My friend, Lorraine DeMarco, passed from this life on October 8, 2020. She was a friend, a coach, a cheerleader, my hairstylist, and a reluctant leader. She taught me many important lessons. She was a reluctant leader. In fact, she wouldn’t have lead a group if our pastor hadn’t recruited for multiple weeks.
To capture the most new leaders possible, a longer promotional period followed by a short registration period is key. In addition, registering for three weeks is also a major factor. If the church registers new leaders for more than three weeks, then the invitation becomes “Yada, yada, yada,” and everyone waits until the last week to sign up anyway.
I was talking to the gal who cuts my hair about this one day. Why was I talking to her about this? Well, we talk about everything, and I have a captive audience. She’s not a barber, and I don’t like having a “stylist,” so we’ll just call her “Lorraine,” since that’s her name. Lorraine is retired, but she still has mercy on my hair. She is also a member of Brookwood Church, where I served. As I was spinning the tale of two churches with group launches and the importance of recruiting for three weeks, Lorraine spoke up, “I’ll tell you why it’s important to recruit for three weeks. That’s how Rich and I ended up leading a group.” (Lorraine is Italian and grew up in New Jersey. Do you have that picture in your mind?) She spun me around in the chair and started telling me her story, brandishing the comb toward my face for emphasis. (I was looking out of the corner of my eye to locate the scissors. I was safe.)
Lorraine went on, “The first week when our pastor from the stage invited us all to lead groups, I said, ‘Nope, there is no way I’m going to do that. No way!’ ” The comb wagged faster. “ ‘Then, the next week, he invited us again. I thought, ‘Hum, maybe I should think about this?’ When he invited us the third time, I said, ‘That’s it, Rich, we’re leading a group.’ See if the pastor didn’t ask three times, I wouldn’t be leading.”
I would have offered a high five, but I still wasn’t sure of where the scissors were located, so we just had some congratulations and a little laughter instead. Then, the haircut resumed.
If you only recruit leaders for one week amid many other announcements, you’ll miss the Lorraines who might lead if you asked them again. Lorraine led that group for 6-8 years, then she and Rich started attending a church closer to their home. The first thing Lorraine did was to start a new small group in her new church.
Regathering for worship services and for small groups is proving in many ways to be more difficult than going online was in the first place. I recently met with a gathering of small group pastors from across North America to talk about what they are facing in terms of government regulations, church directives, and individual willingness to gather in-person and online. Here are the big ideas from that conversation.
Let people use the platforms they are familiar with and invite people they already know.
Every online group doesn’t need to meet on Zoom. There are many other platforms to host live and asynchronous online groups meetings. By encouraging people to use platforms they are familiar with like Facebook Groups, Google Meets, or even Slack and group texts, they will feel more comfortable with the concept of online groups. If they will invite people they know to join the online groups, chances are more people will show up. There is a very real dynamic of people ghosting online small groups. If people form groups on the platforms they know with people they know, the rate of ghosting online groups goes way down. But, even better, online groups offer the opportunity to include people who are far from God spiritually and people who are far from the group leader geographically.
Let kids get back into school BEFORE you start groups.
School districts are all over the map with their approach to the 2020-2021 school year. Some schools are online only. Others are in-person only. And, other schools are alternating on-campus and online days. Some are even varying the approach to school depending on the latest Coronoavirus statistics. It’s confusing. In my house, our three students (elementary, middle school, and high school) are all doing online school in different schools! It’s been a learning curve. If you can delay your small group startup until after the dust settles with the start of school, you will be better off.
Encourage the senior pastor to promote online groups.
In the middle of the summer, in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of racial tensions and political chaos, Rock Church in San Diego started 119 new online book groups in July 2020. The senior pastor, Miles McPherson, invited people to gather their friends to discuss a relevant topic with an easy-to-use format to start groups. Mark Richardson, Small Group Pastor, lead the implementation of Pastor Miles’ invitation by offering training and support to these new group leaders as they launched their groups. You can read the full case study about Rock Church here.
Give groups guidelines for meeting in person, but let them make their own decisions about how to meet.
