Have you worked hard to launch groups only to see them disappear after a church-wide series or semester? I heard of a church once who launched their entire small group ministry from a campaign. They didn’t have any groups when they started, and then hey recruited 233 groups for the series. When the campaign ended, they only had three groups that continued. This situation can and should be avoided.
For some reason when we invite people to lead a group for a six week study, they get this crazy idea that once the six weeks is over, they’re done. Where would they get an idea like this? The same is true for a semester-based groups. Where are they headed in the next semester?
If you haven’t decided what’s next for your groups, then prepare yourself for a hard landing. Otherwise the celebration of new groups at the conclusion of a series will end with a deafening thud, unless you’re prepared for what’s next. Next year, you’ll be right back at re-recruiting leaders and re-forming groups just like you did this year. It’s not good for the groups or for you!
You see all of this grouping, de-grouping, and regrouping is really an exercise in futility. It produces an effect I refer to as Ground Hog Day after the namesake movie starring Bill Murray. If people are already meeting together and they like each other, then we should encourage them to continue, not break up.
Now a few folks who signed up to lead for a literal six weeks will object: “This is like bait and switch.” My response is something like, “That’s because this IS bait and switch. Do you like meeting together? Then, continue. If you don’t like meeting together, then go ahead and end the group this week. Life is too short to be stuck in a bad group.” If they really can’t continue with the group, then ask if a group member could take over leading.
If the middle of your current series or semester, introduce a next step. Whether the next step is an off-the-shelf curriculum you purchase, a church-wide study in the season or semester, or a weekly sermon discussion guide, invite your new groups, especially, to pursue one specific next step. Don’t offer 12 different choices to new groups. The decision you want them to make is whether the group will continue, not what they will study. Established groups can follow what you’ve set in place for a curriculum pathway or library. Established groups need choices. New groups won’t have an opinion, so choose for them.
Before the groups disband at the end of the current series or semester, ask the group to decide about continuing. If you wait until after the study ends, then you have a much lower chance of getting the group back together for the future.
With the Christmas season upon us or when Summer hits, have groups focus on group life rather than group meetings. The new series might not start until January or October, but the group can meet socially, have a party and invite prospective group members, or serve together. Then, in the next series or study, they can continue their regular pattern of meeting. If the group insists on doing a Bible study between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day or over the Summer, then encourage it. Most groups will not take this option, but a few might.
You can avoid the disaster of Day 41 after a 40-day campaign. You can avoid experiencing Groundhog Day for your next series or semester. By offering a next step now, you can retain more groups, then build on what you’ve accomplished in your groups’ launch.
When you recruits leaders is just as important as how you recruit leaders. Timing is everything. Not only do you need to choose the right season, you also need to make the invitation often enough for people to get the message, but not so much that you dilute the message.
The best seasons of the year for a group launch are the Fall, the New Year, and Easter, as I’ve mentioned before. As you build momentum for a series, you want to promote well in advance. Let people know the series is coming. Show short video clips of the making of the series, if you’re creating your own video curriculum. If you’ve purchased a curriculum, then use the preview videos provided by the publisher.
While you want to promote well in advance, you
don’t want to offer sign ups too far in advance. If someone agrees to start a
group three months ahead of the series, odds are that decision will be a faint
memory when the campaign is ready to begin. You don’t want to allow people a
month or more to get cold feet. When they say, “Yes,” it’s time to
A PTA president advised me once to never hold
signups for more than three weeks. The simple reason is everyone waits until
the last minute to register. She said to promote well in advance, but only sign
up when you are ready to start. Great advice.
Registering new leaders and groups over a three week period just prior to the series launch has another significance — everyone doesn’t attend church every Sunday. If registration is only offered for one week, then the church will miss out on two-thirds of their potential leaders.
This two-thirds scenario played out a few years
ago with two churches I was working with. The churches were about the same
size. One was in New York. The other in Florida. At the end of their
recruitment periods, the New York church complained they only had one third of
the result the Florida church saw. I asked the small groups’ pastor how many
weeks they had recruited leaders. He told me that while the series was well
publicized, they only registered new leaders for one Sunday.
The Florida church, on the other hand, had
registered new leaders for three weeks and saw three times the result. In fact,
the New York church’s numbers matched the Florida church’s recruits after their
first week as well.
Now, some may be prone to blame this on the
cultural differences between Florida and New York. After working with both churches
for 12 months, the New York church launched a significant number of groups.
