I am foreseeing the post-COVID small group ministry happening in a big way. Actually, I see a small group boom in fall 2021. For some this is starting now. One church in my coaching group recruited 50 new hosts for their spring 2021 launch. Things are looking good for groups, but things are looking different for groups.
Small Group Ministry is More Decentralized Than Ever
As a small group pastor or director, you have been longing for a decentralized ministry. Well, COVID decentralized your ministry, now don’t reel it back in. Keep your small group ministry outside of the building. Here are a few things to think about:
Put your training online and push it out to your leaders.
Empower your coaches to serve the leaders. Don’t wrap this all around you. You’ve got to multiply yourself.
Keep your groups in neighborhoods as much as possible. There’s something personal about meeting in someone’s home. There’s also something powerful about meeting in a neighborhood. Let their light shine!
Pivot to a Hybrid Groups Ministry Amid This Unprecedented Pandemic
There, I got all of the COVID clichés into one subhead. The word for you to focus on is hybrid (online and in-person). It will be a while before everyone is ready or able to meet in-person. But, here’s the other thing – some people like this online world. If I don’t have to get myself to church for a meeting and arrange for childcare because the meeting is online, I’m in!
Some groups meett online and couldn’t get back together even if they wanted to. People moved away. But, the group can keep meeting together online. If schools no longer have snow days due to online classes, then online groups no longer have snow birds. Online groups keep everybody together.
The new debate is meeting in-person or staying online. Just like we had the debate between the maskites and anti-maskites last year, this year we have groups splitting over some wanting to meet in-person and others wanting to stay online (I posted about that issue here). Now, imagine if every group in your church became two groups. (Read that again: Imagine if every group in your church became two groups!) You would have twice the groups. You would have more opportunity for people who prefer to meet in-person to join the in-person half of a group. You would also have more opportunity for people to join online groups. HINT: Don’t combine your groups. Even if they’re small. Keep them separate. Let them grow. Double your groups.
Something I’m Piloting Right Now
This past weekend I led a host briefing at two physical campuses as well as an online campus simultaneously. I am serving as the Life Group Director for a church that is 747 miles from my house. Fortunately, it’s in the same time zone!
The senior pastor made the invitation for new hosts during the service. Folks responded by text to the church’s text service. They were given instructions by text about how to join the briefing – the room on-campus or the link online.
From my home in South Carolina, I led the three campus host briefing over Zoom. I was on the big screen at the physical campuses, then interacted with the folks online as well. Each physical location had a person assisting me. I could see the room. My assistants had a mic to pass around for people who had questions. I also answered questions in the chat on Zoom.
The prospective hosts at the physical locations had a hard copy of the briefing packet and the host application. Those who met online had a pdf of the briefing packet and a link to register online.
Experienced leaders were present at all three locations to meet the new hosts and begin walking alongside them for the next 12 weeks (a three week ramp up, then a nine week series. Nine weeks? – I’m just following the senior pastor’s lead).
I will keep you posted on what else I learn.
What are you learning about small group ministry right now? Leave your response below.
Join me for a webinar: Small Group Restart: Ministry in a Post-COVID World on Wednesday, April 21 at 2pm Eastern/ 1 pm Central/ Noon Mountain/ 11 am Pacific. Click here to register.
The small group in a box seemed like a good idea. The small group director secured the topic from the pastor and the logo from the graphic designer, then went into the hard work of writing curriculum, designing a study guide, gathering goodies for the box, and printing these branded boxes for the next small group launch. So far, so good.
As the launch approached, the small group director made an announcement in the service that anyone interested in starting a group could come to the lobby, grab a box, and do the church-wide study. This was the start of the trouble. A few people attended the online briefing for new leaders. The director reached out to a few others. The end result was disappointing. The small group in a box was not a bad idea, but it was only half a strategy. While I applaud the effort at trying something new, here are the problems I see in this director’s approach:
The Small Group Director Promoted the Study.