The church should offer some sort of written guidelines for regathering amid the pandemic. This helps people feel safer about meeting in-person, if they’re willing, and it covers any liability for the church. The bottom line is that the church shouldn’t dictate to the groups what to do. If they want to meet online, then meet online. If they want to meet in-person, then meet in-person. If they want to do both, or as someone have called these phygital groups (physical and digital), then do that. The main thing is for the group to be in agreement about what to do. For a group agreement exercise, click here.
Biggest Thought: “What COVID gave me was an excuse to multiply groups.”
This pastor’s town/state was limiting the size of in-person gatherings in homes. No more than eight non-family members could meet in a home, so every group became two groups! The idea of churches splitting, multiplying, or “birthing” is not a very popular idea in North America. As much as pastor try to use another word for “dividing,” with the way it feels, you might as well call it getting a small group divorce! The idea finds resistence in most groups. But, if the circumstance called for smaller groups, then rather than waiting until the whole group could meet together again, why not use this to multiply your groups? If you see this as an opportunity for every small group in your church to become two groups, wouldn’t you jump on that?
These are strange times for the church. Regathering for worship has been in fits and starts. Some churches who reopened in May 2020 are now reclosing in September 2020 due to new outbreaks of Coronavirus. But, the weekend worship service is only one dimension of the church. This is a time to decentralize, because the church has been forced to. But, it’s not the first time the church was forced to decentralize.
In Acts 1:8, Jesus told the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (NIV). Do you know when the church became Jesus’ witnesses in Judea and Samaria? The initial fulfillment of Acts 1:8 is found in Acts 8:1, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” The church didn’t enter Judea and Samaria because of a strategic plan or based on their vision and values statement. They were forced into their calling because of persecution. In 2020, the church was forced into a situation.
How are you going to make the most of this opportunity? Comment below.
Church online is direct-to-camera. Church online is interactive. Church online is an intentional effort to disciple a growing online congregation. Streaming video is passive. With streaming video (live or recorded), the viewer is an observer, not a participant.
The church has got to get this right, because according to some estimates getting back to “normal” could take up to three to four years (if it ever does). From recent conversations with pastors, the average church has about 30% of their people attending in-person. But, there are far more people joining for worship online. In fact, most churches are seeing larger online attendance than their normal worship numbers. One pastor I spoke to yesterday said that a year ago, they had 550 in worship. Today, there are 200 worshipping in-person and over 1,600 worshipping online. How are churches discipling their online congregations?
Church Online is NOT Merely Streaming an In-person Worship Service.
Online worship services require a tighter shot. The services are shorter. Sermons are more like 20-30 minutes than 45 minutes. The pastor needs to speak direct-to-camera because the sermon is going to the living room. There’s a big difference between speaking to a big room and speaking to a small screen. The church, in general, did a better job at church online before people started regathering for in-person services.
But, as people are coming back, even just a small percentage of the congregation, the temptation is to speak to the few that are gathered and ignore the online worshippers. This is both rightly and wrongly so. A pastor cannot ignore the people gathered in the room, but a pastor also cannot create a passive experience for the larger group who are watching at home.
This reminds me of a moment about 30-40 years ago when churches were transitioning from traditional worship services to contemporary worship services. Many churches could not immediately make the jump. After all, if you alienate the base, then the giving goes down, and the pastor gets fired. So, churches offered separate services for traditional worship and for contemporary worship. A few tried “blended” worship, but was Stuart Briscoe once said, “If you blend contemporary and traditional, you end up with contemptible!”
By streaming in-person worship services, you end up with contemptible. If you speak direct-to-camera and ignore those gathered in-person, your people will think that they’re watching a TV preacher. But, if you speak only to the room and ignore the online congregation, you’ll lose them. I believe it’s time for churches to adopt two worship styles: an in-person service and an online service. The in-person service isn’t streamed. It’s created specifically for the people in the room. The online service is created specifically for the online congregation. It’s direct-to-camera. It’s shorter. It’s more interactive. The online service moves people from observing to participating. Why do this? There are more people “out there” than there are “in here.” This will be the case for a long while.
Church Online Needs Next Steps
A year ago online ministry was just a novelty, but in 2020 online ministry became a necessity. For a few months, the church regarded online services as a band-aid until things returned to normal. Today, no one knows when normal will return or what normal even is. And, that’s okay, because there is a larger opportunity online. Just look at your metrics.
