Easter 2022 is an interesting moment. With most of the country easing their COVID restrictions, will people feel free to worship in-person for Easter? Or have two years worth of people watching online sunk in deep? And, considering these mixed feelings going into Easter, how big should the Easter 2022 group launch be? Or should there even be one? Let’s work this out.
Easter is Normally the #3 Group Launch of the Year
Easter is the Trip, Tracy, Trace of group launches. The biggest group launch by far is the fall launch in most places. The second biggest is the New Year. The third is Easter. Now, there are reasons not to launch groups after Easter, but Easter is also the biggest Sunday of the year. Easter is when everybody who calls your church “my church” will be there along with a handful of visitors. Why would you ignore the biggest Sunday of the year when it comes to launching groups? If everybody is there, wouldn’t it be a good idea to start something?
Easter 2022 Is Still Not Normal
Just when we thought that COVID had disappeared, we must acknowledge that COVID has still made everything weird. Pastors in states that just removed their mask mandates are saying that people who were comfortable attending with a mask are now staying home. Maskless worship seems a little too risky for some right now. They’ll be back, but not for a while.
Some people have become comfortable worshipping at home. While I’m a big proponent of digital discipleship, why isn’t the in-person service drawing them in? Why do people feel they don’t need the community of an in-person service? Will they come for Easter or will they stay home?
You may get some first time guests who are not “first time guests.” They’ve never been to your church. They’ve been watching online for a while. Since Easter is a big deal, this just might be the first time they decide to attend in-person. But, here’s the deal, when they show up, they are not technically first time guests. Some have been with you for quite a while. When they show up, they are ready for a next step. They are ready for a small group. They are ready to start growth track. You have to offer them something.
But, there’s another dynamic at play. Similar to the Roaring 20’s that followed the Spanish Influenza, after Easter people will be gone. They have been cooped up too long. The weather is getting warmer. AirBnB is calling. Soccer is kicking off. Baseball is in full swing. Track is…okay, I’ll stop. People are ready to get out. According to the Gauge Group, people will be traveling widely and just won’t be around. So, what does all of this mean for your spring group launch?
Plan an Easter Group Launch, but Lower Your Expectations
As I said before, traditionally an Easter launch is the smallest of the year. But, this Easter you will have some dedicated online worshippers showing up for the first time looking for a next step. Offer them a group. And, while many people will be headed out to enjoy the warm weather, not everyone will be on vacation from Easter until Labor Day. Offer them something too. Even if your groups focus more on group life than group meetings, it’s still worth offering something. But, keep your expectations low. Your Easter launch will not be as far up and to the right as you’d prefer. And, that’s okay. Any progress is progress these days.
Plan for the Fall Small Group Boom
Depending on where you live, your people have experienced various levels of restrictions, freedoms, and fears related to COVID. Some churches are seeing worship attendance equal to or even exceeding their pre-COVID numbers. Most churches are sitting around 50% in worship. Some churches have dramatically declined. COVID accelerated much of what was unfortunately inevitable for some.
A year ago, I predicted a Small Group Boom. Now, I will admit that I predicted it a year too soon. Our boom went bust with the appearance of the Delta and Omicron variants. But now, it’s game on! I anticipate that once COVID restrictions have finally disappeared, and people have had their time in the sun, the fall 2022 small group launch will be bigger than ever. People will be ready to get together. They’re ready to get back into community, but not just in any way.
The pandemic has made everyone a little pickier about how they spend their time and who they spend time with. New and online folks who just want a next step into groups won’t have as much of an opinion of whose group to join. They just want a spiritual next step. But, people who’ve been around don’t just want to be thrown into any group. By offering flexibility, allow your people to meet with whoever they want, whenever they want, and however they want. Groups can meet online or in-person, on-campus or off-campus – let your people choose the place. Then, let your people gather their people. After all, everyone is already in a group!
