This is a complex time filled with believers and non-believers. Some believe that COVID-19 is a deadly pandemic and that every precaution must be taken. Others believe that the Coronavirus is completely made up to control people. There are others who venture out with precautions. There are others who resent precautions. As one pastor said recently, “You just described my whole church.” But, what happens when your groups disagree over whether to meet in-person or online?
Being Right Misses the Point
People have already decided what they believe about COVID, the presidential election, global warming, etc. Positions have been taken. No amount of arguing, tweeting, posting, or unfriending will convince them otherwise. Debate will not make anyone feel better about meeting or not meeting as a group.
As stated earlier, opinions range across an entire spectrum. Some choose to err on the side of caution because of a family member who is elderly or who has a compromised immune system. Others are just over it. Coronavirus has carried on for over eight months. Typically, people don’t stick with anything that long!
This division is not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong. It comes down to the best way to accommodate group members over an issue that is important to them. Coronavirus aside, how can the group love one another and thus prove they are Christ’s disciples?
What Can the Group Agree on?
For the sake of discussion, let’s consider a less emotionally-charged issue. Instead of meeting or not meeting because of COVID, let’s change the debate. Let’s say that part of the group would like to continue meeting on Tuesday night, but another part of the group would like to change to Thursday night. The Tuesday members have their reasons. The Thursday members have their reasons. Would the Tuesday members possibly move to Thursday? Why can’t the Thursday members meet on Tuesday? Is there another night of the week that’s open for everyone?
If the heart of the group is to stay together, they must arrive at some kind of compromise. Alternating group meetings between Tuesdays and Thursdays would be confusing and would effectively split the group. As with any group dilemma, the group needs to revisit their Group Agreement. If the current Group Agreement is no longer working for the group, then they need to do their best to make adjustments in order to continue. If they cannot make adjustments, then the group will probably disband. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What If the Group Can’t Reach Consensus?
The question of a group being split over COVID actually came up in an online leader training I did last week with Grace Point Church in Topeka, Kansas. (Thanks Josh Cooper for inviting me!) One of the leaders was facing this exactly dilemma in her group.
My initial response was to tell the group leader to choose the members she liked and go with them. While that brought a laugh, it wasn’t really a solution. But, I was only half joking.
The first thing leaders must consider is what they are comfortable doing. If the group made an accommodation to a different night or a different format for the sake on an insistent member, I’ve often found that even after the group makes the change, the member doesn’t show up. Leaders should do what they’re comfortable doing. If they like meeting on Tuesday night, then meet on Tuesday night. If leaders would prefer to meet online over the Winter instead of in-person, then meet online and keep those who will meet with you. But, what about those on the other side of the issue?
If your group is divided 60/40, then you have effectively split the group. Those who don’t want to continue based on the group’s decision should form their own group and choose the relative leader in the group. Before the group makes this move, the leader should discuss this with his or her coach or small group pastor. You don’t want to elevate someone without clearing the name with the church first. Once the new leader is approved, then the new group can start.
This could be a temporary solution until the situation changes, and the group can reunite. Or, the group could intentionally start another new group. The new in-person group and the new online group that have formed will have room for new members. People who’ve been watching the online worship service could connect with the online small group. Look at this as an opportunity and not a problem!
Now, notice what I didn’t say. I did not say to send the three or four members who differ from the rest of the group to the small group pastor so they can be assigned to a new group. This is not the small group pastor’s problem, so don’t make it your problem. Let the group work out their differences with the guidance of their coach. Stay out of the matchmaking business.
This is a complicated time. Opinions vary widely. But, as at any other time, group issues should be solved by the group. If they need help, then their coach can guide them. Avoid the temptation to fix this for the group. They can work it out. And, above all else, “stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13).
Some people think that small groups are about the last thing that people need right now. With so much going on in people’s lives and so much turmoil in the world, forming groups for some seems like an uphill battle. But, when you look at the needs in people’s lives, it seems like a time to lean into groups rather than pull away.
Today is Election Day in the U.S. This will be regarded as a historic election in many ways. Chances are no one will know the result of the election at the end of the day or the wee hours of tomorrow morning. There are a lot of absentee ballots to count. If you haven’t voted, then stop reading and go vote!
Tomorrow life will be very similar to what it is today. As over 100 countries of the world have issued mask mandates, many European countries are locking down and implementing tighter restrictions to address the Coronavirus pandemic. For most people this all feels enormous – economic uncertainty, political unrest, racial injustice, and a health crisis. On top of all of this, the things in people’s lives that were already breaking – marriages, finances, jobs, parenting, etc. – are closer to broken than they’ve ever been. I don’t mean to be all doom and gloom, but real or imagined, people are facing a level of anxiety unlike most have experienced in their lifetimes. What can you do?
