In the last two years, you’ve experienced about a decade’s worth of cultural change. Organizations that were breaking quickly broke. Some startups and skunk works quickly accelerated. Just to give you an example. You probably thought the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 appeared rather quickly. Now with the promotion of non-binary designations and transgenderism, gay marriage seemed simple. Western culture has become very complicated to say the least.
You might have jumped onto the darlings of the pandemic like Peloton, Netflix, and Zoom. But, now that much of Coronavirus has subsided, these online platforms are losing value. Has everyone forsaken digital? Considering that the average adult touches their smartphone 2,600 times per day, I don’t think so.
This is the tip of the iceburg of complex cultural change. Add in inflation, a pending recession, war, and a heavy dose of politics and you have a recipe for much stress and apprehension. Easter wasn’t what you expected. That’s okay. You are not your numbers. Church ministry isn’t working the way that it used to work. But, some things are working. How do you discern what to invest your life and ministry in at this point? Here are some things to consider in navigating cultural changes in ministry.
First, Look at God‘s Word
The Bible has stood the test of time and has been applied in every culture for the last 2000 years. Whether the church was under Roman oppression, living in the Dark Ages, or embracing the Enlightenment, the Bible clearly explains the church’s mission.
I know that you know and understand God’s Word. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in ministry, right? But, stick with me. This next part is a little more like Vince Lombardi saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Consider the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:20). The Great Commission is the same: Go and make disciples…baptizing them…teaching them to obey…” (Matthew 28:19-20). You only have one job: Go and make disciples. Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself hold true just as Jesus gave in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). That’s the summary of the commands we are called to obey. And what about the Great Compassion (Matthew 25:45)? How are you serving the “least of these?” You may think of some other things as part of your mission, but these are the big ones.
If you created three buckets labeled: Great Commission, Great Commandment, and Great Compassion and assigned the various activities of your church to a bucket, where would those activities fit? What wouldn’t fit? What would you need to add?
In planning ministry for a changing culture, start with the church’s mission as articulated by Jesus Himself. The methods have changed, but the message is consistent.
Next, Look at Best Practices
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with over 1,500 churches across North America in the areas of small groups and disciple-making. While the last two years were vastly different than the previous 16 years, practices in small groups and disciple-making are working very well. What is struggling right now are worship attendance and other centralized events, voluntary serving especially in children’s ministry, and bringing new people through the traditional front door of the church.
Digital ministry is a new frontier, but it’s not the answer for everybody. Don’t write it off. There is much to be explored. The church needs to enlist digital missionaries to this growing culture. Online small groups are the pits compared to in-person small groups, but if your only option is online, then it’s a great option.
Which ministries and methods are still relevant post-pandemic? Which worked better in a pre-Covid, attractional context? Which worked better in a locked down pandemic context? Which will survive going forward? Pay attention to what is bearing fruit in your church and ministry and make the most of that.
Third, Talk to Your Current Regular Attenders
What are they open to? What have they left behind? What are their needs? After all, at this point, you must lead the church you have rather than leading the church you lost. Don’t assume that everyone who has stuck around is still waiting for things to go back to 2019 ministry as usual. Their lives have radically changed as well.
Talk to them about what they are open to. Don’t assume that this group is unwilling to change. They have stuck with you through a very difficult period. They are committed to the church. They want to see the church succeed. Some pastors are wringing their hands afraid to change anything out of fear over losing more people. If you’re people have stuck with you in the last two years, they are with you. Move forward!
What are the Needs of Those who You Want to Reach?
What’s going on in their lives? What are their greatest concerns or fears? What can you offer them that is relevant to them? How can you connect with them? Where are they finding community?
It’s not a new principle, but find a need and fill it. How is your church uniquely equipped to meet the needs of your community? What are you willing to try?How can you reshape your current ministry based on what you’ve discovered?
What methods continue to be valid? What methods are you partial to? You must admit your own bias here. The thing that you love to do may not be the thing that’s the most needed. Or the thing that you love to do may be relevant in new ways.
