By Allen White Today’s guest is Father Charlie Holt, the Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and School in Lake Mary, FL. He is also the President of Bible Study Media, a non-profit Christian publisher. He is an instructor with the Institute for Christian Studies and serves as a collaborative partner with Pathways to Home, a ministry aiding homeless families in Central Florida. He and his wife, Brooke, have three children. 1. When I first met you a decade ago, your church launched a ridiculous number of groups based on your size for the 40 Days of Purpose. How did that come about? What happened? Like many other churches, St. Peter’s participated in Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose. At the time we had about 260 people attending on a weekend. After watching the training videos by Rick Warren, our leadership team took Pastor Warren’s inspirational challenge to think exponentially. We added a “0” to our goal of having 10 small groups. So, we set a goal to have 100 small groups and 1,000 people participate. I think the truth is that we didn’t know how big of a goal we had set. We would need 50% of our member households to open up their homes and host a group! The Lord blessed us abundantly, even though we did not reach the goal. What did happen is that 70 small groups were started with 700 participants–that is 300% of our average weekend attendance participating in the campaign! Over 65% of the people who did that campaign with us were not members of our church. We added 30 new families to our membership that year, and our operating budget grew by $100,000. The 40 Days of Purpose taught me the evangelistic power of a small group campaign. 2. As an Episcopal priest, what is the uniqueness of launching groups in a liturgical church? One of the great things about the liturgical church is the emphasis on alignment with the church year. We follow a seasonal approach that walks the entire congregation through the life of Christ. This means that there are certain seasons that really lend themselves to a small group emphasis. The 40-day period of Lent or the Great 50 days between Easter and Pentecost are wonderful times to call the entire church to consider the Gospel in community. A liturgical church is united by common prayer and common practices. This culture of community lends itself to church-wide focus. The challenge is that there are not many small group resources written with the liturgical church in mind. 3. Lake Mary, Florida, where you serve is a rather affluent community. How do you gain and keep your congregation’s attention on small groups with so many distractions in their lives? This is a challenge of our day for Christianity in general. School, sports, and entertainment dominate the families’ focus and time. I believe the key first step is that I personally as a pastor have to model an alternative way of life for the people of the Lord. I need to live life in a small group so I can authentically experience the challenge and speak of it with my people. Another strategy is to expose people to the small group concept in shorter bursts and smaller steps. Introduce people to the blessing of life lived in small group community without overwhelming them. A six-week study is a small enough commitment that a busy person could say yes. But it is long enough to break some patterns. The prayer and hope is that the blessings of life in community will outweigh the curses caused by over-commitment and over-scheduling. Always have a second step to offer for those who catch on. 4. You are the author of the Christian Life Trilogy. Why did you create this series for the Lenten, Easter, and Pentecost seasons? The Christian Life Trilogy comes from a longing and desire to see the heart of the church renewed around the heart of God at the heart of the Christian year. As I said in an earlier answer, I have found it difficult to find solid biblical material that aligns with the patterns of the Christian liturgical calendar. Lent, Easter, and Pentecost tell the greatest story ever! We need some materials that take us through the core message of that journey with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension purposefully, prayerfully, and reflectively. I pray that the individuals and congregations that use the Christian Life Trilogy materials will find themselves centered on the things of first importance—Jesus Christ, and Him crucified and raised from the dead. Let us die with Him, that we too may be raised to new life and filled with all of the fullness of God in the gift of the Holy Spirit. 5. Now that many churches of various sizes (including megachurches) and denominations have participated in the Christian Life Trilogy, what have you learned about launching groups in a church-wide campaign? In the first year of its publication, the Trilogy had over 50 congregations from various denominations and contexts participate with over 4,000 participants. My observation is that the several congregations that really saw tremendous fruit were the ones that took the time to plan with prayer and intention. The most impactful Church-wide campaigns take several months in advance of their launch to slowly, prayerfully, and methodically build a momentum toward a movement of God. A strong lay leadership team and the support of the church council is fundamental. It takes time to effectively clear the calendar of meetings and other agenda items without alienating your key leaders. If the senior pastor and a strong leadership team are focused with singular purpose on the Gospel and do a good job casting the vision to the people of God, the Lord will bless the effort and multiply His kingdom. God the Father loves it when His people focus on His Son! 5.5 Out of The Crucified Life, The Resurrected Life, and The Spirit-filled Life, which is your favorite? I love the Spirit-Filled Life! It was the most fun to write and amazing to see implemented in my own congregation. I had a parishioner tell me that they thought the Crucified Life would be a tough sell. After all who really wants to pick up their cross? I think that is true. However, you can’t get to the Spirit-Filled Life until you have died with Christ. The pathway to full fellowship with God is through the Cross, Resurrection, and Holy Spirit.
