Covid forced every church online. This was both a great inconvenience and a great opportunity. To be honest, some churches have done better than others with their online services. Much of the result depends on the effort the church makes with their online services. For those who merely stream their in-person service, quality is spotty at best. (Take a few minutes to watch your church’s recent online service. You’ll see what I mean.)
Others put in the effort to pre-record their online service, like Pinnacle Church in Canton, NC. They provide a higher quality, direct-to-camera approach for their growing online congregation. Even this smaller congregation with limited equipment is doing a lot of the right things. Regardless of the quality of your online worship service, how are you discipling your online congregation?
Some churches are satisfied with using a multiplier to calculate their online audience based on the number of views. Certainly you want to know that your online service is effectively reaching others. But, your effectiveness online is far more than the number of eyeballs. Jay Kranda, the online campus pastor at Saddleback Church, had much to say about this in our interview earlier this year. Listen here.
Here’s what you know – people are watching online. Some are staying home out of an abundance of caution. Some are watching online because it’s just more convenient for them. Others are participating with your church online for the first time. This is the group I mentioned in last week’s post, Start Leading the Church You Have. Where are you leading them?
The Same Expectations
Prior to 2020, online ministry was a novelty. Then around March 2020, online ministry became a necessity. Today, online ministry is an opportunity.
While almost every church saw online ministry as a necessity during the pandemic, some still treat it like a novelty. They see the real congregation as the in-person audience and view the online congregation as a bit of a play thing. That may seem harsh, but let me ask you this: what do you expect from your online congregation? What are you leading them to do?
Typically, churches will ask their in-person congregation for contact information on their first visit in exchange for a welcome gift. They offer next steps, small groups, and serving opportunities. They expect participation, giving, community, and serving. Your online congregation is not any less than your in-person congregation. They are with you. And, they will take next steps when you offer them.
Engage Your Online Congregation
Online worship services can become passive unless you intentionally engage your online congregation. Some of this is accomplished by speaking direct-to-camera, which usually involves recording a separate online experience. Mere streaming video is not church online. Whether you stream live or pre-record, how you communicate with the online congregation is important.
If you direct your announcements and opportunities only to your in-person attendance, then your online folks won’t pay attention. You’re not talking to them. Make simple adjustments like referring to both your in-person and online congregations when you invite them to take next steps. Or during the announcements for your in-person service, have someone speak direct-to-camera to your online congregation. People will take a next step if you invite them.
Instead of asking them to respond with a card in the pew, ask them to text a word to your dedicated text line (check out Zipwhip) or send them to a dedicated landing page on your website for first time guests, giving, small groups, serving, etc. And, when they reach out, be prepared with a response. This could be a signed letter in the mail or an email sequence. When people contact you, reach out to them ASAP. In fact, you should have your response in place before you make the invitation.
Connecting into Community
Your online congregation might be around the corner, across the country, or on the other side of the world. Community Bible Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, recently baptized a member of their online congregation who flew to Atlanta from her home in New York City. She now has friends in NYC watching Community Bible Church online each week. Whether your church is large or small, by putting your worship service online, you can potentially see a global impact. But, don’t stop there.
While online worship services are a starting point for your online congregation, they are only part of the experience of making disciples. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Worship services can catalyze a commitment to aspire to godly character, grow in faith, or improve their marriage or parenting skills, but the working out comes in biblical community or hesed. Without other believers encouraging, supporting, and holding each other accountable, lasting growth doesn’t happen. God designed us for community.
With an online congregation, community happens in various forms. Some people will join you in online small groups. These groups can meet by video, audio only, or asynchronously. Use the platforms that are the most familiar to your people. Different platforms will work equally as well for different people. But, don’t stop there.
Give your online congregation permission and opportunity to start their own groups – in-person or online. If people don’t live near the church, they can gather a group of friend just like Community Bible Church’s online member in New York. Whether the group meets in-person or online depends on the comfort level of the person starting the group. The church can support these group leaders by providing easy-to-use curriculum, offering a new leader briefing, and giving the support of a coach. Imagine if every member of your online congregation started his or her own group. Think of the impact.
