As much as you might hate to think about this, the world is on the eve of a global recession. There’s just been too much cheap money out there for too long. Now, I am a pastor and not an economist, but I play one on Facebook. (Just kidding). Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capital firms that backed companies like Apple, Google, and AirBnb, just released a presentation calling for founders to preserve cash for survival. “We do not believe that this is going to be another swift V-shaped recovery like we saw at the outset of the pandemic,” Sequoia’s partners said. What does this have to do with your church? A lot. Churches have already seen giving decline due to inflation. With the oncoming recession, things are about to take a downward turn. Here are five ways you can recession-proof your church:
1. Manage What You Can Control
What full-time roles could become part-time? What part-time roles could become volunteer? What ministries are more of a luxury than a necessity? Or asked a nicer way, where are the bright spots in your church right now? Invest heavily in what is bearing fruit. For everything else, unfortunately, it’s time to prune.
This is the time to look at all of the staff who spend their days doom scrolling on their iPhones. Their time is up. While you may have had compassion on them during the pandemic, there are plenty of jobs out there these days. They will find something. It’s time to become a lean mean ministry machine. Now if you feel at all threatened by what I’m saying, then it is time to pour your energy and efforts into becoming an essential member of your church’s team. The more value that you can add, the less likely that you will get cut. And, the more satisfaction you will get from your work.
What things in your church’s budget can you control? Periodically, it’s a good idea to look at all of the services your church subscribes to. What is still necessary? While RightNow Media and smallgroups.org can be useful, are they necessary? What if you created your own curriculum? Your studies would more closely reflect your church’s values. If you offer a digital download, you reduce the cost of printing books. Invest in some great tools for producing curriculum like How to Ask Great Questions by Karen Lee-Thorpe or join the Effective Curriculum Writing Workshop. You might even have some talented volunteers in your church who can help you write a sermon discussion guide or study guide.
2. Sell Surplus Assets
You don’t need a garage sale (but you could have one). What property does your church own but will probably never develop? Real estate is still pretty hot right now. Before things slow way down, it might be time to liquidate excess property and build your church’s cash reserves. Pay off debt. I understand that your role may not involve decisions of this kind, but these would be helpful things to suggest to your leadership.
How well do you utilize your church building? (You don’t need to sell your church building.) But, could you rent space to a non-profit with similar values? Could you rent space for events in your community? Think of family reunions, bridal showers, baby showers, and other community events. Maybe there’s a new church plant looking for a place to meet. Of course, you would need to have stated policies so the events reflect the your church’s standards. Granted, this will require some janitorial expense, but it could be a source of revenue. Stick with me here. The discipleship part is coming soon.
Look in your church’s closets. What about that stack of curriculum you have left from your last alignment series? Could you start new groups with it? Could you sell it to another church? (Maybe you’re headed back to a garage sale idea here). You may not have the authority to make these kinds of decisions, but you could make some suggestions and possibly become the employee of the month!
3. Stir Up Your Members’ Gifts
When money gets tight, more than ever you need to get your church members’ gifts in the game. Now that the pandemic has clearly defined the committed core of your church, give them meaningful ways to serve. You have church members with gifts and talents that need to be used. This never should have been an option. The church never should have been divided by clergy and laity or staff and “volunteers” (Oh, how I hate that word! We are all members of the Body of Christ!) Your consumers changed the church channel during COVID. Don’t be afraid to ask the people who stuck with you to serve.
Once people know what they’re good at and gifted for, they need a placement process for ministry. I would recommend offering a trial run to see if they are a good fit for the role. Once they’ve fulfilled the trial period (don’t tell them this), you can decide whether to offer them more or thank them for fulfilling their short-term commitment. (It’s sure better than firing someone who volunteers their time).
If you have meaningful work that’s a right fit, people will offer you their time. In a recent assessment for a church with 1,000 in weekly attendance, their members Indicated that they could serve 449 total hours per week in addition to when they were currently serving. (These responses were from only 400 of their members!)
