By Allen White
Nothing will accelerate your group launch faster than the right topic. When you choose a theme for an alignment series that is a common felt need in your congregation and your community, people will run to join groups. But, the reverse can also be true. Choosing the wrong topic will drive them away.
1. More “Mature” Topics Will Limit Your Launch
Several years ago, I was working with a church that started every year with a 21 day fast. They wanted to design a curriculum to support the fast. While I would never attempt to talk a church out of such a significant initiative, I did caution them that forming new groups might be a little challenging. On the bright side, the refreshments would be very easy. They started a handful of new groups for their members and had a great experience with their fast. But, they were far from involving the entire congregation.
Some topics are for more mature believers rather than for people in the community who may have never darkened the door of your church. Anything to do with money: budgeting, giving, generosity, capital campaigns, and so on are challenging to form groups around. While many people need help managing their finances, too many evangelists desiring $65 million jets have created a poor association between the church and money for most of the world. Don’t go there.
Other topics like evangelism, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual gifts are great for the congregation, but probably won’t draw much interest from the community. There are ways to promote these topics more indirectly.
Instead of creating an alignment series around a capital campaign, why not create a series around what the church is raising money for? If the church is taking new initiatives to help the poor or become a resource in the community, then these are the topics to promote. Maybe the church is investing in the next generation. People are very concerned about the world their children will grow up in. They can get behind the vision of the church to reach the community, and then they might even give.
Instead of creating curriculum to teach your people evangelism, why not produce a series that is evangelistic? Talk about the needs in the community. You could even include a presentation of the Gospel. You could do evangelism with the curriculum rather than teaching how to do evangelism. A series like All In focuses on the story of Jesus and offers the Gospel message.
There are ways to introduce mature topics to a broader group. But, the largest group launches come from topics that touch a nerve.
2. Felt Need Topics Will Attract People Who Need Help
When you talk to your neighbors and others in your community, what are they concerned about? Many people struggle in their relationships, their marriages, and their parenting. These are great felt need topics which can reach a broad audience.
People also deal with anxiety, worry, and stress. Some feel like giving up or are lost in even successful careers. What will bring them meaning and hope? Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef who recently committed suicide once asked, “What do you do after your dreams have come true?” Even those who seem to have it all often feel a deep void. How can your series help them?
Of course, the granddaddy of all church-wide campaigns is The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. Other series which have drawn in the community include Kerry Shooks’ One Month to Live, Live Like Your Dying, and Half Time by Bob Buford. I’ve worked with churches to produce series that deal with leaving a legacy, common fears, hope, or ambition that have helped some churches more than double their current numbers of groups. A couple of churches now have twice as many people in groups than they have in weekend attendance.
3. What is Your Senior Pastor Passionate About?
The best topic you can choose for a successful curriculum and group launch is the idea that your pastor is the most passionate about. Does he have a life message or dominate them he speaks about often? Does she have a clear direction on what the Fall series should be? The best topic is not necessarily the hottest topic to the church, but the hottest topic for your pastor.
Once you have that direction, you don’t have to start with a blank piece of paper. Most pastors have files full of sermons they’ve preached over the course of their ministries. There is no shortage of content. Why not research the pastor’s hot topic in past sermon files? You’ll be surprised what you come up with.
And, remember, you’re not creating the next Purpose-Driven Life! Your study may not make the bestseller list, but your pastor’s teaching on your video-based curriculum will be very popular with your congregation. What’s even better is that when your felt need topic draws in the friends, neighbors, and co-workers of your members into groups, they will be introduced to your pastor through the video curriculum. When these new folks are invited to church, they will feel like they already know your pastor from the videos!
Where are you headed this Fall? If you’re creating your own curriculum, I hope you’ve already started. If not, there are semi-custom offerings from allinsmallgroups.com and other sources that have scripts and study guides already written. The hard work is taken care of. Your pastor just needs to personalize the scripts and shoot the video. If push comes to shove, curriculum you purchase can also help you form new groups as long as your pastor is passionate about it.
