Numbers are important. You want to know if you are succeeding, failing, or holding steady. These hard metrics can be encouraging or even exciting. They can also be motivating. If your small groups are lagging in some way, then you can kick it into high gear, recruit more leaders, and get more groups started. Everybody likes numbers that climb up and to the right. But, when numbers start falling, you might feel all of your efforts don’t count. The good news is that numbers are only part of the equation.
Hard Metrics aren’t the Only Factor
Numbers are hard metrics: names on rosters, number of groups, meetings attended, verses memorized. Hard numbers don’t paint the entire picture. You also need to look at soft metrics: stories being told, how God is working through groups, lives being changed, problems overcome, next steps achieved, and so on.
In a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast, Bill Willits reflected on this ministry season at North Point, “We’ve been averaging 35-40 percent of what we would typically connect in our short-term and long-term groups. I think that’s [because of] Covid. It’s been a challenging, challenging season.” Bill continued, “[Weekend] attendance is running between 40-50 percent compared to pre-Covid at North Point. We are looking at about a third of the typically connections we would see in a fall season.” Clearly, those are disappointing results for North Point and for your church as well.
In this challenging season like in every church, the North Point team has to navigate the emotions surrounding the ministry. Bill adds, “One of the biggest things is just reminding our team, ‘Let’s make sure that the people taking the step are finding a great experience. Let’s make sure that we are helping to onboard new groups, new group leaders and their members well.’ We are putting in a lot of touch points in the first 90 days of a new group just to make sure…that this experience in really unique times is still a good one. It’s taking a lot more effort.” Are you feeling that in your fall launch right now?
“For a staff going into a connection season when you’re used to having a [high] level of engagement, it can be a major bummer to have a [much lower] level of engagement. We keep reminding staff that in this unique time, we are dialing down the euphoria about numbers and let’s dial up stories about people who are having meaningful group experiences.”
Things You Might Have Overlooked
When your numbers are strong, things are usually moving pretty fast. You probably don’t slow down to look at what’s happening with your coaches, your leaders, and your groups because too much is happening. But, when things aren’t moving fast enough, you can follow one of two approaches: frustration or evaluation.
If you expect things to work the way they always have, you will live in a lot of frustration. The world has changed. The culture has changed. New approaches are necessary in a new culture. Longing for the good old days of 2019 isn’t going to propel you forward. In fact, it will discourage you to the point of giving up. You and I both know pastors who have left the ministry in the last 18 months. When things aren’t happening fast enough for you, it’s time to slow down.
If you choose evaluation, then you ask yourself if what you’re doing is still effectively fulfilling the Great Commission. Be willing to strip away all of the plans and programs down to their core. What should you keep? What should you end? What new thing should you try? What does this make possible?
Another big question is: What is your current system producing? Are you seeing leaders developed? Are you seeing people become more like Christ? Do you see an increase in selflessness and a decrease in selfishness?
What you’ve been doing is not wrong. But, it’s not working at the level it once did. Riding this season out is not the answer. It’s time to take the thing apart – strip it down all of the way, evaluate each piece, and decide what to invest in.
Think About This
Counting your groups and leaders is important. After all, you count your money, why wouldn’t you count your people? People are far more important than money. Counting is important, but it’s not all important. The metrics that matter the most are difficult to measure. How are you creating environments where disciple-making can take place? How are you multiplying yourself? Are people coming to Christ? How are people becoming more like Christ? Who has surprised you by stepping forward to lead a group for the first time? What is God doing in your groups?
Be encouraged. You matter. Your work matters. God is using you. There’s much to do. There’s much to celebrate.
The church could not be more divided over the correct approach to in-person gatherings during Covid Church the Sequel. Should people meet in-person? Should people only meet online? Should masks be worn even by vaccinated people? Should people be vaccinated? Is the whole thing made up? You don’t have to talk to too many people before you hear any or all of the above.
How are you supposed to connect people who feel more comfortable disconnecting again? How are you supposed to form groups with people who haven’t returned to in-person worship? How are you supposed to create groups knowing that differences over Covid might cause more argument than agreement? Maybe this isn’t your problem to solve.
People are Connecting
In a recent edition of Wired magazine, Jennifer Berney wrote about her preteen son’s experience during the pandemic. “Over the past year, many parents like me have watched their children withdraw, become sullen and angry, and develop difficulty sleeping and eating. Getting West (her son) to shower and eat became an intense negotiation. Little seemed to cheer him, and yet I heard a clear lift in his voice when he played Minecraft while talking over Discord with his friends. He often carried his laptop downstairs and gabbed into his headset while finally eating the sandwich I’d offered him hours before.”*
People are created for community. It’s like we can’t be kept apart. There is a natural tendency to form community, even when it’s difficult or when circumstances dictate against it.
