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.
Looking back over 2019, I wanted to share the Top 10 posts from the blog just in case you might have missed any. Overall, my readers have shown strong emphasis on making disciples (discipleship) as well as creating curriculum and other small group topics. If you’re favorite post is not listed here, please let me know!
Most churches cannot launch groups fast enough to keep up with the demand for discipleship. As the worship services grow larger, the small groups ministry gets further and further behind. Well, that’s not entirely true.
Churches CAN launch groups fast enough to keep up with the demand for discipleship, if they change up how they are launching groups. Here are 7 things I’ve discovered over the last 15 years in working with over 1,500 churches across North America. These aren’t just 7 ideas or 7 philosophies. These are 7 proven strategies to launch groups.
#1 Offer Multiple Short-term Opportunities.
People have watched small group methods and models come and go over the years. The innovators and early adopters are right there with you every time you propose a new idea. This is your low hanging fruit that amounts to about 30% of your congregation. This is also why most churches get stuck at 30% in groups.
The rest of the folks are waiting to see how long you stick with the latest and greatest idea. Once they see that you are willing to go the distance (and that nobody died from the new strategy), they’ll jump in. But, they need to know you’re serious by offering short-term opportunities to start groups over and over again. You will get sick of asking before some of these folks are even interested in trying.
#2 Offer Easy-to-Use Curriculum.
People aren’t dumb. They’ve been around. They know the Bible. I’ve surveyed some of the largest, most seeker-focused churches in the U.S. to discover they still had 95% transfer growth. Most of your congregation is not new, but they are busy.
Busy people don’t have time to prepare, so make it easier for them to get a group started. By creating and purchasing an easy-to-use video-based curriculum, people can gather their friends and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. This is not where you’ll leave them, but it’s a great place to start them.
#3 Offer an Experienced Leader to Help.
Before you panicked because I’m about to say “coaching,” think about something for a second. If you were to double the number of groups in your church in the next 30 days, how would you help the new leaders? When our church doubled our groups in one day, I panicked! Then, I matched up the new leaders with experienced leaders. This does two things for you.
First, all of the new leaders won’t be calling you, because you’ve given them someone to call. Second, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on in all of these new groups, because an experienced leader, who you know and trust, is getting to know the new leaders. Coaching helps everybody.
#4 Give Permission and Opportunity.
The reason people are not in your groups is not because the hate the Bible and hate other people. They want to become more Christlike. What doesn’t work for them is what you are currently offering. How do I know? Well, unless all of your people are currently in groups, then what you’re offering is not working for everybody. A word of caution — don’t throw out what you’re currently doing — it’s working for someone. Keep it.
Now, here’s the part that blew my mind — I didn’t need to solve everybody’s problems or create a multiplicity of groups to meet every need. I gave our people permission and opportunity to figure out how to do a group that would work for them. They figured it out. If this sounds too loosy goosy for you, remember you determine the curriculum and the coach. Those are pretty good safe guards.
#5 Allow People to Gather Their Own Groups.
Most people have friends. If they have friends, they can start a group. If the topic is appealing to the average person, your people might also invite their neighbors, co-workers, and others. Some churches I’ve worked with ended up with twice as many people in groups as attended the weekend services.
Personal invitation is far superior to any sign-up card or website. Active methods of connecting people into groups work far better than passive methods. And, if people don’t need to be placed in groups, your administrative task just went way down. Get as many people to invite as many people as they can, then provide a way for new people to get into groups.
#6 Ask the Senior Pastor to Invite Them.
Next year marks my 30th year of full-time ministry. For most of those years, I was the Associate Pastor, Discipleship Pastor, or Vice President. What I learned in the second chair was that if my senior pastor said the exact words I would use, we would easily triple the result. Or, put another way, if I made the invitation, I would only do about 30% as well.
Encourage your pastor to be the spokesperson for groups. Give them reasons to champion groups from The Senior Pastors Guide to Groups. Give them stories from small groups for sermons. Script out the invitation for group leaders. Then, sit back and watch the people show up.
#7 Don’t Advertise These “Groups.”
When you put a leader’s name on a groups directory or website, the church is giving an implied endorsement of the group. If you don’t know the leader very well, then this presents a problem. You can do one of two things: You could get to know all of the new leaders ASAP, or you don’t advertise these groups.
By not advertising these new groups, you make it safer for the new leader. They can invite people they know. They’ll be more comfortable. And, you don’t have to worry about your church’s charter members ending in a group led by a new believer. By not advertising these new groups, you give a lot of grace all around.
Chances are as I have given you 7 proven strategies that have worked over and over again, you’ve come up with seven or more excuses for why this won’t work in your church. I was just like that once upon a time. But, then I took some wise words to heart from Brett Eastman, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” It’s tempting to create an entire system to account for all of the possible exceptions. But, systems like that tend to get in the way of launching groups and making disciples.