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.
If you’re like most pastors, your small groups are tired of Zoom meetings. If people are working remotely, they are in a series of Zoom meetings all day long. As Nona Jones said, “The problem is that even though the meetings are different the experience is the same.” Zoom Fatigue is real.
Your people are tired of looking at their screens and looking at themselves all day long. But, if they won’t meet with their groups online when they are unable or unwilling to meet in-person, then how do you create community? How do you fulfill your mission of making disciples.
Do Something Different
Zoom meetings cannot effectively replicate an in-person experience. Your small groups are just not the same online as they are in-person. In-person meetings are far superior to online meetings just like your in-person worship service is much better than the streaming service (but the streaming service could be better). So, stop trying to create the same meeting experience for a group on Zoom. It’s not the same. It doesn’t work. People don’t like it…says the guy who wrote Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future this year!
Change it up. Do something different. Call it something different. Think about offering a short-term group if that’s a different experience for your groups.
This is a different year. Online groups are a different experience. Try something different!
Groups are More Than Meetings
Groups offer the experience of life-on-life, not life-on-curriculum. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t command you to “go and hold small group meetings.” (And, before you say it, I am well aware of Hebrews 10:25. Stay with me here).
Your mission is to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). What do you need to make a disciple? Let’s take this as granular as we can. You need a disciple to make a disciple. I would even venture to say that more discipleship happens outside of meetings than in meetings anyway. Feel free to debate me on that, but keep in mind that my definition of discipleship is not merely book learnin’. It’s teaching people to obey what Jesus commanded.
The best examples of life-on-life are the One Anothers of the Bible. How can you “encourage one another daily” when you don’t see each other every day or even very often? If you’re like most adults, you are never more than five feet away from your phone. Mine is sitting next to my computer as I’m typing this. I have to confess that my screen time has significantly increased in 2020. The same is true for most people. So, since your people are already on their phones quite a bit, why not use their phones to encourage each other? Send a quick text. Make a quick call. Say something positive on social media.
The same can go for the other One Anothers:
• “Love one another” (John 13:34; John 15:12). • “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10). • “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). • “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16). • “Stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13). • “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). • “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32). • “Build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). • “Encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). • “Pray for each other” (James 5:16). • There are 59 total!
And, here’s the thing: even when all of your people are attending in-person worship services and meeting with their groups in-person, they still can’t practice these One Anothers often enough. Encourage them to use their digital devices and message, pick up the phone and call, and even send a handwritten note in the mail. What if this could become the normal practice of all believers?
Zoom is NOT the Only Way to Meet Online
If Zoom Fatigue is a big issue, there are other ways to meet when you can’t meet in-person. Your people meet in other types of online groups that aren’t fatiguing them. Don’t think so?
Groups could meet on a conference call line. Services like freeconferencecall.com offer the phone number (which is usually long distance, but that’s not really an issue today).
Groups could meet asynchronously. Your people use asynchronous groups all of the time – a group text, Slack, private Facebook groups, Marco Polo, Parler (or not), and even “Reply to All” on email is an asynchronous group. The leader would post the questions one post at a time, then the group would respond probably over a week. This is how I did my CompuServe group in 1994!
My children connect with their friends often over video games like Fortnite. In fact, one article (that I can’t locate right now…) said that people who connect socially while playing video games are doing better in the pandemic than most people. I’m not sure how you’d pull off a traditional small group study, but you can connect! If you have discovered how to do this well, let me know!
Some of this may seem off-the –wall, but 2020 has been an off-the-wall sort of year. This is the year to experiment “because of COVID.” Whatever you want to start doing or even stop doing, do it “because of COVID.”
Some People Really Need an Online Small Group Right Now
You have people who are isolated and alone. You have people watch your online worship service and are ready to take a next step. You have people who’ve watched too much cable news and are freaking out. You have people who need to connect. Offer Zoom groups to the people who need them. It won’t be 100% of your people, but there are people who would love to join one. Move with the movers.
Small groups meet many different purposes. They provide community and connection. They offer teaching and training. They promote conversation and practical application of God’s Word, the Bible. They offer opportunities to serve and to reach others. They provide an environment for encouragement and accountability. But, just like the weekend worship service is not your church’s entire ministry, a small group meeting is not the entire ministry of the group.
When groups can’t meet in-person and won’t meet online, focus on connection. How are your people connecting? How are your leaders connecting with their members? How are you and your coaches connecting with your leaders?