Think about this
While there is a certain amount of evangelism that happened over the last 30 years, a good part of church growth was merely transfer growth from other churches. Your church might’ve been good at attracting consumers, but was not great at making disciples. Now that ministry has decentralized in a lot of ways, what is your best tact?
The impact of the attractional model was waning prior to COVID. I know that’s tough for some to hear, since so much of their churches were built on the attractional model. But, the acceleration of the attractional model’s decline happened during COVID. Why would people rather stay at home? What’s the benefit of in-person attendance other than making the preacher feel good? I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to meeting in-person, but can you name them for your church? Community comes to mind. So does incarnation.
If you are unwilling to adjust your methods to fulfill your mission in a very different culture, then you owe an apology to the pastors of traditional churches who resisted the methods you adopted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. You are the traditional pastor now.
Change is intimidating. When you change, you experience loss. Reaching new people and meeting needs going forward is very exciting, but leaving behind the familiar is hard. Giving up what you’ve perfected or at least what you’ve worked hard at is difficult. Familiar routines are comfortable. Right now, you either have to learn something new, watch your church decline, get a new job, or retire. But, your calling hasn’t changed. What will that look like in the years ahead? Stay tuned. The best is yet to come!
What new thing (or old thing) is working well in your church right now? Answer in the comments below.
Pastor, you are not your numbers. Your worth and your value come from who you are in Christ. You are called. You are chosen. You are valued and loved. Your numbers are your numbers. Sometimes they will be up. Sometimes they will be down. Your worth isn’t based on the appearance of success. Easter is coming, but is everybody coming back? Probably not. And, that’s okay, because you are not your numbers.
This great question comes from Ashley Calabro, Small Group Director at 5 Points Church, Easley, South Carolina. And, this is THE question for small group point people, isn’t it? If you don’t have a leader, well, you don’t have a group. Here are some “creative” ways to recruit leaders:
Look at Your Current Group Members
Often your best new leaders are already in a group. Who is the group important to? Who’s always there? You could start by making these dedicated group members co-leaders. When the group grow to be over eight members, then the co-leader could lead a portion of the group when it sub-groups for the discussion. (If you didn’t catch it there, if your group is more than eight people, it is too large for everyone to get a word in. Sub-group and give everybody a chance to talk).
Now, a word of caution here: North American churches have a hard time to get groups to divide. I know that you’re supposed to say “multiply.” But, in this part of the world, “birthing” a new group might as well be called getting a “small group divorce.” You’re breaking up the family! Don’t lead with this thought. Develop co-leaders. Raise up apprentices. But, don’t go strong with the “birthing” thing. Now, there are a few other things to consider.
Train the Whole Group to Lead
Just like you would pass around a signup sheet to have different members bring refreshments, ask them to sign up to lead the discussion. Here’s how this DOESN’T work: “Would anyone like to?” After seeking the Lord, most of the group members will feel that God wants them to remain comfortable and not lead. (I’m only joking, but it’s basically that response.) What DOES work is: “Today is the first and only day that I’m going to lead the discussion. Everyone needs to take a turn. Please sign up.” They will! Once they’ve had the experience of leading, they will gain confidence and lead more. Maybe they’ll eventually lead your group or their own group.
Let the Group Get Themselves into Trouble
Since North American groups don’t like to divide, just let them become too big. You see if you are pressuring your groups to divide, then YOU are the only one feeling the pain. But, when the group gets too big, then they will start feeling the pain: first the leader, and then the members.
Great groups love to invite and include people. Let them keep inviting. Monitor the group as it grows. Ask their coach to check-in with them (Do you have coaches?). Ask them how they are managing the group growth. Are they sub-grouping? (This is the first step to starting another group). Let the group continue to grow until it’s unmanageable. When they come to you (notice the sequence), then ask them what they are going to do. Let them raise the issue to the group. Just don’t give them a bigger room at the church!
Look at Your Church Membership Role
What committed members of your church are not in a group or are not leading another ministry? Ask them to lead. Ask the ones you think would be great group leaders. “Have you ever thought about leading a small group? I think you would be great at that.” (But, only say this if you truly believe it.)