Your people will help if they are given meaningful ways to serve. From the first item on this list: what part-time roles could become volunteer roles? You have people with the time and ability to take on “official” roles in your church. What does your church need to prepare for in helping your community in the coming recession? Think about parents needing low cost childcare or after school programs. You can reach the next generation and get their parents to try church. How can your members serve? Ask them.
4. Strategically Outsource Staff Roles
One way to reduce your church’s overall expenses and retain good ministry leadership is to outsource certain roles to other organizations. Often by outsourcing, you can retain a more talented player on your team for a lot less money. For instance, you don’t have to pay benefits, because the outsource employees’ organization covers that.
The Provisum Group offers accounting and communications services. Their founder, Don Corder, told me about one church who paid someone in their office $65,000 per year to create the weekly church bulletin. The church contracted with The Provisum Group and did the same work for far less. Belay Solutions offers outsourced personal assistants, bookkeepers, social media managers, and website specialists. These are just a couple of possibilities.
You can even outsource your small group pastor or director position. Over the last decade, I’ve served several churches as their outsourced small group pastor. I discovered while serving on staff at a church of 6,500 that most of my communication with my small group team, coaches, and group leaders was by email, phone call, and Zoom. You can do those things from anywhere. I started helping churches hundreds of miles away from me. With occasional onsite visits, in the last year, I led the small group ministry at Mount Hope Church, Lansing, Michigan just like this. We tripled their groups in 2021, which was not a great year for groups overall. Every leader had a coach. Every member who wanted one had a group. If you need help with your groups, then let’s talk. Click here to schedule an appointment.
5. Invest in Small Groups
Your investment in small groups bears a great return. You are probably aware of all of the great benefits to small groups. People in groups serve more, give more, grow more, attend more, and reach more than people who are not in groups. Don’t you want more of all of those things? (Don’t believe me. Download the research here in The Senior Pastors Guide to Groups).
You can build your small group ministry on a 100% volunteer leadership and coaching structure. This worked well in both churches I served (a church of 800 in California and a church of 6,500 in South Carolina). As you empower people to take on the tasks and authority of discipling others, you will find willing people who will gather their friends and start a group. You will find experienced leaders willing to coach other leaders. And, you will identify leaders of leaders of leaders who will help you run the whole thing. This is the system presented in the Exponential Groups book and workbook.
When giving goes down, care needs to go up. When care goes up, then giving goes up. In the most recent megachurch survey, Dr. Warren Bird shared how people in groups gave 11% more than people who are not in groups. On top of that, churches with 60% or more in groups grew by 79% between 2015 and 2020. Now, those are pre-COVID numbers, so it will be interesting to see the results of the next survey in 2025. But, did your church grow by 79% between 2015 and 2020? And remember that the fall small group boom is on its way.
Think About This
God is sending His Church a message. It’s time to change. What worked in 2019 won’t work now. The first message was through COVID. You began to see digital missionaries. You saw people getting pickier about who they spent their time with. You saw the culture as a whole get a little more comfortable out of sheer exhaustion. Now, the second message is this coming recession. Scarcity brings clarity. During COVID, people were scarce. In the recession, finances will become scarce. It is time to rethink ministry. What does your community need? How can you reach them? How can you show them the love of Jesus in practical ways? How can you and your members engage in meaningful conversations about tough issues?
People are very overwhelmed and confused right now. The speed of cultural change has been intimidating to say the least. But, the church has something solid. The church has something eternal. The church has the Gospel, which does not change. But, it’s time to rethink the methods.
Some churches practice a simple church model. They offer just a few options to their congregations. These are churches like North Coast Church, Vista, CA led by Larry Osborne or Mariners Church led by Eric Geiger, who wrote the book Simple Church. They promote their weekend worship services, small groups, serving, local and global missions, but little else beyond that. Life seems simpler in a simple church. But your church might be more complicated, especially in a legacy church.
