An ill timed launch is nearly as bad as no small group launch at all. You probably launch groups along with everything else in the fall and in the New Year. Those are great windows to launch groups, so what’s the problem?
In most churches, the senior pastor wants to kick off a big fall series as soon as everyone has settled back into church. The pastor will give a “State of the Church” message right after New Year’s Day, then launches into a major sermon series. If these sermon series are aligned with a small group study, then when do you recruit group leaders? And, when do you form groups? Before everybody gets back?
How Does This Work?
Let’s say that everyone is back onsite in the fall around mid-August. This will vary from church to church by a few weeks either way. If your pastor plans a big fall kick off with a sermon series starting in mid-August, you have to recruit leaders and attempt to form groups in July and early August. For most churches that means you are trying to recruit leaders when many of your people are on vacation.
The same goes for the New Year. If your series begins in early to mid-January, then you are recruiting group leaders and forming groups in December. But just in case you haven’t discovered this: nothing happens in December expect for Christmas.
Attempting to recruit leaders in the middle of summer or in December is completely futile. (Okay, maybe you recruited a couple of leaders once, but for the most part it’s futile.) You have to recruit leaders and form groups when your people are actually back. What does this mean?
If your people are back in church physically and mentally in mid-August, then start recruiting group leaders in mid-August. But, what happens to your senior pastor’s fall kick off? Your pastor can still launch the fall with a great sermon series, but wait to align your small group study with the NEXT sermon series (provided your pastor doesn’t do 20-week sermon series). You recruit group leaders in mid- to late August. You form groups in early September. You launch groups with a sermon-aligned study in mid-September.
Here’s a Great Result
One church in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group made this adjustment and went from 30% of their adults in groups to 42% in groups just by launching with the next series instead of launching with the kick off series. At our church in California, our people weren’t back until after Labor Day. We recruited group leaders in September. Our Connection event to join groups was in early October. We launched our six-week aligned series on the second Sunday in October with it finishing just before Thanksgiving. Our next study started in late January or early February. The groups focused more on group life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
But, What About Semester-Long Studies?
And, this strategy relieves another problem for you: every group and every ministry wants to launch all at once. By delaying your aligned series launch for a few weeks, people can sign up for Financial Peace, Rooted, or a Beth Moore study first, then you can recruit the remainder of folks to lead or join series-based groups. After all, a group is a group is a group. As long as they’re doing something intentional about their spiritual growth, does it matter what type of group they’re in? Everyone certainly doesn’t need to do the same thing.
Think About This
Recruiting leaders takes a lot of time and effort. By adjusting your alignment schedule, you put in the same amount of effort, but you get a better result simply by changing the timing. As long as your fall series ends by Thanksgiving and your New Year series ends by Easter, you’re in really good shape.
What does your fall church calendar look like? How can you make this adjustment to maximize your recruiting?
If you need a little help working through this issue, try Burst Coaching. You get three private coaching session plus an additional resource for only $197. For more information, click here.
Why let your sermons go dormant when they could do so much more? Pastors have lots of sermons. Even as an Associate Pastor over the years, I have lots of sermons, Bible studies, and class notes. What are you doing with those sermons now?
Pastors have lots of sermons sitting in files. Whether they’re in an old school filing cabinet, on your hard drive, or safely stored on Dropbox, your sermons are sitting around. But, as my friend, Brett Eastman, says, “There’s gold in them hills!” You have no shortage of content. But, why allow your content to lay dormant when you can use it to help people grow?
Why Turn Your Sermons into Group Studies?
One of the chief barriers to people leading small groups is they are intimidated by the thought of leading. Or, they don’t feel they are knowledgeable enough about the Bible. Or they don’t have time to prepare a Bible study. On the other side of the equation, pastors are fearful of new, unproven leaders teaching in groups. By creating your own video-based curriculum, you help both of you.
By offering a video-based (or podcast-based) curriculum to your congregation, your members can gather a group of friends, play your teaching video, and follow the instructions in the workbook. You will have more leaders than ever before by removing this one barrier. Now, to help you feel better about letting anybody lead, don’t advertise these groups. People gather their friends. Their friends already know them. They know what to expect. You simply provide an easy-to-use curriculum and an experienced leader to coach them. The coach will both help and supervise them. This doesn’t need to be overly risky.
Create Your Own Curriculum
The formula to create your own curriculum is simple. First, choose a topic. For the broadest reach choose a topic that people, both inside and outside of your church, are really interested in and a topic that you are the most passionate about. Have you thought of one?
Next, gather all of your great sermon content about that topic. Imagine if you wanted to create a series on relationships. You’ve already got a lot of great material on relationships – communication, conflict, parenting, friendship, marriage, the one anothers, and so forth. You probably don’t need as much content as you can probably gather. I helped one pastor create a six-week small group study from two sermons. Each sermon had three points. Each point became a session for the six-week study.
