Small Groups are a Leadership Development Factory

Small Groups are a Leadership Development Factory

If you need more leaders and even people just to help in your church, you are in good company these days. With low attendance numbers dragging on into the third year since COVID began, the leadership deficit in most churches is bigger than it’s ever been. Small groups are a great catalyst for growing leaders.

Every Disciple Can Make a Disciple

Sometimes you can get a little triggered when we hear the word “leader.” It’s a weighty word. Your mind goes to Paul’s qualifications for elders in his epistles to Timothy and Titus. But, as my friend Randal Alquist at Vertical Church in Connecticut says that when it comes to small group leaders, “We’re not recruiting elders here.” You have more knowledgeable and willing people than you give your church credit for. Give them a chance. If they have friends, they can make disciples. But, you don’t want to lower the bar on the title of “leader.”

Paul says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). Keep the leadership bar high. Only call someone a “leader” once they’ve met the requirements and have received training. But also remember that you don’t need a “leader” to make a disciple. You need a disciple to make a disciple.

When you read “every disciple can make a disciple,” your mind immediately goes to some special people in your church. They’re probably people you would never imagine leading a group or discipling anybody. First, don’t be so closed minded. Crazy people have the unique ability to minister to other crazy people. Second, as my friend Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You might be tempted to create an entire system to account for the exceptions. Don’t. Remember that 98% of your people will do a great job leading a group and discipling others. Don’t avoid trying something new or moving forward because someone might cause a problem. As my friend Mark Howell says, “There is no problem-free.” (I just realized that I’m blessed to have so many great friends).

Create an Easy Entry Point

For your people who are not ready to be called a “leader,” create an opportunity for a low risk trial run. This could be as simple as “getting together with your friends and doing a study” for a short-term study of six weeks or so. Provide a video-based curriculum, so they don’t have to teach. (You don’t want them to teach if they’re not trained). You provide an experience leader to walk alongside them to both help and supervise. Then, they invite their friends. Who will they invite?

Let’s say the scale of spiritual growth is 0 – 10. Zero are those who haven’t committed their lives to Christ. Tens are those who are “Jesus Jr.” Everyone falls somewhere on the scale. Now, if a spiritual three starts a group open to anybody and fives, sixes, and sevens show up, what’s going to happen? It will be a terrible experience. The spiritual three is still trying to figure out where the book of Habakkuk is, which makes the group rolls their eyes. But, what if that same three invites his or her friends. Who will be invited? The group will probably be threes, twos, ones, zeros, negative twos, etc.

Don’t Advertise These Groups

If you truly want to take the risk out of these groups, then don’t advertise them or send anyone to these groups. If you put the groups on your website or refer the group to someone, you’ve given the group an implied endorsement. If the “leader” hasn’t met the requirements to lead a group or lacks experience in leading, then those who sign up will experience disappointment. Their expectations weren’t met.

But, if someone gathers their friends, then their friends should know what they’re in for. It’s their friend. In my experience, I’ve never heard someone complain, “My friend’s group is terrible. I can’t believe you let them lead a group. They don’t know what they’re doing.” If they complain about their friend, my reply would be, “It’s your friend. This is on you, not on me.” But, I’ve never heard that complaint. People give grace to their friends.

A Six Week Study is Just a Start

An alignment series or church-wide campaign is the start of a leadership development process. If they enjoy doing a study with their friends, then offer them another study to continue. Once they have two studies under their belt, then begin to reintroduce the leadership requirements you delayed. Once they have met the requirements, then you can call them “leaders.”

Churches who keep a low bar on leadership for years create a situation with a diminishing return. If series after series is presented as too easy, then campaigns will become unimportant to your members. After all if you don’t increase the requirements for leaders and expect more of group members, then they will regard what you’re offering as unimportant. As my friend Carl George once said, “Churches have a one to three year window to get people into groups with campaigns.” After that, your members will suffer what I call campaign fatigue. They become weary of church-wide push after church-wide push.

You’ve got to know when to offer an easy entry point, when to reintroduce the requirements, and when to challenge your groups in their spiritual growth and commitment. While you don’t want to leave anyone in the dust, you also don’t want to keep everybody in Kindergarten. An easy entry point will get admitted non-leaders started, but keeping the bar low will not keep them engage long term.