Thoughts to Ponder
As I mentioned in last week’s post (Stop Leading the Church You Lost), the church you have today is your church. Too much has transpired since March 2020 for your church to just snap back to pre-Covid numbers. And, that’s okay.
For many church as many as 30 percent to 50 percent or more of their regular congregation worship online. You wouldn’t ignore a third of your congregation if they were in your church’s sanctuary, would you? Imagine turning toward the right side of your congregation, but ignoring those seated on the left side. That’s ridiculous. Don’t let this happen with the 30-50 percent who are gathering for worship online.
How will you engage your online congregation? How will you help your online congregation leverage their relationships to form groups either locally or online? Who needs a message of hope? Who needs encouragement? Think about it – the possibilities are endless.
Thinking about the post-COVID church might seem like a little wishful thinking, but I believe we can embrace the lessons learned in the last year and apply them to what’s ahead. Since March 2020, we’ve learned what we can do without. We’ve found some things that were more effective than we ever imagined. We have also discovered that some of the things we thought were so important are simply unnecessary (I’m looking at you large gatherings with rubber chicken and a speaker).
Churches learned to “play chess without the queen of the weekend service” as Alan Hirsch told us. We also learned that the weekend service did not accomplish nearly as much as we counted on. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Once the building was closed and services were cancelled, the pressure came off of “guest services” and went to online worship services. Membership classes and growth tracks, small groups and even Sunday school classes went online.
People stayed home and fell in love with Sunday brunch. Adults had the choice of watching any church in the world at any time. Kids got the short end of the stick with no youth groups and no online children’s church. As time wore on, people became a little more lazy about watching the weekend service. Granted, the average church-goer only attended 1.6 times per month in-person. It was easier to skip church at home. No one was watching them.
The pandemic accelerated everything. Everyone suddenly went online. Things that were breaking broke rather quickly. According to the Barna Group, one in five churches will close in the next year, if they haven’t already. Most churches have lost 20% or more of their congregations. The challenge of the post-COVID church is to embrace things that were forced on us (but worked!), to part with things that are not effective, and to discover some new things for a new season of ministry.
The Front Door of Your Church is Now Digital
Prior to March 2020, online services and online small groups seemed like a novelty to most churches. Online worship was either not considered or catered to the elderly and infirmed who couldn’t attend regularly. COVID changed that. What was once a novelty became a necessity, but it became even more than that – online services, online small groups, and an online community are an opportunity.
In a recent podcast interview with Jay Kranda, Saddleback’s Online Pastor, over the last decade he has seen genuine community forming online in groups, services, membership, and discipleship. (You can catch the podcast episode here). What was once thought of as abnormal became the norm. What’s even better is that it works – not just for online worship, but for Alpha and Celebrate Recovery where their role is bigger than ever before.
Before anyone darkens the door of your church, they will watch your service online. They were already starting with the church website before COVID. Now, they’re starting with online worship. Knowing that far more people are watching online than are even attending in-person, churches need to invest in their new digital front door. Streaming video is not an online service. The need and opportunity for online worship longs for a unique online service.
The Growth Engine of Your Church is Groups
While there are many great benefits to online groups (Download the Senior Pastors Guide to Groups), churches with groups faired far better than churches without groups in 2020-2021. Churches did an excellent job producing content. In fact, at one point, Phil Cooke, a media producer, said, “Right now the church is producing more content than Hollywood.” Churches had content down, but if groups weren’t in place, they lacked community and conversation.
When the building was closed, ministries were shut down, and in-person services were cancelled, small groups thrived. For every pastor who has ever longed to see decentralized ministry, the pandemic accelerated the reach and effectiveness of groups online and in-person. Facebook friends became Facebook groups. Wherever people find community (online or offline), there is a place for groups.
What’s even better is that during the pandemic, you became a church OF small groups. All of the other competing ministries went away and only groups were left. Previously, you just had a larger crowd. Now, you are a church OF groups and not just a church WITH groups. This helps churches focus more clearly on their mission to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Groups are a great tool to enlist more disciple-makers. If disciples aren’t making disciples, then you have missed the point.
