This year has been just as crazy of a year for Rock Church in San Diego, CA as it has for everybody else. They have not conducted in-person services since March. Pastor Miles McPherson streams his message every Sunday morning to a growing online congregation. Then, in addition to quarantine, the US began to experience racial unrest to a high degree. Pastor Miles just so happens to be the author of The Third Option: Hope for a Racially Divided Nation. Suddenly, he knew what his next sermon series would be. The church also decided to launch book groups to go along with the series. Even if your church isn’t a megachurch or your pastor has not written a book, the principles Rock Church used will help you launch more online and in-person groups. This is how they launched 119 new online groups in July:
The Senior Pastor Invited People to Join Groups.
Every week Pastor Miles invited people to start or join a new online small group during the online worship service. This invitation wasn’t relegated to the announcements or made by another staff member. Over the years, I’ve seen that when an associate pastor makes the invitation, the church gets about 30% of the result. In 30 years, of full time ministry, I’ve experienced the same. This is why a lot of churches get stuck with only 30% of their adults in groups. Pastor Miles gave the invitation, and he got a big response.
They Chose a Compelling Topic.
You want a topic that has a broad appeal to a large group of people. This is not the time to choose a mature topic like fasting or anything to do with money. There are times for those series. By choosing a topic on racial tensions and reconciliation, Rock Church was positioned well to start a maximum number of groups in the middle of the summer. Now, it helped that Pastor Miles was the author of a book on racial reconciliation, but your church could also start groups using Miles McPherson’s book or start groups with a weekly teaching video and discussion questions from your pastor. The more relevant the topic, the greater the appeal.
They Reframed the Invitation to Start a Group.
Rock Church did not start “small groups.” They started book clubs or book groups. Small groups already had a certain meaning in their church’s culture. Small groups implied high qualifications and a lot of training in advance. By inviting people to Book Clubs, they didn’t need a small group leader. They needed friends to discuss a book. Language defines culture. To change the culture of groups in your church, change the words you use.
They Gave Their People Permission and Opportunity.
People interested in starting book clubs simply invited people they knew who would be interested in the book. There was no lengthy sign-up process or website to build. People just leveraged their existing relationships to meet online and discuss a topic that was relevant to them at their pastor’s invitation. It doesn’t really need to be more complex than that. That’s how most of these got started.
Now Rock Church is a large church. Chances are that there were many people who wanted to join a book club, but didn’t feel they could start one and didn’t get invited. The opportunity was given to register to join a book club. About 600 people took them up on this offer. The risk comes when you assign prospective group members to book club “leaders” that the church doesn’t know well. Instead, the book clubs for those 600 are being led largely by the church staff. (The campuses are closed. Services are online. What else is the staff going to do….?).
They Gave New Leaders an Experienced Leader to Coach Them.
To prepare for this launch, Mark Richardson, the small groups pastor at Rock Church, began to recruit experienced group leaders to walk alongside these book group leaders during the series. With the pandemic everything is decentralized. They didn’t have the ability for large training meetings, so they delivered the training through experienced leaders who can support and encourage these new leaders and answer their questions as they come.
If you can get these five keys in place, you will see a big result: Senior Pastor’s invitation, relevant topic, reframe the invitation, give permission and opportunity, and give the help of a coach. It’s not as difficult or complex as you might think. In this past year, Mark Richardson and Rock Church were prepared through my small group ministry coaching group. When we started the year, none of us knew what this year would hold. In January, Mark didn’t know he would be starting book clubs in July. But, by being ready to try something new and having coaches standing by, when Pastor Miles decided on The Third Option series, Mark was ready. Their people and their groups have benefitted greatly.
People are ghosting online small groups in an alarming rate. Typically, when people sign up for a small group, we expect a certain number to not show up. That’s just how things are in small group world. At the church my family attends, people just choose a group from the website. The problem is what happens next.
I asked one of the Small Group Pastors how well that system worked. He said the previous week that 53 people had signed up to join a group. Then, I asked how many of those people were contacted by the leader. He pulled out his phone and said that 27 were contacted. Now, the sign up number was effectively cut in half. Then, I asked how many of those new people actually made it to a group. His reply was, “I don’t know.” He’s not the only one who’s had that experience. But, the problem is that the sign up to show up rate for online small groups is every worse. Here’s the reason why.
