Covid forced every church online. This was both a great inconvenience and a great opportunity. To be honest, some churches have done better than others with their online services. Much of the result depends on the effort the church makes with their online services. For those who merely stream their in-person service, quality is spotty at best. (Take a few minutes to watch your church’s recent online service. You’ll see what I mean.)
Others put in the effort to pre-record their online service, like Pinnacle Church in Canton, NC. They provide a higher quality, direct-to-camera approach for their growing online congregation. Even this smaller congregation with limited equipment is doing a lot of the right things. Regardless of the quality of your online worship service, how are you discipling your online congregation?
Some churches are satisfied with using a multiplier to calculate their online audience based on the number of views. Certainly you want to know that your online service is effectively reaching others. But, your effectiveness online is far more than the number of eyeballs. Jay Kranda, the online campus pastor at Saddleback Church, had much to say about this in our interview earlier this year. Listen here.
Here’s what you know – people are watching online. Some are staying home out of an abundance of caution. Some are watching online because it’s just more convenient for them. Others are participating with your church online for the first time. This is the group I mentioned in last week’s post, Start Leading the Church You Have. Where are you leading them?
The Same Expectations
Prior to 2020, online ministry was a novelty. Then around March 2020, online ministry became a necessity. Today, online ministry is an opportunity.
While almost every church saw online ministry as a necessity during the pandemic, some still treat it like a novelty. They see the real congregation as the in-person audience and view the online congregation as a bit of a play thing. That may seem harsh, but let me ask you this: what do you expect from your online congregation? What are you leading them to do?
Typically, churches will ask their in-person congregation for contact information on their first visit in exchange for a welcome gift. They offer next steps, small groups, and serving opportunities. They expect participation, giving, community, and serving. Your online congregation is not any less than your in-person congregation. They are with you. And, they will take next steps when you offer them.
Engage Your Online Congregation
Online worship services can become passive unless you intentionally engage your online congregation. Some of this is accomplished by speaking direct-to-camera, which usually involves recording a separate online experience. Mere streaming video is not church online. Whether you stream live or pre-record, how you communicate with the online congregation is important.
If you direct your announcements and opportunities only to your in-person attendance, then your online folks won’t pay attention. You’re not talking to them. Make simple adjustments like referring to both your in-person and online congregations when you invite them to take next steps. Or during the announcements for your in-person service, have someone speak direct-to-camera to your online congregation. People will take a next step if you invite them.
Instead of asking them to respond with a card in the pew, ask them to text a word to your dedicated text line (check out Zipwhip) or send them to a dedicated landing page on your website for first time guests, giving, small groups, serving, etc. And, when they reach out, be prepared with a response. This could be a signed letter in the mail or an email sequence. When people contact you, reach out to them ASAP. In fact, you should have your response in place before you make the invitation.
Connecting into Community
Your online congregation might be around the corner, across the country, or on the other side of the world. Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, recently baptized a member of their online congregation who flew to Atlanta from her home in New York City. She now has friends in NYC watching Community Bible Church online each week. Whether your church is large or small, by putting your worship service online, you can potentially see a global impact. But, don’t stop there.
While online worship services are a starting point for your online congregation, they are only part of the experience of making disciples. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Worship services can catalyze a commitment to aspire to godly character, grow in faith, or improve their marriage or parenting skills, but the working out comes in biblical community or hesed. Without other believers encouraging, supporting, and holding each other accountable, lasting growth doesn’t happen. God designed us for community.
With an online congregation, community happens in various forms. Some people will join you in online small groups. These groups can meet by video, audio only, or asynchronously. Use the platforms that are the most familiar to your people. Different platforms will work equally as well for different people. But, don’t stop there.
Give your online congregation permission and opportunity to start their own groups – in-person or online. If people don’t live near the church, they can gather a group of friend just like Community Bible Church’s online member in New York. Whether the group meets in-person or online depends on the comfort level of the person starting the group. The church can support these group leaders by providing easy-to-use curriculum, offering a new leader briefing, and giving the support of a coach. Imagine if every member of your online congregation started his or her own group. Think of the impact.