For the members who might seem out of your relational reach, enlist your senior pastor to invite them. If you don’t have credibility with some folks, then borrow from your pastor’s credibility! One way or another, invite them!
Offer a Trial Run to Avowed Non-Leaders
Some folks don’t believe they are any kind of leader and don’t have a desire to ever lead a group. You know that. You’ve asked them. But, many of them would make great leaders, if you could just get them to try leading a group. Offer them a short-term opportunity (about 6 weeks). Give them an easy-to-use resource. (Either purchase a relevant, felt-needs curriculum or create your own). Then, ask them to invite people they already know. These groups could be open to new members (if you know the leader well), or they could be what I call “invitation only.” Only the people they invite will attend. (This is great for introverts!) Midway through the six weeks, debrief with them and see if they’re open to doing another study.
Think About This
There are really only two parts of small group ministry: recruiting leaders and supporting leaders. If you’re heavily investing in much more than that, this is why your groups aren’t growing. (Read that sentence again). Link recruiting new leaders to where your senior pastor is headed. Ask your senior pastor to invite people to lead. (I have not personally recruited a new leader since 2004! And, I’ve served three churches since then!)
What other ways are working to recruit leaders in your church?
If you have a burning question about your small group ministry, just Ask Allen (click here)
Heather Zempel serves as the Discipleship Pastor and Ministries Director at National Community Church in Washington, DC. With a background in biological engineering and experience as a policy advisor in the United States Senate, she brings a unique perspective to ministry, leadership, and discipleship. Heather is the author of several books including the most recent, Amazed and Confused and Big Change, Small Groups. She loves football, BBQ, and having adventures with her husband Ryan and fun-loving daughter Sawyer Elizabeth.
These are controversial times. You probably don’t have to think too hard about controversial issues that could pop up in small groups. In fact, some of the issues probably already have. What’s the best way to handle them? Should you just avoid controversy in groups? Is there a way for groups to navigate controversy in a positive or meaningful way?
When you consider the conversations between Jesus’ disciples, they had their fair share of controversy. From James and John’s mother asking about seating her sons of Jesus’ right and left in Heaven (Matthew 20:20-22) to Jesus calling one of his group members “Satan” (Matthew 16) to a group member betraying Jesus, which lead to his death (Matthew 26). The controversies in your small groups probably don’t seem so big. But, that doesn’t keep them from being troublesome. Here are some ways to handle controversy in small groups.
Nip It in the Bud
In the words of the great theologian Barnie Fife, “Just nip it. Nip it in the bud!” When group members start in on topics that have nothing to do with the group lesson and threaten the harmony in the group, the leader can simply stop the conversation. Remind the group that its purpose is to apply God’s Word, the Bible, to their lives in a practical way, and that the controversial topic is not part of the discussion. Once the controversy is diverted, then the group can return to the Bible study.
Revisit Your Group Agreement
What is the purpose of the group? Hopefully your groups have a group agreement. If you’d like to form a group agreement, the process is a free download from my study, Community: Six Weeks to a Healthy Group. The group agreement helps to define and manage expectations in small groups. Every group member has a say in what the group values and what the group is going to be about. Barring the purpose of the group being to air controversial issues, by simply reminding the group members of the agreed upon purpose of the group, the group can move forward and avoid the controversy. But, avoidance isn’t always the best method.
Hear Them Out
If a particular issue has a group stirred up, it might be good to give everyone a fair hearing. The meeting should be structured so that everyone gets to have their say without judgment or condemnation. The leader could set a time limit for each “side” to convey their point of view. This would be a good opportunity to invite the group’s coach to join the group meeting as an impartial observer. The group could even invite an expert on the topic to come and share his or her perspective on the subject.
You should limit this discussion to one meeting. Everyone can have their say. They may agree to disagree. Once this discussion has happened, then the group moves forward.
The most important thing is that each group member feels valued and heard. For any issue that is not immoral or illegal, the group members should be gracious to each other and their points of view. Any attitude that will force the choice between who’s right and who’s wrong will cause the group to either end or divide and will possibly make enemies of friends. There is no point in allowing things to go that far. It’s important for group members to understand those they disagree with. After all, every believer at one point was regarded as “God’s enemy” (James 4:4). Considering God’s patience with each believer, this would be a good exercise in patience with each other.
