Nothing will accelerate your group launch faster than the right topic. When you choose a theme for an alignment series that is a common felt need in your congregation and your community, people will run to join groups. But, the reverse can also be true. Choosing the wrong topic will drive them away.
1. More “Mature” Topics Will Limit Your Launch
Several years ago, I was working with a church that started every year with a 21 day fast. They wanted to design a curriculum to support the fast. While I would never attempt to talk a church out of such a significant initiative, I did caution them that forming new groups might be a little challenging. On the bright side, the refreshments would be very easy. They started a handful of new groups for their members and had a great experience with their fast. But, they were far from involving the entire congregation.
Some topics are for more mature believers rather than for people in the community who may have never darkened the door of your church. Anything to do with money: budgeting, giving, generosity, capital campaigns, and so on are challenging to form groups around. While many people need help managing their finances, too many evangelists desiring $65 million jets have created a poor association between the church and money for most of the world. Don’t go there.
Other topics like evangelism, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual gifts are great for the congregation, but probably won’t draw much interest from the community. There are ways to promote these topics more indirectly.
Instead of creating an alignment series around a capital campaign, why not create a series around what the church is raising money for? If the church is taking new initiatives to help the poor or become a resource in the community, then these are the topics to promote. Maybe the church is investing in the next generation. People are very concerned about the world their children will grow up in. They can get behind the vision of the church to reach the community, and then they might even give.
Instead of creating curriculum to teach your people evangelism, why not produce a series that is evangelistic? Talk about the needs in the community. You could even include a presentation of the Gospel. You could do evangelism with the curriculum rather than teaching how to do evangelism. A series like All In focuses on the story of Jesus and offers the Gospel message.
There are ways to introduce mature topics to a broader group. But, the largest group launches come from topics that touch a nerve.
2. Felt Need Topics Will Attract People Who Need Help
When you talk to your neighbors and others in your community, what are they concerned about? Many people struggle in their relationships, their marriages, and their parenting. These are great felt need topics which can reach a broad audience.
People also deal with anxiety, worry, and stress. Some feel like giving up or are lost in even successful careers. What will bring them meaning and hope? Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef who recently committed suicide once asked, “What do you do after your dreams have come true?” Even those who seem to have it all often feel a deep void. How can your series help them?
Of course, the granddaddy of all church-wide campaigns is The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. Other series which have drawn in the community include Kerry Shooks’ One Month to Live, Live Like Your Dying, and Half Time by Bob Buford. I’ve worked with churches to produce series that deal with leaving a legacy, common fears, hope, or ambition that have helped some churches more than double their current numbers of groups. A couple of churches now have twice as many people in groups than they have in weekend attendance.
3. What is Your Senior Pastor Passionate About?
The best topic you can choose for a successful curriculum and group launch is the idea that your pastor is the most passionate about. Does he have a life message or dominate them he speaks about often? Does she have a clear direction on what the Fall series should be? The best topic is not necessarily the hottest topic to the church, but the hottest topic for your pastor.
Once you have that direction, you don’t have to start with a blank piece of paper. Most pastors have files full of sermons they’ve preached over the course of their ministries. There is no shortage of content. Why not research the pastor’s hot topic in past sermon files? You’ll be surprised what you come up with.
And, remember, you’re not creating the next Purpose-Driven Life! Your study may not make the bestseller list, but your pastor’s teaching on your video-based curriculum will be very popular with your congregation. What’s even better is that when your felt need topic draws in the friends, neighbors, and co-workers of your members into groups, they will be introduced to your pastor through the video curriculum. When these new folks are invited to church, they will feel like they already know your pastor from the videos!
Where are you headed this Fall? If you’re creating your own curriculum, I hope you’ve already started. If not, there are semi-custom offerings from allinsmallgroups.com and other sources that have scripts and study guides already written. The hard work is taken care of. Your pastor just needs to personalize the scripts and shoot the video. If push comes to shove, curriculum you purchase can also help you form new groups as long as your pastor is passionate about it.