People Need Connection
What does your screentime look like on your iPhone? You will probably immediately go to “I use it for work.” I know that you do, but let’s face it that handy little device is a friend and a foe. The “friend” part keeps us distracted from what’s going on. (I’ll admit that I’m playing a lot of Boggle with Friends these days). It’s also a foe, because your connected device is disconnecting you. A wise person once said (my wife), “People have more means of connecting than they’ve ever had, yet they are more disconnected than they’ve ever been.” And, that was said before the pandemic.
You’re well aware of Zoom fatigue, but there are many other ways for people to have conversations online. Ideally people will meet in groups on a familiar online platform to discuss the sermon topic from Sunday or something else they are interested in. If they don’t, your people need some way to process what they’re dealing with and talk to another person. Cable news is not a comfort. And, they need more than teaching videos. They need more talking.
You Have an Opportunity
In many ways the world has been turned upside down in 2020. More than a few of you have posted memes about foregoing the time change to avoid an extra hour of 2020. I’m not a fan of the time change anyway. But, what does God intend for the Church in 2020?
If you believe that God is Sovereign, then you have to admit that 2020 was not a surprise to God. The Church has faced much more dire circumstances throughout history, yet the Church has moved forward. This is the time to rethink what your church is doing. This is the time to reach people whose lives have been disrupted. This is the time to reach people who are far from God with a message of hope.
Last week, I gave you the “because of COVID” excuse for making changes. It’s not a bad one. While it’s easy to starting thinking about all of the negative things that happened to your church “because of COVID,” have you thought about the opportunities? The effectiveness in the Church during this season is not the status quo, which one author defines as “the mess we are in.”
But, in 2020, I’m hearing pastors talk about great things that are happening “because of COVID:”
“The size of our groups were limited by COVID restrictions, so every group became two groups.” Who wouldn’t want to double their groups?
“I connected with some old high school friends including one who was far from God to form a multi-state online group.”
“Our groups increased by 211% over last year.”
“Our church formed book clubs by asking any willing person to gather a group of friends.”
What is happening in your church “because of COVID?” Let us know in the Comments below.
Do you have more groups today than you did a year ago? Let’s ask an even scarier question: at this point do you know what groups you have? Since either many churches have not regathered for worship services or a significant number of folks haven’t returned, I’m hearing a lot of pastors who don’t really know who’s still in their churches and who has left. Some have lost contact with their group leaders. Where did they go? It’s a strange year.
You might be tempted to hit pause for this next ministry season. While you hope that 2021 will be better, for some it’s starting to look like a continuation of 2020. You might be waiting for all of this to blow over so you can start fresh next year. But, here’s the bad news – this doesn’t seem to be blowing over any time soon. This is a great time to reevaluate your approach to groups for 2021. Since nothing that’s worked in the past is guaranteed to work in the future, let’s get back to the basics of what you’re doing.
What is the definition of a group in your church?
What is the purpose of groups in your church?
Do you and your senior pastor agree on the purpose of groups in your church?
How quickly do you want to grow groups in your church?
What obstacles are you facing in growing your groups?
What are your people willing to do?
How can your groups help your members and your community through this confusing time?
How are groups actually more important than worship services right now?
This year has produced a significant curve ball. Churches had to scramble to put worship services online. Now that some are regathering for in-person services, not everyone is regathering. The challenge today is hybrid services, hybrid ministries, and hybrid groups. Everything is in-person and online, or it’s in-person and waiting for things to get back to normal.
While no one can accurately predict the future, I’ve had the opportunity to work with 64 churches in 2020. I’ve followed them in their journey to move services and groups online, bring back in-person services and groups, and for some to go back online again already. A few churches have never regathered for in-person services. (A few others never closed. Shhh.) The problem with being a church consultant in 2020 is that all of one’s experience prior to March 15, 2020 essentially became irrelevant. But, the great thing about being a church consultant in 2020 is tracking with churches of different sizes and denominations across North America and working out how to launch groups in 2020. In one of those churches, their groups have grown by 211% this year.
This is not a time for you to step back and take a break from groups. This is the time for you to step up and lean into groups like never before.
Here’s what I know – you are working much too hard for the results you are getting. Knowing what most small group pastors and directors have invested, you should have far more groups and leaders by now. Let’s put our heads together and strategize for the opportunity that 2021 presents.