On-going Leadership Development

Everyone in your groups, both leaders and members, should be taken through a process to discover and develop their spiritual gifts. Use a great resource like Discover Your Spiritual Gifts the Network Way by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback, or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Your people should know their spiritual gifts and abilities, then be offered a way to use their gifts in the ministry of your church. Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee is a great resource on how to implement a ministry development process in your church.

Of course, within every group, every member can learn to lead a group. Pass around the responsibilities from bringing refreshments to hosting in their homes to leading the discussion. You can develop every group member to lead a group.

Think About This

The global pandemic has rapidly and dramatically caused culture to change. It’s almost like we’ve experienced a decade’s worth of change in the last two years. Things aren’t going back to normal. What we are experiencing now is the normal. You have to lead the church you’ve got.

Not every ministry your church offered in 2019 is worth keeping. While COVID brought a great deal of chaos, it also brought a significant amount of clarity. Have you evaluated what your church no longer needs? If your worship center is only half full on Sunday mornings, then you probably don’t need a parking team. Could your parking team make disciples instead? It’s time to evaluate your ministries. Eliminate what is no longer working or is not meeting a need. “Right size” the ministries that are working. Then, readjust the culture of your church for what lies ahead. Don’t be afraid to lose the people you have. They are with you. They are ready to move forward. If there ever was a time to change things, now is the time.

Small groups have proven to be quite resilient through the pandemic. Rock Church in San Diego increased their groups by 211% in 2020.

Mount Hope Church, Lansing, Michigan increased their groups by 176% in 2021. What can your church do this year? Small groups are a leadership factory. What’s holding you back?

Small Group Leadership is Lonely

Small Group Leadership is Lonely

The loneliness of small group leadership seems like a misnomer. After all, small group leaders, coaches, directors, and even small group pastors are in a group. Why would they feel lonely? This isn’t the loneliness as a person. This is the loneliness of the leader. It’s the old adage that it’s lonely at the top. The experience of leadership can be a lonely experience. Here’s how to alleviate loneliness for your leaders and yourself.

Image by Daniel Reche from Pixabay

Offer Community Experiences for Group Leaders

Recently one of my small group leaders from a previous church was reminiscing about a retreat we did over 10 years ago. It was a great retreat. I had budgeted to bring in an excellent speaker. Our speaker was Carl George in this case. We planned the weekend to offer some down time in addition to having Carl take us through the Nine Keys of Effective Small Group Leadership. The setting was great. The teaching was stellar. However, the memory my small group leader shared was a group of leaders gathered around the fireplace sharing stories with each other. Internally, I thought, “Man, that was the highlight! What about Carl George!” People who offer community to others need community for themselves.

Community for small group leaders is easy to take for granted. Like I said, they’re in a group. They have community. But small group leaders need a community of leaders. My friend, Alan Pace, gave me the idea of gathering small group leaders in small groups every month to take the pulse of small group ministry in the church. These were informal lunches and coffee meetings just to hear what was going on in the groups. Usually the small group leaders answered each others’ questions. I just sat there and took notes. In fact, I often felt my most valuable contribution was initiating the gathering and picking up the check. Those informal conversations meant a lot to the leaders.

At Westover Hills Church, San Antonio, Texas, the small group pastor, Johnny Junkhout, offers a hang out setting in a room at the church every Sunday. Leaders gather as they will to hear the latest about small groups at the church, have a question answered, meet a new coach, or just enjoy a community of leaders.

How are you offering community to your small group leaders?

Give Every Leader a Coach

Our church in California offered small groups for the first time in 1994. We chose 10 of the best and brightest in our congregation to lead the groups. All of the groups started in January. Then, all of the group leaders quit in December. The senior pastor and I asked them what happened. The response was, “We felt like lone rangers.” I have to admit that we were surprised. The church at the time was only about 350 adults. We talked to these leaders every week. But, we weren’t doing anything intentional for them as group leaders. They were experiencing community personally, even with the pastors, yet they lacked community as leaders.

We took a couple of years off from small groups to rethink our strategy. When we launched groups in 1997, every leader had a coach. Now, you may have a strong reaction to coaching. Building a coaching structure is hard work. But, it’s worthwhile work. Some of the largest churches in the country lack a coaching structure because they pay staff to coach their leaders. You probably don’t have that luxury.

