The time has come to face an unpleasant reality. The congregation you have right now is your entire congregation. This is not necessarily bad news.
In talking to pastors I’ve stopped asking about their pre-COVID attendance. If the pandemic had only lasted a few weeks to a few months, then you could certainly expect your church to quickly snap back to where it was. After 20 months nothing will snap back now. The culture has changed. Habits have changed. Your church has changed. Let’s consider what happened.
Stadiums are Full, but Sanctuaries are Half Empty
If only Covid was preventing people from returning to church, you would also see this caution across the board in every auditorium or stadium of any size. As I watched the Kansas City Chiefs’ disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Arrowhead Stadium was packed. As I watch the baseball playoffs between my San Francisco Giants and Mark Howell’s LA Dodgers, Oracle Park and Dodgers Stadium are at capacity. Yet, church sanctuaries are less than half full. What’s happening?
Some people have legitimate concerns related to Covid. Out of an abundance of caution, they chose to worship online at home. They are not ready to meet and sing with a large group of people for the time being. That’s understandable considering the amount of information and misinformation out there. There are very strong feelings about vaccines and masks. Covid accounts for part of your half filled auditorium.
Others became comfortable with online worship. They don’t have to get their family dressed, fed, and out the door on Sunday morning any more. They can sip their coffee in their jammies while their children play or sleep in. While online faithfulness has certainly lessened over time, some of your people are still there. They are giving. They are on your side. They’re just staying home. But, some people have changed the channel.
Now that most churches have an online worship service, it’s easier to church shop than ever. Let’s face it. There are more interesting sermons out there. There are professionally recorded worship sets with worship teams who sing in tune. If someone’s interest is only in worship and preaching, there are tens of thousands of choices. But, you and I both know that there is far more to church than songs and sermons. Rick Warren isn’t going to call to see how they’re doing. Andy Stanley isn’t going to make a hospital visit. If you wonder where you’re people are, you should probably give them a call.
The last group is the most exciting. People are watching online who have never darkened the door of your church. They are interested in spiritual things. They long for something solid in very anxious times. They enjoy watching the service without being watched. And, when you offer a next step, they will take it. Pastors are telling me how “first time” guests show up ready for baptism, next steps, small groups, and serving. They aren’t first time guests. They’ve been participating in your online worship services for weeks to months. This is the new front door of the church! How does your front door look? Are you actively offering next steps to your online congregation? Do you look directly into the camera and lead them on what do to next? Do you have a way for them to respond? Don’t make your online worship service a lesser experience. Don’t expect less of people who worship online. They need your leadership.
Stop Looking Backward
The whole world has experienced a massive reset. Regardless of who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s to blame, or who’s orchestrating a nefarious plot, God is not surprised by any of this. Why has God allowed this to happen? Why did God intentionally shake up His church like this? What needed to fall away to reveal what was strong? What outdated strategies needed to crumble? What changes that you’ve been dreading to make needed to happen? God has uniquely positioned you and your church to serve a changed culture, if you are willing to let go of what you used to do.
Some of us remember the battle of the 1990’s when we transitioned from traditional services to contemporary services. You couldn’t alienate the older folks because they were the givers, yet if you didn’t change your approach, you couldn’t attract or keep younger people. Remember those days? Some churches attempted “blended” worship, but as Stuart Briscoe said, “If you blend traditional and contemporary, you end up with contemptible.” He wasn’t wrong.
Imagine if you and your team decided to incorporate more stained glass into your building or include more hymns in your worship set this year. What if you threw out those uncomfortable stackable chairs and replaced them with uncomfortable wooden pews? You wouldn’t go back there. In the 1990’s churches chose to no longer use 1950’s ministry strategies. Now it’s time to move forward from 1990’s ministry strategies and embrace new things in the 2020’s.
But, this isn’t just about strategy. Change produces loss. You’ve lost much since March 2020. You can wear yourself out, but the pre-Covid days for your church aren’t coming back. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt. When our church in California lost two-thirds of our congregation and the entire staff in a matter of weeks, I experienced the grief as if all of those people were in a bus caravan that went over a cliff. I was overwhelmed with grief. I managed to drag myself into the office at the crack of Noon and leave around 3 pm. Every person who called or stopped by the church was also racked with pain. It was all I could take. Our church had basically died, but good things were about to grow out of it.
