By Allen White
Reid Smith has served churches as a pastor, consultant, trainer, and contributing author for such publishers as Christianity Today’s smallgroups.com and LifeWay’s ministrygrid.com. He has been equipping leaders for effective disciple-making since 1996 and continues to do so at goChristFellowship.com. Reid lives in Wellington, Florida with his wife of 20-years and two children.
Q1: You’ve built small groups in Oregon and in Florida. What differences did you find building groups in these two environments?
The difference has less to do with geography and more to do with the specific church and its leadership. In Oregon, I began working with a church when it was about 300 people and groups were instrumental in helping the church grow nearly ten-fold in 5-years. In Florida, I began working with the church when it was already one of the largest in the nation, and it did not have a well-defined small group system. Although growing healthy group life is hard work in any ministry context, my experience has showed me that it is much easier to start when a church is younger and smaller rather than introducing groups to a church that has more history and successful growth prior to building groups. As a side note, the campuses of our church fall within an area designated as the least churched city in America. Even so, I’ve personally encountered more people coming from churched backgrounds in Florida while Portland, Oregon lived up to its reputation of being one of the most unchurched areas of the U.S. in terms of those who actually showed up at a church on the weekend. Generally speaking, I’ve found it to be much easier building groups with people who are “new” to church in every sense of the word!
Q2: Christ Fellowship seems to be talking over South Florida. What does your coaching and support system for leaders look like across large, multiple campuses?
We have not yet solidified what this should look like. When I landed at Christ Fellowship in early 2008, there were a dozen Community Leaders who were paid a modest stipend. This had to be discontinued due to the economic crisis impacting our country at that time (as it did for many churches) and the coaching system naturally dissolved because there was no strong leadership or organization undergirding it up to that point. In the years that followed, the church navigated many new changes and focused on other church-wide needs besides small groups so we are presently processing what the best coaching and support system should be longer-term. Currently, every campus has a Discipleship Pastor or Coordinator who is responsible for groups at their campus. The team I work with supports our leaders through regular communication, monthly huddles, a leadership blog, and quarterly leadership events where leaders are trained and appreciated.
Q3: Recently, I saw a comment you made in the Small Group Network Facebook Group about starting temporary, on-campus groups monthly, then launching groups off campus. Explain what the first month looks like.
We have a 4-week, highly relational membership class called The Journey where we organize people at round tables (by affinity as much as possible). This is intended to give people their first taste of group life at Christ Fellowship. Throughout this series, we encourage people to move from rows to circles and plug into a small group directly out of the experience. Although we see this occasionally, we’ve found it’s too big of a leap for most people so we’ve created a second onsite experience called Biblical Community that also runs 4-weeks. Similar to The Journey, we organize people at round tables based on when they think they can meet in a group. Unlike The Journey, people know they’re coming to this study for the purpose of joining a group that will ultimately launch offsite. For this reason, almost everyone who attends actually does connect into a new group. Over the course of the 4-weeks, we work through the first 4 of 8 sessions of Andy Stanley’s small group curriculum called “Community.” The second half of the study is completed in the group when they launch offsite and almost all take flight.
Q4: Follow up question: How do you recruit the leaders for these groups after the first month? How are the leaders introduced to their new group? Do all of the members of the on-campus group stay together or do they choose different groups?
All of our discipleship leaders are encouraged to be continually on the look-out for new leaders. Each month, we ask leaders of our offsite groups and onsite studies if there is anyone they’d recommend. We also keep an eye open for anyone who might be coming through The Journey that could serve as a co-leader in some capacity. The invitation for recruitment usually happens from one of our discipleship staff or volunteer leaders. Leaders are encouraged to form their own groups. If for whatever reason they don’t, we use them as leaders in The Journey and/or Biblical Community and each meets their group spontaneously in that initial onsite experience. In answer to the third part of your question, the members of the on-campus group formed at The Journey usually don’t stay together (though that was our original hope and vision), however, members of the groups formed in the Biblical Community study almost always stick together after they launch offsite.
Q5: Second follow up question (or fifth, but who’s counting): In tracking groups formed on-campus, then moved off-campus, how many of these groups have continued? What issues have you encountered with people not moving forward?
I’ll work backwards on this question. The biggest issue we’ve faced with people not moving forward is their history of meeting onsite. Historically, the larger campuses of Christ Fellowship had a lot of classes and programs running on-campus. I’ve found that people who became accustomed to meeting onsite tend to not be as open to moving offsite and ultimately return to the nest whenever we offer something of interest to them onsite. Conversely, those who do not have history with meeting on-campus are much more open to meeting offsite in homes, coffee shops, etc. – they find a way to launch and remain offsite. The tracking of groups that have launched basically holds true to this observation: People that met onsite and saw themselves as a group tend to not stay together after moving offsite. However, most groups that form new and had no history of meeting onsite have launched and continue to meet together. Our data, however, is relatively new on this so it’s far from being book-worthy! Other common issues we have encountered with people not moving forward have to do with one of three things: 1) Over-committed/ crowded schedules 2) Childcare needs 3) Personal crisis.