Thoughts to Ponder
As I mentioned in last week’s post (Stop Leading the Church You Lost), the church you have today is your church. Too much has transpired since March 2020 for your church to just snap back to pre-Covid numbers. And, that’s okay.
For many church as many as 30 percent to 50 percent or more of their regular congregation worship online. You wouldn’t ignore a third of your congregation if they were in your church’s sanctuary, would you? Imagine turning toward the right side of your congregation, but ignoring those seated on the left side. That’s ridiculous. Don’t let this happen with the 30-50 percent who are gathering for worship online.
How will you engage your online congregation? How will you help your online congregation leverage their relationships to form groups either locally or online? Who needs a message of hope? Who needs encouragement? Think about it – the possibilities are endless.
Christ Church is a United Methodist Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois. They have been ranked as the third fastest growing UM church in the U.S. “We have a transient church. Our town is around a military community, so we get a lot of visitors. We have experienced some rapid growth over the years,” said Pam Huff, former Director of Connection and Discipleship (now retired).
When she first came to the church, groups were pretty disorganized. “There was no organization whatsoever. Small groups were pretty new in the beginning. There had been a lack of leadership. If I did anything else, I put some organization into the small group ministry.” Not only that, but she learned to leverage relationships in both forming groups and partnering new leaders with coaches.
To connect people, the church started using church-wide campaigns, but found that only a limited number of groups would continue. “At this point, we started to introduce the whole coaching system. I didn’t have good luck getting them established with my old groups, but our new groups responded well.” Pam looked over all of the church’s experienced leaders and invited those she believed would be the most supportive of the small group ministry. “The new leaders would come to a training event and meet the coaches there. Originally, I would assign new leaders to coaches, but then the leaders didn’t know who was calling them or why, even though I had told them they would get a call.” By providing an opportunity for coaches to connect directly with the new leaders, natural connections formed, and the coaching relationship began.
For group formation, the church didn’t put a lot of requirements on new leaders except for inviting members to their groups. “My only real requirement was that someone was a Christian. I would usually have a face-to-face contact with them, but there was no real vetting process for new leaders. We really encouraged people to do a lot of inviting themselves.”
The church supplemented personal invitations with opportunities for the congregation to sign up for specific groups after the worship service. “We would introduce the leaders during the service so people could put a face with a name. Then, the leaders would stand by their sign-up sheets in our Scripture Hall, which was a big gathering area.” People would sign up for the specific group they wanted to join.
The church found personal invitation and personal introduction at these sign-up events was far superior to assigning people to groups. “Sometimes people would fill out a card in the service indicating they wanted to join a group. When I reached out to them, I would never hear back from them. It’s almost like they were surprised that somebody actually contacted them.” By providing more active methods of forming groups like invitations and in-person sign-up opportunities, more people found their way into groups without all of the work of processing sign-up cards that never really netted many results.
The way Christ Church chose to form groups greatly determined the groups on-going success. Groups of friends indeed lasted longer than groups of strangers. Coaches gave new leaders the encouragement and support they need to both start and continue their groups. These simple adjustments helped Pam to start and keep more groups than ever before.
Bill Willits is the Executive Director of Adult Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries. One of the founding staff members of North Point, Bill is a graduate of Florida State University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the co-author of the book, Creating Community with Andy Stanley, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition. Bill and his team have helped connect thousands of adults into the benefits of group life.
When Carey Nieuwhof told the world that just when pastors thought we were ending the marathon of 2020, then 2021 handed us a swimsuit and a bike making this a triathlon. He wasn’t wrong. Clearly things have not snapped back, and it appears that things may never resume 2019 standards and strategies. And, that’s okay.
While many pastors are hyperventilating or quitting these days, you don’t need to. Disciples still need to be made. People still need community. The climate around you has changed, but the mission remains the same. Are you ready to try some things that are working this fall?
Flexible Group Formation
All of your groups won’t look the same this fall. That’s okay. Your groups probably shouldn’t have looked the same in the first place. Depending on the impact of Covid on your community, your people will not all feel comfortable doing groups exactly the same way. That’s okay. Offer your people the flexibility to meet in-person, online, or a hybrid of that. They should do what feels comfortable to them with whoever they want, wherever they want, and however they want. Whether they are maskites or anti-maskites, they can find their people and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. Flexibility is the key. For more on starting flexible groups, go here.
