Easter services are the biggest of the year in most churches. Everyone who calls your church home, their friends, and plenty of visitors pack the house. You and your staff give it your all. The music, the creative elements, the sermon — everything is planned, prepared, timed, and executed to a tee.
Our buildings are packed with dozens to thousands of people. A good number of those folks met Jesus for the first time. Now, we need to go lay down.
In fact, in our exhaustion, we might even question why we did everything we did. Some have even plunged from delight into despair. If Easter was the peak, then next Sunday will be the valley. In a culture where people attend an average of 1.6 times per month (or less often), we won’t see many of them again for at least six weeks or six months. Should we just throw in the towel?
Okay, what if I told you what you are experiencing is actually normal? You have an Easter hangover. Here’s what to do:
Take Care of Yourself.
After a big event, we all go through what Dr. Archibald Hart refers to as post-adrenaline depression. Dr. Hart said his most dreaded time of the week was the Sunday night at the airport after a successful weekend conference. He questioned himself. He questioned his content. He wanted to jump out of a plane at that point without a parachute (my words, not his). Why?
Once we’ve expended our energy and given it all we’ve got, our bodies and emotions tend to shut us down. We can’t do any more. The body needs to recover, so it will do what it takes to discourage you from taking on any more in the near future. Don’t fight it. Take a nap. Eat. Relax. Go hide somewhere. Your body will thank you. But, if you don’t, your body and emotions will punish you. You’ll question your calling. You’ll type out your resignation. You’ll grouch at your wife and kids. Your dog will resign as your best friend. It can get dark.
Drs. Minirth and Meier in their book, How to Beat Burnout, said we should take care of ourselves in this order: First, physically. If we don’t feel good physically, then we don’t feel good about anything. Second, emotionally. Do something you enjoy. Watch a comedy. Putter around your house. Veg out. Lastly, spiritually. Don’t take on any issue related to your calling, your mission, your effectiveness, and your ministry until you have recovered physically and emotionally.
When Will You See Your Easter Crowd Again?
It really depends on your next step. I just talked to a pastor today, who is launching a series alignment next Sunday. His sermons for the next eight weeks will go along with a small group study. Groups are forming next weekend at a luncheon. He announced the series on Easter and is ready to give everyone a next step so they can grow spiritually in a group.
Easter services can’t just be about Easter services. You have everyone who calls your church home and quite a few others under the same roof at the same time. While those make amazing worship services, it’s an even more amazing launch pad for groups. Just ask Gene Appel who launched 460 groups off of Easter weekend with his Hope Rising curriculum.
Okay, I’m frustrating you. Unless you have a modified DeLorean, Easter 2017 is now in the rearview mirror. What can you do now?
You could choose a small group study that goes along with your next message series or create your own THIS WEEK to launch with the groups next weekend. I might be crazy, right? But, you could write five or six questions to send out with a five minute video for your new groups to discuss. Next Sunday invite your congregation to get together with their friends and a few new friends, then have a get together. Promise them that you will have curriculum in their hands or in their Inbox by the next Sunday.
When it comes to discipleship and small groups, there is a
tension between series, seasons, and semesters. On the one hand, you don’t want
to fight against the community calendar. But, on the other side of things, you
can’t have only 8-12 weeks for discipleship in a year. What’s the balance?
Don’t Fight the Losing Battle of the Calendar
Most people have been conditioned by the academic calendar,
even if they are no longer in school. You’re hard at it from Labor Day to
Thanksgiving, and then from the New Year up to Memorial Day, but between those
holidays there are breaks. People are conditioned to this. There are a few
exceptions, but even communities with year-round school still see an ebb in
attendance and participation in the Summer.
Where I live in South Carolina, everyone goes on vacation
either in the week before or after the Fourth of July. Back in the days of the
textile industry, the mills closed for the weeks on either side of Independence
Day. Now, all of the textile mills are long gone, but the pattern remains.
