If you are honest with yourself, the good old days were really not that good. Sure you would love to see your church’s worship center filled again. Of course you would love to see all of the people come back that you used to see for 20 seconds every Sunday morning. But in romanticizing the past, you’re forgetting about all the things that were broken and all of the things that you didn’t like. Now is the opportunity to fix them.
Maybe this is not the season to rebuild your church. Maybe this is the season to start over. You’ve had daydreams about that. You thought about if I could start this church from scratch this is what I would do. Right now your church as it is as close to scratch as it’s ever been. Take this opportunity to start over.
If You Could Start from Scratch…
If you could start from scratch, what would you do? If you had a blank slate, how would you make disciples? How would you conduct worship services? How would you serve your community?
If you put all of your energy into regaining what you had in 2019 or 1995 or 1955, you are expending a lot of energy on something that just doesn’t work anymore. Don’t get me wrong. What worked in 2019, 1995, and 1955 worked back then. But, it won’t work now. The world has changed. The culture has changed. The church should change. The Word of God, however, never changes.
Now, moving forward instead of moving backward, how are you going to make disciples? How are you going to reach your community?
Look at What You Have
Your church has a facility. Your church has funds. Your church has committed people who’ve survived the last two years with you. Imagine if you were planting this church right now for the very first time. You’re in great shape! Most church plants start with no facility, a small core group of people, and little funds. You’ve got a huge advantage.
Let’s take a minute to look at your people. For the most part, your people aren’t newbies. They aren’t consumer Christians. All of the consumers “changed the channel” during Covid. This is not the group you need to entertain to keep them coming back. This is the group that fought the war with you. They are ready to serve. They are ready to engage. They are ready to do something significant in your community. Give them their marching orders!
Where Is Your Church’s Ministry Bloated?
It’s easy to add things to a church’s ministry. It’s very difficult to end things. Ministry creep is a real thing. But what makes a church’s ministry effective is often not adding more, but removing some things. When was the last time you and your leadership questioned why you did something? This is not to stir up trouble, but to make sure your church is getting the most out of your church’s investment in time, talent, and treasure. Sometimes you just need to ask why?
For instance, my family has had a connection to the church we attend dating back to 1969. Back then, the morning worship service started at 11 am and ended promptly at Noon. We sang three hymns and listened to a sermon. One hour and done! Then, the worship movement hit our church in the 1980’s. I supposed since you have to repeat the choruses of modern worship songs five times, the pastor needed more time on Sunday morning, so the service was extended by 15 minutes to start at 10:45 on Sunday morning.
Somewhere along the way during the 38 years I was away from my hometown, the church added another 15 minutes to the worship service. What was previously accomplished in one hour now takes 90 minutes. At this stage of my life, I think the whole thing could be tightened up. Half of the congregation can’t stand through the entire singing part anyway. I’m trying to figure out a polite way to ask why the 90 minute worship service persists. So far, I’ve only come up with impolite ways, so I’ll wait.
The length of the worship service may not be a big deal in your church. Maybe it’s shorter. Maybe it’s longer. But, why is it? If I were starting a church right now, everyone would meet at round tables, and we’d enjoy brunch with a little music, spiritual content, and lively discussion. Maybe you think I’m apostate for suggesting this. Do what’s right for your church, but ask why once in a while.
Think About This
Covid ended a lot of things. If a ministry activity didn’t survive Covid, don’t bring it back. How has God used Covid to prepare your church for what’s next? How has the pandemic you helped to clarify what’s truly important in your church? What old things need to go away? What new thing needs to start? What sacred cow needs to be barbecued?
What have you already rethought or re-engineered in your church? Let me know in the comments below.
Before I go, I want to tell you about something I am planning for this summer. I want to give you the tools you will need for what I believe is the biggest fall small group launch we’ve ever seen. Right now as school is ending and the weather is warming up, people are headed out. They are going on vacation. They are making day trips. They are enjoying their backyards and sunshine. They are traveling on planes in unmasked freedom. But, once summer is over, they will be ready to connect in community in unprecedented ways.
To help you prepare for this fall small group boom, I am offering the Exponential Groups Intensive starting on June 1. This six week Live group coaching cohort includes a copy of both the Exponential Groups book and workbook as well as a one-on-one private coaching session with me. The price is $397. We start on June 1st. Don’t miss out. Register at allenwhite.org/intensive.
