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).
The number of groups any church can launch and maintain is limited by the number of leaders available. It’s simple. If you have a leader, you have a group. If you don’t have a leader, then no group. The problem is most churches can’t recruit all of the leaders they need to meet the demand for groups. The problem goes even further because most people don’t regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. Without more leaders, how do you launch more groups?
Problem #1: Not Everyone Qualifies as a Leader
Churches place various qualifications for leadership. They may require church membership, leader training, apprenticing in a group, a background check, an interview, or any number of qualifications to lead. For most churches the bar for leadership is set pretty high – as it should be.
In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul instructs Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” Commissioning someone as a leader is a serious thing. In order to recognize someone as a leader in the church, they must have good character, and they must be proven as a leader. If you hand out the title to just anyone, then you dilute the meaning and authority of leaders in the church. But, this leads to the second problem.
Problem #2: Most People Don’t Consider Themselves to be Leaders
If they must be a leader to lead a group, then they must fulfill leadership requirements and receive leadership training before they can lead, but they aren’t leaders so why would they do that? My apologies for the run-on sentence, but it’s a legitimate question. How many times have you invited someone to lead a group only to be turned down with “I’m not a leader”?
Admitted non-leaders don’t get excited about meeting leadership requirements or taking leadership training. They’re not leaders. If they have to be a leader to lead a group, then it’s probably not going to happen.
Think about this for a second – what did Jesus call us to do? He didn’t call us to make leaders. Jesus didn’t even call us to start small groups although He modeled it. Jesus called the church to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). What do you need to make a disciple? You need a disciple to make a disciple. How many disciples do you have?
By inviting disciples to make disciples in groups, you can help your people walk in obedience to the Great Commission. Rather than continuing to allow your people to borrow from your spirituality, you can give them an easy-to-use tool like a video-based curriculum and a coach to supervise them. They can live in obedience to Jesus by making disciples. They can prove themselves and learn to lead by doing. You can have more groups ASAP. And, eventually, these disciples can be recognized as leaders.
The bar for leadership should remain high. When you do church-wide campaigns, group launches, or alignment series, these are part of the leader recruitment process. These are not ordination events for new leaders. It’s a trial run to give them an opportunity to prove themselves as leaders. Once they’re ready, then you can commission them as leaders. As one of my leaders, Doug Howard told me, “Thank you, Pastor Allen, for showing me I was the leader I never knew I was.” I hope you hear that a lot!
What does it mean to learn? Is it merely an acquisition of more facts?Or is it taking those facts and putting them into practice? Meetings are not the only place for groups to learn. Often lessons are learned better by doing.
At New Life Christian Center where I served in California, we challenged our groups to prepare and serve a hot meal every Friday night at an emergency homeless shelter which ran five months of the year. We asked for groups to volunteer together instead of individuals, because the positive peer pressure of the group would guarantee 10 out of 10 group members participating, whereas individual recruitment might have netted 4 or 5 out of 10.
Our groups took this project to heart. Even on the
year when both Christmas Eve and New Years Eve were on a Friday, the signup
sheet was completely filled up by our groups within an hour of placing it at
our information center. My group didn’t even get a chance to sign up!
One group member told me he was very reluctant to participate. His attitude toward the homeless had always been “I started with nothing and pulled myself up by the bootstraps and built a successful construction company. Why couldn’t the homeless work hard and do the same.”
He was part of a small group of middle aged adults who had about 40 years of Sunday school under their belts. There wasn’t much of the Bible they hadn’t studied. Yet, all of this Bible study had done little to change this man’s attitude toward the poor.
He went with his group to serve the meal at the
shelter. He later admitted that as he stood in line serving those men and
looking them in the eye, he realized if circumstances had been different in his
life, then he might be standing on the other side of that line receiving the
Six months later, he was sending his construction crews over to San Francisco every Friday to renovate a building which would be used as a homeless shelter in the Tenderloin. Talk about a change of heart. Not only did he see the homeless differently, he was compelled to do something about it. Instead of his crews building multimillion dollar homes on Fridays, they were renovating a homeless shelter. The positive peer pressure of a small group serving together made a difference not only in his life, but in the lives of many homeless people he might never meet.
In making disciples, Jesus instructed us to “teach them to obey what I have commanded” (Matthew 28:20). In Matthew 25, Jesus tells His disciples, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). The words must lead to doing in order to make disciples in the way Jesus directed us. By simply inviting groups to serve together during the Christmas holidays or during Summer break, we can help them apply what they’ve learned and become more Christ-like in the process.
That may seem like a ridiculous statement considering the number of growing megachurches and multisite churches around the country. How could the church be off-mission with record crowds? Well, let’s go back and look at the church’s mission statement:
Jesus said: “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 28:19-20, NIV).
Regardless of how churches can rephrase and reframe their mission statements, this is the mission: to go and make disciples. The church is not called to make converts. In fact, to lead people in a prayer without offering them a pathway and companions for the journey is irresponsible. The church is not called to make leaders. In Jesus’ view, the first would be the least. This doesn’t sound like western leadership. It sounds like discipleship. The church is not called to make volunteers to staff the weekend services. In fact, to reduce the ministry of the church body to guest service roles is an affront to the New Testament church. The church is not called to draw crowds. The church is not called to build buildings. The church is not called to make money. We are called to make disciples.