Now, most of you reading this post are not forming groups for preteens, but here’s the point: your people are finding community. Whether they are connecting in-person or online, they are connecting. The other night I looked out the window to see my wife Facetiming on the porch, or so I thought. When I looked again, I saw only her picture on the phone. I thought, “Is she Facetiming herself? This isn’t good. I need to be more available…” What I discovered was that she wasn’t Facetiming to herself. She was sending a video reply to her childhood friend in California over the Marco Polo app. People are connecting. So in those places where they are connecting, how can you help them grow spiritually together?
Get Out of the Connecting Business
In the first sentence of Exponential Groups: Releasing Your Church’s Potential, I wrote, “Everybody is already in a group.” Most people are in multiple groups – friends, families, co-workers, neighbors, Facebook, group chats, Slack, and the list goes on. People are created for community. The people in your church already connect with other believers on a regular basis. Rather than wearing yourself out trying to get them to de-group in order to re-group, leverage their existing relationships to start groups. Stop working so hard at creating unnatural connections that won’t last.
I spent a lot of years trying to place people into groups. They would fill out a sign up card or inquire from the website. After all, I was their pastor. I’m supposed to help them, right? But, here’s what I discovered – most people who inquired this way weren’t serious about joining a new group. Maybe they were emotionally motivated by a sermon, so they signed up. But, they didn’t show up. The people who I helped the most tended to show up the least. There is a better use of your time.
Where Do Your People Find Community?
The Wired author continues, “Minecraft exists outside of Covid. Villagers don’t have to stay 6 feet apart or wear masks, and players can avoid death simply by shifting to Creative mode.”* While I have four Minecraft players in my family, I’m not sure you could create a small group meeting within Minecraft or on Twitch. But, the thought of a meeting place apart from Covid sounds pretty good. Relationships are formed on these platforms. Where there is relationship, there is potential for small groups. But, you don’t have to become an expert in this.
Years ago I had a leader who started a small group on a commuter train. Every Tuesday morning on the commute from Stockton, California to San Jose, Jennifer led a Bible study. Eventually, her group filled up an entire section of the train. I never cast vision for “Commuter Train Small Groups.” I never read a book on it or attended a seminar. I had never thought of it. Jennifer came up with the idea. She just needed permission and opportunity to start the group. The same is true of any person in your church connecting with other people in any space – digital or analog. How can they start a group in that community?
Think About This
You can’t provide community for people — just like you can’t provide sanctification for them. But, you can create an environment in your church to promote community (and sanctification). You can provide guidance and guardrails. You can supply an easy-to-use curriculum and a coach to guide them. You can offer a trial run at doing a study with their friends. You can lead a horse to water…
What opportunities do your people have to start groups with their connections?
*”Missing Peace” by Jennifer Berney. Wired. Volume 29, No 7. p. 22-23.
Just as we thought everything was going back to normal, we’ve discovered that normal is not so normal. COVID seems to be returning. While I’m not an epidemiologist and don’t want to weigh in on the politics of the pandemic, COVID is yet again making a real impact on life and ministry. From empty Olympic stands to empty seats in our churches to an increase in mask wearing, uncertainty appears to be our biggest obstacle. But, not for small groups.
In-Person Worship Services are Not Essential
A big learning from 2020 is that the church can thrive amid adversarial conditions. Most churches have not returned to their pre-COVID in-person attendance numbers, and that’s okay. Some churches have yet to reopen for in-person worship. As I mentioned in a recent video, while in-person attendance is down, giving is steady across North America, and salvations and baptisms are up! Churches are doing a better job of fulfilling the Great Commission at a worse time (and that’s not so bad).
Since many people are unnerved by the Delta variant (and the emerging Gamma variant), you see more people wearing masks in public. Vacation hot spots like Orlando and Branson, Missouri have become Delta variant hot spots. One church I’m coaching in Orlando has re-closed for in-person worship due to the number of new COVID cases in their church. What does this mean for you?
Online worship services are here to stay (I hope you already knew that). Churches who are doing online services well are recording a separate online service with the pastor speaking direct-to-camera rather than merely streaming the in-person service. Streaming video is not church online. Streaming services create a passive experience for the viewer. By offering an optimized online service, you have a better chance of engaging your audience. But, don’t just give them a service. Offer next steps like your growth track, membership class, Church 101, or whatever you call it. Encourage them to give, to participate in the level they are comfortable, and to start a small group. While this is a different way to do ministry, remember sermons don’t make disciples anyway.
Community is Essential
Your church can survive without in-person worship services. It already has. But, community is essential. The problem with small groups in this variant environment is your people’s varying discomfort in the pandemic. Do they only want to meet with vaccinated people? Do they want the group to wear masks? Do they want the group to meet outside? Do they want the group to meet online? Do they believe the whole thing is made up? Fortunately, this is not your problem to solve.
It was already difficult when you were trying to place people in groups based on their preference of day, time, location, study, affinity, childcare, language, or other variable. Now COVID has upped the ante. Here’s the good news: None of this is your problem to solve. Give your people permission and opportunity to gather their people in whatever way they feel the most comfortable. They can meet with anyone, anytime, and any place – in-person or online. If you will stop trying to figure that out for them, they will figure it out!
