When Carey Nieuwhof told the world that just when pastors thought we were ending the marathon of 2020, then 2021 handed us a swimsuit and a bike making this a triathlon. He wasn’t wrong. Clearly things have not snapped back, and it appears that things may never resume 2019 standards and strategies. And, that’s okay.
While many pastors are hyperventilating or quitting these days, you don’t need to. Disciples still need to be made. People still need community. The climate around you has changed, but the mission remains the same. Are you ready to try some things that are working this fall?
Flexible Group Formation
All of your groups won’t look the same this fall. That’s okay. Your groups probably shouldn’t have looked the same in the first place. Depending on the impact of Covid on your community, your people will not all feel comfortable doing groups exactly the same way. That’s okay. Offer your people the flexibility to meet in-person, online, or a hybrid of that. They should do what feels comfortable to them with whoever they want, wherever they want, and however they want. Whether they are maskites or anti-maskites, they can find their people and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. Flexibility is the key. For more on starting flexible groups, go here.
Inviting leads to thriving in 2021. Leaders who take the initiative to invite people they know who in turn invite people they know are making their groups happen. Leaders who are depending on passive recruitment methods like sign up cards, websites, or group directories are feeling a little like the kid standing along at the junior high dance. (That wasn’t me. Our church forbade dancing).
Going along with the flexible format, leaders can invite their people. Who do they know who would enjoy or benefit from the study? Who do they want to spend time with anyway? This doesn’t need to be complicated. They just need to invite their friends. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with their friends?
Prayer is a key part of successfully starting a group. Leaders should pray and ask God who He wants to join their group. Then, they should pay attention to who crosses their path. If they run into someone at the grocery store who they haven’t seen for six months, God is answering their prayer. If someone calls “out of the blue,” it’s not a coincidence. If group leaders truly want to start a group, they will take the initiative. Like Home Depot says, “You can do it. We can help.” You don’t need to fill anyone’s group.
If you want people to pay attention to an invitation to start a small group, your pastor should make that announcement. Your pastor will get 3 times the result compared to you standing on the stage saying the exact same words. By virtue of your pastor’s leadership role in the church, you will get the best result. The pastor will do better than you, the campus pastor, the worship pastor, the service host, and the communication director combined. All you need to do is give your pastor a few bullet points, then be prepared to collect the response (HINT: Keep the response close to the invitation) and train your new recruits! This works. I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004, and I’ve served three different churches since then!
Adding a Strategy
If you’ve been at small group ministry for a while, your winning strategy has probably starting running out of steam, especially in 2020-2021. Your strategy isn’t broken. It’s just done all that it can do. One size simply doesn’t fit all. But, there’s no rule that you are limited to using just one strategy to connect people into groups.
By simply adding another strategy to what you are currently offering, your church can attract more people into groups than ever before. What does that look like? Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it. Offer your established groups to your congregation, then offer a second option like groups following a sermon discussion guide or sermon-aligned study. Many churches are using Rooted. While I’m a big fan of Rooted, it’s only 10 weeks. What do people do who aren’t ready for Rooted or who have already done Rooted (Yes, I know about Life in Rhythm)? Just offer another option. But, isn’t this confusing? (See the next section).
Blended Connection Events
When you have multiple offerings, the key is to promote “groups.” Don’t promote Rooted groups, and D-Groups, and support groups, and sermon-based groups, and, and, and… Just promote groups. When your people come to your connection event, then you can ask what type of group they are interested in. This way you can keep your current groups going and start new groups.
Emphasis on Connection Over Meetings
As you’ve seen not everyone can meet in-person and some groups don’t want to meet online. How do you have groups? Well, we can go back to the philosophical discussion of whether a group is a meeting or is more like a family. (I think “family” wins). Well, what do you do when the whole family can’t show up for a meal? Do you kick the absent members out? Of course not! They’re family.
If group members can’t attend meetings, you’ve got to keep the family together. Your leaders should “own” their group rosters. If someone is on their group roster, even if they rarely attend, they are the leader’s responsibility. Give them a call. Send them a text. Let them know that you care. The group may be the person’s only connection to the church or even to another human right now. These connections are significant. Encourage your leaders to reach out to everybody on their lists.