How are you connecting with your online congregation? What next steps are you offering them? Do you even know who they are? Every weekend, you need to welcome visitors. Every weekend you need to collect their information by email or text. Then, you need to challenge them in their next steps just like you would an in-person guest.
Put your membership class online. There are no more excuses for not being able to attend. When your membership class goes online, people have 168 hours per week to participate. Put your growth track online. Saddleback Church just put CLASS 101-401 online after doing it live and in-person for 40 years! (and as of 8/30/2020, Saddleback added 600 new members through online CLASS 101).
How are you capturing information? How are you offering next steps? Church online is no longer just a stop gap, it’s church.
Churches with online small groups in place are faring far better than churches without online groups. There is a lot to process. There is a lot of fear and confusion in the world. People need to gather with others who will listen, care for them, and point them back to God in a personal, individual way. Online groups can accomplish this for those who are not ready to meet in-person yet.
Church Online Needs Opportunities to Care and Serve
People need an outlet for ministry. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced people to mostly stay home and to venture out very little. This isolation is taking a toll on people’s mental health. It’s not good to be alone thinking only about yourself.
Years ago a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Karl Menninger, was asked a question by an audience member at a conference, “If you knew someone was suicidal, what would you recommend for that person to do?”
They audience expected Dr. Menninger to recommend immediate and intense psycho-therapy. Instead, Dr. Menninger replied, “I would tell them to go over to the other side of the tracks and help someone in need.” It’s healthy to help others. It’s unhealthy to be overly focused on oneself. (If you or someone you know is suicidal: 1-800-273-8255).
There are many needs in our communities. People need food. Parents need childcare. People need to know that someone cares. Encourage your online audience to participate with the church in serving your community or to just find a need a fill it.
In a recent interview with NPR, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, said, “I think also it’s really going to change the way people think about their donation relationship with local churches as well. There’ll have to be an even greater demonstration of the value that a church brings not just to those who attend but also those who are part of this community.”
While all of the things listed above will certainly add value to your online congregation, churches must show how they are helping the community. Where are these dollars going? After all, those who are worshipping at home aren’t receiving the benefit of the building or the staff. But, beyond this, people need teaching about giving. Generosity is a spiritual discipline. It’s a sign of spiritual maturity. As your people grow, they will also grow in giving.
The American church is in a precarious moment. “As many as one in five churches could permanently close as a result of shutdowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic,” according to Kinnaman. “Obviously, there will be a lot more online attendance than ever before, even after all churches reopen. I think this digital church is here to stay.”
I see two camps in the church right now. There are those who’ve been hunkering down and waiting for Coronavirus to blow over so things can get back to normal. These are the churches that are in the most danger right now. Then, there are those churches who are embracing this disruption as an opportunity to meet the practical needs of people, re-evaluate their current ministries, reposition themselves for digital ministry, and embrace the opportunity of reaching a lost, hurting, and broken world online.
This year has been just as crazy of a year for Rock Church in San Diego, CA as it has for everybody else. They have not conducted in-person services since March. Pastor Miles McPherson streams his message every Sunday morning to a growing online congregation. Then, in addition to quarantine, the US began to experience racial unrest to a high degree. Pastor Miles just so happens to be the author of The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation. Suddenly, he knew what his next sermon series would be. The church also decided to launch book groups to go along with the series. Even if your church isn’t a megachurch or your pastor has not written a book, the principles Rock Church used will help you launch more online and in-person groups. This is how they launched 119 new online groups in July:
The Senior Pastor Invited People to Join Groups.
Every week Pastor Miles invited people to start or join a new online small group during the online worship service. This invitation wasn’t relegated to the announcements or made by another staff member. Over the years, I’ve seen that when an associate pastor makes the invitation, the church gets about 30% of the result. In 30 years, of full time ministry, I’ve experienced the same. This is why a lot of churches get stuck with only 30% of their adults in groups. Pastor Miles gave the invitation, and he got a big response.
They Chose a Compelling Topic.
You want a topic that has a broad appeal to a large group of people. This is not the time to choose a mature topic like fasting or anything to do with money. There are times for those series. By choosing a topic on racial tensions and reconciliation, Rock Church was positioned well to start a maximum number of groups in the middle of the summer. Now, it helped that Pastor Miles was the author of a book on racial reconciliation, but your church could also start groups using Miles McPherson’s book or start groups with a weekly teaching video and discussion questions from your pastor. The more relevant the topic, the greater the appeal.
