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[Podcast] Episode 1: Dr. Warren Bird on How Small Groups Help Churches Grow from the 2020 Megachurch Report

Dr. Warren Bird on How Small Groups Help Churches Grow from the 2020 Megachurch Report Exponential Groups Podcast with Allen White

Dr. Warren Bird is one of the foremost experts on megachurches and is the author of 33 books. In the 2020 Megachurch Report, small groups were at the forefront of the church's growth, service, and giving. Warren explains the implications of these findings in this episode.
  1. Dr. Warren Bird on How Small Groups Help Churches Grow from the 2020 Megachurch Report
  2. Pre-Episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast

Show Notes for Episode 1: Dr. Warren Bird on the Small Group Findings in the 2020 Megachurch Report

Warren Bird is the vice president of research and equipping at the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Just prior to his work at ECFA, Warren served for 13 years at Leadership Network. He is the author or co-author of 33 books including Hero Maker with Dave Ferguson, How to Break Church Growth Barriers with Carl George, Next: Pastoral Succession that Works with William Vanderbloemen and Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work with Jim Tomberlin. Warren is widely recognized as one of the nation’s experts on megachurches. As @lensweet tweeted, “No one knows more about megachurches than @warrenbird.”

Megachurch 2020: The Changing Reality in America’s Largest Churches

ECFA Church Resources

Additional Research on the Benefits of Small Groups in Churches:

Transformational Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger

Sharing the Journey by Robert Wuthnow

Featured Resource:

How to Beat Burnout

How to Beat Burnout

Burnout appears in many different ways. It encompasses everything from physical exhaustion to deep cynicism to escape into sin. Now, you may be asking yourself why I’m addressing burnout on a blog about small groups and discipleship. Some of you are burning yourselves out, and it’s completely unnecessary. Here are some ways to beat burnout:

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Start with Your Physical Health

Focus on your physical wellbeing before you focus on the emotional or spiritual part. This may seem counterintuitive. In fact some may attempt to pray away burnout as an attack of the enemy or ask for supernatural strength. God could do that, but consider how God dealt with Elijah after the showdown at Mount Carmel. Elijah slept and ate and slept and ate and repeated (1 Kings 19).

If you don’t feel good physically, you don’t feel good about anything. Your temper is shorter. Your work is twice as hard. Maybe your brain is in a fog. Now, I’m not going to give you a list of 40 things you need to do every morning to succeed, because to me just the notion of 40 more things to do dooms me to failure. In your own way, factor in these things:

Sleep. Get adequate rest. Most adults require 8-9 hours of sleep per night. I know that Elon Musk only needs 4 hours of sleep, but you aren’t Elon Musk. Put your electronics to bed an hour before your bedtime. Turn off the TV. Maybe read. Then sleep. Try to wake up without an alarm clock.

Eat. Everybody knows what’s healthy and not healthy to eat. If you need a guide, follow The Daniel Plan by Rick Warren, Dr. Daniel Amen, and Dr. Mark Hyman. Don’t do extreme diets. Eat your vegetables. Drink water. Lay off the bad stuff. As Dr. Daniel Amen says, your brain consumes 30% of all of the calories you take in. What you eat affects how you think!

Exercise. Do something physical every day. Combine exercise with something else you like to do. I walk 150 minutes per week. When I’m walking alone, I talk to God. When I’m walking with my wife, I invest in our marriage. Don’t put this off. Don’t buy a gym membership. Don’t buy a new outfit. Don’t put a new Peloton on your credit card. Open the front door of your house and take the first step. Find an exercise video on Youtube. Do something to move every day.

Get a Check Up. Don’t skip your annual physical. If you have a concern about your body, talk to your doctor. Don’t Google it. While a physical ailment can set you back, worrying that you have a health problem also adds to your stress.