By Allen White The New Year is one of the best seasons to launch a new groups or relaunch an existing group system. Turning to a fresh page on the calendar motivates people to embrace change. Whether they will attempt to break bad habits or start good ones, this is a key time of the year to launch groups. People are very receptive. But, even in an ideal season to launch groups, you can still encounter some less than ideal factors which can throw off your launch. Here are a few things to think about as you are planning a New Year’s launch.
1. A Narrow Topic Can Limit Your Impact.
Over the years, I have coached quite a few churches who had very different ideas of starting the new year. Some churches begin the new year with a fast. Others will start with a “State of the Church” message. Then, others will dive into evangelism, tithing or some other more mature topic. A while back I asked the senior pastor what his new year series would be. He said, “I’m doing a series on dying.” I replied, “You’re killing me, Frank.” If the goal of your series is to connect as many people as possible, the topic will have a lot to do with who steps up to start a group. One church launched groups with a relationship series and had a huge response. Then, they followed up with a very insider, evangelism series and cut their groups in half. This does not mean we should avoid “mature” topics. We just need to time them right. Capital Area Christian Church, Mechanicsburg, PA, pastored by Don Hamilton, started this year with a series called “Manifesto” to connect his members into groups and get the group DNA started. He followed the series with a broader topic called “Monsters Under the Bed” where his members invited people in their lives to join the study. It worked. Whether you choose an “insider” series or a topic with broad appeal, keep your target audience in mind. While the snacks will be very easy for a series on fasting, it’s really not where most people start group life. And, if you start the year with a giving series or a capital campaign, then forget it. Stop reading this post. Give up on your group launch right now.
2. Don’t start the series too early.
In discussing a possible coaching partnership with one church a few years back, I discovered their preaching calendar called for the start of their new series on New Year’s Day. I mean actually January 1st. I considered turning down the partnership. Pastors like to kick off the New Year with a new series. The problem is you can’t really recruit leaders and form groups between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Believe me, I’ve tried. My pastor would make the call in December for folks to lead groups. I waited in the briefing room after the service…listening to the crickets and questioning the call of God on my life. It just doesn’t work. Most people don’t think about the new year until they are actually in the new year (just like most people don’t think about the Fall until after Labor Day). So, how do you follow the pastor’s lead with a new year’s series and launch groups? You don’t. Now, before you go and get yourself fired, read on. Remember the church who wanted to launch new groups with the series on New Year’s Day, well, they launched the series, but not the groups. In fact, they moved their February series to January 1, and their series with the broader topic to the first Sunday in February. Now, we had the whole month of January to recruit, and then successfully launched groups with a Super Bowl Party. The best time to launch groups in the new year is between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. For some churches that may mean a Lenten series. If your church follows the liturgical calendar, you might consider something like Christian Life Trilogy. Otherwise, come up with a great topic that your buddies at the Super Bowl party will want to study. Now, please understand, before I attempt to direct Senior Pastors on what series they should do when, I do my best to accommodate what they already have in mind. If your pastor has a January launch in mind, then work with that. You might only have a couple of weeks to recruit, but it’s better than nothing. If the second series of the year is more amenable to a group launch, then recruit during the first series, and start groups in the second series.
3. Think About More Than a Single Launch.
The beauty of early church-wide campaigns like the 40 Days of Purpose was the ability to launch a huge number of new groups with broad appeal. I remember an Episcopal church of 260 people who launched 70 groups. (The pastor is also the author of the Christian Life Trilogy). But, the beauty of the launch potential was paired with the agony of Day 41 and the sudden disappearance of the new groups. This doesn’t have to happen. The success of a New Year’s launch is not the number of groups you start during that series. Your success lies in how many of those groups take a next step with a series after Easter. If you can get groups to do two back to back series (12 weeks total), then they are very likely to continue on as a group, even over the Summer. Whether your church chooses to produce its own curriculum, purchase curriculum, or do a combination of things, a New Year’s launch plus an Easter follow up series will give you more groups than you can imagine. And, they will last. What will it take for your church to pull this off? Allen White Consulting Free Webinars Free ebook: Exponential Groups Courses, Cohorts & Consulting