A new year often brings new motivation to get your life in order. The problem with most New Year’s resolutions, however, is that people try to change too much all at once. They want to lose weight, pay off debt, read their Bible through in a year, whiten their teeth, get more exercise, get more sleep, and wake up earlier. Before long their resolutions go by the wayside and reality sets in. The gravitational pull of their default way of living is just too strong. We do the same thing in the church.
As a child, my family went to church a lot. Every Sunday included a Sunday school class, morning worship, and a Sunday evening service. We also went to Bible study every Wednesday night and a lot of other meetings and activities in between. This was the pathway to Heaven, wasn’t it? But from a spiritual growth perspective, all of these meetings and services didn’t help people grow spiritually.
Every week we received a Sunday school lesson, then a sermon that had nothing to do with the Sunday school lesson. Then a Sunday evening sermon on a completely different topic plus a midweek Bible study that added a fourth thing to think about. In all likelihood, however, the lessons from Sunday had been forgotten by Wednesday.
If success was measured in the amount of time spent at church, we were successful. If spiritual growth occurred in terms of lessons learned, then we were well on our way to becoming spiritual giants. Yet, the reality is no one can make four significant changes in a week and certainly not over 200 changes in year. We’d probably see more progress working on one thing over 30 days.
Today, in many churches, Sunday school, the evening service, and the midweek Bible study have disappeared. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For most people, it was too much to absorb anyway, let alone actually apply to their lives. Too much information interferes with change. But, information is only one aspect of making a change. This is why I see the genius of sermon-based studies.
They Take Their Weekend into Their Week.
Most preachers are painfully aware that sermons are usually forgotten within the first 48 hours. People are busy and distracted. The information they gain on the weekend is quickly diluted by all of the other information they receive. How can people work on something when they can’t even remember what the something was?
By creating sermon-based studies, small group members can revisit the topic from the weekend and be reminded of what they heard. It’s amazing how quickly the teaching will come back. Some churches will include a 5-8 minute video to get the discussion started. These videos can easily be produced on a smartphone and uploaded to Youtube. While the message is still fresh in the pastor’s mind, record either a supplement or a summary of the sermon to help the group get started.
They Get to Discuss and Apply the Sermon.
Sermons are created for listeners, not participants. This makes sermons passive. While some people are auditory learners, people with other learning styles won’t retain as much unless they’re given an opportunity to discuss and apply the teaching.
By offering 5-6 discussion questions based on the sermon, group members can work out what the sermon means to them and how to apply the teaching to their lives. Remember, our mission from Jesus is “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, NIV), not just teaching commandments. Sermons should inspire people to change, but the real work of change happens with a smaller group of people.
They Can Set Goals and Seek Accountability.
Once the group understands what they need to change, they should be challenged to set goals for themselves. The goals can be as simple as “Based on this lesson, I will take the following step in the next week.” Then write down the goal. By setting objectives for the next week, the group members can turn intent into action.
Ask group members to partner up and check with each other between meetings. Knowing that someone is going to ask will often motivate people to move forward. If someone hasn’t met their goal, then they should be encouraged to try again. Accountability can also be built into the sermon discussion guide by simply asking about the group members’ progress at the beginning of the next meeting.
Disciple-making that Involves the Senior Pastor Brings Success.
Both the senior pastor and the church members will be more interested in small groups when the studies are connected with the pastor’s sermons. Pastors are more interested in groups because they are delving deeper into the teaching. Any pastor would be encouraged to have a discussion of the sermon that extended beyond Sunday lunch. Pastors will become more interested in groups when the groups are involved in what interests them. They might even refer to groups in their sermons by saying, “Hash this point out in your group time this week.” That will certainly raise the profile for groups.
Anything the senior pastor is involved in will get the attention of the congregation. If the group study is based on the pastor’s sermon, then members will be very interested in hearing more from their pastor and being part of something their pastor is leading. It’s a win/win.
Sermon-based Studies are Not Always for Everyone.
While I believe there is a certain genius in connecting the sermon to the small group study, you also have to take into account the fact that group members are at very different places in their lives and spiritual maturity. Simply put — not everyone needs the same things. Have enough flexibility to allow for exceptions when groups need to study something other than the sermon.
Church-wide campaigns offer another opportunity to connect sermons and studies. The purpose of campaigns, however, is to recruit new group leaders more than anything else. While there are spiritual growth benefits to campaigns, the biggest gain is in new leaders and new groups.
Consider writing a sermon discussion guide for your groups and see the impact it gives. If you don’t have time to write one personally, then form a team to help you. For more information on creating sermon-based studies, enroll in the Writing Effective Curriculum Workshop. A live version of this workshop starts on Thursday, January 16, 2020 and runs for four Thursdays.
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.
A six week discussion about discipleship. Limited to 25 participants per group.
Each session will be made up of presentation and discussion. Session recordings are available to participants as well as the slide decks and note sheets.
All six sessions are one hour in length and will be held on Zoom meeting and are recorded for future review.
Here what recent participants are saying:
“The Disciple Making R&D Course is very insightful, practical, and provides the tools needed to launch a healthy Small Group ministry.” — Bill M., SC
“I would encourage pastors to jump in with both feet. Enjoy the expert leading the way.” — Larry M., TX
“Our church has been wrestling with how to make genuine disciples, specifically in a small group environment. The great commission says to obey everything Jesus commanded. We have been assuming groups members are obeying when they respond to discussion questions but we haven’t built any relation based accountability into our format. This course helped me understand that, and to see that knowledge-based methods of discipleship aren’t making disciples. The course contained good practical learning that I can begin to put into practice.” — Elizabeth S., KS
The pilot cost is $97. When the full course is developed, it will cost $249. Pay securely with your PayPal account or credit card.
The role of a personal trainer in making disciples.
The role of personal disciples in making disciples.
4. Learning, Action, and Reflection
Fulfilling the Entire Great Commission.
The Role of curriculum in spiritual growth.
5. Healthy Lives Multiply.
Becoming Hero Makers.
The Pathway from Disciple to Disciple Maker to Leader.
Identify what’s working in your current environment.
Identify what’s not working or what has plateaued.
Identify opportunities for change.
How to engage disciples in groups.
I would like to invite you to the pilot for Disciple Making R&D. We will meet for six weekly one hour sessions via GotoMeeting. The pilot cost is $97. When the full course is developed, it will cost $249. Pay securely with your PayPal account or credit card.