Isolation from the pandemic is basically over in most quarters. You can freely roam about the country and the world. But, if your church is like most, your worship attendance is not back to the where it was pre-COVID. There really is no reason to stay away, so why aren’t some of your people coming back? Here are a few reasons why.
They’re Still Staying Home Out of Caution.
Some haven’t returned because they or a loved one have a health problem and can’t risk exposure. They’re probably not just staying away from church. They’re staying away from everyone. This is understandable. How are you reaching out to these folks and helping them feel connected to the larger church body?
Once restrictions were lifted in most places, some who felt comfortable attending when masks were required, now feel uncomfortable to worship maskless. Regardless of your personal feelings on masks, part of your congregation who were worshipping in-person are now staying away. They will be back, but not right now. How are you connecting with them?
They Went Somewhere Else.
If they weren’t with you, they did you a favor by going somewhere else. The pandemic sped everything up. If people were headed for the door, then COVID gave them a push. I’ve even heard of churches splitting over everything from mask preferences to politics or whatever else. (And, you know they’re disagreeing from all sides of these issues). If you’ve had people leave out of petty disagreements, figure out a way to bless them. Then, move forward with the people you’ve got.
They’re Still Staying Home Out of Comfort.
Most people’s couches are much more comfortable than those $30 chairs your church bought online. They can sit back with a cup of coffee and watch the service. Or they can multitask during worship. It’s not uncommon to hear about people cleaning their houses and worshipping at the same time.
Here’s the deal: if your worship service is largely built on programming, people can access programming online. Some churches have decided to end their online worship services in an effort to get people back into the building. Those folks are now watching another church’s worship service online.
As I said, if your worship service amounts to merely programming, people can get programming online. But, it takes more than programming to engage people in worship. The key is community.
If no one has reached out to them in the last two years or if no one‘s giving them a call to see how they’re doing, why would they come back? As John Maxwell says, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” When everyone was worshipping in-person, it was easier to shake a hand or give a greeting, or was it?
I attend a church of about 50 people. It’s the church that I grew up in. The pastor is a good man. I get to sit with my dad every week. It’s not perfect, but it’s good. But what I observe on Sunday at this church of 50 people is that like every other church, people tend to talk to people they already know. They tend to shy away from people that they don’t know. This is true of churches of 50, 500, 5,000, or 50,000. People gravitate to the people they know and ignore the people they don’t. Now, I’m trying my best to do my part to be friendly and welcoming. But, how do you get everybody to be hospitable?
Let me be frank: the lack of community in your weekend services has kept people away. Our holy huddles have also kept people away. You’ve got to loosen this up a little bit. You’ve got a find a place where people can connect in a meaningful way. As Roy Moran says, “The worship service is a great place to start, but a poor place to finish.” For every new person who walks through the door, what is their next step into community? How can they get to know others? How can they feel more connected.
If people felt more community in your church, they would attend more often. How are you connecting people into small groups? How are you leveraging existing relationships to start groups and invite friends and neighbors to church?
Think About This
Clearly it’s time to move forward. You have to accept the fact that the church you have is everybody you’re going to get back with just a few exceptions. We’re not going back to 2019. This is not necessarily bad news.
As your church moves forward, how do you create an environment that will welcome people, accept people, love people, and connect them into community? What do people in your area need right now? How can you connect with them? If they can’t make it to church on Sunday, then how do you help them connect with others?
When Carey Nieuwhof told the world that just when pastors thought we were ending the marathon of 2020, then 2021 handed us a swimsuit and a bike making this a triathlon. He wasn’t wrong. Clearly things have not snapped back, and it appears that things may never resume 2019 standards and strategies. And, that’s okay.
While many pastors are hyperventilating or quitting these days, you don’t need to. Disciples still need to be made. People still need community. The climate around you has changed, but the mission remains the same. Are you ready to try some things that are working this fall?
Flexible Group Formation
All of your groups won’t look the same this fall. That’s okay. Your groups probably shouldn’t have looked the same in the first place. Depending on the impact of Covid on your community, your people will not all feel comfortable doing groups exactly the same way. That’s okay. Offer your people the flexibility to meet in-person, online, or a hybrid of that. They should do what feels comfortable to them with whoever they want, wherever they want, and however they want. Whether they are maskites or anti-maskites, they can find their people and do something intentional about their spiritual growth. Flexibility is the key. For more on starting flexible groups, go here.
