The Coronavirus pandemic has created some interesting times for life and ministry. Back in March 2020 toilet paper disappeared from the store shelves along with hand sanitizer. While the second one made sense in combating a virus, the first one was a bit of a puzzle.
What also seemed curious were the items left behind on store shelves. Items that didn’t appear on anyone’s shopping list included things like chickpea-based linguine, chocolate hummus, dryer sheets, obscure canned veggies like artichokes and asparagus spears, plant-based proteins, and oddly enough, Dasani bottled water. “Chocolate hummus is the canary in the coal mine. If you see it selling out, it’s time to start fleeing into the woods,” according to Aaron Mak in a post on Slate.com.
What are Churches Leaving Behind?
Once stay-at-home orders too place, churches went online. Worship services went online. Small groups went online. Giving went online. But, some things got left behind.
In a recent survey of churches across North America, pastors reported not only what they stopped doing, but also what they’re not bringing back. This included things like the church bulletin, working at the church office, tons of physical meetings, large group speaking events, and too much programming.
One shift is to stop gauging the church’s success on Sunday worship attendance. One pastor wrote, “We need a more unified and thoughtful approach going forward.”
Scarcity brings clarity. What will your church leave behind?
What are Churches Starting and Keeping?
Every church represented in the survey reported a much stronger online worship attendance after March 1, 2020 than their average weekend attendance in February 2020. While some churches just expanded the reach of an existing online campus or streaming service, others have discovered that through online services, they are engaging a larger part of their congregations and attracting people outside of their church (often outside of their state!).
Churches are also engaging in an uptick of personal ministry. Pastors are using text messages, phone calls, personal emails, handwritten notes, and of course, Zoom meetings. The overall tone of ministry has become more informal and more experimental. Restrictions have forced churches to rethink the methods in fulfilling their mission.
This is a time of learning. The church is learning what to do and what not to do. The church is discovering what really matters, what doesn’t seem to matter, and what used to matter. And, of course, the church is waiting. Waiting on the Lord is a good thing.
The church is discovering that it’s much more than a Sunday service in a building. We’ve all said that, but now we’ve lived it. As Alan Hirsch says the church is playing chess without the queen. With the queen of the worship service gone, it’s a chance for the church to see what all of the other chess pieces can do without her. That’s not saying the on-campus worship service shouldn’t come back. But, it is causing everyone to look at what is working during a crisis.
A while back someone said, “Right now everything is a startup.” How is your church a startup? How are you innovating? What have you discovered?
And, most importantly, what is the chocolate hummus in your church? Give your answer in the comments below.
This post starts with a question rather than a statement because everything seems to be a question amidst the Coronavirus outbreak. Our lives have been defined by phrases like “in an abundance of caution,” “reopening,” and “Zoom fatigue.” I wonder if that last one is just the updated version of “I don’t have time for a group,” but I digress.
Sometime in the future, which hopefully means in year 2020, things will go back to “normal” whatever that may mean. For some normal simply means pre-shelter-in-place life and ministry. But, for others, it’s embracing a new normal of on-campus and online ministry. Some churches have witnessed an online worship attendance that’s 20 times as large as normal on-campus worship. Other churches have increased their small groups by 50% during quarantine. What’s next for those groups? How will they continue, if they continue?
Online to Offline is Awkward
In another post I mentioned my online small group on CompuServe in 1994. You can read it here. Great things happened in that group. Greg got saved. Tricia met her future husband. Allen got married, but not to Tricia. While we knew each other well online, until we converged on Greg’s house in southern California, we had never met face-to-face.
The date was set. I was going to baptize Greg in his Jacuzzi. (It’s the California way). Our online group that met only by message board and chat was going to meet in person. Our joke was that we would all have to sit in a circle with our backs to each other and communicate through our laptops. It’s one thing to take an offline group online, but moving an online group offline is another thing. It was a little awkward at first, but we had some big enough personalities in that group that our online friendship easily transferred. I don’t think that every online group can accomplish this, so don’t expect every online group to become an offline group. Our CompuServe group continued to meet as an online group for one practical reason: We lived in four different states!
Online and Out of State
On a coaching call with a pastor the other day, he mentioned that his new online group was made up of members from Washington, California, and New York. They had agreed to meet temporarily for the Cabin Fever study, but they were unsure of what they would do after that. A lot depended on what the group members needed.
With the church staying at home, ministry has gone from normal office hours to ministry 168 hours per week. (Pastors were already serving on evenings and weekends). Boundaries for small groups expanded from counties to countries and cities to states. As long as the group could figure out the time zone formula, they could meet. Now what? Groups are no longer limited to one locale, so what does the group do after the restrictions are lifted?
