Forming new groups is one thing, but keeping your new groups is a different story. A church asked for coaching a few years ago. They were in a desperate situation. Having just completed their first 40 Days of Purpose campaign, the church was left with a result they didn’t want or expect. Prior to the campaign, the church didn’t have any groups. At the launch of 40 Days, they started 233 groups. It was an amazing story, until Day 41. When the campaign ended, the church was left with three groups. Now, if your a glass is half full kind of person, you would say, well, they have three more groups than they’ve ever had. But, if you’re more like me, well, going from 233 to 3 is a tragic loss. And, it was completely unnecessary.
Campaigns are Just a Start.
I love church-wide campaigns. They are a great way to get avowed non-leaders to open their homes to either host a group or get together with their friends and do a study. After all, you don’t need a leader to make disciples. You need a disciple to make disciples. Often the leadership word gets in the way. It’s okay to be stingy with the term “leader.” Just call them something else. After all, you’re not recruiting elders here.
If people are willing to open their homes and/or gather their friends, the truth is they already have more leadership ability than they give themselves credit for. It’s actually a pretty good test. If people have what it takes to gather a group, then they also have the ability to keep the group. Campaigns are a great way to get leaders to self-select. You don’t need to twist anybody’s arm. You just need to give them permission and opportunity to start a group. A short-term campaign of six weeks or so based on an easy-to-use curriculum is a great way to get them started. If your senior pastor is on the curriculum, then that’s a huge winner.
Give Them a Next Step.
Here’s an interesting fact about people: if you invite them to do a six-week study, when the six weeks is over, they think they’re done. I don’t know where they would get an idea like that. Most small group pastors/directors hope that people will love leading a group and will naturally want to continue. But, there’s the catch — many of them won’t think about continuing until you invite them to continue.
Think of it this way: when people sign up to start a group for a campaign, they are entering into a leadership recruiting process. Maybe you delay some of the requirements initially. You give them enough training to get started, then you let them lead the short-term group. It’s pretty easy. This is stage one of the leadership recruiting process. But, then you need to offer them stage two — continuing into another study.
If the groups like meeting together, then it should be pretty easy to invite them to a next step study like Community: Six Weeks to a Healthy Group, so they will continue. If the group faces some obstacles, then you or their coach needs to walk them through the issue and help them continue. And, of course, a few groups won’t be able to go forward. That’s okay. The campaign is a test drive to see whether people like leading a group. It’s low commitment and low requirement. If they will accept the offer to a second study, then they are well on their way to becoming a full-fledged group leader.
If your groups are still in a Fall campaign, then offer them a study right now before the groups end. If they are new groups, choose the study for them. If they are established groups, then let them go back to what they’re used to doing.
You don’t belong here. That’s the feeling I got from the looks on the faces of the other pastors when I sat down in a circle of churches with over 100 small groups. They had never heard of my church. My church was the only one with under 1,000 people and over 100 small groups. Someone even asked, “Are you sure you’re in the right group?” I was.
My church at the time, New Life Christian Center, Turlock, CA, after being stuck with only 30 groups in a church of 800 adults, made a breakthrough. In just six months, we connected 1,000 people into 103 groups. What’s even better is that in 18 months, we went from having 30 percent of our adults in groups to having nearly 40 percent of our adults lead a group for at least one six-week series. When it all shook out, 13 percent of our adults led on-going groups for 125 percent of our congregation. This was small potatoes compared to what came next with the churches I coached.
Harvest Church (UMC), Byron, GA, started 500 groups in a church of 2,500. By giving permission and opportunity to their members, they had twice as many people in groups as attended the weekend service. New Life Church (AG), Renton, WA found similar results in their congregation of 2,500. When we started, they had 100 groups. In six months, they had 500 groups. But these weren’t the biggest numbers.
Kingdom Life Church, Baltimore, MD, created a series called Back to Church based on Pastor Michael Phillips’ teaching. This church with 600 adults on the weekend launched 167 groups. What would your church look like if one out of every three adults led a group?
The best part in all of these churches was they put an emphasis on discipleship over leadership. Think about it. Jesus did not call us to make leaders. Our mission from Jesus Himself is to “go and make disciples.” As one pastor in Connecticut put it, “We’re not recruiting elders here.” It takes a lot to develop a leader. But, to make disciples, you just need a disciple. After all, disciples make disciples. Now, to keep things headed in the right direction, the churches gave them the curriculum to study and a small group coach to guide them. While they opened up the opportunity, this wasn’t open season on whatever you wanted to do!