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.
Video-based small group curriculum has been with us for about a decade now. Early innovators like Rick Warren and Brett Eastman at Saddleback Church brought the local pastor into the living room. Brett went on to found Lifetogether.com, which has sold about 4 million units to date. Many other video-based studies have followed and have succeeded. With all of the professionally produced video curriculum out there, why would a church want to create their own? While well-known pastors have produced some excellent studies, your pastor’s face on the screen presents some strong advantages for your congregation.
1. Takes the Weekend into the Week. The hustle and bustle of life tends to edge out the Sunday morning sermon after a day or so. While some sermons are remembered better than others, most are long forgotten by mid-week. By providing small groups with studies based on the weekend message, the points made on Sunday can take deeper root. By creating space in the small group to review the weekend message via a short video (no more than 10 minutes), the group has a chance to review the points, ask questions, discuss issues and make a specific application to their lives. Giving groups the opportunity to think about the message and what it means to them causes the group members to retain more. In groups they can involve more of themselves in the teaching. Rather than simply listening and maybe taking notes, group members can wrestle with hard questions and get the encouragement and accountability they need to live out the message. 2. Engages the Senior Pastor’s Teaching Gift. A senior pastor without a teaching gift is not a senior pastor for long. This is the most public and most personal role of any senior pastor. Speaking is hard work. Even the most gifted teachers spend hours gathering material, studying, collecting illustrations, and polishing their messages. Once Sunday is finished, for most pastors, the countdown clock to next week’s sermon begins. The one they worked so hard on for this week is now a thing of the past. But, it doesn’t have to be. What if the pastor could sit down in a living room with his church members and teach them the part he couldn’t get to on Sunday morning? What if in that circle the pastor could share his heart about what the Bible passage means and what it would mean if people started obeying it? A video-based curriculum can breathe new life into a message destined for the archives. Not only will the congregation learn more, but the message will go farther through the group. 3. Elevates the Role of Groups. For most churchgoers, the initial draw to a church is the pastor’s teaching and the music. As hard as the other church staff work in their roles, this is the simple truth. Other than Jesus Himself, the senior pastor plays a highly significant role in the spiritual lives of his congregation. By connecting the small group study to the weekend message, you can leverage the influence of the senior pastor in leading his people to connect in small groups. Once the pastor has created a video curriculum, his next question will be “How do we use this? How do we recruit more leaders? How do we get people into groups?” Don’t you want your senior pastor asking those questions? What’s important to the senior pastor will be what’s important to the congregation. Bulletins, video announcements, website – none of these come close to having the #1 influencer in the church direct the congregation. When the pastor asks for people to host groups, people will host groups. When the pastor invites members to join groups, members will join groups. When E.F. Hutton talks… I learned this lesson about a decade ago. I had spent seven years recruiting and training leaders only to find 30 percent of our congregation in groups. But, the first time our senior pastor stood up and asked for host homes, we doubled our groups in one day. I never looked back. He did all of the recruiting and leading from that point forward. 4. Moves the Weekend Message Beyond the Church Walls. When church members invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives and others to join them for a church-produced Bible study, the senior pastor is introduced to many more people than actually attend the church on Sunday. In homes, workplaces, Starbucks and even commuter trains, the pastor’s teaching goes out to many new people. Often new people will meet the pastor via video before they meet him in person. But, the transition from the living room to the church auditorium now is not quite as daunting. New folks feel they’ve already met the pastor through the weekly group studies. And, don’t tell the group hosts and leaders, but they’re actually doing evangelism. Shhh. 5. Puts Group Multiplication on Steroids. A DVD curriculum is easy to use. In fact, someone who has never led before simply needs to follow the instructions. The teaching on the DVD provides the wisdom and expertise. The questions in the book provide the pathway for a great discussion. Pushing play and reading questions is not so hard. Think about this: every person in your church has friends. The people who are less involved in the church will actually have far more friends outside of the church. What if your church members each gathered a group of 8-10 people for a video-based study featuring your senior pastor? Could a church of 100 members reach 1,000 people? What about a church of 1,000 going after 10,000? What about a church of 13,000 reaching over 100,000? Is it possible? The Bible says all things are possible with God. I’ve created quite a few DVD-based studies in both churches I’ve served at over the last 10 years. If you’d like some help creating your own curriculum, shoot me an email at allen (at) lifetogether.com (For non-Outlook users, replace (at) with @).