For most of my 30+ years of ministry, I’ve been the associate pastor or the vice president. You know — the #2 guy (or lower). In my experience, when I made the announcement about groups, it would receive only 30% of the result that my senior pastor would get by saying the exact same words. How do I know this? I recruited small group leaders for seven years and connected 30% of our adults into groups. We averaged 0-10 new groups each year…
The first time my senior pastor stood up on a Sunday morning, we doubled our groups in one day. Six months later, we doubled again to the point where we had 13% of our people leading groups and 125% connected in on-going small groups. Long story short: I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004 (and I serve a church of 6,500 since then). The small group director should have asked the senior pastor to make the announcement.
The Series was Only Promoted for One Week.
This small group director promoted groups for one Sunday and got a disappointing result. I’ve heard this story before. One year, I had two churches promoting groups on the same dates. One was in New York; the other in Florida. The New York church promoted for one week and recruited 20 new leaders. The Florida church promoted for three weeks and recruited 60 new leaders. Both created their own curriculum. Both had the senior pastor inviting people to lead. The difference was recruiting for one week instead of recruiting for three weeks. Oh, and on the first week, the Florida church also only had 20 new leaders, but they kept recruiting.
You can invest tens of thousands of dollars into video curriculum production (I can help you), or you can shoot a video on your iPhone and upload it to Youtube (I can help you with that too). Either way you remove a barrier – the leader doesn’t need to be a Bible expert. The pastor is the expert.
The Box and the Training were Disconnected.
If you want to get people to your briefing, only allow them to pick up the box at the briefing. The first time I did “small group in a box” back in 2004. People picked up the bag of materials. They put their name on a signup sheet. We never heard from them again. When I started inviting them to a briefing after the service, which was the only way they could get the curriculum, not only did they receive enough training to get them started, they also walked out of the room with a coach and not just curriculum. Keep the training and the resources connected. They will come to training.
The New Leaders Lacked Support.
Most small group pastors and directors are overwhelmed with the current number of leaders in their ministries. In fact, sometimes this is why the small group ministry isn’t growing any faster or any further. You have to multiply yourself. The other side of the equation is that many prospective group leaders will never actually start a group because they can be easily discouraged in the time between the briefing and the start of the study. I’ll be honest – I’ve lost far more group leaders before the group started than after the series ended. If the new leader has an experienced leader to walk alongside them, this will go a long way to get the group going, support the new leader, and help the group continue.
I applaud this small group director on trying something new. That takes guts. But, I also agonize with this director at the opportunity lost. You’ve probably experienced the same thing. I have. Half a strategy just doesn’t cut it. Yes, take initiative and try new things. But, also realize that most strategies have a history and a few secrets to success.
Are you prepared for the Post-Pandemic Small Group Boom that I wrote about last week? It’s coming. You may not get a moment like this again. Your people have been kept apart for a long time. They are ready to get into groups, even if they’ve never been in groups before. Use the spring to make a plan for an exponential group launch this fall. Use the summer to execute your plan.
Choose a Relevant Felt-Need Topic.
What is the greatest need in your community? Locate or create a study that addresses that need. Here are a few topics to get you started: relationships, marriage, parenting, stress, purpose, serving others, or something similar.
This is not the time for a series on fasting, tithing, or another mature topic. Those are important, but not to connect the most people possible this fall. You’ve had a lot of new people join you in worship services both in-person and online over the last year. What kind of a study would appeal to their friends? (For more on creating curriculum).
Reconsider Your Definition of a Small Group.
What is an “official” small group in your church? Once you define an official small group, then you can experiment with “unofficial” groups.
One pastor was struggling with recruiting enough leaders to meet the demand for groups in his church, yet he had very high qualifications for leaders which not everyone could meet. I asked him, “What number of people is too small to be a small group in your church?” His answer: Three people. So, he invited his people to join with two others (You plus two) and do the sermon discussion guide together. Once they get going, then he’ll invite them to fulfill the requirements.