Inviting leads to thriving in 2021. Leaders who take the initiative to invite people they know who in turn invite people they know are making their groups happen. Leaders who are depending on passive recruitment methods like sign up cards, websites, or group directories are feeling a little like the kid standing along at the junior high dance. (That wasn’t me. Our church forbade dancing).
Going along with the flexible format, leaders can invite their people. Who do they know who would enjoy or benefit from the study? Who do they want to spend time with anyway? This doesn’t need to be complicated. They just need to invite their friends. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with their friends?
Prayer is a key part of successfully starting a group. Leaders should pray and ask God who He wants to join their group. Then, they should pay attention to who crosses their path. If they run into someone at the grocery store who they haven’t seen for six months, God is answering their prayer. If someone calls “out of the blue,” it’s not a coincidence. If group leaders truly want to start a group, they will take the initiative. Like Home Depot says, “You can do it. We can help.” You don’t need to fill anyone’s group.
If you want people to pay attention to an invitation to start a small group, your pastor should make that announcement. Your pastor will get 3 times the result compared to you standing on the stage saying the exact same words. By virtue of your pastor’s leadership role in the church, you will get the best result. The pastor will do better than you, the campus pastor, the worship pastor, the service host, and the communication director combined. All you need to do is give your pastor a few bullet points, then be prepared to collect the response (HINT: Keep the response close to the invitation) and train your new recruits! This works. I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004, and I’ve served three different churches since then!
Adding a Strategy
If you’ve been at small group ministry for a while, your winning strategy has probably starting running out of steam, especially in 2020-2021. Your strategy isn’t broken. It’s just done all that it can do. One size simply doesn’t fit all. But, there’s no rule that you are limited to using just one strategy to connect people into groups.
By simply adding another strategy to what you are currently offering, your church can attract more people into groups than ever before. What does that look like? Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it. Offer your established groups to your congregation, then offer a second option like groups following a sermon discussion guide or sermon-aligned study. Many churches are using Rooted. While I’m a big fan of Rooted, it’s only 10 weeks. What do people do who aren’t ready for Rooted or who have already done Rooted (Yes, I know about Life in Rhythm)? Just offer another option. But, isn’t this confusing? (See the next section).
Blended Connection Events
When you have multiple offerings, the key is to promote “groups.” Don’t promote Rooted groups, and D-Groups, and support groups, and sermon-based groups, and, and, and… Just promote groups. When your people come to your connection event, then you can ask what type of group they are interested in. This way you can keep your current groups going and start new groups.
Emphasis on Connection Over Meetings
As you’ve seen not everyone can meet in-person and some groups don’t want to meet online. How do you have groups? Well, we can go back to the philosophical discussion of whether a group is a meeting or is more like a family. (I think “family” wins). Well, what do you do when the whole family can’t show up for a meal? Do you kick the absent members out? Of course not! They’re family.
If group members can’t attend meetings, you’ve got to keep the family together. Your leaders should “own” their group rosters. If someone is on their group roster, even if they rarely attend, they are the leader’s responsibility. Give them a call. Send them a text. Let them know that you care. The group may be the person’s only connection to the church or even to another human right now. These connections are significant. Encourage your leaders to reach out to everybody on their lists.
Think About This
Fall 2021 is a challenging ministry season. Some states are practically under lockdown again. Other states are enjoying their freedom. No matter what type of environment you are ministering in, God is using groups to accomplish His purposes. The numbers may not be what you had before. That’s when you need to count what matters.
This is a tough season, but it’s not the toughest ministry season of all time. Don’t lose heart. Keep making connections. Keep inviting people into community. Keep recruiting new leaders to gather their friends. Move with the movers especially now that so much seems stuck.
What’s working for you and your groups in fall 2021?
Your church’s ministry philosophy could be handicapping your ability to recruit and develop leaders. Two distinct ministry models are prevalent in most churches today. While no church is probably 100 percent one or the other, the church’s ministry philosophy typically leans toward one side. Your church is either like Greyhound or Home Depot. Now, it might be kind of silly to think that your church is like a bus company or a home improvement store, but think about this:
Greyhound says, “Leave the driving to us.”