Inviting leads to thriving in 2021. Leaders who take the initiative to invite people they know who in turn invite people they know are making their groups happen. Leaders who are depending on passive recruitment methods like sign up cards, websites, or group directories are feeling a little like the kid standing along at the junior high dance. (That wasn’t me. Our church forbade dancing).
Going along with the flexible format, leaders can invite their people. Who do they know who would enjoy or benefit from the study? Who do they want to spend time with anyway? This doesn’t need to be complicated. They just need to invite their friends. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with their friends?
Prayer is a key part of successfully starting a group. Leaders should pray and ask God who He wants to join their group. Then, they should pay attention to who crosses their path. If they run into someone at the grocery store who they haven’t seen for six months, God is answering their prayer. If someone calls “out of the blue,” it’s not a coincidence. If group leaders truly want to start a group, they will take the initiative. Like Home Depot says, “You can do it. We can help.” You don’t need to fill anyone’s group.
If you want people to pay attention to an invitation to start a small group, your pastor should make that announcement. Your pastor will get 3 times the result compared to you standing on the stage saying the exact same words. By virtue of your pastor’s leadership role in the church, you will get the best result. The pastor will do better than you, the campus pastor, the worship pastor, the service host, and the communication director combined. All you need to do is give your pastor a few bullet points, then be prepared to collect the response (HINT: Keep the response close to the invitation) and train your new recruits! This works. I have not personally recruited a small group leader since 2004, and I’ve served three different churches since then!
Adding a Strategy
If you’ve been at small group ministry for a while, your winning strategy has probably starting running out of steam, especially in 2020-2021. Your strategy isn’t broken. It’s just done all that it can do. One size simply doesn’t fit all. But, there’s no rule that you are limited to using just one strategy to connect people into groups.
By simply adding another strategy to what you are currently offering, your church can attract more people into groups than ever before. What does that look like? Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t break it. Offer your established groups to your congregation, then offer a second option like groups following a sermon discussion guide or sermon-aligned study. Many churches are using Rooted. While I’m a big fan of Rooted, it’s only 10 weeks. What do people do who aren’t ready for Rooted or who have already done Rooted (Yes, I know about Life in Rhythm)? Just offer another option. But, isn’t this confusing? (See the next section).
Blended Connection Events
When you have multiple offerings, the key is to promote “groups.” Don’t promote Rooted groups, and D-Groups, and support groups, and sermon-based groups, and, and, and… Just promote groups. When your people come to your connection event, then you can ask what type of group they are interested in. This way you can keep your current groups going and start new groups.
Emphasis on Connection Over Meetings
As you’ve seen not everyone can meet in-person and some groups don’t want to meet online. How do you have groups? Well, we can go back to the philosophical discussion of whether a group is a meeting or is more like a family. (I think “family” wins). Well, what do you do when the whole family can’t show up for a meal? Do you kick the absent members out? Of course not! They’re family.
If group members can’t attend meetings, you’ve got to keep the family together. Your leaders should “own” their group rosters. If someone is on their group roster, even if they rarely attend, they are the leader’s responsibility. Give them a call. Send them a text. Let them know that you care. The group may be the person’s only connection to the church or even to another human right now. These connections are significant. Encourage your leaders to reach out to everybody on their lists.
Think About This
Fall 2021 is a challenging ministry season. Some states are practically under lockdown again. Other states are enjoying their freedom. No matter what type of environment you are ministering in, God is using groups to accomplish His purposes. The numbers may not be what you had before. That’s when you need to count what matters.
This is a tough season, but it’s not the toughest ministry season of all time. Don’t lose heart. Keep making connections. Keep inviting people into community. Keep recruiting new leaders to gather their friends. Move with the movers especially now that so much seems stuck.
What’s working for you and your groups in fall 2021?
2021 is not like 2020. Thank God! But, 2021 also isn’t a return to 2019. Are you prepared to navigate this new season of ministry?
I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t seen anything like this in over 30 years of ministry. But, the question I keep asking myself is “What does this make possible?” There are some big possibilities for 2021. Here’s what I’m seeing:
You will receive One Video per Day for the Next 5 Days to help you navigate Small Group Ministry in 2021.
Why Do You Need a Small Group Reset?
1. Small Groups are not working the same as they were even two years ago. 2. The need for Small Groups has never been greater. 3. Everything shifted, so 2019’s Small Group Strategy isn’t going to do it. 4. We shouldn’t wreck anything that’s currently working, but we have to admit it’s not working for everybody. 5. It’s time to take a breath and to reframe your Small Group Ministry by asking some fundamental questions like:
What is a small group in your church?
How is your church meeting the unique needs of 2021/2022?