Lead the People You Have
You have to put your energy into leading the church you have rather than trying to lead the church you used to have. Here’s what’s great about the church you have:
Everyone gathered is united in mission with you. It’s too easy to go someplace else right now. If they are gathering with you, they are with you! They are just as shell shocked as you are, but they are there. Embrace Gideon’s army. Cast vision. Empower your people to serve. Repurpose serving in your church. “Right size” your serving teams and encourage more people to serve their neighbors, lead small groups, and make disciples. Lead the people you have.
The regular, consistent givers are there. This is a tangible expression of the last point. Rather than lamenting all of the non-givers who have left, embrace the people you have. Call them regularly to see how they’re doing. Encourage them to serve and take next steps. Lead the people you have.
Your church is reaching more new people than ever before — online. Tune up your online service, which starts by watching it yourself. Create a separate mix for your music, because the house mix doesn’t cut it online. If that doesn’t work, then only stream the sermon. Watch your online recording. You will understand my point. Along with this, interact with your online congregation. Ask a staff member or church member to host the online service and chat with your online congregation before, after, and even during the service. How can you make this an active experience? If folks are consistently watching online, they are with you. Lead the people you have.
People who show up are ready to take next steps — baptism, growth track, small groups, serving, outreach, and more. Direct your online worship host or even the senior pastor to address the online congregation and lead them into next steps. Offer serving roles and small groups. (Check out: Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future). Your online congregation needs your leadership. Lead the people you have.
A Final Challenge
The good news about this season is that the culture of your church has already shifted. You don’t have to convince people to show up for in-person worship services. They’re there if they want to be. You don’t have people fighting against online worship. They’re already there.
The question is are you trying to pastor a megachurch from the 1990’s or are you leading a hybrid church in 2021 and moving forward? Are you making your online congregation an equal experience to your in-person worship service? Do you expect as much from those gathered online as you do those gathered in-person? Are you realigning your congregations’ time, talent, and treasure to move your church forward or are you attempting to regain what you had in 2019 (or before)?
In a recent interview with Bill Willits from North Point, he shared that in-person worship and small groups are at 50 percent of their pre-Covid numbers. This is the church at the top of Outreach magazine’s Largest Churches list. But, North Point is innovating. The house analogy is out the window. Listen to what they’re doing now.
God has uniquely positioned you and your church for this season. It is different. It is way different than how you’ve done ministry before. Choose to lead forward and not backward. God is with you. Keep in step with His Spirit.
What has your church changed in the last 20 months? What results are you seeing? Reply in the comments.
Bill Willits is the Executive Director of Adult Ministry Environments for North Point Ministries. One of the founding staff members of North Point, Bill is a graduate of Florida State University and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also the co-author of the book, Creating Community with Andy Stanley, which was recently re-released in an updated and expanded edition. Bill and his team have helped connect thousands of adults into the benefits of group life.
Numbers are important. You want to know if you are succeeding, failing, or holding steady. These hard metrics can be encouraging or even exciting. They can also be motivating. If your small groups are lagging in some way, then you can kick it into high gear, recruit more leaders, and get more groups started. Everybody likes numbers that climb up and to the right. But, when numbers start falling, you might feel all of your efforts don’t count. The good news is that numbers are only part of the equation.
Hard Metrics aren’t the Only Factor
Numbers are hard metrics: names on rosters, number of groups, meetings attended, verses memorized. Hard numbers don’t paint the entire picture. You also need to look at soft metrics: stories being told, how God is working through groups, lives being changed, problems overcome, next steps achieved, and so on.
In a recent episode of the Church Pulse Weekly podcast, Bill Willits reflected on this ministry season at North Point, “We’ve been averaging 35-40 percent of what we would typically connect in our short-term and long-term groups. I think that’s [because of] Covid. It’s been a challenging, challenging season.” Bill continued, “[Weekend] attendance is running between 40-50 percent compared to pre-Covid at North Point. We are looking at about a third of the typically connections we would see in a fall season.” Clearly, those are disappointing results for North Point and for your church as well.