Online Groups Present Too Many Unfamiliar Things
Wouldn’t you think it would be easier to get people to an online group than to somebody’s house? It seems that turning on a computer and logging into the meeting is much easier than walking into somebody’s house. But, it isn’t.
When you ask your in-person and online congregations to join online small groups, think about what you’re asking them to do. First, you are asking them to join a small group, which might be a new experience for them. Second, you are asking them to join a small group with strangers. Third, you’re asking them to join a small group of strangers online. One, two, three strikes and you’re out!
What do you do? People need conversation and community. There’s a lot going on in the world – a global pandemic, racial injustice, economic uncertainty, and political upheaval – they need a place not just to process all of this, but a group who will point them back to the truth of God’s Word, the Bible, amidst all of the uncertainty. But, how do you get them to a group with so many roadblocks?
Make Part of the Equation Familiar
If online small groups present three unfamiliar dimensions: small group meeting, strangers, and online, how can you make part of this more familiar to them? I’ve said for a long time that “groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers” (Exponential Groups). The friend factor is the answer to getting people into unfamiliar online small groups. But, you have to change your approach.
You must abandon passive recruiting methods in forming groups. Passive methods include things like sign up cards, websites, and small group directories. While these methods seem efficient, they are simply not get effective in getting new people into groups in any season, especially now in forming online groups. There’s just not enough motivation and connection to get people to groups. Think about the amount of time you’ve wasted trying to move heaven and earth to get people into the right group only to see them not even show up. You need to get out of that business.
Another active recruiting method is personal invitation. New leaders, established leaders, and “gatherers of friends” simply make a list of the people they already know and invite them to the group. Who do they know who would enjoy or benefit from the online small group? They can list friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, and others. Since these are online groups there are no geographical boundaries. They could invite their Facebook friends and other social media connections. They could invite high school friends and college buddies. One pastor from my coaching group started a group with three college friends. They’re in Washington state, California, and New York!
I know what you’re thinking: What about the people who don’t get invited? Well, as Brett Eastman told me once, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” You can start a lot of new online small groups doing what I just mentioned, but there is one more active recruiting method you should try: personal introduction.
Typically, personal introduction is conducted as a small group fair, group link, or connection event. This is an in-person meeting where potential group members have a chance to meet the leaders and sign up to join a specific group. Right now, an in-person group might not be an option, or even if it is, people may not show up. You can offer an online version of a connection event. You could invite everyone to a big chaotic Zoom meeting, then let the online group leaders introduce themselves via video. (Zoom webinar might work better for this). Another option is to ask each group leader to make a short, personal video to introduce themselves: who they are, a little about their family, what kind of work they do, and what they’re group is about. Then, prospective members can sign up for the group they feel the most connection to.
Now You Just Have to Get Them There
Every online group that I lead gets a flurry of reminders. When someone signs up, send them a welcome email and the group information. A day before the group meeting, send them another reminder. An hour before the group starts, send them another reminder. This may seem like overkill, but people are busy and distracted. If they have to dig through their inboxes for the login link, they may not get there.
If someone misses the group meeting, then someone should call and check on them. This is not to be heavy-handed, but to get them to the group they need. You could say something like, “I’m not calling you like a truant officer. I’m just calling because I care.” Maybe they had to work late. Maybe someone in their family is sick. Maybe they had trouble logging into the meeting. If they need help, then the group could help them. If they need prayer, then the group can pray. Even if they never show up, keep calling, caring, and serving them.
Now, this may seem like a lot for a new online small group leader to take on. You should encourage these leaders to recruit a couple of people in the group to help. Someone could send the reminders. Someone could manage the tech. Someone could make follow-up calls. The more people who are involved, the more ownership they will have in the group.
