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.
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?