The church could not be more divided over the correct approach to in-person gatherings during Covid Church the Sequel. Should people meet in-person? Should people only meet online? Should masks be worn even by vaccinated people? Should people be vaccinated? Is the whole thing made up? You don’t have to talk to too many people before you hear any or all of the above.
How are you supposed to connect people who feel more comfortable disconnecting again? How are you supposed to form groups with people who haven’t returned to in-person worship? How are you supposed to create groups knowing that differences over Covid might cause more argument than agreement? Maybe this isn’t your problem to solve.
People are Connecting
In a recent edition of Wired magazine, Jennifer Berney wrote about her preteen son’s experience during the pandemic. “Over the past year, many parents like me have watched their children withdraw, become sullen and angry, and develop difficulty sleeping and eating. Getting West (her son) to shower and eat became an intense negotiation. Little seemed to cheer him, and yet I heard a clear lift in his voice when he played Minecraft while talking over Discord with his friends. He often carried his laptop downstairs and gabbed into his headset while finally eating the sandwich I’d offered him hours before.”*
People are created for community. It’s like we can’t be kept apart. There is a natural tendency to form community, even when it’s difficult or when circumstances dictate against it.
Now, most of you reading this post are not forming groups for preteens, but here’s the point: your people are finding community. Whether they are connecting in-person or online, they are connecting. The other night I looked out the window to see my wife Facetiming on the porch, or so I thought. When I looked again, I saw only her picture on the phone. I thought, “Is she Facetiming herself? This isn’t good. I need to be more available…” What I discovered was that she wasn’t Facetiming to herself. She was sending a video reply to her childhood friend in California over the Marco Polo app. People are connecting. So in those places where they are connecting, how can you help them grow spiritually together?
Get Out of the Connecting Business
In the first sentence of Exponential Groups: Releasing Your Church’s Potential, I wrote, “Everybody is already in a group.” Most people are in multiple groups – friends, families, co-workers, neighbors, Facebook, group chats, Slack, and the list goes on. People are created for community. The people in your church already connect with other believers on a regular basis. Rather than wearing yourself out trying to get them to de-group in order to re-group, leverage their existing relationships to start groups. Stop working so hard at creating unnatural connections that won’t last.
I spent a lot of years trying to place people into groups. They would fill out a sign up card or inquire from the website. After all, I was their pastor. I’m supposed to help them, right? But, here’s what I discovered – most people who inquired this way weren’t serious about joining a new group. Maybe they were emotionally motivated by a sermon, so they signed up. But, they didn’t show up. The people who I helped the most tended to show up the least. There is a better use of your time.
Where Do Your People Find Community?
The Wired author continues, “Minecraft exists outside of Covid. Villagers don’t have to stay 6 feet apart or wear masks, and players can avoid death simply by shifting to Creative mode.”* While I have four Minecraft players in my family, I’m not sure you could create a small group meeting within Minecraft or on Twitch. But, the thought of a meeting place apart from Covid sounds pretty good. Relationships are formed on these platforms. Where there is relationship, there is potential for small groups. But, you don’t have to become an expert in this.
Years ago I had a leader who started a small group on a commuter train. Every Tuesday morning on the commute from Stockton, California to San Jose, Jennifer led a Bible study. Eventually, her group filled up an entire section of the train. I never cast vision for “Commuter Train Small Groups.” I never read a book on it or attended a seminar. I had never thought of it. Jennifer came up with the idea. She just needed permission and opportunity to start the group. The same is true of any person in your church connecting with other people in any space – digital or analog. How can they start a group in that community?
Think About This
You can’t provide community for people — just like you can’t provide sanctification for them. But, you can create an environment in your church to promote community (and sanctification). You can provide guidance and guardrails. You can supply an easy-to-use curriculum and a coach to guide them. You can offer a trial run at doing a study with their friends. You can lead a horse to water…
What opportunities do your people have to start groups with their connections?
*”Missing Peace” by Jennifer Berney. Wired. Volume 29, No 7. p. 22-23.
Exponential Groups: Unleasing Your Church’s Potential (Hendrickson 2017).
By Allen White
When you think about connecting a congregation into community or taking a crowd and turning them into disciples, the task can be quite mindboggling. Sometimes in contemplating the enormity of the task, we expend a lot of energy on things that are either not great investments of our time or are things other people should be doing. There is only so much of any small group pastor or director. Knowing where to apply your efforts will determine your success and possibly your sanity.
