The Danger of Half a Small Group Strategy

The Danger of Half a Small Group Strategy

The small group in a box seemed like a good idea. The small group director secured the topic from the pastor and the logo from the graphic designer, then went into the hard work of writing curriculum, designing a study guide, gathering goodies for the box, and printing these branded boxes for the next small group launch. So far, so good.

As the launch approached, the small group director made an announcement in the service that anyone interested in starting a group could come to the lobby, grab a box, and do the church-wide study. This was the start of the trouble. A few people attended the online briefing for new leaders. The director reached out to a few others. The end result was disappointing. The small group in a box was not a bad idea, but it was only half a strategy. While I applaud the effort at trying something new, here are the problems I see in this director’s approach:

The Small Group Director Promoted the Study.

For most of my 30+ years of ministry, I’ve been the associate pastor or the vice president. You know — the #2 guy (or lower). In my experience, when I made the announcement about groups, it would receive only 30% of the result that my senior pastor would get by saying the exact same words. How do I know this? I recruited small group leaders for seven years and connected 30% of our adults into groups. We averaged 0-10 new groups each year…

The first time my senior pastor stood up on a Sunday morning, we doubled our groups in one day. Six months later, we doubled again to the point where we had 13% of our people leading groups and 125% connected in on-going small groups. Long story short: I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004 (and I serve a church of 6,500 since then). The small group director should have asked the senior pastor to make the announcement.

The Series was Only Promoted for One Week.

This small group director promoted groups for one Sunday and got a disappointing result. I’ve heard this story before. One year, I had two churches promoting groups on the same dates. One was in New York; the other in Florida. The New York church promoted for one week and recruited 20 new leaders. The Florida church promoted for three weeks and recruited 60 new leaders. Both created their own curriculum. Both had the senior pastor inviting people to lead. The difference was recruiting for one week instead of recruiting for three weeks. Oh, and on the first week, the Florida church also only had 20 new leaders, but they kept recruiting.

The Study was Only a Discussion Guide.

Most people don’t regard themselves as a leader let alone a Bible expert. What this small group director got right was encouraging their people to get together with the friends. What they got wrong was offering a discussion guide only. By creating a teaching video with the pastor’s teaching, you can make the series more popular with the people and with the pastor. You also remove the objection of “I don’t know enough about the Bible to lead a group.” The teacher is your pastor on the video.

You can invest tens of thousands of dollars into video curriculum production (I can help you), or you can shoot a video on your iPhone and upload it to Youtube (I can help you with that too). Either way you remove a barrier – the leader doesn’t need to be a Bible expert. The pastor is the expert.

The Box and the Training were Disconnected.

If you want to get people to your briefing, only allow them to pick up the box at the briefing. The first time I did “small group in a box” back in 2004. People picked up the bag of materials. They put their name on a signup sheet. We never heard from them again. When I started inviting them to a briefing after the service, which was the only way they could get the curriculum, not only did they receive enough training to get them started, they also walked out of the room with a coach and not just curriculum. Keep the training and the resources connected. They will come to training.

The New Leaders Lacked Support.

Most small group pastors and directors are overwhelmed with the current number of leaders in their ministries. In fact, sometimes this is why the small group ministry isn’t growing any faster or any further. You have to multiply yourself. The other side of the equation is that many prospective group leaders will never actually start a group because they can be easily discouraged in the time between the briefing and the start of the study. I’ll be honest – I’ve lost far more group leaders before the group started than after the series ended. If the new leader has an experienced leader to walk alongside them, this will go a long way to get the group going, support the new leader, and help the group continue.

Final Thoughts

I applaud this small group director on trying something new. That takes guts. But, I also agonize with this director at the opportunity lost. You’ve probably experienced the same thing. I have. Half a strategy just doesn’t cut it. Yes, take initiative and try new things. But, also realize that most strategies have a history and a few secrets to success.

Here are a few resources that might help:

Exponential Groups book and workbook

Leading an Exponential Groups Launch Online Course

12 Month Small Group Ministry Coaching Group (starts July 2021).

Campaigns are Trial Runs

Campaigns are Trial Runs

One of the primary purposes of an alignment series or church-wide campaign is recruiting potential group leaders for a trial run. The other primary purpose plays into the first one – engaging the senior pastor to recruit potential group leaders. When the sermon series is linked to the small group study or even better, the pastor’s teaching is the basis of the small group study, the pastor will be more interested in groups. When pastors make the investment in creating small group curriculum, they want to make sure the curriculum is used to its full potential. They want as many people to lead groups as possible. You want that too!

Photo by Guduru Ajay bhargav from Pexels.

While there are other good reasons for alignment series like the whole church studying a topic together and getting more people into groups, all of this rests on the number of leaders a church will recruit. The more limitations the church puts on who can lead a group, the fewer leaders the church will recruit. Fortunately, the reverse is also true, but who is the church getting?

