Just as we thought everything was going back to normal, we’ve discovered that normal is not so normal. COVID seems to be returning. While I’m not an epidemiologist and don’t want to weigh in on the politics of the pandemic, COVID is yet again making a real impact on life and ministry. From empty Olympic stands to empty seats in our churches to an increase in mask wearing, uncertainty appears to be our biggest obstacle. But, not for small groups.
In-Person Worship Services are Not Essential
A big learning from 2020 is that the church can thrive amid adversarial conditions. Most churches have not returned to their pre-COVID in-person attendance numbers, and that’s okay. Some churches have yet to reopen for in-person worship. As I mentioned in a recent video, while in-person attendance is down, giving is steady across North America, and salvations and baptisms are up! Churches are doing a better job of fulfilling the Great Commission at a worse time (and that’s not so bad).
Since many people are unnerved by the Delta variant (and the emerging Gamma variant), you see more people wearing masks in public. Vacation hot spots like Orlando and Branson, Missouri have become Delta variant hot spots. One church I’m coaching in Orlando has re-closed for in-person worship due to the number of new COVID cases in their church. What does this mean for you?
Online worship services are here to stay (I hope you already knew that). Churches who are doing online services well are recording a separate online service with the pastor speaking direct-to-camera rather than merely streaming the in-person service. Streaming video is not church online. Streaming services create a passive experience for the viewer. By offering an optimized online service, you have a better chance of engaging your audience. But, don’t just give them a service. Offer next steps like your growth track, membership class, Church 101, or whatever you call it. Encourage them to give, to participate in the level they are comfortable, and to start a small group. While this is a different way to do ministry, remember sermons don’t make disciples anyway.
Community is Essential
Your church can survive without in-person worship services. It already has. But, community is essential. The problem with small groups in this variant environment is your people’s varying discomfort in the pandemic. Do they only want to meet with vaccinated people? Do they want the group to wear masks? Do they want the group to meet outside? Do they want the group to meet online? Do they believe the whole thing is made up? Fortunately, this is not your problem to solve.
It was already difficult when you were trying to place people in groups based on their preference of day, time, location, study, affinity, childcare, language, or other variable. Now COVID has upped the ante. Here’s the good news: None of this is your problem to solve. Give your people permission and opportunity to gather their people in whatever way they feel the most comfortable. They can meet with anyone, anytime, and any place – in-person or online. If you will stop trying to figure that out for them, they will figure it out!
If people don’t get invited to join a group, then create an environment for people to meet face-to-face or at least face-to-screen. Don’t resort to sign up cards or online sign ups. These are a lot of work and don’t net many results. Offer prospective members an opportunity to meet group leaders and then sign up for the group they want to try. Sign up cards and online forms set people up on blind dates. At least by meeting the leader ahead of time, you’ve moved from blind dating to speed dating!
Think About This
Like you, I had hoped COVID would be completely behind us by now. The good news is that the fall small group boom has not been cancelled. People crave community. Small groups are more important than ever. Rather than putting all of your energy into getting people back to in-person worship services, double up on getting people into groups. After all, people in groups will attend more, give more, serve more, invite more, and reach more than people who aren’t in groups (To learn more about the research on groups, listen to this episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast with Dr. Warren Bird).
What do you do with the new leaders you’ve recruited and the groups they started? Why are your groups declining after so much success? You’re not alone.
What worked yesterday is failing you today.
After living for years with the frustration of mature people who were well qualified to lead feeling rather unqualified, we made some radical changes. An invitation to leader training is not appealing to those who don’t consider themselves to be leaders. How do you get them to see they really can lead well, if they won’t even give it a try? We had to change the entry point. We reversed the order. Training became second. Leading was first, but we didn’t call it that. At first, we asked people to HOST a group: Heart open to God, Open your home, Serve some snacks, and Turn on the VCR…you could be a star! Then, our people discovered that “HOST” just meant “leader.” Now what? We went undercover. As our people were given permission and opportunity, we invited them to “get together with their friends and do a study.” We were asking them to LEAD a GROUP without using those words. After all, if they could gather their friends for a short-term study, they had the stuff to lead a group. We just didn’t call it that. If the HOST model brought us dozens of new groups, then this new way brought us hundreds of new groups. But, an unintended consequence rose up. People were condition to both a low level of commitment and a short-term experience. One church I’m working with called their groups “burst groups.” These intentionally met for six weeks, then disappeared as quickly as they started. On-going groups weren’t even a consideration. Yes, people would join groups when a campaign was offered, but the reality was this church was only discipling their people in groups about 12 weeks per year. Sure, it was better than nothing, but it was also practically nothing. Another church recently contacted me. They’ve faithfully launched short-term campaigns for six years now, but each campaign sees a smaller return. Their groups were in disarray. Coaching was non-existent. The thought of an on-going discipleship strategy seemed like wishful thinking.