The Greatest Impact of Your Church is Your Members
The last year has proven that the greatest impact of your church is not the weekend service, and it’s not meaningless serving roles. While most churches have lost 20% or more, many of those were consumers. While every pastor hates to lose anyone, the balance of the equation is that your committed core remains. They have found meaningful ways to serve their neighbors and their families during the pandemic. They don’t need to be coddled when they come back to church. They need to be challenged. In this moment, the churches who chose to empower and equip their members to serve will come back far stronger and make a much bigger impact than those who merely return to “normal.”
Offer your members practical ways to discover and hone their gifts like Find Your Place by Brian Phipps and Rob Wegner, SHAPE from Saddleback, or the classic, Network by Bruce Bugbee. But, this is more than a seminar, give your people permission and opportunity to use their gifts in meaningful ways. If you do this right, then the emerging ministries of your church will come from what God has placed on your peoples’ hearts. That doesn’t mean that you merely accept everything that everyone wants to do – it still has to fit in your church’s mission and vision – but it does mean embracing what your people are gifted and called to do rather than inventing roles for them to fill.
The Future of Your Church is Practical Outreach
Years ago Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson asked the question in The Externally Focused Church: “If your church vanished would anyone notice?” Well, in the last year the presence of your church did disappear in some ways. (Obviously, the Church is the Body of Christ, which while not meeting in-person for worship, did not actually disappear). When your building closed, what was missing from your community? Traffic? A positive influence? An essential service needed by your community?
During COVID did your church focus on survival or outreach? While pastors work hard and don’t deserve the heartbreak of watching their hard work evaporate, what was the focus on the last 12 months? Were you clinging to what you had 12 months ago or were you embracing the opportunity to serve and reach the community? The need is great. How is your church helping to meet that need?
In the past missionaries to other countries established hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other practical organizations to meet the needs of the people. In addition to meeting the people’s needs and building a platform to share the Gospel, the missionaries’ charitable work endeared them to governments who otherwise might not have embraced their mission. When someone opposed to the Gospel came to power, the missionaries’ good work stood out and kept their mission moving forward.
The North American church is fulfilling its mission in a culture that is increasingly hostile. Culture is changing rapidly. The Moral Majority is long gone. The church’s influence is diminishing on a broad scale, but that’s never where souls were being saved anyway. How can your church use its influence, its resources, and its gifts to meet needs in your community? What can your church become known for in your community? Rather than standing out as the church that’s against certain things, how can your church be known for the good that you’re doing? This doesn’t mean that we embrace things that are contrary to Scripture. It means that the church’s mission moves forward in loving ways despite the opposition. After all, God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).
While you might despair the loss of an audience, you should be very excited about those who are left. Your audience is gone, but your army remains. An audience must be entertained to keep them engaged, but an army just needs their marching orders. Once you equip and empower your people to serve in meaningful ways, your church will never be the same. All your people need are permission and opportunity.
The world has changed. Ministry methods from prior to 2020 won’t work the same. Everything has opened up. The opportunities are endless.
Jay Kranda is the guest for the February 2021 episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast. Jay is the online pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, where he oversees an online community with online small groups and home groups around the world. He is the co-author of the free eBooks state of the church online and going beyond online streaming. Jay is addicted to NBA basketball and cold brew coffee. He has a BA in Christian Education and an MA in Theology, both from Biola University, Jay, his wife, Jody have two boys and a girl.
Q1: You have been in online ministry for a long time, and the rest of us just got into online ministry about 10 months ago. How long have you been on staff doing online ministry at Saddleback?
Jay: I just celebrated 10 years on staff and I started off as part-time online. They had a thing at the time called the internet campus and nobody was really doing anything with it. We’re always trying out things and then staff or people change and then you kind of forget, but I was really intrigued on it. When I first started, I came from a church about 500 and at Saddleback there were about 500 people watching every week. I was just kind of amazed by that scope of impact. I started to invest on it. My leader at the time introduced me to like Life.church and a couple other churches to show me what was going on.
The first thing I did is I petitioned to change it from internet campus to online campus. That was the first thing. I felt like internet was like putting “i” in front of everything to match the app. And so, but yeah, so I’ve been there 10 years now. It’s been a journey and it’s looked very different over the seasons of ministry, especially now in COVID, I feel like we’re in another butterfly moment where like, what is the next version of this?
