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.
You’ve experienced your small groups getting stuck. It’s very common for groups to get stuck with only 30% of your people connected. Some churches get as high as 50% in groups, then get stuck. A rare few achieve more than that. But, this year brings a different kind of stuck to small groups.
The Stuckness of 2021
Willingness to start and join small groups is beginning to thaw, but not everyone is there yet. As I talk to pastors across North America, I’m learning that everyone is experiencing their own version of small group ministry in 2021. Even in states that removed restrictions a while ago, there is still a reluctance to join or lead a group.
Vaccination, fear, denial, and new strains of COVID have increased the complexity of launching groups. While some are actively fearful, others are just over it. Some churches have even split over COVID precautions. It’s a complex time.
You can simplify the complexity of starting groups by offering flexibility and variety. Invite people to form groups they’re comfortable with. Invite them to start an in-person group or an online group. What suits them best? Encourage them to invite people they are comfortable being around. Whether it’s members of their “pod” or people they already know and love.
By giving your people permission and opportunity, they will figure out what’s right for them. Demanding that all of your groups meet on-campus or online won’t work. Throwing strangers together in hopes that a group might form is risky business. But, in addition to the COVID complexities, there are other reasons why your groups might be stuck.
Why Groups Typically Get Stuck
Groups get stuck for a variety of reasons. Using only one small group model routinely loses steam at around 30%. This is usually when you’re ready to abandon your current small group model for the newest, shiniest one. After you change models two or three times, your next announcement will be met with more of an eye roll than a drum roll.
As the small group point person, if you do all of the recruiting, your groups will get stuck somewhere around 30%. (I worked hard for seven years to only get stuck at 30% in groups). Any staff member, regardless of their longevity or likability will only get 30% the result the senior pastor would get.
In the last 31 years of ministry, I have served twice as an associate pastor and twice as a vice president. I know what it’s like to be the #2 guy. Once my senior pastor started recruiting leaders, our groups jumped from 30% to 125% in just six months. Same words. Same invitation. Different inviter.
Then, there are all of the other things you’ve experienced in getting stuck. You can’t recruit enough leaders. It’s difficult to connect people into groups. People are busy. Groups aren’t a priority at your church. You don’t have enough help. You don’t have enough budget. You don’t get enough airtime on Sunday morning. I’ve checked all of those boxes. Then, once you get the leaders, they burnout. They get busy. They leave the church or start working in another ministry area.
You have a lot to build in small group ministry. You have to recruit leaders, form groups, and build a coaching structure to support it (don’t try coaching everybody yourself). Maybe you’re writing curriculum. Maybe you’re desperately trying to get your church leadership’s attention. You have to offer the right training at the right time for your leaders who are at so many different levels of experience that half of them don’t show up most of the time. It’s a lot.
Culture Shifts are Hard
The reasons small group ministries get stuck at 30% goes back to research from the 1940’s. You may not have picked up a copy of the Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers, but you have heard of “early adopters,” “mid adopters,” (or “early majority” and “late majority”) and “late adopters” (Rogers calls these “laggards.”) Stay with me. Even if you’ve heard these terms, you haven’t heard what I’m about to say.
When you launch groups, all of the Innovators in your congregation jump on board. This is the first 2.5% of the church. These are followed fairly quickly by the Early Adopters (13.5%). If you get the Innovators and Early Adopters to join groups, then you have 16% of your church in groups. This may not be the right place for them. As you persist in promoting groups, you start to reach the Early Majority (34%). You don’t get all of the Early Majority, but you get a start. The Late Majority are skeptical. It will take a while to win them over. The Laggards are traditional and stubborn. Don’t waste your time on Laggards.
You launch groups. You get the low hanging fruit (Innovators, Early Adopters, and some Early Majority). Then, you get stuck. I’ve been stuck. And, I stayed stuck until I made one crucial change.
Instead of inviting that first 16% (Innovators and Early Adopters) to join groups, invite them to LEAD groups. Just imagine the difference if 16% of your adults were leading groups. Even if you only have five or six people in the groups, you have groups for 100% of your congregation. How can you get that 16% to lead groups? Go back and look at the previous section of this article.
