When it comes to launching groups in a smaller church, there is a dilemma. There aren’t many great models. Most materials and training about small groups come from pastors of megachurches. Their models don’t work well in smaller churches. What works in a large church typically doesn’t work well in a smaller church, but what works in a small church will work in any church. Over the last 15 years, I have coached churches as large as 40,000 and as small as 40.
The first church I served grew from 300 adults to 85 adults in the first 18 months. We went through a great deal of turbulence related to the departure of our founding pastor. Starting with 85 people, we watched the church reach various milestones. At 250 people, the complaint we heard was “I don’t know everybody any more.” In reality, most people can only keep up with about 150 people. Facebook doesn’t count. The next milestone was when we reached 400 in attendance and went to two services, then we heard, “I can’t find the people I know!” While groups helped us keep people connected, groups also helped in many other ways.
Here are some thoughts on how to launch groups in a smaller church.
Bet on a Winner.
When a smaller church launches any new initiative, there is much more at stake. If a larger church has a failed initiative and loses 100 people, they can recover fairly easily. If that happens in a smaller church, well, you might have just lost everybody. While every church is unique and is open to trying various things, you only want to offer major initiatives that are more of a sure thing. If you bet the farm, you just might lose the farm.
Start with a pilot. Ask a couple of loyal folks to open their homes for a short-term group. The commitment should be 6-8 weeks. Initially, these groups could start by having the newly appointed leaders invite people they know. You want to make the groups easy to prepare for and easy to run, so a video-based curriculum will take much of the pressure off of an unseasoned leader. At the end of the commitment, evaluate how it went. Did the leaders enjoy leading? Did the group members enjoy the group? At this point, give them an opportunity to re-up for another study if they are ready to move forward.
Don’t Break What’s Working.
You shouldn’t stop other things to start groups. If your church has Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other groups, then allow these groups to continue to meet the needs for the people they are working for. You don’t need to have everyone in the same system. One size does not fit all. When you do the math, more than likely, there is a considerable number of people who attend worship or at least call your church their church home, who are not doing anything outside of attending worship services. These are the folks you should invite to join groups.
If your church has a high percentage of people in Sunday school classes, Bible studies, or other types of groups, then you may not need to start more groups in your church. That’s okay. If these other opportunities are providing a place for people to care, connect, and grow spiritually, then you’re doing what you should be doing. If there are people who are more marginally associated with your church or people in your community who might join a group, then you can look at groups as an outreach opportunity to bring more people to Christ.
As you are launching groups, you should let the folks in classes and other groups know what you’re up to. It’s okay if they don’t want to join groups, but you don’t want them to be opposed to groups. As someone once said, “People are down on what they’re not up on.” Explain to them how you are launching groups to connect folks who for whatever reason don’t want to join a class or current Bible study group. It’s nothing against what they’re doing. You just want to offer more opportunities for people to learn and grow.
Develop Coaches — Even for a Few Groups
Even if you have a small number of groups, don’t try to manage the groups ministry by yourself. You already wear plenty of hats. You don’t need one more. Find someone in your church who enjoys groups and is spiritually mature to coach and mentor group leaders. They don’t need to have all of the answers. They just need to be available to the leaders and answer their questions when they can. If they don’t have the answer, then they can bring the question to you.
If you care for your leaders, your groups will thrive. If you don’t offer them the care of a coach, then your groups will fail. No one wants to build something only to watch it fail.
Years ago, a pastor of a church of 42 people joined our coaching group. He had two groups. After a few months, we invited all of the pastors from the coaching group to get together. This pastor not only reported doubling his groups (two groups to four groups), but he also brought his volunteer groups director to the event.
Give Permission and Opportunity.
I used to think if you wanted 10 groups in a church, then you needed to have 100 people (10 groups with 10 members). That’s not true. To have 10 groups, you need 10 people to lead those groups. Then, invite those 10 to invite people they know who would enjoy or benefit from a group study. Who’s in their lives? Friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, relatives, and others. Their groups could grow very quickly.
Now, let’s imagine something else. If you have 50 people in your church, you have 50 potential leaders. (Now, I know that some of those people you could never see leading. Let the exceptions be the exceptions. Stick with me here). If 50 people in your church each gathered a circle of 6-8 people in your church or outside of your church, you could very quickly have 300-400 people in groups if the study topic matched a felt-need in your community. (Think about topics like marriage, parenting, stress, purpose, relationships, etc). What would that do for your church?
I’m working with a pastor in the inner city of Baltimore. His church has 600 adults on a Sunday. They launched groups with a series a year ago. Before the launch, they had seven groups in their church. After the launch, they started 167 groups in a church of 600! Years ago an Episcopal church of 260 people in Florida launched 75 groups for 40 Days of Purpose. Groups have great potential to reach your community. And, many of those people started coming to church as a result.
Groups will help your church. People will feel more connected and cared for. They will grow spiritually, and they will reach others. You won’t build the same way a megachurch does and that’s okay.
