Community is just as essential to spiritual growth as content. Think about this: Jesus who designed your brain also taught you how to make disciples. According to one study, Jesus spent 73% of His time with His disciples. This involved teaching, eating, serving, debating, correcting, and sending. All of this was wrapped around community. While the Enlightenment hijacked the Western church’s approach to disciple making, neuroscience is showing the importance of community in developing godly character.
Disciple making is not merely a transfer of information. It’s not simply making better choices. Disciple making is certainly not a process. After all, you’re not manufacturing widgets. And, as I’ve written before, sermons don’t make disciples. Character is formed in community. How is community formed? Here are some ways to connect your congregation into community:
Leverage Existing Relationships
“Everyone is already in a group.” That’s the first sentence of my first book, Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential(Hendrickson 2017) . When you think about your people, they are in families, workplaces, classes, sports teams, hobbies, friendships, and neighborhoods. Over the years, I discovered that some people won’t join a small group because they value these relationships more than a church small group. Rather than grousing against that pull, I embraced it. Resource and empower people to make disciples in the groups they already enjoy. You don’t have to make it hard.
The short of it is if you will give your people permission and opportunity to start a group, give them an easy-to-use resource (like self-produced curriculum with your pastor’s teaching), a little training, and a coach to walk alongside them, you can start more groups than you’ve ever dreamed. If you don’t know the leader, then don’t advertise their group. They’re gathering their friends anyway. These groups tend to form more easily and stay together longer than groups formed in other ways. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. (You’ll have to read the rest of Exponential Groups to learn the system of starting and sustaining small groups for the long haul.) Leveraging existing relationships is one way to create community.
Pursuing a Common Topic or Interest
Sometimes community starts from the other direction. Instead of gathering friends for a study, people sign up for group based on a relevant topic. You can start groups around marriage, parenting, relationships, finances, Bible studies, book clubs, and a myriad of other subjects. People are drawn by the topic, but stay for the community.
Similarly, you can start groups around hobbies, interests, or activities. What do your people enjoy doing? These groups can connect both people in your church and in your community. Again, by giving permission and opportunity, someone with an interest can start a group around it.
Now in both of these cases, you will need to know these leaders well, since you will advertise these groups. They will need to qualify as leaders in your church, so the start up process will be longer than gathering groups of friends, but it’s important to offer multiple strategies to form groups. After all, one size does not fit all.
Connecting through a Shared Experience
Shared experience can range from serving teams to missions trips to Rooted groups. These are higher commitment experiences that quickly bond people together. While every group may not start this way, it would be a waste to allow these tight knit groups to discontinue.
When your people serve in the community, they develop a connection. When they travel together outside of the country, they certainly bond together. When they spend 10 weeks in a Rooted group, they are united by a powerful experience that stretches them in many ways. All of these experiences beg for a way to continue. Give them an opportunity to continue.
Think About This
This is a short list. This is just a sample of the ways your people can connect into community. What I want you to hear is that people need more than content. If they only needed content, then you could post online videos for them to watch, and they would just grow on their own. The problem is that they won’t watch videos in isolation, and they can’t grow without encouragement, support, accountability, and relationship with others. People are just not made that way.
Offer as many opportunities as possible for people to connect in community. Start friend groups, campaign groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, topic studies, activity groups, affinity groups, support groups, and on-going groups out of shared experiences. My only caution is this: Don’t start all of these all at once. But, for everyone who tells you “no,” offer them something they might say “yes” to.
Justin Bird from Crossfit once said, “People came for the fit and stayed for the family.” (from a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Jay Kim). I wrote about Crossfit a few years back in a post called What Michelob Ultra Understands About Community: “Now, before you announce in the next staff meeting that your church is going to open its own CrossFit gym, don’t miss the point. Community comes in various shapes and sizes: small groups, activity groups, task groups, classes, Bible studies — all of these are environments where community can take place, but none are a guarantee that community will take place. Community is formed around common goals, common interests, and even common enemies. Maybe promoting community in the church is recognizing the community that is already taking place.”
How are you creating community in your church? What do you need to try?
When it comes to discipleship and small groups, there is a
tension between series, seasons, and semesters. On the one hand, you don’t want
to fight against the community calendar. But, on the other side of things, you
can’t have only 8-12 weeks for discipleship in a year. What’s the balance?
Don’t Fight the Losing Battle of the Calendar
Most people have been conditioned by the academic calendar,
even if they are no longer in school. You’re hard at it from Labor Day to
Thanksgiving, and then from the New Year up to Memorial Day, but between those
holidays there are breaks. People are conditioned to this. There are a few
exceptions, but even communities with year-round school still see an ebb in
attendance and participation in the Summer.