I tend to learn best in the school of hard knocks. Please understand while I believe all of my efforts have been well intentioned, I have made quite a number of well intentioned mistakes along the way. The good news is I have learned or am learning from most of those failed attempts, and I am now passing these painful lessons on to you.
Every small group pastor, including myself, who considers how to connect a congregation into community, typically starts with the wrong questions, which lead to the wrong strategies, which ends up with poor results. It typically goes like this:
1. How do I connect people into groups?
This is question comes from the assumption that most people file in and out of church never talking to anybody and have no real friends outside of church. People are far more connected than you might imagine. In fact, I would go so far as to say your people are already in multiple groups. The question is: how are those groups helping them to grow spiritually? What are they doing to intentionally grow in their faith?
The reality is most people don’t have time for a small group and lack the capacity to maintain any more relationships. Now, before you quit your job, there’s a solution. Think about how people can leverage their existing connections to grow spiritually. Could you create an easy to use curriculum available for them to discuss spiritual things with their friends at dinner or their co-workers at lunch? The dilemma is not placing people into groups, but introducing a spiritual growth component to the groups they are already in.
If you feel your main task is to place people into groups via some dreaded system like a sign up card, trust me, you need to get out of that business ASAP. Yes, there are some exceptions to what I described above, but as Brett Eastman would say, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” If you build your entire system around the needs of exceptions, you will devote 90% of your energy to less than 5% of your people. For more ideas on how to connect people who are new to your church and who have truly no friends, click here.
2. How do I recruit group leaders?
You don’t. If your senior pastor is willing to create small group curriculum based on his teaching, then he will volunteer to recruit group leaders for you. You may be thinking, “That will never work in my church.” Let me ask you a question, “Has your senior pastor ever created his own curriculum?” Once a pastor has invested his time and energy in producing a small group curriculum, he won’t want to see that investment go to waste.
In just a few short weeks, your pastor can get half or more of your congregation into a study based on his teaching. All he has to do is ask. He will want to ask because he now has skin in the game. I’ve seen this happen in a church of 50 people, churches of tens of thousands of people, and both of the churches I have served on staff.
Small group pastors don’t need to recruit small group leaders. Your senior pastor will take care of this (and get a far better result).
3. How do I support and encourage small group leaders?
This is the right question. The real work of a small group pastor is to implement the systems and strategies to sustain groups over time (Wow, that really sounds like Brett Eastman). When I coach small group pastors in how to launch a church-wide series, the first task is to identify experienced group leaders and mature believers who will serve as a small group team for the first teaching series. Imagine if you suddenly had half or better of your congregation in groups, how would you manage the needs of those leaders?
Sure you could send a few email blasts or have your assistant call them, but the key to developing groups which will continue is a coaching structure to support them. This is a decentralized, one-on-one strategy. It’s the opposite of on-campus training meetings or robocalls. There is a place for training meetings. There is no place for robocalls. Everybody hates telemarketers…everybody. (I actually was a telemarketer for three days once. It was hard to live with myself for those 72 hours).
The hard work of small group ministry lies here. If you skip this step, then you will experience a short-lived, one-time success and then it will devolve into a number of leaders you can personally manage. Again, I’ve lived it. I’ve been there.
This is not a reason to become overwhelmed. This is a reason to pray. God knows what He wants to accomplish in your church during your upcoming launch. God also knows every person who can help you successfully start and sustain groups. If you ask God to direct you to the right small group team, pay attention to who crosses your path. God will answer your prayer. He’s certainly answered mine.
By Allen White
Another important group in the last 30 percent are Introverts. Like Independents, Introverts don’t fit well in the system that serves the other 70 percent so well. Unlike the Independents, they aren’t going to form an unofficial group on the sly.
Introverts are not like the other 70 percent of members who have already joined groups. Granted some introverts joined a group with their spouse, and in the words of Joseph Myers, each week they endure “forced relational hell” (Read why I hated Joe’s book).
An introvert’s greatest fear is knocking on the door of a stranger’s house and meeting twelve new people. It’s overwhelming. It’s enough to make them pull the covers over their heads and call it a night. But, introverts are not anti-social.