In this challenging season like in every church, the North Point team has to navigate the emotions surrounding the ministry. Bill adds, “One of the biggest things is just reminding our team, ‘Let’s make sure that the people taking the step are finding a great experience. Let’s make sure that we are helping to onboard new groups, new group leaders and their members well.’ We are putting in a lot of touch points in the first 90 days of a new group just to make sure…that this experience in really unique times is still a good one. It’s taking a lot more effort.” Are you feeling that in your fall launch right now?
“For a staff going into a connection season when you’re used to having a [high] level of engagement, it can be a major bummer to have a [much lower] level of engagement. We keep reminding staff that in this unique time, we are dialing down the euphoria about numbers and let’s dial up stories about people who are having meaningful group experiences.”
Things You Might Have Overlooked
When your numbers are strong, things are usually moving pretty fast. You probably don’t slow down to look at what’s happening with your coaches, your leaders, and your groups because too much is happening. But, when things aren’t moving fast enough, you can follow one of two approaches: frustration or evaluation.
If you expect things to work the way they always have, you will live in a lot of frustration. The world has changed. The culture has changed. New approaches are necessary in a new culture. Longing for the good old days of 2019 isn’t going to propel you forward. In fact, it will discourage you to the point of giving up. You and I both know pastors who have left the ministry in the last 18 months. When things aren’t happening fast enough for you, it’s time to slow down.
If you choose evaluation, then you ask yourself if what you’re doing is still effectively fulfilling the Great Commission. Be willing to strip away all of the plans and programs down to their core. What should you keep? What should you end? What new thing should you try? What does this make possible?
Another big question is: What is your current system producing? Are you seeing leaders developed? Are you seeing people become more like Christ? Do you see an increase in selflessness and a decrease in selfishness?
What you’ve been doing is not wrong. But, it’s not working at the level it once did. Riding this season out is not the answer. It’s time to take the thing apart – strip it down all of the way, evaluate each piece, and decide what to invest in.
Think About This
Counting your groups and leaders is important. After all, you count your money, why wouldn’t you count your people? People are far more important than money. Counting is important, but it’s not all important. The metrics that matter the most are difficult to measure. How are you creating environments where disciple-making can take place? How are you multiplying yourself? Are people coming to Christ? How are people becoming more like Christ? Who has surprised you by stepping forward to lead a group for the first time? What is God doing in your groups?
Be encouraged. You matter. Your work matters. God is using you. There’s much to do. There’s much to celebrate.
In the last 30 years, three models have stood out: the Attractional Model, the Communal Model, and the Missional Model. These models were built by overemphasizing one of three important aspects of every church: Worship, Relationship, and Service. What your church focuses on will greatly determine the effectiveness and impact of small groups.
Over the last 30 years, the Attractional Model has reigned supreme. Worship services were designed as the entry point for the unchurched. Pastors offered relevant, felt-need sermons. Groups were an option, but not essential. While there are certainly exceptions like Saddleback Church and North Point Ministries, many attractional churches focused solely on the weekend and whatever staff, resources, and volunteers it took to pull off the weekend service.
The Communal or House Church Model focuses on relationship and personal growth over large group gatherings and worship services. The real work of making disciples is seen in the living rooms and coffee shops with believers pouring into each other. While disciples were making disciples, often churches in this movement succumbed to lack of a unifying vision.
The Missional or Incarnational Model focuses on living out what Jesus called believers to do. Serving takes priority over worship and relationship. The problem is that if emphasis is placed on what people do over what they are becoming, then a significant piece of the equation is missing.
This may be an exaggeration of each particular model, but I think we can all agree that the Attractional Model emphasizes worship over relationships and service. The Communal Model favors relationships over worship and service. And, the Missional Model leans strongly on service over worship and relationships. There is an imbalance to each model.
“[The Baby] Boomer said, ‘Hey, we can learn a lot from business and marketing principles and apply them to our church leadership. The prospective customer is most likely going to walk through the door on a weekend, so let’s place most of our resources there!’
“Gen Xer said, ‘You silly boomers! Bigger isn’t better. Closer is better. And customer? We need relationships and generational commiseration. Community is where it’s at, and the gathering is just a by-product of rich relationships and shared life, anyway.’
“Millennial said, ‘You lazy Xers and crazy boomers. If we took just half the money we put into a building and got off our rumps, we could do so much good in the world.’”
