You work hard in your small group ministry. It’s great to know how well you’re doing, right? So, what is a healthy number of groups in a church? This question comes from a member of the Small Group Reset Facebook Group (Join us. It’s free!)
I’ve commonly heard that churches with 30 percent of their adult worship attendance in small groups are in the top one half of one percent of all churches in the U.S. If that’s you, then congratulations. You’re in the top of your class!
The problem here is being exceptional in an unexceptional group. It’s kind of like back when I was in junior high: I was the least dorky of the dorks. Yet I was still a dork. (Sorry to poke at that wound). But, what this stat says to me is that out of over 300,000 churches in the U.S. who are woefully lacking in making disciples, if you have 30 percent in groups, then you are at the top of the heap. Or, as I said when our daughter started attending the best rated school in our state: “She’s at the top of the bottom.” Congratulations!
Bear in mind that small groups are only one tool to make disciples. Jesus never said to “go and make small groups.” Your mission is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). But, some of the things churches do to attempt to make disciples don’t work. For instance, sermons don’t make disciples. When it comes to making disciples, I’m still depending on small groups.
The Problem with 30 Percent in Groups
This is the easiest percent to get. It’s the low hanging fruit. You have your Innovators, Early Adopters, and even some of your Early Majority (according to Everett Rogers in The Diffusion of Innovations). That’s a solid start. It’s also an easy place to get stuck.
After seven years of personally recruiting leaders and starting groups, my church in California got stuck at 30 percent in groups. Group leaders weren’t developing apprentices. Groups were unwilling to “multiply” or “birth.” We might as well have called it a “small group divorce.” At least that’s what it felt like. After much frustration, I did several things: (1) We added a new model for groups. Notice “added” and not “replaced.” (2) I joined a coaching group to support me. In our next group launch, we doubled our groups in a day.
What About the Other 70 Percent?
If you’re content to rest on your laurels with 30 percent in groups (which I know you’re not), what about the other 70 percent who aren’t in groups? Are they exempt from the Great Commission? Or put frankly, how many of your people are you willing to allow to continue to live in disobedience to the Great Commission? I don’t know about you, but the more people in my church who are living obediently, the better off everybody is!
When you think about this other 70 percent (or whatever number that is in your church), why did they reject the small groups you were offering them? What could you offer them that they might say “Yes” to? You know why you want them in a group. Why would they want to be in a group?
The problem here is that even the top ½ of 1% are doing a poor job at making disciples. This is the Church’s one job! The Church has been at it for 2,000 years. Why haven’t we figured this out?
Is This the Right Target?
Most churches are made up of far more people than are represented in the weekend service. According to a study by The Provisum Group, 80 percent of your people attend 33 times per year, while the other 20 percent attend 2.4 times per year. When you do the math, you’ve probably got about five times as many people who attend your church compared to the average weekly attendance. The task of connecting your congregation and making disciples just got a whole lot bigger. (For more on the true size of your church, go here).
When you add your online congregation to all of this, the numbers will get really crazy. Your church’s experience throughout the pandemic has radically changed how you do ministry forever. How are you discipling your online congregation? How are you forming online groups?
You are working hard. You are doing a good job. But, this is no time to rest on your laurels.
Many churches go about ministry like a cruise ship. What do you do on a cruise? You do nothing. Everything is done for you. Your church is not a cruise ship. Your church is a battleship. It’s all hands on deck! Don’t worry about the number of people you have in groups. Instead focus on two areas: (1) How are you multiplying yourself? and (2) How many people can you get to start groups? Imagine if you had 30 percent LEADING groups.
Have you thought about joining my 12 month Small Group Ministry Coaching Group. When my groups were stuck, I joined a coaching group. Not only can a coaching group help you get unstuck, it will offer you great relationships with like-minded small group point people to share the journey. For more information, click here. A new group is forming now!
People often choose a word for the year. The word sets an overall theme or a goal to pursue. The word for small groups in 2021 is flexible.
