By Allen White
Photo by yarruta via 123rf. Used with permission.
[Dear Readers – Do you ever have thoughts that you can’t get away from? For a few years now, I have almost resisted writing about some things that have been stirring deep inside me. Also, over that time period, a number of events as well as ministry startups in various sectors have confirmed many of the things I’ve been sensing. Over the next month or so, I will post some of these thoughts. What I am writing should not be taken as an indictment of any ministry or methodology. I am sincerely inviting you to wrestle with some things I’ve been wrestling with. I would appreciate having you join the conversation.]
Megachurch, as we know it, is not the future. In an increasingly secularized society, the tolerance for more “big box” churches will decrease. Churches are already viewed by municipalities as heavily reliant on city resources, yet do not pay taxes. In fact, some of their prime locations could generate more revenue as a Costco. I foresee zoning as a continual obstacle.
Speaking of taxes, while I don’t see tax deductions for charitable contributions disappearing, the new tax law makes most people’s charitable contributions irrelevant in regard to their taxes. Since the standard deduction has increased to $24,000, for many households their mortgage interest, charitable giving, and medical expenses aren’t going to top that amount. Now, I’m not a CPA, but the math is pretty simple to pencil in. If giving no longer offers a tax advantage, then how will giving be impacted? If giving decreases, then what happens to capital campaigns and building projects?
Then, we could go back and ponder the question asked by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson in The Externally-Focused Church (Group Publishing 2004): If your church disappeared from your community would you be missed? Does your community rely on your church? Do you pick up the slack where government services lack? Can you serve the under-served in your community? Or, does your building provide a meeting place for weekend gatherings, then sit empty the rest of the week?
The climate is changing. I haven’t even mentioned those churches who are fighting a culture war that’s already been lost. I also didn’t bring up a moral majority that’s become an oxymoron.
The strategies that served us well over the last 25 years are not going to do the same in the next 25 years. It’s time for a shift.
The “hero” in any church is the member, not the pastor. The best representation of the impact and ministry of the church is the individual member. Members will determine the effectiveness of the church’s outreach. While churches can have a great location, in the churches I’ve served, we found that less than 2 percent found their way into our church from merely passing by. About the same went for paid advertising, social media, or other forms of advertising. How well does your church make disciples? There is nothing more attractive than a believer whose life has been transformed inviting a friend who’s noticed their life change.
When you look out at your congregation on Sunday morning, do you see an audience or an army? If it’s an audience, then they need to be entertained. The concern is over comfort and convenience. If you perform well and offer a good experience, then the hope is they will return.
But, if you see them as an army, that’s a different story. Your army needs to be equipped and empowered to serve. They don’t need to be catered to. They don’t need to be fretted over. They need marching orders. They need permission and opportunity to live out what God has called them to do.
The focus changes from gathering to scattering. For the last 25 or more years, we have gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change.
Flexible, Unrestricted Gatherings
About six years ago, in a conversation with Josh Surratt, Lead Pastor at Seacoast Church, he mentioned a family from their church who had moved to Maine. Every Sunday morning, they gathered with about 40 friends and neighbors in their living room to watch the service at Seacoast together. My immediate reaction, “Well, maybe it’s time to redefine a ‘campus.’”
Conversations like this led to the idea of microsite churches. In my initial brainstorming with my friend, Brett Eastman, we imagined smaller communities or places where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. What if the service via steaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas? The microsites would rely on unpaid staff to manage them, but with connection and support from larger organization.
One of the first places we saw develop these microsites was NewSpring Church in South Carolina. They took a little different spin on the idea by using “houses campuses” as a trial balloon to determine whether a community could support a viable multisite campus eventually. It was essentially planting a multisite campus with a less expensive, less risky trial run. We also interacted with the folks at The Rock Church in San Diego, who had heard from people who were not comfortable walking onto their main campus on Sunday morning. So, they multiplied 50 microsites in venues where these folks felt more comfortable gathering. This included bars, night clubs, and other locations. Read more about the early days of microsites.
By developing a microsite strategy with online video and support, there is no limit to a church’s potential to reach any community that can provide someone to pioneer the work. Once the strategy has created a unit of one, then the sky’s the limit. Locations can easily be rolled out in same language communities or translated into other languages and cultures. Potentially, these flexible, unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. As long as their kept small and taught to multiply, securing larger gathering spaces is unnecessary.