Online small groups are a new thing to a lot of people right now. While online groups have been around for a while (Remember my online group on CompuServe in 1994?), they are unfamiliar to a lot of people. The more that we can eliminate barriers to online small groups and encourage people to start with what they are familiar with, the better chance they have of joining and enjoying their group. If meeting with strangers is an obstacle, then encourage them to invite their friends. If meeting on Zoom is a problem, then encourage them to meet on a platform they’re familiar with.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, one church that I’m coaching has increased their small groups by 50%. Another church started 163 new online small groups in the month of July! This is a season of frustration, confusion, and limitation in a lot of ways, but this disruption has also produced a season of opportunity. By using these strategies, you can help your people to stop ghosting their online small groups.
Recently, I came across a post that I wrote on March 13, 2018 called The Future of Church. It struck me because things that I had written back then are exactly what we’re living right now amid the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m not saying this in the guise of “Oh, look how smart I am,” because to be honest with you, I’m just as surprised as you are that I got something this right. Here are some updated thoughts on what I wrote two years ago, but I would encourage you to go back and read the original post for yourself.
Ministry Outside of a Church Building was Coming
I started that post by saying I was reluctant to share these things, but they’d been on my heart. These were things that I’d been sensing for a while. It talks about problems with church buildings. While they’re not the exact problems that we’re having right now due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we are certainly having a problem with church buildings.
There are no mega churches meeting right now, except for one that meet last Sunday. Only 30% of churches are conducting in-person services. Most of those churches have only about 25% in attendance. For some it’s because of spacing and social distancing issues. I know of one church that’s at about 40% of their summer attendance, but they’re in North Dakota in a county that has literally three cases of Coronavirus. For the most part, buildings are not being used.
This brings us to a question that Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson raised in their book, The Externally Focused Church. If your church disappeared from your community, would you be missed? Your church, your in-person services, the things that happened in your building — your church today has disappeared from your community. Is it being missed? That’s a hard question because I know that pastors work hard. I know that they invest a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the work of the ministry, but is what we’re doing being missed?
The attractional model was a great model for the last 30 or 40 years. We saw a lot of people come to Christ. We saw a lot of great churches built. We saw a lot of great things happen because of that strategy. But, the reality is that what happened in the last 30 or 40 years is not what’s going to work in the next 30-40 years. As of four months ago, nothing that we’ve ever done before is working. The whole game has changed. I hear of a lot of pastors really struggling with discouragement right now, because if you’re holding yourself to a standard that you had a year ago, or if you’re still defining a win by what you had a year ago, you are living in a very discouraging and very depressed place. We don’t even live in that world anymore.
Pastors Need a New Measuring Stick
There are new ways to measure how effective we are. The first thing is decentralized organization. The church could not be more decentralized than we are right now. To borrow from Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird in Hero Maker, the hero in any church is the member, not the pastor. When you think of your congregation, you have to ask yourself: do you see your congregation as an audience or as an army? If they’re an audience, they have to be entertained. You have to perform for them. You have to give them something so that they’ll keep coming back. And the win is that they come back.
But if you see your congregations as an army, then you see a group of people that need to be equipped and empowered to serve. What they need from their pastors is permission and opportunity. Your church building may not be functioning in the way that it normally does, but your church is in the community. Your church is dispersed. How could you encourage your church to serve others — to check in on their neighbors, to check in on elderly people, to make calls, to send texts? People are on their phones all the time. Why not use their phones to encourage other people and see how they’re doing? You see the focus changes from gathering to scattering. And this is what I say in the article: “In the last 25 or more years, the church gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change.” If you’re in a gathering mindset in a scattering climate, you’re living in a very frustrated place.
You have to embrace the scattering mindset. Here’s something interesting. The initial fulfillment of Acts 1:8 when Jesus told to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” The fulfillment of Acts 1:8 is found in Acts 8:1, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” We’re not in persecution per se. (Some people would say that we are). But we’ve definitely been scattered. How can you use this scattering as an opportunity to fulfill your mission?
Flexible, Unstructured Gatherings
The second thing is flexible, unstructured gatherings. This goes back to a conversation I had about eight years ago with Josh Surratt at Seacoast Church. Josh mentioned that a family from his church had moved to the state of Maine. They had about 30 people gathering at their house to watch Seacoast service every week. I looked at Josh and said, “Well, maybe you need to redefine what a campus is.”