Starting in March 2020, people divested themselves of most involvement. From church attendance to a gym membership to children’s sports and grocery shopping in a store. Don’t believe me? Look at the number of churches struggling to find children’s ministry workers in order to offer more in-person services. Your people gave everything up. Now, they will be pickier about what they will bring back.
Not only are they pickier about what to spend their time on, they are also pickier about who they spend their time with. Given all of the information and misinformation about the global pandemic, your people are ready to get back together with the people they know and love. They’re not looking to connect with a group of strangers. Why forsake their friends to spend more time with a group of people they don’t know and possibly won’t like?
Other people started attending your church online. They are ready to take next steps and maybe join a group to grow spiritually and make church friends. A consistent theme that I’m hearing from pastors across the country is this: In-person attendance is down. Giving is steady. Salvations and baptisms are way up. How are you going to disciple your online congregation? (Here’s what’s still working with online small groups).
And, speaking of the global pandemic, there is still a lot of confusion. Who’s been vaccinated? Do you need to wear a mask? Is it okay to go back out? This spring in our small group launch at Mount Hope Church, Lansing, Michigan, we launched 88% more new groups, but found that people wanted to launch a group in the way they were comfortable. Regarding the pandemic this meant online only groups, invitation only groups with people the host already knew, groups wearing masks, groups meeting outside, and groups that were over it. Did we plan out all of those categories? Absolutely not. People created a group with who they wanted to meet with, where they wanted to meet, and how they wanted to meet. All we had to do was give them permission and opportunity. The group hosts did the rest.
Your people will be gone this summer, if they haven’t gone already. Don’t plan on a big small group semester this summer. Let them go. They’ll be back. I predicted this back in March 2021.
The other thing I see coming is the fall small group boom. People have been kept apart for a long time. People are ready to take spiritual next steps. But, people are pickier, so you must be flexible in what you offer and how you offer it.
This doesn’t mean that you need to wreck your current small group system. That would be stupid. Here’s why. But, you do need to add some options for how your people can start new groups that are more flexible. Maybe you don’t even call them “groups.” Maybe you delay some of the requirements. If you’re not open to those ideas, then start groups of three people. Invite people to start with “you plus two.” For most churches that’s too small to be a small group, so you can dodge the leader requirements for a season.
The more flexible your approach to groups, the more people you will have living in obedience to the Great Commission. The more people you have living in obedience, well, the better your church is!
How can you be more flexible in your next group launch?
Are you prepared for the Post-Pandemic Small Group Boom that I wrote about last week? It’s coming. You may not get a moment like this again. Your people have been kept apart for a long time. They are ready to get into groups, even if they’ve never been in groups before. Use the spring to make a plan for an exponential group launch this fall. Use the summer to execute your plan.
Choose a Relevant Felt-Need Topic.
What is the greatest need in your community? Locate or create a study that addresses that need. Here are a few topics to get you started: relationships, marriage, parenting, stress, purpose, serving others, or something similar.
This is not the time for a series on fasting, tithing, or another mature topic. Those are important, but not to connect the most people possible this fall. You’ve had a lot of new people join you in worship services both in-person and online over the last year. What kind of a study would appeal to their friends? (For more on creating curriculum).
Reconsider Your Definition of a Small Group.
What is an “official” small group in your church? Once you define an official small group, then you can experiment with “unofficial” groups.
One pastor was struggling with recruiting enough leaders to meet the demand for groups in his church, yet he had very high qualifications for leaders which not everyone could meet. I asked him, “What number of people is too small to be a small group in your church?” His answer: Three people. So, he invited his people to join with two others (You plus two) and do the sermon discussion guide together. Once they get going, then he’ll invite them to fulfill the requirements.
How could you offer your people a small group test drive this fall? Could you call these groups by a different name? Key thought: Don’t advertise these groups. Don’t send anyone to these groups. Allow them to gather their friends. (But, give them a coach!)
Consider Delaying Some Requirements Temporarily.