Your community also has seasonal rhythms like this. But, do
you give up on discipleship during the Summer. Think of alternatives like a
Summer devotional that people can take to the beach or the lake (or on their
phone). Discipleship doesn’t need to stop, but the form might need to adjust
for the Summer months.
Don’t Win the Battle and Lose the War.
I’ve seen churches do semesters or even church-wide
campaigns during the Summer months. As you might expect, participation was a
third or less from either a Fall series or a New Year’s series, but there were
some folks who benefited. The problem was the Summer launch reduced the
momentum for the Fall launch when everyone is back in church and available.
They saw less participation and fewer new leaders than in previous Fall
launches because the Summer study took the steam out of it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I led a group for four years that
met for all 52 weeks of the year for Bible study. It is possible, but is it
practical or necessary? You have to decide for your church.
How Do You Use the Summer?
The effort to make well-rounded disciples requires more than
group meetings and Bible studies. Relationships and group life play a big part
in offering the encouragement and accountability that each member needs to
grow. While there is a place to learn what Jesus commanded, His command to us was
to “teach them to obey what I’ve commanded” (Matthew 28:20). You have to know
the commands to obey them, but you have to obey them to become the kind of
disciple Jesus had in mind.
Summer provides the opportunity to grow by other means.
Groups could serve together. Is there a Summer youth event or camp where they
could help? How about a missions trip? Does a neighbor have a neglected yard? Maybe
the group could pitch in to help? But, it doesn’t need to be all work.
I’ve seen groups go on vacation together, go camping together,
or go exploring on a day trip. One group in our church went on a cruise
together. They met another couple from our town on the cruise, who ended up
being part of their group when they returned.
Groups need to work hard together, but they also need to
play hard together. Often you catch a better glimpse of someone outside of a
meeting. Meetings are important, but group life is equally as important.
Make Summer your ally, not your enemy. Don’t fight the
calendar. But, remember, chances are people will be more faithful to their
group over the Summer than they will to weekend services. Don’t stop your
groups, but maybe make an adjustment.
What will your groups do this Summer? Leave your comments below.
“In the past we put all this effort and energy on trying to
get people to meet in homes, meet in groups in homes, and for the amount of
impact it actually had, oh man, it’s just so much work, and effort, and energy
for so little actual fruit” said Jud Wilhite, pastor of Central Christian
Church, Las Vegas, in a recent episode (245) of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership
Podcast). This statement caused my ears to perk up along with many of yours.
I usually don’t write reactionary posts, but a number of you
have reached out to me and asked what I thought. I’ve wrestled with a response
over the last couple of months since the podcast aired. I have great respect
for both Carey and Jud and have followed both of them for years. In fact,
Carey’s podcast is one of only four podcasts that I don’t miss an episode.
Why Is Central
Well, they aren’t abandoning groups completely, but they are changing focus to have people join serving teams instead of groups. Jud continued,
“We see people that serve, they are more active in their church attendance, they give more faithfully financially, significantly more than people in groups and in general we see that they’re more engaged in the ministry. So the shift for us under this whole idea of join a team is we’re gonna continue to do groups, we’re gonna continue to offer groups ministry but the shift is we’re creating hundreds of weekend serving teams and these teams are where people will get their sense of community. They may meet a little bit early or stay a little bit late as a group and do things as a group but they’re serving primarily as their way of giving back.”
But, this is not the only issue here. ” Here’s another assumption and this I think will be different in different areas but I feel like this is a fairly generous one for the Las Vegas area particularly, the people will give us two to four live attendance opportunities in a month. Two to four live attendance opportunities in a month. So if they go to a small group that’s one,” Jud adds.
Actually if they go to group once per week, then that’s all four live attendance opportunities per month. What I am hearing is that if people go to a group, they aren’t attending on the weekend worship service. But, if people connect through serve teams that are attached to the weekend service, then attendance will increase. But, ultimately, what goals is the church trying to achieve?