What are you learning about small groups in 2020? Let me know in the comments.
If you’ve been waiting to start something new, 2020 is a great year to experiment. Some might say that 2020 is an experiment gone wrong, but with life so some completely disrupted, you should embrace this as an opportunity to launch new things or end things that need to go away. Blame it on the pandemic! As difficult as this year has been, the healthy crisis, economic crisis, racial crisis, and political crisis are breaking up some very hard ground in the world, in the church, and in the hearts of individuals. There couldn’t be a better time to innovate. What needs to change in your church? Here are a few things that I’m seeing right now.
In my recent Small Group Network huddle, Bill Cleminson from the Church at the Mill (a.k.a. The Mill) in Moore, SC shared an experiment their senior pastor, Dr. D.J. Horton, launched this fall – they launched egroups. An egroup is five people or fewer who commit to meet together for 13 weeks. The group views a 15-minute teaching video from the pastor, then uses a sermon discussion guide for their meetings. In addition, the egroups journal daily based on a reading plan provided by the church or something else they choose. For accountability, the egroup members are asked to share a picture of their journal with their group with the words blurred out. This increases participation.
The Mill intentionally chose a new name for these groups to avoid confusion with their other small groups and discipleship groups. eGroups are a short-term trial run at groups, but more importantly, they give their members an opportunity to connect and process life together. It’s a great combination of both communication and content. After the first 13 weeks, eGroups may have served their purpose at The Mill, but depending on how 2021 looks, they could certainly serve an extended purpose. As with most churches, planning is in pencil and prayer.
Find Your Loopholes.
Some churches have rather rigid leadership requirements for small groups. While the bar for leadership should be high, the issue comes down to two things: (1) How many years will it take for you to connect people into groups? and (2) Do you really need a “leader” to make disciples?
Recently I talked to a pastor whose church leadership was leery of inviting people they didn’t know into small group leadership. I understand that feeling. That’s how my church got stuck at 30% in groups years ago. I understand that every church has an acceptable level of risk. There is a line they are reluctant to cross for a variety of reasons. I can’t force anyone to cross that line, but I can work to convince them.
I asked this pastor, “What’s too small to be a group in your church?” He said that three people was too small to be a group. Then, I challenged him to form some non-groups of three people. He just needed to ask people to invite two friends to discuss the weekly sermon questions. These non-groups won’t be advertised or acknowledged anywhere, but they will do two things for the church: (1) It will prove to the pastor there isn’t as much to worry about as he once thought, and (2) the non-groups will give people confidence to expand their group and eventually become a recognized group in this church.
Level Up Your Online Services.
Most churches did better with online services before anyone regathered in the building for worship. When the house was empty, pastors looked directly at the camera. Pastors got up close and personal with the online audience. Some even created interactive experiences to field questions during the message. But, then people started coming back into the building, things got weird.
When people are in the room, most pastors want to talk to the people in the room. I do! But, there are more people “out there” than there are “in here.” Yet, you can’t look over people’s heads and only look at the cameras. The churches who understand this are producing separate online services and in-person services to meet both needs. It’s more work, but it’s certainly worthwhile since so many unchurched people are looking in on online services. After all, streaming video is NOT church online.
Put Everything Online.
Some aspects of life have permanently changed amid the pandemic. I don’t know that I’m ever going to pile items into a grocery cart again, when we can order everything online for pickup or delivery. Going to the bank has been replaced by an app. I’m reconsidering whether I still need two cars in my driveway. Online group leader training has gone so well, I’m not sure I need to fly to you to train your leaders (but after the pandemic I might consider it).
In a world where people can do a doctor’s appointment online, they could take your membership class online. They could go through your Growth Track online. You no longer have to limit these to a Sunday afternoon. People can participate anytime over 168 hours per week. Potentially, they could become a member of your church at 2 am!
Practice these phrases with me:
We stopped doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of COVID.
We started doing [Insert Ministry Name] because of the pandemic.
Allen White gave us that idea, but now we realize it’s really stupid. LOL
This is a great year to experiment. Don’t waste your time waiting for things to get back to normal. Normal is gone. To quote Jason Caston, “The church was moving slow because they thought the world would stay the same.” Nothing is the same. Get moving!
Tell me how your church is innovating in 2020 in the comments below.
Believe it or not, it’s harder to get people to show up in online groups than in-person groups. Are you seeing this? We explored the problem in a post a few weeks ago: Why are People Ghosting Online Small Groups? But, what’s the solution?