Greyhound wants its passengers to sit back and enjoy the ride. The company doesn’t want the passengers to do anything. The staff will handle all of the details related to the trip. Greyhound will take its passengers from point A to point B and won’t ask for anything other than the price of the ticket.
When I arrived at my first ministry assignment in 1990, the founding pastor told me that the church’s motto was the same as Greyhound’s, “Leave the driving to us.” Those were his exact words. The church depended on staff to do the work of the ministry. While people were recruited for minor ministry roles, any ministry leadership was entirely up to the staff. Identifying the gifts and callings of our members was just not done. After all, isn’t it easier to depend on someone you’re paying to do the ministry?
Clearly there are limitations on this model. No church can ever afford to hire everyone it needs to fulfill its mission. It also left a lot of gifted people very frustrated. The church did not acknowledge their gifts or encourage their development. The Greyhound model led to what I jokingly referred to as the “spiritual gift of complaining,” which is not a product of the Holy Spirit.
While the Greyhound model sounds convenient by just hiring staff to fulfill major roles, ultimately it’s not good for the staff and it’s not good for the church. Members rely on the staff for everything. Staff must recruit for every volunteer position. Staff must place people in every group or class. Staff counsel. Staff teach. Staff lead. All of this leads to a stagnation of the church’s impact because the people are held back. It also creates an unhealthy co-dependency between the staff and the members. It might fulfill staff members’ need to be needed, but it ultimately leads to burnout. If this is your church, it’s time to get off the bus, Gus.
Home Depot says, “You can do it. We can help.”
Well, at least that was their old slogan until they got sued. Now, they say, “Where doers get more done,” which doesn’t really apply to this post, so let’s stick to the original slogan, “You can do it. We can help.”
Look at the contrast between Home Depot and Greyhound. Greyhound requires nothing. The staff does everything. In the Home Depot model, the emphasis is on the member doing the work of the ministry. The staff isn’t going to do it for them. They are going to do it with the staff’s help. If members want to start groups, then they can gather their friends and start groups. The staff will support and encourage them. If someone needs to find a group, then that person can attend a Connection Event and sign up for a specific group. The staff will provide the opportunity, but will not get involved with placing them in a group. (Most people who ask to be placed in a group don’t really want to join a group anyway. They just want your time and attention. When they don’t end up in a group, it’s not on them, it’s on you! Their guilt was transferred to you. No wonder you feel so bad).
The Home Depot model is the realm of ministry multipliers. Group members can become group leaders. Group leaders can become coaches. Coaches can become Small Group Leadership Team members. Everybody gets a promotion. You can do it. We can help.
You have to give up to go up.
Sometimes as a staff member, you feel stuck by being bogged down with too much responsibility. You don’t want to let anybody down. You don’t want to make anybody mad. You don’t want to get blamed. I get it. But, you end up clucking with the chickens when you long to soar with the eagles. But, it’s hard to let go.
When you are reluctant to release ministry to others, it’s not for lack of willing people. It’s out of fear of being blamed, or it’s out of just not knowing any better. When you think about releasing ministry to others, you face many doubts and fears — What if they don’t do it right? What if they don’t do it the way that I can? What if they do something wrong? What if they cause a problem? Let me confirm your fears. All of the above will happen, but it will amount to about 2% in my experience.
Often you get trapped in Moses’ thinking in Exodus 18, which basically says, “I’m the only one who can do it, and the people like coming to me.” His father-in-law Jethro called him on it and pronounced it, “Not good.”
In order for you to accomplish more with your groups, you have to give up responsibility to seemingly less capable people. You have to take a risk. You have to train them. You have to supervise them. But, if you don’t, then everything will continue to revolve around you. You will feel bogged down and burned out. Your people will feel underutilized and frustrated. Big L leaders will continue handing out bulletins and parking cars. What a waste!
The Apostle Paul spoke to this in Ephesians 4:11-12, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (NIV). If you consider yourself an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, or teacher, your role is pretty clear – “to equip his people for works of service.” Or, as Home Depot would tell your people, “You can do it. We can help.”
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.