Once upon a time, my groups were stuck at only 30% for exactly the reasons I just described. In just 18 months, we went from only 30% in groups to having nearly 40% of our adults lead a group for at least one six week series. Our final result was 11% of our adults leading groups and 125% of our worship attendance in groups. The good thing about feeling stuck and frustrated is that it led me to figuring out how to get unstuck. These are the lessons I share with my coaching groups and help small group pastors adapt to their church’s unique culture.
If you are feeling stuck right now, I am ready to help you. Do you want my help?
What if the difference between success and failure lies in the few steps between the auditorium and the lobby? That’s what I witnessed about a year ago. The much beloved founding pastor of a multi-site, megachurch invited his congregation to open their homes and invite their friends to join them for a six week study the church had produced. The curriculum was awesome. The pastor did the teaching. The topic was relevant. It was a sure thing, but don’t be so sure.
At the close of the service, the pastor made an impassioned appeal for his members to take the next step and start their own group. But, it wasn’t just one next step, it was 20-30 next steps out to the lobby. That evening a crowd of 1,000 adults netted 18 groups. All of our hearts sank.
The pastor had said the right words. He was presenting the right offering at the right time. The church was familiar with small groups. Why the poor result?
Over the years, I’ve seen great messaging become ineffective simply by the distance between the invitation and the response. The best curriculum, the strongest leadership or even the most carefully crafted appeal can all unravel in a matter of minutes if the wrong step is given in recruiting group leaders. A few simple nuances can net a profound effect.
At that church, we made a quick change. Rather than prospective group hosts responding by signing up in the church lobby after the service, the new next step involved no steps at all. The response was simply to take out a card and sign up right there in the service. The cards were collected at the end of the service. The result went from 18 groups to 248 groups in less than 24 hours. The final result over the next three weeks was 1,100 new groups across all of their campuses.
I am convinced most people only think about church when they are sitting in church. Any effort to send people to the lobby or God forbid send them home to sign up on a website simply does not work. By the time well intended church members hit the threshold on Sunday morning, their stomachs have raced to lunch and their minds have raced to evacuating the premises as soon as possible. The moment has gone.
The closer you connect the invitation to the response, the better the response. If the invitation is made in a service, then collect the response in a service. If the same invitation is made by a video email at midweek, then collect the response in the email. By simply providing a link in the email, a willing member can click the link and sign up to start a group right on the spot.
In a perfect world, church members would go home, login to the church’s website, and sign up electronically. No fuss. No sign up cards. No data entry. Simple. That world does not exist. To send someone from the service to the lobby or to their computer to sign up is equal to making no invitation at all. The reverse is also true. To send an email midweek asking for a response the following Sunday is just wasted megabits.
Think like the people who sit in your rows.
What’s available to them in their row?
Is there a response card or do you create a card?
Do they have a pen?
Who will collect the cards? Are they placed in the offering, collected at the end of the service, or handed to an usher on the way out?
Maybe pen and paper doesn’t cut it. What else do they have? What about their cellphones? Can they send a text to a designated number (not yours!)?
When you send an email invitaiton, can they fill out a survey or a web form?
Missed opportunities occur when you can’t adequately collect the response. These thoughts may seem elementary. They may seem unnecessary. You may feel you are getting a good enough result from how your collecting responses now. Or are you?
By Allen White
You can’t have groups without leaders. Let’s face it, if you have a bunch of people interested in joining groups, you may or may not have groups. But, if you have a leader, you’ll have a group. Where do the leaders come from? There are several schools of thought on how and who to recruit. There is not a right or wrong for this. The method you choose depends on how many people you have to connect into groups, how quickly you want to connect them, and how big of a risk you are willing to take.
High Requirements and Incremental Growth
In this method, prospective leaders must meet certain requirements and complete comprehensive training before they lead groups. Some churches will even ask prospective group leaders to co-lead or apprentice with an experienced leader for a certain period of time before they are commissioned to lead their own group.
The benefit of this method is small group pastors/directors feel they know the prospective leaders better before they are invited to lead. Also, the pastors and staff may feel the leader is better prepared by completing comprehensive training prior to leading a group.