A good idea had definitely gone bad.
How did we get here? The alignment series and campaign that helped us rapidly recruit leaders and connect people into groups outlived it’s lifespan. The HOST strategy wasn’t supposed to be the answer to starting groups 15 years after 40 Days of Purpose. They never grew up. They didn’t mature. These groups didn’t produce what they were supposed to. The strategies weren’t wrong. They did exactly what they were supposed to do for a couple of years. They were never met to go on for a decade. What’s the fix? We have to go back to all of those things we delayed for the six week campaign: requirements, training, coaching, leadership development, and discipleship training while maintaining momentum. You can’t lower the bar and leave it low. What was delayed initially must be reintroduced in the group leader’s first year! How did we miss that? I want to help you. I am starting a completely different type of coaching group for 2018. We will explore how to turn our short-term groups into long-term groups and how to put our leaders and groups on a pathway toward growth and maturity. Your people are ready for a challenge. We made it easy to start, but now we must lead them into something more. We can no longer treat all of groups the same. While we will always start new groups with campaigns and short-term experiences, we won’t leave them there. In this new coaching group, we will go deep on:
“Converting” short-term groups to long-term groups.
Challenging group leaders toward deeper commitment.
A Curriculum Pathway.
Small Group Life Cycles.
Mission, Outreach, Evangelism.
And wherever else we need to go.
The bottom line is that it’s time to grow up your groups and leaders. What has gotten you this far will not serve you and your church well in the years ahead. Always start new groups. But, what are you leading them toward? I’m calling this new group: Exponential Growth Coaching. This coaching group will run January – December 2019. The group of 5 churches will meet twice per month. During one meeting per month, we will invite a guest like Mike Breen, Pete Scazzero, Gary Thomas, Lance Witt, and other experts on making disciples. Since it’s a small group, you will not only hear from them, but you’ll have a chance to ask them questions. You and I will meet individually once per month. We are going to figure this out. To apply for the Exponential Growth coaching group, please fill out this short survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/KC8KQ9W If you have any questions, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call 949-235-7428. I hope you’ll join me. Allen
How easily can you multiply your ministry? Let’s say tomorrow you are given the opportunity to duplicate your church in another location. How quickly could you assemble an exact replica of the church you currently serve? What leaders would you need? What budget? What buildings? Could you turn on a dime, or what kind of lead time would you need? Let’s go the other way. Let’s say your church has hit a low point (or is starting from scratch). You have no building, no money, and no staff. How would you do church? How would you reach your community? Multiplication is key to mission. The mission, we know well, “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” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV). Did you read it, or did you “yada, yada, yada” it? Maybe read it again. Simply put, we have Jesus’ authority and presence to carry out his mission. What else do we need? Motivation, yes. Obedience, for sure. Multiplication, absolutely – generationally and ethnically. What’s holding us back? The only thing slowing many of us down is the lack of focus on multiplication. We’ve become skilled at distributing fish. Now’s the time to raise up fishermen.
Throughout the seeker movement, we gave people a pass on discipleship. We invited them to sit back, relax, and get comfortable. For the boomer generation who is chief interest was self-interest, this formula actually worked. (Other generations also have similar interests). But then we ran into a dilemma: when we needed people to help, we discovered that everyone had taken us up on the offer to be comfortable. No one wanted to help. Now much has been said in lowering the bar on small group leadership. Some people despise that thought. But the heart of lowering the bar comes from I thought by Neil Cole where he said we need to lower the bar on what it means to be a leader and raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple. We are all called to go and make disciples. By allowing members to gather a group of friends and facilitate a discussion with an easy-to-use video-based curriculum (initially), we’re not creating a multiplicity of shallow rooted people. We are helping our people become obedient to the Great Commission. Everyone is called to make disciples. No one is exempt. And yet we have created such a convoluted, unclear method of discipleship, which I hesitate to even call a method, because there’s no systemization to it. We will take up this issue in another post over the next month. Forming groups is not the only way to align the purposes of our members with the purposes of Jesus’ mission. It’s a start. Often people need a trial run before they can commit to a longer-term role. The nature of multiplication is that every member should be making disciples of others. Every disciple should make disciples who in turn make disciples. We must multiply disciples.