After launching small groups with church-wide campaigns over the last 14 years, I’ve discovered there are some great times to launch groups, and there are definitely some seasons or situations to avoid. Considering the effort that’s put into a campaign whether you are purchasing someone else’s campaign or creating your own, you want to get the most bang for your buck. Why put all of that time, energy, and effort into something that will end up with a mediocre result? Here are some seasons and situations to avoid:
My men’s group met 52 weeks of the year. We met at a restaurant for lunch on Wednesdays. Like most guys, we ate lunch 52 weeks of the year, so we did a Bible study too. I’m not sure 52 weeks per year is ideal, but it worked for us. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for everyone. Because of the school calendar, which was based on an agrarian society, most schools are in session from Labor Day until Memorial Day as God intended. Some schools, however, start early in August. This pre-Labor Day start is against the natural order of things, in my humble opinion. But, most schools offer the three reasons teachers have entered the profession: June, July, and August. Families go on vacation. The evenings are longer. Even committed group members tend to forget about small groups. If getting groups to continue meetings is a challenge during the Summer, then starting groups in the Summer is even more difficult. Summer is the weakest season of the year to launch groups. The strongest seasons for group launches are (in order): Fall, New Years, and Spring (after Easter). Summer is in last place by a mile. By launching groups in the Summer, you are faced with two issue. First, you’re not getting your bang for the buck as mentioned earlier. Second, you are taking away from the impact of your Fall campaign. Not only is Fall the start of the school year, but the Summer break before Fall helps to make a Fall launch the strongest of the year. Now, there will be groups like mine who want to continue through the Summer come hell or high water. Let them meet. But, don’t spend a leadership coin on a Summer launch. Save it until Fall.
2. Capital Campaign.
Growing churches build. Building churches requires a lot of money and usually some sort of capital campaign. We understand this. People who are in groups tend to give more than people who are not in groups. According to Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger in Transformational Groups, their research has shown that people not in groups give 6.07 percent of their income, while those who attended a group 4 or more times a month gave 10.34 percent (p 45). If a family earned $35,000 per year, this means their annual giving would increase by $1494.50 per year if they joined a small group. If the church needs money, and people in groups tend to give more money, then why not get everybody into groups so they’ll give to more the capital campaign. That equation works for the short-term, but not the long term. Once an association is made between small groups and capital campaigns, then the next time the call is made for people to join small groups, most people will think, “I wonder how much money they need to raise this time.” I’m not saying capital campaigns are wrong. They’re not. They are necessary. But, capital campaigns and small group campaigns simply do not go together. To avoid a bad associate, get ahead of the capital campaigns. Form groups in the New Year, then start the capital campaign in the Fall. Groups can certainly study something about the church’s vision related to the capital campaign, and they’ve started well enough in advance that the association shouldn’t be made.
3. During a Church Crisis.
When a church is facing a major crisis, like the pastor’s forced resignation, a devastating financial blow, or a scandal of any kind, this is not the time to start small groups. I’m not being glib. My first pastor had to resign after I’d only been on staff for 18 months. While groups will certainly bond people together, disgruntled individuals can become platoons who will march right out of your church together. Wait until the dust settles, then launch groups.
4. Simultaneously with Another Major Initiative.
My friend, Gilbert Thurston says, “If you are casting vision for two things at the same time, you are creating Di-vision or division.” No pastor wants to promote division. The problem is if the best time to launch small groups is in the Fall and the New Year, well, it’s also the best time to launch everything else. Sigh. To avoid creating di-vision in your church, stagger your announcements. If you’re church has on-going or semester-based groups and ministries like Celebrate Recovery, Financial Peace University, DivorceCare, GriefShare, or others, then start those before you make the call for groups. While it’s nice to have everyone in the church studying the same thing, it’s not necessary for an effective group launch. Once the support groups have started, then gear up for your big Fall or New Year’s launch.
5. If the Majority of Your Adults are in Sunday School.
Some churches don’t need small groups. Maybe they’d like to have groups, but for those churches who still run a thriving adult Sunday school, groups really aren’t necessary. Now, I’m talking about churches with 90 percent of their adults in Sunday school today. This is different from churches with declining Sunday schools who think that promoting Sunday school more will boost attendance. If that’s you, then you need to start groups. Your Sunday school ain’t coming back. But, there are those churches with well established, thriving Sunday schools. My word to you — Keep Sunday School working. If it begins to slip, then think groups. You really have to ask yourself: Are we in the meeting business or are we in the discipleship business? You can make disciples in Sunday school. You can make disciples in groups. The goal is not groups. The goal is developing leaders and making disciples.
For many of the same reasons as Summer, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day become overloaded with activities for most people in your church. Between school programs, Christmas parties, special Christmas services, shopping, traveling, and whatever else they’ve piled on themselves, the Christmas season is a very difficult time to start groups or for groups to even meet regularly. Groups can have fun together or serve together, but weekly meetings are probably out.
7. Immediately after New Year’s Day.
Most senior pastors want to kick off the new year with a “State of the Church” type of message or “Vision Sunday,” then they want to get right into their series the second Sunday in January. If this is when the church chooses to launch groups, there’s a big problem — there is no time to recruit leaders or form groups. If you think, “We will just recruit leaders in December for the January launch,” then go back and read #6. I’ve tried this. I ended up standing in the briefing room, listening to crickets, and questioning the call of God on my life. You can’t recruit nobody for nuthin’ in December. Save yourself some headaches. The “New Year’s” launch will go much better if there is time in January to recruit leaders and form groups before the series starts in late January. Better yet, use the whole month of January to recruit and form groups, then run your series between the Christian holidays of Super Bowl Sunday and Easter. Every church is different. For instance, Canadian churches will want to start their Fall series after Canadian Thanksgiving. If you live in Seattle and the mountain is still out in September, you might want to wait until October to start your series. If your people’s calendars fill up very quickly at the start of the school year, then you’d better launch groups when school starts, so folks still have an evening available. Use these seven suggestions to guide you. I want you to succeed with your next group launch, but in the end, you need to do what works best in your neck of the woods.