In order to recruit leaders, either the small group pastor will need to personally recruit prospective leaders for the training process or take nominations from other group leaders about prospects in their groups. The number of leaders recruited will depend on how many people are recruiting and how well the recruiters know the church members. As the church grows this becomes a more difficult task.
From my experience using this method is very slow going in offering new groups. If your church is large or is rapidly growing, this method will leave you in the weeds very quickly, especially if your church doesn’t offer much else beyond the weekend worship service. I personally handpicked leaders for seven years and ended up with 30 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. The recruits joined a six week training group with the purpose of launching all of the members as small group leaders. Some years we started 10 new groups. One year we started two groups. One year we started zero groups, even though the prospects completed the training. Then, we got stuck and couldn’t grow further.
Fortunately, there were some lessons learned. First, the invitation was to lead a group basically for the rest of their lives. This was too much of a commitment. Secondly, I didn’t know everybody in the church, so there were a lot of great prospects being overlooked because I had never met them. Third, I felt I needed to maintain control over the groups and the leaders to make sure we didn’t have a bunch of problems, which turned out to be our biggest problem. I had become the bottleneck for leadership.
A few positives in this method are certainly worth keeping. Most people do not regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. For the small group pastor, a staff member, or a group leader to say, “I think you have what it takes to lead a group,” is huge in people’s lives. Many people who don’t regard themselves as leaders would make great leaders, they just need someone to call that out of them. Those personal conversations won’t get all of the leaders you need, but they will make a significant impact on the life of the potential leader.
Then, there’s the term “leader.” We should be hesitant to call someone a leader. Whether that means someone must meet the qualifications and fulfill the training requirements before they are designated “leader,” or if they start a group with their friends, no one should be designated as a leader until they’ve proven themselves. In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul instructs his apprentice, Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” No matter how people have entered your leadership pipeline, wait and see how God uses them and gifts them before you give them the title of leader.
Low Requirements and Rapid Growth
After being stuck with 30 percent in groups after seven years of using the first method, my pastor and I decided to do something different. We created our own video-based curriculum, so the group meetings would be easy to prepare and lead. Rather than handpicking leaders, my pastor made a public invitation in the service that went something like this: “We’ve prepared video curriculum materials for you. If you would be interested in opening your home to host a group, then we will help you get the group started.” With that invitation, we doubled our groups in one day. And, I got out of the recruiting business permanently.
Every church must choose their own acceptable level of risk in “lowering the bar.” I don’t even like that term any more. I’d rather say “delaying the requirements.” For some churches, anyone who is willing to lead a group is qualified to lead a short-term group. (I prefer not to advertise these). For other churches, the recruit must be a member, complete Growth Track, provide references, or be interviewed. Choose the acceptable level of risk that’s appropriate for your group. For more on this, see Chapter 3 of Exponential Groups.
Once people said “yes” to my pastor’s invitation, we brought them into a briefing to give them a start on how to gather and lead their group. Eventually at the briefings, we introduced them to an experience leader who would walk alongside them for the six week series. For us, by providing the curriculum, we knew what was being taught in the groups, and by offering a coach, we knew what was going on. This gave us more on-going reassurance of quality groups than we had ever had.
The number of new groups you start this way is limited only by the number of people who attend your church. Every person in your church could do a Bible study with their friends. I know you’re immediately thinking of who you don’t want to start a group. Let the exceptions be the exceptions. Only 2 percent or less will be a problem. The other 98 percent will do a great job.
In the first church I served, we quickly reached 125 percent of our average adult attendance in groups. Now, compare that to 30 percent in groups after seven years of doing it the other way. We had 1,000 people in groups and 800 on the weekend. In the second church I served, we had about 4,000 of our 5,000 regular attenders in groups. (That church offered a LOT of other options to our adults).
While there is more risk in this method, there is also more reward. Like I said at the beginning, you can go either way. Neither is wrong. It all depends on how much time you have to get everybody in a group. If you have months, then the second method is the way to go. If you have years, then the first method is fine. If you’re not sure, then run a pilot with a few groups and see what works.