The topic will make or break your next alignment. Where are you headed?
As you’re about to take a sigh of relief at the end of a ministry year, planning a successful Fall launch begins now. This doesn’t mean you will work all Summer on the Fall launch, but it does mean getting some plans into place to recruit more leaders, form more groups, and keep those groups going. In order to start more groups than you ever have, you need to reevaluate a few things now.
Engage Your Senior Pastor
The Senior Pastor is the #1 recruiter for groups. In the churches I’ve served, when I gave my senior pastor the same script that I would have used, the results were typically 3 times better than if I had said the same thing. How do I know? I recruited leaders myself for seven years and was able to connect 30 percent of our congregation into groups. When my pastor made the same invitation, we doubled our groups in one day. Within six months, 125 percent of our congregation was connected into groups. Did I mention that it took me seven years working alone to get to 30 percent in groups? Not only did we connect more people into groups than attended our weekend service, we turned around and did it again the next year.
Think about this, if your pastor has lead the church for more than a few years, the reason most people attend, other than Jesus, is because of your senior pastor. They enjoy his teaching. They laugh at her jokes. They follow his leadership. Now a word of caution: don’t mention this to your worship pastors. It will break their hearts. When your pastor stands up and makes the invitation, people will listen and respond.
What if you senior pastor is not interested in groups or sees groups as one of many options in the church? Look for next week’s post.
Change Your Recruiting Methods
How are you currently recruiting group leaders? What do you require for someone to lead? What I have discovered is most people don’t see themselves as leaders. When you ask them to lead a group, they will probably turn you down. I’ve even convinced people to go through the group leader training, and then they turned me down.
A trial run, like a church-wide campaign or alignment series, is a great way to help prospective leaders take a test drive with groups. Once they’ve had the experience of starting and leading a group at least 80 percent will continue.
Here’s the dilemma: in order for most people to agree to the trial run, you have to make it easy, accessible, and short-term. I used to basically recruit leaders for the rest of their lives. That’s really too much to ask. But, six weeks is a good start.
The opportunity must also be easy and accessible. A video-based curriculum makes it easy. There is little preparation time, and the new leaders don’t need to be experts. They just need to have friends. We also must wave some of our requirements for these six week groups. I used to say, “lower the bar,” but then I discovered some churches would lower the bar, but never raise it back up. The end goal is to develop leaders who can make disciples, lead a Bible discussion, and mature in their own lives and leadership. But, to start they need to see if they even like leading a group. Delay the requirements temporarily, then bring them back at the right time.
Reconsider How Groups are Formed
Relational approaches to group formation are far more effective than task-based approaches. Sign up cards, websites, and group directories are efficient, but they are not effective in creating long lasting groups.
Start with the relationships the new leader already has. Among their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and others, who would be interested in the group’s topic? After praying over a list of potential group members, the new leaders should invite them. Then, the people they invite should invite others.
If you’re church is experiencing rapid growth or high turnover, then chances are potential new leaders might not know who to invite or prospective members might not get an invitation to a group. If they’ve been in town for any length of time, they might know a few neighbors or co-workers they could do the study with. Don’t be shy about asking them to lead a short-term group. If they would prefer just to join a group, then create an environment where prospective members can meet new group leaders face to face. This way they will have a sense of who the leaders are and choose the group they want to join.
As a last resort, if a handful of people contact the church office and need to be placed into a group, then find a group for them. If it’s more than a handful, then you have an epidemic. Don’t revert back to task-oriented approaches. Get the prospective members and leaders in the same room.
Rethink your approach to forming groups. You will find more relationally-based approaches will help you to form lasting groups.
Announce Your Fall Campaign This Week!
If new groups formed this Spring or after Easter, give them something to look forward to. All you need is a start date and a topic (or just a start date if your pastor doesn’t plan that far ahead). The groups can meet socially over the Summer. Do a service project together. Even do another study. They may meet only once a month. But, they will know when Fall comes around, there is a new series for them to jump into.
