more information on church online and online small groups, visit onlinegroups.US.

Entering the Church’s Digital Future

Entering the Church’s Digital Future

About 90 days ago the church made a pivot to online services. Regular worship services were prohibited in most areas of the country due to COVID-19 and efforts to flatten the curve. Suddenly, worship services appeared online. Churches who had never recorded or live streamed their services scrambled to get online. But, some other things began to happen.

Many churches discovered that just streaming the weekend service was not sufficient to engage participation at home. It was open season for experimentation in worship. Worship teams went from social distancing on stage to leading from their homes and looking like the Brady Bunch online.

The biggest learning in all of this was that people actually showed up. Some churches quickly saw twice the number of people online as they typically had on the weekend. One church with a normal weekend attendance of 10,000 had 200,000 people tune in at Easter. People from out-of-town, out-of-state, and even out of the country began to join in. This presented a new challenge — when things got back to normal, nothing would be normal. How could you abandon your new online congregation? You can’t and you shouldn’t.

Digital ministry is significant. It’s a moment not unlike the printing press 500 years ago. While we might not call it a digital reformation, online ministry is showing signs of creating a new category of ministry for the church going forward. The message hasn’t changed, but the method certainly has. How do you lead a digital congregation?

Interactive Online Services

The churches that are making it without an on-campus weekend service are offering a direct-to-camera, interactive worship service. It’s not merely streaming a typical weekend service. That’s passive. They are connecting with an online audience.

The method has shifted from standing on a stage behind a pulpit and preaching to the crowd to sitting in the living room talking to your members and many others through their televisions. In some cases, pastors are actually taking questions through Facebook Live or some other means and providing answers during their messages or Bible studies. The world is tuning in. What are you giving them?

When this is over, online services shouldn’t be gone. In fact, in churches that are regathering for worship, pastors should remember to speak to the cameras, because there is far more of the congregation “out there,” than there is “in here.” While pastors don’t want to feel like they’re ignoring those in the building, they must either speak directly to the camera (otherwise you creative a passive experience for your online audience), or record an entirely different format for the online folks. Same message, but different method.

Meaningful Connections and Online Groups

When the pandemic began, I broke down all of the “one anothers” and showed how the church could still practice all of them except greeting with a holy kiss. We’ve always said that the church is not the building, and the church is not the worship service, but were we telling the truth? I agree with those who said that the church isn’t reopening because it never closed. The church — the ekklesia, the assembly – is the people of God. The gates of hell cannot defeat us, let alone Coronavirus.

The churches who are succeeding right now are meeting their members’ needs in personal ways. Whether people are required or choose to social distance, the pastors that are getting it right are forming new online small groups, sending personal notes in the mail, and making personal phone calls. That may seem a bit daunting, but start somewhere. One church immediately upon the shutdown tasked their staff with calling the top 20% of givers in their church – not to ask for money, but to see how they were doing. Again, go back to the digital one anothers: text encouragement, send a note of appreciation, recruit new online group leaders. We are 100+ days in, but it’s not too late to get started.

Meeting Practical Needs in the Community

Government stimulus checks went pretty fast. Now what? Folks are looking for jobs. In many places states of emergency have ended, so foreclosures have begun. People are trying to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. For some, these are desperate times. How can your church help?

Food producers are throwing food away, yet people are going without food. How can your church redirect discarded food and get it to the people who need it? Can you assist a local food bank? My wife and son support a local free pantry down the street in front of the fire station. Someone built it. I’m not sure who. But, neighbors provide some food and necessities, then post a picture on their Facebook group. Those in need are informed of what’s available. Those who help can see when supplies need to be restocked. How can your church help the least of these?

Giving Spiritual Next Steps

Some people watching your online service will never show up at your church. It may not be practical with their work schedule. They might live out-of-state. How do you disciple your online following?

How would you guide these folks if they came to church on Sunday? You would probably have them fill out a communication card. Are you getting their information? Maybe you would offer a meeting with the pastor or some sort of “Welcome to the Church” class. You can do this online.

Some churches have a membership class, a Growth Track, CLASS 101-401, or something else. If you put these online, they could help in two ways. First, you can offer next steps to your online congregation who may never darken the door of the church. Second, you can provide a way for people who do attend locally, but have never taken the next steps classes. Instead of offering these classes once a month, they could be available 168 hours a week. You could gain new members in the middle of the night!

Concluding Thoughts

Whether people are quarantined by themselves or with their families, there is a sense of isolation. We need each other! Digital ministry involves getting people connected into groups and creating intentional opportunities for people to meet online at first.

Giving is almost 100% online in these days. And, giving should be tied to meeting practical needs in the community. By linking generosity with reaching people and helping them in a crisis, members will be more generous than ever.