Possible Next Steps
There are several options for groups to choose from as they move forward. (1) Groups could move completely offline. Once groups no longer have to stay-at-home, (and provided members live within reasonable driving distance of each other), they could endure that first awkward in-person meeting and meet offline permanently. (2) Groups could stay online. If group members live long distances from each other, then an online group would be the only option. But, some groups might appreciate the convenience of meeting online. They could just put their children to bed and meet online. They’ll have to bake their own brownies, but their meetings could continue. (3) Groups could meet mostly online but also meet in-person occasionally. Groups could gather socially or to serve together on a regular basis, but continue to meet for Bible study online.
What’s the best option for online groups? Whether groups meet online or offline, the bottom line is to let the new groups decide for themselves. They should receive the same coaching and training as any other small group leaders. The only difference is the format. Welcome to the 21st century and your new online small group ministry. You certainly have better tools now than we had in 1994. Use those tools to expand the reach of disciple-making in your church. While online groups may not be your personal preference, they will work for some of your people. Not only did our CompuServe group work, we are still friends today.
Sheltering-in-place has dragged on. Many church services have been online exclusively for a month or more. Federal and state directives seem to change daily. We don’t know when things will go back to normal (or whether they should go back to normal). In this video, I ask five questions for you to consider personally and to consider with your team.
I’m not scolding you in this video. This screen capture just made me laugh.
Here are a couple of resources that might help you:
The Coronavirus outbreak has produced some unlikely consequences. Who would’ve thought that something that was meant to keep us apart is actually pulling us closer together? Well, forward-thinking small group pastors thought that!
Churches around the country are reporting a 50% increase in small groups since they started new online groups. Even though people have to stay apart, there is a definite need to be together. These groups are coping with this new normal.
But the problem with any significant uptick in small groups, whether it be a church-wide campaign or the response to a pandemic, is keeping the groups going once the initial effort has subsided. Don’t look at this as a temporary response to a temporary situation. Look at the new online groups as an opportunity to build on something going forward. Here are some things that you can do right now that will help your groups continue once social distancing has been relaxed:
Give Your New Groups a Next Step.
Most groups fail because they are not offered a next step. Whatever series your groups are doing right now, give them something new to start immediately. Quarantine in most places will continue for another 30 days, so groups still have both the time and the need to gather.
When you offer a next step, give new groups one choice. Don’t let them get lost in the choices online. Your goal here is to get them to continue. The only decision you really want the groups to have to make at this point is whether or not they will move forward. Don’t add choosing a study to that decision. You want to keep this simple. If it becomes too complex, then the groups will stop.
Support Your New Leaders with a Coach.
Recruit your best group leaders to look in on a couple of new leaders each and see how they are doing. There will be a lot of ups and downs with groups. Some people are busier than ever, while others are bored as ever. Groups are experiencing various stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. How are your leaders navigating this? People are dealing with a great deal of stress. Some have lost their jobs. Others are going crazy with their kids at home. Still others are essential workers who are putting it on the line every day. This is an intense time. How are your leaders handling it?
You have to be proactive. But, there’s not enough of you to go around. So, you have to multiply yourself if you want your groups to continue. Otherwise, these big group numbers you’re posting will slip away week by week until everything goes back to “normal.” Why waste the opportunity to keep these groups going? Give them a coach ASAP! Strategically Plan for Fall.One significant next step for all of your groups is a fall launch or campaign. Give them a heads up now. Tell them where you’re headed in the fall and when groups are going to start. Even if you only have a series title and a start date, this is enough to keep your groups moving forward.
No one is 100% certain how the summer is going to go. My suspicion is that when the weather is nice and the stay-at-home orders are lifted, people will be gone. They will head to the beach, to Disneyland, to the great outdoors — basically any place that isn’t their house. While groups should try to connect in-person or online at least once a month over the summer, your fall series will be the glue that keeps these groups together.
Use the new planning tool, the Exponential Groups Workbook, to map out your fall. This workbook is loaded with templates, exercises, and examples that I use in my coaching. Just having a few of these templates is well worth the cost of the book. By working through these chapters, you will develop a strategic plan for content, leader recruiting, group formation, coaching, training, tracking, and envisioning where your groups can go.