Meaningful, “Volunteer” Ministry
I hate the word “volunteer,” but it’s the word everyone uses, so here we go. With the congregation as an army, the key to deploying the army is gifts-based ministry. God has gifted and called every believer to fulfill his or her mission on the earth. Calling is not limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff. For all intents and purposes, the only difference between “volunteers” and paid staff is the source of their income and possibly their availability.
If the church fully embraces the concept of the priesthood of believers, then it can accomplish far more than what it’s currently doing. The key is to champion the member, help them discover their spiritual gifts with a tool like Network, and to support and deploy them as they do the work of the ministry. When believers are operating in their gifts and abilities, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and supported by their pastors and churches, they are unstoppable. They find meaning and purpose beyond what anything else can provide. And, the church functions as it should.
I led the gifts discovery and deployment process at a church I served for 15 years. Every member who attended a discover your ministry type class met with me for a post-class interview. I was always amazed at what people aspired to do and how God had equipped them. In fact, I even identified my future wife this way!
Our church reached a point where we only started new ministries out of these conversations following the gifts discovery class. Some of these ministries, we heard about from sources in the community because our people were serving based on their gifts and hadn’t told us what they were doing. That thought just makes me smile.
The church burdens many of its members with meaningless ministry – parking lot attendants, greeters, coffee servers, and so forth. Potentially the worst staff position in any church is the “guest services coordinator,” because this person must constantly hustle to fill vacant spots every weekend of the year! Why? Because no one is called to this. (Feel free to argue in the comments, but read on).
Yet, believers rise to the occasion in gifts-based ministry. Pastors – do you want your members dragging themselves out of bed to serve or jumping out of bed to serve? The difference is organizing ministry around spiritual gifts rather than filling slots.
Microsites are easier to multiply than megachurches. Microsites don’t require church-owned property, elaborate budgets, or guest services. As someone is welcomed into a member’s home, isn’t that the only guest services needed?
What about training? Who can be trained more quickly – a pastor or a location host? No location host to date has been required to earn a Master of Divinity first.
Most churches will never have the budget, paid staff, or buildings to accomplish what God has called them to do. Well, that’s if we look at the church as an institution. But, in viewing the church as the body of Christ, there is millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church’s members. The “staff” originates from gifts-based assessments. There might be a few expenses, but really no budget.
As it becomes harder to fill and maintain the big box church, there are viable options. Examples like the Tampa Underground (tampaunderground.com) are worth considering. After 10 years of developing their model, they are now sharing their learnings with others.
The future of the church is bright, but it is different. While previous models of ministry have served us well, it’s time to reconsider our strategies and redefine our ministries.
By Allen White
Exponential Groups is not so much a strategy or model as it is a focus and an attitude. Your focus determines your result. Exponential results require exponential thinking. What are you thinking about?
1. Are You Focused on Group Members?
If your focus is connecting people into groups, you are not thinking exponentially. Your groups are growing by addition. Think about it. You handpick the leaders and train them. You collect sign up cards or have a website to connect people into groups. It’s not a bad way to go, except that you work hard to start a few groups at a time or to plug people into groups only to find the leader doesn’t call the prospective members, the new members don’t show, or they do show, but they don’t stick with the group.
Now, you can arrange the connections by geography, affinity, age, hobby, and so on, but let’s face it: growth by addition is a lot of work with very few results. Just the administrative task of processing all of those sign up cards is nightmare enough. Then, you face the heartbreaking result of how ineffective all of your efforts were. It’s time to change your focus.
2. Are Your Focused on Group Leaders?
If your focus is on group leaders developing apprentices and multiplying, dividing, or splitting your groups, your focus is not exponential. Your groups might be growing by multiplication…maybe. At one point, I had encouraged, challenged, and possibly threatened my group leaders to find an apprentice for seven years. They couldn’t find one. No one in their groups looked like an apprentice. The irony was that I recruited members out of their group to train to become leaders, so we could at least continue growing by addition. Finally, one of my leaders, Carlos, trained an apprentice and launched a new group. After seven years of effort, that was the only one. Some multiplication, huh?