Community is significant. And community can be formed through serve teams. I completely agree. Research has shown, however, that small groups influence the group members’ attendance, giving, serving, spiritual growth, and outreach even more strongly. (See The Senior Pastors Guide to Groupsfor the complete research.) So, why isn’t Central Christian Church experiencing these healthy results of groups? Do groups just not work in Las Vegas?
A Church Will Follow
the Senior Pastor’s Lead
Another church in Las Vegas, Canyon Ridge Christian Church,
which is in the same city and in the same Independent Christian Church
movement, boasts 70 percent of their 5,000 adults in groups. What’s the
The senior pastor of Canyon Ridge is a big advocate for groups. The church will follow the senior pastor’s lead. If the senior pastor is primarily concerned with attendance on the weekend, then the focus will shift to ministries that support the weekend. If the senior pastor is primarily concerned with spiritual growth and disciple-making, then the focus shifts to small groups. Senior pastors are concerned with both, but their primary concern will drive the direction and mission of the church, whether it’s evangelism, leadership, disciple-making, growth, or whatever else.
Community is Not
Many churches define discipleship as a course of study or
acquiring a body of knowledge that makes someone a disciple of Jesus. Most
churches deliver discipleship in some sort of uniform pathway that every person
in the church is expected to follow. This would work, except it doesn’t. Both
anecdotally and statistically, it’s clear that people who are very
knowledgeable about the Bible or regularly attend worship services don’t
necessarily reflect what they’ve been taught in their actions and attitudes.
Teaching, by itself, does not produce transformation.
Often groups have been relegated to the purpose of connection or assimilation. While groups will help people to stick around longer, connection is the least of what small groups will do. Jesus did not use groups or serve teams to assimilate the 5,000 He fed with five loaves and two fishes. He invested Himself in the lives of 12 men. These were His disciples.
Disciples are not mass produced. They are crafted. Weekend
services are a great motivator for further action, but weekend services by
themselves do not make disciples. People learn through imitation, not
instruction. By de-emphasizing communities where people grow, churches lose the
ability to help people practically apply great teaching from the weekend
services to their lives. Groups offer the support and accountability necessary
“It Might Not Even Work,”
Jud confesses this in the podcast.
Carey replied, “We haven’t got six months of data on this one.”
This is my biggest beef with this episode. Over 75 percent of this conversation between Jud and Carey was outstanding. In fact, they could have talked all day without going there with groups. I am a huge fan of new ideas. I am a huge fan of innovation. I am not a fan of tossing out unproven ideas. If they had saved these thoughts about groups and serving and talked about it a year from now, I would not be writing this post. Here’s the other thing: I think this new strategy will work at Central to connect people and increase their weekend attendance. But, discipleship loses here.
Going back a few paragraphs, the church
will follow the pastor’s lead. Jud seems passionate about connecting people
through serving teams and increasing attendance to the weekend services. His
people will follow his lead. But, are they making disciples?
I hesitated to write this post because of my respect for Carey Nieuwhof and Jud Wilhite both. (I like them so much that I can type both of their names without checking the spelling.) I know these guys take a lot of hits, and I don’t want to do a thing to discourage them in any way. They are doing important Kingdom work. But, I needed to raise a flag on this one.
When it comes to launching groups in a smaller church, there is a dilemma. There aren’t many great models. Most materials and training about small groups come from pastors of megachurches. Their models don’t work well in smaller churches. What works in a large church typically doesn’t work well in a smaller church, but what works in a small church will work in any church. Over the last 15 years, I have coached churches as large as 40,000 and as small as 40.
The first church I served grew from 300 adults to 85 adults in the first 18 months. We went through a great deal of turbulence related to the departure of our founding pastor. Starting with 85 people, we watched the church reach various milestones. At 250 people, the complaint we heard was “I don’t know everybody any more.” In reality, most people can only keep up with about 150 people. Facebook doesn’t count. The next milestone was when we reached 400 in attendance and went to two services, then we heard, “I can’t find the people I know!” While groups helped us keep people connected, groups also helped in many other ways.