Think About This
Did I just talk out of both sides of my mouth? Probably, but purposefully. Any group launch that connects more people into groups and offers a spiritual next step is significant, even if it’s only a handful of groups. Offer something after Easter, but don’t pull out all of the stops on your group launch until fall. For now, make offerings, not demands. Post-Easter groups are available to everyone who is interested and available, but certainly not mandatory. Encourage groups to gather for fun, to serve together, and to gather prospective members socially over the spring and summer. Then, plan for the biggest fall group launch you’ve ever had.
People often choose a word for the year. The word sets an overall theme or a goal to pursue. The word for small groups in 2021 is flexible.
Starting in March 2020, people divested themselves of most involvement. From church attendance to a gym membership to children’s sports and grocery shopping in a store. Don’t believe me? Look at the number of churches struggling to find children’s ministry workers in order to offer more in-person services. Your people gave everything up. Now, they will be pickier about what they will bring back.
Not only are they pickier about what to spend their time on, they are also pickier about who they spend their time with. Given all of the information and misinformation about the global pandemic, your people are ready to get back together with the people they know and love. They’re not looking to connect with a group of strangers. Why forsake their friends to spend more time with a group of people they don’t know and possibly won’t like?
Other people started attending your church online. They are ready to take next steps and maybe join a group to grow spiritually and make church friends. A consistent theme that I’m hearing from pastors across the country is this: In-person attendance is down. Giving is steady. Salvations and baptisms are way up. How are you going to disciple your online congregation? (Here’s what’s still working with online small groups).
And, speaking of the global pandemic, there is still a lot of confusion. Who’s been vaccinated? Do you need to wear a mask? Is it okay to go back out? This spring in our small group launch at Mount Hope Church, Lansing, Michigan, we launched 88% more new groups, but found that people wanted to launch a group in the way they were comfortable. Regarding the pandemic this meant online only groups, invitation only groups with people the host already knew, groups wearing masks, groups meeting outside, and groups that were over it. Did we plan out all of those categories? Absolutely not. People created a group with who they wanted to meet with, where they wanted to meet, and how they wanted to meet. All we had to do was give them permission and opportunity. The group hosts did the rest.
Your people will be gone this summer, if they haven’t gone already. Don’t plan on a big small group semester this summer. Let them go. They’ll be back. I predicted this back in March 2021.
The other thing I see coming is the fall small group boom. People have been kept apart for a long time. People are ready to take spiritual next steps. But, people are pickier, so you must be flexible in what you offer and how you offer it.
This doesn’t mean that you need to wreck your current small group system. That would be stupid. Here’s why. But, you do need to add some options for how your people can start new groups that are more flexible. Maybe you don’t even call them “groups.” Maybe you delay some of the requirements. If you’re not open to those ideas, then start groups of three people. Invite people to start with “you plus two.” For most churches that’s too small to be a small group, so you can dodge the leader requirements for a season.
The more flexible your approach to groups, the more people you will have living in obedience to the Great Commission. The more people you have living in obedience, well, the better your church is!
How can you be more flexible in your next group launch?
When you think about all of the work that goes into a small group launch, you certainly want to choose the best season to launch groups. You certainly don’t want to do all of that work and get a poor result. After working with over 1,500 churches over nearly 20 years, three seasons have stood out as the most effective times to launch groups. While there is some variation for different geographic regions and for individual churches, these are the best practices for most churches.
The Best Time to Launch Groups
The fall launch is the biggest by far. Since many church calendars are influenced by the traditional public school calendar, the fall is when everything starts up again. But, keep in mind that not only do you need the most strategic time to launch groups, you also need to consider the best time to recruit leaders and connect people into groups.
Ask yourself, “When are most people back in church?” For some churches this is after Labor Day. For other churches this may be earlier. Once people are back, allow at least three weeks to recruit leaders and connect people into groups. Summer is not a great time to recruit leaders. You really need to recruit once the fall season is rolling.
Launch your series with the intention of the study ending by Thanksgiving in the U.S. (If you’re in Canada, launch your series after Thanksgiving, but end well before Christmas). Most groups will not meet in December for regular group meetings, but they could have a Christmas party or serve together.
The Second Best Time to Launch Groups
The new year is the second strongest time to launch small groups. Again, it’s a time of beginnings and New Year’s resolutions. But, there is a problem with launching in the new year.