Then, turn your sermons into scripts. The video sessions can’t be 30-45 minutes long. There’s a big difference between video teaching and live preaching. You can engage a live audience much longer. So, why not just gather people midweek to preach another sermon? Well, sermons don’t actually make disciples, but they can catalyze a decision. Create a 10-minute video script to summarize your sermon content for each session. (You can make the sessions shorter than 10 minutes, but not longer).
Next, shoot your video. Hire a crew or a local wedding videographer. Shoot it on your iPhone and post it to Youtube. However you want to do it, just do it. If this is your first video-based curriculum, your people will overlook the quality because they’re excited about receiving your teaching. You can learn the tips and tricks of video production as you go. Just get started and do something.
Once your video is shot, write your discussion questions. I prefer to write the questions after the fact, because the video doesn’t change. Some pastors have preferred that I write the questions before the video shoot. Inevitably, I rewrite the discussion questions after the video shoot. For more on writing discussion questions, check out the Writing Effective Curriculum Workshop.
Lastly, promote your new series broadly, recruit new leaders, and form groups. (You can get the whole game plan in the Exponentials Groups book and workbook). You can either create fully downloadable resources through your church’s website or app. Or, you can create a physical workbook for people to buy. With so much virtual and downloadable stuff over the last two years, people will probably want to hold something in their hands. Services like Kindle Direct Publishing and Ingram Spark offer print-on-demand, so you only pay for the books you need and can order them as you go. Both services are pretty affordable whether you order dozens of books or thousands of books. The price is the same per book.
Think About This
The fall 2022 small group book is coming [LINK]. Use this summer to prepare for possibly the largest small group launch you’ve ever experienced. Producing your own curriculum is affordable and effective. Pastor, your people want more of you. Once their friends can meet you through the video, they will start coming to church!
Video-based curriculum is just one way to repurpose your great content. You can also craft your content into books, workbooks, courses, devotionals, and so much more. If you need help getting started with your project or even doing the whole thing for you, check out Allen-Writes.com for more information.
Back in the good old days, the school year started after Labor Day and ended before Memorial Day as God intended. Lately, however, school districts have gotten creative with school calendars. Some schools take a week or two off every six weeks now – all year ‘round. While I’m sure there is a lot of reason and research that have gone into creating these optimal learning environments, I feel for those missing the lazy days of summer, but I especially feel for you as you plan your small group launches.
If you would prefer to LISTEN to this blog, click here.
Good News: Old Calendar Habits are Hard to Break
Even in areas where the school calendar looks a lot like the annual calendar, the traditional school calendar is well embedded into the hearts and minds of most adults. Look at the workplace. Most people take vacation during the summer months and little gets done the last two weeks of the year. It’s just like the good old days when we had summer vacation and Christmas break. In a way this is good news.
My wife taught in the California public schools. At one school there were 900 students on a campus built to accommodate 300 students. They added as many portables as possible, but it was impossible to have the entire student body on campus at the same time. So, students were divided into four tracks. Each track took a month off every fourth month. This way only 75% of the students were on-campus at any one time. But, here’s the thing – the most popular vacation months were May, June, July, and August. While families could have gone on vacation during either of the other two months their children were out of school, vacations happened during the summer months. Old habits die hard.
If your small group launch is faced with a new or changing school calendar, don’t fear. Your people are still conditioned by the traditional school calendar. Most people won’t go on vacation every six weeks. Most people can’t afford it. Vacations by and large will occur during the summer months. There might be a trip to Branson in October or a skiing trip in the winter, but most people will be around.
Your Groups Can Flex
Often the fear is that if you launch groups, then there’s a “fall break” two weeks into the aligned series or semester, then your groups will fall apart. This is not true. Breaks that occur after a series or semester launches are not a problem for most groups. But, you want to avoid breaks while you’re gearing up for a launch.
In most cases, the best times to launch groups are in the fall, the New Year, and after Easter. These are normal seasons of the year for folks to start things. People are still driven by seasons regardless of what the school calendar dictates.
In South Carolina where our family lived for 14 years, many South Carolinians went on vacation either the week before or after the 4th of July. This tradition went back more than a century. Back in the day, the textile mills closed for two weeks on either side of Independence Day. That’s when everyone took vacation. Now, generations later, many people still vacation during those two weeks because that’s what their families have always done. Recent calendar changes won’t disrupt decades-long traditions.
First, if you live in Canada, forget what I just said. Plan for your groups to start AFTER your Thanksgiving and lead up to the Christmas season.
