Church-wide campaigns are great sprints toward connecting a lot of people in a hurry. But, disciple-making is a marathon, not a sprint. The ultimate goal of groups is to make disciples. Disciples are not the end result of a process. Disciples are crafted. Eventually, the church will want video-based-curriculum-dependent newbies to be able to rightly divide the Word of Truth and facilitate a discussion leading toward on-going life change. You can’t grow disciples in fits and starts. As Eugene Peterson once titled a book, it’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Campaigns can help you or hurt you. Just like hot sauce,
you’ve got to know how much to use and when. Otherwise, you’ll numb your taste
buds for campaigns. Is it time to start a church-wide campaign? Or, is it time
In Jesus’ work with His disciples, there are three distinct phases: “Come and Follow” (Matthew 4:19), “Come and Die” (Luke 9:23), and “Go and Make” (Matthew 28:18-20). While some churches attempt to start “serious” discipleship groups with “come and die,” it’s much easier to start groups with “come and follow,” and then lead them into maturity to reach “come and die.”
The purpose of the “Come and follow” stage is connection. Whether the church is trying to connect their worship attendance, the neighborhood, or both, this connection purpose can largely be achieved by offering a felt needs topic with an alignment series, as described in Exponential Groups. This low commitment, short-term approach allows potential leaders and their groups to test drive a group and begin the habit of meeting together. While the primary purpose is connection, other purposes including leadership development and spiritual growth can certainly take place at the “Come and follow” stage.
The danger in connection groups is in seeing them as an end in themselves. They should be viewed as the starting point for discipleship which will increase the maturity of the group members and group leaders. Some pastors embrace the notion that things must be kept easy and low commitment in order to produce maximum results. After working with churches in their alignments series for nearly 20 years now, the reality is the low commitment and low requirement approach eventually produces low maturity. What’s worse is that as the church continues into a minority Christian culture, the lack of challenge is off-putting to those who seek depth and genuine relationship with God and others. In the 21st century, people are looking for answers. They desire a cause to live for. Once they are engaged in groups, they need more. They need the challenge to “Come and Die.”
The purpose of the “Come and Die” phase is growth and spiritual maturity. Please don’t read those words as “deeper” teaching and more Bible facts. While the intellect is important (after all God gave humans a book and a brain), there is so much more to discipling the whole person. This is more than an academic exercise. A well-rounded approach to discipleship must take into consideration every aspect of a person’s life and being – physical, emotional, relational, financial, intellectual, and other areas. This topic is too large to explore here. There is a future book in the works.
The mission of the church in making disciples is to baptize them and teach them to obey what Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Obedience and surrender are best evidenced in a person’s attitude and actions. Rather than using all of the clichés about “walking your talk” and so forth, the point is the end product of discipleship is someone who resembles Jesus Christ. They have died to themselves and their ways of dealing with things and replaced their ways with those of Jesus. The self is sacrificed to produce genuine transformation.
The church can turn up the temperature on discipleship in
their groups through the curriculum and leadership training offered. Again,
this is not an invitation to teach groups to parse Greek verbs. Curriculum
should be a balance of personal time with God, a group discussion of the Bible,
assignments to turn words into action, and accountability to check progress.
Curriculum is not just a course of study, but an action plan for integrating the teaching of the Bible into daily life. This is not merely an ascent to a belief statement, but how believers live and breathe in their daily lives. Study formats like Rooted, The Neighboring Life by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, Emotionally-Healthy Discipleship by Pete Scazzero, D-Lifeby Dr. Bill Wilks and Dr. John Herring, or D-Groups by Robby Gallaty help to turn up the temperature of discipleship. Even a format like the Discovery Bible Study Method which uses the same nine questions for every passage of Scripture helps group members to apply God’s Word and live it out. The expectation here is the power of God resident in every believer (Ephesians 1:18-20) accompanied by studying the Bible and interacting with other believers will produce transformed lives.
A few years ago, I was working with a small group director
who had moved from another country to the United States. In his country of
origin, there was a high expectation of believers learning, doing, and sharing
what they’ve learned from the very beginning of their relationship with God. He
was a little beside himself when he came to the U.S. and discovered many
believers learned biblical truth without much intention of practicing what they
learned or sharing it with others. When he challenged people in his church to
high commitment approaches to discipleship, he found resistance. I asked him if
he had ever heard the analogy of the frog and the kettle. He had not.
