Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
Forming new groups is one thing, but keeping your new groups is a different story. A church asked for coaching a few years ago. They were in a desperate situation. Having just completed their first 40 Days of Purpose campaign, the church was left with a result they didn’t want or expect. Prior to the campaign, the church didn’t have any groups. At the launch of 40 Days, they started 233 groups. It was an amazing story, until Day 41. When the campaign ended, the church was left with three groups. Now, if your a glass is half full kind of person, you would say, well, they have three more groups than they’ve ever had. But, if you’re more like me, well, going from 233 to 3 is a tragic loss. And, it was completely unnecessary.
Campaigns are Just a Start.
I love church-wide campaigns. They are a great way to get avowed non-leaders to open their homes to either host a group or get together with their friends and do a study. After all, you don’t need a leader to make disciples. You need a disciple to make disciples. Often the leadership word gets in the way. It’s okay to be stingy with the term “leader.” Just call them something else. After all, you’re not recruiting elders here.
If people are willing to open their homes and/or gather their friends, the truth is they already have more leadership ability than they give themselves credit for. It’s actually a pretty good test. If people have what it takes to gather a group, then they also have the ability to keep the group. Campaigns are a great way to get leaders to self-select. You don’t need to twist anybody’s arm. You just need to give them permission and opportunity to start a group. A short-term campaign of six weeks or so based on an easy-to-use curriculum is a great way to get them started. If your senior pastor is on the curriculum, then that’s a huge winner.
Give Them a Next Step.
Here’s an interesting fact about people: if you invite them to do a six-week study, when the six weeks is over, they think they’re done. I don’t know where they would get an idea like that. Most small group pastors/directors hope that people will love leading a group and will naturally want to continue. But, there’s the catch — many of them won’t think about continuing until you invite them to continue.
Think of it this way: when people sign up to start a group for a campaign, they are entering into a leadership recruiting process. Maybe you delay some of the requirements initially. You give them enough training to get started, then you let them lead the short-term group. It’s pretty easy. This is stage one of the leadership recruiting process. But, then you need to offer them stage two — continuing into another study.
If the groups like meeting together, then it should be pretty easy to invite them to a next step study like Community: Six Weeks to a Healthy Group, so they will continue. If the group faces some obstacles, then you or their coach needs to walk them through the issue and help them continue. And, of course, a few groups won’t be able to go forward. That’s okay. The campaign is a test drive to see whether people like leading a group. It’s low commitment and low requirement. If they will accept the offer to a second study, then they are well on their way to becoming a full-fledged group leader.
If your groups are still in a Fall campaign, then offer them a study right now before the groups end. If they are new groups, choose the study for them. If they are established groups, then let them go back to what they’re used to doing.
By Allen White At this point, you’re launch is either starting, midway, or completed. Regardless of the timeline, you’re not done yet. These four small shifts can help you connect more people this Fall.
Shift 1: Launch a Few Groups on the Spot
Even if your Fall series has started, inevitably there is someone who hasn’t paid attention over the last month or so and didn’t manage to get into a group. They still want to, but they feel like that window has closed. Don’t leave any possible groups on the table, if you will. Set up a table in your church lobby this coming weekend for those who procrastinated or just started coming to your church. Even if you’re already a week into your series, they can still get started. But, here’s the deal, no one wants to jump into a group that has already started. Give them the opportunity to gather a few friends and start their own group. Some readers just got excited by that idea. Others just lost their lunch! Take the risk out of it. Don’t advertise the groups. They gather their friends. You support them. You don’t send anyone to the group unless you know the leader very, very well. Oh, and don’t call them a “leader.”
Shift 2: Plan Your Groups’ Next Step
You may object: “We’ve just launched or haven’t launched! Why do we need a next step now?” Here’s the deal: You shouldn’t have launched groups this fall if you didn’t already have a next step in place. But, it’s not too late. Whether your church is doing an alignment series in January, offering a sermon-based discussion guide, or just recommending a “How to be a Group at Your Church” kind of study, have one (repeat: one) next step in place for all of your new groups. Don’t give them choices. New groups will get lost in choices. Offer the next step in the middle of the current series, then ask the group to make their decision before the current study ends.
Shift 3: Form Your Small Group Team
You might already have a team in place to help you manage the small group ministry. Overall leadership ministry is important, but without a team, the management of the ministry will eat your lunch. If you currently have a team, think about how to expand your team. If you don’t have a team, then make a wish list of your small group dream team. Your goal is to develop a team to the point that your job is to meet with the team and set the overall direction of the small group ministry. The only way to start more groups and connect more people into groups is to multiply yourself. If you are training, coaching, planning, supervising, and managing your groups all by yourself, you will personally burnout and your groups will suffer for it. Your most important role is to equip others to serve with you. To lead by yourself is, well, selfish.
Shift 4: Make Two Lists.
The first list is for all of the things you learned during this fall launch and all of the things you did well. You want to repeat these things. The second list is for all of the things that didn’t work so well or things you would do different next time. If your fall launch was just like your spring 2018 launch, then don’t be surprised if you get the same results. Learn from your experiences and move forward. I just talked to a small group pastor from my 2018 coaching group today. A year ago he had less than half of his adults in groups. Right now, 99.9% of their congregation is in groups. Just a few shifts can radically change your result. For more information on my 2019 Coaching Groups, click here.
I sat down recently with my publisher, Hendrickson Publishers, for a live interview about Exponential Groups. Well, my part was live. Their part was in print, so I have to basically interview myself. I hope you enjoy this and hear my heart for equipping and empowering our people to lead groups. The video is 15 minutes, but if you want to skip around, I’ve listed the questions below along with their time stamps. Oh, and buy the book!
What is your background? (0:00)
Who is the audience for Exponential Groups and what is the book about? (0:50)
What has made you so passionate about expanding churches’ small groups? (1:45)
What do you think is the biggest factor hindering churches from successful group-making? (2:47)
What advice would you give to someone who would like to start a small group but doesn’t want to be considered its “leader”? (3:45)
What are ways that a church can be creative in its approach to creating groups? (4:35)
In chapter 1 you mention that a desire for control will hinder the growth of groups. For those who haven’t read the book yet, what are some other examples of factors or mental blocks that typically hold groups back from their potential to expand that you discuss in Exponential Groups? (5:42)
What’s the best piece advice you’ve received about small groups? (8:02)
What’s a sticky situation or failed plan that you have learned from? (9:15)
What projects are you working on now or have planned for the future? (11:05)
Hey Folks, 1. Free eBook by Allen White I am offering an ebook called Why Groups? which is actually the first chapter of a larger book I’m writing. I would love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve written so far. I’m also looking for a few people as a sounding board for some new ideas about groups in the very near future. 2. New Newsletter + More Blog Posts Along with the ebook, I’m doing a couple of new things with the blog. First, I will start posting every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday beginning this week. It will be a variety of articles on small group strategy, case studies, group leader training, coaching and other thoughts. So, be prepared. In addition, I am offering a monthly newsletter with all new content and ideas for groups. 3. More Newsletter + Less Blog Posts I know some of you have appreciated the infrequency of my posts over the years. If that’s you, you might want to subscribe to the newsletter and drop the blog. Of course, I could encourage everybody to do all of the above. 3.5. Sign up! To get the ebook, just fill out the form below to subscribe to the newsletter. Once you have confirmed your subscription, then you will receive an email giving instructions on how to download the free ebook. Sometimes the confirmation and download emails will get caught in your spam filter or promotions folder. If you have any problems, please contact me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks for reading, Allen