Requirements and training should never go away permanently. If you “lower the bar,” remember you must eventually “raise the bar.” In the first one to three years, most churches can get their entire congregations connected. After that window passes, you must up the ante for groups. Qualify “unqualified” leaders. Create a discipleship pathway. Offer more mature topics in addition to felt need topics.
It’s up to you. What are you willing to risk? If you go too fast, you might be embarrassed or blamed. But, if you go to slow, you can miss out on some great leaders and an opportunity to disciple your members. What are you willing to try?
By Allen White
If you have managed to connect 30 percent of your adults in small groups, then congratulations are in order! You are among the top one half of one percent of all churches in America! Go ahead and pat yourself on the back! You deserve it!
Now that you’ve been congratulated, let’s get to work. Quite a few things could contribute to your state of stuckness. Here the biggest factors in small groups getting stuck.
Stop Handpicking Leaders
If you are still personally recruiting every leader, you have completely maxed out this method of starting groups. When our groups got stuck at New Life in northern California, we had 30 percent in groups. I had handpicked each leader over the course of seven years. I had asked the same question for seven years: “Would you like to become a small group leader?” And, for seven years, many people turned me down.
Now, if I had 100 years to catch up with the connection needs of our growing congregation, then I would have been in good shape. The problem is that well before we reached the 100 year mark I would be dead along with most of the people who needed to be connected into groups. While I thank God for the groups I had, the recruitment strategy had to change in order to recruit more leaders faster. We changed it and doubled our groups in one day.
Consider an Alignment Series
One of the fastest ways to propel your groups forward and get out of your stuckness is an alignment series where the senior pastor’s weekend messages are aligned with the small group study. You can either purchase a curriculum like My Near Death Experiment or Transformed, or you can create your own curriculum. Either will work. The key is to tie what’s happening in the small groups with the weekend message and particularly tie the small group study to the senior pastor.
Only Your Senior Pastor Recruits New Small Group Leaders
The first time my senior pastor stood up in a weekend service and invited our people to host groups, we doubled our groups in one day. [You can read the whole story here.] After seven years, we had 30 percent in groups. After one weekend, we jumped to 60 percent in groups.
Other than Jesus Christ, the reason unconnected people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. They like his personality. They laugh at his jokes. They enjoy his teaching. Now, don’t mention this to your worship pastor. It will break his heart.
When the senior pastor stands up and offers curriculum based on his teaching (or at least aligned with his teaching, if you’re going the purchased route), you are giving your people more of what they already like — your pastor’s teaching. Then, when the pastor invites the people to open their homes and host a group, they will follow his leadership. Believe me, I’ve been an Associate Pastor for most of my 25 years in ministry. If I made the same invitation in the service, I would get 30 percent the result of our senior pastor. Once my pastor starting recruiting from the platform, I never handpicked another group leader ever again.
Get Your Coaching Structure Started
Many churches have given up on small group coaches. Even very large churches who are well-known for their small group ministries have abandoned coaching or use paid staff to coach. This is a mistake. First, most churches could never afford to hire all of the staff they need. Second, if you are not personally caring for your leaders, your leaders will eventually stop leading. I was able to coach my leaders up to about 30 percent connected into groups, but to be honest, I didn’t do it very well. But, I learned not to beat myself up.
When we doubled our groups in a day, I was in a coaching crisis. Then, it dawned on me, since we doubled that meant half of the small group leaders didn’t know what they were doing, but the other half did. I matched them up like the buddy system, and it worked. Then, I built the rest of the coaching structure on that. Read more about small group coaching here.
Leave Established Groups Alone
Now, here is what I didn’t do. I didn’t invite my established small group leaders to do the new series. I didn’t ask my established small group leaders to change anything. In fact, I didn’t even tell them. Why?
I already had them. They didn’t need to change. They just needed to continue. If it ain’t broke… Now, many of the established small groups did participate in the alignment series, but I never asked them to. They asked me!
If you are killing yourself and only have 30 percent of your adults in groups, it is time to make a change. Now, you could change to another church who has no groups and become a big success by connecting 30 percent of their people into groups. Or, you could change up your strategies of how you recruit small group leaders and make huge progress right where you are.
Where are you stuck? For more posts by Allen White or Information on Allen White Consulting