Community is just as essential to spiritual growth as content. Think about this: Jesus who designed your brain also taught you how to make disciples. According to one study, Jesus spent 73% of His time with His disciples. This involved teaching, eating, serving, debating, correcting, and sending. All of this was wrapped around community. While the Enlightenment hijacked the Western church’s approach to disciple making, neuroscience is showing the importance of community in developing godly character.
Disciple making is not merely a transfer of information. It’s not simply making better choices. Disciple making is certainly not a process. After all, you’re not manufacturing widgets. And, as I’ve written before, sermons don’t make disciples. Character is formed in community. How is community formed? Here are some ways to connect your congregation into community:
Leverage Existing Relationships
“Everyone is already in a group.” That’s the first sentence of my first book, Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential(Hendrickson 2017) . When you think about your people, they are in families, workplaces, classes, sports teams, hobbies, friendships, and neighborhoods. Over the years, I discovered that some people won’t join a small group because they value these relationships more than a church small group. Rather than grousing against that pull, I embraced it. Resource and empower people to make disciples in the groups they already enjoy. You don’t have to make it hard.
The short of it is if you will give your people permission and opportunity to start a group, give them an easy-to-use resource (like self-produced curriculum with your pastor’s teaching), a little training, and a coach to walk alongside them, you can start more groups than you’ve ever dreamed. If you don’t know the leader, then don’t advertise their group. They’re gathering their friends anyway. These groups tend to form more easily and stay together longer than groups formed in other ways. After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers. (You’ll have to read the rest of Exponential Groups to learn the system of starting and sustaining small groups for the long haul.) Leveraging existing relationships is one way to create community.
Pursuing a Common Topic or Interest
Sometimes community starts from the other direction. Instead of gathering friends for a study, people sign up for group based on a relevant topic. You can start groups around marriage, parenting, relationships, finances, Bible studies, book clubs, and a myriad of other subjects. People are drawn by the topic, but stay for the community.
Similarly, you can start groups around hobbies, interests, or activities. What do your people enjoy doing? These groups can connect both people in your church and in your community. Again, by giving permission and opportunity, someone with an interest can start a group around it.
Now in both of these cases, you will need to know these leaders well, since you will advertise these groups. They will need to qualify as leaders in your church, so the start up process will be longer than gathering groups of friends, but it’s important to offer multiple strategies to form groups. After all, one size does not fit all.
Connecting through a Shared Experience
Shared experience can range from serving teams to missions trips to Rooted groups. These are higher commitment experiences that quickly bond people together. While every group may not start this way, it would be a waste to allow these tight knit groups to discontinue.
When your people serve in the community, they develop a connection. When they travel together outside of the country, they certainly bond together. When they spend 10 weeks in a Rooted group, they are united by a powerful experience that stretches them in many ways. All of these experiences beg for a way to continue. Give them an opportunity to continue.
Think About This
This is a short list. This is just a sample of the ways your people can connect into community. What I want you to hear is that people need more than content. If they only needed content, then you could post online videos for them to watch, and they would just grow on their own. The problem is that they won’t watch videos in isolation, and they can’t grow without encouragement, support, accountability, and relationship with others. People are just not made that way.
Offer as many opportunities as possible for people to connect in community. Start friend groups, campaign groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, topic studies, activity groups, affinity groups, support groups, and on-going groups out of shared experiences. My only caution is this: Don’t start all of these all at once. But, for everyone who tells you “no,” offer them something they might say “yes” to.
Justin Bird from Crossfit once said, “People came for the fit and stayed for the family.” (from a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast with Jay Kim). I wrote about Crossfit a few years back in a post called What Michelob Ultra Understands About Community: “Now, before you announce in the next staff meeting that your church is going to open its own CrossFit gym, don’t miss the point. Community comes in various shapes and sizes: small groups, activity groups, task groups, classes, Bible studies — all of these are environments where community can take place, but none are a guarantee that community will take place. Community is formed around common goals, common interests, and even common enemies. Maybe promoting community in the church is recognizing the community that is already taking place.”
How are you creating community in your church? What do you need to try?
Carolyn Taketa is the Small Groups Pastor and a member of the Executive Team at Calvary Community Church, Westlake Village, California. Her responsibilities include leadership development, vision, strategies, and curriculum. She is a former attorney with a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley Law School, who has been leading small groups for over thirty years. She is a contributing author for Disciples’ Path from Lifeway Christian Resources, part of the editorial advisory team at Christianity Today’s smallgroups.com, and host of GroupTalk: Here to There monthly podcast for the global Small Group Network. Carolyn, her husband Donn, and their two daughters have been part of Calvary since 2001.
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.
Timing is a huge factor in an alignment series. Every church and community has key seasons of the year to recruit new leaders and start new groups. Every church and community also has obstacles to effective launches. By taking the rhythms of the calendar into account, most churches can effectively recruit leaders and launch new groups while avoiding obstacles.
For many churches, the “ministry year” in a large part models the public school year, August to May. Of course, there is some variation depending on school districts. The general rule is that when school starts most people are back in church from Summer vacation, Christmas break, or Spring break. When school is out, then people are out. By observing the rhythms of the calendar, small groups can thrive.
The church’s Fall launch should be preceeded by at least four weeks to recruit coaches, recruit group leaders, and form groups. With this in mind, recruiting new leaders should start when most people are back in church from Summer. This varies by community.
One year, I coached churches that launched their “Fall” series at various times. The earliest was a church in Kentucky that launched their series on the second weekend of August. The latest was a church in New Hampshire that launched the second weekend of October. That particular year, I had a church launching a series every weekend in-between except for Labor Day weekend.
The right launch date depends on your church. In some churches groups must be offered when school goes back into session. Otherwise, family calendars are quickly filled with school activities, and there is no room for a group. In other communities, church members want to squeeze every bit of good weather out of Summer before cold weather hits. In these cases, the launch should start later in the calendar. If people aren’t regularly attending until after Labor Day weekend, then start recruiting new leaders after Labor Day and launch in October. This works as long as the series ends by Thanksgiving in the U.S. Canadian churches should consider launching groups after their Thanksgiving and wrap up the series by late November.
Another important consideration is when the church will launch its follow-up series after the alignment series. The follow-up series is not a big push like an alignment series, but it is significant in getting new groups to continue. If the Fall alignment series starts in August or September, it is possible to offer a follow-up series in October-November. If the Fall series is later (October-November), then the follow-up series cannot start until January (or the New Year series is possibly the follow-up series). By offering a Next Step Study, the church has a better chance of retaining the new groups that will start in the Fall.
What’s the best timing for your church? If you are satisfied with the number of new groups that start in the Fall of each year, then keep that pattern. If you feel you might be missing some, then adjust your schedule and see what happens.
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.