Many people don’t consider themselves to be any kind of a leader. Yet, most people have the ability to gather a group of friends. This is leadership. As John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.”
But, to get there, you must decide: what are the minimum requirements for someone to “lead” a group in your church? Breathing or willing? A confession of faith? Church membership? Small group leadership training? A Coach? An interview? The more requirements you pile on, the fewer potential leaders you will have. As my friend Randal Alquist says, “You’re not recruiting elders here.”
Start Building Your Coaching Structure.
If you choose to launch groups “wide open” this fall, then you need help ASAP. The key to multiplying small groups is multiplying yourself. Which of your experienced group leaders could help you coach new leaders? If you’re not going to be picky about who leads a new group, then you need to be picky about who coaches them.
When you look at your current group leaders, what groups would you like 10 more just like? Ask those leaders to help coach new leaders. What groups do you NOT want 10 more of? Quarantine that group (sorry).
There is a lot of debate about coaching small group leaders. Some churches have the luxury of hiring enough staff to coach all of the leaders. If that’s you, go for it. But, that’s not where most churches are. There is also a struggle with giving up control (I was there), disconnecting from group leaders, and sharing leadership with others. Let me ask you this: if you had four times as many group leaders as you have right now, how would you support them? The answer is not “more meetings.”
The fall of 2021 will be unlike any other season you’ve experienced in small group ministry. You need to be ready. But, let me give you a hint: the strategy for fall 2021 is not pulling out the same tired small group strategies that have connect less than 30% of your members into groups. It’s time to add a new strategy. It’s time to do something different. You may not get another moment like this again. Make the most of it.
How are you preparing for the PPSGB? Leave me a comment below.
A year ago everything stopped. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. Almost no one had experienced a pandemic of this degree except a few centenarians who were babies in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza. The whole world came to an abrupt halt. Originally, a few weeks of quarantine were given in exchange for normalcy resuming quickly. Then, it stretched to Easter and beyond.
COVID separated the church. The church did not “close,” because the church is a body of believers — not a building, not a service, not an institution. The church couldn’t gather for in-person meetings: worship, small groups, or anything else, but the church never closed.
Many small groups went to Zoom or other online platforms — synchronous or asynchronous. While many groups tolerated meeting online, some have discovered the opportunity of online groups to connect to others who are far from them and far from God. But, Zoom fatigue set in quickly. Online groups are just not the same as in-person groups. And, we found our way around that issue too by making online groups completely different and calling them by another name.
But, right now you are in an unprecedented moment – Small Groups are about to boom!
People have been separated and in their houses for a long time. Of course, restrictions and attitudes vary across North America. While some churches still haven’t regathered for groups or worship, I know of one church that never stopped their in-person services. I’m not judging right or wrong. I’m just saying “different” restrictions and attitudes. While this is also my first global pandemic, this is where I see things going in 2021 with small groups:
People Will Warm Up to In-Person Gatherings Gradually
While Coronavius numbers are declining, they haven’t disappeared. In most places the rate of infection is still higher than it was a year ago. While vaccine shots in arms are accelerating quickly, there is still some uncertainty, reluctance, or resistance to vaccines. Lastly, people have spent 12 months immersed in the stress and fear of a global pandemic. It will take them a while to turn things around. But, there are hopeful signs.
When the President of the United States announced in his speech on March 10, 2021 “…if we do this together, by July the 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day. That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together…But to get there we can’t let our guard down. This fight is far from over” (Source) Politics aside, words from the leader of the free world are powerful. These words will do much to help people overcome their fear. The President of the United States is advocating for small groups.
In the meantime, what do you do? Do you just write off the spring semester? I don’t think so. This is the time to experiment. What are your people open to? How are they willing to participate in small groups? Pilot something. Gather groups of vaccinated folks. Be patient with those who are unsure. Try a new approach to online groups. If you’re not sure what your people might be open to, our church-wide assessment can help you find the right direction to go.