Around that the same time period, 8-10 years ago, people in a number of ministries around the country began to think about this notion of microsite churches. What I saw in the 2018 article were microsite campuses in smaller communities where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. The question I asked in the article is what if the service via streaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas?
Here’s the deal — if your church is not meeting in person (which is about 70% of churches right now), you have microsite churches. You have families gathered in homes. Maybe a few people are doing “watch parties” where they’ve invited some neighbors. Right now your church is gathering in microsites.
The challenge right now is that I, personally, attend a multisite campus that is a video venue. There’s a campus pastor and a team. There’s live worship and a service host, and then the messages are on streaming video. Why would I go back to my video streamed multisite campus when I can stay home and participate from my microsite campus? If I want more people to gather with me, I can invite them to my house.
Here’s the other side of it — nobody was meeting in those buildings anyway because of the pandemic. They had all been closed down. There was no reason to pay rent on the buildings. There is no reason to maintain a building for a multisite campus that nobody is meeting in because everybody is meeting at home.
These flexible unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. Now there needs to be some training. Where do you get trained volunteers? This goes to the next point in this 2018 article — meaningful volunteer ministry. I hate the word “volunteer” because Paul says to the Corinthians that one part of the body can’t say to another part of the body, I don’t need you (1 Corinthians 12:21. By definition, “volunteer” means that people aren’t being paid for their time. But, the dichotomy between volunteer and staff has become as great as the one between clergy and laity.
Churches have reached the point that they keep hiring all of these people to do tasks, because it seems easier to motivate them and get them to meet a deadline than it would with a volunteer. But the reality is that every one of us has spiritual gifts that God’s given us. Every one of us has a calling. The calling is not just limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff.
What do we need volunteers for in the church? Volunteers are needed to maintain in-person worship services. Since there are no in-person services, there is no need for “volunteers.” Again, quoting from this 2018 piece, “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 week of the year. Why? Because no one is called to this!”
Today, if you’re the guest services coordinator and your church is only meeting online only, you’re like the happiest person in the world! You’re like on vacation. Here’s the thing — believers will rise to the occasion for gift-based ministry, things that they’re called to do, things that they see a need for and could fill it. They could do something about it with their gifts and abilities. They just need to be equipped. They need to be released to do that. JD Greear said this, “Even when you can’t come to church, you can still be the church.” When you look at Ephesians 4 you see the work of pastors and teachers is to equip the saints for doing the work of the ministry. Pastors and staff should be ministry multipliers to release their congregations to serve rather than doing the work themselves. We are decentralized. People can use their gifts. They can invite people into their homes. The church can be the church.
This is a Major Shift
We can’t meet in-person for various reasons. The church doesn’t revolve around the building. This is a shift. The multiplication of microsites is easier than multiplying megachurches. What about training? What are they doing in the houses while they’re being friendly? They get people together. They’re watching the service online. You can train somebody to do a microsite much more quickly than you can train a pastor. A person doing a microsite doesn’t need a Master of Divinity, but they do need supervision.
Most churches will never have the budget for all of the paid staff or buildings they need to accomplish what God has called them to. Yet, the church already has millions and millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church members. The “staff” for these microsites originates from gifts-based assessments.
Now, when I wrote this original article on March 13, 2018, this might have all seemed weird to you. It may still seem weird to you right now, but if these things are put it into practice right now, it would make a huge impact in your communities.
We have a world that is hurting in so many ways. They’re afraid of a virus. They’re afraid of meeting together. They can’t see a loved one in a hospital. Some of them can’t even go to a funeral. We have political unrest to an extent that I don’t even remember in my lifetime. We have racial injustice. We have so many things that are plaguing our country, and there’s such a great spiritual need. In fact, I would say the last time we saw a spiritual need at this level was 9/11. And if you remember, after September 11, 2001, that next Sunday, our churches were packed.