Here are some thoughts on how to launch groups in a smaller church.
Bet on a Winner.
When a smaller church launches any new initiative, there is much more at stake. If a larger church has a failed initiative and loses 100 people, they can recover fairly easily. If that happens in a smaller church, well, you might have just lost everybody. While every church is unique and is open to trying various things, you only want to offer major initiatives that are more of a sure thing. If you bet the farm, you just might lose the farm.
Start with a pilot. Ask a couple of loyal folks to open their homes for a short-term group. The commitment should be 6-8 weeks. Initially, these groups could start by having the newly appointed leaders invite people they know. You want to make the groups easy to prepare for and easy to run, so a video-based curriculum will take much of the pressure off of an unseasoned leader. At the end of the commitment, evaluate how it went. Did the leaders enjoy leading? Did the group members enjoy the group? At this point, give them an opportunity to re-up for another study if they are ready to move forward.
Don’t Break What’s Working.
You shouldn’t stop other things to start groups. If your church has Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other groups, then allow these groups to continue to meet the needs for the people they are working for. You don’t need to have everyone in the same system. One size does not fit all. When you do the math, more than likely, there is a considerable number of people who attend worship or at least call your church their church home, who are not doing anything outside of attending worship services. These are the folks you should invite to join groups.
If your church has a high percentage of people in Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other types of groups, then you may not need to start more groups in your church. That’s okay. If these other opportunities are providing a place for people to care, connect, and grow spiritually, then you’re doing what you should be doing. If there are people who are more marginally associated with your church or people in your community who might join a group, then you can look at groups as an outreach opportunity to bring more people to Christ.
As you are launching groups, you should let the folks in classes and other groups know what you’re up to. It’s okay if they don’t want to join groups, but you don’t want them to be opposed to groups. As someone once said, “People are down on what they’re not up on.” Explain to them how you are launching groups to connect folks who for whatever reason don’t want to join a class or current Bible study group. It’s nothing against what they’re doing. You just want to offer more opportunities for people to learn and grow.
Develop Coaches — Even for a Few Groups
Even if you have a small number of groups, don’t try to manage the groups ministry by yourself. You already wear plenty of hats. You don’t need one more. Find someone in your church who enjoys groups and is spiritually mature to coach and mentor group leaders. They don’t need to have all of the answers. They just need to be available to the leaders and answer their questions when they can. If they don’t have the answer, then they can bring the question to you.
If you care for your leaders, your groups will thrive. If you don’t offer them the care of a coach, then your groups will fail. No one wants to build something only to watch it fail.
Years ago, a pastor of a church of 42 people joined our coaching group. He had two groups. After a few months, we invited all of the pastors from the coaching group to get together. This pastor not only reported doubling his groups (two groups to four groups), but he also brought his volunteer groups director to the event.
Give Permission and Opportunity.
I used to think if you wanted 10 groups in a church, then you needed to have 100 people (10 groups with 10 members). That’s not true. To have 10 groups, you need 10 people to lead those groups. Then, invite those 10 to invite people they know who would enjoy or benefit from a group study. Who’s in their lives? Friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, relatives, and others. Their groups could grow very quickly.
Now, let’s imagine something else. If you have 50 people in your church, you have 50 potential leaders. (Now, I know that some of those people you could never see leading. Let the exceptions be the exceptions. Stick with me here). If 50 people in your church each gathered a circle of 6-8 people in your church or outside of your church, you could very quickly have 300-400 people in groups if the study topic matched a felt-need in your community. (Think about topics like marriage, parenting, stress, purpose, relationships, etc). What would that do for your church?