And, besides, most people in Florida are from New York anyway.
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 white noise and everyone waits until the last week to sign up anyway.
I was talking to the lady 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 was 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.”
Now, to give you context, 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 became very
animated as she began telling me her story while she was pointing the comb
toward my face. Paying attention, 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.
Innovators will jump in with the first invitation. They are good to go, but the Early Adopters need a little time to think about it. They’ve been caught flat footed and are not prepared to respond. When the pastor makes the invitation again the next weekend, they’ve had a little time to think about it. If a church is recruiting leaders like this for the first time, not everyone will get on-board during the first group launch. The average church will connect 30-50 percent of their adults on the first launch. (Of course, there are some exceptions.) Mostly Innovators and Early Adopters will start groups in the first series. The Early Majority needs a little more time to see how all of this is going to work. They want to make sure nothing goes terribly wrong or nobody dies from this before they jump in. That’s just their nature.
How many weeks do you plan to recruit leaders for your next series? If you only recruit for one week, you might just be missing two-thirds of your potential leaders. And, remember, people only attend church 1.6 times per month on average. If you only invite people to lead on one Sunday, you’re missing half of your congregation!
Timing is a huge factor in an alignment series. Every church and community has key seasons of the year to recruit new leaders and start new groups. Every church and community also has obstacles to effective launches. By taking the rhythms of the calendar into account, most churches can effectively recruit leaders and launch new groups while avoiding obstacles.
For many churches, the “ministry year” in a large part models the public school year, August to May. Of course, there is some variation depending on school districts. The general rule is that when school starts most people are back in church from Summer vacation, Christmas break, or Spring break. When school is out, then people are out. By observing the rhythms of the calendar, small groups can thrive.
The church’s Fall launch should be preceeded by at least four weeks to recruit coaches, recruit group leaders, and form groups. With this in mind, recruiting new leaders should start when most people are back in church from Summer. This varies by community.
One year, I coached churches that launched their “Fall” series at various times. The earliest was a church in Kentucky that launched their series on the second weekend of August. The latest was a church in New Hampshire that launched the second weekend of October. That particular year, I had a church launching a series every weekend in-between except for Labor Day weekend.
The right launch date depends on your church. In some churches groups must be offered when school goes back into session. Otherwise, family calendars are quickly filled with school activities, and there is no room for a group. In other communities, church members want to squeeze every bit of good weather out of Summer before cold weather hits. In these cases, the launch should start later in the calendar. If people aren’t regularly attending until after Labor Day weekend, then start recruiting new leaders after Labor Day and launch in October. This works as long as the series ends by Thanksgiving in the U.S. Canadian churches should consider launching groups after their Thanksgiving and wrap up the series by late November.
Another important consideration is when the church will launch its follow-up series after the alignment series. The follow-up series is not a big push like an alignment series, but it is significant in getting new groups to continue. If the Fall alignment series starts in August or September, it is possible to offer a follow-up series in October-November. If the Fall series is later (October-November), then the follow-up series cannot start until January (or the New Year series is possibly the follow-up series). By offering a Next Step Study, the church has a better chance of retaining the new groups that will start in the Fall.
What’s the best timing for your church? If you are satisfied with the number of new groups that start in the Fall of each year, then keep that pattern. If you feel you might be missing some, then adjust your schedule and see what happens.
Church-wide campaigns are great sprints toward connecting a lot of people in a hurry. But, disciple-making is a marathon, not a sprint. The ultimate goal of groups is to make disciples. Disciples are not the end result of a process. Disciples are crafted. Eventually, the church will want video-based-curriculum-dependent newbies to be able to rightly divide the Word of Truth and facilitate a discussion leading toward on-going life change. You can’t grow disciples in fits and starts. As Eugene Peterson once titled a book, it’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Campaigns can help you or hurt you. Just like hot sauce,
you’ve got to know how much to use and when. Otherwise, you’ll numb your taste
buds for campaigns. Is it time to start a church-wide campaign? Or, is it time
In Jesus’ work with His disciples, there are three distinct phases: “Come and Follow” (Matthew 4:19), “Come and Die” (Luke 9:23), and “Go and Make” (Matthew 28:18-20). While some churches attempt to start “serious” discipleship groups with “come and die,” it’s much easier to start groups with “come and follow,” and then lead them into maturity to reach “come and die.”