Attempting to recruit a large number of leaders is a two-edged sword. On one side is the desire to provide a quality group experience with a qualified group leader. The other side is the simple fact that most people don’t consider themselves to be any kind of leader. As soon as you bring up the word “leader,” many people will decline your invitation to start a group. They want to help, but not necessarily lead. Many churches have found it helpful to do away with the term “leader” altogether.

In the early days of church-wide campaigns like 40 Days of Purpose, Saddleback Church chose to call people H.O.S.T.s instead of leaders. This took away the sense that people were being asked to do more than they felt qualified to do. The churches that I served used this strategy, and it worked for a while. But, after using the term “Host” in campaign after campaign, people became wise to the idea that “Host” really meant “Leader.” The jig was up. Now what?

Many of the churches I’ve worked with have dispensed with the terms leader and host all together. While many have struggled with what to call these folks, others have recruited for the function of a group leader without using the term. The invitation would sound more like “get together with your friends and do the study.” While the pastor invites people to “lead” a “group,” neither of those terms were used, and yet people would gather a group of friends and do a study together. See everyone is already in a group after all.

This is more than a rouse to get admitted non-leaders to lead groups. Churches should be stingy with the term “leader.” In the Bible, commissioning someone as a leader was a significant proclamation. In fact, Paul writes to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands…” (1 Timothy 5:22, NIV). The sense here is that before someone is commissioned as a leader, they must prove themselves. It’s not enough just to select the “right” people and thoroughly train them, the church also needs to see them in action. Do they have the stuff to lead? In most cases, the church won’t know until they’ve actually seen the potential leader in action – actually leading something. Thus, the dilemma, if the church has a high standard for leadership, which they should, and the people they are attempting to recruit do not consider themselves to be any kind of leader, how do you recruit a significant number of leaders? You don’t.

Let’s take this beyond semantics. This is not a debate of what to call someone or even of lowering the bar on leadership to the point where small groups seem unimportant because so little is expected. The dilemma speaks to the importance of a recruitment process that will bring in the maximum number of potential leaders possible without putting the church leadership into a scenario that bears an uncomfortable level of risk.

The answer can be found in viewing a church-wide campaign as a trial run to evaluate potential leaders. Campaigns are short-term commitments — usually around six weeks. The trial run can be safe for the potential leader by allowing them to “get together with your friends and do the study.” The trial run is also safe for the church by providing the curriculum based on your pastor’s teaching, offering a coach to walk alongside them, and not advertising these groups. (The church will need to advertise some groups, but the leaders should be known and proven.)

At the end of the trial run, potential leaders should be evaluated. Did the fulfill their commitments? Did they enjoy leading groups? Are they willing to continue? If they were successful, then offer another study. If they weren’t successful, then thank them for fulfilling their commitment.

It’s easier to recruit avowed non-leaders to a short-term opportunity to do a study with their friends. Once you see what they can do, then build on this experience and eventually commission them as leaders.

This post is an excerpt from the Exponential Groups Workbook (Hendrickson 2020).

Setting Exponential Goals for Small Groups

Setting Exponential Goals for Small Groups

Exponential growth comes in two different ways. The common view of exponential growth relates to a trajectory. Eight people in a group each launch their own groups after a season. Eight times eight is 64. This is the second generation. Then, when 64 people launch their group of eight, there are 512. The word “exponential” is generally applied when an organization reaches the third generation and beyond. I love this thinking, but there is a problem. Not every culture is amenable to regular group multiplication.

Small group pastors use terms like “multiply” or “birth,” but for many people it feels more like “splitting up” or “getting a divorce.” North America is a culture rife with divorce. Please don’t read this as an indictment against divorce. No person entered into marriage with the intent of divorce. Something went terribly wrong. This is not a judgment, but an observation.

For those who grew up being bounced between two parents or in a step family, the effects of divorce are very real. When they join a small group which in essence becomes their spiritual family, the last thing they want is for their family to break up.

Some intentional disciple-making groups succeed at multiplying groups to a point, but in North America this is rare to see across an entire congregation. Most people are simply not willing to give up their group in order to start another. So, if groups aren’t exponentially multiplying, where do you get more groups?

There is another way to view exponential. Groups become exponential when you add an exponent to your goal. If you set out to start 10 groups (or 100) in the coming year, the challenge is to multiply your goal by 10. Those reaching for 10 groups would strive for 100 groups instead. And, if you’re going for 100 groups, then stretch your goal to 1,000 groups.

Does this sound farfetched? Ask Troy Jones, pastor of New Life Center, Renton, Washington, who started 500 groups in a church of 2,500. Ask Jerry Branch, pastor of Dallas Baptist Church, Dallas, Pennsylvania, who connected 100 people into groups in a church of 50 people.