At Brookwood Church, Simpsonville, South Carolina, we grew our small groups to 400 groups from 120 groups over four years. Every leader had a coach. Every coach had a director or community leader. I met with the community leaders once a month. I met with the group leaders twice a year: once for our annual church-wide campaign announcement in the fall, and the second at our annual off-campus retreat. The eight directors and 40 coaches were all volunteer positions. My only paid staff was my assistant and a part-time senior adult director. Yet, the leaders of leaders of leaders I had the privilege of working with were tremendous.

If you don’t care for your leaders, eventually you won’t have leaders. For more on coaching leaders, click here for the benefits of coaching and click here for my coaching mistakes.

Find a Small Group Leadership Community for Yourself

Speaking of lonely, your job as the small group point person can also be a lonely experience. Even on a staff team, no one understands or appreciates small groups the way that you do. The student pastor is passionate about students. The worship pastor is passionate about worship. But, you’re probably the only one passionate about groups. But, you know, you should be. If you’re not passionate about groups, then who is? But, that doesn’t keep it from being a lonely experience.

Intentionally connect yourself to others in small group ministry. Find a local huddle of small group pastors through the Small Group Network. Join the SGN Facebook group and connect with others online. Reach out to other small group pastors in your denomination or association and invite then to lunch. (If you need a guest facilitator, give me a call!) If there’s not a group in your area, then start one. Join a cohort of small group pastors in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group.

What’s Your Next Move?

Small group leaders at every level need others to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24) and to “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). It’s as easy as a lunch meeting or a text message. You don’t need to stand alone.

2022 Ministry Forecast: Are You Ready?

2022 Ministry Forecast: Are You Ready?

Let’s face it: it’s been hard to predict anything in the last two years. I certainly don’t claim to be a prophet, but I am seeing and learning some emerging trends when it comes to ministry during Coronavirus Year Three. You might be noticing some of these things too.

Digital Ministry is the Church’s New Front Door

You’ve known for a while that people were checking out your church website before they were entering the physical front door. Now, digital ministry has become the church’s new front door. When people show up in-person for the first time, they are no longer “first time guests.” They’ve been watching online for a while. When they show up, they are ready in engage in small groups and serving.

Many pastors are frustrated that people aren’t “back” and are worshipping at home. I believe there are three reasons why people are still worshipping online. First, some are COVID Cautious. They’re just not sure if they’re ready to worship in-person, so they stay away. Second, some are COVID Convenient. (I used to call this “COVID Lazy,” but someone accused me of being judgmental.) They enjoy the convenience of worshipping at home and not having to pile everyone in the car to go to church. The third group is new attenders. They discovered your church during the pandemic. They are watching as regularly or more regularly than your in-person attenders are showing up. A church in Texas recently baptized an online attender who flew in from England. My friends at Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, baptized a police officer from New York City who came to Christ while watching online. This is more than a novelty. Digitial Ministry is a mission field.

Insight: Make your online worship service equivalent to your in-person worship service. It’s not the same (not even close). But, expect just as much from your online attenders as you do your in-person attenders when it comes to your growth track, small groups, giving, and serving. Specifically invite them to follow next steps. Give them a digital way to respond. For more on digital ministry, go here.

The Church You Have is the Church You’ve Got

Waiting for your pre-COVID worship attenders to return is like waiting for your old Blockbuster to reopen. It’s not going to happen. The church you have is your church, so lead it. As I wrote a few months ago, “Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.

“The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.” To read the entire post, go here.

People are Choosier in Committing Their Time

During the pandemic your people divested themselves of every type of involvement. They wiped the slate complete clean. And, as you’ve seen, they haven’t immediately brought back everything they were doing before. They will form groups. They will serve. But, the motivation is more aligned with their personal mission than with being told they “ought” to.

When it comes to serving, help people discover their spiritual gifts and see how they align with their personal passions. Use a course like Network by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Start new ministries from your people’s passions rather than from the top down.

Give your people permission and opportunity to start small groups on their terms. Let them invite their friends. Let them meet in-person or online with any format that suits them. Small groups can grow if you let people meet anywhere at any time with anyone.