Then Move to Your Emotional Health

After you’re getting adequate sleep, exercise, and nutrition, then move to your emotional health. Improving your emotional health doesn’t require a trip to the counselor’s office, but it could. Choose a couple of things from this list to focus on:

  • Have you laughed several times today?
  • How do you talk to yourself? Is it positive?
  • What amount of time this week did you spend living in the present?
  • How are you relaxing and recreating?
  • What is your level of cynicism? Cynicism is often repressed anger, which comes from fear.
  • What are you over-doing? Over-eating, over-screentiming, over-anything.
  • Have you forgiven the last three people who offended you?
  • How much is envy affecting you? Most people are depressed after using social media.
  • Who have you talked to about your feelings?
  • How can you delegate strategically? Find someone to share the load. Empower your people.

Finally, Focus on Your Spiritual Wellbeing

When people sense burnout, they immediately want to reduce their stress, which is good. But, in many ways stress is caused by your perspective. Perspective is based on spiritual things.

Listen to God. Listen. Don’t talk. I use an app called the One Minute Pause created by John Eldredge. It’s a great guide for silent prayer. I also use a couple of resources by Pete Scazzero: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day and Emotionally Healthy Relationships Day by Day. I also alternate using YouVersion reading plans.

Make Your Requests of God. Philippians 4:6-7 is my power verse for beating burnout. (It might be my life verse).

Honor the Sabbath. God worked for six days in creation, then rested. You are not better than God. For pastors and church staff, Sunday is not your Sabbath. Designate a day to rest from your work. Spend time with your family and friends. Relax. If you can’t manage a full day, start with half of a Sabbath.

Manage Your Expectations. I would never accuse a pastor of laziness. That’s why I’m writing an article on burnout. While you want to fully give yourself to the cause of Christ, Jesus will build His church. While you might consider your effort as diligence and faithfulness, you have to be careful that it’s not really co-dependency. Do you need to be needed? If you do, then you have to ask yourself: “Who is this about?”

Make a Joyful Noise. Sing praise to God. You can sing in worship services. You can sing with Youtube videos. I keep an old hymnal handy. Singing praise will lift your mood and your perspective.

Repent. Confess your sin to God and turn from it. Don’t try to justify or excuse it. Get rid of it. “Confess your sins to one another that you might be healed” (James 5:16). If you could stop on your own, you would have stopped. Break the power of sin in your life, which is the secret. Tell somebody. Call somebody. Confess to an Uber driver. Break it today.

Practice the Presence of God. Remind yourself that God is always with you. Thank Him for every little thing you can be thankful for as you go through your day. Stop and ask for wisdom when you need it. God is with you.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve heard people say, “I would rather burnout than rust out.” I don’t think either ending is good. I believe God intends for you to wear out gradually.

Start with your physical wellbeing: Sleep, eating, and exercise. Start today. Don’t make a big plan. Just get going.

Related Articles:

How to Beat Small Group Burnout

What’s Still Working with Online Small Groups

What’s Still Working with Online Small Groups

Let’s face it — people are tired of social distancing, staying home, Zoom meetings, and church online. While some choose to gather in-person, COVID numbers tend to dictate against meeting together. Whether your people are being kept apart by mandate, by fear, or by caution, the mission remains the same – the church is called to go and make disciples.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Last year when the pandemic began, people were eager to try online small groups. But, in many churches when it came time to regathering groups online in Fall 2020, many groups chose to not meet and just wait it out, while others continued to meet online. But, let’s face it: online meetings just aren’t like in-person small group meetings.

Now you’re facing Online Groups Round 3 in January 2021. The reception to online groups (again) has met with a mixed reaction. Let’s talk about what’s not working, and then examine the bright spots that are working.

What is NOT Working with Online Groups:

  1. Connecting with Strangers Online.

Even in the advent of online dating apps, people are less likely to join an online small group of strangers than to meet with them at their house. This seems counterintuitive to me. It seems like it would be easier to just open your laptop and join the group instead of driving across town, but it’s harder to get people to online groups.