How could you offer your people a small group test drive this fall? Could you call these groups by a different name? Key thought: Don’t advertise these groups. Don’t send anyone to these groups. Allow them to gather their friends. (But, give them a coach!)
Consider Delaying Some Requirements Temporarily.
Many people don’t consider themselves to be any kind of a leader. Yet, most people have the ability to gather a group of friends. This is leadership. As John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.”
But, to get there, you must decide: what are the minimum requirements for someone to “lead” a group in your church? Breathing or willing? A confession of faith? Church membership? Small group leadership training? A Coach? An interview? The more requirements you pile on, the fewer potential leaders you will have. As my friend Randal Alquist says, “You’re not recruiting elders here.”
Start Building Your Coaching Structure.
If you choose to launch groups “wide open” this fall, then you need help ASAP. The key to multiplying small groups is multiplying yourself. Which of your experienced group leaders could help you coach new leaders? If you’re not going to be picky about who leads a new group, then you need to be picky about who coaches them.
When you look at your current group leaders, what groups would you like 10 more just like? Ask those leaders to help coach new leaders. What groups do you NOT want 10 more of? Quarantine that group (sorry).
There is a lot of debate about coaching small group leaders. Some churches have the luxury of hiring enough staff to coach all of the leaders. If that’s you, go for it. But, that’s not where most churches are. There is also a struggle with giving up control (I was there), disconnecting from group leaders, and sharing leadership with others. Let me ask you this: if you had four times as many group leaders as you have right now, how would you support them? The answer is not “more meetings.”
The fall of 2021 will be unlike any other season you’ve experienced in small group ministry. You need to be ready. But, let me give you a hint: the strategy for fall 2021 is not pulling out the same tired small group strategies that have connect less than 30% of your members into groups. It’s time to add a new strategy. It’s time to do something different. You may not get another moment like this again. Make the most of it.
How are you preparing for the PPSGB? Leave me a comment below.
A year ago everything stopped. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. Almost no one had experienced a pandemic of this degree except a few centenarians who were babies in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza. The whole world came to an abrupt halt. Originally, a few weeks of quarantine were given in exchange for normalcy resuming quickly. Then, it stretched to Easter and beyond.
COVID separated the church. The church did not “close,” because the church is a body of believers — not a building, not a service, not an institution. The church couldn’t gather for in-person meetings: worship, small groups, or anything else, but the church never closed.
Many small groups went to Zoom or other online platforms — synchronous or asynchronous. While many groups tolerated meeting online, some have discovered the opportunity of online groups to connect to others who are far from them and far from God. But, Zoom fatigue set in quickly. Online groups are just not the same as in-person groups. And, we found our way around that issue too by making online groups completely different and calling them by another name.
But, right now you are in an unprecedented moment – Small Groups are about to boom!
People have been separated and in their houses for a long time. Of course, restrictions and attitudes vary across North America. While some churches still haven’t regathered for groups or worship, I know of one church that never stopped their in-person services. I’m not judging right or wrong. I’m just saying “different” restrictions and attitudes. While this is also my first global pandemic, this is where I see things going in 2021 with small groups:
People Will Warm Up to In-Person Gatherings Gradually
While Coronavius numbers are declining, they haven’t disappeared. In most places the rate of infection is still higher than it was a year ago. While vaccine shots in arms are accelerating quickly, there is still some uncertainty, reluctance, or resistance to vaccines. Lastly, people have spent 12 months immersed in the stress and fear of a global pandemic. It will take them a while to turn things around. But, there are hopeful signs.
When the President of the United States announced in his speech on March 10, 2021 “…if we do this together, by July the 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day. That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together…But to get there we can’t let our guard down. This fight is far from over” (Source) Politics aside, words from the leader of the free world are powerful. These words will do much to help people overcome their fear. The President of the United States is advocating for small groups.