Insight: If your church parking lot is half empty, then encourage your parking team to start small groups. Everybody can find a parking place on their own.

Processes and Programs Should Give Way to Personalization

There has been a growing shift in discipleship for quite some time. Every person is different. They are at different places in their spiritual growth. They came to you from very different circumstances. A process is not the answer. After all, you’re not making widgits! (Read more here).

While there is a part of discipleship that involves content, the vast majority of disciple-making is personal. Churches in general have produced an inordinate amount of content because that’s the easy way to go in indoctrinating people. But, the reality is that just because people “know right” doesn’t mean they “do right.” You know that’s true.

Community is equally as important as content. One definition of “disciple” is the idea of “rubbing off on.” People need to be together in smaller groups to rub off on each other and practice the one anothers of Scripture. While many pastor struggle with getting online attenders to attend in-person, some will join an in-person small group even if they are worshipping online. And, some in-person attenders have discovered that online groups are more convenient for them. Regardless of how they choose to meet, encourage community.

How are your people motivated to change? How are they motivated to grow in the New Year? I’m not going to give you the answer. Ask them. How do you ask dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people? Enlist some help from your small group leaders and other mature church members. Conduct brief interviews, then make an action plan for each person.

When Spring Hits, People Will be Gone

In their fourth quarter forecast for 2021, Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, predicts that people are planning now for Spring 2022. They are booking vacation homes and cruises. What this says is that once the weather warms up, people will be gone. With Easter on April 17, 2022, your greatest ministry impact will come before Easter rather than after. Invest in a New Years’ small group launch or a Lenten series like The Crucified Life or All In (scripted to make your own videos), and then take your foot off the gas and plan for a strong fall 2022.

Think About It

Now that you’ve put your Blockbuster card away, what’s next for your church in 2022? As you look out over your congregation (in-person and online), do you see committed, motivated people who are with you? Do you see your faithful givers and servants? What future do you imagine could be achieved with these dedicated souls?

2022 might just be your church’s best year ever.

Getting the Most New Leaders in 2022

Getting the Most New Leaders in 2022

You can agree that it takes disciples to make disciples. When you think about groups, there are many parts – leaders, curriculum, group dynamics, training, coaching, and supervision. But, the most basic part of any group is someone who is willing to make themselves available to other people for the purpose of helping them to become more like Christ. While there is a definition of “disciple” that means student. There are other words translated “disciple” that mean “to follow” or “to rub off on.” Making disciples is a multidimensional enterprise. What does this have to do with getting the most new leaders next year?

Image by Vishnu R from Pixabay

Obstacles to Recruiting Leaders

Often the limitation of how many new leaders you can recruit stems from your definition of a leader. If you are looking for leaders according to the definition in Paul’s letters, then you are looking for a select group. You have a very small fishing pond in which to recruit new leaders. But, do you really need elders to lead small groups? Sometimes the word “leader” gets in your way.

If you think of disciples as students who are following a course of study, then you need very knowledgeable people to impart biblical and theological knowledge to the students in their small groups. You may have a few seminary trained folks or even a few who have spent copious hours in self-study, but you don’t have enough teachers or leaders to disciple as many people as you are responsible for.

Think about all of the people attending your in-person services, attending your online services, and listed in your church database. (To gauge the true size of your church, go here.) You have a much bigger responsibility than you realize. Yet, your methods of recruiting and developing leaders are lagging behind. (You’re probably thinking: Good grief, Allen. I thought you were trying to encourage me here. We are apparently still in a pandemic. Give us a break). Okay, I hear you, let’s talk about how you can get the most new leaders.

Every Church Attender Can Lead a Group

Every person in your church can lead somebody. If they can recommend a restaurant, they have influence. If they have influence, then they are leaders. If they know Jesus as their Savior and are filled with the Holy Spirit (according to your definition), they have the light of the world. They have hope. They have truth. They have something to offer.

Start looking at your congregation (in-person and online) as an army instead of an audience. Audiences need to be entertained. Armies need their marching orders. The people you have in your congregation right now are ready for their marching orders. The consumer Christians are gone. Don’t hesitate from challenging the people you have with bigger responsibilities. In the last two years you’ve lost just about as many as you are going to lose. If you ever wanted to change your church’s culture, now is the time.