The topic will make or break your next alignment. Where are you headed?
By Allen White
By Jozef Mičic. Used with permission.
Most churches are organized to preserve the institution. The institution may be the church as a whole, a paradigm embraced 25 years ago, or a worship style that fit a previous generation well. I’m not just speaking of traditional churches. This also applied to churches which are contemporary to 1995 or 2005. What worked for the last 25 years will not work for the next 25 years.
Ministry is Simpler
A stark difference lies between simpler and simplistic. Simplistic means offering just a few things to easily assimilate busy people into the life of the church. That’s not bad. But, perpetuating ministries based merely on the length of their existence or on its success in other churches are insufficient reasons to continue them in your church (or even to start them).
In most cases, the basis of this thinking is a system of staff-led ministries created to move people from the parking lot, through the front door, into a commitment to the church, and finally assigned to ministry. Henry Ford would be proud. But, the people who leave their cars in the parking lot to step into church for the first time are not raw materials or blank slates. They have different backgrounds, education, gifts, abilities, and spiritual experiences. If and when they complete the church’s process, they won’t be uniform products lined up neatly in rows. We aren’t manufacturing widgets.
Ministry is complex when those in authority decide what the church’s ministry should be, then attempt to recruit members into ministries which are not well suited for them. The purpose of many of these ministries is to serve the institution: park cars, shake hands, take up the offering, watch the children, and so forth. The focus of ministry is centered on the weekend experience, not the gifts and passions of the members. The end result is the constant need to feed the beast, that is, the weekend service.
As Rick Rusaw asks, “What if we gave as much attention to scattering as we give to gathering?” The seeker service is fading. The missional movement gets the church part way there, but lacks building relationships with those who are served. Incarnational is next. What is incarnational? Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40 — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus gave his followers only two things to do: Love God and Love Neighbors. An M.Div. is not necessary for either of those. (I have an M.Div.)
There is merit to keeping what works and tossing what doesn’t. Every ministry has a time to thrive, and a time to die, especially when it’s not aligned to Jesus’ mission.
When we give people permission and opportunity, they become very creative. Ministry is simpler by starting only the things our people currently are gifted and called to do. When there is no longer a leader carrying that vision, then the ministry ends. Then, we get behind the next group of leaders with the gifts and passion for what is next. It’s simpler.
The System is Simpler
Most people don’t need an elaborate strategy to connect with a church. They only need someone who genuinely cares about them. They need a friend.
This is a function of multiplication, which I wrote about here. A simpler system is a system of multiplication. You must multiply yourself in order for your church to grow. We must realize that ministry is not something we do to people. The people are our ministry. Their development is both the future of our ministry and the future of the church.
But, when does a busy pastor have time for multiplying themselves when the tasks of ministry are overwhelming already? Give some of those tasks away. Develop people to fulfill those roles. Stop doing things which are not multiplication factors. Everyone has the same amount of time – whether they are multiplying or not.
Only 15 percent of Millennials and only 4 percent of GenZ are Christians. We have heard for years that the church is only one generation away from extinction. This could be the generation.
You don’t need to become an expert in Millennials or GenZ. You just need to engage them. Talk to them about what Jesus said and help them discover the application for their context. Instead of approaching them as their grandfather, engage them as a missionary. This is a cross cultural experience within our own culture.
I am 53 years old. I am not the future of the church. Neither are you. But, I’m not planning on quitting any time soon. I do plan to continue in relevant ways and to celebrate what the next generations come up with. What will it take to empower and encourage the next generations? How can we give them permission to serve in their cultural context?
Word of Caution
Before you go and wreck your church, remember you have a lot of people that it’s working for. You can’t afford to lose them. Love Millennials all day long, but remember, they’re broke, and you’re not ready to retire.
Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth? Maybe. You can be the judge. Your current church members were brought into the current ministry of your church with a certain understanding of how things would be – a contract, if you will. If you attempt to change that contract in an autocratic, mandatory fashion, then you’re done. But, what if you could begin to make changes without threatening the base?