You work hard. You’ve learned a lot. You are growing your small groups both numerically and spiritually. Your hard work should pay off. But, a promotion is not necessarily a bigger salary or a larger title (but it could be!) Your small group ministry will grow. Your time will not. How are you preparing yourself for what’s ahead?
Many small group pastors and directors start out as small group leaders. By virtue of the fact that you are now leading the small group ministry at your church, you have already received a promotion somewhere along the way. Who are you leading now? Maybe you’re leading a handful of groups. Then you’re probably okay for now. Maybe you’re leading dozens of groups. You’re probably not doing as well as you did when it was only a handful. You need help. Maybe you’re leading hundreds of groups. If that’s the case, then you are completely overwhelmed. You are either barely keeping your head above water, or you’ve convinced yourself that an email newsletter, occasional meetings, and a reporting system are adequate to sustain a large small group ministry. Don’t kid yourself.
If you’ve got dozens of groups, then give yourself a promotion. Recruit and develop coaches to serve the small group leaders, then you will serve the coaches. If you’ve got hundreds of groups, then you deserve two promotions – not only should coaches serve the leaders, but a small group team should serve the coaches. You only meet with eight or so leaders of leaders. These leaders could be paid staff, but in the churches I’ve served these leaders volunteered their time and abilities. Honestly, I had a better team than I could ever afford to hire. But, where do you find these leaders of leaders?
Are You Sharing Responsibilities?
Think about all of the things you are doing right now. Make three lists — what you love to do, what you like to do, and what you hate to do. Take a minute right now and make your lists. I’ll wait.
Now, make a plan to give away everything you hate to do. There are people in your church who would love to do the things you hate to do. Years ago, every member of our church filled out a paper health assessment during a service and turned it in. Now the task was to input all of those paper surveys into a database. (Why did we use paper? Well, it was pre-COVID and pre-smartphone. Stay with me.) I asked for volunteers to help with data entry. Three people stepped up, and three days later the job was done. If that was up to me, those surveys would still be sitting on my desk. There are people who would love to do what you hate to do. Let them do it! This was the easy one.
What are the things you like to do? How can you recruit and develop people to do these things? John Maxwell says, “If someone can do the job 30 percent as well as you can, let them do it. Most likely they can do it 60 percent as well.” But, if you’re like me, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that you’re the only one that can do it, and people like coming to you. Moses had this same issue in Exodus 18. Read more about delegating leadership here.
You need more help, but you need the right help. When you look at your small group leaders, whose groups would you like to see more of? Recruit those leaders to coach others. Which groups do you not want to see more of? Skip those. For more on recruiting coaches, go here.
The biggest issue is not finding qualified people to lead at a higher level. My biggest issue was getting out of their way and letting them use their God-given gifts and abilities to serve other leaders. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t entirely hands-off. Everyone and everything was supervised. I just had to come to the realization that my coaches could be more available and serve the leaders better than I could, and that the leaders didn’t need me as much as I thought they did.
Now, let’s take stock. If you’ve given away all of the things you hate to do and are in the process of giving away the things you like to do, then what’s left? The things you love to do. Wouldn’t you love to have more time to do the things you love to do. You can, if you follow this plan.
Are You Raising Up Leaders?
Ask others to read the books you are reading. Bring them to the conferences you attend. Share the podcasts you listen to. Then, get together and talk about what they’re learning and how they’re applying it. Develop a monthly circle of leaders who get together for lunch to discuss leadership principles. If you want to draw out the leaders in your church, offer a group, a conference, or a workshop on leadership. Simply by calling something a “Leadership [Fill in the Blank],” you will quickly identify the leaders or wannabe leaders in your church. Once you know who can lead, then give them a next step.
You don’t want to give anyone the keys before giving them a test drive. If you love to mentor individuals or small groups of people, then pour your efforts into a small group of people who can lead others. Start by asking them to help you by walking alongside new leaders for one alignment series or semester. See how they do. See if they like helping other leaders. See if they’re any good at it. For those who do well, invite them to coach more. For those who didn’t do well (or didn’t do it at all), just thank them for fulfilling their commitment.
The Legacy You Leave is the Leaders You’ve Developed
Think about the steps you took in becoming a leader. Did someone just ask you one day to step into the role where you currently serve? Probably not. Someone saw something in you. Someone gave you a chance. Someone invested in you. Who can you invest in?