Challenge every person in your church. Challenge every person in your worship service. Challenge every online attender to gather a group of friends and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. For the people you aren’t sure about, don’t advertise the group they gather. Start leading the church you have.

Stop Babying Your People

Your people have more to offer than you give them credit for. But, the only way you will find that out is if you stop doing things for them and encourage them to do things for themselves. I know some pastors are stuck on the “leader” or “teacher” concepts mentioned in the last section. Most of your people fall more in the category of “by now you ought to be teachers, but you still need to be taught” (Hebrews 5:12 – paraphrased).

Your people can gather a group of friends. Have they ever had a party?

Your people can follow the instructions of an easy-to-use, video-based curriculum. Have they ever watch a show on Netflix, followed a recipe, or built a piece of furniture from Ikea?

Your people are doing what you expect them to do. Or as Andy Stanley once said, “Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you’re getting.” (Amen or Ouch!?) Your people would do more if you expect them to do more. And, here’s the deal, your church has been through it over the last two years. The people you have right now are the survivors. They are committed. They are ready for action. If you give them permission and opportunity, they will start groups – even in a pandemic, even if they’ve never done it before, or even if you don’t think they can.

How did you get your children to move out of your house and become productive members of society? (I’ll be careful here. I’m still trying to launch one.) If you pay their bills, guide their every move, and let them stay, they will live in your basement for a very long time. If you expect them to pursue a career, start a family, and find a life on their own, they’ll do it. It’s natural. It’s normal. So, why do pastors create an abnormal relationship with their congregations? You will gain far more from sending people out than you ever will by keeping them. Who’s the next group leader? Who’s the next coach? Who’s the next small group pastor? Who’s the next church planter? Who’s the next senior pastor? They are sitting in your congregation just like you were at one time.

Think About This

God has given you a calling and a mission. God has also given you the ability to fulfill your calling and mission. You cannot possibly care for and disciple every person in your church in a personal and profound way. But, that is not your calling. You are called to “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). That doesn’t mean you need to stop teaching and making disciples. But, it does narrow the focus of who you teach and what you teach them. You must be a ministry multiplier to effectively disciple everyone who is truly part of your church. To disciple every online attender you must multiply yourself. Sure you can dispense content, but content only does half the job of development and discipleship. It takes a disciple to make a disciple.

How will you activate your people to make disciples this next year?

Now, before you take all of this and create a mess for yourself, you need to have a system in place to manage and develop this new crop of “leaders.” You need coaches. You need training. You need next steps. Don’t get stuck here. Because your success only requires developing the minimal amount of structure necessary to support this. For a glimpse of what this looks like, follow the 5-part video series called the Small Group Restart. It provides a road map of how to build this. If you start right now, you can launch the most new group leaders in just a few weeks.

Additional Resources

Book: Exponential Groups and the Exponential Groups Workbook

Course: Leading an Exponential Groups Launch

Coaching: Small Group Ministry Coaching Group (Starts in January!)

Case Study: 176% Group Growth in 2021

Case Study: 176% Group Growth in 2021

“We want to connect 80 percent of our people into groups in 2021,” announced Pastor Kevin Berry. That seemed like a loaded statement. To start, the church only had 19 percent of their adult worship attendance in groups. Next, small groups had never been a high priority at the church. Lastly, did you catch the date? 2021 was just more of the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, but God gave Pastor Kevin a vision. Here’s what happened.

Mount Hope is an Assemblies of God church in Lansing, Michigan. They have an in-person worship attendance of 1,000 adults and an online worship attendance of 500 (2021). The church was founded in 1925 but became what it is today under the leadership of Pastor Dave Williams (1981-2012) and is currently led by Pastor Kevin Berry. Mount Hope is known for global missions and supports works in over 150 countries. They are also known for serving their local community. Mount Hope has a goal to reach everyone within a 50 miles radius of Lansing, which they call the “Soul Zone.” But, small groups have never been a high priority for the church until this year.

Mount Hope began 2021 without a Life Group Pastor and only 29 groups. After a conversation with Pastor Kevin in early 2021, the Mount Hope Executive Team decided to hire me (Allen White) as their outsourced Life Group Pastor for 12 months. Our goal is to connect 80 percent of the average adult worship attendance into groups, connect every leader with a coach, and develop leaders for longer term service.