If you think it’s impossible, then it is impossible for you. No one has ever accomplished anything they perceived as impossible. But, what is possible? When our church, New Life Christian Center, Turlock, California went from having about 240 of our 800 people in groups to connecting over 1,000 people in groups, it seemed impossible to others. Truthfully, when only 30 percent of our adults were connected into groups, it seemed impossible to me too. We were stuck. How did we connect 125 percent of our average adult attendance into groups? It required a change in our thinking.

I used to think that in order to have 100 groups, I needed 1,000 people. After all, 100 groups multiplied by 10 people each is 1,000 people. But, I was looking at this the wrong way. In order to have 100 groups in a church, you only need 100 people to each start a group. If you have a leader, you have a group.

Kingdom Life Church, Baltimore, Maryland, launched a video-based series in their church, which had a weekend attendance of 600 adults. Before the series, they had seven groups. When the series started, they launched 167 groups. These weren’t ultra-small, small groups. Out of 600 regular church members, 167 stepped up to start a group. It’s not impossible. It’s exponential.

The alternative is to grow your groups incrementally. That’s easy. Well, I say that except there was a year I didn’t launch any groups in my church. And, I know that I’m not alone. For any church to start 5-10 new groups is pretty easy. But, what if you 10x that number? What if you embraced the possibility of starting 50-100 groups instead? Rather than just connecting your congregation, you could connect your community.

What’s your goal for this year? What would it look like if you 10x’d it?

My Exponential Group Failure

My Exponential Group Failure

Let’s connect over 100 percent of our adults into groups in 2019! Have you heard or declared that rallying cry yet? What’s the plan? How is this year’s plan different from last year’s plan, or is it just wishful thinking?
As a small group pastor, early December was usually the time of year for thinking ahead a little. Groups usually wound down into a few parties and the new study wouldn’t ramp up until January or February. December is a great time for discipleship pastors to coast. (But, don’t let this get out or else you’ll spend your time stuffing those little candles into their holders for the Christmas Eve service.)
Cracking the code of connection for 2019 would be easy if the expert’s advice was true. If the group leaders had apprenticed a new leader, then the year could start with twice as many groups. If groups were selfless enough to break up and start new groups, then more people could be connected. If the senior pastor was as excited about groups as about worship, then 2019 could be a banner year. Maybe this is the year for you to make a move to another church…
Everybody wants exponential growth. Few want to make the sacrifice. At this point, you either resign yourself to mediocrity or admit defeat. But, those aren’t the only two options.

Redefining Exponential

The idea of exponential growth lends itself to generational growth. Leaders develop leaders who develop leaders. If this were true, we would have groups, groups, and more groups. I never had that, and yet I connected 1,000 people into groups in a church of 800 adults. And, I helped a church of 2,500 people start 500 groups. But, nobody “multiplied” anything.
I love the idea of exponential growth. I could just never get there. So, I redefined exponential.
Brett Eastman tells the story of a challenge Bruce Wilkinson gave to Rick Warren on the eve of the first 40 Days of Purpose. Bruce had just returned from spending several years in Africa after the success of The Prayer of Jabez. His challenge to Rick Warren and Saddleback Church was to take whatever goal they were dreaming of and increase it 10 times by putting a zero on the end of the number. If the goal was 200 groups, then it would become 2,000 groups. If memory serves me, this was about the number of groups for that first 40 Days of Purpose at Saddleback in 2002. (If the details are a bit murky to some, then please forgive my recollection).
Instead of getting bogged down in the mire of leaders not developing apprentices and groups unwilling to birth/split/divorce, bypass all of this and just put a zero at the end of your 2019 goal. Trust God for 100 groups instead of just 10, and so forth. The idea is to set a goal that is impossible for you to achieve apart from God’s help. There is no sense in waiting five years for your group leaders to fail to multiply. Make it happen now. But, how?

Give Everyone a Promotion

In order for you to 10x your goal, you must prepare to receive what you are trusting God for. If you are not prepared when God delivers, then the increase will just be squandered.
If you are trusting God for 100 group leaders in 2019, then you will need someone to coach these leaders, and it’s too many for you to coach alone. For the sake of easy math, let’s say each coach takes on five new leaders. You will need 20 coaches. Where will the coaches come from? How many group leaders do you have right now?
All of your current group leaders will become coaches. They know enough to answer a new group leader’s questions. As long as their available to the new leaders, you’re in good shape. There is no magic in coaching. You just do the work.
If you’re like me, 20 coaches is a lot to track, so divide that group by 5 or so. This is your small group team. The team, in this case, is four leaders, who have five coaches each reporting to them. You can keep up with four people.
Who do you choose for your team? Simple. Consider all of the leaders who are doing a great job. Who has greater leadership potential? Who could do your job? (Remember, you’re giving yourself a promotion too). This is your team. Now, with a plan in place to coach new leaders to supervise new coaches…

Where Do the Leaders Come from?

