You can agree that it takes disciples to make disciples. When you think about groups, there are many parts – leaders, curriculum, group dynamics, training, coaching, and supervision. But, the most basic part of any group is someone who is willing to make themselves available to other people for the purpose of helping them to become more like Christ. While there is a definition of “disciple” that means student. There are other words translated “disciple” that mean “to follow” or “to rub off on.” Making disciples is a multidimensional enterprise. What does this have to do with getting the most new leaders next year?
Obstacles to Recruiting Leaders
Often the limitation of how many new leaders you can recruit stems from your definition of a leader. If you are looking for leaders according to the definition in Paul’s letters, then you are looking for a select group. You have a very small fishing pond in which to recruit new leaders. But, do you really need elders to lead small groups? Sometimes the word “leader” gets in your way.
If you think of disciples as students who are following a course of study, then you need very knowledgeable people to impart biblical and theological knowledge to the students in their small groups. You may have a few seminary trained folks or even a few who have spent copious hours in self-study, but you don’t have enough teachers or leaders to disciple as many people as you are responsible for.
Think about all of the people attending your in-person services, attending your online services, and listed in your church database. (To gauge the true size of your church, go here.) You have a much bigger responsibility than you realize. Yet, your methods of recruiting and developing leaders are lagging behind. (You’re probably thinking: Good grief, Allen. I thought you were trying to encourage me here. We are apparently still in a pandemic. Give us a break). Okay, I hear you, let’s talk about how you can get the most new leaders.
Every Church Attender Can Lead a Group
Every person in your church can lead somebody. If they can recommend a restaurant, they have influence. If they have influence, then they are leaders. If they know Jesus as their Savior and are filled with the Holy Spirit (according to your definition), they have the light of the world. They have hope. They have truth. They have something to offer.
Start looking at your congregation (in-person and online) as an army instead of an audience. Audiences need to be entertained. Armies need their marching orders. The people you have in your congregation right now are ready for their marching orders. The consumer Christians are gone. Don’t hesitate from challenging the people you have with bigger responsibilities. In the last two years you’ve lost just about as many as you are going to lose. If you ever wanted to change your church’s culture, now is the time.
Challenge every person in your church. Challenge every person in your worship service. Challenge every online attender to gather a group of friends and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. For the people you aren’t sure about, don’t advertise the group they gather. Start leading the church you have.
Stop Babying Your People
Your people have more to offer than you give them credit for. But, the only way you will find that out is if you stop doing things for them and encourage them to do things for themselves. I know some pastors are stuck on the “leader” or “teacher” concepts mentioned in the last section. Most of your people fall more in the category of “by now you ought to be teachers, but you still need to be taught” (Hebrews 5:12 – paraphrased).
Your people can gather a group of friends. Have they ever had a party?
Your people can follow the instructions of an easy-to-use, video-based curriculum. Have they ever watch a show on Netflix, followed a recipe, or built a piece of furniture from Ikea?
Your people are doing what you expect them to do. Or as Andy Stanley once said, “Your system is perfectly designed to achieve the result you’re getting.” (Amen or Ouch!?) Your people would do more if you expect them to do more. And, here’s the deal, your church has been through it over the last two years. The people you have right now are the survivors. They are committed. They are ready for action. If you give them permission and opportunity, they will start groups – even in a pandemic, even if they’ve never done it before, or even if you don’t think they can.
How did you get your children to move out of your house and become productive members of society? (I’ll be careful here. I’m still trying to launch one.) If you pay their bills, guide their every move, and let them stay, they will live in your basement for a very long time. If you expect them to pursue a career, start a family, and find a life on their own, they’ll do it. It’s natural. It’s normal. So, why do pastors create an abnormal relationship with their congregations? You will gain far more from sending people out than you ever will by keeping them. Who’s the next group leader? Who’s the next coach? Who’s the next small group pastor? Who’s the next church planter? Who’s the next senior pastor? They are sitting in your congregation just like you were at one time.
Think About This
God has given you a calling and a mission. God has also given you the ability to fulfill your calling and mission. You cannot possibly care for and disciple every person in your church in a personal and profound way. But, that is not your calling. You are called to “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). That doesn’t mean you need to stop teaching and making disciples. But, it does narrow the focus of who you teach and what you teach them. You must be a ministry multiplier to effectively disciple everyone who is truly part of your church. To disciple every online attender you must multiply yourself. Sure you can dispense content, but content only does half the job of development and discipleship. It takes a disciple to make a disciple.
How will you activate your people to make disciples this next year?
Now, before you take all of this and create a mess for yourself, you need to have a system in place to manage and develop this new crop of “leaders.” You need coaches. You need training. You need next steps. Don’t get stuck here. Because your success only requires developing the minimal amount of structure necessary to support this. For a glimpse of what this looks like, follow the 5-part video series called the Small Group Restart. It provides a road map of how to build this. If you start right now, you can launch the most new group leaders in just a few weeks.
The time has come to face an unpleasant reality. The congregation you have right now is your entire congregation. This is not necessarily bad news.
In talking to pastors I’ve stopped asking about their pre-COVID attendance. If the pandemic had only lasted a few weeks to a few months, then you could certainly expect your church to quickly snap back to where it was. After 20 months nothing will snap back now. The culture has changed. Habits have changed. Your church has changed. Let’s consider what happened.
Stadiums are Full, but Sanctuaries are Half Empty
If only Covid was preventing people from returning to church, you would also see this caution across the board in every auditorium or stadium of any size. As I watched the Kansas City Chiefs’ disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Arrowhead Stadium was packed. As I watch the baseball playoffs between my San Francisco Giants and Mark Howell’s LA Dodgers, Oracle Park and Dodgers Stadium are at capacity. Yet, church sanctuaries are less than half full. What’s happening?
Some people have legitimate concerns related to Covid. Out of an abundance of caution, they chose to worship online at home. They are not ready to meet and sing with a large group of people for the time being. That’s understandable considering the amount of information and misinformation out there. There are very strong feelings about vaccines and masks. Covid accounts for part of your half filled auditorium.
Others became comfortable with online worship. They don’t have to get their family dressed, fed, and out the door on Sunday morning any more. They can sip their coffee in their jammies while their children play or sleep in. While online faithfulness has certainly lessened over time, some of your people are still there. They are giving. They are on your side. They’re just staying home. But, some people have changed the channel.
Now that most churches have an online worship service, it’s easier to church shop than ever. Let’s face it. There are more interesting sermons out there. There are professionally recorded worship sets with worship teams who sing in tune. If someone’s interest is only in worship and preaching, there are tens of thousands of choices. But, you and I both know that there is far more to church than songs and sermons. Rick Warren isn’t going to call to see how they’re doing. Andy Stanley isn’t going to make a hospital visit. If you wonder where you’re people are, you should probably give them a call.
The last group is the most exciting. People are watching online who have never darkened the door of your church. They are interested in spiritual things. They long for something solid in very anxious times. They enjoy watching the service without being watched. And, when you offer a next step, they will take it. Pastors are telling me how “first time” guests show up ready for baptism, next steps, small groups, and serving. They aren’t first time guests. They’ve been participating in your online worship services for weeks to months. This is the new front door of the church! How does your front door look? Are you actively offering next steps to your online congregation? Do you look directly into the camera and lead them on what do to next? Do you have a way for them to respond? Don’t make your online worship service a lesser experience. Don’t expect less of people who worship online. They need your leadership.
Stop Looking Backward
The whole world has experienced a massive reset. Regardless of who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s to blame, or who’s orchestrating a nefarious plot, God is not surprised by any of this. Why has God allowed this to happen? Why did God intentionally shake up His church like this? What needed to fall away to reveal what was strong? What outdated strategies needed to crumble? What changes that you’ve been dreading to make needed to happen? God has uniquely positioned you and your church to serve a changed culture, if you are willing to let go of what you used to do.
Some of us remember the battle of the 1990’s when we transitioned from traditional services to contemporary services. You couldn’t alienate the older folks because they were the givers, yet if you didn’t change your approach, you couldn’t attract or keep younger people. Remember those days? Some churches attempted “blended” worship, but as Stuart Briscoe said, “If you blend traditional and contemporary, you end up with contemptible.” He wasn’t wrong.
Imagine if you and your team decided to incorporate more stained glass into your building or include more hymns in your worship set this year. What if you threw out those uncomfortable stackable chairs and replaced them with uncomfortable wooden pews? You wouldn’t go back there. In the 1990’s churches chose to no longer use 1950’s ministry strategies. Now it’s time to move forward from 1990’s ministry strategies and embrace new things in the 2020’s.
But, this isn’t just about strategy. Change produces loss. You’ve lost much since March 2020. You can wear yourself out, but the pre-Covid days for your church aren’t coming back. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt. When our church in California lost two-thirds of our congregation and the entire staff in a matter of weeks, I experienced the grief as if all of those people were in a bus caravan that went over a cliff. I was overwhelmed with grief. I managed to drag myself into the office at the crack of Noon and leave around 3 pm. Every person who called or stopped by the church was also racked with pain. It was all I could take. Our church had basically died, but good things were about to grow out of it.
Lead the People You Have
You have to put your energy into leading the church you have rather than trying to lead the church you used to have. Here’s what’s great about the church you have:
Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.
The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.
Your church is reaching more new people than ever before — online. Tune up your online service, which starts by watching it yourself. Create a separate mix for your music, because the house mix doesn’t cut it online. If that doesn’t work, then only stream the sermon. Watch your online recording. You will understand my point. Along with this, interact with your online congregation. Ask a staff member or church member to host the online service and chat with your online congregation before, after, and even during the service. How can you make this an active experience? If folks are consistently watching online, they are with you. Lead the people you have.
People who show up are ready to take next steps — baptism, growth track, small groups, serving, outreach, and more. Direct your online worship host or even the senior pastor to address the online congregation and lead them into next steps. Offer serving roles and small groups. (Check out: Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future). Your online congregation needs your leadership. Lead the people you have.
