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!
If you’re like most pastors, your small groups are tired of Zoom meetings. If people are working remotely, they are in a series of Zoom meetings all day long. As Nona Jones said, “The problem is that even though the meetings are different the experience is the same.” Zoom Fatigue is real.
Your people are tired of looking at their screens and looking at themselves all day long. But, if they won’t meet with their groups online when they are unable or unwilling to meet in-person, then how do you create community? How do you fulfill your mission of making disciples?
Do Something Different
Zoom meetings cannot effectively replicate an in-person experience. Your small groups are just not the same online as they are in-person. In-person meetings are far superior to online meetings just like your in-person worship service is much better than the streaming service (but the streaming service could be better). So, stop trying to create the same meeting experience for a group on Zoom. It’s not the same. It doesn’t work. People don’t like it…says the guy who wrote Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future this year!
Change it up. Do something different. Call it something different. Think about offering a short-term group if that’s a different experience for your groups.
This is a different year. Online groups are a different experience. Try something different!
Groups are More Than Meetings
Groups offer the experience of life-on-life, not life-on-curriculum. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t command you to “go and hold small group meetings.” (And, before you say it, I am well aware of Hebrews 10:25. Stay with me here).
Your mission is to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). What do you need to make a disciple? Let’s take this as granular as we can. You need a disciple to make a disciple. I would even venture to say that more discipleship happens outside of meetings than in meetings anyway. Feel free to debate me on that, but keep in mind that my definition of discipleship is not merely book learnin’. It’s teaching people to obey what Jesus commanded.
The best examples of life-on-life are the One Anothers of the Bible. How can you “encourage one another daily” when you don’t see each other every day or even very often? If you’re like most adults, you are never more than five feet away from your phone. Mine is sitting next to my computer as I’m typing this. I have to confess that my screen time has significantly increased in 2020. The same is true for most people. So, since your people are already on their phones quite a bit, why not use their phones to encourage each other? Send a quick text. Make a quick call. Say something positive on social media.
The same can go for the other One Anothers:
• “Love one another” (John 13:34; John 15:12). • “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10). • “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). • “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16). • “Stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13). • “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). • “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32). • “Build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). • “Encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). • “Pray for each other” (James 5:16). • There are 59 total!
And, here’s the thing: even when all of your people are attending in-person worship services and meeting with their groups in-person, they still can’t practice these One Anothers often enough. Encourage them to use their digital devices and message, pick up the phone and call, and even send a handwritten note in the mail. What if this could become the normal practice of all believers?
Zoom is NOT the Only Way to Meet Online
If Zoom Fatigue is a big issue, there are other ways to meet when you can’t meet in-person. Your people meet in other types of online groups that aren’t fatiguing them. Don’t think so?
Groups could meet on a conference call line. Services like freeconferencecall.com offer the phone number (which is usually long distance, but that’s not really an issue today).
Groups could meet asynchronously. Your people use asynchronous groups all of the time – a group text, Slack, private Facebook groups, Marco Polo, Parler (or not), and even “Reply to All” on email is an asynchronous group. The leader would post the questions one post at a time, then the group would respond probably over a week. This is how I did my CompuServe group in 1994!
My children connect with their friends often over video games like Fortnite. In fact, one article (that I can’t locate right now…) said that people who connect socially while playing video games are doing better in the pandemic than most people. I’m not sure how you’d pull off a traditional small group study, but you can connect! If you have discovered how to do this well, let me know!
Some of this may seem off-the –wall, but 2020 has been an off-the-wall sort of year. This is the year to experiment “because of COVID.” Whatever you want to start doing or even stop doing, do it “because of COVID.”
Some People Really Need an Online Small Group Right Now
You have people who are isolated and alone. You have people watch your online worship service and are ready to take a next step. You have people who’ve watched too much cable news and are freaking out. You have people who need to connect. Offer Zoom groups to the people who need them. It won’t be 100% of your people, but there are people who would love to join one. Move with the movers.
Small groups meet many different purposes. They provide community and connection. They offer teaching and training. They promote conversation and practical application of God’s Word, the Bible. They offer opportunities to serve and to reach others. They provide an environment for encouragement and accountability. But, just like the weekend worship service is not your church’s entire ministry, a small group meeting is not the entire ministry of the group.
When groups can’t meet in-person and won’t meet online, focus on connection. How are your people connecting? How are your leaders connecting with their members? How are you and your coaches connecting with your leaders?
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).