People Will Be Gone All Summer
Once people are confident to get out, they will be completely gone. They will be on vacation and will enjoy weekends away. Don’t be disappointed if the return to in-person worship is slow. It’s slow for every church right now.
Summer isn’t a great time to launch small groups anyway. You could try more social gatherings or service projects, but even then, your people will be gone for the most part. That doesn’t mean to avoid trying something. It just means not to expect dramatic numbers over the summer.
I’m not suggesting that you raise the white flag for summer, but your people taking a much needed break will create an even bigger fall launch. Use your summer to prepare for fall. Recruit coaches for new group leaders. Create your own video-based curriculum.
Small Groups Will Boom in the Fall
Your people have been apart for a long time. Their need for community is higher than ever. By fall, they will be ready for in-person small groups at a level you’ve probably never experienced. Barring a fourth wave of the virus, vaccine-resistant variants, or continued restrictions, people will be ready in reconnect in small groups like never before.
Are you ready? How will you make the most of this opportunity? This is not the time for business as usual. This is not the time to roll out the same tired small group strategies you’ve used year after year that produce the same mediocre result. What are people willing to say “yes” to this fall?
We’ve had a year, haven’t we? I hope we never have another year like this past one again. But, the pain of the last 12 months is producing an unprecedented opportunity. Are you ready to make the most of that opportunity?
When you think about all of the work that goes into a small group launch, you certainly want to choose the best season to launch groups. You certainly don’t want to do all of that work and get a poor result. After working with over 1,500 churches over nearly 20 years, three seasons have stood out as the most effective times to launch groups. While there is some variation for different geographic regions and for individual churches, these are the best practices for most churches.
The Best Time to Launch Groups
The fall launch is the biggest by far. Since many church calendars are influenced by the traditional public school calendar, the fall is when everything starts up again. But, keep in mind that not only do you need the most strategic time to launch groups, you also need to consider the best time to recruit leaders and connect people into groups.
Ask yourself, “When are most people back in church?” For some churches this is after Labor Day. For other churches this may be earlier. Once people are back, allow at least three weeks to recruit leaders and connect people into groups. Summer is not a great time to recruit leaders. You really need to recruit once the fall season is rolling.
Launch your series with the intention of the study ending by Thanksgiving in the U.S. (If you’re in Canada, launch your series after Thanksgiving, but end well before Christmas). Most groups will not meet in December for regular group meetings, but they could have a Christmas party or serve together.
The Second Best Time to Launch Groups
The new year is the second strongest time to launch small groups. Again, it’s a time of beginnings and New Year’s resolutions. But, there is a problem with launching in the new year.
Most pastors want to do a “State of the Church” sermon in early January to cast vision for the coming year (Remember, 20/20 vision?), then they want to launch right into a series. The issue is when do you recruit leaders and when do you connect people into groups? Many have tried and failed to do this during the Christmas season. People simply don’t think about the new year until they are in the new year.
The best way to launch groups in the new year is to use the month of January to recruit new leaders and connect people into groups, then run the study between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. Some groups will even start with a Super Bowl party so everyone can get to know each other, then start the study the following week.
The Third Season to Launch Groups
Number three on our list is after Easter. Launching a series after Easter serves several purposes – you can connect your Easter crowd and get them to come back the following week. Usually if a small group study is connected with the sermon, people will attend more regularly, including the Sunday after Easter. See below for other articles about launch groups during the pandemic.
The drawback of the Easter launch is June, July, and August. Typically, groups don’t meet during the summer. Summer is a great time to focus on group life and not as much on group meetings. Remember, your people have been conditioned by the public school calendar. But, why would you start new groups just to watch them get lost in the summer? There are some ways to make this work.