The great thing about this approach was that more people were connected into a disciple-making environments more quickly than ever. There were also many people in groups who had never darkened the doors of these churches. Evangelism was happening without calling it evangelism.
There is a bit of a misnomer that in order to have 100 groups, you need 1,000 people — 10 in each group, right? Wrong! To have 100 groups, you only need 100 people who are willing to invite and include others and do something intentional about their spiritual growth.
I want to challenge you to join the 100 Groups Challenge. I am looking for 100 churches who will commit to reaching 100 small groups in 2020. This isn’t renaming classes or teams as “groups.” This is increasing the total number of groups in your church until you reach 100 groups in 2020. If you already have 100 groups, then your challenge is to start 100 new groups in 2020.
Are you ready to join the challenge? Click here. For more information, sign up for a Free Webinar on Wednesday, September 25 at 1pm Eastern/ Noon Central/ 11am Mountain/ 10am Pacific.
The Fall is the biggest season of the year to launch groups, but before you launch groups this Fall, you need to plan ahead. Over the years, I’ve seen churches pull out all of the stops for a Fall campaign only to watch the small groups ministry shrink back to its former size after the six weeks is over. I don’t know about you, but so much work goes into a Fall launch just to watch the results disappear is disappointing. And, you certainly can’t make disciples in six-week once-a-year groups.
If you follow a church-wide campaign or an alignment series model, the draw is usually the short-term experience. Your people have a chance to kick the tires and see what groups are like. People who don’t consider themselves as leaders can take group leadership for a test drive. These are great ways to plant seeds for small group ministry. But, unless you have a way to bring in the harvest, you’ll be planting and replanting seeds year after year after year. I refer to this phenomena as Ground Hog Day. While it’s great to give your people a trial run at groups, the trial run is not an end in itself. If they like groups, then what do they do next?
Keep Your New Groups Going
To keep new groups going, you have to offer them a next step. In the middle of the first six-week study, offer them another study for their group to continue. With new groups, you should choose the study for them. Most new groups I’ve led typically don’t have much of an opinion of the first two or three studies they do. Just choose a study for them. Otherwise, they’ll get lost in the study choices that are out there. If the group doesn’t decide to move forward while they’re still in their first study, they probably won’t continue. You want the group members to decide to continue before the end of their first six-week study. As far as established groups go, they can continue with their normal pattern after the campaign ends.
Choose the Right Study
In choosing a next step study for your new groups, if the groups started with a video-based study, then you need to offer a video-based study as a next step. Eventually, the leaders will gain the training and experience to lead other types of studies, but initially the goal is to get the group to take the next step without having to consider any other factors. But, for now, if they started with video, then give them more video.
The next study could be a sermon-based discussion guide with a short video from the pastor. The group could simply download the discussion guide, click the link to watch the teaching video online, then discuss and apply the topic. Some of the churches I’ve worked with have actually recorded these videos between the Sunday morning services on a smartphone, then uploaded the video directly to Youtube or Vimeo. Other churches shoot the video before or after the weekend with the pastor in a studio or in a living room. You don’t need to plan out and shoot the entire series. You can just make the videos and write the discussion guides as you go. This is a great way to help your people take their weekend into their week.You could also create a video-based curriculum about what it means to be a small group at your church. This could become the standard next step for every new group that starts. While I’ve talked to a lot of pastors over the years who were interested in this, nobody actually created one. So, I decided to take the hard work out of doing this for you. Next week, I am releasing Community: Six Weeks to a Healthy Group. This is the second in a series of Do It Yourself curriculum I’ve created. The video scripts are written. You just need to shoot the videos. Then, you can purchase the study guides at allenwhite.org/community. (If you are interested in a custom version of the study or need help with video production, contact us here.)
You can also purchase curriculum for your groups or use a curriculum from a streaming video service. Again, you want to choose something that is relevant to a new group.
Timing is Everything
If your campaign or alignment series starts in late-Summer/early-Fall, then you can offer another six-week series in the Fall that will end before Thanksgiving. It is nearly impossible to keep groups in studies between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in the U.S., so the study will need to conclude by Thanksgiving. If your campaign starts later in the Fall, then end the first six-week study before Thanksgiving and start the next step study in January. You will still want to invite groups to continue in the next study while they are in their first study this Fall. Secure a commitment from the groups to continue with the new study in January, then offer some suggestions for what they can do during the Christmas holidays as a group.
If a group will do two back-to-back six-week studies, more than likely they will continue on as a group. If you don’t offer them a chance to continue, then more than likely the group will disband. You’ll have to start over again next year. A next step study will make all the difference in keeping your new groups going after a Fall campaign. Don’t miss this step.
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!