They Reframed the Invitation to Start a Group.
Rock Church did not start “small groups.” They started book clubs or book groups. Small groups already had a certain meaning in their church’s culture. Small groups implied high qualifications and a lot of training in advance. By inviting people to Book Clubs, they didn’t need a small group leader. They needed friends to discuss a book. Language defines culture. To change the culture of groups in your church, change the words you use.
They Gave Their People Permission and Opportunity.
People interested in starting book clubs simply invited people they knew who would be interested in the book. There was no lengthy sign-up process or website to build. People just leveraged their existing relationships to meet online and discuss a topic that was relevant to them at their pastor’s invitation. It doesn’t really need to be more complex than that. That’s how most of these got started.
Now Rock Church is a large church. Chances are that there were many people who wanted to join a book club, but didn’t feel they could start one and didn’t get invited. The opportunity was given to register to join a book club. About 600 people took them up on this offer. The risk comes when you assign prospective group members to book club “leaders” that the church doesn’t know well. Instead, the book clubs for those 600 are being led largely by the church staff. (The campuses are closed. Services are online. What else is the staff going to do….?).
They Gave New Leaders an Experienced Leader to Coach Them.
To prepare for this launch, Mark Richardson, the small groups pastor at Rock Church, began to recruit experienced group leaders to walk alongside these book group leaders during the series. With the pandemic everything is decentralized. They didn’t have the ability for large training meetings, so they delivered the training through experienced leaders who can support and encourage these new leaders and answer their questions as they come.
If you can get these five keys in place, you will see a big result: Senior Pastor’s invitation, relevant topic, reframe the invitation, give permission and opportunity, and give the help of a coach. It’s not as difficult or complex as you might think. In this past year, Mark Richardson and Rock Church were prepared through my small group ministry coaching group. When we started the year, none of us knew what this year would hold. In January, Mark didn’t know he would be starting book clubs in July. But, by being ready to try something new and having coaches standing by, when Pastor Miles decided on The Third Option series, Mark was ready. Their people and their groups have benefitted greatly.
With so much curriculum available from so many great authors, why would anyone undertake to write curriculum for their church. While you may not achieve the production levels of some professionally produced curriculum out there, unless the speaker or teacher is very well known, chances are you’ll have to introduce them to your people anyway. But, when you create curriculum with your pastor and your teaching team, your people will become very excited about getting more of what they already like – your pastors’ teaching!
I’ve written a lot of small group curriculum over the years. Just to show you that I know what I’m talking about, I’ve created curriculum for Chip Ingram, Doug Fields, John Ortberg, and even Rick Warren. (Now, all of these guys might not have known that I was writing for them, but I did). Starting from our home-grown campaigns for our church in California to writing a weekly sermon discussion guide for our church in South Carolina to creating video-based studies for churches across the country, I’ve found that writing your own curriculum gives you some great advantages.
Write from Your Church’s Doctrine and Teaching.
While there’s a lot of great curriculum out there, some of it comes from a very different doctrinal perspective. While Calvinists and Arminians might agree on a few things, once they start debating doctrine, they just might end up losing their salvation! Pentecostals and Fundamentalists will struggle with each others’ teaching. While you can use curriculum based on a different doctrinal viewpoint, you’ll spend a lot of time explaining away things that don’t fully agree with your beliefs. Rather than working around doctrinal issues in curriculum, when you write your own curriculum, you create resources that teach what your church believes.
Reflect Your Church’s Vision and Values.
Every church is unique. You have a unique culture. So many factors come into play in the makeup of any church: region, ethnicity, age, history, personality, vision, values, passion, and so many other things. Your church is not like the church across the street let alone a church across the country.
Your curriculum can reflect your church’s uniqueness. You can write about what your church values in your curriculum. You can reinforce your vision statement in the curriculum. You can base the objectives and application of your lesson on where you want to lead your church. You shouldn’t follow someone else’s vision. Write about your own.
Curriculum is expensive. I remember at my church when a new Beth Moore series was released, I’d have five or six groups requesting a copy. At about $200 a pop, I wasn’t buying six copies. I think I settled on two copies. They either took turns or shared.