Digital ministry is not going away, nor should it. Many churches are attempting to hire a digital ministries pastor at this point. (I say “attempting” because there aren’t a lot of people with the technical, pastoral, and creative skills to fit the bill.) You might need several staff (paid or volunteer) for this role. How will your church engage the community in this digital reformation?

For more information on church online and online small groups, visit onlinegroups.US.

When Should Groups Meet in Person?

When Should Groups Meet in Person?

When churches should regather for worship is one question, but an equally challenging question is when groups should meet in person. The issue of COVID-19 has not been solved. In fact, several states are now reporting more cases of Coronavirus than ever before. Just when you thought it was safe for groups to meet in person, the pandemic seems to be flaring up again in many places.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

As people are becoming weary of quarantine and some despair of another online meeting, directing groups to meet too soon could only add to the problem. But, eventually groups will meet. When they do, how should you guide them? Here are some things to consider as you direct your groups:

1. What are the restrictions or recommendations of your local government?

State and local governments all have common, yet unique challenges. The Coronavirus pandemic seems to have no rhyme or reason. At first, the pandemic seemed more of a big city problem, but over time it has shown up in more rural areas. It’s hard to predict. While guidance and restrictions related to COVID-19 have unfortunately become politicized in some areas, this is a time to heed the counsel of government in directing your groups and especially observe restrictions on meetings and meeting sizes.

2. What are the recommendations from medical authorities?

While opinions vary among medical experts (and I’m not talking about your Facebook friends), there is some common agreement regarding the spread of disease. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, so breathing it out while talking, singing, shouting, coughing, sneezing, or breathing spreads the disease. It seems to enter the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. It would make sense to cover the body parts that spread the disease as well as those that serve in contracting the disease. Here is a description of how viruses spread from an immunologist.

There is debate over other issues. Can the virus be spread on surfaces? Clean them. Can the virus be spread through food? Avoid refreshments for now. Can the virus be spread through human contact? Maybe go “touchless” for a while in the group, even though group members will be desperate to give and receive hugs. Here are the guidelines from the CDC.

3. What should groups do over the summer?

Summer tends to be a challenge for groups anyway. People plan vacations or weekends at the lake. The rhythm of the public school calendar comes into play. Even though people are still working (hopefully), alarm clocks don’t ring. Longer evenings lead to more leisure. Warmer weather calls people outdoors. For places with long winters and/or long quarantines, once people can get out, my sense is that they will be gone. Don’t fight that.

In a normal year, I usually advise groups to meet as often as they would like, but at least once per month. They can meet socially. They could serve together. Some might want to meet for a Bible study. The bottom line here is that a group is not just a meeting just like a family is not just dinner. Groups also need group life together.

Summer is not the time to launch a new study or a new series. Churches that do a big push in the summer usually lose momentum when it comes to the fall launch. It’s better to embrace the typical rhythm of summer and gear up for a big fall. Even if the fall may bring a resurgence of Coronavirus and a second quarantine, people need a break in the summer. We will talk about fall planning in another post.

4. What do the groups want to do?

Even if the church gives groups the blessing to meet in person again, some people will be reluctant to meet for fear of exposure to COVID-19. Others will differ on what precautions to take. I’ve already heard of churches dealing with mask wearers and non-mask wearers. It hasn’t quite taken on the proportions of the circumcised and the uncircumcised in the book of Galatians, but the spirit is there.

With any small group dilemma, groups need to form their own group agreements going into this next season of meeting (or not meeting). A discussion of the group agreement will help everyone to feel heard and hopefully will lead to agreement on how the group will proceed in the summer or fall semester. For more information on forming a group agreement, click here.

While the church can offer some overall guidelines for groups, it’s really the decision of each group. Encourage your coaches to engage with the group leaders to help them navigate this issue. If you don’t have coaches, first, you need to think about starting your coaching structure. Second, if you don’t have coaches, then you need to talk to your leaders individually and help them.

5. Create Some Group Guidelines.

Groups will need some overall guidance from the church. These should be general guidelines based on the best medical and governmental information you can access with the understanding that groups and their members will have different opinions and feelings about this. Personally, I would avoid making the guidelines too directive, in that, you don’t want to put the church in a place where they might be liable for a group’s actions.

Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, CA published guidelines for groups at one of their campuses in Minnesota. Bear in mind as you read their guidelines that to date this county in Minnesota has had no reported cases of Coronavirus.

Group Grand Opening Guidelines by Will Johnston and Cheri Liefeld

We recognize that some of you may be nervous about meeting at all—and that’s okay, you don’t have to—and others of you may feel like any sort of meeting restrictions are unnecessary. We’ve adopted these guidelines because we want to preserve our witness for Jesus to our communities by following our local, state, and national leaders, and because we don’t want to be responsible for an outbreak that could devastate lives.