In the meantime, what do you do? Do you just write off the spring semester? I don’t think so. This is the time to experiment. What are your people open to? How are they willing to participate in small groups? Pilot something. Gather groups of vaccinated folks. Be patient with those who are unsure. Try a new approach to online groups. If you’re not sure what your people might be open to, our church-wide assessment can help you find the right direction to go.
People Will Be Gone All Summer
Once people are confident to get out, they will be completely gone. They will be on vacation and will enjoy weekends away. Don’t be disappointed if the return to in-person worship is slow. It’s slow for every church right now.
Summer isn’t a great time to launch small groups anyway. You could try more social gatherings or service projects, but even then, your people will be gone for the most part. That doesn’t mean to avoid trying something. It just means not to expect dramatic numbers over the summer.
I’m not suggesting that you raise the white flag for summer, but your people taking a much needed break will create an even bigger fall launch. Use your summer to prepare for fall. Recruit coaches for new group leaders. Create your own video-based curriculum.
Small Groups Will Boom in the Fall
Your people have been apart for a long time. Their need for community is higher than ever. By fall, they will be ready for in-person small groups at a level you’ve probably never experienced. Barring a fourth wave of the virus, vaccine-resistant variants, or continued restrictions, people will be ready in reconnect in small groups like never before.
Are you ready? How will you make the most of this opportunity? This is not the time for business as usual. This is not the time to roll out the same tired small group strategies you’ve used year after year that produce the same mediocre result. What are people willing to say “yes” to this fall?
We’ve had a year, haven’t we? I hope we never have another year like this past one again. But, the pain of the last 12 months is producing an unprecedented opportunity. Are you ready to make the most of that opportunity?
When you think about all of the work that goes into a small group launch, you certainly want to choose the best season to launch groups. You certainly don’t want to do all of that work and get a poor result. After working with over 1,500 churches over nearly 20 years, three seasons have stood out as the most effective times to launch groups. While there is some variation for different geographic regions and for individual churches, these are the best practices for most churches.
The Best Time to Launch Groups
The fall launch is the biggest by far. Since many church calendars are influenced by the traditional public school calendar, the fall is when everything starts up again. But, keep in mind that not only do you need the most strategic time to launch groups, you also need to consider the best time to recruit leaders and connect people into groups.
Ask yourself, “When are most people back in church?” For some churches this is after Labor Day. For other churches this may be earlier. Once people are back, allow at least three weeks to recruit leaders and connect people into groups. Summer is not a great time to recruit leaders. You really need to recruit once the fall season is rolling.
Launch your series with the intention of the study ending by Thanksgiving in the U.S. (If you’re in Canada, launch your series after Thanksgiving, but end well before Christmas). Most groups will not meet in December for regular group meetings, but they could have a Christmas party or serve together.
The Second Best Time to Launch Groups
The new year is the second strongest time to launch small groups. Again, it’s a time of beginnings and New Year’s resolutions. But, there is a problem with launching in the new year.
Most pastors want to do a “State of the Church” sermon in early January to cast vision for the coming year (Remember, 20/20 vision?), then they want to launch right into a series. The issue is when do you recruit leaders and when do you connect people into groups? Many have tried and failed to do this during the Christmas season. People simply don’t think about the new year until they are in the new year.
The best way to launch groups in the new year is to use the month of January to recruit new leaders and connect people into groups, then run the study between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. Some groups will even start with a Super Bowl party so everyone can get to know each other, then start the study the following week.
The Third Season to Launch Groups
Number three on our list is after Easter. Launching a series after Easter serves several purposes – you can connect your Easter crowd and get them to come back the following week. Usually if a small group study is connected with the sermon, people will attend more regularly, including the Sunday after Easter. See below for other articles about launch groups during the pandemic.
