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.
Mark Richardson is the Life Pastor at San Diego Rock Church, where he has served for 15 years. Rock Church has over 500 small groups and saw their groups increase by 211% in 2020. Prior to the Rock Church, Mark served as a board member and executive director at the Jireh Ministries Foundation and was an intern with the Christian Embassy to the United Nations. He holds a MA in Pastoral Studies from Azusa Pacific and an MBA from Point Loma.
Well, 2021 hasn’t quite turned out the way that we thought it would. It’s not 2020, but it’s also not 2019. The world has changed. Our people have changed. Hybrid life seems here to stay. People are craving community. Keeping certain things virtual. And being pickier overall about how they spend their time. How do we move forward with small groups in 2021? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by moving backward. That’s why I am offering the 2021 Small Group Reset: 5 Days to Reframe Your Ministry. This FREE On Demand Video Resource will help you navigate the changing culture within your church. Sign up at allenwhite.org/reset and start now. Fall 2021 looks to be the largest group launch opportunity you’ve ever seen. Let me guide you in getting prepared.
If you’re like most pastors, your small groups are tired of Zoom meetings. If people are working remotely, they are in a series of Zoom meetings all day long. As Nona Jones said, “The problem is that even though the meetings are different the experience is the same.” Zoom Fatigue is real.
Your people are tired of looking at their screens and looking at themselves all day long. But, if they won’t meet with their groups online when they are unable or unwilling to meet in-person, then how do you create community? How do you fulfill your mission of making disciples.
Do Something Different
Zoom meetings cannot effectively replicate an in-person experience. Your small groups are just not the same online as they are in-person. In-person meetings are far superior to online meetings just like your in-person worship service is much better than the streaming service (but the streaming service could be better). So, stop trying to create the same meeting experience for a group on Zoom. It’s not the same. It doesn’t work. People don’t like it…says the guy who wrote Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future this year!
Change it up. Do something different. Call it something different. Think about offering a short-term group if that’s a different experience for your groups.
This is a different year. Online groups are a different experience. Try something different!
Groups are More Than Meetings
Groups offer the experience of life-on-life, not life-on-curriculum. Fortunately, Jesus didn’t command you to “go and hold small group meetings.” (And, before you say it, I am well aware of Hebrews 10:25. Stay with me here).
Your mission is to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19-20). What do you need to make a disciple? Let’s take this as granular as we can. You need a disciple to make a disciple. I would even venture to say that more discipleship happens outside of meetings than in meetings anyway. Feel free to debate me on that, but keep in mind that my definition of discipleship is not merely book learnin’. It’s teaching people to obey what Jesus commanded.
The best examples of life-on-life are the One Anothers of the Bible. How can you “encourage one another daily” when you don’t see each other every day or even very often? If you’re like most adults, you are never more than five feet away from your phone. Mine is sitting next to my computer as I’m typing this. I have to confess that my screen time has significantly increased in 2020. The same is true for most people. So, since your people are already on their phones quite a bit, why not use their phones to encourage each other? Send a quick text. Make a quick call. Say something positive on social media.
The same can go for the other One Anothers:
• “Love one another” (John 13:34; John 15:12). • “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10). • “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). • “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16). • “Stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13). • “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). • “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32). • “Build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). • “Encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13). • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). • “Pray for each other” (James 5:16). • There are 59 total!
And, here’s the thing: even when all of your people are attending in-person worship services and meeting with their groups in-person, they still can’t practice these One Anothers often enough. Encourage them to use their digital devices and message, pick up the phone and call, and even send a handwritten note in the mail. What if this could become the normal practice of all believers?
Zoom is NOT the Only Way to Meet Online
If Zoom Fatigue is a big issue, there are other ways to meet when you can’t meet in-person. Your people meet in other types of online groups that aren’t fatiguing them. Don’t think so?
Groups could meet on a conference call line. Services like freeconferencecall.com offer the phone number (which is usually long distance, but that’s not really an issue today).
Groups could meet asynchronously. Your people use asynchronous groups all of the time – a group text, Slack, private Facebook groups, Marco Polo, Parler (or not), and even “Reply to All” on email is an asynchronous group. The leader would post the questions one post at a time, then the group would respond probably over a week. This is how I did my CompuServe group in 1994!
My children connect with their friends often over video games like Fortnite. In fact, one article (that I can’t locate right now…) said that people who connect socially while playing video games are doing better in the pandemic than most people. I’m not sure how you’d pull off a traditional small group study, but you can connect! If you have discovered how to do this well, let me know!
Some of this may seem off-the –wall, but 2020 has been an off-the-wall sort of year. This is the year to experiment “because of COVID.” Whatever you want to start doing or even stop doing, do it “because of COVID.”
Some People Really Need an Online Small Group Right Now
You have people who are isolated and alone. You have people watch your online worship service and are ready to take a next step. You have people who’ve watched too much cable news and are freaking out. You have people who need to connect. Offer Zoom groups to the people who need them. It won’t be 100% of your people, but there are people who would love to join one. Move with the movers.