Think About This
Fall 2021 is a challenging ministry season. Some states are practically under lockdown again. Other states are enjoying their freedom. No matter what type of environment you are ministering in, God is using groups to accomplish His purposes. The numbers may not be what you had before. That’s when you need to count what matters.
This is a tough season, but it’s not the toughest ministry season of all time. Don’t lose heart. Keep making connections. Keep inviting people into community. Keep recruiting new leaders to gather their friends. Move with the movers especially now that so much seems stuck.
What’s working for you and your groups in fall 2021?
Numbers are important. You want to know if you are succeeding, failing, or holding steady. These hard metrics can be encouraging or even exciting. They can also be motivating. If your small groups are lagging in some way, then you can kick it into high gear, recruit more leaders, and get more groups started. Everybody likes numbers that climb up and to the right. But, when numbers start falling, you might feel all of your efforts don’t count. The good news is that numbers are only part of the equation.
Hard Metrics aren’t the Only Factor
Numbers are hard metrics: names on rosters, number of groups, meetings attended, verses memorized. Hard numbers don’t paint the entire picture. You also need to look at soft metrics: stories being told, how God is working through groups, lives being changed, problems overcome, next steps achieved, and so on.
In a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast, Bill Willits reflected on this ministry season at North Point, “We’ve been averaging 35-40 percent of what we would typically connect in our short-term and long-term groups. I think that’s [because of] Covid. It’s been a challenging, challenging season.” Bill continued, “[Weekend] attendance is running between 40-50 percent compared to pre-Covid at North Point. We are looking at about a third of the typically connections we would see in a fall season.” Clearly, those are disappointing results for North Point and for your church as well.
In this challenging season like in every church, the North Point team has to navigate the emotions surrounding the ministry. Bill adds, “One of the biggest things is just reminding our team, ‘Let’s make sure that the people taking the step are finding a great experience. Let’s make sure that we are helping to onboard new groups, new group leaders and their members well.’ We are putting in a lot of touch points in the first 90 days of a new group just to make sure…that this experience in really unique times is still a good one. It’s taking a lot more effort.” Are you feeling that in your fall launch right now?
“For a staff going into a connection season when you’re used to having a [high] level of engagement, it can be a major bummer to have a [much lower] level of engagement. We keep reminding staff that in this unique time, we are dialing down the euphoria about numbers and let’s dial up stories about people who are having meaningful group experiences.”
Things You Might Have Overlooked
When your numbers are strong, things are usually moving pretty fast. You probably don’t slow down to look at what’s happening with your coaches, your leaders, and your groups because too much is happening. But, when things aren’t moving fast enough, you can follow one of two approaches: frustration or evaluation.
If you expect things to work the way they always have, you will live in a lot of frustration. The world has changed. The culture has changed. New approaches are necessary in a new culture. Longing for the good old days of 2019 isn’t going to propel you forward. In fact, it will discourage you to the point of giving up. You and I both know pastors who have left the ministry in the last 18 months. When things aren’t happening fast enough for you, it’s time to slow down.
If you choose evaluation, then you ask yourself if what you’re doing is still effectively fulfilling the Great Commission. Be willing to strip away all of the plans and programs down to their core. What should you keep? What should you end? What new thing should you try? What does this make possible?
Another big question is: What is your current system producing? Are you seeing leaders developed? Are you seeing people become more like Christ? Do you see an increase in selflessness and a decrease in selfishness?
What you’ve been doing is not wrong. But, it’s not working at the level it once did. Riding this season out is not the answer. It’s time to take the thing apart – strip it down all of the way, evaluate each piece, and decide what to invest in.
Think About This
Counting your groups and leaders is important. After all, you count your money, why wouldn’t you count your people? People are far more important than money. Counting is important, but it’s not all important. The metrics that matter the most are difficult to measure. How are you creating environments where disciple-making can take place? How are you multiplying yourself? Are people coming to Christ? How are people becoming more like Christ? Who has surprised you by stepping forward to lead a group for the first time? What is God doing in your groups?
Be encouraged. You matter. Your work matters. God is using you. There’s much to do. There’s much to celebrate.
Most churches are organized to preserve the institution. The institution may be the church as a whole, a paradigm embraced 25 years ago, or a worship style that fit a previous generation well. I’m not just speaking of traditional churches. This also applied to churches which are contemporary to 1995 or 2005. What worked for the last 25 years will not work for the next 25 years.