It would be natural to assume that if the current small group leaders become coaches and small group team members, then the current small group members would become group leaders, right? Wrong. This is the problem we started with. Few want to give up their groups to start new groups. Don’t get stuck here.
I used to think that in order to have 100 groups in my church, I would need 1,000 members to join those groups. I no longer believe this. In order to have 100 groups in your church, you need 100 people who are willing to gather their friends and do a study together. The focus is on potential leaders, not potential group members.
How do you get 100 non-leaders to lead? First, you give them an easy-to-use study. Video-based curriculum works very well in this case. The person doing the study with their friends does not need to be a leader or teacher, and you don’t want them leading or teaching anyway. You want to give them the permission and opportunity they need to gather their friends (either in the church or outside of the church) and do a study together. Every church member is promoted to group leader. Their assignment is to lead the “group” of friends they are already a part of.
Last year a church of 600 in Baltimore launched 147 groups doing exactly this. If your people can gather their friends, then they have enough leadership ability to start a group. They probably don’t think of themselves as group leaders, so you can keep the terms “leader” and “group” to yourself. How many non-leaders could lead your non-groups in 2019?

What Keeps Us From Reaching Our Goals?

First, if you don’t think your goal is possible, then it isn’t.
Second, you don’t have to. Let’s face it, no one is holding a gun to your head and demanding that you get everybody in groups in 2019. Whether you launch ten new groups or 100 new groups, you’re still going to have a job. Who needs the stress, right?
Third, fear or blame. If I state an outrageous goal for 2019 and don’t achieve it, then won’t I be embarrassed or get blamed for the failure? (This is why you need to work with a church consultant – it’s always the consultant’s fault!).
What’s it going to be – Incremental growth or Exponential growth in 2019? If you’re ready to go for it, I can help you.

Make Every Group a Healthy Group

Every small group pastor wants healthy leaders and healthy groups. Sometimes that feels like an unattainable goal.
How do you connect with every leader and every group on a regular basis when you always seem to be putting out fires? Let’s face it – you spend a good deal of time addressing the latest crisis which robs time away from your strategic planning. It’s hard to work in it and on it at the same time.
While you do your best to keep up with your leaders, the reality is there is only so much of you. There are only so many hours in the day. You have a limited amount of time, energy and attention. If you’re like me, small groups are not your only responsibility. You tend to resort to email blasts and training meetings that are half full to invest in your leaders, but you’re always left wondering how you could help your leaders more?
A small group leadership team with coaches to care for every leader would be ideal. But, it’s difficult to build a coaching team when the demand rests in finding a group for the person who signed up last Sunday. When there’s not a group to plug them into, the prospective member has to wait until you can recruit a new leader and start a group. When do you get to think about a coaching structure?
But, let’s say you get a reprieve from the tyranny of the urgent to form a coaching structure. How would you build it? Who would you recruit to coach? What would they do? Those three questions delay most small group pastors from even starting.
Like you, I was very frustrated with coaching group leaders. I have made about every mistake that can be made with coaching, but in the process I’ve figured out some things that have helped many churches like yours.
Let me guide you through a proven way to build your coaching structure that is customizable to your church. I understand that your church is different from other churches. There is a way to have both what works in coaching leaders and what will work for you.
You don’t have to go through the heartbreaks of watching excited new leaders become discouraged to the point of not even starting their new group. You can avoid the aftermath of poorly supervised leaders taking their group away from the vision of your church. The lack of a coaching structure means the problems and issues of your small group ministry is solely your burden to bear.
But, if you took the same energy it takes to recruit leaders and place people into groups and invested yourself in building a coaching structure, your groups would get further faster than you could imagine. More of your new leaders would actually start groups because someone was walking alongside them and offering encouragement. All of your group leaders would be healthier, which in turn will create healthier groups. And, your burden would be lightened. You could actually have the margin you need to plan for the future of your ministry.
In the Coaching Exponential Groups Online Course, I will guide you around the pitfalls of small groups ministry and help you build a coaching structure, define the coaching role, recruit the right people, equip coaches to serve leaders, and disciple your people through groups. In about an hour a week for six weeks, you can follow a step by step process to get the help you need to effectively lead your groups.
Give the course a try. If it doesn’t work for you, then I will give you a full refund in the first 30 days. I will assume all of the risk, because I believe these strategies will help you significantly.
But, don’t just take my word for it, hear what others have to say about the course.
Let me help you make every group a healthy group.
Allen

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