Next, respect the traditions and culture of your neck of the woods. Churches in the Northwest plan for big small group launches in January to June. That’s when groups run. What about the fall? Well, since people aren’t back until around Halloween, there’s just not much there. Inland Maine churches don’t plan groups during January and February due to winter weather. (After all, they live north of most of Canada’s population!)
Learn the patterns people follow. Whether you make adjustments for cold weather, hot weather, or hunting season, don’t fight these rhythms. The fight for off season groups is simply not worth the result. Besides often after people have a break for group life, the next group launch is even stronger.
Protect the Month Leading Up to a Launch
The key to any successful small group launch is the month leading up to the launch. You want to wait until your people are “back” from summer vacation, Christmas vacation, or wherever else they’ve been. If you’re big kick off weekend is the first weekend everyone is back, then you’re going to have a difficult time recruiting leaders and connecting people into groups. Let’s say you’re people are back around mid-August. You want to plan for a group launch around mid-September. If your groups and series launch in mid-August, well, you’ve left a lot of cards on the table.
The same is true for the New Year’s launch. You can’t recruit new leaders and connect people into groups during the Christmas season. It simply does not work. This means your aligned series or small group semester can’t start in January. That’s okay. Maybe your series should run between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. Use the month of January to recruit.
You need plenty of runway to recruit new leaders and form groups. During the month preceding a launch eliminate as many competing values as possible – no other announcements, no guest speakers, just groups, groups, and more groups. Avoid the random weeks off from school. It’s okay if your fall break occurs during your series – that won’t hurt you. But, avoid a week off during your ramp up to the group launch. That disruption will dampen momentum for your launch.
Think About This
Old habits die hard. Of course, the disruption of the Coronavirus pandemic has caused many to change course. They worship at home. They’re choosier about who they spend time with and how they spend their time. Things aren’t snapping back quickly. But, in this new normal, there is still underlying traditions and seasons. Get to understand the currents of your local calendar and follow that when you plan your small group launches.
How does your church navigate school calendars? Leave your comment below.
“We want to connect 80 percent of our people into groups in 2021,” announced Pastor Kevin Berry. That seemed like a loaded statement. To start, the church only had 19 percent of their adult worship attendance in groups. Next, small groups had never been a high priority at the church. Lastly, did you catch the date? 2021 was just more of the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, but God gave Pastor Kevin a vision. Here’s what happened.
Mount Hope is an Assemblies of God church in Lansing, Michigan. They have an in-person worship attendance of 1,000 adults and an online worship attendance of 500 (2021). The church was founded in 1925 but became what it is today under the leadership of Pastor Dave Williams (1981-2012) and is currently led by Pastor Kevin Berry. Mount Hope is known for global missions and supports works in over 150 countries. They are also known for serving their local community. Mount Hope has a goal to reach everyone within a 50 miles radius of Lansing, which they call the “Soul Zone.” But, small groups have never been a high priority for the church until this year.
Mount Hope began 2021 without a Life Group Pastor and only 29 groups. After a conversation with Pastor Kevin in early 2021, the Mount Hope Executive Team decided to hire me (Allen White) as their outsourced Life Group Pastor for 12 months. Our goal is to connect 80 percent of the average adult worship attendance into groups, connect every leader with a coach, and develop leaders for longer term service.
The Senior Pastor Led the Charge
The vision caster for every church is the senior pastor. It just makes sense. The senior pastor hears from God and shares the vision with the people. In this case, Pastor Kevin became the spokesman for small groups. He announced the series. He invited people to gather their friends, open their homes, and host online groups. He asked them to text “Host” to the church’s text line, then asked them to meet him after the service for a host briefing, which he introduced then handed off to other staff.
This is the influence of the senior pastor. I have served in full-time ministry since 1990. Most of that time I served as the Associate Pastor, Discipleship Pastor, Vice President, and now outsourced Life Group Pastor. What I’ve learned is that even if I said the very same words as the senior pastor, I would only get 30 percent of the result. How do I know? I cast vision for groups in my church in California for seven years and connected 30 percent of our adults into groups. That number was no coincidence. The day my senior pastor invited people to host a group, we doubled our groups in one day.
In the two alignment series at Mount Hope this year, groups grew from 29 at the start to 53 groups in the first series. Then in Fall 2021, groups went from 53 to 83. When student ministry groups under Pastor Peter Reeves as well as support groups under Pastor Josh Goodman were added in, Mount Hope peaked so far at 99 groups and 59 percent of the congregation connected into groups.
The Church Created Their Own Curriculum
In order to get more people into groups and raise the value of small groups at Mount Hope, the church launched two alignment series based on the sermon series. One series ran in the spring of 2021 (May-June). A second series ran in fall 2021 (September-October). A third series is being produced now for new year 2022. This seems like a lot to create, but several important factors drove all of this forward.