By Allen White Most leaders realize group life extends beyond well prepared and executed group meetings. While Bible study is an important aspect of a group, if everyone leaves thinking, “Boy, that was good. See you next week” without sharing what’s going on in their lives, something is definitely missing. Here’s how to help your group open up: 1. Set the Right Expectations. When your group members joined the group, what were they expecting? Were they looking for a 60 minute inductive Bible study followed by brownies and coffee as thanks for surviving it? Were they looking for a free-flowing discussion of everything that popped into their heads? Did they know what to expect? Managing expectations is crucial for a successful group. Rather than dictate what the group will be or won’t be, it’s best to start by discussing what kind of group the members actually want. A simple exercise like having everyone write their top three group expectations on a card, then tabulating the results will go a long way in getting buy-in from the group. If the group skews toward Bible study, then gradually implement some aspects of care. Start with something simple like asking for prayer requests and closing the meeting with prayer. As the group continues to meet, begin to focus more on application questions rather than Bible exploration questions. Don’t get me wrong. The discussion should be based on God’s Word. But, you want to aim for where the rubber meets the road, not where the rubber meets the air. 2. Set the Example. “Speed of the leader, speed of the team” is a common axiom from Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. The leader sets the pace. If you are open with your life, then others will be open with theirs. If you hold back, so will they. A couple of years ago someone gave me an older car. It’s not perfect, but it’s transportation and a gift at that. One night I became frustrated with the dashboard lights. About a third of the lights wouldn’t work. Out of my arsenal of mechanical expertise, I pounded my fist of the dash. The change was both immediate and dramatic – I now had no dashboard lights. Driving in the summer or during the day wasn’t a problem. But, anytime I had to drive early in the morning or at night, I had absolutely no idea how fast I was driving. I was embarrassed by my “repair.” While I confessed the problem to my wife, I never mentioned it to anyone else. But, one day a circle of folks in the office were discussing their cars’ various ailments. I chose that moment in the safe circle of used car owners to confess my dashboard issue. A woman turned to me and said, “My husband has the same problem with his car. He uses his GPS to check his speed.” What a brilliant idea. I had a GPS. I no longer needed to fly blind at night. I had dreaded the conversation with the first officer who ever pulled me over. “Sir, do you know how fast you were going?” “No, officer. My dashboard lights aren’t working.” Somehow I imagined only a scenario with multiple traffic tickets involved. Now, I had the knowledge to detect my own speed and avoid a traffic violation. I never would have learned that workaround if I had never admitted my problem. As Rick Warren says, “Revealing the feeling is the beginning of healing.” And, it has to start with the leader. I shared this story when I spoke at a church a few months back. The next week, the Executive Pastor called to say that my message already was making an impact. A man confessed to his men’s group that his marriage was on the brink of divorce. He and his wife were separated, and he didn’t know what to do. Rather than judge this guy for his situation, his group members rallied around him to support him and his wife through their struggle. My illustration of automotive failure helped him open up about his marital failure. Group leaders are no better than the group members they lead. You must be careful the leader title doesn’t block the way for your own vulnerability. If you’re group isn’t opening up, you need to check your own transparency in the group. Your honesty will encourage theirs. 3. Set the Meeting Agenda. To balance the need for open sharing in the group and the need to meet group expectations, the group agreement is the ideal place to start. If you’ve never created a group agreement, you should soon (Readmore here). The ground rules for your group could include an option where the group can help a member process a life situation. Some issues involve more than a casual mention during prayer request time at the end. If a group member has faced a devastating turn of events like a job loss, marital blow up, issues with children or other bad news, the group should allow space to even put the Bible study aside and support their friend in need. But, you don’t want your group to turn into the “crisis of the week.” While every group should offer support, there is a difference between a small group built on relationships formed around a Bible study and a true support group. If a group member needs dedicated support for marital problems, grief or a life controlling issue, then a specific support group may offer better help (Read more here). There is no perfect way to organize every small group meeting. Your group can’t offer only Bible study at the expense of care. But, your group also can’t avoid Bible study and only focus on care. As Andy Stanley says, “This is a tension to be managed rather than a problem to be solved.” If during the discussion, you notice a group member getting teary or tender, stop and ask if they want to talk about it. They might or might not. The last impression you want to leave is that the meeting agenda is more important than the group members in the meeting.