The purpose of the “Come and follow” stage is connection. Whether the church is trying to connect their worship attendance, the neighborhood, or both, this connection purpose can largely be achieved by offering a felt needs topic with an alignment series, as described in Exponential Groups. This low commitment, short-term approach allows potential leaders and their groups to test drive a group and begin the habit of meeting together. While the primary purpose is connection, other purposes including leadership development and spiritual growth can certainly take place at the “Come and follow” stage.
The danger in connection groups is in seeing them as an end in themselves. They should be viewed as the starting point for discipleship which will increase the maturity of the group members and group leaders. Some pastors embrace the notion that things must be kept easy and low commitment in order to produce maximum results. After working with churches in their alignments series for nearly 20 years now, the reality is the low commitment and low requirement approach eventually produces low maturity. What’s worse is that as the church continues into a minority Christian culture, the lack of challenge is off-putting to those who seek depth and genuine relationship with God and others. In the 21st century, people are looking for answers. They desire a cause to live for. Once they are engaged in groups, they need more. They need the challenge to “Come and Die.”
The purpose of the “Come and Die” phase is growth and spiritual maturity. Please don’t read those words as “deeper” teaching and more Bible facts. While the intellect is important (after all God gave humans a book and a brain), there is so much more to discipling the whole person. This is more than an academic exercise. A well-rounded approach to discipleship must take into consideration every aspect of a person’s life and being – physical, emotional, relational, financial, intellectual, and other areas. This topic is too large to explore here. There is a future book in the works.
The mission of the church in making disciples is to baptize them and teach them to obey what Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Obedience and surrender are best evidenced in a person’s attitude and actions. Rather than using all of the clichés about “walking your talk” and so forth, the point is the end product of discipleship is someone who resembles Jesus Christ. They have died to themselves and their ways of dealing with things and replaced their ways with those of Jesus. The self is sacrificed to produce genuine transformation.
The church can turn up the temperature on discipleship in
their groups through the curriculum and leadership training offered. Again,
this is not an invitation to teach groups to parse Greek verbs. Curriculum
should be a balance of personal time with God, a group discussion of the Bible,
assignments to turn words into action, and accountability to check progress.
Curriculum is not just a course of study, but an action plan for integrating the teaching of the Bible into daily life. This is not merely an ascent to a belief statement, but how believers live and breathe in their daily lives. Study formats like Rooted, The Neighboring Life by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, Emotionally-Healthy Discipleship by Pete Scazzero, D-Lifeby Dr. Bill Wilks and Dr. John Herring, or D-Groups by Robby Gallaty help to turn up the temperature of discipleship. Even a format like the Discovery Bible Study Method which uses the same nine questions for every passage of Scripture helps group members to apply God’s Word and live it out. The expectation here is the power of God resident in every believer (Ephesians 1:18-20) accompanied by studying the Bible and interacting with other believers will produce transformed lives.
A few years ago, I was working with a small group director
who had moved from another country to the United States. In his country of
origin, there was a high expectation of believers learning, doing, and sharing
what they’ve learned from the very beginning of their relationship with God. He
was a little beside himself when he came to the U.S. and discovered many
believers learned biblical truth without much intention of practicing what they
learned or sharing it with others. When he challenged people in his church to
high commitment approaches to discipleship, he found resistance. I asked him if
he had ever heard the analogy of the frog and the kettle. He had not.
I explained this common story about placing frogs in hot water caused them to jump out. Yet, by placing frogs in cold water, then gradually turning up the temperature, the frogs remained in the hot water because the change was gradual. I told him he was putting his disciples in hot water. That’s why they were resisting. (If you’re shaking your head at this point about the reverse implications of this analogy, I apologize. I’ll switch gears before this turns into martyrdom, which is no joking matter).
For average American church members, the move from the worship service to a group is a pretty big step. If the benefit of a group is unproven, they need an opportunity to try out this environment in a short-term, low commitment way. An alignment series or church-wide campaign fits the bill. If they’ve had a positive experience, then the group may agree to continue into a follow up series. Once these two studies have been completed, then it’s more likely that the group will continue on.
Group leaders are given a leadership pathway to develop as disciples and as group leaders. Group members should also be given a pathway. This could be based on the results of the group’s health assessment. The right curriculum can also lead the group into new experiences and even into taking risks as a group. These risks could include things like the three-hour prayer experience in Rooted, the neighborhood map in The Neighboring Life, or the genogram in Emotionally-Healthy Spirituality. The goal of these exercises is to learn to trust God in deeper ways, to hear God, and to learn about oneself.
