By Allen White
“I’m a great believer that everything happens for a reason,” a new member writes, “God sees that I’m seeking Him. Having just moved from out of state and not knowing where to go to church– to a place where I can find comfort — has been a challenge. You were able to bring it to me here at work, God knows that I’m seeking Him and need Him close in my heart. Not only for me but for my son! Again thank you, I felt great after yesterday’s gathering.”
This man recently joined a workplace group started by a member of Van Dyke Church, Lutz, Florida. The host leader took it on himself to bring the church’s current series and small group study to his workplace. The church staff was so excited. They announced publicly that he already had 20 group members. He only had 10 at the time. Then, he called to say he had 14. He isn’t finished yet. Maybe the platform gaff was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy
Van Dyke United Methodist Church is a 25 year old church in Tampa, Florida pastored by Matthew Hartsfield, who has lead them for 18 of those years. As of this writing, their weekend adult attendance averages 1,800. Three weeks ago, they had 39 home groups with approximately 400 group members. That was three weeks ago. Today, everything has changed.
Align the Weekend Service with a Curriculum
What started as a strong Fall series called Q&A quickly morphed into a discipleship and evangelistic tool placed in the hands of Van Dyke’s members. Pastor Matthew had crafted a series to answer life’s big questions, such as: What is God’s Will for My Life? Why are there so Many Different Religions? and What Happens the Minute After You Die? The weekly messages definitely had a broad appeal. The congregation would be eager to bring their friends to the weekend series. Then, Pastor Matthew created a tool to take the message to the community.
With just four weeks until the series launch, Pastor Matthew with the Van Dyke team created an easy to use DVD-based curriculum in partnership with Lifetogether. In one day, they shot six teaching segments, six session intros, and six leadership training segments. That’s a lot for one day.
In the next 10 days, Lynne Fukutani and Rob Rose used the Lifetogether template to create a complete six-week study guide. In addition to great discussion questions, they included the support and training any new leader would need to start their group. They were off to print.
Recruit an Unlimited Number of Leaders
The day after the shoot, Pastor Matthew engaged in a crucial next step conversation. The video was recorded. Now what? On the next two Sundays, he challenged the entire congregation to host a group in their homes. With a little tongue in cheek humor, he assured his members that “All you need to do is push play and brew a pot of coffee.” In two weeks, 63 new host homes (and host workplaces) were created. From an established base of 39 groups, Van Dyke Church now boasted 103 groups in just two weeks time. And, they’re just getting started.
Support New Leaders with a Coach
The success of new hosts and leaders depends on the encouragement of a coach. Three weeks ago, Van Dyke Church had only one staff member who coached all of the groups. This system was quickly overwhelmed – not to mention the staff member.
We challenged key staff members to think of the influencers in the congregation. Brett Eastman calls them the “E.F. Hutton’s.” (Brett’s getting a little old.) In a matter of 15 minutes, Pastor Matthew and his staff had cherry picked the top candidates in their congregation. Then, the pastor picked up the phone and invited these influential folks to help the new group hosts for the six weeks of the campaign.
They pulled the new coaches together for a 45 minute huddle and outlined the expectations: (1) Call the new host once a week. (2) Answer their questions. (3) Pray for them. They agreed. As soon as the coach meeting ended, the new hosts filed in for a host rally.
We built up the curriculum, built up the team, and built up the church. Then, we introduced the new hosts to some very important people who would help them get their group started – their coaches. A little less awkward than the junior high dance, each new host was paired with a coach. They talked briefly, exchanged contact information, and they were ready to start.
Connect the Congregation into Community
Immediately after each weekend service over the next two weekends, the new hosts were arranged in the church lobby by city and zip code. As prospective group members filed out of the services, they met a group host who lived near them and signed up for their group for the six weeks. While most group prospects found a group to join, a few were lost in the shuffle.
The coaches and church staff were on-hand to direct these lost sheep into the right place. By the end of the first weekend, Van Dyke Church had nearly doubled their group participation. By the second weekend, they were close to tripling that number. Their group members had grown from 400 to right around 1,000 in groups. And, new people are being added daily.
One Size Does Not Fit All
In connecting their congregation into groups, Van Dyke Church leveraged existing groups, formed new host homes, created “family and friends” groups, and marched off the map of what was known as group life in their church. They even discovered a few groups who were meeting under the radar, but identified themselves for this series.
Now, they are tackling the last 30 percent – the independent, the introverted and the isolated (Read more about these groups here). Rather than arranging another week of small group connection in the lobby, the Van Dyke team is giving away DVDs and books to anyone who will do the study with two or three friends. These off-the-record groups will accommodate folks whose schedule doesn’t fit with a typical group. Introverted people can do the study with the friends they already have rather than face a group of relative strangers. Independent folks, well, they can do whatever they want within reason.
Let’s Go International
Lynne Fukutani, VDC’s small group director, already posts a weekly discussion guide on Van Dyke’s website called the AfterWord. This is available for any group or individual to apply the weekend message in a practical way. Participants in the church’s internet campus viewed the messages from near and far, then downloaded the AfterWord for study and discussion. Who said a Bible study had to come in a book? This led to another question.
Who said a teaching video had to come on a DVD? By uploading the teaching videos to their site, the staff now embeds the video on the AfterWord page of their website. Now, anyone can study along with Pastor Matthew in the Q&A series at no cost to the church or the participant.
Four Weeks Later
What started as a pastor with an interesting sermon series led to the multiplication of those messages through group curriculum and online resources. A pastor who believed in small groups became the champion for groups in his church and increased their group leaders by nearly 200 percent. Faithful members, who have studied God’s Word for years, got their gifts in the game by opening up their homes. And, members, who sometimes got lost in the shuffle after the service, are connected into community by the hundreds. This was just the beginning of the Van Dyke story. By the end of their third series in that ministry year (Fall launch, New Year’s Launch, Easter Launch), they had connect 2,000 adults into groups with only 1,800 in their weekend adult attendance.
By Allen White