In the church we are more comfortable with managers than leaders. Managers take direction and implement. They make sure a greeter is posted at every door and a teacher is present in every class. Managers follow the rules and do what they’re told. Leaders show the way. Often we are threatened by the idea of allowing others to lead, because their leadership proves to be better than ours. But when you think about it, this is actually a good thing. After all, all of us are smarter than anyone of us. As pastors, our role is to nurture and bring out the best in people. The challenge is that we must grow our own leadership and develop trust to the point where we can allow our people to lead without becoming “helicopter pastors.” A leader is not someone who merely follows instructions, although they should abide by the vision and mission of the church. A leader is someone who takes initiative. You have plenty of leaders in your church. Some of them you have labeled as problems. The reason they seem to work against you is that you haven’t delegated something to them to help them work for you. You will never be able to hire enough staff to fulfill all of the needs of your church and community, nor should you. But in your congregation you have a wealth of leadership potential that must be tapped. As you develop leaders, they will multiply the efforts of your church and help you to accomplish far more. The easiest way to identify leaders in your church is by hosting a leadership seminar. You can lead that seminar. John Maxwell could lead the seminar via video. You could host something like the Chick-fil-A Leadercast. You can bring in a speaker. But as soon as you announce a leadership seminar, your leaders will come out of the woodwork.
Multiply your staff
The ability to hire staff often comes with the relief of no longer depending on volunteer help. When the job is tied to a paycheck, we can bring in a more qualified and more reliable person, right? No one has ever had to terminate staff before. Over-staffing a church creates two problems. First, the hire eliminates the need for members of the church to exercise their gifts and abilities. As one pastor told me, “Our motto is like Greyhound, ‘Leave the driving to us.’” Secondly, and I’ll tread lightly here, the accumulation of staff often changes the role of pastor to managing rather than leading. You must manage their time, their benefits, their progress, and their ROI. Or, I suppose you could ignore and assume. My point is that staff hires don’t necessarily bring about the relief a pastor needs, unless they are able to multiply themselves. The future requires staff members to multiply themselves. Every staff member – pastor, assistant, receptionist, custodian – everyone should multiply their lives and ministry. In fact, the true measure of a staff member’s worth should not be how many tasks they can perform, but how many people they can develop. Merely hiring more staff will not help your church fulfill the mission and reach your community effectively. But, if staff members get other people to do their work, what do they do? You can go one of two ways here. Either you no longer need the staff member, or the staff can delegate responsibilities and authority to others thus giving the opportunity for the staff to explore and develop new things. As staff members work themselves out of their jobs, then direct them toward fulfilling Jesus’ mission by starting another church and doing the same there.
Maybe you are a staff member, or maybe you are the senior pastor, either way, multiplication is not just the church’s future, it’s your future. How do you grow and expand your leadership? How do you prepare for what’s next? Start by working yourself out of a job. The easiest place to start is by making a list of all of the things you don’t like to do. Those tasks are easy to delegate. You’ll be amazed to find people who will delight in those duties. Not only can you pour yourself into what you’re best at, but you also give others an opportunity to get their gifts in the game. Don’t hoard your worst tasks. Eventually, you will reach a place, as the ministry grows, where you will have two choose between things you love. Develop apprentices in these areas. Start with asking them to observe. Then, give them responsibilities that you will supervise. Then, give them the authority they need to fulfill their mission. While you must always check in with them, you shouldn’t micromanage them. John Maxwell said years ago, “Find someone who can do something 30 percent as well as you and let them do it.” The reality is they can probably do it 60 percent as well. The motivation is to engage people in meaningful ministry so Jesus’ mission will be accomplished, and they will find significance along the way.
Ministry will always have limitations – not enough money, time, talent, or buildings. If your ministry is flush in these things, then you are not risking enough. If you disappeared, how would the ministry continue? Who are you developing to duplicate your efforts and eventually take over? Invest yourself in capable people who can multiply what you do. Stop fulfilling tasks and bending over backward for “consumers.” Leaders are your legacy. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Feel free to disagree with me. Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.