It’s not as difficult to get people to online small groups as you might think. Those who are successfully connecting people in online groups are using the active recruiting strategies I talk about in this video I created for the recent Success with Groups Online conference.
How are you faring with online small groups? How is your group launch going? If you have found something that works, or if your struggling in this unusual ministry season, please leave your comment below.
Would you regard 2020 as a year of opportunity? It feels more like a year of loss and disruption. How can we see a blessing in something that feels like a curse?
Children have lost close contact with their classmates. Adults have lost the feeling of getting ready to go to work in the morning. Parents have lost their sanity. Believers have lost their ability to gather in-person in some places. People have lost their jobs and lost income. As a society we’ve lost the sense of safety. We’ve lost the carefree ability to do anything we want whenever we want. We’ve also lost the notion that racism is not our problem. People have experienced a great deal of loss. You’ve lost too. Yet, there is something quite hopeful about 2020.
Back in the 80’s I attended a church growth workshop with Dr. Elmer Towns in Kansas City. The main crux of his talk was that people are open to change in periods of transition. When people graduate from high school, college, or grad school, they are open to change. When people get married, have a baby, change careers, or move to a new city, they are open to change. When people go through a divorce, become widowed, or retire, they are open to change. Dr. Towns encouraged us to figure out ways to connect with people during these times of transition and disruption in their lives. Do you see the gift of 2020? Everyone’s lives have been disrupted in some way.
All of this disruption – as painful and scary as it’s been – has made people ripe for the Gospel. Nothing in their lives is working exactly the way it used to work. Everyone has transitioned from the life they were used to, and the fact of the matter is that they will never see that life again. Some say the effects of Coronavirus on health and the economy will have implications for five years or more. People are ready for a change. You have the answer. But, if people weren’t going to church before COVID-19, why would they risk going now?
Finding the Solution in an Accident
On April 11, 1970, three brave astronauts launched into space aboard Apollo 13. Not long into their mission an accident caused damage to the capsule which compromised the ship’s cabin which began to fill with carbon monoxide. The astronauts wouldn’t make it back to earth. Engineers met in a conference room at mission control. In the movie with Tom Hanks, one of the engineers dramatically spills a box of supplies on the conference table and announces, “This is everything the astronauts have in the capsule. We have to figure out how to build the CO2 filter out of this.” They got to work. Using only what was available to the astronauts, the engineers created a CO2 filter. The astronauts arrived back to earth alive.
You as a pastor don’t have all of your normal resources at your disposal. While the church relied heavily on the weekend worship service to do more than it was capable of doing, quarantine quickly revealed that the church had to be more than a weekend service or a building. What do you have to work with? If you took the resources of your members’ lives and dumped them out on a conference table like those engineers from Apollo 13, what do they have at their disposal?
Most have a computer, a smartphone, social media, email, text messages, phones, pen and paper, and maybe a little time on their hands (maybe not). How can your church reach people whose lives have been disrupted and frankly are more than a little scared? (HINT: It’s not what most Christians are doing on Facebook and Twitter right now).
Reaching Your Community Digitally
How can you and your church staff equip your members to spread hope amid all of this disruption? Here are a few thoughts for you to bat around:
Create social media and email invitations to online services.
Offer Instagram and Pinterest posts with encouraging Bible verses or quotes from the sermon.
Write sermon discussion questions so anyone can invite their Facebook friends into a Facebook group.
Put your membership process or Growth Track online.
Offer online on-demand training to equip people to serve.
Encourage your members to find a need and fill it.
Encourage members to offer their experience from online school or homeschooling to parents who are new at it.
Offer support groups online – Celebrate Recovery, DivorceCare, GriefShare. Substance abuse and pornography use are at an all-time high.
Offer online budgeting classes, marriage seminars, parenting courses, and stress management workshops to invite the community.
Ask your members to record a short version of their testimony. Share these in your church’s social media and website.
Create interactive online experiences – Bible studies that are a discussion rather than a lecture. Use Facebook Live and respond to the comments and questions.
Don’t waste the opportunity of 2020. Don’t sit around waiting for things to get back to normal. Normal is gone. Normal isn’t coming back. Embrace the disruption of 2020. The field is plowed. It’s time to plant.
Click here for a replay of webinar on digital ministry with Phil Cooke. Phil is a PhD in Theology, a filmmaker, author, and media producer. His skill set is unique, and he has much to share with the church on getting the message of the Gospel out and maximizing your influence.
Tell me what your church is using to connect with lost people. Please share your comments below.