Even in a scenario where group members pay for their own books, there are still costs for streaming video or DVDs (although DVDs are slipping away…finally). And, even with books, the church ends up paying for the leaders’ books and for group members who can’t afford a book (as they should). And, there are always overages. As much as a small group pastor tries to look into the crystal ball and accurately predict the exact number of books to order, you always order too many. This also takes from your budget. Oh, and did I mention this was only for one alignment series or one semester. There’s at least 30 weeks total to cover!
By creating your own curriculum, you can save a great deal of money. The most affordable and easiest way to distribute curriculum is by digital download. You just create a pdf of your lesson, then either upload it to your church’s website or email it to your leaders. There are no physical materials to distribute. You can even create a teaching video and put the link at the top of your pdf.
If you’d prefer printed books, then print-on-demand is a simple and affordable solution. Services like Kindle Direct Publishing or Ingram Spark allow you to print your books for about $2.25 each (120 page study guide with a color cover and black and white pages). Whether you order one book or a thousand, the price is the same. You do need to plan in advance and allow about 2-4 weeks for shipping and delivery.
Writing your own curriculum will definitely save you money.
Publish It Anywhere You Want.
When you write your own curriculum, you can post your curriculum online. You can email it to your group leaders. You can sell your books on Amazon. You can print your books on-demand. Since the curriculum is yours, you can do whatever you want with it. If you do this with somebody else’s curriculum, you’re breaking the law.
Writing your own curriculum gives you flexibility. You can offer the study to your groups for free, and then sell it to other churches. You can make your studies available online and suddenly serve the global church. They no longer need to wait three months for study guides to arrive by boat.
Writing your own curriculum gives you flexibility in distribution, a possible revenue stream, and it keeps you out of jail! Whether groups are meeting in-person or online, this alleviates the difficulty of distribution.
Writing Your Own Curriculum is Not Difficult.
Like anything else curriculum writing seems difficult before you’ve done it. Personally, I’m a self-taught curriculum writer (and I earn a living at it). Once you master the basics and put in the practice, you are well on your way to becoming a curriculum writer yourself. You can test your curriculum with focus groups in your church to get their feedback and improve your studies. You can find someone to edit and proofread your studies. You probably already know someone who can design your cover and layout you pages. (If you don’t, that’s not so hard either).
Are you ready to get started?
In fact, in my Writing Effective Curriculum Workshop, you will learn to write great questions, write sermon discussion guides, write complete study guides, and write to make disciples. Not only will I teach you how to write and organize your studies, I will give you assignments, then offer my feedback on your writing. This is not a course. This is a WORKshop. You have to work! If you’re ready to jump in, the Writing Effective Curriculum Workshop is enrolling now.
There are several options for children during the online group meeting. The important thing is to be flexible. If child interrupts to ask a question, that’s okay. You can mute your mic and tend to your child. Some parents get uptight when their child interrupts the group meeting, but please remember your group is not more important than your child.
Here are some options to consider when it comes to meeting online and caring for your children:
Meet Later After the Children are Asleep.
If group members have younger children, then you might want to meet later in the evening after the children have gone to bed. This way parents can give their attention to their children at bedtime, put them to bed, then join the online group meeting. The group may need to meet at 8 o’clock at night, but it won’t take long for the group to get home after the meeting. They are home.
Offer a Children’s Online Small Group.
There are a number of online children’s ministry options on various online platforms. Maybe kids could have their own group during the adult group. Older children could moderate the group time. Kids are very interested in Zoom meetings just like they’re parents are doing!
Spouses Could Trade Off.
Spouses could agree to take turns in attending to children during the online group meeting. One spouse would help with the kids this week, if they need something during the meeting. Then the other spouse could help next week. Both spouse can participate in the meeting, but one would be “on call” when their children need someone.
Enlist Grandparents or Other Relatives.
If group members have family nearby, the group night could be a great time for a little Grandparent-Grandchild time. Other relatives or friends might also be available to help during the meeting. In one church I served, there was a group of grandparents that met on Tuesdays, then their children had a group on Thursdays. The grandparents kept their grandchildren on Thursday nights, so the parents could meet for their groups.
The most important thing is to relax and go with the interruptions. They happen. The author has worked from home for a number of years. I’ve had kids walk in during online meetings. Sometimes those interruptions involve a cookie or a hug. They’re not so bad. Remember, your group is not more important than your children!