Q2: The scorecard has changed for ministry. Pastors used to track metrics like attendance in the weekend service and giving – “nickels and noses,” but with COVID that has all changed. Now, I hear people talking about online engagement. Some are even taking their number of streams with a multiplier. How do we know we’re being effective, and what’s really happening out there?
Jay: There are all sorts of ways to measure things. What’s key is to figure out the metrics that are important to your church — whatever those things are, a top funnel to deep engagement type of scale. There are things you measure weekly and things you measure monthly. The other thing is you just gotta be consistent on how you measure it so that you can notice trends. Are you going up or going down? And that only happens if you’re consistent. If you’re constantly tweaking your measurements, then the numbers are irrelevant. You could tell me you had a million people this week, but if the next week you had 2 million or you had a hundred thousand, what does that mean? Where are you going? We’ve been measuring our attendance one way for about 10 years. I could tell you weeks that we’re going to be low. I can tell you we’re high. I can tell you why we were high because I was looking at the same numbers every week for about 10 years. And so I think it’s really important.
I would always start with the weekend. How many people viewed it on your website, Facebook, YouTube, or whatever, and then have like a retention number. How many people watch or listen for, you know, 10, 15, 30 minutes? And so compare those. Viewership isn’t the same as watching or reach numbers or impressions. I think that’s why you need both. You have viewership and then you have a deep engagement. What’s hard is in building a worship attendance. You’re not counting how many cars you drive by in front of your church, or you’re not counting how many people peek their heads in. You are counting how many people attended church. And so that number is more than the retention number, but you also can measure all sorts of things and look at correlation between viewership and retention. Like what happens if you start streaming on platforms like YouTube, you can look at the drop rates. How many people skip forward? We were just looking at our data recently and one of the learnings is that a lot of people were skipping the front part just to go to the message. The suggestion came out like maybe we should experiment with not front-loading the music, so people get to the sermon quicker. If people are more likely to hang around afterwards, maybe we put more music on the back end. If you’re looking at the right things regularly, you can make the right dashboard.
Q3: How are you recruiting leaders to do online groups? How are you getting members connected into groups? What does that look like?
Jay: We’re unique in the sense that we definitely have an online community, a true community, that I’m a shepherd over, and we have people who congregate. I would see us as a real church that’s online. And so we want to create, the phrase that gets used a lot, is creating a fourth space for people to connect that’s digital. That’s not a time specific. It’s 24/7. So because of that, we stream our services, but we actually have a community like a Facebook group and different things where people can connect with each other and meet people. I spend a lot of time in those public spaces. And out of that, we’re constantly encouraging people to take our classes and join a group or start a group. We definitely rely yearly on a campaign strategy to get almost of our groups going. Our church aligns on one thing. I would say a good 70% of our group growth in a year comes from a campaign push from our entire church.
We constantly have new groups going. One of our biggest things we use to get new groups going is a large group model where the small group pastor on my team will host quarterly large groups on zoom, where there might be 30 to 50 people on a zoom call. And he’ll use the breakout feature for six to eight weeks. At the end of it, if you had 30 or 50 people, we’ll say, “Hey, you’ve been experimenting and been part of an online group the last six to eight weeks. We’re done with our large group. What if you continue on after this as a small group? We start five to eight groups. That’s a big thing coming out of COVID that we’ve relied on, mainly because as started COVID, we had such a boom of interest in online groups that we didn’t have enough groups open to new people. We spent a lot of time early on refining what we actually launched. We had volunteers and staff, a large online group meeting every day of the week for the first couple months of COVID. When we started, we just had a meeting. We were looking at some of our data. In 2020, our ministry launched 1,007 online groups. We had the infrastructure and we were ready.
Q4: Let’s talk about what works with online groups. What are some best practices? And, we’re also going to to go what hasn’t worked as well.
Jay: It has been a struggle is continuing to figure out how to make accessing small group material easier. A big gap for us right now is that most of our small group material isn’t really accessible on a TV. Like our TV apps don’t talk to our database because we have some custom stuff. So that’s something that we’ve been working on. How do we integrate that? We don’t use an off the shelf, paid service, like, many other churches do. And so I just know like Apple TV, Roku, Amazon fire stuff are so important.
