By Allen White
If your church has 30 percent or better in small groups, then you are among the top five percent of churches in the nation. If small group ministry was a numbers game, then you could rest on your laurels and take it easy. But, how many people are actually connected to your church?
For most churches, Easter reveals the true attendance of a church. Easter is the day that everyone who attends your church shows up all at once. On average, there are at least 30 percent more folks on Easter than on a typical Sunday. At Brookwood Church, Simpsonville, SC, where I serve, we average about 4,000 adults on Sunday, but had 7,500 adults on Easter. The bottom line is that once you do the math, there is a lot of work to do. So, this Fall we are challenging our groups to take a six-week “vacation” from their group. The entire group will leave to start new groups, and then return at the end of the study.
Sure, you could try to assimilate prospective group members into existing groups, but that creates a certain amount of weirdness for both sides. New people usually do best in new groups. But, to have new groups, you need new leaders. As Steve Gladen writes in his book, Small Groups with Purpose, “We have discovered tomorrow’s leaders are today’s group members.”
Small group members who are cozy in the groups won’t like this idea. But, what if they could help start a new group and not leave their existing group? Here’s how it works:
1. Ask Your Entire Group to Start a New Group.
Give your groups the information about the unconnected folks in your church. Tell them about the additional 30 percent who showed up at Easter, but to your knowledge aren’t connected. Ask them to consider taking a break from the group, not for the rest of their lives, but for a six-week series this Fall.
If you use a DVD curriculum, it’s very easy to facilitate. They don’t need to be a Bible scholar or to have been a Christian for 50 years. The teacher is on the DVD. They know what it means to be in a group. By stepping out of the group for six weeks, a group of say 10 people could form four or five new groups and potentially impact 40-60 people over the six-week series.
2. Send Them Out in Pairs.
As your leaders look around their groups, they will probably have some misgivings about a few of their group members. They would be hesitant to send them out on their own and have them lead a group. Send them out anyway, but send them with someone who is stronger. Jesus sent His disciples out in pairs (Luke 10:1). That’s a pretty good precedent.
The other side of this is that as group leaders, we don’t always see the potential of our group members. Some of the most unlikely people make the best small group leaders. Don’t doubt what God can do with a willing heart.
3. Fill Up Four to Eight New Groups.
The greatest fear in sending out group members is the fear of failure. Equip your group leaders and members by sharing these opportunities to connect with prospective members:
• Use the Circles of Life. This is a great tool developed by Brett Eastman to identify potential group members from the folks that they already know. Ask the group members to consider co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, relatives and friends, who would enjoy or benefit from the study. They don’t even need to attend your church.
Start by brainstorming names, then make this a prayer list. Once they’ve prayed, make this a personal invitation list.
• Use the Church’s Website. Make sure that every new group is listed on the website. Many prospective members can locate a group near their house with the mapping feature or zip code look up. The web can also be used at a on-campus connection event.
• Ask for a List. Provide your group members with lists of prospective members that live near them. A zip code search of the church database would be a great place to start. This is a bit of cold calling, but don’t make it that. Send out invitations for a small group open house. Everybody likes a party. Then, at the open house invite them to join the group for the six-week series.
• Participate in the Small Group Connection. Set a day and time for prospective members to meet new small group leaders and join the groups. Over the years, we have done this in the church lobby or on the church lawn after the service or held mixers on an evening. The important thing is to create an opportunity for prospective members and group leaders to meet face to face in a relaxed setting. In 30 seconds, prospects can get an idea of whether or not they want to spend six weeks with a leader.
4. Make Sure that They All Leave the Group.
Our home group in California did a six-week vacation a few years back. Half of the group agreed to go out and start a new group for the six-week series. The other half decided to stay. We liked them, so we let them. Big mistake.
Guess who left the group, and guess who stayed? All of the extroverts started new groups for the series. All of the introverts stayed in our group. It was a much quieter group. And, we had problems getting new members to join our group for the six weeks.
We asked, “Who are your friends?” Silence. We asked, “Who do you know that would enjoy or benefit from this study?” Silence. Our little group of introverts did the study together, and then was grateful when our more boisterous folks returned.
5. Help Them Scout Prospective Leaders in the New Group.
The hope is that the new group will be successful, but if the new leader returns to the existing group, what will happen to the new group? The key is identifying someone to take the group after the six-week study. Who is the group important to? Who attends every week or lets you know when they can’t? Who has leadership potential? This would be a good place to start.
Passing around the leadership in the group meeting is also a great test of leadership. While someone may not feel that they are a leader, if they have an opportunity to lead a lesson, it will show the group leader and them their true leadership potential. Ask everyone in the group to lead for one lesson, host the group in their home, and bring refreshments. This will also help the new leader.
Midway through the study, offer another study as a next step for the group. Groups that like each other will be eager to continue on together. Groups that don’t like each other should end immediately.
6. Enjoy the Blessing of Introducing Others to Group Life.
People who have never experienced community in church, now can have what you enjoy every week. By inviting them to join a brand new group, you are giving them a precious gift. While they could join an existing group, the experience is much like getting married and having in-laws. Interpretation: it’s not always warm and fuzzy. A new study in a new group is a great start for new members.
You can breathe new life into your existing group. Over time every group atrophies a bit. Members move away or their schedules change. Then, it takes more effort to add to your group. It’s not impossible. It’s just challenging. With the six-week vacation, you can easily add new members, since you are essentially starting a new group. The new members have six weeks to bond before the established members return.
You can discover the potential of your group members to lead. Some of your group members might not return to your group. They may decide to stay with the new group after the six weeks. You can stay connected with them by becoming their coach. You already have a relationship with them, so that just makes sense. While most of us don’t want to see our friends leave, we also don’t want to hold them back from an opportunity where God can use them.
Small groups, like churches, are living things. People come and go. Groups serve different purposes for different seasons. Some groups last for decades. Other groups hold on for a couple of years, then part ways. There is no right or wrong. The key is to keep moving in the right direction and to be open to letting God use you to serve others.