Now there are places where this focus is successful, but I have found this is less common. If this is what you’re doing, and it’s working for you, then you might not need to listen to me. Multiply away, but you’re still not thinking exponentially.
3. Are Your Focused on Church-wide Campaigns?
If your focus is on recruiting leaders, you still aren’t thinking exponentially. Maybe your pastor makes the cattle call for leaders or hosts to lead your next church-wide campaign. Now this thinking is more exponential than addition or multiplication, it’s on the right track, but it’s still not there.
On the positive side, church-wide campaigns delay the requirements for leadership, so there are more potential leaders. These leaders self-identify, which eliminates the task of recruiting. They can even gather their own groups. After all, followers are the requirement for leadership. As John Maxwell says, “If you think you’re a leader and have no followers, you’re only taking a walk.”
The other thing a campaign brings is a easy to use tool, like a video-based curriculum, which enables the new leader to be more friendly than scholarly, but it also maintains quality, because you have determined what is being taught in the group. The non-teacher feels good about teaching, and pastors feel good about letting them lead.
But, when the campaign ends, even if the groups continue on with another study, this growth is still more like multiplication and less like exponential. It has the potential to be exponential, but it’s not there. The goal is usually to connect 100 percent of the people into groups. But, what if this thinking is too small?
4. Are You Thinking Exponentially?
Exponential thinking is a shift in how we view our congregations. Are they sheep who need a shepherd? Can their needs only be met by a pastor? Careful: that might betray some co-dependency on your part. Is your congregation full of people who are unqualified to lead? How do you see them?
Some pastors see their congregations as an audience. The people are given worship and teaching on Sunday. They receive Bible studies throughout the week. The pastors direct the ministries they serve in. The people are cared for by the pastors: hospital visits, counseling sessions, cups of coffee. For some pastors this is a comfortable situation. Then, your church grows beyond 10 people, and you have a problem.
But, what if your congregation wasn’t an audience to be served, but an army to be empowered? What if every person in your church was empowered to gather a few people, maybe just one person, and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? What if pastors focused more on equipping people and not doing the ministry themselves? Please keep your excuses at bay for a minute and dream with me.
If everyone — church member or attender — is leading a group, who is in their groups? Good question. People who are not in your church. This doesn’t mean stealing sheep from another flock. There are plenty of people with stressful lives, marriage problems, parenting challenges, life controlling problems, and spiritual questions who could be invited to these groups. The challenge is providing resources that are biblical, yet less churchy to those who need help.
I’ve seen glimpses of this. Neighbors gathered. People with similar hobbies and interests. Whether the group is the Holy Smokers in South Carolina who make barbeque or the Holy Smokes in Colorado who light up cigars. I’ve seen commuters on the same morning train doing a Bible study and coworkers meeting at lunch.
This doesn’t need to be coerced. This doesn’t require a grand strategy. It only requires a shift in the pastor’s thinking and an opportunity for their people to lead a “group.”
Not everyone will do this all at once. In fact, I’ve never seen 100 percent of any church do anything all at once. Start with your innovators — that 4 percent who are willing to try anything. Then, tell their stories to your early adopters, the next 12 percent. Now, you have 16 percent of your church leading. If you’ve got 16 percent leading, then you’re becoming exponential already. They will influenced the next 34 percent of early mid-adopters. You’ve made it past 50 percent. The other half will take a little more time, but it’s worth it.
God wants to use your people. Whether you focus on addition or multiplication, imagine how God could use them. But, imagine if the impact of your people touching the lives a four, six, ten, or twelve people outside of your church. Imagine. That’s exponential.
Writer’s Note: This one is from the archives, but it still has a good application. Makes me smile to remember all of my great friends at New Life Christian Center, Turlock, CA. Those were some good times.
“How do you track that?” I don’t believe that question was asked about converts at Pentecost. But, it’s the question that I get from pastors of small groups who need to justify their salary or otherwise guarantee job security. After all, that is what this is all about, right? But, what if our need to track, control and direct keeps us from a wave of ministry that resulted in dramatic kingdom proportions?