The Senior Pastor Led the Charge

The vision caster for every church is the senior pastor. It just makes sense. The senior pastor hears from God and shares the vision with the people. In this case, Pastor Kevin became the spokesman for small groups. He announced the series. He invited people to gather their friends, open their homes, and host online groups. He asked them to text “Host” to the church’s text line, then asked them to meet him after the service for a host briefing, which he introduced then handed off to other staff.

This is the influence of the senior pastor. I have served in full-time ministry since 1990. Most of that time I served as the Associate Pastor, Discipleship Pastor, Vice President, and now outsourced Life Group Pastor. What I’ve learned is that even if I said the very same words as the senior pastor, I would only get 30 percent of the result. How do I know? I cast vision for groups in my church in California for seven years and connected 30 percent of our adults into groups. That number was no coincidence. The day my senior pastor invited people to host a group, we doubled our groups in one day.

In the two alignment series at Mount Hope this year, groups grew from 29 at the start to 53 groups in the first series. Then in Fall 2021, groups went from 53 to 83. When student ministry groups under Pastor Peter Reeves as well as support groups under Pastor Josh Goodman were added in, Mount Hope peaked so far at 99 groups and 59 percent of the congregation connected into groups.

The Church Created Their Own Curriculum

In order to get more people into groups and raise the value of small groups at Mount Hope, the church launched two alignment series based on the sermon series. One series ran in the spring of 2021 (May-June). A second series ran in fall 2021 (September-October). A third series is being produced now for new year 2022. This seems like a lot to create, but several important factors drove all of this forward.

First, Pastor Kevin recognized that if the groups were aligned with where the teaching team taught on the weekend, the people would follow along. For most people who aren’t connected to groups, the reason they attend worship services is because of the senior pastor’s teaching. When you connect the small group study with the senior pastor’s teaching, you are giving your people more of what they already want.

Second, Pastor Kevin shares the pulpit with a qualified team of men and women who serve alongside him. Rather than creating every lesson for every aligned small group study, the teaching pastors created the video teaching for each week they preached. This created both continuity between the pulpit and the group study as well as shared responsibility for creating the resource.

Third, the church enlisted the help of Executive Pastor Joe Mead, Communications Director Roger Ackerman, and their outsourced Life Group Pastor to create either a downloadable resource (Spring 2021) or a full study guide (Fall 2021 and New Year 2022) to accompany the video teaching. Again, with a team approach, the church has produced three high quality small group studies in just nine months along with regular sermon discussion questions for the weeks between alignment series.

Lastly, the church made a consistent effort for groups with a sequence of small group alignments. Since they did not have a strong track record with groups, the consistency of offering three alignment series in one 12 month period showed the congregation that Mount Hope is serious about groups. Also, the people who might have been reluctant when the first series was announced joined the second series. And, those who were skeptical haven’t joined yet, but should warm up to the third series in New Year 2022.

Leadership Requirements Were Delayed

Prior to 2021, Life Group Leaders had to meet some stringent leadership requirements in order to start a group. Candidates needed to complete Growth Track and become church members in addition to completing a 12-part online or in-person leadership course called Accelerate. To maximize the number of new hosts, the church leadership chose to delay the requirements. This gave folks a chance to test drive a group before they decided to move forward. Now that many groups have completed one to two alignment series, these requirements are being gently reintroduced by invitation for those who have found their niche in leading a Life Group.

Every New Leader Connected to a Coach

There is a risk to starting groups with unproven group leaders. There I said it. It’s a calculated risk, in that, only about 2 percent of the people recruited in over 1,500 churches in the last 17 years have been any kind of a problem. And, by problem, I simply mean having a warm pastoral conversation about an issue they might be struggling with. To reduce the risk and to help more groups get started, each new leader was given an experienced leader to walk alongside them from when they first attended the briefing through the end of the alignment series. This experienced leader made a phone call to the new leader once a week to answer their questions, encourage them, and see how they were doing. This was also a great format for identifying and recruiting new on-going coaches. (Here’s more on why coaching matters).

The Rest of the Story

Mount Hope has accomplished a lot in building their Life Groups through a very difficult year. But, rather than waiting for everything to get back to normal (which it’s not so start leading the church you have), the pastors at Mount Hope are moving forward in leading the church they have into community, care, and growth through their Life Groups.

