In the last two years, you’ve experienced about a decade’s worth of cultural change. Organizations that were breaking quickly broke. Some startups and skunk works quickly accelerated. Just to give you an example. You probably thought the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 appeared rather quickly. Now with the promotion of non-binary designations and transgenderism, gay marriage seemed simple. Western culture has become very complicated to say the least.
You might have jumped onto the darlings of the pandemic like Peloton, Netflix, and Zoom. But, now that much of Coronavirus has subsided, these online platforms are losing value. Has everyone forsaken digital? Considering that the average adult touches their smartphone 2,600 times per day, I don’t think so.
This is the tip of the iceburg of complex cultural change. Add in inflation, a pending recession, war, and a heavy dose of politics and you have a recipe for much stress and apprehension. Easter wasn’t what you expected. That’s okay. You are not your numbers. Church ministry isn’t working the way that it used to work. But, some things are working. How do you discern what to invest your life and ministry in at this point? Here are some things to consider in navigating cultural changes in ministry.
First, Look at God‘s Word
The Bible has stood the test of time and has been applied in every culture for the last 2000 years. Whether the church was under Roman oppression, living in the Dark Ages, or embracing the Enlightenment, the Bible clearly explains the church’s mission.
I know that you know and understand God’s Word. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in ministry, right? But, stick with me. This next part is a little more like Vince Lombardi saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Consider the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:20). The Great Commission is the same: Go and make disciples…baptizing them…teaching them to obey…” (Matthew 28:19-20). You only have one job: Go and make disciples. Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself hold true just as Jesus gave in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). That’s the summary of the commands we are called to obey. And what about the Great Compassion (Matthew 25:45)? How are you serving the “least of these?” You may think of some other things as part of your mission, but these are the big ones.
If you created three buckets labeled: Great Commission, Great Commandment, and Great Compassion and assigned the various activities of your church to a bucket, where would those activities fit? What wouldn’t fit? What would you need to add?
In planning ministry for a changing culture, start with the church’s mission as articulated by Jesus Himself. The methods have changed, but the message is consistent.
Next, Look at Best Practices
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with over 1,500 churches across North America in the areas of small groups and disciple-making. While the last two years were vastly different than the previous 16 years, practices in small groups and disciple-making are working very well. What is struggling right now are worship attendance and other centralized events, voluntary serving especially in children’s ministry, and bringing new people through the traditional front door of the church.
Digital ministry is a new frontier, but it’s not the answer for everybody. Don’t write it off. There is much to be explored. The church needs to enlist digital missionaries to this growing culture. Online small groups are the pits compared to in-person small groups, but if your only option is online, then it’s a great option.
Which ministries and methods are still relevant post-pandemic? Which worked better in a pre-Covid, attractional context? Which worked better in a locked down pandemic context? Which will survive going forward? Pay attention to what is bearing fruit in your church and ministry and make the most of that.
Third, Talk to Your Current Regular Attenders
What are they open to? What have they left behind? What are their needs? After all, at this point, you must lead the church you have rather than leading the church you lost. Don’t assume that everyone who has stuck around is still waiting for things to go back to 2019 ministry as usual. Their lives have radically changed as well.
Talk to them about what they are open to. Don’t assume that this group is unwilling to change. They have stuck with you through a very difficult period. They are committed to the church. They want to see the church succeed. Some pastors are wringing their hands afraid to change anything out of fear over losing more people. If you’re people have stuck with you in the last two years, they are with you. Move forward!
What are the Needs of Those who You Want to Reach?
What’s going on in their lives? What are their greatest concerns or fears? What can you offer them that is relevant to them? How can you connect with them? Where are they finding community?
It’s not a new principle, but find a need and fill it. How is your church uniquely equipped to meet the needs of your community? What are you willing to try?How can you reshape your current ministry based on what you’ve discovered?
What methods continue to be valid? What methods are you partial to? You must admit your own bias here. The thing that you love to do may not be the thing that’s the most needed. Or the thing that you love to do may be relevant in new ways.
