If you need more leaders and even people just to help in your church, you are in good company these days. With low attendance numbers dragging on into the third year since COVID began, the leadership deficit in most churches is bigger than it’s ever been. Small groups are a great catalyst for growing leaders.
Every Disciple Can Make a Disciple
Sometimes you can get a little triggered when we hear the word “leader.” It’s a weighty word. Your mind goes to Paul’s qualifications for elders in his epistles to Timothy and Titus. But, as my friend Randal Alquist at Vertical Church in Connecticut says that when it comes to small group leaders, “We’re not recruiting elders here.” You have more knowledgeable and willing people than you give your church credit for. Give them a chance. If they have friends, they can make disciples. But, you don’t want to lower the bar on the title of “leader.”
Paul says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Timothy 5:22). Keep the leadership bar high. Only call someone a “leader” once they’ve met the requirements and have received training. But also remember that you don’t need a “leader” to make a disciple. You need a disciple to make a disciple.
When you read “every disciple can make a disciple,” your mind immediately goes to some special people in your church. They’re probably people you would never imagine leading a group or discipling anybody. First, don’t be so closed minded. Crazy people have the unique ability to minister to other crazy people. Second, as my friend Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You might be tempted to create an entire system to account for the exceptions. Don’t. Remember that 98% of your people will do a great job leading a group and discipling others. Don’t avoid trying something new or moving forward because someone might cause a problem. As my friend Mark Howell says, “There is no problem-free.” (I just realized that I’m blessed to have so many great friends).
Create an Easy Entry Point
For your people who are not ready to be called a “leader,” create an opportunity for a low risk trial run. This could be as simple as “getting together with your friends and doing a study” for a short-term study of six weeks or so. Provide a video-based curriculum, so they don’t have to teach. (You don’t want them to teach if they’re not trained). You provide an experience leader to walk alongside them to both help and supervise. Then, they invite their friends. Who will they invite?
Let’s say the scale of spiritual growth is 0 – 10. Zero are those who haven’t committed their lives to Christ. Tens are those who are “Jesus Jr.” Everyone falls somewhere on the scale. Now, if a spiritual three starts a group open to anybody and fives, sixes, and sevens show up, what’s going to happen? It will be a terrible experience. The spiritual three is still trying to figure out where the book of Habakkuk is, which makes the group rolls their eyes. But, what if that same three invites his or her friends. Who will be invited? The group will probably be threes, twos, ones, zeros, negative twos, etc.
Don’t Advertise These Groups
If you truly want to take the risk out of these groups, then don’t advertise them or send anyone to these groups. If you put the groups on your website or refer the group to someone, you’ve given the group an implied endorsement. If the “leader” hasn’t met the requirements to lead a group or lacks experience in leading, then those who sign up will experience disappointment. Their expectations weren’t met.
But, if someone gathers their friends, then their friends should know what they’re in for. It’s their friend. In my experience, I’ve never heard someone complain, “My friend’s group is terrible. I can’t believe you let them lead a group. They don’t know what they’re doing.” If they complain about their friend, my reply would be, “It’s your friend. This is on you, not on me.” But, I’ve never heard that complaint. People give grace to their friends.
A Six Week Study is Just a Start
An alignment series or church-wide campaign is the start of a leadership development process. If they enjoy doing a study with their friends, then offer them another study to continue. Once they have two studies under their belt, then begin to reintroduce the leadership requirements you delayed. Once they have met the requirements, then you can call them “leaders.”
Churches who keep a low bar on leadership for years create a situation with a diminishing return. If series after series is presented as too easy, then campaigns will become unimportant to your members. After all if you don’t increase the requirements for leaders and expect more of group members, then they will regard what you’re offering as unimportant. As my friend Carl George once said, “Churches have a one to three year window to get people into groups with campaigns.” After that, your members will suffer what I call campaign fatigue. They become weary of church-wide push after church-wide push.