Recruiting Leaders – Sharing Group Ownership Exercise, Coaching Scripts, Breaking Connection Barriers: 30%, 60%, 100%, Leader Recruiting Timeline and Scripts for Senior Pastors, New Leader/Host Sign Up Card Sample, Sample Series Promotion Script,
Initial Training – New Leader Briefing Agenda, New Leader Briefing Presentation, New Leader Briefing Packet, New Leader Information Form, New Leader Briefing Sign-In Sheet,
Connection Strategy – Lego Exercise, Relationship Lists Exercise, Active and Passive Recruiting Strategies Examples, Sample Connection Night Ad, Connection Night Picture, Connection Event Layout and Photo, Sample Small Group Invitation, Small Group Connection Instructions for Group Leaders, Small Group Sign-Up Sheet,
Sustaining Groups – Next Steps Flyer, Sample Mid-Series Survey,
Leadership Track – Bringing Back the Requirements Exercise, Small Group Basic Training Outline, Small Group Leader Job Description,
Coaching and Training – Sample Weekly Training email, Sample Leader Retreat Agenda, Coaching & Leadership Phases Exercise,
Tracking Growth – Sample Survey to Collect Group Rosters, Sample Meeting Report Reminder, Meeting Report Form, Meeting Report Summary, Monthly Group Summary Report, Coaching Report, Coaching Summary,
Beyond Alignment Series – Disciple-making Phases Exercise,
Appendix – Sermons on Community by Dr. Tony Evans and Pastor Don Wink.
You will read case studies from these churches who have successfully implemented the Exponential Groups strategies.
Ward Church, Northville, Michigan Vertical Church, West Haven, Connecticut New Dawn Church, Miami, Florida Connect Church, Lawrence, Kansas Hoboken Grace Church, Hoboken, New Jersey Christ Church, Fairview Heights, Illinois Rivertown Community Church, Marianna, Florida LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado
Contributors to the workbook include:
Bay Hope Church, Lutz, Florida Connect Church, Lawrence, Kansas Calvary Christian Church, Winchester, Kentucky Ward Church, Northville, Michigan Brookwood Church, Simpsonville, South Carolina Manna Church, Fayetteville, North Carolina Olive Branch Community Church, Corona, California Northwoods Church, Peoria, Illinois ChurchTeams.com Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Barrington, Illinois Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, Dallas, Texas
The Coronavirus outbreak has opened a new chapter in starting online small groups. Online small groups aren’t a new thing. I was in an online small group on CompuServe in 1992! That might make me the grandfather of online small groups. But, online groups might be new to you.
The Pursuit Church in Minot, ND just launched online small groups off of their online service on March 22, 2020. This church of 1,500 already had about 60 small groups. On that Sunday, 30 people stepped up to start new online small groups. Could you imagine increasing your small groups by 50% in one day. You can hear Tara Wiley tell The Pursuit’s story along with seven principles of starting online small groups.
If you want to jump to a specific point of the video:
What You Need to Start Online Small Groups (Point starts at time code indicated):
Unless they offer an essential service, suddenly everybody has time for a small group. The #1 excuse people give for not joining a group is that they are too busy or they don’t have enough time. Small Group Pastors know what they are really saying is, “Small group is just not a priority.” I get that. But, now the “I don’t have time” excuse has been erased, and small groups should become a greater priority — even if they can’t meet in person.
Why do you need to start new groups during a pandemic?
Whether by choice or by mandate, people are staying away from other people right now. Church services have gone online. School has gone online in many places. While people are making their best attempts to curtail the spread of a disease, isolation and loneliness coupled with a steady intake of cable news and social media is a breeding ground for fear. Isolation and fear come straight from a page in the enemy’s playbook. The devil is having a heyday with this.
People have spiritual and emotional needs. With all of the conflicting information and no one to discuss this with, the monsters in our people’s heads just become bigger and bigger. Last week I wrote about practicing the “one anothers” of the Bible while in quarantine. People need more than worship and a sermon to reassure them and help them deal with what’s going on. Beyond that some people have practical, physical needs. How is your church keeping up with older people or people with medical conditions. We must find a strategic way to care for our members. Here’s a tough thought — your people can find a better online service. How you help them right now will determine where they go and where they give after this is all over. This is fertile ground for the enemy to do his work. This is a tremendous opportunity for the church to do its work.
As a church staff, you are working hard to transition worship and sermons to online services, but what about the social time people spent in the lobby or even in the parking lot. How are you meeting your members’ need for connection? This is the time to launch new groups. Groups could meet on a video platform. Groups could meet on a free conference call line. While many are forced to be apart, there are ways to be together.
How to Start New Groups
Starting new groups online is not so different than starting groups offline, except you have one advantage. People need connection more than ever. Now is the time to get all hands on deck and start as many groups as possible. Churches must mobilize the most people they can for ministry right now. Your people need personal care like never before. You can do this. Here’s what you need to get started:
A willing, caring person to initiate.
If there was ever a time to bypass bulky requirements for group leaders and get all hands on deck, the time is now. Invite every person who will willing and caring to start a group right now. If you are insecure about that method, then review a copy of your church’s membership roster. Who would you feel good about? Call them and invite them right now. Who is willing and caring? Remember, they suddenly have time for a group.
A system to connect.