You can persist in the ways you are currently recruiting leaders and forming groups. You will probably experience some incremental growth of 5-10 percent. But, by tweaking a few things, your Fall launch can bring more success in connecting people than you could ever ask or imagine.
A lot of great things can happen during a 40 Day church-wide campaign, then comes Day 41. If you’ve just launched groups in the last few weeks, it’s time to think about what’s next.
Several years ago a small group pastor joined our coaching program. He had gone from having no small groups in his church to actually launching 233 groups for a 40 day church-wide campaign. At the end of the campaign, when it was all said and done, he ended up with three groups. What a heartbreak!
Over the years, in the laboratory of hundreds of churches across the country, we’ve learned a few things about keeping the momentum going and helping to sustain groups for the long haul.
1. Groups Need a Next Step.
Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time.
Of course, the other issue here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is.
We launched groups at our church in California for the first time in the Spring. Our fear wasn’t just Day 41, but also days 42-96. It was a high hurdle over the summer. We gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday of October. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise.
When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Wendy Nolasco, Small Group Pastor at New Life Center, Bakersfield, California, found a similar result. After successfully launching 100 groups in the Spring, they gave their groups a heads up on their Fall campaign and then said a prayer. This Fall 75 of those groups are continuing into the next step Pastor Wendy gave them.
If you are in a Fall or New Year’s campaign, the next step is not quite so daunting. They don’t need to wait three months for another study. They can start a new study the following week. Once a group does two back to back six week studies, usually they are good to continue from that point forward.
2. Give Your New Groups One Specific Next Step
If you send your new group leaders to the internet or the local bookstore, they will get lost in the plethora of selections. In fact, it will take them so long to make a decision, more than likely the group will falter before they can choose their next step.
If you started the group with a video-based curriculum, then the next step should involve a video as well. Again, if you invited folks to form groups with the idea that they didn’t have to be a Bible scholar, because the expert was on the video, they will need that strategy again. Whether the next series aligns with the Sunday sermons or not, a specific next step will take them past Day 41 and into a longer group life.
Now, you may ask, “How long can groups continue with video-based curriculum?”
Carl George put it this way, “As long as there are DVDs.”
3. A New Study is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group.
The beginning of a study is a natural time to invite new members into a group. The group could host an open house or a barbecue to invite some friends and neighbors who might be interested in joining the group. Everyone likes to start on the ground floor. A new study certainly provides that opportunity.
4. If the Host Can’t Continue…
Well, you could go the guilt route: “If you love Jesus and want to go to Heaven…” But, I wouldn’t recommend that.
If the hosts legitimately cannot continue, they are probably not considering other possibilities for the group to continue. they think if they can’t go on, then the group can’t either. But, that’s not necessarily true.
When a host informs you around Day 24 of your current campaign that they won’t be able to continue with the group, have their coach begin to investigate whether another member of the group would like to step up and host the group. If the group has been rotating leadership during the study, someone may very easily take over leadership of the group so the group can continue.
Oh, and how do you get your hosts to state their intentions around Day 24 or so? You ask them. I’ve used both a mid-campaign survey as well as a mid-campaign host huddle to determine who is interested in continuing and who isn’t. Before I walk into the huddle meeting, I like to know what to expect. Often I will send the mid-campaign survey first. It serves as what John Maxwell calls the “meeting before the meeting.” Then, when you walk into the room, you know who plans to continue and who needs to be given some options for their group to continue.
All in all, Day 41 is just the beginning of group life. With the right encouragement and next steps, groups who started to only complete a six week study, can find themselves enjoying quality group life for many studies to come.
If you have managed to connect 30 percent of your adults in small groups, then congratulations are in order! You are among the top one half of one percent of all churches in America! Go ahead and pat yourself on the back! You deserve it!
Now that you’ve been congratulated, let’s get to work. Quite a few things could contribute to your state of stuckness. Here are the biggest factors in small groups getting stuck.