Q5.5. In most of our meetings, you usually look for me to say something inappropriate. How shocked are you that I behaved in this interview?
Lady Gaga recently sang our national anthem to open Super Bowl 50 and she delivered it with poise and melodious polish; noticeably absent were any of her usual shock value antics. So, to answer question 5.5, in my mind you have Lady Gaga beat by how well you’ve behaved here.
AW: LOL. Reid I appreciate your openness about what is working, what’s not working, and what is in process at your church. You are a smart guy who I’ve learned a great deal from over the years. Your honesty is refreshing. We will need a 5.5 Questions update as your coaching model comes together. Thank you!
By Allen White
By Allen White
A group’s location says a lot about the group. If a group meets in a classroom at church, it feels like Sunday school. It’s formal. Sometimes the room is distracting because it’s normally used as children’s space. I remember leading a group for Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in a third grade classroom. A child had created a poster for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. While I really wanted to help people work through their ennagrams and get to their family dynamics, I kept thinking, “No, it’s chocolate. Really!”
This is why off-campus groups are just better:
1. Better for the Group.
A home is more personal than a classroom. While a group could cover the exact same content in both environments, there is something about a home that reframes the meeting as “group life” rather than just a class. Hospitality has become a bit of a lost art. Growing up families would regularly have each other over for dinner. Today, families are generally too exhausted to think about volunteering for another thing. Inviting a group into a home is a meaningful gesture. Group members can get to know the group leader by asking about family pictures or mementos from years gone by. What’s even better is having the group trade off homes. This way the group can meet in every member’s home and get to know them better as well.
A home is a more casual environment. The meeting doesn’t necessarily feel like a “church thing.” They are meeting with a group of people to encourage each other, study God’s Word, and pray for each other. Granted, it’s not a Thursday night poker game, but you can have that kind of community.
This can also apply to a third place like a bookstore, a coffee shop or a community room at an apartment complex. While these settings are not as personal as a home, they certainly are not as formal as a classroom. The other great thing about meeting in a third place is there is no cleaning up before or after the meeting, and possibly no refreshments to provide. Latte anyone?
2. Better for the Church.
Now, by better for the church, I don’t mean less wear and tear on the building or giving the childcare workers a night off, but that’s not a bad start. Most churches do not have adequate educational space to house every small group who meets. When I served at Brookwood Church, groups met every day of the week, Sunday through Friday, morning, noon and night. Even though there were a couple hundred groups, we completely ran out of space. We weren’t going to build anything else, so where do you turn?
Once we embrace the idea that the church is not merely a building, but the body of believers, suddenly the church has all kinds of space. In fact, churches have millions and millions of dollars worth of property that they aren’t even utilizing — the homes of their members. No need for a capital campaign or building a new building, the church has buildings. They just need to plant group life there.
3. Better for the Neighborhood.
Pastors debate whether their churches should be missional or attractional. I would argue they need to be both. Churches should offer a weekend service where unchurched people would feel welcomed and interested. A place where they friends can invite them, and they can hear the Gospel. But, the church should also go to them. When our church in California, New Life Christian Center, launched our first self-produced curriculum (read more here), we encountered a result we didn’t count on — people who had never darkened the door of our church were meeting our pastor in the homes of their friends. As our group leaders reached out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers, they were invited into a comfortable place, their friend’s home, rather than a church service where they might not feel as comfortable. After a few weeks of watching our pastor on video, the leader asked if they like to come to church with them. When they came to a service, they felt like they already knew our pastor because they had just spent a few weeks with him at their friend’s house.
4. Transitioning Your Groups without Transitioning Yourself Out
There are some exceptions to where groups meet. There will certainly be some resistance. In some places, there will be a flat out sense of entitlement. After all, didn’t the church members fund the building campaign, so why can’t they use the building?
As I mentioned, when I first arrived at Brookwood Church, the vast majority of groups met on campus, and I wasn’t about to change that. It’s not that I’m a chicken. I just lack the gift of martyrdom. After all, what we were doing was working for a lot of the groups. If it ain’t broke…
I made two commitments to the existing on-campus groups. First, while we were starting many new groups off-campus, I would never ask them to move off-campus. Second, I promised them I would never split up their group if they exceeded 12 members. That’s for another day. Remember, if you kick them out, they might just kick you out.
Now, over the course of the next four years, we started hundreds of new groups off-campus. And, we started a few groups on-campus. Now by “few” I mean four groups. A couple of people could not figure out another way to have a group, so I gave them a room. Then, we started a group for single moms. Not only did I give them a room, I gave them free childcare, free curriculum, tickets to a Chonda Pierce concert (with free childcare) — the whole works. After all, single moms and their kids are our modern day “widows and orphans.”
Once we changed the expectations for most groups to meet off-campus, they figured it out: meeting place, childcare, and whatever other objection they had. They didn’t feel like second class citizens. They just understood that we were out of space. We may have missed starting a few groups along the way, but the groups we started were better in so many ways.