When you think about all of the work that goes into a small group launch, you certainly want to choose the best season to launch groups. You certainly don’t want to do all of that work and get a poor result. After working with over 1,500 churches over nearly 20 years, three seasons have stood out as the most effective times to launch groups. While there is some variation for different geographic regions and for individual churches, these are the best practices for most churches.
The Best Time to Launch Groups
The fall launch is the biggest by far. Since many church calendars are influenced by the traditional public school calendar, the fall is when everything starts up again. But, keep in mind that not only do you need the most strategic time to launch groups, you also need to consider the best time to recruit leaders and connect people into groups.
Ask yourself, “When are most people back in church?” For some churches this is after Labor Day. For other churches this may be earlier. Once people are back, allow at least three weeks to recruit leaders and connect people into groups. Summer is not a great time to recruit leaders. You really need to recruit once the fall season is rolling.
Launch your series with the intention of the study ending by Thanksgiving in the U.S. (If you’re in Canada, launch your series after Thanksgiving, but end well before Christmas). Most groups will not meet in December for regular group meetings, but they could have a Christmas party or serve together.
The Second Best Time to Launch Groups
The new year is the second strongest time to launch small groups. Again, it’s a time of beginnings and New Year’s resolutions. But, there is a problem with launching in the new year.
Most pastors want to do a “State of the Church” sermon in early January to cast vision for the coming year (Remember, 20/20 vision?), then they want to launch right into a series. The issue is when do you recruit leaders and when do you connect people into groups? Many have tried and failed to do this during the Christmas season. People simply don’t think about the new year until they are in the new year.
The best way to launch groups in the new year is to use the month of January to recruit new leaders and connect people into groups, then run the study between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. Some groups will even start with a Super Bowl party so everyone can get to know each other, then start the study the following week.
The Third Season to Launch Groups
Number three on our list is after Easter. Launching a series after Easter serves several purposes – you can connect your Easter crowd and get them to come back the following week. Usually if a small group study is connected with the sermon, people will attend more regularly, including the Sunday after Easter. See below for other articles about launch groups during the pandemic.
The drawback of the Easter launch is June, July, and August. Typically, groups don’t meet during the summer. Summer is a great time to focus on group life and not as much on group meetings. Remember, your people have been conditioned by the public school calendar. But, why would you start new groups just to watch them get lost in the summer? There are some ways to make this work.
Other Times to Launch Groups
Think of every opportunity when you can possibly launch groups. Launch women’s groups on Mother’s Day. Launch men’s groups on Father’s Day. Launch couples groups on Valentine’s Day. Launch singles groups on Columbus Day (Singles are searching…)
Don’t feel obligated to offer a group every week of the year. It’s awkward to join a group in the middle of a study or a semester. People wait for open enrollment for many other things. They can also wait to join a group. Now, to speak out of the other side of my mouth…
As a pastor you hate to turn anyone down when they need something. (I feel that). This is where your Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other on-campus groups can play a role. People can join at any point, then when the next small group launch rolls around, they can join a group. If you don’t have any of these meetings, then keep a short list of small groups who do a great job of including new members.
You will notice and ebb and flow of group launches in this article. You push hard for groups in the fall, then back off during Christmas. You push hard again in January, then again after Easter, then back off in the summer. This pattern helps to build a stronger fall launch and a less complicated new year’s launch.
But, some of your people are hard core group meeting folks. That’s okay. The last men’s group I led met 52 weeks of the year at lunch every Wednesday. When it comes to the group meetings and group life balance, let groups decide what’s right for themselves.
Have you worked hard to launch groups only to see them disappear after a church-wide series or semester? I heard of a church once who launched their entire small group ministry from a campaign. They didn’t have any groups when they started, and then hey recruited 233 groups for the series. When the campaign ended, they only had three groups that continued. This situation can and should be avoided.
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?
If you haven’t decided what’s next for your groups, then prepare yourself for a hard landing. Otherwise the celebration of new groups at the conclusion of a series will end with a deafening thud, unless you’re prepared for what’s next. Next year, you’ll be right back at re-recruiting leaders and re-forming groups just like you did this year. It’s not good for the groups or for you!
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 the middle of your current series or semester, introduce a next step. Whether the next step is an off-the-shelf curriculum you purchase, a church-wide study in the season or semester, or a weekly sermon discussion guide, invite your new groups, especially, to pursue one specific next step. Don’t offer 12 different choices to new groups. The decision you want them to make is whether the group will continue, not what they will study. Established groups can follow what you’ve 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 groups disband 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 or when Summer hits, have groups focus on group life rather than group meetings. The new series might not start until January or October, but the group can meet socially, have a party and invite prospective group members, or serve together. Then, in the next series or study, they can continue their regular pattern of meeting. If the group insists on doing a Bible study between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day or over the Summer, then encourage it. Most groups will not take this option, but a few might.
You can avoid the disaster of Day 41 after a 40-day campaign. 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 in your groups’ launch.
Most pastors realize their church’s Easter attendance is a
better indicator of the church’s true size than its weekly attendance. Albeit
there are a significant number of visitors on Easter Sunday, the reality is
many of these visitors are not visiting. This is their church. They don’t
attend another church. They claim yours.
In his new book, Connect: How to Grow Your Church in 28 Days-Guaranteed, Don Corder writes, “On any given Sunday, eighty percent are regular attendees and twenty percent are non-regular attendees” (p. 30). He goes on to explain that the 80 percent attend about 33 times per year, while the 20 percent of non-regular attendees are there only 2.4 times per year based on researching The Provisum Group’s database of church clients. What does this mean?