But, how can megachurches or any church for that matter make disciples?
Disciples Aren’t Processed. They’re crafted.
Many churches attempt to convert their crowd into some form of discipleship through an assimilation process. Take this class. Make this commitment. Sign this card. Yet an assembly line process doesn’t work with people. They aren’t raw materials. They don’t all start from the same place.
Who are you the most like? What is your default? While we would all like to say, “Jesus,” the reality is that you and I are more like our parents than any other people on the planet. We think like them. We talk like them. We parent like them. We relate like them. Our habits are like them. Their example is ingrained in us. Some of us had great parents. Some of us had loving parents who did their best. Some of us had parents who were complete nightmares. Regardless of what type of parents we had, what’s ingrained in us is difficult to overcome. Even the example of the best parents can be improved upon. No one’s parents are perfect.
Then, in addition to parents, we can add experiences, tragedies, pain, addictions, suffering, career paths, relationships, and so many other things that shape our lives. Discipleship is not making widgets on an assembly line. Widgets are made from pure, raw materials. Disciples are made from broken and sinful people who long for transformation. But, it doesn’t disappear all at once. As Pete Scazzero says, “Jesus may be in our hearts, but grandpa is in our bones.”
Processes are inadequate to make disciples, yet how many churches have an assimilation process, department, or even pastor of assimilation for that exact purpose? In college I had a double major in biblical studies and missions. What I learned in cross-cultural communication and anthropology is that assimilation is the process of helping people adapt to a new culture. They take on the language, the customs, the mannerism, and the wardrobe of their adopted culture. Once they look like, talk like, and act like the new culture, they are regarded as being assimilated. So if we are assimilating non-church people into becoming part of the church, we are teaching them how to look like, talk like, and act like people who belong to the church. What is lacking is actual life transformation. Mimicking actions, language, and appearance does not make a disciple. It makes a cultural Christian and that’s a lot to live up to. Disciples make disciples, but not in mass quantity.
And while we’re at it, stop using the V word: volunteer. Churches should not have volunteers. The church, meaning the people or the body of Christ, have been equipped with spiritual gifts, abilities, and passions to fulfill a divine calling. By reducing the focus to serving and helps, a church is effectively ignoring about 20 other spiritual gifts. The “real” ministry is reserved for paid staff members. This flies in the face of what Paul taught the Corinthians, the Romans, and the Ephesians about the nature and use of spiritual gifts. Paul admonishes the church that no one part of the body can say to the other “I do not need you,” but that’s exactly what the American church is saying today. The attractional movement told people to sit back, relax, and leave the driving to us. That was Greyhound’s slogan. When was the last time you took the bus?
People are reluctant to get involved because the opportunities churches offer them are beneath them. That doesn’t mean that they’re too good to serve. It just means that the only opportunities most churches offer to their people are menial tasks that feed the demands of the weekend service. When CEOs are handing out bulletins and entrepreneurs are parking cars, this is a great misuse of their gifts and talents. They have so much more to offer.
Processes are inadequate for making disciples. Any mass approach to discipleship is a failure. Assimilation doesn’t make disciples. Worship services don’t make disciples. Sermons don’t make disciples. As Mike Breen says, “People learn by imitation, not instruction.” Yet, most churches attempt a programmatic process of making disciples that does little to help people overcome the powerful models they’ve come to imitate. People can be very inspired by sermons, yet within a day they resort to their default behavior. The only way to help people change and grow is to provide personal encouragement and accountability, and of course, all of this is built on the expectation that every member should apply God’s Word to his or her life. If the expectation is for people to come back next Sunday, then we’ve missed an opportunity and are relying on the weekend service to have a greater impact than it possibly can.
Disciples are crafted, not processed. After all, it takes a disciple to make a disciple.
Big Hairy Audacious Goals
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great among other titles, coined this term for when success organizations set out to achieve ridiculous levels of growth. They didn’t settle for being stalled or accepting mediocre, incremental growth. They went for it.
Jesus spent three and a half years of His life pouring into 12 men. The impact of these disciples is still felt 2,000 years later around the globe and involves over 2 billion people. Jesus set the BHAG in Acts 1:8. Propelled more by persecution than ambition (Acts 8:1), the disciples spread a movement worldwide to transform lives.
How can you activate your disciples when most are intimidated by the thought of evangelism and distracted by the busyness of life? Groups could be the answer. You could argue that many people don’t have the time or the desire to lead a group. Some don’t even believe they can. I think we’re going at this all wrong.
Jesus didn’t call us to make leaders. Jesus called us to make disciples. And, disciples make disciples. Do you get it? You don’t need to recruit leaders to lead groups to make disciples. You could, but you don’t have to. You need to equip disciples to make disciples. Who in your church couldn’t be a disciple?