Think about this
While there is a certain amount of evangelism that happened over the last 30 years, a good part of church growth was merely transfer growth from other churches. Your church might’ve been good at attracting consumers, but was not great at making disciples. Now that ministry has decentralized in a lot of ways, what is your best tact?
The impact of the attractional model was waning prior to COVID. I know that’s tough for some to hear, since so much of their churches were built on the attractional model. But, the acceleration of the attractional model’s decline happened during COVID. Why would people rather stay at home? What’s the benefit of in-person attendance other than making the preacher feel good? I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to meeting in-person, but can you name them for your church? Community comes to mind. So does incarnation.
If you are unwilling to adjust your methods to fulfill your mission in a very different culture, then you owe an apology to the pastors of traditional churches who resisted the methods you adopted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. You are the traditional pastor now.
Change is intimidating. When you change, you experience loss. Reaching new people and meeting needs going forward is very exciting, but leaving behind the familiar is hard. Giving up what you’ve perfected or at least what you’ve worked hard at is difficult. Familiar routines are comfortable. Right now, you either have to learn something new, watch your church decline, get a new job, or retire. But, your calling hasn’t changed. What will that look like in the years ahead? Stay tuned. The best is yet to come!
What new thing (or old thing) is working well in your church right now? Answer in the comments below.
Pastor, you are not your numbers. Your worth and your value come from who you are in Christ. You are called. You are chosen. You are valued and loved. Your numbers are your numbers. Sometimes they will be up. Sometimes they will be down. Your worth isn’t based on the appearance of success. Easter is coming, but is everybody coming back? Probably not. And, that’s okay, because you are not your numbers.
If you would rather LISTEN to this blog post, click here.
You’ve probably got a story about how you’ve tried coaching group leaders and how it failed. I actually have a few of those. But, let me assure you that coaching can and does work. You need coaches. You must multiply yourself in order for your small group ministry to grow. So, let me help you get out of your own way when it comes to coaching just like I had to once upon a time. Here are the three biggest reasons that coaching fails.
1. Lack of Relationship
You’ve probably heard coaches complain that their leaders won’t call them back. As much as you try to reassure your new leaders that when their coach calls it’s not a spam call about their car’s extended warranty, the reality is that small group leaders will only take time to call people who are important to them about matters that are important to them. The leaders aren’t to blame. The challenge is how coaches can become important to your leaders.
Coaching is built on a relationship. If there is no relationship, there is no coaching. Period. Adam Grant says that it takes 50 hours to become a friend and 200 hours to become a close friend. If your coaches are starting at zero relationship with their leaders, then it will take a lot of diligent effort and cups of coffee to build a relationship with their leaders. But, you can get a jump on this.
First, match your coaches up with small group leaders they already know. If they already have a relationship, then you’ve got a great foundation for coaching. If the small group leader came out of another group, then the obvious coach is the leader of the group they came out of. If you are starting a new coaching structure, then ask your coaches which leaders they already know. Let the coaches choose their leaders (or even let the leaders choose their coaches). Either way you do it, start with relationship. The only exception is coaching close relatives. Once I allowed someone to coach his son-in-law. I had to unplug that rather quickly and apologize profusely. Ben, I am still sorry. Other than in-laws, start your coaching based on established relationships.
Next, make sure your small group leaders understand that coaches are important people who will help them get their groups started. Remember why leaders don’t call their coaches back? They only return calls to people who are important to them about matters that are important to them. For new leaders this may mean including your coaches in the new leader briefing and leader training.
When our church started groups, I led the briefings and the training, and then assigned the new leaders to the coaches. This did not work. My coaches complained that this was like cold calling. They were right. It was! To make coaching better (and avoid a revolt by my coaches), I started including coaches in the briefings and training. For the new leader briefing, the coaches were instructed to invite the new leaders they knew to join them at a round table. (See we were putting point #1 into practice). Then I introduced the coaches as “important people who would help them get their groups started.” I gave them reason to call their coaches back. Lastly, after I introduced the coaches, I left the room. The coaches did the rest of the training.
If your coaches are struggling to connect with their leaders, then you need to check the temperature of the relationship. The closer the relationship, then the better the coaching. The more unreturned calls, well, you do the math.
2. The Wrong Approach
If your leaders are not responding to coaching, then they’re probably being coached in the wrong way. Probably the second biggest mistake in coaching is attempting to coach all of your leaders in exactly the same way. Your leaders have very different needs and abilities depending on their experience. Coaching should start with what the leaders need. Don’t go into coaching with a prescribed coaching process that you will inflict on every small group leader. That simply won’t work. After all, ministry is not something we do to people.
Are your leaders starting their very first groups? Then, they will need direction and support to get their group started. This might involve weekly contacts. It will certainly involve a great deal of encouragement. But, if you’re leaders have led for a while, this is the last thing they need. In fact, if you attempt to coach an experienced leader in the way you would coach a new leader, don’t be surprised if that experienced leader disappears, even if the leader and the coach have a good relationship.
Think about your children. If you have a variety of ages of children, you don’t treat them the same way. Infants depend on you for everything. Teenagers and young adults can hopefully do more on their own. In fact, if you attempt to tell a young adult what to do like you would tell a younger child, you’re probably in for a fight. At this stage, you ask more questions and help them reach their own conclusions. You also wouldn’t attempt to teach your toddler to drive the car. In the same way, coaching must be appropriate to the leader’s experience.
When you think about your leaders, who is just starting out? What type of coaching do they need? Then, who’s starting a new group, but has experience leading groups from previous groups or another church? They don’t need to go back to kindergarten. Which leaders have been around for a while? They probably don’t need to be told what to do. But, they do need support in difficult circumstances and accountability to fulfill their group’s purpose.
When it comes to coaching, one size does not fit all. If you are attempting to coach all of your leaders exactly the same, then you’re making a big mistake. Start with what your leaders need, then coach from there.
3. You Won’t Let It Work
I’m not going to accuse you of this last one, but I will explain how this was my problem. I recruited people with good character and great small group experience to coach my leaders, but I held them back. They were more than capable of coaching and supporting their leaders, but I kept them on a short leash. They had given no evidence of doing a poor job coaching leaders or being untrustworthy in any way. I was just insecure. Under the guise of being responsible for the small groups, I assigned tasks to my coaches but I did not give them the authority to lead. “Hi, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” As the pastor, I felt that I needed to be involved in everything and know everything that was going on. No one really needed my intervention as much as I needed to be needed. I believe that’s called co-dependency. The result was that my leaders were okay but not excelling, my coaches were frustrated, and our groups were stuck with only 30% of our adults connected. My coaching wasn’t working, and I was the problem.
The best decision I ever made was to gather a team of coaches to lead the small group ministry with me. We led together. We learned together. We troubleshot issues together. The small group leaders had better coaching. The coaches felt empowered and enabled to lead. I had the most fun I’ve ever had in small group ministry. Oh, and our groups went from 30% of our adults connected to 125% connected. I wasn’t managing 30% very well. I never could have kept up with the growth of our small groups except for that team.
Here’s a hard truth: your small group leaders and coaches don’t need you as much as you think they do. They need someone who is available when something really big happens in their groups. They need a friend to coach and encourage them. But, they don’t need another leaders’ meeting. They don’t need another newsletter. They need a coaching relationship. And, you need to let capable people lead with you. Don’t try to do it all by yourself.
Think About This
Some churches have the staff and budget to hire all of the pastors they need to coach their small group leaders. Other churches have a simple church approach and just don’t offer very many ministries. Their staff is devoted to group leaders. Good for them, I guess. But, whether coaches are paid or volunteer, these lessons apply. How are the relationships going between coaches and leaders? What kind of coaching do your leaders need? And, are you empowering others to lead and getting out of their way?
It might seem easier to coach and train small group leaders all by yourself. But, I guarantee you that it’s not better.
This great question comes from Ashley Calabro, Small Group Director at 5 Points Church, Easley, South Carolina. And, this is THE question for small group point people, isn’t it? If you don’t have a leader, well, you don’t have a group. Here are some “creative” ways to recruit leaders:
Look at Your Current Group Members
Often your best new leaders are already in a group. Who is the group important to? Who’s always there? You could start by making these dedicated group members co-leaders. When the group grow to be over eight members, then the co-leader could lead a portion of the group when it sub-groups for the discussion. (If you didn’t catch it there, if your group is more than eight people, it is too large for everyone to get a word in. Sub-group and give everybody a chance to talk).
Now, a word of caution here: North American churches have a hard time to get groups to divide. I know that you’re supposed to say “multiply.” But, in this part of the world, “birthing” a new group might as well be called getting a “small group divorce.” You’re breaking up the family! Don’t lead with this thought. Develop co-leaders. Raise up apprentices. But, don’t go strong with the “birthing” thing. Now, there are a few other things to consider.
Train the Whole Group to Lead
Just like you would pass around a signup sheet to have different members bring refreshments, ask them to sign up to lead the discussion. Here’s how this DOESN’T work: “Would anyone like to?” After seeking the Lord, most of the group members will feel that God wants them to remain comfortable and not lead. (I’m only joking, but it’s basically that response.) What DOES work is: “Today is the first and only day that I’m going to lead the discussion. Everyone needs to take a turn. Please sign up.” They will! Once they’ve had the experience of leading, they will gain confidence and lead more. Maybe they’ll eventually lead your group or their own group.
Let the Group Get Themselves into Trouble
Since North American groups don’t like to divide, just let them become too big. You see if you are pressuring your groups to divide, then YOU are the only one feeling the pain. But, when the group gets too big, then they will start feeling the pain: first the leader, and then the members.
Great groups love to invite and include people. Let them keep inviting. Monitor the group as it grows. Ask their coach to check-in with them (Do you have coaches?). Ask them how they are managing the group growth. Are they sub-grouping? (This is the first step to starting another group). Let the group continue to grow until it’s unmanageable. When they come to you (notice the sequence), then ask them what they are going to do. Let them raise the issue to the group. Just don’t give them a bigger room at the church!
Look at Your Church Membership Role
What committed members of your church are not in a group or are not leading another ministry? Ask them to lead. Ask the ones you think would be great group leaders. “Have you ever thought about leading a small group? I think you would be great at that.” (But, only say this if you truly believe it.)
For the members who might seem out of your relational reach, enlist your senior pastor to invite them. If you don’t have credibility with some folks, then borrow from your pastor’s credibility! One way or another, invite them!
Offer a Trial Run to Avowed Non-Leaders
Some folks don’t believe they are any kind of leader and don’t have a desire to ever lead a group. You know that. You’ve asked them. But, many of them would make great leaders, if you could just get them to try leading a group. Offer them a short-term opportunity (about 6 weeks). Give them an easy-to-use resource. (Either purchase a relevant, felt-needs curriculum or create your own). Then, ask them to invite people they already know. These groups could be open to new members (if you know the leader well), or they could be what I call “invitation only.” Only the people they invite will attend. (This is great for introverts!) Midway through the six weeks, debrief with them and see if they’re open to doing another study.
Think About This
There are really only two parts of small group ministry: recruiting leaders and supporting leaders. If you’re heavily investing in much more than that, this is why your groups aren’t growing. (Read that sentence again). Link recruiting new leaders to where your senior pastor is headed. Ask your senior pastor to invite people to lead. (I have not personally recruited a new leader since 2004! And, I’ve served three churches since then!)
What other ways are working to recruit leaders in your church?
If you have a burning question about your small group ministry, just Ask Allen (click here)
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?