I’m working with a pastor in the inner city of Baltimore. His church has 600 adults on a Sunday. They launched groups with a series a year ago. Before the launch, they had seven groups in their church. After the launch, they started 167 groups in a church of 600! Years ago an Episcopal church of 260 people in Florida launched 75 groups for 40 Days of Purpose. Groups have great potential to reach your community. And, many of those people started coming to church as a result.
Groups will help your church. People will feel more connected and cared for. They will grow spiritually, and they will reach others. You won’t build the same way a megachurch does and that’s okay.
The temptation to start new groups after Easter is fairly irresistible. Easter is by far the largest Sunday of the year. Why not launch groups from the largest crowd you’ll see all year? You might not see them again until Christmas.
But, there are three group killers after Easter: June, July and August. Why start groups in the Spring only to watch them die out over the Summer? It seems they would have a better chance of survival in the Fall.
I have to admit this is exactly what I used to think about launching groups off of Easter, but I had a change of heart once I discovered ways to sustain 80 percent of those new Spring groups in the Fall. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Groups Need a Next Step.
Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time.
Of course, the other factor here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is.
The first time we launched groups in the Spring, we gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday ofOctober. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise.
When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it.
If your groups were launched with a video-based curriculum, you should offer another video-based curriculum as a next step. This could be your next church-wide campaign or a curriculum about how to be a small group. Over the years, I’ve challenged churches to create their own new group curriculum, but no one has taken me up on it so far. I decided to make this easier for you. I have written a new study called Community: Starting a Healthy Group which comes with the video scripts for you to record your own videos! (Releases March 30, 2019).
Whatever you choose, offer a next step to your groups and most will continue.
2. Very Few People Take the Entire Summer Off.
Only a handful of folks spend the entire summer at the beach. For the rest of us, chances are we will miss more weekend services in the Summer than group meetings. Before the group hits Memorial Day ask everyone to bring their calendars. Then, find six dates during the Summer when the group can meet. You might choose a six session study or you might choose one of the options below.
The six dates probably won’t fit neatly in a row, but that’s okay. Even if the group can only meet once per month, it’s a great way to stay connected to group life, even if you don’t have a formal group meeting.
3. Summer is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group.
You will find more neighbors outdoors during the Summer than any other time of year. With longer days and kids out of school, why not host a neighborhood block party with your group? Roll the barbecue grill out onto your driveway to grill a few hot dogs. Rent an inflatable bounce house for the kids. Bring plenty of lawn chairs. Maybe even have a little music. Invite everybody.
People will wonder by and join in before you know it. This is a great way to meet your neighbors, and maybe even invite them to your group. By putting the party in the front yard rather than the backyard, neighbors will come and see what’s going on.
4. Get Your Group Outside.
Group discussions don’t work so well outside. The neighbors haven’t agreed to confidentiality for what they hear over the backyard fence. Outdoor Bible studies usually don’t work, but there are plenty of other reasons to go outside.
Who does your group know who needs help? Plan a service day and help a neighbor. They don’t need to ask the church office, or even inform the church. They just need to look around and get to work.
Experiencing life together in a different setting will add depth and richness to your group. Once everyone sees the group in action, the dynamic of your meetings and studies will become dramatically different.
Summer shouldn’t be the death of small groups. In fact, June, July and August can breathe new life into both new and existing groups. With a little planning and a lot of flexibility, Summer could become the best time of year for group life.
In a perfect world, the sole focus of your church beyond the weekend service would be groups. You do not live in that world. But, part of the reason you don’t have more groups is because you are not sending a clear message about groups…to your senior pastor.
Your Church Cares About What Your Pastor Cares About
Churches with a passion for evangelism are led by an evangelist. Churches with in-depth teaching are lead by a teacher. Churches with deep care and compassion are led by a pastor. Your pastor’s passions are expressed in the life of the church. The church cares about what your pastor cares about.