Small groups meet many different purposes. They provide community and connection. They offer teaching and training. They promote conversation and practical application of God’s Word, the Bible. They offer opportunities to serve and to reach others. They provide an environment for encouragement and accountability. But, just like the weekend worship service is not your church’s entire ministry, a small group meeting is not the entire ministry of the group.
When groups can’t meet in-person and won’t meet online, focus on connection. How are your people connecting? How are your leaders connecting with their members? How are you and your coaches connecting with your leaders?
This year has been just as crazy of a year for Rock Church in San Diego, CA as it has for everybody else. They have not conducted in-person services since March. Pastor Miles McPherson streams his message every Sunday morning to a growing online congregation. Then, in addition to quarantine, the US began to experience racial unrest to a high degree. Pastor Miles just so happens to be the author of The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation. Suddenly, he knew what his next sermon series would be. The church also decided to launch book groups to go along with the series. Even if your church isn’t a megachurch or your pastor has not written a book, the principles Rock Church used will help you launch more online and in-person groups. This is how they launched 119 new online groups in July:
The Senior Pastor Invited People to Join Groups.
Every week Pastor Miles invited people to start or join a new online small group during the online worship service. This invitation wasn’t relegated to the announcements or made by another staff member. Over the years, I’ve seen that when an associate pastor makes the invitation, the church gets about 30% of the result. In 30 years, of full time ministry, I’ve experienced the same. This is why a lot of churches get stuck with only 30% of their adults in groups. Pastor Miles gave the invitation, and he got a big response.
They Chose a Compelling Topic.
You want a topic that has a broad appeal to a large group of people. This is not the time to choose a mature topic like fasting or anything to do with money. There are times for those series. By choosing a topic on racial tensions and reconciliation, Rock Church was positioned well to start a maximum number of groups in the middle of the summer. Now, it helped that Pastor Miles was the author of a book on racial reconciliation, but your church could also start groups using Miles McPherson’s book or start groups with a weekly teaching video and discussion questions from your pastor. The more relevant the topic, the greater the appeal.
They Reframed the Invitation to Start a Group.
Rock Church did not start “small groups.” They started book clubs or book groups. Small groups already had a certain meaning in their church’s culture. Small groups implied high qualifications and a lot of training in advance. By inviting people to Book Clubs, they didn’t need a small group leader. They needed friends to discuss a book. Language defines culture. To change the culture of groups in your church, change the words you use.
They Gave Their People Permission and Opportunity.
People interested in starting book clubs simply invited people they knew who would be interested in the book. There was no lengthy sign-up process or website to build. People just leveraged their existing relationships to meet online and discuss a topic that was relevant to them at their pastor’s invitation. It doesn’t really need to be more complex than that. That’s how most of these got started.
Now Rock Church is a large church. Chances are that there were many people who wanted to join a book club, but didn’t feel they could start one and didn’t get invited. The opportunity was given to register to join a book club. About 600 people took them up on this offer. The risk comes when you assign prospective group members to book club “leaders” that the church doesn’t know well. Instead, the book clubs for those 600 are being led largely by the church staff. (The campuses are closed. Services are online. What else is the staff going to do….?).
They Gave New Leaders an Experienced Leader to Coach Them.
To prepare for this launch, Mark Richardson, the small groups pastor at Rock Church, began to recruit experienced group leaders to walk alongside these book group leaders during the series. With the pandemic everything is decentralized. They didn’t have the ability for large training meetings, so they delivered the training through experienced leaders who can support and encourage these new leaders and answer their questions as they come.
If you can get these five keys in place, you will see a big result: Senior Pastor’s invitation, relevant topic, reframe the invitation, give permission and opportunity, and give the help of a coach. It’s not as difficult or complex as you might think. In this past year, Mark Richardson and Rock Church were prepared through my small group ministry coaching group. When we started the year, none of us knew what this year would hold. In January, Mark didn’t know he would be starting book clubs in July. But, by being ready to try something new and having coaches standing by, when Pastor Miles decided on The Third Option series, Mark was ready. Their people and their groups have benefitted greatly.