Mount Hope’s journey toward reaching 80 percent in Life Groups is still being written. Check back for updates. In the meantime, for more complete details of what’s working right now with small groups, join the Small Group Restart.

The Small Group Bump

At the beginning of 2021, I started talking about the Small Group Boom. As COVID numbers were descending, a pattern began to emerge in several disciplines reminiscent of the aftermath of the Spanish Influenza in 1918-1919. After that period, people began to travel extensively both domestically and internationally. Then, of course, came the Roaring 20’s. The Spanish Influenza was never mentioned again even though it didn’t entirely disappear until the 1950s when it was overcome by Bird Flu (see this 1997 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell). Sorry for that bit of bad news.

Trouble viewing? Click here.

The churches I coached anticipated a great reduction in COVID cases and prepared for the Small Group Boom, then the Delta variant appeared. No one was prepared for that. The Small Group Boom of 2021 ended up being more of a Small Group Bump, but it was a significant bump. These churches ended up with more small groups than they ever had and more people in groups than ever. And, more of their groups continued. In places where we might have launched hundreds of new groups in more normal times, we launched dozens of new groups instead. They were “COVID successful.”

The church I am serving as Life Group Pastor in Lansing, Michigan saw a group increase of 176% in 2021. The senior pastor led the church in two alignment series which we self-produced. We started the year with 20% of their 1,500 adults in small groups and ended the year with 60% in groups. We are launching a third alignment series in February to reach our goal of 80% of adults in groups. This is both the in-person worship attendance (1,000) and the online worship attendance (500).

While everyone has been forced to adapt to the changing culture produced by the pandemic, many of the best practices taught in Exponential Groups are working very well. Inviting people to start their own groups is working. Gathering a group of friends is working. Coaching every new leader is working. Offering a next step series for groups to continue is working. And the Holy Spirit is working to transform lives and make disciples in groups. With a dose of flexibility regarding when, where, and how a group meets, these strategies have proven successful.

Here’s what’s different:

  1. People have re-evaluated their priorities.

During the pandemic, most people divested themselves of everything – social activities, church activities, commuting to work, hobbies, and pretty much everything else. Once people had a “blank slate” on their calendar, they’ve been choosier about what to bring back. For many people, their calendars are not nearly as full now as they were at the beginning of 2020. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  1. Uncertainty produces a lack of commitment.

Preach what is certain. With so much uncertainty in politics, economics, supply chain (when have you ever worried about the supply chain), race relations, local schools, and many other things, you can give them what is certain. As Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35, NIV).

  1. Online worshippers are willing to meet in groups (online groups AND in-person groups).

Online services are great in delivering programming. Small groups are great in creating community. If you lead your online congregation to start groups, they will. Some are only uncomfortable meeting in-person in large groups, but they will meet in-person for a small group. Don’t overlook your online congregation. They will follow where you lead them. Online ministry is both an opportunity and a responsibility.

  1. Embracing and empowering the church you have.

2019 isn’t coming back. Move forward. Stop waiting for it. Starting leading the church you have.

  1. Now is the time to realign the priorities in your ministry.

If you ever wanted to change things, this is your moment. During the pandemic, you had a church of small groups (not just a church with small groups). Now is the time to emphasize small groups in the uncertain days ahead.

I want to help you prepare for what’s ahead for your church in forming groups in 2022. According to Gauge Research, a secular research firm in Washington DC, right now in the fourth quarter of 2021, people are planning for spring 2022 already. That means two significant things for groups (barring another Coronavirus surge):

  1. The New Year of 2022 is a crucial window to launch groups. Hit the New Year hard in recruiting leaders and launching groups. According to Gauge, people will be gone after Easter.
  2. Your next big opportunity for a major group launch is fall 2022. While this is typically the biggest group launch of the year, post-Covid this could be huge.

People are ready to move forward. You hear it. You can feel it. Let’s talk about what it means to move forward in 2022. Join me for the Small Group Restart. This is a 5-day challenge to think through your small group strategies for 2022. Watch a daily video. Interact in our private Facebook group. Join a community of like-minded small group folks who are figuring things out just like you are. Click here to join.

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2019 isn't coming back.

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