Once I served a church that was the polar opposite of a simple church. They prided themselves on being a complicated church that hoped to offer something for everybody. Promoting small groups was complex to say the least. If you promote everything equally, then nothing is a priority. (More here in my post: The Unfairness of Being Fair). After all, if everything is important, then nothing is important. But, we grew the groups in that church from 30% of 5,000 adults connected to 78% in the four years I served there. Here’s how we did it:
Let’s say your groups meet a minimum of twice per month for the purpose of Bible application, community, and occasional serving projects. By defining a group in your church, you are also stating what a small group is not in your church. Think about all of the things you are offering your adults to see what might be competing with groups.
For instance, let’s say you have a men’s prayer breakfast that meets once per month. Is this a group? Having been to quite a few men’s prayer breakfasts over the years, I’ve discovered there is usually more breakfast than prayer. (The prayer is typically for the food). You might discover that the men who attend this breakfast regard this as their small group, yet by your definition this men’s breakfast doesn’t qualify as a group. It doesn’t have Bible application or occasional serving, but it has plenty of community. Also, it doesn’t meet often enough by your definition. In fact, once a month groups really don’t meet frequently enough to provide deep community. I call these groups a small group placebo. They give the feeling of being in a group but lack the benefits of being in a group.
But with your definition of groups, you are also opening up the possibilities for how many groups you actually have. Maybe you just don’t call them groups.
What Groups, Classes, Serve Teams, or Bible Studies Might Qualify as Groups?
Compare your definition with all of the “groups” in your church. Think of serving teams, Bible studies, small groups, classes, and whatever else you’ve got. Which qualify as a group by your definition? Which do not? Which could become a little more “groupish”?
Can on-campus groups, classes, Sunday school classes, or Bible studies be categorized as “groups”? This is not just an exercise in semantics. You need to consider all of the things in your church that help make disciples. Even the old fashioned options could be good options.
Avoid Competing with Yourself
I am working with a church that’s made a goal of connecting half of their adults into a certain type of off-campus groups. Upon further examination, we discovered that they have a lot of other options for their adults that would also fit the criteria for a group: women’s Bible studies, men’s Bible studies, in-depth Bible classes, and several others. In the current thinking, these other “groups” are competing with their goal of getting half of their people into off-campus groups.
In this situation, you can do one of two things: either cancel all of these other groups leading to a revolt or broaden your definition of groups. Stick with me here. This isn’t just for the sake of numbers and bragging rights. Years ago a friend of mine proudly announced, “Suddenly, we have 92% of our adults in groups.” He was at a traditional Baptist church with a very large, well established adult Sunday school. The vast majority of the adults were in Sunday school classes. He reconfigured his definition of groups and overnight went from nobody in groups to 92% in groups. So what?
My friend knew that an alignment series or a church-wide campaign wasn’t necessary to connect people into groups in his church. Sunday school was meeting that need. He would have preferred everyone to choose off-campus small groups, but he also wanted to keep his job. He left Sunday school alone, because it was working. But, he also discovered an opportunity: 8% of their adults were not in a Sunday school class. How could he help them grow spiritually?
Now, Who at Your Church is Not in Group?
Rather than focusing on draining your women’s ministry to get more people into “groups,” focus on connecting people who are only attending the worship service. (Besides that Beth Moore addiction is very hard to break). You don’t need to regroup people who are already in groups.
Who is not in a group of any type in your church? The bigger question is “Why did they say ‘No’ to what you are currently offering and what might they say, ‘Yes’ to.” They are not being disloyal or unfaithful in not taking you up on their offer. You’re just not offering what they want or need. Offer something different.
If you are the only one recruiting all of your group leaders, invite people to volunteer to host a group in their homes. If you’ve been using the host strategy since 40 Days of Purpose launched 20 years ago, then the gig is up. People know that host really means “leader.” Instead encourage people to get together with their friends and do a study. Provide an easy entry point to LEAD a group. Pastors talk about easy entry points to join a group, but that misses the mark. Your leading metric should be leading a group instead of joining a group.
How Do You Pull This Off?
You have a few options here.