Curriculum for the sake of curriculum is worthless. Checking off a list of studies doesn’t guarantee growth. But, using curriculum as a vehicle to produce growth and lasting change is worthwhile. What is your curriculum producing? What are your groups producing? Using an assessment to evaluate the progress your people, your groups, and your church is making.
The third phase from Scripture is “Go and Make.” While these phases don’t need to occur in sequential order, the goal is to make disciples who make disciples. After all, that’s how a church knows it’s making disciples. If the people in the church are not making disciples, then they are not disciples. The appropriate term for them would be “the crowd.” In the Gospels, Jesus spent 73 percent of His time with His disciples. He didn’t devote vast amounts of time to serving the crowd. Boy, has the modern American church turned that on its head.
“Go and Make” implies that church members are thinking about others more than about themselves and their own needs. They are become self-feeders. The focus is on servant leadership at various levels. While most people in the church will not have the title of leader, they do have influence over people around them. The goal is to multiply their lives and their abilities. Jesus spent three and a half years investing in 12 disciples, who after His departure, developed others and took the message of the Gospel throughout their known world, establishing churches, and making disciples. If you’re a Christian reading this, it’s because of these 12 who Jesus poured His Life into. Who are your 12?
This is the place where pastors equip the church to do the
work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). In the last 30 years, the church has
catered to people in order to serve a Christian consumer culture. A growing gap
has emerged between staff and volunteers, or clergy and laity, as it was once
known. People are asked to volunteer to serve the church and the efforts of the
church staff. But, the volunteers are the church!
Members should be challenged to pursue and develop their gifts. Resources like Networkby Bruce Bugbee and Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee create the philosophical foundation for gifts-based ministry that is truly satisfying to church members and effective in reaching the neighborhood. After all, ministry is not something pastors do to people. Ministry is the purpose of the church body, not the leaders of the institution. People need to serve in meaningful ways in order to grow spiritually. Meaningless volunteer roles cannot meet this purpose.
Since a church of any size cannot assess and recognize the gifts of every church member, groups play an essential role in helping people discover, develop, and use their gifts. This is more than another assessment. There is an expectation for people to take responsibility for understanding and implementing their gifts to fulfill the mission of the church. There is also a responsibility for the church to release, not just ministry responsibilities, but also the authority to carry them out.
One more step lies beyond identifying and using gifts – members developing other members. Every person in every role in the church, including members, pastors, and church staff, must multiply what they are doing in the lives of others. This is one of the primary purposes of groups – leadership development. The church must embrace Hero-making as articulated by Dave Ferguson and Dr. Warren Bird. The pastor is not the hero in the church. The staff are not the heroes. The members are not the heroes. But, they are all called to make heroes. They are all called to invest in others and help them flourish in ministry. They are called to work themselves out of a job, so a new ministry, a new group, or a new church can be launched to serve others and repeat the process.
These three phases may not be the only phases. They don’t
necessarily need to be taken in exact order (or else some churches will camp on
phase two until Jesus returns and never get to phase three). The point is
everyone must be challenged to take a next step at every phase. Those only
attending worship must be challenged to join a group. Everyone in a group must
be challenged to take what they learn to heart and mature in their faith as
evidenced by their actions and attitudes. Those who are maturing must reach out
to their neighborhoods and share their hope. Those who are serving must develop
others to serve.
Attractional services and advertising built some great churches over the last 30 years. The next 30 years will be much different than the last 30 years. This statement is not meant to discount what happened over the last 30 years, but it’s time to gear up for what is next. In working with churches across North America, I’ve visited many formerly great churches. At one point in time, the church was the shining beacon in the community. Maybe they were the first church to offer contemporary worship music and relevant messages. People came in droves, until every other church in town followed the model. Now those churches are dwindling. They are formerly great.
There is a shift that must take place in order to engage people in the 21st century. These concluding thoughts reveal part of the thinking needed for the church to flourish in an increasingly minority Christian culture.
One of the primary purposes of an alignment series or church-wide campaign is recruiting potential group leaders for a trial run. The other primary purpose plays into the first one – engaging the senior pastor to recruit potential group leaders. When the sermon series is linked to the small group study or even better, the pastor’s teaching is the basis of the small group study, the pastor will be more interested in groups. When pastors make the investment in creating small group curriculum, they want to make sure the curriculum is used to its full potential. They want as many people to lead groups as possible. You want that too!