Often in the church today, we embrace the definition of disciple as “follower” or “student” when in reality we’re just working hard to increase the size of the crowd. The crowd are not disciples, if they were, they would be making disciples. In Jesus’ ministry, He spent 73% of his time with His disciples. Jesus could have easily built a megachurch, but He spent very little time with the crowd. The modern American church has flipped Jesus’ ministry on its head. Most churches choose to rapidly add people rather than invest in multiplication. This has a diminishing return.
A Disciple-Making Moonshot
So now that I’ve poked at the church and pointed out what’s broken, let’s fix it. Rather than putting our energy into mass efforts of corralling the most people we possibly can at the fastest rate, let’s focus on the 1/3 of your congregation who has enough of a spiritual basis they could each disciple two other people. Who would be on that list? Church members? Leaders? Long-time members? Then, with the church’s guidance, curriculum, and coaching, you could equip these disciples to make disciples. If the church can get 1/3 of its people to disciple the other 2/3, then you’re making some significant progress. You don’t need to do this all at once, but you certainly could. And, it’s doesn’t need to be just groups of three. You could use church-wide campaigns and host homes to get them started, but don’t leave them there. Or challenge people to get together with their friends and do a study. The bottom line is to stop intimidating people with the thoughts of leadership and evangelism and challenge them to offer what God has given them in community with other believers. What they lack, they can learn from a coach, a resource, or relevant training.
We measure what is important. When you think about the metrics used by most churches, they count nickels and noses. Maybe they count the number of groups or the number of people in groups. Maybe they count the number of people who are serving. But what if churches focused on a new metric? This metric would dynamically impact all of the other metrics. What if the measurement of success became the number of people actively discipling other people? It could be a person discipling two other people as I described above. Or it could be a person discipling eight other people. And of course the intention of all of this discipling is to produce more disciples who make disciples.
What Kind of Church is Yours?
Not all pastors and churches are doing a bad job at making disciples. But, not very many are doing a good job either. Pastors and churches fit into one of four categories when it comes to making disciples:
Content: These pastors and churches are happy with what they have. Often discipleship and small group pastors in these churches are content with the groups and discipleship efforts they have because they have met the expectations of their leadership. They are satisfied with a good job that’s keeping them from achieving a great job at discipleship.
Confused: These churches and pastors believe they are making a greater impact with discipleship than they actually are. Often these churches are led by brilliant teachers who can captivate an audience. The thought is if the pastor gives the people more of the truth, then they will learn and become more like Christ. This is a result of the Enlightenment. Knowledge is king. But, we must remember that “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, NIV). How many people know a great deal of God’s Word, yet it’s not reflected in their actions and attitudes? Great teaching alone won’t overcome the average person’s default which was established by imitating their parents and other role models. They need the support and accountability of others to apply God’s Word to their lives. One service or series won’t dramatically change someone’s daily habits. In fact, a call to change without the means to change will lead to tremendous frustration.
Frustrated: These pastors are trying to make disciples in a church that doesn’t support their efforts. Make disciples anyway. These churches have a spiritual growth/discipleship/assimilation/small groups department for the minimum purpose of preventing members from complaining about a lack of discipleship. When someone asks what the church is doing to help people grow or to go deeper, these pastors and churches just need to point to the department. If you are a pastor who’s discipleship efforts or small group ministry as been relegated to a complaint department for unchallenged members, you have my sympathy. In your church, the weekend service is king. But, in your circumstance, you can still make disciples who make disciples despite the limitations.
Disciple-making: These pastors and churches are making disciples who make disciples. They use worship services and sermons to catalyze commitments that lead to next steps in discipleship groups, support groups, or whatever next steps people need in their spiritual walk. In every worship service, every event, every church initiative, these churches provide an opportunity for people to take the next step of working through issues, applying God’s Word to their lives, finding their unique calling as part of the body of Christ, overcoming sin and addiction, and so many other things. A worship service alone will not resolve these things, but it can motivate people to take their next step. People need someone to disciple them. Disciples make disciples.
Which church are you? Isn’t it time to stop striving to become the megachurch you will never be? Isn’t it time to come to grips with the fact that bigger is only better as long as the church stays on-mission to make disciples? The alternative is wearing yourself out trying to raise money, build buildings, market strategically, and recruit volunteers to maintain a large weekend gathering that doesn’t make disciples in and of itself. Then you wonder why you don’t have any energy to fulfill the church’s calling to make disciples. If your church’s focus is not on making disciples, then what are you making?
This is why I am calling churches to the 100 Groups Challenge in 2020. We have got to make up for this deficit of discipleship in our churches. We need to give 100% effort to either connecting 100% of the weekend attendance into groups, reaching 100 total groups in your church, or starting 100 new groups in 2020.
If you are ready to go for it and join the 100 Groups Challenge, you can find out more here. There is no cost. My goal is to help 100 churches start 100 groups in 2020 and effectively disciple 100,000 people. Over the last eight years, I’ve helped churches to start over 16,000 groups and connect over 125,000 people into groups. My BHAG is to do the same in 1 year! Will you join me?
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