People are feeling that level of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty. Some people don’t know if they’re going to have a job. How can they buy food? There’s so much uncertainty. They can’t go to church or they’re afraid to go to church, but they can go online. They could go to a friend’s house. They could go to a small group. They can watch a streaming service.
Here’s the crazy thing. These things that I’m talking about — a year ago, they were a novelty. Four months ago, this became a necessity. Today, this is an opportunity. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.
About 90 days ago the church made a pivot to online services. Regular worship services were prohibited in most areas of the country due to COVID-19 and efforts to flatten the curve. Suddenly, worship services appeared online. Churches who had never recorded or live streamed their services scrambled to get online. But, some other things began to happen.
Many churches discovered that just streaming the weekend service was not sufficient to engage participation at home. It was open season for experimentation in worship. Worship teams went from social distancing on stage to leading from their homes and looking like the Brady Bunch online.
The biggest learning in all of this was that people actually showed up. Some churches quickly saw twice the number of people online as they typically had on the weekend. One church with a normal weekend attendance of 10,000 had 200,000 people tune in at Easter. People from out-of-town, out-of-state, and even out of the country began to join in. This presented a new challenge — when things got back to normal, nothing would be normal. How could you abandon your new online congregation? You can’t and you shouldn’t.
Digital ministry is significant. It’s a moment not unlike the printing press 500 years ago. While we might not call it a digital reformation, online ministry is showing signs of creating a new category of ministry for the church going forward. The message hasn’t changed, but the method certainly has. How do you lead a digital congregation?
Interactive Online Services
The churches that are making it without an on-campus weekend service are offering a direct-to-camera, interactive worship service. It’s not merely streaming a typical weekend service. That’s passive. They are connecting with an online audience.
The method has shifted from standing on a stage behind a pulpit and preaching to the crowd to sitting in the living room talking to your members and many others through their televisions. In some cases, pastors are actually taking questions through Facebook Live or some other means and providing answers during their messages or Bible studies. The world is tuning in. What are you giving them?
When this is over, online services shouldn’t be gone. In fact, in churches that are regathering for worship, pastors should remember to speak to the cameras, because there is far more of the congregation “out there,” than there is “in here.” While pastors don’t want to feel like they’re ignoring those in the building, they must either speak directly to the camera (otherwise you creative a passive experience for your online audience), or record an entirely different format for the online folks. Same message, but different method.
Meaningful Connections and Online Groups
When the pandemic began, I broke down all of the “one anothers” and showed how the church could still practice all of them except greeting with a holy kiss. We’ve always said that the church is not the building, and the church is not the worship service, but were we telling the truth? I agree with those who said that the church isn’t reopening because it never closed. The church — the ekklesia, the assembly – is the people of God. The gates of hell cannot defeat us, let alone Coronavirus.
The churches who are succeeding right now are meeting their members’ needs in personal ways. Whether people are required or choose to social distance, the pastors that are getting it right are forming new online small groups, sending personal notes in the mail, and making personal phone calls. That may seem a bit daunting, but start somewhere. One church immediately upon the shutdown tasked their staff with calling the top 20% of givers in their church – not to ask for money, but to see how they were doing. Again, go back to the digital one anothers: text encouragement, send a note of appreciation, recruit new online group leaders. We are 100+ days in, but it’s not too late to get started.
Meeting Practical Needs in the Community
Government stimulus checks went pretty fast. Now what? Folks are looking for jobs. In many places states of emergency have ended, so foreclosures have begun. People are trying to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families. For some, these are desperate times. How can your church help?
Food producers are throwing food away, yet people are going without food. How can your church redirect discarded food and get it to the people who need it? Can you assist a local food bank? My wife and son support a local free pantry down the street in front of the fire station. Someone built it. I’m not sure who. But, neighbors provide some food and necessities, then post a picture on their Facebook group. Those in need are informed of what’s available. Those who help can see when supplies need to be restocked. How can your church help the least of these?
How would you guide these folks if they came to church on Sunday? You would probably have them fill out a communication card. Are you getting their information? Maybe you would offer a meeting with the pastor or some sort of “Welcome to the Church” class. You can do this online.