2. Too Many Zoom Meetings.

If people are working from home, they are pulled into more online meetings than normal. While they may look at a computer all day and a TV all evening anyway, there is something about Zoom meetings that takes a toll. Maybe it’s the lack of chemistry. Maybe it’s the self-consciousness of looking at yourself all day. As Nona Jones says, “Zoom meetings are just the same thing over and over.” Or, maybe Zoom Fatigue is just the replacement for “I don’t have time for a small group.”

3. Trying to Replicate In-person Meetings Online.

This is definitely not working. You can’t have the same experience in a Zoom group that you have when the group meets in-person. It just doesn’t happen. There are no side conversations. There’s no body language or nuance. There are no brownies. It’s not the same!

4. Recruiting New Leaders for Online Groups.

Recruiting new leaders is tough anyway, but recruiting new leaders for groups for online groups is a whole other level of hard. Things have moved beyond “push play and pour a cup of coffee.” On top of that people’s lives have been turned upside down with any semblance of “normal” in the very distant future. Taking responsibility for a group feels like about the last thing they need right now.

5. Divisions Between Groups: Online and In-person.

If you haven’t noticed there is a strong difference of opinion between people in the U.S. these days. That rift carries down the middle of small groups. While some groups are ready to forget COVID and just get back together, others are erring on the side of caution and waiting for conditions to improve. Even when groups do meet in-person, there’s still a divide between the maskites and anti-maskites.

These are the struggles I’m hearing from the small group pastors and directors I talk to every day. (If you would like a free coaching call, click here). People are sick of taking precautions. People are tired of staying apart. But, people are unsure about returning to normal as much as they would love to.

What is Working Right Now

In all of this disruption, I have uncovered some bright spots with online small groups. Here are some things that are working.

  1. Established Groups are Working It Out.

Groups are revisiting their group agreements and deciding what will work for everybody. If they are truly coming to an impasse, then groups are choosing to spin off part of the group into a new group. If groups can’t agree to meet 100% in-person or 100% online, they are dividing into separate groups: one in-person and one online. For some of these groups, this is a temporary fix until conditions change. For others, this is a permanent decision. When else have you heard groups volunteering to do that?

2. Offering Care and Conversation Digitally.

Churches have done an amazing job pushing out digital content. People are practically drowning in content. (Pastors, write a book already!) But, in addition to content people need care and conversation. They are getting a ton of information from all sides. They really need a place to talk about it. They need a chance to unpack the sermon. This could be a group. This could be a text exchange. People are on their smartphones for an alarming number of hours every day. Why not use that time and technology to encourage one another daily?

3. Short-term Groups with Different Formats.

As mentioned before, online groups are not the same as in-person groups, so make them intentionally different. Call them by a different name, so people know these aren’t your typical small groups or life groups. Designate a specific period of time for groups to meet, for instance between Super Bowl Sunday and Easter or between Easter and Memorial Day. These new groups are not intended to go on forever. Change the format. Shorten the meeting times. Use different online platforms – there’s more to online groups than Zoom.

4. Gathering Groups of Friends.

If your people are reluctant to join a stranger’s Zoom group, then encourage them to start their own with people they already know. Gathering groups of friends has long been a principle of the Exponential Groups strategy. After all, “Everybody is already in a small group” (Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential, Hendrickson 2017, page 1).

5. Groups Championed by the Senior Pastor.

Your people will follow where your senior pastor leads. Things have changed for senior pastors in the last year. Prior to COVID, the common metrics for success were nickels and noses. There aren’t nearly as many of those nowadays. How does a church measure its effectiveness? The big word right now is engagement, but what does that mean?

Pastors can quickly get into the vanity metrics of one second views and ten second views of online services. Churches with a pre-COVID attendance of 100 now are online gigachurches with 10,000 views. Let’s keep it real.

Engagement means connection. What do you offer your online congregation? What next steps are in place? I spent many Sundays in 2020 watching Saddleback Church’s service. (We were members there once). At the end of every service, Pastor Rick Warren talked about the same three things: (1) starting a relationship with Jesus, (2) joining a small group, and (3) giving. Week after week during 30+ weeks of the book of James, every service ended exactly the same. At one point, Saddleback had started over 3,000 new online small groups. Giving has held steady. (They’ve retained 400 staff members). People are coming to Christ.