The drawback of the Easter launch is June, July, and August. Typically, groups don’t meet during the summer. Summer is a great time to focus on group life and not as much on group meetings. Remember, your people have been conditioned by the public school calendar. But, why would you start new groups just to watch them get lost in the summer? There are some ways to make this work.
Other Times to Launch Groups
Think of every opportunity when you can possibly launch groups. Launch women’s groups on Mother’s Day. Launch men’s groups on Father’s Day. Launch couples groups on Valentine’s Day. Launch singles groups on Columbus Day (Singles are searching…)
Don’t feel obligated to offer a group every week of the year. It’s awkward to join a group in the middle of a study or a semester. People wait for open enrollment for many other things. They can also wait to join a group. Now, to speak out of the other side of my mouth…
As a pastor you hate to turn anyone down when they need something. (I feel that). This is where your Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other on-campus groups can play a role. People can join at any point, then when the next small group launch rolls around, they can join a group. If you don’t have any of these meetings, then keep a short list of small groups who do a great job of including new members.
You will notice and ebb and flow of group launches in this article. You push hard for groups in the fall, then back off during Christmas. You push hard again in January, then again after Easter, then back off in the summer. This pattern helps to build a stronger fall launch and a less complicated new year’s launch.
But, some of your people are hard core group meeting folks. That’s okay. The last men’s group I led met 52 weeks of the year at lunch every Wednesday. When it comes to the group meetings and group life balance, let groups decide what’s right for themselves.
Thinking about the post-COVID church might seem like a little wishful thinking, but I believe we can embrace the lessons learned in the last year and apply them to what’s ahead. Since March 2020, we’ve learned what we can do without. We’ve found some things that were more effective than we ever imagined. We have also discovered that some of the things we thought were so important are simply unnecessary (I’m looking at you large gatherings with rubber chicken and a speaker).
Churches learned to “play chess without the queen of the weekend service” as Alan Hirsch told us. We also learned that the weekend service did not accomplish nearly as much as we counted on. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Once the building was closed and services were cancelled, the pressure came off of “guest services” and went to online worship services. Membership classes and growth tracks, small groups and even Sunday school classes went online.
People stayed home and fell in love with Sunday brunch. Adults had the choice of watching any church in the world at any time. Kids got the short end of the stick with no youth groups and no online children’s church. As time wore on, people became a little more lazy about watching the weekend service. Granted, the average church-goer only attended 1.6 times per month in-person. It was easier to skip church at home. No one was watching them.
The pandemic accelerated everything. Everyone suddenly went online. Things that were breaking broke rather quickly. According to the Barna Group, one in five churches will close in the next year, if they haven’t already. Most churches have lost 20% or more of their congregations. The challenge of the post-COVID church is to embrace things that were forced on us (but worked!), to part with things that are not effective, and to discover some new things for a new season of ministry.
The Front Door of Your Church is Now Digital
Prior to March 2020, online services and online small groups seemed like a novelty to most churches. Online worship was either not considered or catered to the elderly and infirmed who couldn’t attend regularly. COVID changed that. What was once a novelty became a necessity, but it became even more than that – online services, online small groups, and an online community are an opportunity.
In a recent podcast interview with Jay Kranda, Saddleback’s Online Pastor, over the last decade he has seen genuine community forming online in groups, services, membership, and discipleship. (You can catch the podcast episode here). What was once thought of as abnormal became the norm. What’s even better is that it works – not just for online worship, but for Alpha and Celebrate Recovery where their role is bigger than ever before.
Before anyone darkens the door of your church, they will watch your service online. They were already starting with the church website before COVID. Now, they’re starting with online worship. Knowing that far more people are watching online than are even attending in-person, churches need to invest in their new digital front door. Streaming video is not an online service. The need and opportunity for online worship longs for a unique online service.