I explained this common story about placing frogs in hot water caused them to jump out. Yet, by placing frogs in cold water, then gradually turning up the temperature, the frogs remained in the hot water because the change was gradual. I told him he was putting his disciples in hot water. That’s why they were resisting. (If you’re shaking your head at this point about the reverse implications of this analogy, I apologize. I’ll switch gears before this turns into martyrdom, which is no joking matter).
For average American church members, the move from the worship service to a group is a pretty big step. If the benefit of a group is unproven, they need an opportunity to try out this environment in a short-term, low commitment way. An alignment series or church-wide campaign fits the bill. If they’ve had a positive experience, then the group may agree to continue into a follow up series. Once these two studies have been completed, then it’s more likely that the group will continue on.
Group leaders are given a leadership pathway to develop as disciples and as group leaders. Group members should also be given a pathway. This could be based on the results of the group’s health assessment. The right curriculum can also lead the group into new experiences and even into taking risks as a group. These risks could include things like the three-hour prayer experience in Rooted, the neighborhood map in The Neighboring Life, or the genogram in Emotionally-Healthy Spirituality. The goal of these exercises is to learn to trust God in deeper ways, to hear God, and to learn about oneself.
Curriculum for the sake of curriculum is worthless. Checking off a list of studies doesn’t guarantee growth. But, using curriculum as a vehicle to produce growth and lasting change is worthwhile. What is your curriculum producing? What are your groups producing? Using an assessment to evaluate the progress your people, your groups, and your church is making.
The third phase from Scripture is “Go and Make.” While these phases don’t need to occur in sequential order, the goal is to make disciples who make disciples. After all, that’s how a church knows it’s making disciples. If the people in the church are not making disciples, then they are not disciples. The appropriate term for them would be “the crowd.” In the Gospels, Jesus spent 73 percent of His time with His disciples. He didn’t devote vast amounts of time to serving the crowd. Boy, has the modern American church turned that on its head.
“Go and Make” implies that church members are thinking about others more than about themselves and their own needs. They are become self-feeders. The focus is on servant leadership at various levels. While most people in the church will not have the title of leader, they do have influence over people around them. The goal is to multiply their lives and their abilities. Jesus spent three and a half years investing in 12 disciples, who after His departure, developed others and took the message of the Gospel throughout their known world, establishing churches, and making disciples. If you’re a Christian reading this, it’s because of these 12 who Jesus poured His Life into. Who are your 12?
This is the place where pastors equip the church to do the
work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). In the last 30 years, the church has
catered to people in order to serve a Christian consumer culture. A growing gap
has emerged between staff and volunteers, or clergy and laity, as it was once
known. People are asked to volunteer to serve the church and the efforts of the
church staff. But, the volunteers are the church!
Members should be challenged to pursue and develop their gifts. Resources like Networkby Bruce Bugbee and Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee create the philosophical foundation for gifts-based ministry that is truly satisfying to church members and effective in reaching the neighborhood. After all, ministry is not something pastors do to people. Ministry is the purpose of the church body, not the leaders of the institution. People need to serve in meaningful ways in order to grow spiritually. Meaningless volunteer roles cannot meet this purpose.
Since a church of any size cannot assess and recognize the gifts of every church member, groups play an essential role in helping people discover, develop, and use their gifts. This is more than another assessment. There is an expectation for people to take responsibility for understanding and implementing their gifts to fulfill the mission of the church. There is also a responsibility for the church to release, not just ministry responsibilities, but also the authority to carry them out.
One more step lies beyond identifying and using gifts – members developing other members. Every person in every role in the church, including members, pastors, and church staff, must multiply what they are doing in the lives of others. This is one of the primary purposes of groups – leadership development. The church must embrace Hero-making as articulated by Dave Ferguson and Dr. Warren Bird. The pastor is not the hero in the church. The staff are not the heroes. The members are not the heroes. But, they are all called to make heroes. They are all called to invest in others and help them flourish in ministry. They are called to work themselves out of a job, so a new ministry, a new group, or a new church can be launched to serve others and repeat the process.
These three phases may not be the only phases. They don’t
necessarily need to be taken in exact order (or else some churches will camp on
phase two until Jesus returns and never get to phase three). The point is
everyone must be challenged to take a next step at every phase. Those only
attending worship must be challenged to join a group. Everyone in a group must
be challenged to take what they learn to heart and mature in their faith as
evidenced by their actions and attitudes. Those who are maturing must reach out
to their neighborhoods and share their hope. Those who are serving must develop
others to serve.