Most introverts have good friends. The difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that introverts just need a few friends while extroverts have never met a stranger. Introverts don’t comfortably fit into the usual structure of a small group. They don’t do groups of 10-12 people. They are far more comfortable with one or two. Can three people count as a group? Jesus seemed to think so (Matthew 18:20).
But, who said that small groups should be comfortable? Shouldn’t we be challenged to grow? Shouldn’t we step out of our comfort zones? Down, pastor. Down. Pastors get up and speak before hundreds to thousands on Sundays. Introverts are back there in the corner. What works for you won’t work for them. But, how do you get introverts connected in groups?
1. Friends are the Key to Attracting Introverts.
Introverts have friends. They probably have better friends than extroverts, in that, they’ve taken time to get to know a couple of friends very well. A pastor’s invitation to join small groups probably won’t do much to motivate introverts in that direction. It will only reinforce their greatest fear. But, if their friend thinks it’s a good idea and invites them, there’s a much better chance of them going to group.
The nuance here is that introverts connect in groups by relationship, not by strategy. Don’t plan to launch groups where no one has to talk. Instead, encourage current small group members to think about the people in their life – who would enjoy or benefit from the group’s next study. A simple exercise like the Circles of Life from Lifetogether.com is a great way for them to start praying about who to invite.
You won’t connect 100 percent of your introverts this way. But, it’s a much better way than sending them into a connection event.
2. Rethink Your Small Group Model.
What is a small group? We usually come up with twelve, since Jesus had twelve disciples. But, is twelve the right number. Many small group pastors, like Saddleback’s Steve Gladen, advocate groups of eight and subgrouping when your group exceeds eight (Check out Steve’s book — Small Groups with Purpose). Then, there was the seminary class I took that defined a small group as three to 30 people. What?
Every group doesn’t need to be the exact same size. Sometimes things that happen with two or three in a group can’t happen with 18 members present. If we had a small group of only three men named Peter, James and John, would we give it the green light?
3. Start Book Clubs instead of Small Groups.
Introverts aren’t friendless folks. They have good friends. In fact, we might even call good friends a small group with purpose. The formula is simple: friends + intention = growth. We provide the intention by directing the group’s focus, usually by offering small group curriculum. If we make the study available to any person who wants to get together with a group of friends, then you have a better chance of including introverts. I’ve even announced on a Sunday, “Some of you haven’t found a group yet. You might not even like our small groups. Why get together with your friends and start your own group?” Curriculum sold like hotcakes.
A women walked up to the “Start Your Own Group” table and said, “Four of us meet together at Starbucks every Thursday morning, could we do the study together?” Absolutely! They were in a group of friends, but they weren’t in a small group. Why not help them become a small group?
4. Start Online Small Groups.
As more and more of life is pushed toward the intranet, we find ourselves in virtual family reunions and class reunions on Facebook practically on a daily basis. Technology allows us to encourage each other daily (Hebrews 3:13). Through online chat and video conference sites, it’s possible to connect online for a small group. Whether you’re represented by an avatar or your actual video, online small groups offer flexibility and allow members to meet from the comfort of their own homes.
Some object to online small groups saying that people can pretend to be someone else online and don’t have to be themselves. If you’ve been in small group ministry for very long, you understand that this behavior is not limited to online small groups. Self-disclosure is an issue in both online and off-line groups.
Years ago, Robert Schuller started a church in a drive-in movie theater because people wouldn’t attend church because they didn’t have nice clothes to wear. He figured if they stayed in their cars at the drive-in, it didn’t matter what they wore. Online small groups can also provide a level of comfort that will get introverts into the game. Besides, if the leader asks a tough question, Google is but a click away.
Introverts will join small groups. But, most likely they won’t sign up to join a group of strangers. By innovating and taking a different approach, connecting introverts into groups or helping introverts start groups will close the gap on the last 30 percent.
I am an introvert, and I am in a group. But, I’m also a small group pastor, so there’s a little pressure there. I hope that I haven’t offended any of my introverted friends. For a more thorough and insightful perspective, check out Introverts in the Church by Adam S. McHugh.
More on Connecting the Last 30 Percent tomorrow…
Connecting the Last 30 Percent: Enlisting Independents
Including the Isolated