In most churches, the weekend service is the biggest thing that the church does in a week. It’s not necessarily the most important thing the church does, but it is the biggest. The weekend service has a lot of moving parts. For pastors who preach every week, it’s like having a term paper due on a weekly basis. There are production meetings and rehearsals. There are theme planning sessions and set design. And, don’t forget to fill the fog machine. The weekend service is a big deal.
But, why does everything have to be about the weekend? If your weekend service wasn’t strong, then the offering wouldn’t be strong, then you wouldn’t have a job, so don’t go there. This doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Your pastor could care about groups, but you need to give your pastor reasons to care about them.
Your Pastor Cares About a Lot of Things
Pastors care about reaching the lost, caring for the flock, making disciples, connecting with the community, raising a budget, wrangling with board members, guiding staff, communicating the message, building buildings, raising up the next generation, and yes, gathering in groups. (If you don’t think so, then, remember who hired you.) Research shows that small groups offer effective solutions to everything your pastor cares about – Outreach, Evangelism, Attendance, Giving, Disciple-making, Leadership Development, Serving – you name it. The Senior Pastor’s Guide to Groups clearly and concisely builds the case for you.
For most pastors, there is a dominant theme that rises to the top: teaching, outreach, evangelism, compassion, service, leadership, care, or something similar. You heard this in point one. Groups will never replace this dominant theme in your pastor’s heart and mind, and that’s okay.
I’ve heard small group pastors/directors complain about not being able to get their senior pastor on board with groups. Here’s the deal – it’s your senior pastor’s boat. You don’t need to worry about getting your pastor on board. So, forget about nagging your way to success. There are ways to raise the value of groups in your church with your pastor’s full participation.
Align Groups with What Your Pastor Cares About
It’s time to get on board your pastor’s boat. What is the main focus of the next sermon series? What is your pastor’s passion? How can groups support where your pastor wants to go?
There is a small group curriculum for practically every sermon series a pastor could think of. If there’s not, then you can create one.
If your pastor is an evangelist, then propose a felt-needs series for members to invite their neighbors. They can share the gospel in a low pressure environment.
If your pastor is a teacher, then give your people more of what they want by creating curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching.
What is your pastor the most passionate about? Linking groups with where your pastor is headed is far more effective than trying to convince your pastor to follow your direction. A church-wide campaign aligned with your pastor’s passion will help you recruit more leaders and launch more groups than you’ve ever had. Your pastor is interested because the teaching goes further. The people are more interested, because you’re giving them more of what they already want.
Cast Vision Through Storytelling
Pastors need fresh stories for their sermons (and, their kids need a break). Start collecting stories from your groups. Ask them what God is doing in their groups. Ask them about challenges that group members have overcome through the support of the group. Ask them about their own reluctance to lead initially and how God has blessed them. These stories can come from surveys, interviews, or conversations. Ask your leaders and group members for stories.
Capture these stories either in print or on video or both. As you build your library of stories, find out where your pastor is headed with the next sermon or series. Some pastors plan a year in advance. Other pastors aren’t sure what they’re preaching this coming Sunday. Either way, your story library will be a huge asset to your pastor. And, since it’s a small group story, the story will cast vision for groups. Every pastor needs stories. Become your pastor’s go-to story source.
No one in your church should care more about small groups than you. That’s why you do what you do. You have to manage your passion for groups or else it can spill over into anger or resentment. Then, passion becomes self-defeating.
If it feels like groups are on the backburner, it’s your job to move groups to the front burner. Think of every possible angle where you can launch groups. Every event should launch groups. Every sermon series could start groups. Every holiday offers an excuse for groups – Mother’s Day for women’s groups, Father’s Day for men’s groups, Valentine’s Day for couples groups, Columbus Day for singles groups (They’re searching!).
God is using your pastor to lead your church. How can you support the direction your pastor is heading with groups? If you can’t figure out how to connect where your pastor is headed with groups, then give me a call. Here’s my cell: Nine-49-235-7428.