In a recent episode of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast, Todd Wilson from Exponential shared the idea of churches creating R&D labs and setting aside funds for it. This would allow for pilots and “skunk works” without upsetting the apple cart. I’m not talking about creating services like we did for GenX that ended up splitting our churches. R&D is a portion of funds, staffing, energy, and creativity applied to the future without radically disrupting the status quo until new concepts are proven out.
It will take a long time for our members to give up the worship style and ministry that they love for the sake of the next generation. Wasn’t this our argument to the traditional folks when we wanted to implement seeker services? But, time is short. A generation is at stake.
What is your church discovering?
By Allen White
“Nobody ever leaves ‘good enough’ for ‘potentially better'” according to Robert Herjavec of Shark Tank fame in the December 2016 issue of Fortune magazine. He makes a very good point. While Herjavec was starting his software security business, he found difficulty selling something slightly better than what people were currently using. I’m a buyer like that.
A nice young man named Storm calls me once in a while from Citrix. I’ve been their customer for many years, since I’ve found GotoMeeting to be a very stable platform for my coaching groups. Storm would like me to consider Citrix’s version of Dropbox. He’s a very nice young man. He gave a solid presentation. He checks up on me now and then. The only problem is Storm wants me to sign up for Citrix’s version of Dropbox, and I’m a longtime Dropbox user. Good enough wins over potentially better.
Now, if the Citrix’s version came bundled with GotoMeeting and gave me a discount, then maybe. But, I have Dropbox links in my emails, my articles, everywhere. It’s a lot to unlink just to link back up with a similar product. If Dropbox had a catastrophic failure, then maybe I would switch to a different platform. But, until I have a compelling reason, I have no motivation to change.
Let’s pretend you are Storm from Citrix, and I am your church member. You want me to join a small group. I “don’t have time for a group” a.k.a. “it’s not a priority in my life.” Why? I have friends already. I have a regular quiet time. I’m involved with other things at church. Now, without overselling small groups or making them mandatory (both tactics will fail), why should I join a small group? How are groups better than what I’m currently doing?
If you can answer this question, then people might abandon what they’re doing for something they perceive as better.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.
By Allen White
Greg Atkinson is the founder of Worship Impressions and author of Church Leadership Essentials, Strange Leadership, and Secrets of a Secret Shopper. Over his 20—plus years of ministry experience, Greg has served as the director of WorshipHouse Media and editor of Christian Media Magazine, as well as serving as a worship pastor, technical director, and campus pastor. Greg has worked with churches of all stages and sizes, including some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country, as well as with businesses, non-profits, and organizations such as Josh McDowell Ministries.
Q1: You’ve done a lot of ministry in a lot of places over the last 22 years. How did you land on Guest Services?
I was coaching church planters through ARC (Association of Related Churches), and the President of ARC was Billy Hornsby. Billy and I were talking in a hotel lobby one day and he said, “Greg you ought to be a secret shopper.” At the time, I only new of one other secret shopper. Billy said, “You’ve been around the church for a while, you’ve served in various roles, and you know what to look for – you know what excellence looks like.” “And,” he said, “I’ll give you your first endorsement.” So Billy sent out a mass email to all the ARC churches telling them they ought to bring me in. Churches started contacting me and the rest is history.
Q2: What does your “Secret Shopper” process look like?
I evaluate everything as it relates to the weekend services. I start with an online presence evaluation before I ever arrive at the church in person. I evaluated the church’s use of social media, and I thoroughly go through their church website and offer feedback. Once I arrive on campus, I start with the parking lot and from there to everything you can imagine – from greeters and ushers, information center, children’s ministry, security, and a big eye towards the worship service itself (evaluating and giving feedback on music, sound, video, lights and the sermon – as well as service structure and flow). I even look at the restrooms and write about the smell of the facility. One church of 12,000 that I did a secret shopper for said, “He doesn’t miss a thing.” Another church of 17,000 said, “It was probably the best money we spent all year.” I take my job very seriously and it is my mission to turn first-time guests into second-time guests.