Illness – Group members should stay home if they or anyone in their household is sick.

Location – Select a gathering place where you can safely distance. Meeting outside is encouraged when possible.

Masks – We are asking group members to wear masks, especially in the time people are arriving and socializing. Once group members are safely distanced, masks may be removed at the discretion of the leader and participants.

Food – We are big proponents of food at small group gatherings, but during this season we are recommending that groups not eat together. If you do choose to eat, encourage members to bring their own beverage and snack.

Greetings – As much as some will miss hugging or shaking hands with other group members, for now it is wise to avoid physical contact.

Cleaning – The host should be prepared to clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched both before and after group (Door handles, chairs, restrooms, etc.).

Virtual Option – Not everyone will feel comfortable attending in person at first. Consider setting up a computer in your meeting area so group members can join in via video conference.

Childcare – Due to the challenge of having young children practice distancing, at this time we are asking groups not bring children to meetings at this time.

High Risk Individuals – Those who are 65+ or who have serious underlying health conditions are strongly encouraged to join an online small group rather than an in-person one. Groups comprised largely of high risk individuals are encouraged to continue meeting virtually.

Group Size – Groups of more than 10 people that choose to meet in person should divide the group up and meet in different places or at different times.

Concluding Thoughts

Guidance for groups regathering is not a simple cut and paste. While I feel that the guidelines from Eastside are thorough, you need to come up with what’s right for your small groups. And, then encourage each group to determine what’s right for them. Online groups may not feel perfect to some, but they may need to be an option for a while.

In all of this, don’t forget why we’re doing this. Groups are not for the sake of groups, but for the sake of disciples making disciples and practicing the one another’s (which can be done in ways other than meetings). Groups are one method of making disciples. Group meetings are one component of groups. Don’t limit yourself with in-person meetings.

Join a Conversation about Regathering on Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 1 pm Eastern. To register, click here.

The Chocolate Hummus of Ministries Got Left Behind

The Chocolate Hummus of Ministries Got Left Behind

The Coronavirus pandemic has created some interesting times for life and ministry. Back in March 2020 toilet paper disappeared from the store shelves along with hand sanitizer. While the second one made sense in combating a virus, the first one was a bit of a puzzle.

Courtesy of Traderjoes.com

What also seemed curious were the items left behind on store shelves. Items that didn’t appear on anyone’s shopping list included things like chickpea-based linguine, chocolate hummus, dryer sheets, obscure canned veggies like artichokes and asparagus spears, plant-based proteins, and oddly enough, Dasani bottled water. “Chocolate hummus is the canary in the coal mine. If you see it selling out, it’s time to start fleeing into the woods,” according to Aaron Mak in a post on Slate.com.

What are Churches Leaving Behind?

Once stay-at-home orders too place, churches went online. Worship services went online. Small groups went online. Giving went online. But, some things got left behind.

In a recent survey of churches across North America, pastors reported not only what they stopped doing, but also what they’re not bringing back. This included things like the church bulletin, working at the church office, tons of physical meetings, large group speaking events, and too much programming.

One shift is to stop gauging the church’s success on Sunday worship attendance. One pastor wrote, “We need a more unified and thoughtful approach going forward.”

Scarcity brings clarity. What will your church leave behind?

What are Churches Starting and Keeping?

Every church represented in the survey reported a much stronger online worship attendance after March 1, 2020 than their average weekend attendance in February 2020. While some churches just expanded the reach of an existing online campus or streaming service, others have discovered that through online services, they are engaging a larger part of their congregations and attracting people outside of their church (often outside of their state!).

Churches are also engaging in an uptick of personal ministry. Pastors are using text messages, phone calls, personal emails, handwritten notes, and of course, Zoom meetings. The overall tone of ministry has become more informal and more experimental. Restrictions have forced churches to rethink the methods in fulfilling their mission.

This is a time of learning. The church is learning what to do and what not to do. The church is discovering what really matters, what doesn’t seem to matter, and what used to matter. And, of course, the church is waiting. Waiting on the Lord is a good thing.

The church is discovering that it’s much more than a Sunday service in a building. We’ve all said that, but now we’ve lived it. As Alan Hirsch says the church is playing chess without the queen. With the queen of the worship service gone, it’s a chance for the church to see what all of the other chess pieces can do without her. That’s not saying the on-campus worship service shouldn’t come back. But, it is causing everyone to look at what is working during a crisis.

A while back someone said, “Right now everything is a startup.” How is your church a startup? How are you innovating? What have you discovered?

For more information on church online and online small groups, visit onlinegroups.US.

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