While groups can certainly thrive in the Communal Model, the other missing pieces eventually cause the movement to lose steam. While churches using the Attractional and Missional models can appreciate groups, the leading indicators in both models are worship attendance and service respectively. Groups are more of a lagging indicator.
Most churches need realignment and balance to effectively serve in the coming years. The Attractional Model has lost its luster in many ways. The idea of a healthy, megachurch pastor is almost an oxymoron in some cases. As Baby Boomers are aging and Millennials are coming on strong, if pastors want to stay relevant, they must become “missionaries” to understand a new people and a new culture.
These models can work together. Worship services and events can inspire and call for commitment, but it’s just the first step. In order to truly impact people’s lives and catalyze lasting change, the first step must lead to a next step. The sermon should lead to a group discussion guide where the Truth of God’s Word can be worked out and applied to people’s lives. I would dare say that marriage conferences have created more problems in marriages than they’ve ever solved. By painting an idyllic picture of marriage, conference speakers often raise expectations which are not going to be achieved overnight. If you don’t believe me, just look back at the Promise Keepers movement. While there was great intention there, the lack of follow through caused Promise Keepers to quickly become promise breakers. But, if a marriage conference led to a commitment to improve marriages, which offered a next step into an on-going marriage group or class or counseling, then the event might have catalyzed some good instead of setting off a bomb.
Jesus summed up 613 commandments into just two of them: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The church has a mission to reach the world with God’s love. That mission starts with the neighbor next door. Mission must be tied to relationship. Church members love their neighbors and serve them. There’s a relationship there. After all, ministry is not something we do to people. While community-wide serve days can elevate a church’s brand and get their name in the paper, service divorced from relationship is missing something.
Groups must connect to the larger church body, serve together, and reach others to remain healthy. A small group is essentially the microcosm of the church. What the church is called to do, the group is called to do. But, where do groups fit into the whole?
If a church has a balance of attractional, communal, and missional, then groups make perfect sense. If the church is more attractional, then groups will help by connecting the congregation and keeping them motivated to attend, to serve, and to give. (See the Senior Pastors Guide to Groups). Groups and the communal model go hand in hand. If the church is based more on the missional model, then groups provide the teams and the relationships to accelerate ministry and outreach.
Which model does your church follow? How is that model helping or hindering groups in your church?
By Allen White Relationships are far more important than programs or processes. While churches may offer training through a baseball diamond or a growth track, the relationships in a person’s life are far more influential than any short class can be. Besides no person comes into a church exactly the same way. Some come from great homes. Others from terrible ones. Some are fairly mature. Others are very broken or haven’t admitted their brokenness. Some are self-righteous. Others are ashamed. Every person who walks through the door is different than the last one. The church “factory” lacks the consistent “raw materials,” therefore, the widgits won’t turn out to be identical once the process has been imposed on them. We used to be a society where people were born into community, then had to discover their individuality. Now, we are a society of individuals seeking community. Big makes them feel isolated. Small is what works. This is why churches like North Point led by Andy Stanley reportedly have some 60,000 people in groups. This is why Saddleback Church founded by Rick Warren has thousands and thousands of groups for their church-wide campaigns. This is also why a church of 50 people at Dallas Baptist Church, Dallas, PA, created their own small group curriculum and connected 100 people into groups. Rock concerts are great, but then again, so are intimate dinners with a few friends. When a church reaches 250 in attendance, you hear the congregation saying “I don’t know everybody anymore.” When the church grows to 400 or so and has multiple services, the congregation says, “I can’t find the people I know.” If the church is much bigger than that, people simply don’t know where to start. How do they get to know people? How do they connect with new Christian friends? Very soon you realize that one size does not fit all and that your groups need to catch up in a hurry. The early church met in temple courts and house to house (Acts 5:42). In our day, the temple courts would represent the weekend worship service. And, house to house would mean house to house (or Waffle House). While there’s a place for the old country church and the mega-, giga-, tetra- church, if the church has more than 25 people, then groups should be a serious consideration. Years ago, I was coaching a church of 42 people in Georgia. The pastor started four groups, whose membership exceeded the size of the congregation. He showed up at our training event with his volunteer small groups director. Sometimes small is too big. When it comes to church, size does matter. The ideal size is somewhere in the range of 3-30 people meeting in a home.