You’ve got to know when to offer an easy entry point, when to reintroduce the requirements, and when to challenge your groups in their spiritual growth and commitment. While you don’t want to leave anyone in the dust, you also don’t want to keep everybody in Kindergarten. An easy entry point will get admitted non-leaders started, but keeping the bar low will not keep them engage long term.
On-going Leadership Development
Everyone in your groups, both leaders and members, should be taken through a process to discover and develop their spiritual gifts. Use a great resource like Discover Your Spiritual Gifts the Network Way by Bruce Bugbee, SHAPE from Saddleback, or Find Your Place by Rob Wegner and Brian Phipps. Your people should know their spiritual gifts and abilities, then be offered a way to use their gifts in the ministry of your church. Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee is a great resource on how to implement a ministry development process in your church.
Of course, within every group, every member can learn to lead a group. Pass around the responsibilities from bringing refreshments to hosting in their homes to leading the discussion. You can develop every group member to lead a group.
Think About This
The global pandemic has rapidly and dramatically caused culture to change. It’s almost like we’ve experienced a decade’s worth of change in the last two years. Things aren’t going back to normal. What we are experiencing now is the normal. You have to lead the church you’ve got.
Not every ministry your church offered in 2019 is worth keeping. While COVID brought a great deal of chaos, it also brought a significant amount of clarity. Have you evaluated what your church no longer needs? If your worship center is only half full on Sunday mornings, then you probably don’t need a parking team. Could your parking team make disciples instead? It’s time to evaluate your ministries. Eliminate what is no longer working or is not meeting a need. “Right size” the ministries that are working. Then, readjust the culture of your church for what lies ahead. Don’t be afraid to lose the people you have. They are with you. They are ready to move forward. If there ever was a time to change things, now is the time.
By Allen White Recently a small group pastor asked me, “Where do you stand on the Hosts versus Leaders Debate? People grow in groups, but you don’t have to know anything to be the leader??? I feel like I need to train more but no one wants to sit through training.” This are very important issues. Let me break down this question and offer a few thoughts. The Hosts versus Leaders Debate I don’t believe a Hosts versus Leaders Debate is necessary. It’s like a Children versus Adults Debate. At one point in our lives we are children, and then we become adults. Back in 2002 with the launch of 40 Days of Purpose, Rick Warren and the team at Saddleback Church introduced us to the term “Host.” The thought was that most people wouldn’t say they were “leaders,” so the invitation was changed to “host a group” by brewing a pot of coffee and being a “Star with your VCR.” What we discovered were a few problems, but a ton of new leaders who would have never called themselves leaders. “Host” was a great way for people to self-identify as a leader, even if they didn’t know that’s what they were doing. A host, in turn, becomes a leader. Usually churches will “lower the bar” to allow anyone to host a group. I prefer to say “delay the requirements.” Every church must decide what the minimum requirements would be to allow someone to test drive a small group. If the hosts enjoy leading the group, then they are invited on a pathway to become official small group leaders. This is when the requirements come back into play. But, there is an important loop hole here. Some people are content to be hosts. They don’t want to become official. Does the church require them to become official? The church could. But, the cat’s already out of the bag. The host doesn’t need the church in order to continue. They just need another video-based curriculum. At that point communication breaks down, and the hosts operate outside of the group system and coaching structure. This doesn’t need to happen, if the church is patient. The hosts should be given a choice whether to become official or to wait for the next church-wide campaign to come around. It’s not perfect, but it may very well be more than what they were doing before. Some leaders are children. Others are teenagers. Most become adults. But, all leaders follow that pattern. “People grow in groups, but you don’t have to know anything to be the leader???” Years ago I started teaching theology and practical ministry classes at a Bible institute. I was a little intimidated about teaching in my first semester. I felt I needed a better understanding of the subject. I didn’t want to appear foolish. And, I certainly didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my class. A veteran teacher coached me, “You just have to be one week ahead of the students.” Granted I had earned a B.A. and an M.Div. I knew the subjects. I just hadn’t taught the subjects. I held the veteran teacher’s secret dearly. I just needed to be one week ahead of my class. And, that’s exactly how I taught at the Bible institute for the next 10 years. People grow in groups. I