Where I live in South Carolina, everyone goes on vacation
either in the week before or after the Fourth of July. Back in the days of the
textile industry, the mills closed for the weeks on either side of Independence
Day. Now, all of the textile mills are long gone, but the pattern remains.
Your community also has seasonal rhythms like this. But, do
you give up on discipleship during the Summer. Think of alternatives like a
Summer devotional that people can take to the beach or the lake (or on their
phone). Discipleship doesn’t need to stop, but the form might need to adjust
for the Summer months.
Don’t Win the Battle and Lose the War.
I’ve seen churches do semesters or even church-wide
campaigns during the Summer months. As you might expect, participation was a
third or less from either a Fall series or a New Year’s series, but there were
some folks who benefited. The problem was the Summer launch reduced the
momentum for the Fall launch when everyone is back in church and available.
They saw less participation and fewer new leaders than in previous Fall
launches because the Summer study took the steam out of it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I led a group for four years that
met for all 52 weeks of the year for Bible study. It is possible, but is it
practical or necessary? You have to decide for your church.
How Do You Use the Summer?
The effort to make well-rounded disciples requires more than
group meetings and Bible studies. Relationships and group life play a big part
in offering the encouragement and accountability that each member needs to
grow. While there is a place to learn what Jesus commanded, His command to us was
to “teach them to obey what I’ve commanded” (Matthew 28:20). You have to know
the commands to obey them, but you have to obey them to become the kind of
disciple Jesus had in mind.
Summer provides the opportunity to grow by other means.
Groups could serve together. Is there a Summer youth event or camp where they
could help? How about a missions trip? Does a neighbor have a neglected yard? Maybe
the group could pitch in to help? But, it doesn’t need to be all work.
I’ve seen groups go on vacation together, go camping together,
or go exploring on a day trip. One group in our church went on a cruise
together. They met another couple from our town on the cruise, who ended up
being part of their group when they returned.
Groups need to work hard together, but they also need to
play hard together. Often you catch a better glimpse of someone outside of a
meeting. Meetings are important, but group life is equally as important.
Make Summer your ally, not your enemy. Don’t fight the
calendar. But, remember, chances are people will be more faithful to their
group over the Summer than they will to weekend services. Don’t stop your
groups, but maybe make an adjustment.
What will your groups do this Summer? Leave your comments below.
It’s time for your church to move beyond church-wide campaigns. The first widely publicized church-wide campaign, the 40 Days of Purpose by Rick Warren was launched in 2002. By far, it has been the most popular campaign to date. I am grateful for every person who ever “hosted” or joined a group for that season. At this point, some of you may be confused. I wrote a book called Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (Hendrickson 2017), which is all about church-wide campaigns or alignment series. You might ask, “Now you’re telling us that campaigns don’t work.” That’s not what I’m telling you. Church-wide campaigns used to work. But, there was a time and a season for campaigns. Here are the reasons for those seasons.
When to Stop Using Campaigns
There are two measures for when campaigns are no longer effective. Your church will hit these marks, and then campaigns will no longer be helpful. First, if a high percentage of your members are in groups, you no longer need to use campaigns. For most churches, there is a 1-3 year window when campaigns are highly effective to recruit leaders and connect people into groups. Beyond that three year window, your church will experience “campaign fatigue.” It’s a strange phenomenon. Every week, your people will hear a message in the weekend service. Every week, your people will meet in their group and probably study something. But, the idea of continually aligning the weekend service with the group study gets exhausting for people. This seems strange since there is a sermon and a study every week. But, it’s a reality with a few exceptions. Some churches use sermon-based groups, which I believe is genius from a Christian education point of view. The normal course of sermon-based groups is steady. You don’t face all of the ups and downs of church-wide campaigns. While there’s a push to join groups every semester, it’s not the bandwagon effect over and over and over again. The bandwagon is fatiguing, which leads to the second point. If your church has used campaigns for more than 3 years, you will experience a diminishing return. For about 8 years now, I’ve told the story of a church who had dramatic success in connecting all of their people into groups within a 9-month 3-campaign push. The pastor was engaged. They were naturals at creating their own curriculum. They launched multiple campaigns year after year. They began facing a steady skid downward. When I caught up with them about a year ago, groups were at an all-time low. Did the campaigns fail? Their campaigns succeeded for the first year or two. But, by year 3 campaign fatigue had set in. They were excellent at the sprint of the campaign, but suffered when the sprint became a marathon. Your church will suffer this too. Once the majority of your congregation is connected into groups and you’ve run campaigns for two or three years, it’s time for a change. If you don’t make the switch, your groups will decline, except for two scenarios…Click Here for Part 2. Join Allen White for a Free Webinar: Beyond Church-wide Campaigns on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 3pm EST or Wednesday, Nov 14 at 12:30pm EST. CLICK HERE for more information