Q3: What are some common issues you find churches make with their First Impressions?
Of course, every church is different, but there are common issues that I see at a majority of churches. Things like: The wrong people serving in hospitality, assuming people know things (guest services, signage, communication), not taking security seriously, and not thinking through their website strategically. These are just a few of the things I notice frequently. I’m going to write a full feature article for Christianity Today on this subject and will go into much greater detail.
Q4: You’ve really learned a lot about what makes guests feel welcome. You should write a book.
Yes! I did actually. My next book entitled Secrets of a Secret Shopper is set to come out this September. I wrote this book for small to medium-sized churches that can’t afford to bring in myself or another consultant. I go into great detail of everything I look for when I do a secret shopper. There are things in the book that are beneficial and practical for large churches as well. This book is very practical and is something every pastor, church leader and guest services director and first impressions volunteers need to read. It’s a book that has been 9 years in the making. You can check my website: GregAtkinson.com for details on the book release. You can also check my secret shopper website (WorshipImpressions.com), to read more articles on first impressions and find out about when the book releases.
Q5: What is the strangest experience you’ve had secret shopping a church?
Almost getting arrested would be one. Almost getting tazed would be two. And getting a background check ran on me would be three. For obvious reasons, I can’t tell what led to the following “fun times.” All I can say is that I will test your church’s security and find its weaknesses. I just did a church secret shopper consultation for a medium-sized church two weeks ago and their “security team” saw me walking around and going places I shouldn’t. They just watched me, but didn’t engage me. At the end of the service, with every one their security team’s eye on me, they watched me go straight down the center aisle and approach the senior pastor. They were relieved when I hugged him. They should have had a security person present, standing next to the senior pastor. I thought it was strange that they didn’t engage me and say, “May I help you?” – Those 4 words are the biggest weapon or deterrent that any person in a church has on any given week. Please don’t forget that.
Q5.5: Being a Greer, South Carolina boy, Clemson or Carolina?
South Carolina Gamecocks all the way. Ever since I started watching football games with my grandfather as a young child, I’ve been a huge Gamecock fan and am excited for our future.
By Allen White
Photo by Unal Ozman
“If I did that for small groups, then I would have to do the same for everyone else.” Have you ever heard those words before?
When it came to getting airtime in the weekend services for small groups, I’ve faced a few culprits over the years. First, I thought the problem was the Worship Pastor who didn’t want to interrupt “the flow” of the worship service. Then, I thought the problem rested with the Communications Director, who just wanted to control everything. I’m not ready to rule them out entirely, but I have found the true troublemaker:
The Idea of Fairness.
Fairness says, “If I promote your ministry, then I have to promote everyone else’s ministry at the same level.” It also says, “I can’t promote only your ministry on one weekend or else others will think I’m playing favorites.” I am personifying Fairness here, because I think it’s demonic. Now, some of you may be thinking that I’m overstating my frustration with Fairness, but the rest of you are glad that I called it out.
If Fairness determines what gets promoted in your church, then don’t wonder why your church continues to flounder at small groups or anything else. If you’re ready to move forward and get unstuck from Fairness, then ask yourself a few questions:
1. Where is Your Church Headed?
Now, before you hike off into the woods and spend three days going ’round and ’round about the same things you discussed last year, let’s face it, most church mission and vision statements are practically identical. Our mission is Christ’s mission. Love God and Love People or Love, Serve, Share, or something similar. We’re all clear.
But, how is your church doing that? Maybe you’re not. I hope that’s not true.
Most churches “Love God” through worship services and through our relationships with each other. “Loving People” comes through serving them, caring for them, helping them grow in their faith, and so on. What is helping your people achieve what God has called them to in your church? If it’s Sunday School, then promote Sunday School. If it’s Serving the Community, then promote Serving the Community. If it’s Small Groups, then promote Small Groups. If it’s a combination of things, then promote a combination of things.
But, you don’t need to promote everything all at once or equally.