What are your people willing to do? Meet in-person? Meet online? Wait it out? Start a new group?
How do you want to build your groups?
How are your groups uniquely suited to meet the needs of your community?
Why are groups more important than worship services in 2021/2022?
Jay Kranda is the guest for the February 2021 episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast. Jay is the online pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, where he oversees an online community with online small groups and home groups around the world. He is the co-author of the free eBooks state of the church online and going beyond online streaming. Jay is addicted to NBA basketball and cold brew coffee. He has a BA in Christian Education and an MA in Theology, both from Biola University, Jay, his wife, Jody have two boys and a girl.
Q1: You have been in online ministry for a long time, and the rest of us just got into online ministry about 10 months ago. How long have you been on staff doing online ministry at Saddleback?
Jay: I just celebrated 10 years on staff and I started off as part-time online. They had a thing at the time called the internet campus and nobody was really doing anything with it. We’re always trying out things and then staff or people change and then you kind of forget, but I was really intrigued on it. When I first started, I came from a church about 500 and at Saddleback there were about 500 people watching every week. I was just kind of amazed by that scope of impact. I started to invest on it. My leader at the time introduced me to like Life.church and a couple other churches to show me what was going on.
The first thing I did is I petitioned to change it from internet campus to online campus. That was the first thing. I felt like internet was like putting “i” in front of everything to match the app. And so, but yeah, so I’ve been there 10 years now. It’s been a journey and it’s looked very different over the seasons of ministry, especially now in COVID, I feel like we’re in another butterfly moment where like, what is the next version of this?
Q2: The scorecard has changed for ministry. Pastors used to track metrics like attendance in the weekend service and giving – “nickels and noses,” but with COVID that has all changed. Now, I hear people talking about online engagement. Some are even taking their number of streams with a multiplier. How do we know we’re being effective, and what’s really happening out there?
Jay: There are all sorts of ways to measure things. What’s key is to figure out the metrics that are important to your church — whatever those things are, a top funnel to deep engagement type of scale. There are things you measure weekly and things you measure monthly. The other thing is you just gotta be consistent on how you measure it so that you can notice trends. Are you going up or going down? And that only happens if you’re consistent. If you’re constantly tweaking your measurements, then the numbers are irrelevant. You could tell me you had a million people this week, but if the next week you had 2 million or you had a hundred thousand, what does that mean? Where are you going? We’ve been measuring our attendance one way for about 10 years. I could tell you weeks that we’re going to be low. I can tell you we’re high. I can tell you why we were high because I was looking at the same numbers every week for about 10 years. And so I think it’s really important.
I would always start with the weekend. How many people viewed it on your website, Facebook, YouTube, or whatever, and then have like a retention number. How many people watch or listen for, you know, 10, 15, 30 minutes? And so compare those. Viewership isn’t the same as watching or reach numbers or impressions. I think that’s why you need both. You have viewership and then you have a deep engagement. What’s hard is in building a worship attendance. You’re not counting how many cars you drive by in front of your church, or you’re not counting how many people peek their heads in. You are counting how many people attended church. And so that number is more than the retention number, but you also can measure all sorts of things and look at correlation between viewership and retention. Like what happens if you start streaming on platforms like YouTube, you can look at the drop rates. How many people skip forward? We were just looking at our data recently and one of the learnings is that a lot of people were skipping the front part just to go to the message. The suggestion came out like maybe we should experiment with not front-loading the music, so people get to the sermon quicker. If people are more likely to hang around afterwards, maybe we put more music on the back end. If you’re looking at the right things regularly, you can make the right dashboard.
Q3: How are you recruiting leaders to do online groups? How are you getting members connected into groups? What does that look like?
Jay: We’re unique in the sense that we definitely have an online community, a true community, that I’m a shepherd over, and we have people who congregate. I would see us as a real church that’s online. And so we want to create, the phrase that gets used a lot, is creating a fourth space for people to connect that’s digital. That’s not a time specific. It’s 24/7. So because of that, we stream our services, but we actually have a community like a Facebook group and different things where people can connect with each other and meet people. I spend a lot of time in those public spaces. And out of that, we’re constantly encouraging people to take our classes and join a group or start a group. We definitely rely yearly on a campaign strategy to get almost of our groups going. Our church aligns on one thing. I would say a good 70% of our group growth in a year comes from a campaign push from our entire church.