Attractional services and advertising built some great churches over the last 30 years. The next 30 years will be much different than the last 30 years. This statement is not meant to discount what happened over the last 30 years, but it’s time to gear up for what is next. In working with churches across North America, I’ve visited many formerly great churches. At one point in time, the church was the shining beacon in the community. Maybe they were the first church to offer contemporary worship music and relevant messages. People came in droves, until every other church in town followed the model. Now those churches are dwindling. They are formerly great.
There is a shift that must take place in order to engage people in the 21st century. These concluding thoughts reveal part of the thinking needed for the church to flourish in an increasingly minority Christian culture.
The key to successful church-wide campaigns has been
lowering the bar on leadership. It’s time to stop.
Campaigns have seemed successful in the past. The numbers are up and to the right. Every campaign recruits more leaders and connects more people into groups. But, have you considered the attrition? How many people are no longer leading? How many group members are no longer in a group? If you look only at numbers and aren’t tracking the individuals involved, you are entering into a scenario of disposable small groups.
The problem with qualifying anyone to lead is that you’ll
get just anyone to lead. They aren’t equipped. They are inexperienced. They
might be new in the faith. How can they give what they don’t have? But, there
is a way to recruit an abundance of new small group leaders without lowering
Where Are You Headed?
The goal of a church-wide campaign is not to create
DVD-dependent hosts who can never open their Bibles and rightly divide the Word
of Truth. In fact, many churches have experienced a diminishing return having
launched campaign after campaign only to discover their group members are
unchallenged and frequently forced back to “kindergarten” spiritually. There is
a time to begin and a time to grow up.
Ultimately, small groups should be environments where
disciples are made. How do you make a disciple? According to Mike Breen,
“People learn by imitation, not instruction.” To make disciples you must make
disciples of the group leaders. Felt needs topics on video-based curriculum is
a great test drive for admitted non-leaders to try their hands at leading
groups, but it’s not a long term strategy.
But, if you go back to “quality” groups, then what happens
to connecting everyone into groups?
Where Do You Start?
The benefit of church-wide campaigns and small groups for
that matter is leader development. The dilemma comes; however, most people
don’t regard themselves as being any kind of leader. I’ve had numerous people
turn down the invitation of “Would you like to lead a group?” It’s the wrong
question. Many avowed non-leaders have leadership qualities that they haven’t
recognized as leadership gifts. This is where the campaign comes in.
By offering a short-term opportunity for someone to gather
people they are comfortable with and do a study together, they demonstrate the
ability to lead a group without asking them to lead a group. Yea, but, didn’t
that just lower the bar? This is more than semantics – you didn’t invite anyone
to become a leader. You invited them to recruit themselves for a trial run at
leading a group without saying “lead.” Unfortunately, this is where most
church-wide campaign efforts stop. This is not the finish line. This is the starting
Now, It’s Time to Raise the Bar.
Once a “leader” and group have a couple of series or
semesters under their belts, they are effectively indicating that they want to
continue. Now it’s time to bring back the requirements you might have delayed
initially. There’s a big difference between lowering the bar on leadership and
delaying the requirements. When leaders have proven themselves and have
fulfilled the requirements for leadership in your church, then it’s appropriate
to call them a leader.
Calling anyone a “leader” right out the gate is risky. As
Paul told Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands…” (1 Timothy
5:22). Before anyone is commissioned or given a title, they need to prove
themselves through some kind of trial run. If they pass the test, then invite
them to more. If they don’t do well or exhibit the wrong attitude, then thank
them for fulfilling their commitments. You see, there was something to that “host”
strategy after all.
Grow your leaders. Grow your groups. Turn up the temperature
in the curriculum and in expectations of the groups. Challenge them to take
risks, to serve, and to do things that scare them. Encourage them to face hard
conversations and to tell the truth – good or bad.
Jesus commissioned His disciples to “go and make disciples” – not connect people into groups and not to assimilate newcomers. That may be part of it, but how is discipleship coming along in your church? How many are connecting? How many are growing? How many are leading? Where is your bar set?
Want to continue the conversation? Join the Stop Lowering the Bar Webinar on Thursday, June 6 or Tuesday, June 11 at 2 pm EDT. Register Here.
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
As you’re about to take a sigh of relief at the end of a ministry year, planning a successful Fall launch begins now. This doesn’t mean you will work all Summer on the Fall launch, but it does mean getting some plans into place to recruit more leaders, form more groups, and keep those groups going. In order to start more groups than you ever have, you need to reevaluate a few things now.