If people don’t get invited to join a group, then create an environment for people to meet face-to-face or at least face-to-screen. Don’t resort to sign up cards or online sign ups. These are a lot of work and don’t net many results. Offer prospective members an opportunity to meet group leaders and then sign up for the group they want to try. Sign up cards and online forms set people up on blind dates. At least by meeting the leader ahead of time, you’ve moved from blind dating to speed dating!
Think About This
Like you, I had hoped COVID would be completely behind us by now. The good news is that the fall small group boom has not been cancelled. People crave community. Small groups are more important than ever. Rather than putting all of your energy into getting people back to in-person worship services, double up on getting people into groups. After all, people in groups will attend more, give more, serve more, invite more, and reach more than people who aren’t in groups (To learn more about the research on groups, listen to this episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast with Dr. Warren Bird).
In this video, Allen outlines three trends he’s hearing from pastors across North America:
Salvations and Baptisms.
Personal Note: While I believe the global pandemic caused an abundant disruption to help churches realign their priorities, COVID also caused a great deal of heartache, grief, and loss. I lost my mother and another dear friend last year. Neither died from COVID, but my loss was and is profound. If you’ve lost someone or have dealt with tumultous circumstances, I can empathize. In highlighting what the cultural change has made possible for the Church, I would be remiss if I did not acknowlege the pain and devastation it has caused for many.
And, gives a few thoughts on making the biggest Kingdom Impact this fall.
Connecting the congregation into groups is a big challenge. I love this question from one of the members of the Small Group Reset Facebook Group (It’s free. Join here!) Today, it’s an even bigger challenge because you also need to connect your online congregation into groups.
Why Do They Like the Worship Gatherings?
Let’s start by what people like about your worship gatherings. (Hint: It’s not the fog machine.) If people are not connected to each other, the reason they attend your worship gatherings is because of the senior pastor. They laugh at the jokes. They like your pastor’s teaching style. They enjoy your pastor’s personality. They are there because of your senior pastor. (Caution: Don’t mention this to your worship team. It will break their hearts).
To get your people interested in small groups, give them more of what they already like: your senior pastor’s teaching. Put your pastor’s teaching on video-based curriculum. Get your pastor to shoot 5-10 minute teaching segments for the groups to watch before they launch into the study. This takes the pressure off of the people starting groups. They don’t need to be the teacher. (And, you don’t want them teaching in the group anyway). People who start or join groups get exclusive content from your senior pastor. That’s a big win. But, how do you get your senior pastor to do it?
Well, this is just a guess, but I imagine if you tell your senior pastor that your congregation and your small groups want more of the pastor’s teaching, your pastor will find that pretty irresistible. With video-based curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, not only will your people be more interested in small groups, but your pastor will be more interested in small groups. That’s a huge win!
Where is your senior pastor headed with a series this fall? Chances are your pastor has preached on some version of this topic before? Dust up a few sermons from the files. Create 5-10 minute scripts from the sermons. Ask your pastor to commit two hours and six clean shirts, and you’ve got your video-based curriculum. Now just write a downloadable discussion guide or create a study guide for your congregation to purchase. (If this sounds like too much work, I can either coach you to do it, or do it for you).
What are Your People Interested in?
Since you are reading this post, chances are you’re a little “small groups on the brain” like me. You know all of the reasons why your people SHOULD be in groups. Yet, are your reasons the same as their reasons?
What do your people need? How do they believe a small group could help them grow spiritually? What kind of small group might they consider? What conditions would need to be in place in order for them to join?
I’m not giving you any answers on this one. But, now that I’ve given you some questions, go and ask your people what they might consider or what they are looking for. Listen to their objections. Listen to what would work for them. Then, offer them what they’re interested in. Remember: one size does not fit all.
How do you get this information? Send out a survey. Conduct a focus group (without calling it that). Talk to people who you think should have started a group by now, but haven’t. What’s going on with them? Once you’ve heard from your people, then create a new offering or multiple offerings for starting and joining groups. You don’t need to think through every possible contingency. As Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You just need to give your people permission and opportunity to start a group on their terms.
Let’s Connect the Dots
How do you get people who enjoy your worship gatherings to take interest in groups? By creating curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, both your pastor and your people will be more interested in groups. Then, by offering permission and opportunity to your people to start a group on their terms – how they meet, where they meet, who they meet with, and so on, you can get your people to take interest in small groups.
But, this is not without guardrails. You are determining what the group will study. It’s also wise to give a new leader an experienced leader to walk alongside them. You need enough of a structure to support your small group expansion without overwhelming the growth of your small group ministry. With the right system in place, you can start, sustain, and strengthen more groups in your church.
Mark Richardson is the Life Pastor at San Diego Rock Church, where he has served for 15 years. Rock Church has over 500 small groups and saw their groups increase by 211% in 2020. Prior to the Rock Church, Mark served as a board member and executive director at the Jireh Ministries Foundation and was an intern with the Christian Embassy to the United Nations. He holds a MA in Pastoral Studies from Azusa Pacific and an MBA from Point Loma.
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.