You are not quite out of the woods. The beginning of 2021 feels like more of 2020, doesn’t it? How are you going to navigate groups for the next six months? It’s too much time to just wait it out. You can’t afford to lose any more opportunities to make disciples. How can you serve your people when you can’t meet with them? What sounds like it might work for you?

P.S. I got quite a reaction to my video last week. Some of you have experienced “deep shift!” Thanks for letting me know.

The Big Ministry Shift in 2021

Happy New Year! 2020 is officially behind us, but we all know that flipping the page of a calendar isn’t the same as hitting the restart button. I talk to pastors every day. (If you’d like to talk sometime, click here to schedule a meeting.) Some are really struggling. Some are hanging in there. Some are making some interesting progress.

Our mission didn’t change in 2020. We are still called to go and make disciples. Our methods have changed significantly. Our metrics have changed. Our effectiveness is not longer measured in nickels and noses. But, it’s more than that. We didn’t just get a new scorecard. We are playing an entirely different game. In all of this change, it is easy to get discouraged. Today’s video will encourage you as you launch into 2021.

COVID Didn’t Break Your Small Group Ministry

COVID Didn’t Break Your Small Group Ministry

COVID has done a lot of things in 2020. The pandemic has caused people to lose their jobs and pivot their business trajectories. It has created economic uncertainty for many and fueled political polarization. COVID has caused people to rethink what they do and how they do it. It’s done a lot of things, but COVID didn’t break your small group ministry.

Image by Michael Krause from Pixabay

That doesn’t mean that small groups haven’t suffered in 2020. Groups have suffered Zoom Fatigue. Group members have become overwhelmed by working at home while their children are doing school online. Or even more stressful, group members are in health care or other essential work and face the tragedies of the pandemic every day on top of everything else. Sometimes it’s hard to gather a group meeting in-person or online. But, while some churches are seeing a decrease in small groups, others are increasing their groups by 50-211% in 2020. Here is what I’m seeing:

Groups that Broke Were Already Breaking

Like most things in 2020, the businesses that went bankrupt were already on a downward slide. That restaurant you never frequented went out of business. That place you rarely shopped had to close their doors. Century-old institutions like JCPenney filed for bankruptcy when it was once the king of mail order. Do you see the irony there?

Similarly, your groups that struggled the most in 2020 were struggling before. This is not to place blame, but it is a wakeup call. If all of your groups had ended when the pandemic hit, then you could blame the pandemic. But, when you look at the groups that have struggled this year, what was particular about them that caused them to end? What was the quality of their relationships? What was the group’s level of commitment? Were you aware of how the group was struggling?

I don’t mean to blame the group. People have faced devastating circumstances in 2020. But, the groups that fell apart already had cracks in their relationships. When things got harder, the group got worse. For those who didn’t connect with the group regularly, they just disappeared. For leaders who didn’t regularly check up on their group members outside of the group meeting, relationships continued to fray. The bottom line is what held the group together previously wasn’t sufficient to keep the group together during a crisis.

If It Was Hard for You to Connect with Leaders Before…

…Then trying to connect with group leaders during 2020 has seemed nearly impossible. Churches as a whole have depended far too much on the weekend service as a place for connection, discipleship, evangelism, worship, and everything else. The church is more than a worship service. This year has demonstrated that more clearly than ever. Yet by relying on chance meetings in the lobby with group leaders to take the temperature of groups is an insufficient measure of the health of groups anyway. Once that was gone, small group pastors began to realize how little connection they had with their groups.

The churches who have communicated best with their leaders in 2020 have a coaching structure in place. They never relied on leader meetings, reports, or lobby conversations to gauge the health of their groups. Coaches are the glue that holds these small group ministries together. If you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you know I’m a huge advocate for coaching. Here’s why.