Engage Your Senior Pastor
The Senior Pastor is the #1 recruiter for groups. In the churches I’ve served, when I gave my senior pastor the same script that I would have used, the results were typically 3 times better than if I had said the same thing. How do I know? I recruited leaders myself for seven years and was able to connect 30 percent of our congregation into groups. When my pastor made the same invitation, we doubled our groups in one day. Within six months, 125 percent of our congregation was connected into groups. Did I mention that it took me seven years working alone to get to 30 percent in groups? Not only did we connect more people into groups than attended our weekend service, we turned around and did it again the next year.
Think about this, if your pastor has lead the church for more than a few years, the reason most people attend, other than Jesus, is because of your senior pastor. They enjoy his teaching. They laugh at her jokes. They follow his leadership. Now a word of caution: don’t mention this to your worship pastors. It will break their hearts. When your pastor stands up and makes the invitation, people will listen and respond.
What if you senior pastor is not interested in groups or sees groups as one of many options in the church? Look for next week’s post.
Change Your Recruiting Methods
How are you currently recruiting group leaders? What do you require for someone to lead? What I have discovered is most people don’t see themselves as leaders. When you ask them to lead a group, they will probably turn you down. I’ve even convinced people to go through the group leader training, and then they turned me down.
A trial run, like a church-wide campaign or alignment series, is a great way to help prospective leaders take a test drive with groups. Once they’ve had the experience of starting and leading a group at least 80 percent will continue.
Here’s the dilemma: in order for most people to agree to the trial run, you have to make it easy, accessible, and short-term. I used to basically recruit leaders for the rest of their lives. That’s really too much to ask. But, six weeks is a good start.
The opportunity must also be easy and accessible. A video-based curriculum makes it easy. There is little preparation time, and the new leaders don’t need to be experts. They just need to have friends. We also must wave some of our requirements for these six week groups. I used to say, “lower the bar,” but then I discovered some churches would lower the bar, but never raise it back up. The end goal is to develop leaders who can make disciples, lead a Bible discussion, and mature in their own lives and leadership. But, to start they need to see if they even like leading a group. Delay the requirements temporarily, then bring them back at the right time.
Reconsider How Groups are Formed
Relational approaches to group formation are far more effective than task-based approaches. Sign up cards, websites, and group directories are efficient, but they are not effective in creating long lasting groups.
Start with the relationships the new leader already has. Among their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and others, who would be interested in the group’s topic? After praying over a list of potential group members, the new leaders should invite them. Then, the people they invite should invite others.
If you’re church is experiencing rapid growth or high turnover, then chances are potential new leaders might not know who to invite or prospective members might not get an invitation to a group. If they’ve been in town for any length of time, they might know a few neighbors or co-workers they could do the study with. Don’t be shy about asking them to lead a short-term group. If they would prefer just to join a group, then create an environment where prospective members can meet new group leaders face to face. This way they will have a sense of who the leaders are and choose the group they want to join.
As a last resort, if a handful of people contact the church office and need to be placed into a group, then find a group for them. If it’s more than a handful, then you have an epidemic. Don’t revert back to task-oriented approaches. Get the prospective members and leaders in the same room.
Rethink your approach to forming groups. You will find more relationally-based approaches will help you to form lasting groups.
Announce Your Fall Campaign This Week!
If new groups formed this Spring or after Easter, give them something to look forward to. All you need is a start date and a topic (or just a start date if your pastor doesn’t plan that far ahead). The groups can meet socially over the Summer. Do a service project together. Even do another study. They may meet only once a month. But, they will know when Fall comes around, there is a new series for them to jump into.
You can persist in the ways you are currently recruiting leaders and forming groups. You will probably experience some incremental growth of 5-10 percent. But, by tweaking a few things, your Fall launch can bring more success in connecting people than you could ever ask or imagine.
The church wide campaign was introduced 14 years ago most famously by the 40 Days of Purpose and The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. Boy, the innovators and influencers who jumped into that one hit it big. I’ve heard stories of churches actually connecting more people into groups than they had on Easter Sunday. Those were crazy times.
There’s something great about being first. The first church to implement a new idea in a community usually reaps deep dividends. The first church in your town to introduce contemporary worship was probably looked upon with suspicion by other churches, but that church also outgrew all of their critics. Today, you can throw a rock and hit a church with contemporary worship. The same goes for seeker services, sermon note-taking sheets, or drama sketches in the service. (Okay, we gave up on drama sketches a long time ago. Not many could pull that off.)
But after all of these years, is the church-wide campaign still relevant?
1. Does Your Church Suffer from Church Wide Campaign Fatigue?
Some churches have overdone the church-wide campaign. They are aligning everything all of the time with the weekend service and making one big push after another. While the pastor will be preaching a sermon every weekend and small groups will be studying something, continuing to launch one church-wide campaign after another leads to campaign fatigue. The pastor just gets tired of promoting it, and the people get tired of hearing it.
If your church has successfully connected 30-50 percent or more of your groups using a church-wide campaign and the Host strategy, a church-wide campaign has probably lost its luster with your congregation. You’re not seeing the results you used to. While there are some exceptions, most churches can start off strong by running three church-wide campaigns in their first year, then they need to back off to one church-wide aligned series per year.
In the first year, groups need the continuity of starting with one campaign, then continuing into the next. But, once groups have made it through that first year, it’s harder to get them to align, which is okay. After all, the beauty of small groups is in the variety of things they can study, not in uniformity. There are some exceptions.
2. Who Should Continue Using Church Wide Campaigns?
Rapidly growing churches must continue running campaigns to recruit new leaders and form new groups just to keep up with the church’s dramatic growth. People who are new to the church need new groups to help them grow and find their way. Small groups are the best solution to the assimilation dilemma created in rapidly growing churches.
Churches in college towns or near military bases usually experience high turnover every year. Manna Church, Fayetteville, NC sits next to Fort Bragg. This church of 4,000 adults must replace 1,000 adults every year to maintain their current attendance. Church-wide campaigns have helped them start as many as 700 small groups at a time. What’s cool about this is the groups started at Manna Church are reassigned or deployed throughout the world. These small groups will soon become microsite churches. Churches with a revolving door like Manna’s can run church-wide campaigns from now until the cows come home.
3. Pre-Packaged Church Wide Campaigns Have Run Their Course.
Let’s face it. There is only one Rick Warren and one 40 Days of Purpose. I doubt we will ever see a phenomena like that again. While we cannot argue with the success of the second bestselling non-fiction book of all time, only part of the success of those church-wide campaigns came from the topic.
Granted a church must have a great topic to appeal to the community at large, but other factors also lead to the success of that first major church-wide campaign. Linking a small group study to the pastor’s sermon was certainly a key to success. While some might attribute connecting Rick Warren to the pastor’s sermon as the key here, I see it the other way.
Let’s face it, if people aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend your church, other than Jesus Christ, is because of your Senior Pastor. They like his personality, jokes, and teaching. Now, don’t mention this to your worship pastor, it will break his heart. The Senior Pastor’s involvement with promoting 40 Days of Purpose and promoting small groups was the “It Factor” in the success of that campaign and any other. But, there is one more thing you can do for even more success.
4. Create Your Own Church Wide Campaign.
As I said, people like their Senior Pastors. If a church does a church-wide campaign with their pastor’s invitation for groups, they will recruit leaders and connect people into groups like never before. It’s a guaranteed home run, but it could be a grand slam home run.
In addition to their Senior Pastor’s leadership in recruiting group leaders and aligning a sermon series with a group study, if the Senior Pastor created a study with his own teaching, the church can hit the ball out of the park. Just in the last 12 months, I’ve seen churches recruit 20-25 percent of their adults to lead groups, which has put group participation well over 100 percent. By offering the pastor’s teaching on a video-based curriculum, the congregation is getting more of what they already like — their pastor’s teaching!
That might seem like a of work and a lot to figure out. I want to help you. I am putting together a six month coaching group specifically focused on creating your own curriculum and then launching the campaign in your church. You don’t need to pay someone tens of thousands of dollars to create curriculum for you. I can show you how you can do it yourself. If you would like more information, I am presenting a webinar called “Create Your Own Curriculum.” For specific times and registration: allenwhite.org/webinars or contact me at email@example.com.
Not everyone will see things this way. And, that’s okay. But, to state it honestly, not everyone is seeing the results I’ve seen in the last year. Last year, the average church I worked with launched 277 groups. This could be you (provided you have 277 people!).
For most churches, the pre-packaged campaign has gone the way of the dinosaur. If you’re still experience great success and have over 100 percent of your folks in groups, please correct me. For churches who’ve never tried a campaign, then buying one might help you make a good start. But, creating your own materials with your pastor’s teaching is the way of the future — it’s affordable, flexible, and best of all, it’s yours!