I know all of the evangelical adages. “Don’t we count our money? Are people less significant than cash?” After all, the Shepherd did count his sheep only to discover that one had gone astray. If the counting hadn’t taken place, then the sheep might have risked deadly peril. Matthew 18 makes it very clear that one individual sheep matters to God.
At the risk of taking the analogy of the Shepherd too far, let me challenge you on this: the Shepherd counted his sheep, but the shepherd didn’t limit the multiplication of his sheep because he might overwhelm the accounting system. My thought is that if the shepherd had an overabundance of sheep to the point where the lily white mass stretched as far as his eye could see, his joy over a prolific flock would far overshadow his compulsion for a spreadsheet. When Acts 2:41 records that about 3,000 newly baptized, dripping wet believers were added to the church, I don’t think they were rounding up from 2,857.
We say that people are not statistics, then we quote the statistics about how many people we’re runnin’ and how many people we’re keepin’. Don’t get me wrong. We should know whether our service is effective in building the Kingdom. If we’re ineffective, then certainly no number will save us. If we are effective, then no number will do it justice.
I must admit that I am enamored by some numbers myself. I am amazed that less than a year ago only 30 percent of our adults were in small groups, but since then about 40 percent of our adults have hosted groups in their homes. That’s pretty amazing going from 30% sitting to 40% leading! But, here’s where this breaks down for most folks. I don’t know how many people are in each group. In some cases, I don’t know the person who is hosting the group personally. It’s gotten out of control—well, out of my control, anyway.
What I have learned is that God’s people are capable of much more than I have given them credit for. The people in the pews can lead a DVD based small group study and refrain from heresy and criticism of the pastoral staff. They’re too nervous about getting through the lesson to even think of interjecting theological error. God’s people filled with God’s Spirit interacting with God’s Word leads to more great things than bad.
Here’s another thing I’ve learned. A general contractor, a retired school superintendent, a multi-level marketer, and a substance abuse counselor together can do a better job of leading our small groups than I can alone. I don’t need to train a multiplicity of new hosts. These four do the training. I don’t need to review applications and interview prospective leaders. These four along with their coaches know every one of them. They know what’s going on in their lives and what’s going on in their groups. That’s better than I ever did sitting them all in neat rows and lecturing them for weeks.
We have this need to know numbers. Part of me is curious about that too. But, does a number tell us if our church is healthy? Does a number tell us if a group is growing? Does a number tell us if individual believers are being conformed to the image of Christ? Are these numbers good stewardship or just bragging rights?
How many do we have in small groups? Well, more than I care to count.
By Allen White
When you think about such a large scale small group ministry like the one at Saddleback Church, it’s a little hard to wrap your mind around. How could a church of 25,000 or so on the weekend have over 50,000 connected in small groups? A ministry of that size doesn’t sound like small groups. It sounds like a decent sized town.
Sure, any church can get a bunch of people into groups for a short-term church-wide campaign, but how does Saddleback keep the arrow moving up and to the right? If these were temporary, thrown together groups, then you would expect them to disband as quickly as they formed. What’s the secret?
What makes a good group system? Trained, motivated leaders. Visionary direction. Welcoming groups. Growing group members. Any or all of these descriptions would produce effective groups. But, there is one word that captures all of this and is the secret to Saddleback’s small group success: Health. Balancing the biblical purposes of fellowship, discipleship, ministry, worship and evangelism creates healthy groups, which in turn produce healthy group members.
Leading Small Groups with Purpose is a multifaceted resource. Steve Gladen not only gives the theory of small group ministry, he offers practical next steps to hit the group where the rubber meets the road. Whether a group has just started or has been together for a long time, each topic contains Crawl, Walk and Run steps to integrate the biblical purposes in the group, thus producing group health. This book is not over any leader’s head and is certainly not beneath any leader either.
Beyond the tools Steve offers in the book, he points the reader to many tools available on the web as well as quite a number of other resources. The book even comes with a small group assessment tool created by Dr. Les Parrott, which addresses group dynamics.
In practical, honest and humorous ways, Steve cleverly relates many stories from his own group experiences to convey his points. Having learned from the laboratory of over 5,000 groups at Saddleback Church, 30 years of ministry experience, and especially his own small group, this book speaks to the heart of small group leaders from a small group leader. While leading one of the largest small group ministries in the country, Steve is a small group leader through and through.