In a recent conversation with Heather Zempel, Discipleship Pastor at National Community Church, Washington DC, she shared how a number of former small group leaders who got their start at NCC are now leading in larger capacities across the US. Heather mentored Will Johnston (Eastside Christian Church, Anaheim, CA), Ashley Anderson (Campus Director, NCC), Brad Dupre (Next Level Church, NH), Jonathan Shrader (Reservoir Church, CA), and Clynt Reddy (River Valley Church, Minneapolis, MN). (Catch my interview with Heather Zempel on the Exponential Groups Podcast in a couple of weeks).
What will your legacy be?
Think About This
Ministry done right is all about working yourself out of a job. You might like your job, but sometimes you have to give up to go up. What are you willing to give up? What do you see yourself doing in five to 10 years? How are you preparing for what’s ahead?
When you leave your current position and/or your current church, will the small group ministry you’ve built stand or fall? While the church’s next hire will fill the position you left, the success of your small group ministry is a leadership team who will outlast you. Who are you investing in? What are you letting them do?
As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
The time has come to face an unpleasant reality. The congregation you have right now is your entire congregation. This is not necessarily bad news.
In talking to pastors I’ve stopped asking about their pre-COVID attendance. If the pandemic had only lasted a few weeks to a few months, then you could certainly expect your church to quickly snap back to where it was. After 20 months nothing will snap back now. The culture has changed. Habits have changed. Your church has changed. Let’s consider what happened.
Stadiums are Full, but Sanctuaries are Half Empty
If only Covid was preventing people from returning to church, you would also see this caution across the board in every auditorium or stadium of any size. As I watched the Kansas City Chiefs’ disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Arrowhead Stadium was packed. As I watch the baseball playoffs between my San Francisco Giants and Mark Howell’s LA Dodgers, Oracle Park and Dodgers Stadium are at capacity. Yet, church sanctuaries are less than half full. What’s happening?
Some people have legitimate concerns related to Covid. Out of an abundance of caution, they chose to worship online at home. They are not ready to meet and sing with a large group of people for the time being. That’s understandable considering the amount of information and misinformation out there. There are very strong feelings about vaccines and masks. Covid accounts for part of your half filled auditorium.
Others became comfortable with online worship. They don’t have to get their family dressed, fed, and out the door on Sunday morning any more. They can sip their coffee in their jammies while their children play or sleep in. While online faithfulness has certainly lessened over time, some of your people are still there. They are giving. They are on your side. They’re just staying home. But, some people have changed the channel.
Now that most churches have an online worship service, it’s easier to church shop than ever. Let’s face it. There are more interesting sermons out there. There are professionally recorded worship sets with worship teams who sing in tune. If someone’s interest is only in worship and preaching, there are tens of thousands of choices. But, you and I both know that there is far more to church than songs and sermons. Rick Warren isn’t going to call to see how they’re doing. Andy Stanley isn’t going to make a hospital visit. If you wonder where you’re people are, you should probably give them a call.
The last group is the most exciting. People are watching online who have never darkened the door of your church. They are interested in spiritual things. They long for something solid in very anxious times. They enjoy watching the service without being watched. And, when you offer a next step, they will take it. Pastors are telling me how “first time” guests show up ready for baptism, next steps, small groups, and serving. They aren’t first time guests. They’ve been participating in your online worship services for weeks to months. This is the new front door of the church! How does your front door look? Are you actively offering next steps to your online congregation? Do you look directly into the camera and lead them on what do to next? Do you have a way for them to respond? Don’t make your online worship service a lesser experience. Don’t expect less of people who worship online. They need your leadership.
Stop Looking Backward
The whole world has experienced a massive reset. Regardless of who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s to blame, or who’s orchestrating a nefarious plot, God is not surprised by any of this. Why has God allowed this to happen? Why did God intentionally shake up His church like this? What needed to fall away to reveal what was strong? What outdated strategies needed to crumble? What changes that you’ve been dreading to make needed to happen? God has uniquely positioned you and your church to serve a changed culture, if you are willing to let go of what you used to do.
Some of us remember the battle of the 1990’s when we transitioned from traditional services to contemporary services. You couldn’t alienate the older folks because they were the givers, yet if you didn’t change your approach, you couldn’t attract or keep younger people. Remember those days? Some churches attempted “blended” worship, but as Stuart Briscoe said, “If you blend traditional and contemporary, you end up with contemptible.” He wasn’t wrong.
Imagine if you and your team decided to incorporate more stained glass into your building or include more hymns in your worship set this year. What if you threw out those uncomfortable stackable chairs and replaced them with uncomfortable wooden pews? You wouldn’t go back there. In the 1990’s churches chose to no longer use 1950’s ministry strategies. Now it’s time to move forward from 1990’s ministry strategies and embrace new things in the 2020’s.