An Attendance of 100 is Really More Like 559.
A church of 100 people is really made up of 559 people. By
Corder’s calculation, 126 people attend 33 times per year on average, while
another 433 make up the other 20 percent of weekly worship attendance. So, how
many people actually attend your church?
If your church averages 1,000 people on the weekend, then
your actual attendee number is somewhere around 5,590. By the same calculation
used above, 1,260 of your people attend about 33 times per year, while another
4,333 attend about 2.4 times per year. If you have any doubts, look at the
total number of records in your church’s database. It’s not so farfetched, is
What Does This Mean for Discipleship?
Often the measuring stick for groups is compared group
membership to the weekend attendance. If you’re in a church of 500 and have 250
people in groups, then you could claim that 50 percent of your people are connected
into groups. But, that’s not realistic in light of this new calculation.
A worship attendance of 500 really represents 2,167 people
who attend your church over the course of the year. If you have 250 people in
groups, you actually have about 12 percent of your people in groups. Well, you
weren’t supposed to be proud of numbers anyway, right?
The church’s mission is to “go and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:18-20). Sermons don’t make disciples. How do you engage the 77.46% of your congregation who only attends an average of 2.4 times per year?
Get Them While They’re There.
What are your church’s peak worship services of the year?
Christmas and Easter, right? The first pastor I served would often say in
Easter services, “Well, if I don’t see you for a while, I want to wish you a
Merry Christmas” and the reverse at Christmas. Rather than ridicule your
infrequent attendees, why not invite them to something?
A pastor’s immediate reaction is “But, it’s impossible to
get any airtime on Easter Sunday (or Christmas)…” That’s true. And, it’s okay.
If you could get airtime in the worship service, that would be great. But,
what’s more important than airtime is a plan.
Make a Plan to Connect Your Infrequent Attendees.
Your infrequent attendees took a step to attend a service.
You just need to give them another step. What are their needs? Where do they
need help? What issues in their lives do they need answers to? If they checked
their children into your children’s ministry on Easter, then a parenting group which
is appropriate to their stage of parenting might be of interest. Are they
married or single? How far do they live from the church? Is there a small group
in their neighborhood? What groups could you promote to these folks? As long as
you have their contact information, you can promote a group that meets their
needs. Or, better yet, a group leader could call and invite a few to their
group. Better still, a person who knows an infrequent attendee could call and
invite them to a group (or start a group).
It doesn’t matter if an announcement wasn’t made in the
service or didn’t appeared in the bulletin on Easter Sunday. For most parents,
their children have overdone the sugar and just want to get home. They’re not
thinking of signing up for a group on Easter or Christmas anyway. But, since
they’ve just attended a recent service, the church is on their mind. Then, when
they receive an invitation by email or a phone call from a warm, friendly group
leader, they might be open to join a group.
While You Have Their Email Addresses…
Remember, infrequent attendees are only coming to your
church for the most part. They may not attend very often, but they aren’t going
anywhere else. If you invite them to a group launch or connection event, they
just might join a group.
Many pastors look at that overly bloated part of the church
database and wonder why they keep all of those records anyway. Many folks don’t
appear to attend much or give anything, so why not purge the database? Don’t
purge the database. These folks are familiar with your church. They are more
likely to attend a service or join a group than people who have never attended.
Invite them to your next connection event. Use the Summer for groups to host
open houses and invite infrequent attendees who live in their neighborhoods.
Don’t rest on your laurels. Your connection percentage just got blown out of the water. Start thinking about turning every group member into a group leader (or every church member into a group leader). The harvest is plentiful. The workers are few.
The Christmas season that starts with Thanksgiving and goes through New Year’s Day is pretty intense for most of us. (Or does the season start at Halloween now?) Office parties, family gatherings, school functions, church services, shopping, shopping, shopping, cooking, cooking, cooking – boy, the list goes on. With all of this activity going on, should your group take a break? Well, a lot depends on your group. Here are a few things to think about: 1. Ask your group. While some people feel that they can barely come up for air during the holidays, others might experience a great deal of loneliness. Even though it’s a busy time, most people are still working every day and going about their daily routine. Before you decide to cancel, see what your group wants to do. If there are three or four who would like to meet, then you might consider meeting. Please note, however, that if your schedule has gone berserk, then it might be good to take a break for your own sake. But, make sure that your group is taken care of. Will someone spend Thanksgiving alone? Maybe a group member could include them in a family gathering. 2. Have a party. There is a healthy ebb and flow to small groups. Most groups can complete a study or two during the months of August through November, then will start again in January. Your group is not “more spiritual” by persisting in an inductive Bible study through the holidays. But, there is more to group that study. Having just completed a study or two in the Fall, your group has something to celebrate. Throw a party. This might even be a good time to invite prospective members and neighbors to check out the group and possibly join for your next study. 3. Serve together as a group. The holiday season offers many opportunities to serve the underprivileged in the community. Homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and children’s homes have a lot of needs, especially during the holidays. While many groups and organizations will help during the Christmas season, the reality is that these groups have needs year-round. Christmas is a great time to introduce your group to serving together. If they are interested, then plan to serve on a regular basis. 4. Give your group the next step. Some groups continue to meet during the holidays. That’s perfectly okay. Some groups decide to take a break. Some groups will follow one of the suggestions above. Whatever your group chooses to do, you will want to announce to your group when you will start again in January. They need to know that there is a next step. Announce your start date and maybe even your new study.