2. What is Growing in Your Church and What is Declining?
For most churches in North America, traditional means of discipleship like Sunday School classes and Midweek Bible Study are on the decline. People just don’t want to commit four hours every Sunday morning or come back on Wednesday night. Now, if these things are working for you, then don’t shut them down. But, no amount of additional airtime in the weekend services is going to get more people into Sunday School or Midweek Bible Study.
Now if you have a rockin’ Sunday School or Midweek and nearly 100 percent of your adults are being discipled that way, then promote what’s working. Don’t worry about Small Groups. When was the last time you stopped to compare your church’s discipleship options with your average weekly adult attendance? If there is a gap of more than 30 percent between your worship attendance and your discipleship options, then it’s time to promote groups. And, de-emphasize the other offerings that aren’t growing.
3. What Ministries Impact the Most People in Your Church and in Your Community?
In many churches, their church bulletins and websites are like the old Sears catalog. It lists about every possible thing anyone could ever want. The only problem is you can’t find it. At least the Sears catalog gave us an index.
A while back a study was conducted to determine ice cream sales. At one store, 20 flavors were sampled by customers. At another store, four flavors were offered. Which store sold the most ice cream? The store that was sampling only four flavors sold more ice cream. They found choosing one out of four flavors was a much simpler decision than choosing one flavor from 20 kinds.
If you took a hard look at the ministries your church offers, which ones impact the greatest number of people or have the potential to? It’s probably not “Paws for People.”
In the last church I served, we had a ministry called “Paws for People.” People brought their dogs to nursing homes to cheer up the residents. I am a dog lover. When I’m in a nursing home one day, a canine visitor would be very welcome. But, why would this ministry ever be promoted to our entire congregation of 5,000 adults?
How many were dog owners? How many were already involved in a ministry? How many had a heart to go to nursing homes? (When was the last time you visited a nursing home outside of work?) The subset of potential candidates gets smaller and smaller.
While “Paws for People” would be great in a booth at a ministry fair, they don’t need airtime in the weekend services. Why? What they offer doesn’t impact 50 percent or more of the people in the service. But, if Fairness had its say, “Paws for People” would get equal airtime with everyone else.
What does impact 50 percent or more? Small groups, of course. Maybe Women’s Ministry or Men’s Ministry, if you have them. (If you don’t have these, don’t start them). All church events. You get the picture.
4. How Do Your People Stay Informed?
Most churches have a variety of ways to communicate to their people: bulletins, slides before the service, videos, inserts, ministry tables in the lobby, e-newsletters, other emails, church apps, church website, etc. But, which ones are actually effective in getting the word out about your ministry?
Often I survey the churches I work with (and those I have served) and ask how people stay informed about church events. While every church is a little different, this is important information. If you expect your church’s website to do all of the heavy lifting on keeping people informed, well, 1995 just called and they want their AOL back.
In the last church I served, they were big on video announcements. But, the video announcements were played before the service when less than 10 percent of the congregation was even in the auditorium. What I discovered through a survey was that our people stayed informed through the church bulletin, a weekly email newsletter, and announcements made in the service.
When we met to plan our events, they thought I was being humble when I told them a video announcement wasn’t necessary. I only wanted an ad in the bulletin and the e-newsletter. And, leading up to a campaign, the Senior Pastor made announcements to recruit leaders (and there were no other announcements on those three weeks). Worked every time.
A Few Thoughts
As a pastor, it’s hard when anyone accuses you of anything, let alone playing favorites. You face enough pressures just from ministry. Who needs the pressure?
Fairness says, “Everything is important.”
Let’s face it, if Everything is Important, then Nothing is Important.
But, there are plenty of pastors who cower behind Fairness. They would rather make the announcement for “Paws for People” rather than face a confrontation. It’s too bad. They are doing a disservice to their churches.
Promote what you want to see grow in your church. Stop promoting what is declining or dying. No amount of life support is going to bring it back. Then, set priorities for your promotion. And, please don’t relegate these decisions to the Worship Pastor or the Communications Director.
Let me know what you think?