Most pastors want to do a “State of the Church” sermon in early January to cast vision for the coming year (Remember, 20/20 vision?), then they want to launch right into a series. The issue is when do you recruit leaders and when do you connect people into groups? Many have tried and failed to do this during the Christmas season. People simply don’t think about the new year until they are in the new year.
The best way to launch groups in the new year is to use the month of January to recruit new leaders and connect people into groups, then run the study between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. Some groups will even start with a Super Bowl party so everyone can get to know each other, then start the study the following week.
The Third Season to Launch Groups
Number three on our list is after Easter. Launching a series after Easter serves several purposes – you can connect your Easter crowd and get them to come back the following week. Usually if a small group study is connected with the sermon, people will attend more regularly, including the Sunday after Easter. See below for other articles about launch groups during the pandemic.
The drawback of the Easter launch is June, July, and August. Typically, groups don’t meet during the summer. Summer is a great time to focus on group life and not as much on group meetings. Remember, your people have been conditioned by the public school calendar. But, why would you start new groups just to watch them get lost in the summer? There are some ways to make this work.
Other Times to Launch Groups
Think of every opportunity when you can possibly launch groups. Launch women’s groups on Mother’s Day. Launch men’s groups on Father’s Day. Launch couples groups on Valentine’s Day. Launch singles groups on Columbus Day (Singles are searching…)
Don’t feel obligated to offer a group every week of the year. It’s awkward to join a group in the middle of a study or a semester. People wait for open enrollment for many other things. They can also wait to join a group. Now, to speak out of the other side of my mouth…
As a pastor you hate to turn anyone down when they need something. (I feel that). This is where your Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other on-campus groups can play a role. People can join at any point, then when the next small group launch rolls around, they can join a group. If you don’t have any of these meetings, then keep a short list of small groups who do a great job of including new members.
You will notice and ebb and flow of group launches in this article. You push hard for groups in the fall, then back off during Christmas. You push hard again in January, then again after Easter, then back off in the summer. This pattern helps to build a stronger fall launch and a less complicated new year’s launch.
But, some of your people are hard core group meeting folks. That’s okay. The last men’s group I led met 52 weeks of the year at lunch every Wednesday. When it comes to the group meetings and group life balance, let groups decide what’s right for themselves.
When you think about your group goal for this coming fall, what comes to mind? You might think about the number of people you would like to connect into groups. You might focus on the number of new groups you need to start or the open groups you need to fill. You might begin to feel the dread of how many new leaders you will need to pull this off. You might even feel some uncertainty about the implications of Coronavirus on your plans. But, before you go to these questions, there is a larger question of goals that you need to address.
What do you hope to accomplish with groups?
What purpose do you want to fulfill? Do you want groups to help people become better connected and more “sticky”? Do you want groups to help people grow deep in their faith and live out what they’re learning? Do you hope that groups will train evangelists to win the lost? Do you want to turn your groups loose to serve in the community? Maybe you’re not sure what you want.
There are group models for creating all of the different types of groups listed above. You could even launch groups that will do a little of all of those things, but the reality is that some of those purposes will get overlooked. What type of groups do you want to start? But, there’s a better question to ask here.
Where is your senior pastor headed this fall?
What is your pastor passionate about? Does your pastor want to connect the congregation, make disciples, reach the community, raise up leaders – where is your pastor headed? The answer can’t be that your pastor wants to do all of that. Where is your pastor headed? As soon as you find out, get in front of that theme with groups.
If your pastor is passionate about evangelism, then find or create a curriculum that your groups could use to attract their unchurched friends and introduce them to the Gospel. If your pastor is passionate about leadership, then find or create a leadership curriculum. You get the drift. Small groups can intersect with whatever need your pastor is the most passionate about. Research tells us this.
Why can’t groups do something else?
Groups could be launched on topics that are completely different from where your senior pastor is going this fall. You will experience some success just in promoting and launching groups. In my experience, your success will amount to about 30% of what could happen if your senior pastor was engaged with groups. Here’s what I mean: when groups connect with the theme your pastor is passionate about – your pastor will be more excited about groups and will promote them. Your people will follow where your pastor leads them.