We constantly have new groups going. One of our biggest things we use to get new groups going is a large group model where the small group pastor on my team will host quarterly large groups on zoom, where there might be 30 to 50 people on a zoom call. And he’ll use the breakout feature for six to eight weeks. At the end of it, if you had 30 or 50 people, we’ll say, “Hey, you’ve been experimenting and been part of an online group the last six to eight weeks. We’re done with our large group. What if you continue on after this as a small group? We start five to eight groups. That’s a big thing coming out of COVID that we’ve relied on, mainly because as started COVID, we had such a boom of interest in online groups that we didn’t have enough groups open to new people. We spent a lot of time early on refining what we actually launched. We had volunteers and staff, a large online group meeting every day of the week for the first couple months of COVID. When we started, we just had a meeting. We were looking at some of our data. In 2020, our ministry launched 1,007 online groups. We had the infrastructure and we were ready.
Q4: Let’s talk about what works with online groups. What are some best practices? And, we’re also going to to go what hasn’t worked as well.
Jay: It has been a struggle is continuing to figure out how to make accessing small group material easier. A big gap for us right now is that most of our small group material isn’t really accessible on a TV. Like our TV apps don’t talk to our database because we have some custom stuff. So that’s something that we’ve been working on. How do we integrate that? We don’t use an off the shelf, paid service, like, many other churches do. And so I just know like Apple TV, Roku, Amazon fire stuff are so important.
We might have over 2000 groups right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re all at a hundred percent tier. We’re trying to make sure they’re all responsive. So I might have a couple hundred that are red tag where they’re not responsive. I have some that I’m trying to get them to become members. They signed up and they’re not members yet. And then I have some that I’m trying to get to be, to take our leadership training course. And so the question is, why aren’t more people taking their leadership training course? Some of it has to do with access to the course. Some of it has to do availability. Maybe that needs to be a small group curriculum. Maybe we need to rethink the naming of it. I feel like on the group level where we’re constantly trying to rethink and reposition is.
And so we have a really great way to get groups going, but every strength has a weakness. One weakness of ours is it’s so simple to start a group with us, but then it’s really hard on us as staff and our volunteer team to make sure that the groups are healthy. We’re constantly pruning our groups. I think just going through our training is something I’m always asking, why isn’t this easier? Why can’t we just do this? Or why have only this many percentage of our groups done that? The other thing is just with online ministry, generally, I think a lot of members and people attending churches online are still really confused at they’ll start a group and start serving.
Sometimes they ask, “Is this really my church?” And I deal with that a lot where people start engaging. I find out they’re at another church, and I don’t want that. I think making that more seamless, but it’s going to be, we never want to pull somebody away from a church. The number one reason why we delete groups is because of that — I find out they’re going to a church down the street or something else, and I’m like, “Hey, don’t do the group with us, do it with your church.” And so I call say that we have a leaky funnel where we’re constantly losing people to very healthy things. They’re not bad things. We’re not competitive on it, but our groups are constantly going up and down because of that reason.
Q5: What emerging platforms are you seeing for online small groups?
Jay: I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks on Twitch because I’ve been playing chess, and I follow people on Twitch that stream and play chess. There’s a community around it. I was texting with a good friend of mine who’s like one of my defacto Facebook addicts, but a friend. And he asked if I had done any training or videos on Twitch.
The community there is so deep. The streamers on Twitch are playing whatever game and they just talk. There’s this active chat. I forget his name, but there is a guy who plays chess on Twitch. He has 25,000 people watching him play chess. Real-time he’s just playing chess. 25,000 people pay him. The chat is nuts. This is a community. They rally around him, and they know him. What’s hard is where Twitch is inherently — you are doing something else while you’re doing it. And so that’s why I think churches have a hard time because you don’t want to be playing Fortnite and then having a group. I think that’s why it’s gotta be separate. It’s got be a separate thing.
Q5.5: I need you to settle a debate. Our family has watched Saddleback quite a bit in the last year…30 some weeks of Rick [Warren] in the book of James. I’m like, dude, it’s only five chapters long! So here’s the debate because I told my wife, the worship team is not really singing. They recorded the audio in advance, and they’re lip-syncing, and she swears that they’re singing on-camera. Which one is it?
Jay: Well, I think I’m pretty positive. it’s recorded separately.
for Episode 2: Jay Kranda, Saddleback Online Pastor, on Online Ministry and Groups
Jay Kranda is the Online Pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, where he oversees an online community with online small groups and homes groups around the globe. He is the co-author of the free ebooks “State of the Online Church” and “Going Beyond Online Streaming.” Jay is addicted to NBA basketball and cold brew coffee. He has a B.A. in Christian Education and M.A. in Theology from Biola University. Jay and his wife, Jody have 2 boys and a girl.