Once you have invited people to lead these groups, then ask them who they know who would be interested in a group. Take a week and have them invite everyone they know inside the church or outside the church to join their group. Then, invite the rest of your congregation to sign up online or even give out some names for leaders to call and invite to their group. The idea is that everyone in the congregation would have someone to connect with personally every week.
A platform to meet on.
Some localities are still allowing meetings of groups less than 10 people. If people are comfortable meeting in person, then they can. Personally, I would recommend an online option like a teleconference or a conference call. This will prohibit any unnecessary contact and potential spread of disease. Teleconference services such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, and other services offer a stable platform and an easy way to connect online with video. Most services offer a call-in number for those who might be less tech savvy. For a comparison of video platforms, click here. If video is not a good solution because of the internet service in your area, then a free conference line could work as well. Several services are available.
For families with children, encourage them to meet later in the evening when their kids have gone to bed. Wear headphones to eliminate background noise. Mute yourself when you’re not talking. And, do not take your device into the bathroom with you!
Curriculum to guide.
Your groups could start with just a weekly check in to see how everybody is doing. Start the meetings by allowing people to debrief what’s going on in their lives and in their minds. Another great way to start a new group is to ask people to tell their stories or at least the part of the stories that they’re willing to tell. This is an important way for the group to begin to understand each other and have context for what they share in the group.
For new leaders I have discovered that it’s best to use some sort of video-based curriculum that contains the teaching on the video. This makes things safe for both the new leader as well as the pastors. The new leader doesn’t have to be the Bible expert, and the pastors don’t want the new leader to teach or be the Bible expert anyway. By giving them a curriculum that you’ve created or a curriculum that you trust, you could assure that the group will follow the topic that you’ve given them and have a great meeting to encourage each other, build up their faith, and grow spiritually in an unusual time.
Just-in-time training and coaching. Don’t skip this step!
There won’t be a lot of time to train these leaders at first. I have discovered that if you recruit an established leader to follow up with new leaders, you create a win-win situation. The new leaders get help and support right when they need it, and the experience leader gets a trial run at being a coach. Once the trial is over, you can determine whether the new leaders will want to continue and whether the coaches should continue.
Just like groups can meet over a teleconference or conference call, training can also happen in the same way. In the last church I served we had an immediate need for coaches. I knew it would be difficult to add another meeting to an already busy schedule which included all of the coaches leading their own small group, so we met together on a conference line at about 8:30 at night for 30 minutes and did this for about six weeks in a row. Why did we meet so late? Well everybody was home from work, finished with dinner, and their kids were hopefully in bed. With all of these distractions removed, I was able to conduct the training and get these new coaches started. The same can be true for leader training, but I would recommend letting the coaches do the work for at least the first six weeks, then offer more formal training when the leaders are ready to move forward and when the leaders feel like they actually need the training.
Follow up and feedback.
Leading a small group and coaching is important work so you must inspect what you expect. If you’ve asked your coaches to call the new leaders every week, then you need to call the coaches every week and hear what’s going on with the groups. As a pastor, you want to know what’s going on with your people especially during a crisis. Your coaches can give you the needs that you need to address that maybe they cannot. You also get an accurate picture of what’s going on in your small group ministry. If you wait for a report, you are already in the weeds.
Do for your coaches what you expect them to do for your leaders. Just like your people need the care of a leader and your leaders need the care of a coach, your coaches need care from you. Now that your schedule has changed, it shouldn’t be too hard to pick up the phone and give each of your coaches a call.
Supervision and accountability.
While you have successfully given away the ministry to new leaders and new coaches, the only thing that you cannot give away is the responsibility for the ministry. The buck still stops with you. I don’t say this to make you nervous, but I do say this so you will avoid an entirely hands off approach. The coaching structure is effective, but it cannot run on auto pilot. While you are not in the day-to-day care of leaders, you cannot be completely out of it either. This is still your baby.
The End Result
In this climate, everything you do is essentially a startup. You cannot call a meeting and gather people on campus. You cannot do on-site training. You can’t even visit your people in their homes. But you can start online groups that will accomplish all of this. This may go against your personality. This may go against everything that you’ve done before. But the message is the same — We are better together even if we are apart.
By starting new small groups right now, your people will feel less lonely, less isolated, and less fearful. These groups can help your people build their faith and experience the care that they deserve. And the hard truth is that you cannot create that with an email.
My hope for you is that the end result of starting online groups will be at the beginning of something new for your ministry and your church. Pastors and staff cannot possibly meet all of the needs of any congregation. And they shouldn’t. Now more than ever, you need to get your people to engage their gifts and serve others in groups like never before. Don’t waste this moment. Suddenly, everybody has time for a small group!
If you’re ready to start groups, I want to share this webinar with you: