By Allen White Fall is a prime season to launch groups in churches across the country. In my consulting work, I am working with churches from Florida to Washington and Southern California to New York City. Among churches of various sizes and denominations, we are seeing some tremendous results. But, not every church hits a home run with their group launch. Here are some reasons why.
You picked the wrong topic.
Small groups are a great vehicle for people to grow spiritually. But, in order for people to grow in a group, they need to actually be in a group. If a church’s goal is to connect their congregation into groups, then a felt needs topic is very attractive. If you give people something they want to study, they will jump right in. If you offer something they “should” study, it may not go so well. Let me go on the record: Healthy, balanced small groups cannot live by felt needs topics alone. But, kicking off groups usually doesn’t go well with series on evangelism, stewardship, fasting, or other self-sacrificial studies. You need to establish your goal. If you want to increase the number of groups, then go felt needs. If you want to grow your people deeper, then offer these topics to your established groups.
You set the bar too high.
The more requirements for group leadership, the fewer leaders you will recruit. If you required all of your new leaders to be church members, complete a lengthy leadership training process, or graduate with their Master of Divinity, you certainly limited the number of groups you could launch this Fall. Your level of acceptable risk will greatly determine the reward. If you invite people to do a study with their friends, then you are only limited to people with friends. If you increase the requirements, you lessen the impact. If you choose to lower the bar next time, then lessen the risk by forming “unpublished” groups. If the groups don’t appear on your church’s website, group listing, or bulletin, you are not implying any kind of official endorsement of the groups. If friends invite friends, you will form good, lasting groups, and if someone gets in a bad group, well, it was their friend’s group after all.
You focused on recruiting group members.
As a pastor, if the invitation is for potential group members, you may or may not actually start groups. You will certainly give yourself a lot of busy work trying to find enough leaders to accommodate the prospects or trying to place people in the right group. But, you’ve missed the mark and the point. If you have a bunch of prospective group members, you might have a group. If you have a leader, you WILL have a group. In fact, the best way to get into a group is to start a group — you’re automatically in! When the focus is on recruiting leaders, you will greatly increase your number of groups. If your focus is on members, you will probably just end up with a mess.
You put too much distance between the invitation and the response.
When you or your senior pastor made the invitation for people to start a group, how and when did they respond? If they were sent to the church website to register, they didn’t go. If they were sent to the church lobby, they walked right by. If they were invited to a meeting in the near future, they forgot. If they had a sign up card in their hand during the service, bingo, they’re in! If they were sent an email to remind them to sign up at church on Sunday, they forgot again. If they were sent an email with a registration link, then they signed up. The less distance between the invitation and the response, the greater the result.
You gave too many steps from “Yes” to starting the group.
If the pathway from the response to the group starting took too many steps, then you lost leaders at every phase. If you recruited months in advance of your group launch, there were too many days before they started. Cold feet and good intentions didn’t get them there. If you required a training class, a membership class, a pastoral interview, a group orientation, a group connection, and a final debrief meeting, you lost, lost, lost, lost and lost new group leaders. If you kept the steps to a minimum, based on your own acceptable level of risk, you kept far more than any of the above scenarios.
Your recruitment period was too short.
A few years ago, I was working with two churches of similar size who were launching groups on the same week. One church recruited 20 new leaders. The other recruited 60. The first church recruited leaders for one week. The second church recruited for three weeks in a row. Triple the recruiting equaled triple the result. You do the math.
Your senior pastor was not on board.
If your senior pastor was hesitant about your next series in any way, it hurt you. Half-hearted appeals and hit or miss invitations lead to lackluster results. If your senior pastor didn’t make the invitation for leaders, that was a huge miss. The senior pastor will get three times the result of any other staff member. I’ve served as an associate pastor for 20 of my 28 years of ministry. As soon as I learned this, I never made the invitation again. How do you get your senior pastor on board with the series you recommend? You don’t. If you want your group launch to succeed, you have to get on board with where your senior pastor wants to go. If you respect your senior pastor’s direction, you will see respectable results. If you try to pressure your senior pastor into a series that is not his idea, you are on your own (literally). Last Sunday, I worshipped with a church who had never had small groups. Their senior pastor decided it was time. He cast vision for groups.He kept the response close to the invitation. He focused on recruiting leaders. He did it all right. Then, on Sunday afternoon, 360 new group leaders showed up for training (and they have two more weeks to recruit!) Learn the lessons from your failed attempt. There is no shame in failure, but there is shame in not learning.
By Allen White Easter is only 12 weeks away. Did I scare you? Now, you may be one of those pastors who plans everything in advance. Good for you. But, you might be like the pastors at one church I served where Easter always seemed to take us by surprise. How many services? How do we promote? What is our theme? Who is leading worship? How can we get them back after Easter? If those are your questions, you are in good company. Every pastor wants to see new faces on Easter Sunday, and maybe even a few faces that haven’t been seen for a while. But, once you get them to the service, how do you keep them? How can they be connected? How can new believers be effectively discipled? These are important questions. Let me offer three tips to connecting your Easter crowd.
1. Everyone attends Easter Services.
Easter is the day when everyone who calls your church their home church shows up. Whether they are members, regular attenders or CEOs (Christmas and Easter only), Easter is the day they all come. This presents a unique opportunity for launching groups. More than any other season, Easter is the time when everyone can hear the invitation for groups at the same time. While Christmas offers a similar opportunity, the end of December is not a great time to talk about the New Year. Your people just aren’t there yet. But, Easter gets everybody in the room and offers a window to start groups and get people to come back on the Sunday after Easter. A few years ago, we created a video-based curriculum called Hope Rising for Eastside Christian Church, Anaheim, CA with Pastor Gene Appel. They handed out a copy of the study guide to everyone of the 7,000 people who attended Easter series. When it was all said and done, Eastside launched 460 groups for that series. Now you may not have 7,000 people, but you could have 65 percent of your people in groups like Gene did. While some may have some misgivings about launching groups toward the end of the school year, the reality is when you have everybody present for Easter, you really can’t pass up that opportunity. If you offer these groups a next step, even if it’s in the Fall, as many as 80 percent will take you up on the offer.
2. Bless your CEO’s.
I served one pastor who used to end the Easter services by saying, “And, if I don’t see you in the near future, I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas.” We can have a bad attitude toward our “Christmas and Easter Only” crowd, but let’s not rule them out just yet. When you think about the people who occasionally or rarely attend your services, wouldn’t you like to get them more engaged? Now think about this, who are their friends? Most likely they have far more friends outside of the church than inside the church. That’s great news for starting small groups. If you invite them to do a study with their friends, you can begin reaching people who’ve barely darkened the door of your church. Rather than inviting your CEO’s to join groups with church people, offer them a way to connect with their unchurched friends and do something intentionally to grow spiritually. The group experience will lead them to the worship experience. At Harvest Church in Byron, GA, Pastors Jim and Jennifer Cowart used a strategy they called “Grab, Gather, and Grow.” The idea was to grab an easy-to-use curriculum, gather with a group of friends, and grow spiritually. Their congregation of 2,500 took them up on it. Some 5,000 or so friends were gathered for these groups. Many of those friends started attending the weekend services as well. So often we think of groups as an assimilation strategy or discipleship training, but groups are very effective in reaching out to others in the community who may not have a connection to the church, but do have a connection to someone in your church. By giving your members, and even your CEO’s, permission and opportunity to form a group with their friends, more people could end up in groups than in your services. Groups can become an entry point to your church.
3. Your Senior Pastor is the Key.
The key to launching groups at both Eastside and Harvest was the senior pastors. At both churches, the senior pastor was the spokesperson for groups. Not only that, the senior pastor was the teacher on the curriculum. While there is a lot to unpack in those two concepts think about this: if your people aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend your church is because of your senior pastor. They enjoy the pastor’s style, teaching, and even the jokes. (One word of caution: don’t mention this to your worship pastor, it will break his heart.) If your church creates curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, you’re just giving your people more of what they already want. There are a variety of ways to do this. You could pay someone tens of thousands of dollars to do this for you. If you’re interested in that, I could recommend someone. But, you could also map out your own series, shoot the video, edit the video, write the study guide, design the study guide, and then duplicate everything yourself. That may sound daunting, but some churches are producing curriculum with an iPhone. A third way is to add your pastors teaching to a series that has already been created like All In. However, you create your video-based curriculum, that teaching along with your pastors invitation on Easter Sunday will create more groups than you can imagine. While you’re in the process of calculating how many lilies and eggs your church will need, don’t miss out on the opportunity to launch groups off of Easter. Not only will unchurched people participate, but the Sunday after Easter won’t see the dip in attendance it usually does.
Join Allen White and Jeremy Gant from One Ten Pictures for a FREE On Demand Webinar on Effective Easter Launch Strategies: allinsmallgroups.com
By Allen White Exponential Groups is not so much a strategy or model as it is a focus and an attitude. Your focus determines your result. Exponential results require exponential thinking. What are you thinking about?
1. Are You Focused on Group Members?
If your focus is connecting people into groups, you are not thinking exponentially. Your groups are growing by addition. Think about it. You handpick the leaders and train them. You collect sign up cards or have a website to connect people into groups. It’s not a bad way to go, except that you work hard to start a few groups at a time or to plug people into groups only to find the leader doesn’t call the prospective members, the new members don’t show, or they do show, but they don’t stick with the group. Now, you can arrange the connections by geography, affinity, age, hobby, and so on, but let’s face it: growth by addition is a lot of work with very few results. Just the administrative task of processing all of those sign up cards is nightmare enough. Then, you face the heartbreaking result of how ineffective all of your efforts were. It’s time to change your focus.
2. Are Your Focused on Group Leaders?
If your focus is on group leaders developing apprentices and multiplying, dividing, or splitting your groups, your focus is not exponential. Your groups might be growing by multiplication…maybe. At one point, I had encouraged, challenged, and possibly threatened my group leaders to find an apprentice for seven years. They couldn’t find one. No one in their groups looked like an apprentice. The irony was that I recruited members out of their group to train to become leaders, so we could at least continue growing by addition. Finally, one of my leaders, Carlos, trained an apprentice and launched a new group. After seven years of effort, that was the only one. Some multiplication, huh? Now there are places where this focus is successful, but I have found this is less common. If this is what you’re doing, and it’s working for you, then you might not need to listen to me. Multiply away, but you’re still not thinking exponentially.
3. Are Your Focused on Church-wide Campaigns?
If your focus is on recruiting leaders, you still aren’t thinking exponentially. Maybe your pastor makes the cattle call for leaders or hosts to lead your next church-wide campaign. Now this thinking is more exponential than addition or multiplication, it’s on the right track, but it’s still not there. On the positive side, church-wide campaigns delay the requirements for leadership, so there are more potential leaders. These leaders self-identify, which eliminates the task of recruiting. They can even gather their own groups. After all, followers are the requirement for leadership. As John Maxwell says, “If you think you’re a leader and have no followers, you’re only taking a walk.” The other thing a campaign brings is a easy to use tool, like a video-based curriculum, which enables the new leader to be more friendly than scholarly, but it also maintains quality, because you have determined what is being taught in the group. The non-teacher feels good about teaching, and pastors feel good about letting them lead. But, when the campaign ends, even if the groups continue on with another study, this growth is still more like multiplication and less like exponential. It has the potential to be exponential, but it’s not there. The goal is usually to connect 100 percent of the people into groups. But, what if this thinking is too small?
4. Are You Thinking Exponentially?
Exponential thinking is a shift in how we view our congregations. Are they sheep who need a shepherd? Can their needs only be met by a pastor? Careful: that might betray some co-dependency on your part. Is your congregation full of people who are unqualified to lead? How do you see them? Some pastors see their congregations as an audience. The people are given worship and teaching on Sunday. They receive Bible studies throughout the week. The pastors direct the ministries they serve in. The people are cared for by the pastors: hospital visits, counseling sessions, cups of coffee. For some pastors this is a comfortable situation. Then, your church grows beyond 10 people, and you have a problem. But, what if your congregation wasn’t an audience to be served, but an army to be empowered? What if every person in your church was empowered to gather a few people, maybe just one person, and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? What if pastors focused more on equipping people and not doing the ministry themselves? Please keep your excuses at bay for a minute and dream with me. If everyone — church member or attender — is leading a group, who is in their groups? Good question. People who are not in your church. This doesn’t mean stealing sheep from another flock. There are plenty of people with stressful lives, marriage problems, parenting challenges, life controlling problems, and spiritual questions who could be invited to these groups. The challenge is providing resources that are biblical, yet less churchy to those who need help. I’ve seen glimpses of this. Neighbors gathered. People with similar hobbies and interests. Whether the group is the Holy Smokers in South Carolina who make barbeque or the Holy Smokes in Colorado who light up cigars. I’ve seen commuters on the same morning train doing a Bible study and coworkers meeting at lunch. This doesn’t need to be coerced. This doesn’t require a grand strategy. It only requires a shift in the pastor’s thinking and an opportunity for their people to lead a “group.” Not everyone will do this all at once. In fact, I’ve never seen 100 percent of any church do anything all at once. Start with your innovators — that 4 percent who are willing to try anything. Then, tell their stories to your early adopters, the next 12 percent. Now, you have 16 percent of your church leading. If you’ve got 16 percent leading, then you’re becoming exponential already. They will influenced the next 34 percent of early mid-adopters. You’ve made it past 50 percent. The other half will take a little more time, but it’s worth it. God wants to use your people. Whether you focus on addition or multiplication, imagine how God could use them. But, imagine if the impact of your people touching the lives a four, six, ten, or twelve people outside of your church. Imagine. That’s exponential.
By Allen White A lot of great things can happen during a 40 Day church-wide campaign, then comes Day 41. If you’ve just launched groups in the last few weeks, it’s time to think about what’s next. Several years ago a small group pastor joined our coaching program. He had gone from having no small groups in his church to actually launching 233 groups for a 40 day church-wide campaign. At the end of the campaign, when it was all said and done, he ended up with three groups. What a heartbreak! Over the years, in the laboratory of hundreds of churches across the country, we’ve learned a few things about keeping the momentum going and helping to sustain groups for the long haul. 1. Groups Need a Next Step. Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time. Of course, the other issue here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is. We launched groups at our church in California for the first time in the Spring. Our fear wasn’t just Day 41, but also days 42-96. It was a high hurdle over the summer. We gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday of October. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise. When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it. Wendy Nolasco, Small Group Pastor at New Life Center, Bakersfield, California, found a similar result. After successfully launching 100 groups in the Spring, they gave their groups a heads up on their Fall campaign and then said a prayer. This Fall 75 of those groups are continuing into the next step Pastor Wendy gave them. If you are in a Fall or New Year’s campaign, the next step is not quite so daunting. They don’t need to wait three months for another study. They can start a new study the following week. Once a group does two back to back six week studies, usually they are good to continue from that point forward. 2. Give Your New Groups One Specific Next Step If you send your new group leaders to the internet or the local bookstore, they will get lost in the plethora of selections. In fact, it will take them so long to make a decision, more than likely the group will falter before they can choose their next step. If you started the group with a video-based curriculum, then the next step should involve a video as well. Again, if you invited folks to form groups with the idea that they didn’t have to be a Bible scholar, because the expert was on the video, they will need that strategy again. Whether the next series aligns with the Sunday sermons or not, a specific next step will take them past Day 41 and into a longer group life. Now, you may ask, “How long can groups continue with video-based curriculum?” Carl George put it this way, “As long as there are DVDs.” 3. A New Study is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group. The beginning of a study is a natural time to invite new members into a group. The group could host an open house or a barbecue to invite some friends and neighbors who might be interested in joining the group. Everyone likes to start on the ground floor. A new study certainly provides that opportunity. 4. If the Host Can’t Continue… Well, you could go the guilt route: “If you love Jesus and want to go to Heaven…” But, I wouldn’t recommend that. If the hosts legitimately cannot continue, they are probably not considering other possibilities for the group to continue. they think if they can’t go on, then the group can’t either. But, that’s not necessarily true. When a host informs you around Day 24 of your current campaign that they won’t be able to continue with the group, have their coach begin to investigate whether another member of the group would like to step up and host the group. If the group has been rotating leadership during the study, someone may very easily take over leadership of the group so the group can continue. Oh, and how do you get your hosts to state their intentions around Day 24 or so? You ask them. I’ve used both a mid-campaign survey as well as a mid-campaign host huddle to determine who is interested in continuing and who isn’t. Before I walk into the huddle meeting, I like to know what to expect. Often I will send the mid-campaign survey first. It serves as what John Maxwell calls the “meeting before the meeting.” Then, when you walk into the room, you know who plans to continue and who needs to be given some options for their group to continue. All in all, Day 41 is just the beginning of group life. With the right encouragement and next steps, groups who started to only complete a six week study, can find themselves enjoying quality group life for many studies to come.
After launching small groups with church-wide campaigns over the last 14 years, I’ve discovered there are some great times to launch groups, and there are definitely some seasons or situations to avoid. Considering the effort that’s put into a campaign whether you are purchasing someone else’s campaign or creating your own, you want to get the most bang for your buck. Why put all of that time, energy, and effort into something that will end up with a mediocre result? Here are some seasons and situations to avoid:
My men’s group met 52 weeks of the year. We met at a restaurant for lunch on Wednesdays. Like most guys, we ate lunch 52 weeks of the year, so we did a Bible study too. I’m not sure 52 weeks per year is ideal, but it worked for us. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for everyone. Because of the school calendar, which was based on an agrarian society, most schools are in session from Labor Day until Memorial Day as God intended. Some schools, however, start early in August. This pre-Labor Day start is against the natural order of things, in my humble opinion. But, most schools offer the three reasons teachers have entered the profession: June, July, and August. Families go on vacation. The evenings are longer. Even committed group members tend to forget about small groups. If getting groups to continue meetings is a challenge during the Summer, then starting groups in the Summer is even more difficult. Summer is the weakest season of the year to launch groups. The strongest seasons for group launches are (in order): Fall, New Years, and Spring (after Easter). Summer is in last place by a mile. By launching groups in the Summer, you are faced with two issue. First, you’re not getting your bang for the buck as mentioned earlier. Second, you are taking away from the impact of your Fall campaign. Not only is Fall the start of the school year, but the Summer break before Fall helps to make a Fall launch the strongest of the year. Now, there will be groups like mine who want to continue through the Summer come hell or high water. Let them meet. But, don’t spend a leadership coin on a Summer launch. Save it until Fall.
2. Capital Campaign.
Growing churches build. Building churches requires a lot of money and usually some sort of capital campaign. We understand this. People who are in groups tend to give more than people who are not in groups. According to Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger in Transformational Groups, their research has shown that people not in groups give 6.07 percent of their income, while those who attended a group 4 or more times a month gave 10.34 percent (p 45). If a family earned $35,000 per year, this means their annual giving would increase by $1494.50 per year if they joined a small group. If the church needs money, and people in groups tend to give more money, then why not get everybody into groups so they’ll give to more the capital campaign. That equation works for the short-term, but not the long term. Once an association is made between small groups and capital campaigns, then the next time the call is made for people to join small groups, most people will think, “I wonder how much money they need to raise this time.” I’m not saying capital campaigns are wrong. They’re not. They are necessary. But, capital campaigns and small group campaigns simply do not go together. To avoid a bad associate, get ahead of the capital campaigns. Form groups in the New Year, then start the capital campaign in the Fall. Groups can certainly study something about the church’s vision related to the capital campaign, and they’ve started well enough in advance that the association shouldn’t be made.
3. During a Church Crisis.
When a church is facing a major crisis, like the pastor’s forced resignation, a devastating financial blow, or a scandal of any kind, this is not the time to start small groups. I’m not being glib. My first pastor had to resign after I’d only been on staff for 18 months. While groups will certainly bond people together, disgruntled individuals can become platoons who will march right out of your church together. Wait until the dust settles, then launch groups.
4. Simultaneously with Another Major Initiative.
My friend, Gilbert Thurston says, “If you are casting vision for two things at the same time, you are creating Di-vision or division.” No pastor wants to promote division. The problem is if the best time to launch small groups is in the Fall and the New Year, well, it’s also the best time to launch everything else. Sigh. To avoid creating di-vision in your church, stagger your announcements. If you’re church has on-going or semester-based groups and ministries like Celebrate Recovery, Financial Peace University, DivorceCare, GriefShare, or others, then start those before you make the call for groups. While it’s nice to have everyone in the church studying the same thing, it’s not necessary for an effective group launch. Once the support groups have started, then gear up for your big Fall or New Year’s launch.
5. If the Majority of Your Adults are in Sunday School.
Some churches don’t need small groups. Maybe they’d like to have groups, but for those churches who still run a thriving adult Sunday school, groups really aren’t necessary. Now, I’m talking about churches with 90 percent of their adults in Sunday school today. This is different from churches with declining Sunday schools who think that promoting Sunday school more will boost attendance. If that’s you, then you need to start groups. Your Sunday school ain’t coming back. But, there are those churches with well established, thriving Sunday schools. My word to you — Keep Sunday School working. If it begins to slip, then think groups. You really have to ask yourself: Are we in the meeting business or are we in the discipleship business? You can make disciples in Sunday school. You can make disciples in groups. The goal is not groups. The goal is developing leaders and making disciples.
For many of the same reasons as Summer, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day become overloaded with activities for most people in your church. Between school programs, Christmas parties, special Christmas services, shopping, traveling, and whatever else they’ve piled on themselves, the Christmas season is a very difficult time to start groups or for groups to even meet regularly. Groups can have fun together or serve together, but weekly meetings are probably out.
7. Immediately after New Year’s Day.
Most senior pastors want to kick off the new year with a “State of the Church” type of message or “Vision Sunday,” then they want to get right into their series the second Sunday in January. If this is when the church chooses to launch groups, there’s a big problem — there is no time to recruit leaders or form groups. If you think, “We will just recruit leaders in December for the January launch,” then go back and read #6. I’ve tried this. I ended up standing in the briefing room, listening to crickets, and questioning the call of God on my life. You can’t recruit nobody for nuthin’ in December. Save yourself some headaches. The “New Year’s” launch will go much better if there is time in January to recruit leaders and form groups before the series starts in late January. Better yet, use the whole month of January to recruit and form groups, then run your series between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. Every church is different. For instance, Canadian churches will want to start their Fall series after Canadian Thanksgiving. If you live in Seattle and the mountain is still out in September, you might want to wait until October to start your series. If your people’s calendars fill up very quickly at the start of the school year, then you’d better launch groups when school starts, so folks still have an evening available. Use these seven suggestions to guide you. I want you to succeed with your next group launch, but in the end, you need to do what works best in your neck of the woods.