Some churches have a membership class, a Growth Track, CLASS 101-401, or something else. If you put these online, they could help in two ways. First, you can offer next steps to your online congregation who may never darken the door of the church. Second, you can provide a way for people who do attend locally, but have never taken the next steps classes. Instead of offering these classes once a month, they could be available 168 hours a week. You could gain new members in the middle of the night!
Whether people are quarantined by themselves or with their families, there is a sense of isolation. We need each other! Digital ministry involves getting people connected into groups and creating intentional opportunities for people to meet online at first.
Giving is almost 100% online in these days. And, giving should be tied to meeting practical needs in the community. By linking generosity with reaching people and helping them in a crisis, members will be more generous than ever.
Digital ministry is not going away, nor should it. Many churches are attempting to hire a digital ministries pastor at this point. (I say “attempting” because there aren’t a lot of people with the technical, pastoral, and creative skills to fit the bill.) You might need several staff (paid or volunteer) for this role. How will your church engage the community in this digital reformation?
This post starts with a question rather than a statement because everything seems to be a question amidst the Coronavirus outbreak. Our lives have been defined by phrases like “in an abundance of caution,” “reopening,” and “Zoom fatigue.” I wonder if that last one is just the updated version of “I don’t have time for a group,” but I digress.
Sometime in the future, which hopefully means in year 2020, things will go back to “normal” whatever that may mean. For some normal simply means pre-shelter-in-place life and ministry. But, for others, it’s embracing a new normal of on-campus and online ministry. Some churches have witnessed an online worship attendance that’s 20 times as large as normal on-campus worship. Other churches have increased their small groups by 50% during quarantine. What’s next for those groups? How will they continue, if they continue?
Online to Offline is Awkward
In another post I mentioned my online small group on CompuServe in 1994. You can read it here. Great things happened in that group. Greg got saved. Tricia met her future husband. Allen got married, but not to Tricia. While we knew each other well online, until we converged on Greg’s house in southern California, we had never met face-to-face.
The date was set. I was going to baptize Greg in his Jacuzzi. (It’s the California way). Our online group that met only by message board and chat was going to meet in person. Our joke was that we would all have to sit in a circle with our backs to each other and communicate through our laptops. It’s one thing to take an offline group online, but moving an online group offline is another thing. It was a little awkward at first, but we had some big enough personalities in that group that our online friendship easily transferred. I don’t think that every online group can accomplish this, so don’t expect every online group to become an offline group. Our CompuServe group continued to meet as an online group for one practical reason: We lived in four different states!
Online and Out of State
On a coaching call with a pastor the other day, he mentioned that his new online group was made up of members from Washington, California, and New York. They had agreed to meet temporarily for the Cabin Fever study, but they were unsure of what they would do after that. A lot depended on what the group members needed.
With the church staying at home, ministry has gone from normal office hours to ministry 168 hours per week. (Pastors were already serving on evenings and weekends). Boundaries for small groups expanded from counties to countries and cities to states. As long as the group could figure out the time zone formula, they could meet. Now what? Groups are no longer limited to one locale, so what does the group do after the restrictions are lifted?
Possible Next Steps
There are several options for groups to choose from as they move forward. (1) Groups could move completely offline. Once groups no longer have to stay-at-home, (and provided members live within reasonable driving distance of each other), they could endure that first awkward in-person meeting and meet offline permanently. (2) Groups could stay online. If group members live long distances from each other, then an online group would be the only option. But, some groups might appreciate the convenience of meeting online. They could just put their children to bed and meet online. They’ll have to bake their own brownies, but their meetings could continue. (3) Groups could meet mostly online but also meet in-person occasionally. Groups could gather socially or to serve together on a regular basis, but continue to meet for Bible study online.
What’s the best option for online groups? Whether groups meet online or offline, the bottom line is to let the new groups decide for themselves. They should receive the same coaching and training as any other small group leaders. The only difference is the format. Welcome to the 21st century and your new online small group ministry. You certainly have better tools now than we had in 1994. Use those tools to expand the reach of disciple-making in your church. While online groups may not be your personal preference, they will work for some of your people. Not only did our CompuServe group work, we are still friends today.