But, this isn’t just about strategy. Change produces loss. You’ve lost much since March 2020. You can wear yourself out, but the pre-Covid days for your church aren’t coming back. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt. When our church in California lost two-thirds of our congregation and the entire staff in a matter of weeks, I experienced the grief as if all of those people were in a bus caravan that went over a cliff. I was overwhelmed with grief. I managed to drag myself into the office at the crack of Noon and leave around 3 pm. Every person who called or stopped by the church was also racked with pain. It was all I could take. Our church had basically died, but good things were about to grow out of it.
Lead the People You Have
You have to put your energy into leading the church you have rather than trying to lead the church you used to have. Here’s what’s great about the church you have:
Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.
The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.
Your church is reaching more new people than ever before — online. Tune up your online service, which starts by watching it yourself. Create a separate mix for your music, because the house mix doesn’t cut it online. If that doesn’t work, then only stream the sermon. Watch your online recording. You will understand my point. Along with this, interact with your online congregation. Ask a staff member or church member to host the online service and chat with your online congregation before, after, and even during the service. How can you make this an active experience? If folks are consistently watching online, they are with you. Lead the people you have.
People who show up are ready to take next steps — baptism, growth track, small groups, serving, outreach, and more. Direct your online worship host or even the senior pastor to address the online congregation and lead them into next steps. Offer serving roles and small groups. (Check out: Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future). Your online congregation needs your leadership. Lead the people you have.
A Final Challenge
The good news about this season is that the culture of your church has already shifted. You don’t have to convince people to show up for in-person worship services. They’re there if they want to be. You don’t have people fighting against online worship. They’re already there.
The question is are you trying to pastor a megachurch from the 1990’s or are you leading a hybrid church in 2021 and moving forward? Are you making your online congregation an equal experience to your in-person worship service? Do you expect as much from those gathered online as you do those gathered in-person? Are you realigning your congregations’ time, talent, and treasure to move your church forward or are you attempting to regain what you had in 2019 (or before)?
In a recent interview with Bill Willits from North Point, he shared that in-person worship and small groups are at 50 percent of their pre-Covid numbers. This is the church at the top of Outreach magazine’s Largest Churches list. But, North Point is innovating. The house analogy is out the window. Listen to what they’re doing now.
God has uniquely positioned you and your church for this season. It is different. It is way different than how you’ve done ministry before. Choose to lead forward and not backward. God is with you. Keep in step with His Spirit.
What has your church changed in the last 20 months? What results are you seeing? Reply in the comments.
At some point you encounter the thought, “There’s just not enough of me to go around.” When you consider your spouse, your family, your church, your groups, (and don’t forget yourself), this admission is accurate. You are insufficient to accomplish all that God has called you to do. But, this is not necessarily bad news.
Have you ever called tech support only to hear that your problem is “user error?” I am so relieved when it’s just user error. I don’t have to send my device in or buy a new one. The problem is me! This is great news, because I can fix me. Once you discover this, you can fix it!
Don’t Put a Lid on Your Small Groups.
Once upon a time my groups were stuck at 30% after seven years of very hard work building a small groups ministry. I handpicked all of the leaders. I trained all of the leaders. I coached all of the leaders. Our small group ministry had grown as far as it could under my leadership. At this point, there was a choice: (1) Blame my senior pastor for not promoting groups, (2) Blame our people for being selfish and unwilling to leave their groups to start new groups, (3) Find another job, or (4) Change myself.
After spending a fair amount of time on options 1 and 2, I finally came to the realization that the solution was to change myself. This wasn’t easy. After all, my name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.
John Maxwell coined “The Law of the Lid” which states, “Leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness.” We were stuck at 30% of our congregation in groups, because that’s the most I could effectively lead by myself. If I didn’t multiply myself and raise my level of leadership, then our groups would never have grown.
Where Do You Start?
The bad news was that I wasn’t adequately serving my small group leaders. The good news was that I still had small group leaders. They had figured out how to lead their groups and keep them going. Now, I didn’t completely neglect them. We did a lot of training meetings that were half attended at best. (Did I also mention that I oversaw the entire children’s ministry, some of the church administration, and led worship for a season? It wasn’t a very good season.) I’ll stop making excuses. As John Maxwell also says, “People who are good at making excuses are usually good at little else.”