The Growth Engine of Your Church is Groups
While there are many great benefits to online groups (Download the Senior Pastors Guide to Groups), churches with groups faired far better than churches without groups in 2020-2021. Churches did an excellent job producing content. In fact, at one point, Phil Cooke, a media producer, said, “Right now the church is producing more content than Hollywood.” Churches had content down, but if groups weren’t in place, they lacked community and conversation.
When the building was closed, ministries were shut down, and in-person services were cancelled, small groups thrived. For every pastor who has ever longed to see decentralized ministry, the pandemic accelerated the reach and effectiveness of groups online and in-person. Facebook friends became Facebook groups. Wherever people find community (online or offline), there is a place for groups.
What’s even better is that during the pandemic, you became a church OF small groups. All of the other competing ministries went away and only groups were left. Previously, you just had a larger crowd. Now, you are a church OF groups and not just a church WITH groups. This helps churches focus more clearly on their mission to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Groups are a great tool to enlist more disciple-makers. If disciples aren’t making disciples, then you have missed the point.
The Greatest Impact of Your Church is Your Members
The last year has proven that the greatest impact of your church is not the weekend service, and it’s not meaningless serving roles. While most churches have lost 20% or more, many of those were consumers. While every pastor hates to lose anyone, the balance of the equation is that your committed core remains. They have found meaningful ways to serve their neighbors and their families during the pandemic. They don’t need to be coddled when they come back to church. They need to be challenged. In this moment, the churches who chose to empower and equip their members to serve will come back far stronger and make a much bigger impact than those who merely return to “normal.”
Offer your members practical ways to discover and hone their gifts like Find Your Place by Brian Phipps and Rob Wegner, SHAPE from Saddleback, or the classic, Network by Bruce Bugbee. But, this is more than a seminar, give your people permission and opportunity to use their gifts in meaningful ways. If you do this right, then the emerging ministries of your church will come from what God has placed on your peoples’ hearts. That doesn’t mean that you merely accept everything that everyone wants to do – it still has to fit in your church’s mission and vision – but it does mean embracing what your people are gifted and called to do rather than inventing roles for them to fill.
The Future of Your Church is Practical Outreach
Years ago Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson asked the question in The Externally Focused Church: “If your church vanished would anyone notice?” Well, in the last year the presence of your church did disappear in some ways. (Obviously, the Church is the Body of Christ, which while not meeting in-person for worship, did not actually disappear). When your building closed, what was missing from your community? Traffic? A positive influence? An essential service needed by your community?
During COVID did your church focus on survival or outreach? While pastors work hard and don’t deserve the heartbreak of watching their hard work evaporate, what was the focus on the last 12 months? Were you clinging to what you had 12 months ago or were you embracing the opportunity to serve and reach the community? The need is great. How is your church helping to meet that need?
In the past missionaries to other countries established hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other practical organizations to meet the needs of the people. In addition to meeting the people’s needs and building a platform to share the Gospel, the missionaries’ charitable work endeared them to governments who otherwise might not have embraced their mission. When someone opposed to the Gospel came to power, the missionaries’ good work stood out and kept their mission moving forward.
The North American church is fulfilling its mission in a culture that is increasingly hostile. Culture is changing rapidly. The Moral Majority is long gone. The church’s influence is diminishing on a broad scale, but that’s never where souls were being saved anyway. How can your church use its influence, its resources, and its gifts to meet needs in your community? What can your church become known for in your community? Rather than standing out as the church that’s against certain things, how can your church be known for the good that you’re doing? This doesn’t mean that we embrace things that are contrary to Scripture. It means that the church’s mission moves forward in loving ways despite the opposition. After all, God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).
While you might despair the loss of an audience, you should be very excited about those who are left. Your audience is gone, but your army remains. An audience must be entertained to keep them engaged, but an army just needs their marching orders. Once you equip and empower your people to serve in meaningful ways, your church will never be the same. All your people need are permission and opportunity.
The world has changed. Ministry methods from prior to 2020 won’t work the same. Everything has opened up. The opportunities are endless.