While there are other good reasons for alignment series like
the whole church studying a topic together and getting more people into groups,
all of this rests on the number of leaders a church will recruit. The more
limitations the church puts on who can lead a group, the fewer leaders the church
will recruit. Fortunately, the reverse is also true, but who is the church
Attempting to recruit a large number of leaders is a two-edged sword. On one side is the desire to provide a quality group experience with a qualified group leader. The other side is the simple fact that most people don’t consider themselves to be any kind of leader. As soon as you bring up the word “leader,” many people will decline your invitation to start a group. They want to help, but not necessarily lead. Many churches have found it helpful to do away with the term “leader” altogether.
In the early days of church-wide campaigns like 40 Days of Purpose, Saddleback Church chose to call people H.O.S.T.s instead of leaders. This took away the sense that people were being asked to do more than they felt qualified to do. The churches that I served used this strategy, and it worked for a while. But, after using the term “Host” in campaign after campaign, people became wise to the idea that “Host” really meant “Leader.” The jig was up. Now what?
Many of the churches I’ve worked with have dispensed with the terms leader and host all together. While many have struggled with what to call these folks, others have recruited for the function of a group leader without using the term. The invitation would sound more like “get together with your friends and do the study.” While the pastor invites people to “lead” a “group,” neither of those terms were used, and yet people would gather a group of friends and do a study together. See everyone is already in a group after all.
This is more than a rouse to get admitted non-leaders to
lead groups. Churches should be stingy with the term “leader.” In the Bible,
commissioning someone as a leader was a significant proclamation. In fact, Paul
writes to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands…” (1 Timothy 5:22,
NIV). The sense here is that before someone is commissioned as a leader, they
must prove themselves. It’s not enough just to select the “right” people and
thoroughly train them, the church also needs to see them in action. Do they
have the stuff to lead? In most cases, the church won’t know until they’ve
actually seen the potential leader in action – actually leading something.
Thus, the dilemma, if the church has a high standard for leadership, which they
should, and the people they are attempting to recruit do not consider
themselves to be any kind of leader, how do you recruit a significant number of
leaders? You don’t.
Let’s take this beyond semantics. This is not a debate of what to call someone or even of lowering the bar on leadership to the point where small groups seem unimportant because so little is expected. The dilemma speaks to the importance of a recruitment process that will bring in the maximum number of potential leaders possible without putting the church leadership into a scenario that bears an uncomfortable level of risk.
The answer can be found in viewing a church-wide campaign as a trial run to evaluate potential leaders. Campaigns are short-term commitments — usually around six weeks. The trial run can be safe for the potential leader by allowing them to “get together with your friends and do the study.” The trial run is also safe for the church by providing the curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, offering a coach to walk alongside them, and not advertising these groups. (The church will need to advertise some groups, but the leaders should be known and proven.)
At the end of the trial run, potential leaders should be evaluated. Did the fulfill their commitments? Did they enjoy leading groups? Are they willing to continue? If they were successful, then offer another study. If they weren’t successful, then thank them for fulfilling their commitment.
It’s easier to recruit avowed non-leaders to a short-term opportunity to do a study with their friends. Once you see what they can do, then build on this experience and eventually commission them as leaders.
Does your church have unrealistic expectations for adding small groups? In some cases, churches want to shoot for the moon when it comes to the number of groups, but the requirements they place on new leaders keeps their mission grounded.
The number of requirements for prospective leaders is inversely proportional to the number of prospective leaders a church will recruit. Simple put – more requirements mean fewer prospective leaders, and fewer requirements mean more prospective leaders. You can’t have high requirements and an overabundance of new prospective leaders. It just doesn’t work.
Over the years, I’ve had conversations with several small group pastors who had the same thing in common – they were all former small group pastors at the same church. They all left for the same reason. In theory the senior pastor wanted everyone who attended the church in a small group. The problem was there weren’t enough groups for all of the church’s members. The requirements placed on new leaders created a strangle hold on the church’s ability to recruit. Every leader had to be a member of the church, but there weren’t enough members of the church interested in leading groups. Considering the church had a high percentage of people who were not in groups and a relatively low percentage of people who qualified as leaders, the small group pastors faced an impossible situation and eventually a new career. The senior pastor needed to either lower his expectation for how many people should be connected into groups or lower the requirements for small group leadership (at least temporarily). After several conversations with this pastor’s former small group pastors, my sense is that the pastor is really not serious about connecting his church into groups. (If this sounds like you, call me. I can help.)
How realistic are your church’s expectations on small groups?