A good option is for your senior pastor to invite your members to lead a group with an easy-to-use curriculum that you purchase. There is a lot of great video-based curriculum out there. Go to topbiblestudies.com for a curated list.
A better option is for your senior pastor to invite your members to lead a group with an easy-to-use curriculum that you create based on your senior pastor’s teaching. This does not need to be aligned with the sermon series. Your pastor on the teaching video will greatly increase your group participation.
The best option is for your senior pastor to invite your members to lead a group with an easy-to-use curriculum that you create based on your senior pastor’s teaching that aligns with the sermon series. The senior pastor asks. The senior pastor teaches. The senior pastor aligns. The key to all three of these options is your senior pastor.
What if my senior pastor isn’t interested? Pay attention to where your senior pastor is headed in the fall, in the new year, or after Easter, then link your small group launch with where your pastor is going. For more, read here.
Think About This
You don’t need to compete with yourself. Your people might already be engaging in the very things you want to see them do in groups. Getting people to shift from classes to groups is a losing battle, and you’re the loser. You don’t even need to relabel classes as groups. Just regard them as groups. If a person receives care, community, and Bible application in a class, they’re not going to join a group anyway. This is their group!
You don’t need to compete with your people either. They’re already in groups! They have friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and others in their lives that they already enjoy spending time with. You don’t need to unnaturally place them into a group of strangers. Give them an easy-to-use curriculum and a coach to guide them, and then let them do what groups do in your church.
What is a group in your church? What groups do you already have? Where is your pastor headed around the time of your next major group launch? Do this work now and you will have a great opportunity to make more disciples than ever before.
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?
You’ve seen how some groups produce great growth in their members while other groups merely tolerate each other. Some groups excel at reproducing leaders. Other groups seem to just go through the motions. What makes the difference?
You could assume that the leader makes the difference. You might be on to something. But, what is it about that leader that makes for a good group? If you could figure that out, then you could multiply that enthusiasm across all of your groups. Let’s dig into what makes an effective group.
What is an Effective Group?
The simplest definition is a group who fulfills their purpose. If the group’s goal is the three F’s: fun, food, and fellowship, then if the group is fat and happy, they are a success. Every group could be a little happier at least. But, there is a difference between the group’s purpose and God’s purpose for the group.
The mission of the church is to make disciples. You know Jesus’ works from Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Now, go back and read it again, and really read it this time. (No yada, yada, yada’s allowed). Effective groups make disciples.
How Do You Make a Disciple?
One common Western definition of a disciple is a student. Students study. The more a student knows and the better decisions the student makes, the more they become like Christ, right? The problem is that churches often produce a lot of over-educated members with poor character. If articulating biblical principles was the only factor to growing in Christlikeness, then the Sunday sermon would be all that is necessary. The problem is that sermons don’t make disciples. There are a lot of knowledgeable Christians whose lives don’t reflect much of Christ. After all, “knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). It would be fair to ask whether your people’s behavior more closely resembles Galatians 5:19-21 or Galatians 5:22-23. Information alone doesn’t produce transformation. There are other elements to making disciples.
From the Great Commission and from my own experience, I see three key elements in making a disciple: the Holy Spirit, the “curriculum,” and the community. The Holy Spirit is the indwelling presence of God in the lives of believers. The “curriculum” might be a study guide, but let’s not limit curriculum to that. The community is equally important to the curriculum. Who you join with is highly important in character formation.
The Holy Spirit
While there are diverse opinions about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, you can agree that you cannot give what you do not have. Every believer has the Holy Spirit. As far as being an element of an effective group, at least one person in the group must be saved.
The Holy Spirit guides you (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit has revealed the truth of God’s Word, the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16). The Holy Spirit illuminates your mind (John 16:15). The Holy Spirit gives words to say when you don’t know what to say (Mark 13:11). The Holy Spirit empowers you to serve others (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). Attachment to the Holy Spirit produces spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). While you must cooperate with the Holy Spirit to see this fruit, it is the Spirit’s work and not just your sweat.