I was recently interviewed by Aaron Earls on the trend toward launching multisite campuses through microsites. As I have blogged previously, microsites start in homes for the purpose of gathering people for a weekend service. Microsites are not a small groups, but can certainly create small groups very readily. Below is the article that appeared in Lifeway’s Facts and Trends magazine. By Aaron Earls The popular image of an American megachurch as a sprawling campus surrounding a massive worship center drawing thousands of attendees every Sunday needs some updating. Even as most continue to draw in more worshipers, the typical megachurch sanctuary is shrinking. And some of the largest churches from California to South Carolina are planting their new campuses in the smallest of sites—homes. This comes as church leaders realize sustained growth of their congregation and spiritual growth of their people will come from going small. Multisite and Microsites In the last five years, the typical megachurch’s main sanctuary decreased in size from 1,500 seats to a median of 1,200, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report from Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The move to smaller sanctuaries is an outgrowth of the burgeoning multisite church movement. Instead of building a large church and asking people to come to one place, megachurches are building smaller spaces in more places. Since 2000, churches with multiple campuses have grown steadily from 23 percent to more than 60 percent of all megachurches, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report. “Megachurches have shifted their philosophy from building bigger and bigger,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, “to spreading further and further.” In the midst of this, a new trend is emerging. Larger churches are now launching microsite campuses. “Microsite is a much smaller version of a multisite campus that meets in a home or another small space,” says Allen White, a pastor and church consultant in South Carolina. The Rock Church in San Diego, California, and NewSpring Church in South Carolina are two megachurches that have added microsites to their multisite approach, according to White. Instead of securing a larger temporary location such as a school or movie theater, for a microsite, a church identifies an area of the city or community it wants to reach and often begins meeting in the home of a member there. “A microsite can pop up as quickly as a sandwich shop,” says White. “All that’s needed are local leaders, resources to train them, and video for the services.” White says these microsites allow larger churches to experiment. “If it blows up, that’s how experiments go,” he says. Megachurches may need that infusion of experimentation. A study shows that megachurches—once hailed as a new way to experience church—may be getting stuck in their ways. In 2010, more than half (54 percent) of megachurches strongly agreed they were willing to change to meet new realities. In 2015, according to the Megachurch Report, that number plummeted to 37 percent. As churches grow larger and older, they can lose flexibility. Adding microsites or other innovations allows churches to regain some of what was lost. Those microsites are one of the ways in which larger churches are trying to recapture the essence of being small. Why Megachurches Go Small Larger churches often recognize what small churches might miss—there are advantages to being little. Through small groups, multisite campuses, and now microsites, those megachurches are attempting to continue their growth while retaining small-church benefits. “Churches are taking advantage of Dunbar’s number,” says Bob Whitesel, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and church growth expert. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, found humans can comfortably maintain only around 150 stable relationships. Beyond that, says Whitesel, “relationships don’t seem to have much depth.” This is why he believes many churches stall around this plateau. “Once it gets bigger than that, people stop inviting others because they no longer know everyone else at church,” he says. It’s incumbent on large church leaders to capitalize on smaller groups that organically emerge in the church. Whitesel calls these “sub-congregations,” and they mirror other numbers Dunbar found in his research. Groups of 50 can unite around a task, such as the music ministry or preschool volunteers. Small group gatherings of 15 have the feel of an extended family, and groups of five are intimate connections. These numbers have been seen not only in sociological research but also in church history, Whitesel says. “In the Wesleyan revivals, every leader had to be involved in what they called ‘Band Meetings’ of five individuals. Larger groups of 15 were called ‘Class Meetings.’” With this sociological and historical support, church consulting experts identify at least four areas that can be more easily developed in smaller churches. Accountability — With larger churches, anonymity is easier. Attendees can sneak in late, sit in the back of an enormous sanctuary, and leave without interacting with anyone. But this leaves individuals prone to slipping away from the church as quickly as they slipped in. Whitesel says smaller numbers allow people to “connect with a group that brings accountability and interdependency.” If the church goes through changes, being connected to a smaller group—be it a campus or a small group—serves as glue to hold people in place. Community — The main benefit larger churches can gain from going small, according to Allen White, is connection and community. “Everyone desires the experience of being known and accepted,” he says. Microsite campuses allow much larger churches to “meld together the feel of a small group with the production of a large church,” White says. Leadership growth — As with accountability, attendees at a megachurch may be tempted to avoid leadership. They may feel intimidated by the size of the church or a lack of education and training. Going small forces new people into leadership roles. “Once a church is able to train and deploy staff or volunteers to lead a microsite campus, then the number of campuses is limited only to available space and willing leaders,” says White. The opportunities for involvement and leadership are endless, and in smaller settings many may feel more comfortable taking the reins of a ministry. Reproducibility — Thousand-seat arenas aren’t on every corner to start a new megachurch, but that’s not a problem for microsites or small churches. The ease at which microsites can begin makes it possible for them to go viral, according to White. This type of planting churches and starting new sites is not exclusive to megachurches. LifeWay Research’s analysis of more than 800 church plants found more than 1 in 5 were launched from a church with an average attendance below 100. The clear majority (60 percent) were started by churches of fewer than 500. As churches quickly reproduce, mistakes will be made, and they’ll learn what not to do. But White says this means the church is trying to fulfill her mission. “The church as a whole has spent too many years perfecting ministry, but not producing disciples,” he says. Going small allows larger churches to produce faithful disciples in new contexts outside the gigantic arena.
AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@LifeWay.com) is online editor of FactsAndTrends.net. UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, NewSpring Church has moved all of their microsite campuses to larger portable locations. They outgrew all of the houses! DISCLAIMER: Before you launch microsites in your church, check with local zoning regulations as well as HOA policies and fire regulations. If microsites become too large, they can cause parking problems as well as other potential headaches for neighbors. It might be wise to rotate microsites between different homes to alleviate any neighborhood issues.