Stop Handpicking Leaders
If you are still personally recruiting every leader, you have completely maxed out this method of starting groups. When our groups got stuck at New Life in northern California, we had 30 percent in groups. I had handpicked each leader over the course of seven years. I had asked the same question for seven years: “Would you like to become a small group leader?” And, for seven years, many people turned me down.
Now, if I had 100 years to catch up with the connection needs of our growing congregation, then I would have been in good shape. The problem is that well before we reached the 100 year mark I would be dead along with most of the people who needed to be connected into groups. While I thank God for the groups I had, the recruitment strategy had to change in order to recruit more leaders faster. We changed it and doubled our groups in one day.
Consider an Alignment Series
One of the fastest ways to propel your groups forward and get out of your stuckness is an alignment series where the senior pastor’s weekend messages are aligned with the small group study. You can either purchase a curriculum like My Near Death Experiment or Transformed, or you can create your own curriculum. Either will work. The key is to tie what’s happening in the small groups with the weekend message and particularly tie the small group study to the senior pastor.
Only Your Senior Pastor Recruits New Small Group Leaders
The first time my senior pastor stood up in a weekend service and invited our people to host groups, we doubled our groups in one day. [You can read the whole story here.] After seven years, we had 30 percent in groups. After one weekend, we jumped to 60 percent in groups.
Other than Jesus Christ, the reason unconnected people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. They like his personality. They laugh at his jokes. They enjoy his teaching. Now, don’t mention this to your worship pastor. It will break his heart.
When the senior pastor stands up and offers curriculum based on his teaching (or at least aligned with his teaching, if you’re going the purchased route), you are giving your people more of what they already like — your pastor’s teaching. Then, when the pastor invites the people to open their homes and host a group, they will follow his leadership. Believe me, I’ve been an Associate Pastor for most of my 25 years in ministry. If I made the same invitation in the service, I would get 30 percent the result of our senior pastor. Once my pastor starting recruiting from the platform, I never handpicked another group leader ever again.
Get Your Coaching Structure Started
Many churches have given up on small group coaches. Even very large churches who are well-known for their small group ministries have abandoned coaching or use paid staff to coach. This is a mistake. First, most churches could never afford to hire all of the staff they need. Second, if you are not personally caring for your leaders, your leaders will eventually stop leading. I was able to coach my leaders up to about 30 percent connected into groups, but to be honest, I didn’t do it very well. But, I learned not to beat myself up.
When we doubled our groups in a day, I was in a coaching crisis. Then, it dawned on me, since we doubled that meant half of the small group leaders didn’t know what they were doing, but the other half did. I matched them up like the buddy system, and it worked. Then, I built the rest of the coaching structure on that. Read more about small group coaching here.
Leave Established Groups Alone
Now, here is what I didn’t do. I didn’t invite my established small group leaders to do the new series. I didn’t ask my established small group leaders to change anything. In fact, I didn’t even tell them. Why?
I already had them. They didn’t need to change. They just needed to continue. If it ain’t broke… Now, many of the established small groups did participate in the alignment series, but I never asked them to. They asked me!
If you are killing yourself and only have 30 percent of your adults in groups, it is time to make a change. Now, you could change to another church who has no groups and become a big success by connecting 30 percent of their people into groups. Or, you could change up your strategies of how you recruit small group leaders and make huge progress right where you are.
Where are you stuck?
Webinar: Help, My Groups are Stuck at 30 Percent!
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How did you get stuck?
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Wednesday, November 1, 2017 at 3pm ET/ 2pm CT/ 1pm MT/ Noon PT
Thursday, November 2, 2017 at 11am ET/ 10am CT/ 9am MT/ 8am PT
I was first introduced to Pastor Matthew Hartsfield and Van Dyke Church, Lutz, FL in 2011. We had a great run at getting over 100% of their then 1,800 adults connected into groups. [Read the Original Case Study Here] Five years later, Van Dyke Church has grown to 3,300 members and 2,300 adults in weekly attendance. [Read the Updated Case Study Here] They have maintained 80-90% of their adults in groups. Here is my interview with Matthew Hartsfield: