By Allen White
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.
By Allen White
If you haven’t decided what’s next for your groups, then prepare yourself for a hard landing. This is the time of the year where the celebration of new groups ends with a deafening thud, unless you’re prepared for what’s next.
For some reason when we invite people to lead a group for a six week study, they get this crazy idea that once the six weeks is over, they’re done. Where would they get an idea like this? The same is true for a semester-based groups. Where are they headed in the next semester?
You see all of this grouping, de-grouping, and regrouping is really an exercise in futility. It produces an effect I refer to as Ground Hog Day after the namesake movie starring Bill Murray. If people are already meeting together and they like each other, then we should encourage them to continue, not break up.
Now a few folks who signed up to lead for a literal six weeks will object: “This is like bait and switch.” My response is something like, “That’s because this IS bait and switch. Do you like meeting together? Then, continue. If you don’t like meeting together, then go ahead and end the group this week. Life is too short to be stuck in a bad group.” If they really can’t continue with the group, then ask if a group member could take over leading.
If your groups are still in your Fall series or semester, then introduce a next step right now. Whether the next step is an off-the-shelf curriculum you purchase, a church-wide study in the new year, or a weekly sermon discussion guide, invite your new groups, especially, to pursue one next step. Don’t offer 12 different choices to new groups. The decision you want them to make right now is whether the group will continue, not what they will study. Established groups can follow what you’re set in place for a curriculum pathway or library. Established groups need choices. New groups won’t have an opinion, so choose for them.
Before the group disbands at the end of the current series or semester, ask the group to decide about continuing. If you wait until after the study ends, then you have a much lower chance of getting the group back together for the future.
With the Christmas season upon us, have groups focus on group life rather than group meetings. The new series might not start until January, but the group can meet socially, have a Christmas party and invite prospective group members, or serve together. Then, in January, they can continue their regular pattern of meeting. If the group insists on doing a Bible study between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, then encourage it. Most groups will not take this option, but a few might.
You can avoid the disaster of Day 41. You can avoid experiencing Groundhog Day for your next series or semester. By offering a next step now, you can retain more groups, then build on what you’ve accomplished this Fall.
By Allen White
The advent of DVD-based curriculum, and its predecessor VHS-based curriculum, sparked the church-wide campaign movement. All of a sudden, the person leading/hosting/facilitating/in-denial-of-leading no longer needed to feel the pressure to teach or lead. The DVD/VHS did it for them. Remember Pastor Rick Warren’s line, “Be a star with your VCR”? Those were great days.
But, now VCRs are long gone. Our family has one built into a TV, but it no longer works. The future is not bright for DVDs either. Just ask Blockbuster Video, except you can’t because they are out of business. Today, we stream video on Hulu, Netflix, On Demand, and Crackle. DVD players are being replaced by Apple TV, Roku, Fire Sticks, and Chromecast. Members of the churches we work with these days are asking if teaching videos are available online because they don’t have a DVD player any more. What do you do?
1. Create Your Own Video Content
Other than Jesus Christ, the reason people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. Now, don’t tell your worship pastor. It will break his heart.
When a senior pastor stands up and invites the congregation to do a series based on his/her curriculum, you are just giving your church more of what they already want. When the pastor invites them to gather a few friends and grow, permission has been given to get very creative with group life. There are many great reasons to create your own curriculum.
By creating your own curriculum, you own the content. You aren’t bootlegging a Christian author and publisher’s project, it belongs to you. You can do whatever you want with it. There are many low cost ways to create curriculum, you don’t need a big budget or even a professional crew. Get creative.
2. Stream Your Content Online.
By streaming curriculum online, you avoid the cost of creating a DVD menu as well as burning and packaging DVDs. Online content enables your groups to access curriculum anywhere in the world on any device. If you had told me five years ago that one day I would be streaming content primarily on my Android phone, I wouldn’t have believed you. Today, I view media on my phone more often than not.
Now your groups would need to choose a medium that best suits the size of your group. After all, 20 people can’t really gather around a phone or tablet. But, they can stream content on their televisions. Maybe you should help them with this.
Back when we were making the transition from VHS to DVD, our new series at New Life in Turlock, CA was exclusively on DVD. A few people would wonder up to the small group table and ask if they could get the video on VHS because they didn’t have a DVD player yet. I told them unfortunately that was not an option, but, then I’d smile and say, “This is your lucky day.” I reached under the table and pulled out a brand new DVD player for them. I’d bought 10 of these for $30 at Walmart just in case. Their eyes lit up. It was their lucky day! You can do the same thing with Amazon Fire Sticks, Chromecast, AppleTV or Roku boxes. If a Fire Stick costs $39 and burning and packaging a DVD is about $2.00 per unit (not to mention the cost of creating the DVD), well, you do the math.
3. Offering Higher Resolution.
As technology continues to advance, the DVD lags further and further behind. Even on our project for The Daniel Plan small group curriculum, the end result was a Standard Definition DVD. Most publisher only produce SD DVDs. Otherwise, like Disney, they would have to offer the Blue Ray combo pack which also contains an SD DVD. Most people with a flat screen TV are consuming content in HD. Some have moved on to Ultra High Definition. Now, imagine watching a Standard Definition DVD on an Ultra High Definition monitor. It’s not looking too good. Now, this is definitely a first world problem, but it is a growing problem. The church cannot afford to offer only second or third rate media to a culture who is consuming the best of the best. Poor video quality takes away from the message. Streaming video can help to resolve this issue.
4. The Advantage of Weekly Content.
When we create DVDs for churches and publishers, we have to capture all of the content for the entire project well in advance of a group launch. By streaming video, you can shoot, edit and post what you need as you need it, even if you are just one week ahead of the groups. Some churches are even shooting 6-8 minute teaching sessions between or after services on Sunday morning while the message is still fresh in the speaker’s mind. Services like MediaFusion offer great solutions for both streaming and on-demand video as well as high quality, low cost video production options.
5. Leave No Late Adopter Behind, aka Old People.
Some folks haven’t made the leap to streaming video. Some folks never will. It’s a good idea to have a few DVDs on hand for those without the ability to stream video. Make this the exception, but not the rule. One church we’re working with actually burns a small group DVD every week for this exact reason. There is no menu. They just pop it in and it plays. There is no need to exclude late adopters who are willing to participate. You should really only have to do this for another 5-6 years, then DVDs should be gone for good.
6. Embrace a Literal World of Possibilities
Streaming video has the power to reach the entire world in an instant. Once a video is posted, there are no boundaries. If you offer a downloadable discussion guide, you could be providing a great service. A few years back we experimented with an online group study sharing site similar to Sermoncentral. An unexpected outcome was receiving thank you emails from people in other parts of the world who no longer had to wait weeks to months for physical products to be delivered. They could go online and download what they needed for their group that night. Now, you can easily add world missions to your church’s discipleship ministry.
When I started into Bible college and then seminary over 30 years ago, I never imagined the role technology would play in ministry. The only available technology back then was really just radio preachers and televangelists. At one point, I was a pretty strong advocate for the separation of church and television. But now, with so many people constantly unavailable for onsite meetings, yet continually available online, it would be irresponsible to not use technology to disciple not only our church members, but also anyone else in the English-speaking world. But, why stop there?
By Allen White
The new year is an awesome time for new starts. Everyone is planning to lose weight, lose debt, learn a foreign language, and of course, grow in their faith. The new year is an ideal time to start new groups too. Why not leverage the momentum before mid-February hits and new year’s resolutions crash and burn?
The way you launch groups in the new year, however, will greatly affect your success. While this is an ideal time to form new groups, how and when you form groups will largely determine whether or not those groups last for more than one series, or in some cases, even get started. Here are some mistakes to avoid in new year’s launches.
Mistake #1: Launching in Early January.
Senior pastors love to start new sermon series after the first of the year. While the first Sunday of the year may be for vision casting or giving a “State of the Church” address, when it gets to the second Sunday, they are ready to get their preach on and dive into a new series. This is great for sermon series timing, but terrible for group timing.
If your church launches groups in early January, it forces you to form groups in December. Have you lived through a December at church? No one is thinking about January. If they were, then they wouldn’t be buying so many Christmas presents on their credit cards.
Over the years, I’ve tried to recruit and train new small group leaders in December. I’ve also found myself standing in an empty room wondering if I had missed God’s calling on my life.
People don’t think about the new year until they are actually in the new year. To effectively launch groups in January, you need to use the first three weeks to form groups, then launch in late January, or better yet, launch in early February.
Mistake #2: Failing to Leverage the Christian Holiday of Super Bowl Sunday.
I know some of you might immediately be objecting to associating something as holy and spiritual as a small group with something as hedonistic as Super Bowl Sunday. After all, promoting anything about the Super Bowl will only weaken the attendance of the Sunday night service. At least, that’s the way I grew up.
But, think about this: how would your members respond to the idea of small groups if it resembled something that looked more like their Super Bowl parties and less like what they fear a small group might be? No one calls the church to see who they should invite to a Super Bowl party. They invite their friends, co-workers, neighbors and family members. That’s the same group they should invite to their, well, group. In fact, if groups were launched after the Super Bowl, maybe the Super Bowl party could serve as an “open house” for a group and then the next week, the study could start.
You may be saying, “Well, not every Super Bowl party would be suitable to introduce people to small groups. They might overeat or something and be a bad witness.” These things could happen. But, what if a small group became more “normal” to the average Christian’s life?. That would be a huge win.
Mistake #3: Launching Groups in January without an Easter Plan.
The downfall of most church-wide campaigns, including some I’ve launched over the years, is you can experience great success for 6 weeks, then the whole thing falls off the cliff. But, it doesn’t have to. If in the middle of your post-Super Bowl series (formerly called “New Year’s series”), you announced a next step series which would run between the Christian holidays of Easter Sunday and Memorial Day, you could easily retain 80 percent of the groups that start in your Super Bowl series. By offering a next step, your groups are given a good reason to stay together.
Now, if your church is about to launch groups this Sunday, it might be time to take a timeout and regroup. Call an audible. Do what you need to do before you have to throw a Hail Mary or punt!
If you try this, you should get at least 50 percent of your people connected into groups. If you don’t, call me. We’ll figure something out!
By Allen White
I caused a bit of a ruckus this week by proposing the idea of Disposable Small Groups. I used the analogy of disposable diapers versus cloth diapers. Here’s the bottom line (so to speak): diapers are useful for a brief period of time, but the goal is to potty train our children. If our small group ministries stay in diapers, we’re all in trouble.
While some small group strategies unfortunately produce groups that are short-lived or a system is not in place to sustain these groups beyond one series, the reality is this phenomena of “disposable groups” can be completely avoided, if the right things are in place.
1. Groups Require Coaching
I will admit coaching is a tough one. It’s hard to find the right people. Most small group pastors are unclear about the role of a coach. And, to top it all off, when you launch a church-wide campaign, whatever coaching system you did have in place is completely overwhelmed. I’ve been there. In fact, in our church in California we doubled our small groups in a day. Here’s how we figured out coaching.
Do the math: if you double your groups, then half of your groups are new and half of your groups have experience. We implemented the buddy system. We matched up an experienced leader with a new leader for the six week campaign. We didn’t call them “coach.” We called them “buddy” or “helper.” What we found was more of our new groups sustained and fewer of our groups were, uh, disposable.
At the end of the six weeks, we asked the experienced leaders if they enjoyed helping a new leader. If they did and they were effective, we invited them to coach a few new leaders during the next campaign while they continued to lead their existing groups.
Over time, this structure developed levels of Community Leaders, Coaches and Group Leaders similar to what Carl George advocates in Prepare Your Church for the Future. Just as Jethro instructed Moses in Exodus 18, we had leaders of tens, leaders of fifties, leaders of hundreds, and leaders of thousands. Or, in the case of that church, leader of thousand (singular).
A coaching structure may seem daunting, but without it, you are destined to produce disposable small groups.
2. Groups Need Training
People hate meetings. Meetings are inconvenient. People are busy. So, we really need to ask the question: What is training?
Training can be a blog post. In fact, that’s how this blog got started. I would answer one of my leader’s questions each week and send it to all of the rest.
Training can also appear on the curriculum DVD. By adding weekly training to the DVD, a leader has what they need when they need it as they go through the materials.
Training can be sent by video through an email. Any small group pastor/director with a smartphone, an iPad, or a laptop can record a 2 minute video (not longer) and send it out to his/her small group leaders each week. This is even better than training on the DVD, because you can answer timely questions as they are asked rather than anticipating what questions they might ask.
Yes, we still need initial training to get a group started. This could happen between services or even during a service, but we need to rethink small group training. If our leaders are learning through blogs, books, articles or video emails, then that IS training.
3. No EGR Left Behind
Every group sooner or later will encounter a difficult person. Personally, I am only comfortable in a group where I am the difficult person. No one is comfortable when a challenging person shows up to their group. But, there is help.
Identifying needs, even challenging ones, presents a great opportunity to offer help maybe in a way you weren’t able to before. Changes are the church staff may not have even known about the need. Don’t shy away from these opportunities to serve. While the group doesn’t need to turn into that individuals support group, you can direct them to support through actual support groups in the church or community as well as counseling resources. Of course, any person should be welcome to stay in your group, but they need to be reminded that the purpose of the group is for fellowship and Bible study not for group therapy.
4. There Are Always More Groups in the Sea, But Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
Growing churches have great potential to recruit new hosts during every church-wide campaign. But, don’t turn this into a numbers game. Rather than merely celebrating in your group total, we need to celebrate whose groups are continuing and how these groups are growing deeper in relationship with each other and with God.
I hope you were disgusted with the idea of disposable small groups. While some groups will form for only one series, then disappear until the next church-wide campaign, this should be the exception and not the rule. By following these principles, disposable groups can be avoided.