absolutely agree. New leaders also grow in groups. They don’t need to have a lot of training to get started. They just need to get started. As issues come up with the group, the new leader should have a coach to turn to. The new leader’s problems become teachable moments. Those lessons will stick with the leaders forever. Put an experienced leader in the life of the new leaders and most of the training will take place on-the-job. “I feel like I need to train more but no one wants to sit through training.” I used to feel the same way. Seminary prepared me to lead training meetings. Then, I discovered real ministry. I would carefully plan my training meetings and advertise them well in advance only to stand in an empty room questioning the call of God on my life. Training with centralized meetings didn’t work for me. I had to stop and ask myself, “What is training?” What I discovered was that training could be a two minute conversation in the hallway or a two minute video sent out to all of the group leaders. (If you need topics and content for your training videos, check out the training section of my book, Exponential Groups, on pages 178-200). Training can be a text message or a voice mail. The best training comes in the relationships between leaders and their coaches. There is a place for formalized training. A one-time basic training event could be held after each six week campaign to give the new leaders or hosts instruction on how to lead a group at your church. Beyond this, the leaders will gauge what training they need regardless of what small group pastors like me think they should have. I finally reached a place where I only held two centralized training events per year. I gathered all of the group leaders each Fall to introduce them to the new curriculum and to recruit coaches from our established leaders. In the book, I refer to this as the “Sneak Peek.” The second meeting was often a group leaders’ retreat early in the year. We would choose a place that was an hour and a half or so away. (In California, this retreat was in Monterey, so if you have that option, take it!) The leaders would pay for their lodging and some of their meals. I would budget for the speaker. This became a very popular event for our leaders. The best part was the leaders could articulate things they learned at the retreat six months after the retreat, because the training was set apart from the normal routine of life. Closing Thoughts I appreciate honest questions like this. I don’t believe the hosts versus leaders thing needs to be an either/or. I see it more like Stage 1 and Stage 2. If people don’t respond to an invitation to lead, then an invitation to “host” might do the trick. Personally, I think the term “host” is a bit dated at this point. There are other ways to invite people to lead without using the word “leader.” Training is not a dinosaur, but the form of centralized training might be. Someone asked me once why I thought their leaders didn’t come to their training. Having no knowledge of this person’s training, I said, “Well, they don’t come because your training is boring and irrelevant.” He was taken aback. How could I make such an accusation about his training? I told him I knew it because that’s why people didn’t come to my training meetings. The good news is there are so many ways to communicate with people these days, there are many training opportunities, we just need to update our methods.
By Allen White I’ve seen small group launches go really well. And, I’ve had churches come to me after the launch or a series of launches and ask for help. Not so secretly, I really wish I had the opportunity to talk to them first. Any church only has so many opportunities to successfully launch groups and connect the majority of their members. Failure to launch in these circumstances is fatal for future launch attempts. As I’ve worked with churches, large and small, across North America, I have discovered seven things that help churches successfully launch groups. By having these things in place, you have a better chance of recruiting the leaders and coaches you need, forming groups that will last, and make your senior pastor a raving fan of groups.
Insight #1: Choose the Right Topic.
The right or wrong topic will make or break your launch. Think about who you are trying to connect: church members or folks in the community. If you chose a mature topic like tithing or fasting, more than likely you’ll have a tough road getting your members to participate let alone anyone from outside of your church. Think about topics that would be a felt need for your people and your community. I’ve coached churches who have done a two step strategy with this. The first campaign was used to connect and cast vision to the church body. The second campaign was designed for the church to reach the community. For instance, Capital Area Christian Church in the Harrisburg, PA area launched a New Year’s series in 2015 called Manifesto. This series laid out the vision and mission of the church to their people. Then, after Easter 2015, the launched a second series called Monsters Under the Bed, which addresses the topic of fear — now that’s a significant felt need. In the second series, they connect more in their congregation, but also quite a few in their community.
Insight #2: Lower the Bar on Leadership.