My only objection to this book is the author’s support of the Anaheim Angels in the World Series. Being a long time San Francisco Giants fan, I believe there never should have been a Game 7 in that Series. Other than this significant difference in core values, I’m a big fan of this book.
Every small group member, whether new or experienced, will benefit from this book. If you’re a group leader who feels a bit like you’re on your own, this book will serve as the small group pastor that you wish you had. If you are a small group pastor or director, do yourself a favor and buy a case of these books and hand them out to your leaders ASAP.
Small Groups with Purpose by Steve Gladen
Connecting In Communities by Eddie Mosley
You became a small group leader because you are a capable leader. If you weren’t a capable leader, then you never would have been able to gather your group let alone keep them. As a capable leader, you can successfully deliver on all of the tasks associated with group life. You can lead the discussion. You can follow up on group members. You can host the meeting. You can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. But, just because you can do it, should you?
While I have sworn publicly that I will never ask a group to “split,” there are many good reasons to develop a co-leader for your group:
1. A co-leader provides built-in emergency backup. Everyone has one of those days when you have to work late or you have to beat a deadline or your kid gets sick. With a co-leader, you already have backup. While there may be a number of people in your group who could lead the discussion (and I advise that you let them), your co-leader is ready, willing and able to help at the last minute. It would be a good idea to let them lead once in a while even when it’s not an emergency.
2. A co-leader benefits from the lessons you’ve learned. As a group leader, like most of us, you’ve learned some lessons the hard way. Don’t let those lessons go to waste. As your co-leader is learning the ropes of ministry, share your experiences and include them in the learning. When they make a mistake, help them process what happened and what they should do next time. You’ve learned more than you probably give yourself credit for. Share your knowledge.
3. A co-leader shares the ministry. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul had many ministry partners over the years. Timothy, Titus, Barnabas and Silas among others were there to encourage and help Paul. You and I are no better than the Apostle Paul. We all need someone in our corner to share the ministry.
After a meeting, you and your co-leader can debrief the meeting. As you evaluate how the meeting went and how the members of the group are doing, your co-leader will give much needed insight and perspective on the group. It might not be as bad as you think it is sometimes. After all, two heads are better than one.
4. A co-leader prepares for a future group. Eventually, your co-leader will leave your group. It’s up to you to make sure that your co-leader leaves for the right reason. Leaders who are not tapped for leadership will ultimately find a place of leadership somewhere else.
One of three things will eventually happen to your group. (Well, there might be a fourth, but we don’t want to go there). Your group will grow to an unmanageable size, your church will grow and need new small groups, or you as the group leader will be unable to continue at some point.
If your group becomes too large, you will just turn the group over and over until someone gives them another option. Your new members will cycle in and out of a revolving door. This isn’t a good experience for anyone. As your group continues to grow, you must consider everyone’s ability to share in the group and everyone’s comfort in the meeting space. If your group feels crowded, they will stop inviting their friends. If your members can’t get a word in, they will feel unloved. When numbers go up, care goes down. It’s crucial at this point to address these problems with the group. While it may be uncomfortable, if the group is also feeling the pain, then they will be ready to consider some options. Your co-leader could take part of the group and start a new group. Then, both the existing group and the new group can feel the love and invite their friends again.
As your church continues to grow, more people will need a small group. Sure, new people can attend an existing group, but that creates a little weirdness for everybody. [REF] New people do better in new groups. Your investment in your co-leader can certainly pay off with them starting a new group. I’ve seen groups start new groups and in a period of just a few months see the whole ministry grow to 60 plus people. You could never accomplish that in just one group. And, by the way, the best coach for your co-leader is you.
Sooner or later, life can get in the way of group life. Whether the leader is facing a difficult circumstance, a relocation, or something else, if there is no one prepared to lead the group, the group will cease. Since you have developed a co-leader, the group can easily continue with your co-leader taking over the group. As John Maxwell says, “There is no success without a successor.”
The unthinkable fourth scenario: You have no co-leader. Your group stops growing. As the leader, you burn out. One by one your group members stop attending for various reasons. And, eventually, your group is no more. There are a lot of factors that play into this, but, hey, let’s not go there.
How do you find a co-leader? I’ll answer that next week.