Listen to this Blog Post instead on the Healthy Groups Podcast.
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:
What is a Group at Your Church?
First, look at what you are calling a small group in your church. What is the group’s purpose? How often do they meet? What do they do? What is the group’s size? Things like that. (For a complete exercise on defining your groups, go to here).
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.
For those who don’t fit in either of those categories, there are ways to connect them into groups without resorting to sign up cards or websites. Passive recruiting methods don’t work anyway.
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.
Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Notice I said “start” a group and not “lead” a group. “Leader” is a loaded word. Maybe you don’t need a “leader” to start a group. But, beyond semantics, what is a risk you are willing to take? And, what seems too risky?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
When you look at your current leaders and other mature people in your church, who cares enough to walk alongside leaders? Oh, and here’s a great resource: Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Coming Alongside by Robert E. Logan and Tara Miller.
#6 What will the groups study?
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
Some churches prefer to have their groups follow a weekly sermon discussion guide. There’s a certain genius in this approach. Some churches offer seasonal church-wide campaigns. This is a great first step in a leadership development process. But, in all of these efforts, as Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” Not every group needs to do the discussion guide or join the church-wide campaign…and that’s okay.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
What is your church’s leadership passionate about? Align small groups to follow those passions. After all people in groups will serve more, give more, attend more, reach more, and grow more than people who are not in groups. These findings are research-based: Sharing the Journey by Robert Wuthnow, Transformational Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, the 2020 Megachurch Report by Dr. Warren Bird and Dr. Scott Thumma. (One study is 30 years old and another is a year old — all three validate each other).
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
Looking to start or restart your small group ministry, let me guide you step by step. The Small Group Reset is a free, on-demand video resource. Get started now!