The first time we did this in our church, I started with where my pastor was headed. Now, this was way back in 2004, and my pastor was passionate about The Passion of the Christ. The film was about to be released. My pastor knew that people would have spiritual questions after they saw the movie. He had planned a sermon series and even purchased some advertising. Knowing this, I walked into his office and asked, “Pastor Dave, what if we launched groups about The Passion of the Christ.” He thought that was a great idea. Well, it was his idea! The end result is when he invited people to open their homes for the Passion series, we doubled our groups in one day! It had taken seven years to get 30% of our adults into groups through my own efforts. When my pastor made the invitation, things dramatically changed. (We also created our own video-based curriculum for this series). If you feel your groups are stuck, aligning your group launch and curriculum with your pastor’s passion and theme will ignite your small group ministry.
These are uncertain times. At this point, I’m tired of saying that and you’re tired of hearing it. We don’t know how Fall 2020 will be. Will schools reopen, then revert to online learning later in the fall due to Coronavirus? Will churches reopen only to re-close? I know of one church that has already re-closed. You don’t know what the circumstance will be, but you do know one thing for sure – You WILL launch groups this fall somehow and in some way – on-campus, off-campus, online, offline, or all of the above –it will happen.
Regardless of the form groups will take, the key to attracting more people to groups and recruiting more leaders lies in the alignment with your senior pastor. Get ahead of where your pastor is going. Find resources that will align. If you start now, you have time to create your own video-based curriculum for the fall. If you need help, just let me know.
Have you worked hard to launch groups only to see them disappear after a church-wide series or semester? I heard of a church once who launched their entire small group ministry from a campaign. They didn’t have any groups when they started, and then hey recruited 233 groups for the series. When the campaign ended, they only had three groups that continued. This situation can and should be avoided.
For some reason when we invite people to lead a group for a six week study, they get this crazy idea that once the six weeks is over, they’re done. Where would they get an idea like this? The same is true for a semester-based groups. Where are they headed in the next semester?
If you haven’t decided what’s next for your groups, then prepare yourself for a hard landing. Otherwise the celebration of new groups at the conclusion of a series will end with a deafening thud, unless you’re prepared for what’s next. Next year, you’ll be right back at re-recruiting leaders and re-forming groups just like you did this year. It’s not good for the groups or for you!
You see all of this grouping, de-grouping, and regrouping is really an exercise in futility. It produces an effect I refer to as Ground Hog Day after the namesake movie starring Bill Murray. If people are already meeting together and they like each other, then we should encourage them to continue, not break up.
Now a few folks who signed up to lead for a literal six weeks will object: “This is like bait and switch.” My response is something like, “That’s because this IS bait and switch. Do you like meeting together? Then, continue. If you don’t like meeting together, then go ahead and end the group this week. Life is too short to be stuck in a bad group.” If they really can’t continue with the group, then ask if a group member could take over leading.
If the middle of your current series or semester, introduce a next step. Whether the next step is an off-the-shelf curriculum you purchase, a church-wide study in the season or semester, or a weekly sermon discussion guide, invite your new groups, especially, to pursue one specific next step. Don’t offer 12 different choices to new groups. The decision you want them to make is whether the group will continue, not what they will study. Established groups can follow what you’ve set in place for a curriculum pathway or library. Established groups need choices. New groups won’t have an opinion, so choose for them.
Before the groups disband at the end of the current series or semester, ask the group to decide about continuing. If you wait until after the study ends, then you have a much lower chance of getting the group back together for the future.
With the Christmas season upon us or when Summer hits, have groups focus on group life rather than group meetings. The new series might not start until January or October, but the group can meet socially, have a party and invite prospective group members, or serve together. Then, in the next series or study, they can continue their regular pattern of meeting. If the group insists on doing a Bible study between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day or over the Summer, then encourage it. Most groups will not take this option, but a few might.
You can avoid the disaster of Day 41 after a 40-day campaign. You can avoid experiencing Groundhog Day for your next series or semester. By offering a next step now, you can retain more groups, then build on what you’ve accomplished in your groups’ launch.