First, Pastor Kevin recognized that if the groups were aligned with where the teaching team taught on the weekend, the people would follow along. For most people who aren’t connected to groups, the reason they attend worship services is because of the senior pastor’s teaching. When you connect the small group study with the senior pastor’s teaching, you are giving your people more of what they already want.
Second, Pastor Kevin shares the pulpit with a qualified team of men and women who serve alongside him. Rather than creating every lesson for every aligned small group study, the teaching pastors created the video teaching for each week they preached. This created both continuity between the pulpit and the group study as well as shared responsibility for creating the resource.
Third, the church enlisted the help of Executive Pastor Joe Mead, Communications Director Roger Ackerman, and their outsourced Life Group Pastor to create either a downloadable resource (Spring 2021) or a full study guide (Fall 2021 and New Year 2022) to accompany the video teaching. Again, with a team approach, the church has produced three high quality small group studies in just nine months along with regular sermon discussion questions for the weeks between alignment series.
Lastly, the church made a consistent effort for groups with a sequence of small group alignments. Since they did not have a strong track record with groups, the consistency of offering three alignment series in one 12 month period showed the congregation that Mount Hope is serious about groups. Also, the people who might have been reluctant when the first series was announced joined the second series. And, those who were skeptical haven’t joined yet, but should warm up to the third series in New Year 2022.
Leadership Requirements Were Delayed
Prior to 2021, Life Group Leaders had to meet some stringent leadership requirements in order to start a group. Candidates needed to complete Growth Track and become church members in addition to completing a 12-part online or in-person leadership course called Accelerate. To maximize the number of new hosts, the church leadership chose to delay the requirements. This gave folks a chance to test drive a group before they decided to move forward. Now that many groups have completed one to two alignment series, these requirements are being gently reintroduced by invitation for those who have found their niche in leading a Life Group.
Every New Leader Connected to a Coach
There is a risk to starting groups with unproven group leaders. There I said it. It’s a calculated risk, in that, only about 2 percent of the people recruited in over 1,500 churches in the last 17 years have been any kind of a problem. And, by problem, I simply mean having a warm pastoral conversation about an issue they might be struggling with. To reduce the risk and to help more groups get started, each new leader was given an experienced leader to walk alongside them from when they first attended the briefing through the end of the alignment series. This experienced leader made a phone call to the new leader once a week to answer their questions, encourage them, and see how they were doing. This was also a great format for identifying and recruiting new on-going coaches. (Here’s more on why coaching matters).
The Rest of the Story
Mount Hope has accomplished a lot in building their Life Groups through a very difficult year. But, rather than waiting for everything to get back to normal (which it’s not so start leading the church you have), the pastors at Mount Hope are moving forward in leading the church they have into community, care, and growth through their Life Groups.
Mount Hope’s journey toward reaching 80 percent in Life Groups is still being written. Check back for updates. In the meantime, for more complete details of what’s working right now with small groups, join the Small Group Restart.
Vertical Church is an over 30 year old church in West Haven, Connecticut. The worship attendance is 1,600 adults in a diverse congregation made up of 38 different nationalities. No one ethnicity is dominant. Prior to implementing the principles found in Exponential Groups, the church had 34 groups following the Free Market model of groups.[
“The verbiage in the Northeast is small groups don’t work
here,” says Randal Alquist, Discipleship Pastor. “Nobody wants to open up their
houses. You’re not going to get them to join. We’re not a front porch
community. We’re a back deck community with fences. We’re going into our
backyards and have our own little space.”
After digesting the content of Exponential Groups, the church was challenged to add a new
approach. “My biggest revelation was this idea that people are already in
groups,” Alquist said. “There are distinctives we want to accomplish within a
group. We want people praying together, people gathering together for community
and to draw closer to Jesus. We’re activating faith together in the group. If
we know that’s happening, and they’re attending church regularly and serving
once in a while, then we know they’re growing. This revolutionized my approach
in how to talk about groups and promote them.”
Previously, the church sought out people with high
qualifications to lead a group. The new leaders were given a 52-page manual
they were expected to follow. Alquist says, “We started giving people
permission to jump in. We’re asking for people who love people and love God.
We’re not asking for elders here. We want people who are willing to facilitate
a healthy environment where connections can happen.” The 52-page manual was
replaced with a 10-page manual and a short briefing meeting at the church.
Training videos were created to answers common questions from the small group
leaders. Each new leader received a coach to help them.
In their most recent alignment series, Vertical Church had
over 90 groups with 920 group members. Additionally, another 240 people are
involved in eight short-term Growth Groups at the church. “This approach opened
up a world to us,” Alquist enthused. “We knew community was happening on the
periphery, but we’ve been able to look at all of these little communities in
our church and identify some basic things for those leaders to start practicing
and to make sure it’s happening. It’s been amazing.”