Ministry is Simpler
A stark difference lies between simpler and simplistic. Simplistic means offering just a few things to easily assimilate busy people into the life of the church. That’s not bad. But, perpetuating ministries based merely on the length of their existence or on its success in other churches are insufficient reasons to continue them in your church (or even to start them). In most cases, the basis of this thinking is a system of staff-led ministries created to move people from the parking lot, through the front door, into a commitment to the church, and finally assigned to ministry. Henry Ford would be proud. But, the people who leave their cars in the parking lot to step into church for the first time are not raw materials or blank slates. They have different backgrounds, education, gifts, abilities, and spiritual experiences. If and when they complete the church’s process, they won’t be uniform products lined up neatly in rows. We aren’t manufacturing widgets. Ministry is complex when those in authority decide what the church’s ministry should be, then attempt to recruit members into ministries which are not well suited for them. The purpose of many of these ministries is to serve the institution: park cars, shake hands, take up the offering, watch the children, and so forth. The focus of ministry is centered on the weekend experience, not the gifts and passions of the members. The end result is the constant need to feed the beast, that is, the weekend service. As Rick Rusaw asks, “What if we gave as much attention to scattering as we give to gathering?” The seeker service is fading. The missional movement gets the church part way there, but lacks building relationships with those who are served. Incarnational is next. What is incarnational? Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40 — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus gave his followers only two things to do: Love God and Love Neighbors. An M.Div. is not necessary for either of those. (I have an M.Div.) There is merit to keeping what works and tossing what doesn’t. Every ministry has a time to thrive, and a time to die, especially when it’s not aligned to Jesus’ mission. When we give people permission and opportunity, they become very creative. Ministry is simpler by starting only the things our people currently are gifted and called to do. When there is no longer a leader carrying that vision, then the ministry ends. Then, we get behind the next group of leaders with the gifts and passion for what is next. It’s simpler.
The System is Simpler
Most people don’t need an elaborate strategy to connect with a church. They only need someone who genuinely cares about them. They need a friend. This is a function of multiplication, which I wrote about here. A simpler system is a system of multiplication. You must multiply yourself in order for your church to grow. We must realize that ministry is not something we do to people. The people are our ministry. Their development is both the future of our ministry and the future of the church. But, when does a busy pastor have time for multiplying themselves when the tasks of ministry are overwhelming already? Give some of those tasks away. Develop people to fulfill those roles. Stop doing things which are not multiplication factors. Everyone has the same amount of time – whether they are multiplying or not. Only 15 percent of Millennials and only 4 percent of GenZ are Christians. We have heard for years that the church is only one generation away from extinction. This could be the generation. You don’t need to become an expert in Millennials or GenZ. You just need to engage them. Talk to them about what Jesus said and help them discover the application for their context. Instead of approaching them as their grandfather, engage them as a missionary. This is a cross cultural experience within our own culture. I am 53 years old. I am not the future of the church. Neither are you. But, I’m not planning on quitting any time soon. I do plan to continue in relevant ways and to celebrate what the next generations come up with. What will it take to empower and encourage the next generations? How can we give them permission to serve in their cultural context?
Word of Caution
Before you go and wreck your church, remember you have a lot of people that it’s working for. You can’t afford to lose them. Love Millennials all day long, but remember, they’re broke, and you’re not ready to retire. Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth? Maybe. You can be the judge. Your current church members were brought into the current ministry of your church with a certain understanding of how things would be – a contract, if you will. If you attempt to change that contract in an autocratic, mandatory fashion, then you’re done. But, what if you could begin to make changes without threatening the base? In a recent episode of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast, Todd Wilson from Exponential shared the idea of churches creating R&D labs and setting aside funds for it. This would allow for pilots and “skunk works” without upsetting the apple cart. I’m not talking about creating services like we did for GenX that ended up splitting our churches. R&D is a portion of funds, staffing, energy, and creativity applied to the future without radically disrupting the status quo until new concepts are proven out. It will take a long time for our members to give up the worship style and ministry that they love for the sake of the next generation. Wasn’t this our argument to the traditional folks when we wanted to implement seeker services? But, time is short. A generation is at stake. What is your church discovering? Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.