My motivation to shift my leadership came in the form of a crisis. We doubled our groups in one day. From a coaching perspective, I now had twice the problem. I wasn’t adequately coaching the leaders I had, then suddenly I had an equal number of new leaders. I was overwhelmed. Then, something dawned on me.
If half of my leaders were new, then that meant that the other half had some experience. While they weren’t trained as coaches, they had enough to answer the new leaders’ questions and encourage them. I matched them up in a buddy system. Looking back, it was quick and dirty and very chaotic, but it moved my leadership enough for the next time our groups doubled, which was six months later.
Empower Coaches to Serve.
Even though I had leveraged a crisis to recruit coaches, I still had another problem. Remember that part about “My name is Allen, and I’m a recovering control freak.” Yea, that didn’t go away quickly.
I had coaches. This was a big step. I had willing, capable, and experienced leaders to coach new small group leaders. But, my coaches became bored and frustrated.
I was still running the monthly huddles. I did all of the training. I sent the coaches into the groups to gather information for me. No wonder that one coach, Carol, complained to me, “I feel like I’m your spy.” She was!
This forced another leadership growing pain for me: if I didn’t get out of my coaches way, then I would lose my coaches. I’ll admit it – I was insecure. I had never led a small group ministry with 60% of our adults in groups. If 30% was too much for me to handle alone, then 60% was way beyond my ability individually. I couldn’t lose my coaches. But, I had only given my coaches half of what they needed.
I gave my coaches the tasks of coaching, but I hadn’t given them the authority of coaching. I trusted them to do the grunt work, but I didn’t trust them to make wise decisions. At this point two major shifts were necessary: (1) I needed to get over myself, and (2) I needed to invest more in the relationships with these coaches and allow them to invest in the leaders. This worked.
When I began to regard my coaches as partners rather than subordinates, they began to shine. They loved helping other leaders. And, I was grateful for the help.
Carl George, my friend and mentor, often asks: “How are you getting in the way of accomplishing your goals?”
Have you ever thought about how you might be wasting your own time? You see the problem with most pastors and leaders is they are multi-talented. The problem with being multi-talented is that we tend to depend on ourselves and not bring other people into the equation. For instance, if you write your small group discussion guide because you’re able to do it, then you may or may not invite other people to help you write the discussion guide, because you can do it. But, is this the best use of your time? In the work that I do producing curriculum, there are things that I can and cannot do. I can direct a video shoot, but I can’t shoot the video — which is a good thing because I bring in very talented people that can do that. I can write a study guide from cover to cover, but I can’t do the graphic design and layout. So I have a terrific designer who does all of that for me including the cover of my new book, Exponential Groups. What are you the most gifted to do? Is it teaching? Leading? Organizing? What is your number one gift to the kingdom? Now imagine that this is your only gift and that you have no other gifts. How would you get things done? You would delegate. You would find people that have expertise in things where you lack expertise. You would find people who need to grow in their gifts through using them. You would equip and develop them. So here’s a question for you, why not delegate everything that is not part of your primary gifting? If you’re a leader but not a teacher, then mentor someone else to do training for you. If you are an organizer, but you are not heavily relational, then find relational people to coach your leaders. There are times when we need to do things that are not in the center of our wheelhouse as far as our gifts and abilities go. Those are called emergencies. That’s when we need to put forth the extra effort to do things that we are not truly gifted or called to do simply because they have to be done. Everyday should not be an emergency. Everyday you should exercise your primary gifts. Everyday you should delegate everything else to somebody else either staff or volunteer. There’s a reason for the name “Tyranny of the Urgent,” it’s a tyrant. You can’t do your best working for a tyrant. Step back. Clear your head. Stop the emergency. And, get on with doing what you do best, not what you do least. There’s a saying that you don’t ask $100 per hour people to do $10 per hour tasks. Now before you ask for a raise or start thinking too much of yourself, realize that there are things that only you can do and there are things that a lot of other people can do. The more you focus yourself on only the things that you can do, then the better you will serve your church, your people, and the more satisfied you will be with your life and ministry. I’m not going to make a conclusion. I’m going to give you an assignment. Take out a piece of paper or start a new document. Draw a line down the middle. On the left side write “To Do.” On the right side write “Stop Doing.” Be sure to include all of the tasks that are not in your primary gifting in the “Stop Doing” column. When you’re done with the list, take a look at all the items in the Stop Doing column. Now write down the names of people who could do these things at least 30% as well as you can. Then stop doing them. Your timeline is immediately. You don’t need to ask for permission. You just need to make sure that things get done — regardless of who does them. You can thank me later.