The Holy Spirit is present in the group meeting through his presence, through prayer, through God’s Word, and in the interactions of the group members. The Holy Spirit saturates daily quiet times and spiritual practices. Without God’s presence, there is no power for transformation. While you can become well disciplined, you cannot transform yourself. It just takes more than you’ve got.
In Western thought, which was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, the church picked up the notion that if you knew what was right and made the right choices, then you could live a life that reflected Christ. The problem is that no matter how hard you work, eventually you run out of steam. That doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It just means that all of that well-intentioned trying doesn’t achieve the goal of Christlike character. And, it’s not supposed to. After all, you cannot become godly without God or other believers. Study is part of the curriculum, but it’s not the only part.
The curriculum also involves your life circumstances. Your problems are your teachers, (and some days you want to skip school). The hardships, trials, and pain of your life cause you to seek better solutions and force you to grow in ways you haven’t volunteered to. But, the curriculum is not only pain and trials, the curriculum also includes serving and sharing and taking a risk with others. You grow by trying new things – serving the poor, taking a missions trip, and loving your neighbors in practical ways.
What is life teaching you? What is serving teaching you? What is pain teaching you? What is your group teaching you? All of these experiences produce a powerful hermeneutic within the confines of orthodox Christian belief.
Now, don’t get me wrong. God gave us a book, the Bible, and God gave us the left side of our brains. That’s not a coincidence. But, those aren’t the only faculties at your disposal to attain godly character.
Over the last nine weeks, I’ve participated in a weekly book club to discuss The Other Half of the Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnationby Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks. This book confirmed many of the things that small group people have known intuitively. The quality of your community is equally important to the curriculum you study. Wilder and Hendricks teach that things like joy, hesed (community), group identity, and healthy correction create the necessary soil to produce godly character.
Hesed is “wrapping up in itself all the positive attributes of God: love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, loyalty–in short, acts of devotion and loving-kindness that go beyond the requirements of duty,” elaborates Bible scholar Darrell L. Bock. You need a loyal and loving community to grow spiritually.
While I would need to write an entire book to explain Wilder and Hendricks’ book, the importance of community is clear in making disciples. You need people to model, instruct, correct, encourage, support, and partner with you in your spiritual development. You need people who love you but are not impressed with you to willingly speak the truth in love. I experienced this personally.
Years ago as a young pastor who was overly influenced by David Letterman, I frequently used a word that was unbecoming to a pastor. My senior pastor lovingly confronted me by saying, “When you use that word, it takes away from who you are.” He didn’t scold me and say, “You are a pastor. You work for me. No pastor on this staff is going to talk like that around here. If you don’t stop it, then you’re out of here.” No, he gently and lovingly told me the truth. I immediately stopped using that word. Who says these things to you? Who stands by you no matter what? How are these things communicated in your groups?
Disciples aren’t made in isolation. While there is a place for solitude and silence, character is forged in relationship with others. Whether on mission fields or in mine fields of emotions, by serving at soup kitchens or through praying in hospital waiting rooms, the bonds of community grow your character.
Think About This
Some groups depend on the Holy Spirit to zap them into godly character. I guess I was never thoroughly zapped. Other groups have diligently studied the Scripture only to become judgmental and legalistic in some ways. Some have solely embraced community only to be led in the wrong direction. But, the combination of these elements produces something powerful. The people of God filled with the Spirit of God and living out the Word of God produces amazing things. Your groups can produce amazing things.
Carolyn Taketa is the Small Groups Pastor and a member of the Executive Team at Calvary Community Church, Westlake Village, California. Her responsibilities include leadership development, vision, strategies, and curriculum. She is a former attorney with a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley Law School, who has been leading small groups for over thirty years. She is a contributing author for Disciples’ Path from Lifeway Christian Resources, part of the editorial advisory team at Christianity Today’s smallgroups.com, and host of GroupTalk: Here to There monthly podcast for the global Small Group Network. Carolyn, her husband Donn, and their two daughters have been part of Calvary since 2001.
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.