A Final Challenge
The good news about this season is that the culture of your church has already shifted. You don’t have to convince people to show up for in-person worship services. They’re there if they want to be. You don’t have people fighting against online worship. They’re already there.
The question is are you trying to pastor a megachurch from the 1990’s or are you leading a hybrid church in 2021 and moving forward? Are you making your online congregation an equal experience to your in-person worship service? Do you expect as much from those gathered online as you do those gathered in-person? Are you realigning your congregations’ time, talent, and treasure to move your church forward or are you attempting to regain what you had in 2019 (or before)?
In a recent interview with Bill Willits from North Point, he shared that in-person worship and small groups are at 50 percent of their pre-Covid numbers. This is the church at the top of Outreach magazine’s Largest Churches list. But, North Point is innovating. The house analogy is out the window. Listen to what they’re doing now.
God has uniquely positioned you and your church for this season. It is different. It is way different than how you’ve done ministry before. Choose to lead forward and not backward. God is with you. Keep in step with His Spirit.
What has your church changed in the last 20 months? What results are you seeing? Reply in the comments.
Bill Willits is the Executive Director of Adult Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries. One of the founding staff members of North Point, Bill is a graduate of Florida State University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the co-author of the book, Creating Community with Andy Stanley, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition. Bill and his team have helped connect thousands of adults into the benefits of group life.
Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
After spending the year pouring into others, often we get to Summer and dream of a tropical paradise. For more of us, that tropical paradise amounts to a week in Myrtle Beach. (There are better places to vacation in South Carolina, but as a resident for nine years now, I’m not allowed to tell you, especially if you’re from Ohio.)
Let’s face it for those of us overseeing discipleship and small group ministries in a church, Summer is really sort of an annual sabbatical for us in a way. After that week of vacation, what do we do? Sure we pitch in at VBS or youth camp. We might lead a mission trip or speak on a weekend or two. But, often we have more discretionary time in the Summer than in most other times of the year. What you invest in yourself now could make a huge difference this Fall.
Now that you have six weeks of your “sabbatical” remaining, here are a few thought about making your time productive and your Fall awesome.
I learned a long time ago that leaders are readers. Here’s the great news: you have time to read. Whether you prefer printed books, ebooks, or audio books, there is time to read. If you can’t find time to sit down and read for 20 minutes during the day, then download an audio book to listen when you travel to and from the office. My Summer commute is all of 12 minutes, but I can get 24 minutes of listening time in every day, which is two hours per week. When we multiply that by 6 weeks, we just found 12 hours of reading time this Summer.
Most of us don’t have hours to read during the day, but if we put in another 20 minutes, we could probably cover at least a chapter a day. Our lives are too short to make all of the mistakes and learn all of the hard lessons ourselves. So, cheat. Learn from other people mistakes and hard lessons. Here are a few books I’ve either just read or am reading this Summer.
Contagious by Jonah Berger. A professor at the Wharton School of Business discovers the best approaches and appeals to marketing. With great stories like the $100 Philly Cheese Steak and a Youtube sensation called “Will It Blend?” the author will take you through the six key areas of effective promotion. As you think about promoting your small groups this Fall, you will uncover some interesting thoughts from Berger about what to present and how to make it work. Deep and Wide by Andy Stanley. This is Andy Stanley’s “Gentlemen, this is a football” speech. Starting with the incredible stories of the inauspicious beginnings of North Point Community Church and challenging the church to be the church, Stanley delivers a solid whack on the side of the head. Small Groups for the Rest of Us by Chris Surratt. My friend, Chris, released this book last year. He offers a unique approach to groups in an approachable and transferable way. So many small group models just don’t work other places. Chris’ thoughts will work in churches large and small. Living Forward by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavy. As pastors we are focused on fulfilling God’s plan for our lives. But, often we spend our days spinning our wheels and crying out to God for direction. While we should never be presumptuous about our own plans, the reality is if we don’t have a plan, then not very much gets accomplished. Living Forward helps you plan ahead for every aspect of your life. It’s not about getting rich quick or reaching the pinnacle of success as much as it’s about planning to give every area of your life what it needs when it needs it. How do you know how to do that? You have a plan.
Take an Online Course.
My book won’t be out until January 2017, so I can’t recommend it yet. But, if you’d like to see the first chapter, you can download it here: allenwhite.org/ebook. What I can offer you is my six session online course called Leading an Exponential to Group Launch. In this course you will learn proven strategies of set goals and make a plan, recruit leaders, develop a coaching structure, form groups, and get your groups to continue. This is a downloadable resource which includes six 45-60 minute talks along with the slide deck and some great downloadable templates, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you would like to invest in a a live, in-person coaching relationship, I am starting a new six month coaching group this month. For more details, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Take some time for yourself. Fall will be here before you know it. If you don’t have time to invest in yourself this Summer, well, then you have some things to learn.
What do you plan to differently this Fall than before? Leave your response below.