We might have over 2000 groups right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re all at a hundred percent tier. We’re trying to make sure they’re all responsive. So I might have a couple hundred that are red tag where they’re not responsive. I have some that I’m trying to get them to become members. They signed up and they’re not members yet. And then I have some that I’m trying to get to be, to take our leadership training course. And so the question is, why aren’t more people taking their leadership training course? Some of it has to do with access to the course. Some of it has to do availability. Maybe that needs to be a small group curriculum. Maybe we need to rethink the naming of it. I feel like on the group level where we’re constantly trying to rethink and reposition is.
And so we have a really great way to get groups going, but every strength has a weakness. One weakness of ours is it’s so simple to start a group with us, but then it’s really hard on us as staff and our volunteer team to make sure that the groups are healthy. We’re constantly pruning our groups. I think just going through our training is something I’m always asking, why isn’t this easier? Why can’t we just do this? Or why have only this many percentage of our groups done that? The other thing is just with online ministry, generally, I think a lot of members and people attending churches online are still really confused at they’ll start a group and start serving.
Sometimes they ask, “Is this really my church?” And I deal with that a lot where people start engaging. I find out they’re at another church, and I don’t want that. I think making that more seamless, but it’s going to be, we never want to pull somebody away from a church. The number one reason why we delete groups is because of that — I find out they’re going to a church down the street or something else, and I’m like, “Hey, don’t do the group with us, do it with your church.” And so I call say that we have a leaky funnel where we’re constantly losing people to very healthy things. They’re not bad things. We’re not competitive on it, but our groups are constantly going up and down because of that reason.
Q5: What emerging platforms are you seeing for online small groups?
Jay: I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks on Twitch because I’ve been playing chess, and I follow people on Twitch that stream and play chess. There’s a community around it. I was texting with a good friend of mine who’s like one of my defacto Facebook addicts, but a friend. And he asked if I had done any training or videos on Twitch.
The community there is so deep. The streamers on Twitch are playing whatever game and they just talk. There’s this active chat. I forget his name, but there is a guy who plays chess on Twitch. He has 25,000 people watching him play chess. Real-time he’s just playing chess. 25,000 people pay him. The chat is nuts. This is a community. They rally around him, and they know him. What’s hard is where Twitch is inherently — you are doing something else while you’re doing it. And so that’s why I think churches have a hard time because you don’t want to be playing Fortnite and then having a group. I think that’s why it’s gotta be separate. It’s got be a separate thing.
Q5.5: I need you to settle a debate. Our family has watched Saddleback quite a bit in the last year…30 some weeks of Rick [Warren] in the book of James. I’m like, dude, it’s only five chapters long! So here’s the debate because I told my wife, the worship team is not really singing. They recorded the audio in advance, and they’re lip-syncing, and she swears that they’re singing on-camera. Which one is it?
Jay: Well, I think I’m pretty positive. it’s recorded separately.
for Episode 2: Jay Kranda, Saddleback Online Pastor, on Online Ministry and Groups
Jay Kranda is the Online Pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, where he oversees an online community with online small groups and homes groups around the globe. He is the co-author of the free ebooks “State of the Online Church” and “Going Beyond Online Streaming.” Jay is addicted to NBA basketball and cold brew coffee. He has a B.A. in Christian Education and M.A. in Theology from Biola University. Jay and his wife, Jody have 2 boys and a girl.
If you’re like most pastors a coaching structure for your small group leaders is a nagging idea in the back of your head. You would love to have the help, but the idea of building a coaching structure and connecting all of your leaders seems a bit daunting. In the meantime, it feels like you can manage your leaders by yourself, but there’s a drawback (see last week’s post).
Like the old adage of “How do you eat an elephant?” a coaching structure is built one piece at a time. Here are the three secrets to building an effective coaching structure one “bite” at a time:
Start by Coaching Your New Leaders Only.
Don’t paralyze yourself with the daunting task of matching every one of your leaders with a coach. Start with the leaders who need a coach the most – your new leaders. This works well for a couple of reasons.