That doesn’t mean throwing people who are completely unprepared with no coach into the deep end. When I say, “lower the bar” I mean temporarily setting aside your requirements for short term series groups. These groups aren’t advertised. You don’t send people to these groups. You invite people who are open to doing a study with their friends give small groups a try. Maybe for the first time. If they have a good experience leading a group, then invite them to do more. Eventually, you will offer them a leadership track to make them official leaders. If things didn’t go so well for them, then thank them for giving it a try and encourage them to try another ministry. As Neil Cole says, “We need to lower the bar on what it means to be a leader and raise the bar on what it means to be a disciple.” Not everyone has a leadership gift, but we are all called to “go and make disciples.” No one is exempt from the Great Commission. By giving your people an easy to use tool like a video-based curriculum, you can help your people live in obedience to God by equipping them for what God commands them to do. When did this become an option?
Insight #3: Focus on Recruiting Group Leaders.
If your pastor is willing to give “airtime” in the weekend service to talk about groups, recruit leaders. If your pastor gives you airtime for multiple weekends, recruit leaders. If you are recruiting leaders, people will figure out the church is launching groups or doing a church-wide campaign. Don’t waste this precious airtime promoting groups. And, certainly don’t waste this precious airtime promoting classes and Bible studies that are on their way out. Recruit leaders.
Insight #4: Keep the Invitation and the Response Close Together.
People only think about church when they are in church. When the pastor invites folks to lead a group, then provide a way IN THE SERVICE for them to respond. Don’t send them to the lobby. Don’t send them to the website. Don’t send them out the door without collecting their response. Whether you use a response card which is placed in the offering, an online survey taken on a smartphone, or texting a message to a designated number, you want to get a “Yes” from every willing person before they head out the door. If you send an email invitation from the Senior Pastor during the week, provide a link for them to sign up online.
Insight #5: Shorten the Distance Between Their “Yes” and Starting the Group.
Since we’ve already waved the requirements, the new leaders are already one step closer to starting their group. Whether the Senior Pastor encourages them in the service to begin inviting people to their groups or they are instructed on how to form their groups in a briefing immediately after the service, don’t allow any time to pass from when they say “Yes” to when the new leaders put things in motion. The longer you wait, the sooner they will get cold feet. Don’t schedule a briefing or orientation a month from the invitation because it’s efficient. I would rather host three briefs per weekend for three weeks in a row with a handful of people at each than wait a month and lose half of the prospective leaders in the process. You’ve made it easy for people to start groups, now get them started!
Insight #6: Recruit During the Month Prior to Your Launch.
While you can promote well in advance of the series, don’t take signups for months. I learned this from a PTA president. Promote early and often, but only take signups right before the event. Otherwise, you can recruit and recruit only to discover most people will sign up in the last three weeks before the start of the launch. One month out gather your existing group leaders to give them the first look at the series. I call this a Sneak Peek. This will honor your leaders by giving them an exclusive opportunity to check out the new study. This will also take pressure off of your new leader briefings by briefing your established leaders ahead of time. This is also a great opportunity to recruit your established leaders to coach new leaders. Then, recruit new leaders for the three weeks leading up to the launch. Not everyone attends every weekend, so you want to ask for more than one weekend. Also, some people will need time to warm up to the idea. The first week they might say “No” to leading a group, but by the third week, their “No” might turn to a “Yes.”
Insight #7: Your Senior Pastor Must be Your Church’s Small Group Champion.
Going back 20 years, I used to personally recruit every small group leader in my church. While I had stellar group leaders, my church also got stuck at 30 percent of our people in groups. Then, I asked my Senior Pastor to invite people to lead groups. We doubled our groups in a day. I have not personally recruited another small group leader since 2004. And, I served in a whole other church since then! To gain your Senior Pastor’s interest in groups, put your pastor on the curriculum. If you do, your pastor will be more interested in groups because he will want people to use his curriculum. Also, your people will be far more interested in joining a group, because they already like your pastor’s teaching. I know I gave you these seven insights in rapid fire succession. If you hit these seven points, you will have a great small group launch. If you want to hear more, then register for my next webinar at allenwhite.org/webinars.