Other Times to Launch Groups
Think of every opportunity when you can possibly launch groups. Launch women’s groups on Mother’s Day. Launch men’s groups on Father’s Day. Launch couples groups on Valentine’s Day. Launch singles groups on Columbus Day (Singles are searching…)
Don’t feel obligated to offer a group every week of the year. It’s awkward to join a group in the middle of a study or a semester. People wait for open enrollment for many other things. They can also wait to join a group. Now, to speak out of the other side of my mouth…
As a pastor you hate to turn anyone down when they need something. (I feel that). This is where your Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other on-campus groups can play a role. People can join at any point, then when the next small group launch rolls around, they can join a group. If you don’t have any of these meetings, then keep a short list of small groups who do a great job of including new members.
You will notice and ebb and flow of group launches in this article. You push hard for groups in the fall, then back off during Christmas. You push hard again in January, then again after Easter, then back off in the summer. This pattern helps to build a stronger fall launch and a less complicated new year’s launch.
But, some of your people are hard core group meeting folks. That’s okay. The last men’s group I led met 52 weeks of the year at lunch every Wednesday. When it comes to the group meetings and group life balance, let groups decide what’s right for themselves.
Ministry is more decentralized than ever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, many of the things you typically count on to monitor the health and activity of small groups aren’t functioning at their optimal level. How can you know what’s going on with your groups when your “dashboard” has short circuited?
Don’t Just Hope It Works.
If you launched a lot of new online groups in the last year or moved your established groups online, then your reporting system is probably not functioning quite as well as you’d like. But, if you are depending on a report to know what’s going on in your groups, you’re already in the weeds.
In-person leader meetings aren’t happening and online leader training is poorly attended. While it’s great to see everyone’s face, meetings are okay at dispensing information, but you still don’t know what’s going on in your groups.
Some have basically given up. They are hoping that one way or another, groups will survive the pandemic and come out okay. The truth is what you don’t know will hurt you.
Where Do Online Groups Need Help?
Your group leaders are facing issues they’ve never faced before. The stress of the global pandemic, social isolation, economic uncertainty, and political chaos has taken a toll. Overall mental health is precarious. Your group leaders may or may not be equipped to handle what they’re facing.
The sheer numbers of issues coming up among your people are too much for you to manage alone. You need a level of leadership between you and your leaders. This doesn’t mean becoming aloof to your leaders’ needs. It means that you have very quickly become stretched too thin. It’s time to bring in the reinforcements! Which of your established leaders could help you carry the load and care for your group leaders?
What’s the Next Step for Your Online Groups?
Where are you leading your online groups? Are they just a stop-gap until the pandemic ends? There is more potential in your temporary, online groups that you realize.
If people have stepped forward to lead a short-term online group with their friends, they have essentially self-identified as a potential group leader. If they are leading an egroup, book group, or something else that you’ve come up with, then give them the next step into small group leadership. But, don’t make the step too big. (If you haven’t launched short-term online groups, then start promoting now and launch “egroups” for the 30 days prior to Easter, which is the Lenten season.)
As I talk to pastors every day, churches and small groups are faced with very different restrictions and regulations depending on their region of the country. Even if churches and groups aren’t limited in meeting, some of your members may be avoiding physical contact out of an abundance of caution. People need connection and conversation. Use this season to experiment. Tell them you’re only doing this “because of COVID.” For every group that is divided over meeting in-person or online, start two groups. Then, give them a next step.
Give the group a study or a sermon discussion guide to use after Easter. Most short-term groups disband because they aren’t invited to continue. (That isn’t rocket science, but it sure took a long time for some of us to figure out.)
The link to successfully getting new groups launched and to help them continue is a coach who will encourage and instruct the leaders as they need help. You can’t host the meetings you used to. You can’t personally check in on dozens or hundreds of new leaders. You can’t write off these short-term groups and hope things get back to normal.
You have an amazing opportunity to grow your small group ministry in ways you’ve only dreamed of. Many of the other ministries in your church which might have competed for the same leaders and group members have been postponed or shut down. Nothing has cleared the deck of church activities like COVID. This is your opportunity. Assess your established leaders to recruit coaches. Ask your senior pastor to promote “egroups.” Then, buckle up!