First, new leaders need the most help. They’ve never lead a group before. Second, your experienced leaders are a wonderful pool of coach candidates. Any of your established leaders can answer new leaders’ questions and encourage them. They just share from their experience.
The other great thing about coaching new leaders is that they’ve never had the experience of not having a coach. As far as they know, every new leader at your church gets a coach. Whereas, if you announce to experienced leaders that they’re getting a coach, that announcement will be met with anything from suspicion to resentment. Do new things with new people.
Build Relationships Not a Hierarchy
Coaching is built on a relationship. It’s not an administrative task. It’s not merely a management style. Coaches are NOT meant to be bureaucrats. Coaching is a relationship. If your previous attempts at coaching didn’t work, then examine the relationships between the leader and the coach. Chances are there wasn’t much of a relationship there.
When you are pairing coaches and leaders start by matching people who already know each other. If you’ve brought your prospective leaders or hosts into an orientation meeting, then instruct your coaches to make a beeline to the leaders they know when it comes time to select a coach. If the coach doesn’t know any of the new leaders, at least they’ve had the chance to meet in-person before the coaching starts.
While every one of your new leaders needs a coach, it’s okay to have a partially finished organizational chart. Put your perfectionism aside. Start by coaching your new leaders, then you can fill in the rest of the chart over time.
Every Leader is Not the Same
If you try to coach every leader on the same things, you will have many leaders who won’t respond well to coaching. If you gear your coaching toward new leaders, then you’re taking your experienced leaders back to kindergarten. If you focus more toward experience leaders, then you’re leading your new leaders in the dust.
Effective coaching is based on the group leaders’ needs. What do they need coaching on? What are they struggling with? What are their felt needs? Coaching based on addressing the questions, problems, and needs of group leaders is far more effective than coaching them on what you think they need to know. How do you know what to coach them on? Ask them.
Think about the developmental stages of your children. Babies have different needs than tweens. Toddlers have different needs than teenagers. Just like you wouldn’t teach your toddler to drive or attempt to spoon feed your tween, new leaders need more instruction and support while experienced leaders need more question-asking than instruction-giving. The great thing about coaching is that it’s completely customizable. You can deliver the exact training and encouragement to each leader when they need it.
Coaching is built on a relationship. Start by developing a relationship and building from there. When leaders know they can trust their coaches, then you will serve both your leaders and your coaches well.
Building a coaching structure is some of the hardest work in small group ministry, but once it’s built you can serve more people in a more effective way. And, the great thing is that once your coaching structure is built, it’s scalable. You won’t have to reorganized it as you grow. You just give everyone a promotion.
Let’s face it — people are tired of social distancing, staying home, Zoom meetings, and church online. While some choose to gather in-person, COVID numbers tend to dictate against meeting together. Whether your people are being kept apart by mandate, by fear, or by caution, the mission remains the same – the church is called to go and make disciples.
Last year when the pandemic began, people were eager to try online small groups. But, in many churches when it came time to regathering groups online in Fall 2020, many groups chose to not meet and just wait it out, while others continued to meet online. But, let’s face it: online meetings just aren’t like in-person small group meetings.
Now you’re facing Online Groups Round 3 in January 2021. The reception to online groups (again) has met with a mixed reaction. Let’s talk about what’s not working, and then examine the bright spots that are working.
What is NOT Working with Online Groups:
Connecting with Strangers Online.
Even in the advent of online dating apps, people are less likely to join an online small group of strangers than to meet with them at their house. This seems counterintuitive to me. It seems like it would be easier to just open your laptop and join the group instead of driving across town, but it’s harder to get people to online groups.
2. Too Many Zoom Meetings.
If people are working from home, they are pulled into more online meetings than normal. While they may look at a computer all day and a TV all evening anyway, there is something about Zoom meetings that takes a toll. Maybe it’s the lack of chemistry. Maybe it’s the self-consciousness of looking at yourself all day. As Nona Jones says, “Zoom meetings are just the same thing over and over.” Or, maybe Zoom Fatigue is just the replacement for “I don’t have time for a small group.”
