My Interview with Life Letter Cafe
7 Questions Sunday
LifeLetter Cafe: Where did the passion to author “Exponential Groups” came from?
Allen White: The passion really came from a lot of my own frustration in recruiting leaders, connecting people into groups, and getting groups to continue. I had also bought into the notion that one strategy would help our church connect everybody into a group. When that strategy failed to connect everyone, we would keep the best of what we learned, but then switch to another strategy. By continuing to change strategies we were all becoming frustrated — staff and group members. Then, it dawned on me, what if there wasn’t a way to connect everyone into groups and disciple them? There isn’t. But, whoever said you only had to use on strategy? We let one strategy connect 30% of our people into groups so they would grow spiritually. Then, we used another strategy to connect the next 30% into groups, then we used a couple more strategies to get our church to 125% of our average adult attendance in groups.
What if I could share my learnings from the school of hard knocks with other pastors and churches? What if they could help their people connect and grow without wrecking their church? What if they could form more groups than they ever dreamed of too?
A few weeks ago, a church with a weekly adult attendance of 600 people launched 147 groups. That’s why I wrote the book.
LifeLetter Cafe: Love the phrase “everyone is already in a group” – what are the upsides and downsides to this approach towards enlarging a local church’s groups ministry?
Allen White: The upside is the local church doesn’t need to work hard at launching any more groups. Everyone is already in a group. They have friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and others already in their lives. The pastor’s job now is to give these groups that people are already in an easy-to-use tool and a little training so they will do something intentional about their spiritual growth. Draw a circle around them, and boom – they are a recognized group! It’s not actually this simple, but this is the gist. Then, we focus on encouraging groups to gather, creating resources, establishing a coaching structure, and providing on-going training.
The downside is that some people are in the wrong group. Those closest to them may not be encouraging them in their relationship with Christ. They might be taking them in the opposite direction. If this is the case, then they may need to join another group, at least for a season, then when they are more established in their faith, return to the group and lead them to Christ.
LifeLetter Cafe: Can you unpack what healthy leadership development looks like in a church that chooses to move past group growth by addition or multiplication?
Allen White: Health has nothing to do with how groups are formed. Leaders can be just as unhealthy whether the church handpicks them, apprentices them, invites them to host a group, or throws caution to the wind.
Health must be monitored and nurtured. We could come up with a set of health indicators and poll our leaders annually, but we probably wouldn’t get to the root of their healthiness or unhealthiness. The only way to truly measure the health of leaders is in their relationships with coaches. While leadership development involves training, healthy and effective leadership development involves a mentor. They need someone who cares enough to encourage them at times and to exhort them at other times.
When we talk about leadership development, we usually think about training. We have this idea that the more we train, the better the leaders will be. This is not true. Training apart from serving is meaningless. Leaders don’t care about dealing with a difficult person in their group in a training meeting six months before their group starts. They care about dealing with a difficult person, when they have one in their group.
“The biggest change for me between coddling our people
and creating groups for them
versus commissioning our people and challenging them
to form their own groups was in my own thinking.”
– Allen White –
LifeLetter Cafe: What are the typical barriers to getting past the idea of a church body is not so much “an audience to be served but an army to be empowered’?
Allen White: Who likes audiences? Speakers like audiences. Performers like audiences. After all, isn’t the audience proof of the speaker’s talent? I don’t want people to give up on worship services. But, what are we leading our people toward? Are bigger auditoriums and larger audiences transforming lives? Yes and no. Yes, the Gospel is being proclaimed and people are being encouraged. But, no, in that, once we leave the doors on the auditorium we’re on our own to work all of this out, or we just become more preoccupied with the worries of life.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, churches began to create worship environments to reach their communities. We call this theattractional model, and it worked for Baby Boomers. We invited them to come in, then sit back, relax, and enjoy the service. I’ve said those words. Then, we asked them to serve, they said, “No thanks.” We had invited them to come to church and be comfortable, and they took us up on it. Today, ministry to Baby Boomers is called “Senior Adult Ministry.” While we love our seniors, Senior Adult Ministry has never been the future of the church.
The church is not as “attractive” as it used to be. The direction has changed. Instead of bringing folks to church, we, as the church, go to them – not on contrived service days in matching t-shirts – we love our neighbors as ourselves. What neighbors? The ones in our neighborhoods. We can commission the entire church to love their neighbors. We can commission the whole church to go and make disciples by gathering a group of friends and doing a Bible study.
I’m going to try to be careful here, but I am a native Kansan, who tends to be very direct. Some pastors don’t want to empower their people because they need their people to be dependent on them. They like to be liked. So here’s the Kansan coming out — some pastors are co-dependent on their congregations. They need to be needed. The fear is if I release my congregation to do the work of the ministry: (1) They might do it wrong — they’re not trained, but also (2) they might not need their pastor as much anymore.
This answer has gone long, but the biggest change for me between coddling our people and creating groups for them versus commissioning our people and challenging them to form their own groups was in my own thinking. The only thing that kept our people dependent on me instead of giving them permission to start a group were my own fears and need for control. Once I let go of that, groups took off like a rocket.
LifeLetter Cafe: Share with us a personal favorite moment in the book?
Allen White: I tell a lot of stories in the book, so there are a lot of them. My favorite moment is actually reflected in the book’s dedication. One of my group leaders named Doug had an amazing ability to manage relationships. I saw this not just in his small group, but also in his part-time work in multilevel marketing (I know…danger! Danger!). I invited him to join our coaching team. He did an amazing job. At one point, Doug said to me, “Thank you, Pastor Allen, for showing me I was the leader I never knew that I was.” That was the best compliment anyone had ever paid me.
You see Doug always thought of himself as dumb. He dropped out of high school and never graduated. Doug worked in construction his entire adult like. He drove a construction crane through San Francisco Bay Area traffic every day, set it up, did the job, then drove it back. Now, that takes more smarts than I have. But, Doug always thought he was dumb, and certainly not a leader. To recognize Doug’s innate leadership gift, to call it out, and to encourage him to success is one of the most gratifying things in my ministry. Talk about expanding your influence. It’s exponential!
LifeLetter Cafe: How important is it for churches to have multiple “on-ramps” for group launches throughout the year? What are some of the most successful models currently?
Allen White: I don’t believe churches need to offer weekly opportunities to join groups. In fact, I think 3-6 on-ramps per year is sufficient. Most people are not looking for a group during the Christmas holidays or in the Summer. The best strategy is to leverage the three best times of the year: Fall, New Year, and Easter. You might offer a few other opportunities, but for many churches three times per year is sufficient. There is a lot more thought behind this answer than what I can include here. But, if people are truly interested in groups, waiting for a few weeks is not going to change that.
LifeLetter Cafe: How strategic and necessary is it for churches to have year-round video-based curriculum options for groups that wish to push past connect-level or affinity-based orientation?
Allen White: My secret ambition is to train every believer to open up God’s Word and lead their group in a discussion which will cause them to obey all that Jesus’ commanded us (Matthew 28:20). That’s the heart of discipleship. If they need a video, then make a video. Most people don’t need a video because they are ignorant. Videos are helpful because people are busy (and pastors can keep control of what’s taught in groups — there’s my control freak coming out). I encourage churches to create a 52 week per year downloadable discussion guide that any member of the church can use to take their weekend into their week. If that comes with a short teaching video, then all the better. But, remember, some people will never lead a discussion without a video, and others will never lead a discussion with a video.