It would be easy to assume that the solution for connecting with leaders will come in six months or so when everything is back to normal and you can go back to bumping into your leaders in the lobby. If you don’t hear anything else in this post, please here this: COVID didn’t kill the communication with your leaders. The lack of a coaching structure was already working against you. You didn’t have as much of a grasp on the health of your groups that you thought you did. If your leaders aren’t calling you back, there is a problem, but this problem didn’t just happen.

You don’t need a coaching structure to prepare for the next national crisis. (Let’s hope there isn’t one soon). You need a coaching structure for the health of your groups and the benefit of your leaders. If you are personally trying to coach more than eight leaders, you are beyond your capacity already. Get started on your coaching structure ASAP!

If It was Hard to Train Your Leaders Before…

…Training feels nearly impossible now. Whether you’re attempting to gather leaders in-person or online, it’s hard to get people together. But, the reality is that it was hard to get everyone to training before.

Years ago, a pastor asked me why I thought his leaders didn’t attend his training meetings. I told him it was because his training was boring and irrelevant. He was more than a little offended and shot back with “How would you know? You’ve never been to my training.” I told him I knew because that’s why my leaders didn’t attend my training meetings – they were boring and irrelevant.

Training that works is centered around what small group leaders tell you they need. Otherwise, to attempt to train all of the leaders together will result in either being over the heads of new leaders or taking experienced leaders back to Kindergarten. Poll your leaders and ask them what they’re dealing with, then select three topics and publish the agenda for your next training meeting. Better yet, create two-minute videos with training on each of those topics and send them out to your leaders. You don’t need a meeting at all.

In both coaching and training, it’s best to determine the least amount of structure needed to keep your leaders and groups healthy and to help them succeed. Now, by “least amount of structure” I don’t mean you doing it by yourself. You don’t want a structure that’s too cumbersome, but you do need something that’s flexible and scalable.

If It was Hard to Track Your Groups Before…

…It’s doubly hard to get reports from your groups now. COVID didn’t break your report-taking. The disruption to the normal pattern of ministry has revealed the weakness in regular reporting and your group metrics. Nobody’s report-taking is perfect. There are always those group leaders who will never complete a report. If they’re good at relationships and bad at reporting, then consider yourself blessed.

If group leaders aren’t task-oriented and won’t complete reports, then designate someone else in the group to give a report. Use a database like ChurchTeams.com that sends report reminders automatically and notifies you when reports are completed.

Reports are only one metric. If you’re waiting for a report to understand the health of your groups, then you’re already in the weeds. This is why coaching is so important.

Concluding Thoughts

The stresses of 2020 have revealed many weaknesses in small group ministry. That’s a good thing, because now you know what you need to work on. When COVID subsides, don’t expect your prior small group ministry to just snap back into place. The problems will still be there.

Make a plan and begin to work on the weaknesses in your ministry now. Build a coaching structure. Align your metrics. Make your training more relevant. Deepen your leaders and your groups. Once you have these things in place, your small groups will be stronger for it.

Help! My Small Groups are Tired of Zoom!

Help! My Small Groups are Tired of Zoom!

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?

Image by Concord90 from Pixabay

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.

• Look at egroups from The Church at the Mill, Moore, South Carolina.
Start book clubs like The Rock Church in San Diego who are working through The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation by their pastor, Miles McPherson. If your pastor doesn’t have a book, then use Miles’ book! This year groups at The Rock Church are up 211% over 2019.
• Take your groups through Financial Peace University, a marriage class, your membership process, or your growth track online.
• Try a Digitally Interactive Curriculum like Get Out of Your Head by Jenni Allen through Studygateway.com or produce your own digitally interactive curriculum using Rali.

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.

Rather than just herding your current groups into online groups, let them decide how they would choose to meet when they can’t meet in-person. They can go back and visit their group agreement and decide what to do. If they don’t all want to meet in-person or online, then start two groups!

Closing Thought

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?

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