3. Trying to Replicate In-person Meetings Online.
This is definitely not working. You can’t have the same experience in a Zoom group that you have when the group meets in-person. It just doesn’t happen. There are no side conversations. There’s no body language or nuance. There are no brownies. It’s not the same!
4. Recruiting New Leaders for Online Groups.
Recruiting new leaders is tough anyway, but recruiting new leaders for groups for online groups is a whole other level of hard. Things have moved beyond “push play and pour a cup of coffee.” On top of that people’s lives have been turned upside down with any semblance of “normal” in the very distant future. Taking responsibility for a group feels like about the last thing they need right now.
5. Divisions Between Groups: Online and In-person.
If you haven’t noticed there is a strong difference of opinion between people in the U.S. these days. That rift carries down the middle of small groups. While some groups are ready to forget COVID and just get back together, others are erring on the side of caution and waiting for conditions to improve. Even when groups do meet in-person, there’s still a divide between the maskites and anti-maskites.
These are the struggles I’m hearing from the small group pastors and directors I talk to every day. (If you would like a free coaching call, click here). People are sick of taking precautions. People are tired of staying apart. But, people are unsure about returning to normal as much as they would love to.
What is Working Right Now
In all of this disruption, I have uncovered some bright spots with online small groups. Here are some things that are working.
Established Groups are Working It Out.
Groups are revisiting their group agreements and deciding what will work for everybody. If they are truly coming to an impasse, then groups are choosing to spin off part of the group into a new group. If groups can’t agree to meet 100% in-person or 100% online, they are dividing into separate groups: one in-person and one online. For some of these groups, this is a temporary fix until conditions change. For others, this is a permanent decision. When else have you heard groups volunteering to do that?
2. Offering Care and Conversation Digitally.
Churches have done an amazing job pushing out digital content. People are practically drowning in content. (Pastors, write a book already!) But, in addition to content people need care and conversation. They are getting a ton of information from all sides. They really need a place to talk about it. They need a chance to unpack the sermon. This could be a group. This could be a text exchange. People are on their smartphones for an alarming number of hours every day. Why not use that time and technology to encourage one another daily?
3. Short-term Groups with Different Formats.
As mentioned before, online groups are not the same as in-person groups, so make them intentionally different. Call them by a different name, so people know these aren’t your typical small groups or life groups. Designate a specific period of time for groups to meet, for instance between Super Bowl Sunday and Easter or between Easter and Memorial Day. These new groups are not intended to go on forever. Change the format. Shorten the meeting times. Use different online platforms – there’s more to online groups than Zoom.
4. Gathering Groups of Friends.
If your people are reluctant to join a stranger’s Zoom group, then encourage them to start their own with people they already know. Gathering groups of friends has long been a principle of the Exponential Groups strategy. After all, “Everybody is already in a small group” (Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential, Hendrickson 2017, page 1).
5. Groups Championed by the Senior Pastor.
Your people will follow where your senior pastor leads. Things have changed for senior pastors in the last year. Prior to COVID, the common metrics for success were nickels and noses. There aren’t nearly as many of those nowadays. How does a church measure its effectiveness? The big word right now is engagement, but what does that mean?
Pastors can quickly get into the vanity metrics of one second views and ten second views of online services. Churches with a pre-COVID attendance of 100 now are online gigachurches with 10,000 views. Let’s keep it real.
Engagement means connection. What do you offer your online congregation? What next steps are in place? I spent many Sundays in 2020 watching Saddleback Church’s service. (We were members there once). At the end of every service, Pastor Rick Warren talked about the same three things: (1) starting a relationship with Jesus, (2) joining a small group, and (3) giving. Week after week during 30+ weeks of the book of James, every service ended exactly the same. At one point, Saddleback had started over 3,000 new online small groups. Giving has held steady. (They’ve retained 400 staff members). People are coming to Christ.
You are not quite out of the woods. The beginning of 2021 feels like more of 2020, doesn’t it? How are you going to navigate groups for the next six months? It’s too much time to just wait it out. You can’t afford to lose any more opportunities to make disciples. How can you serve your people when you can’t meet with them? What sounds like it might work for you?
P.S. I got quite a reaction to my video last week. Some of you have experienced “deep shift!” Thanks for letting me know.