Think About This
If groups are ever going to do more than just scratch the surface, then controversy or disagreements will come up from time to time. If controversy never surfaces in a group, then you would need to wonder how shallow the group really is.
Of course, these thoughts are not license to stir up every possible issue. This is also not reason to turn group meetings into a circus. But, if an issue is important to a group member, then it’s important to discover the reason why. Sometimes the group’s “curriculum” doesn’t come from the pages of a book. It comes from life.
The last two years have brought a decade’s worth of change to the culture and to the church. If unchurched people were reluctant to visit your church before, why would they come now and risk getting sick, right? Clearly, the new front door of the church is the online worship service. The side door of your church is (and has been) small groups. Think about how you can connect with more unchurched people online and through your groups.
What do People in Your Community Need?
What are their biggest needs? Many people are struggling with worry and anxiety. In fact, the head of curriculum at Zondervan recently told me that their top selling Bible studies are all about worry and anxiety. Could you launch a small group study about worry and anxiety? Here are some options. But, there are many other needs.
Many people struggle in their relationships, their marriages, or their parenting. This is a great opportunity to offer an online webinar on these topics that leads to on-going small groups. Don’t skip that on-going part. That’s where the real benefit happens.
What are the physical needs of your neighbors? Whether people are neighbors to the church or neighbors of your small groups, what do they need? Do they need financial help? Do they need childcare? How can your groups meet these needs?
If you aren’t sure about the needs in your community, ask them. Send a postcard or email asking them to take a survey in exchange for a Chick-fil-A gift card or similar. If you’re tough, then go knock on some doors. Ask your small group leaders about what their neighbors and co-workers are concerned about. Identify the real needs, and then do something about it.
What Does Your Church Do Best?
What are the collective gifts and abilities of your church members and your small groups? How could your members and groups meet the needs of your community? Even if your church doesn’t have an abundance of finances to share, how could your people serve? With worship attendance down, you don’t have the needs for guest services like you did before. How can you mobilize this time and talent to serve in your community? What non-profit organizations need help?
If you want to attract young families to your church, offer a Kids Night Out. Your church provides free childcare during the evening, so parents can go out on a date, and the church has an opportunity to minister to children. These family connections could lead to something bigger.
A while back I talked to a pastor in rural Indiana. The biggest issue in his community was opiod addiction. His church was small with mostly elderly members, but his church offered what they had to people struggling with addiction. They gave warm meals, relationship, and love. It’s just what the addicts needed.
What is your church gifted to do? Do it.
What are You Willing to Try?
The first thing is to evaluate all of the current ministries and roles in your church. What is bearing fruit? Keep that. What is struggling, but could get going with a little effort? Give it the effort. What is on life support? It’s probably time for that to go. You have limited time, energy, and resources. You have to invest in what’s bearing the most fruit for your church.
Pilot something. Try something new “because of COVID.” Experiment with varieties of online groups. Dip your toe into the waters of digital discipleship. Get the church outside of the four walls of your building and show your community what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. Show them that you are people who love and accept no matter what. Show them genuine, loving people who don’t have a political agenda or an allegiance apart from Jesus. Your loving Savior is still very attractive to unchurched people.
Think About This
I am the first to admit that the church and ministry have been completely discombobulated. This isn’t the governments’ doing. This isn’t the pandemics’ doing. This is God’s doing. Why has God chosen to so confuse things that your church needs to realign its priorities and do things differently?
Back in the 90’s we approached ministry like the Field of Dreams: If we build it, they will come. When COVID hit, they left. You have to move forward. You have to lead the church you have and not the church you lost. It’s painful. It’s sorrowful. You have a loss to mourn. But, you have an opportunity to reach lost and hurting people in unprecedented ways. 2019 isn’t coming back. How will you reach the unchurched in 2022?
How is your church connecting with unchurched people? Let me know in the comments.