My Exponential Group Failure

My Exponential Group Failure

Let’s connect over 100 percent of our adults into groups in 2019! Have you heard or declared that rallying cry yet? What’s the plan? How is this year’s plan different from last year’s plan, or is it just wishful thinking?

As a small group pastor, early December was usually the time of year for thinking ahead a little. Groups usually wound down into a few parties and the new study wouldn’t ramp up until January or February. December is a great time for discipleship pastors to coast. (But, don’t let this get out or else you’ll spend your time stuffing those little candles into their holders for the Christmas Eve service.)

Cracking the code of connection for 2019 would be easy if the expert’s advice was true. If the group leaders had apprenticed a new leader, then the year could start with twice as many groups. If groups were selfless enough to break up and start new groups, then more people could be connected. If the senior pastor was as excited about groups as about worship, then 2019 could be a banner year. Maybe this is the year for you to make a move to another church…

Everybody wants exponential growth. Few want to make the sacrifice. At this point, you either resign yourself to mediocrity or admit defeat. But, those aren’t the only two options.

Redefining Exponential

The idea of exponential growth lends itself to generational growth. Leaders develop leaders who develop leaders. If this were true, we would have groups, groups, and more groups. I never had that, and yet I connected 1,000 people into groups in a church of 800 adults. And, I helped a church of 2,500 people start 500 groups. But, nobody “multiplied” anything.

I love the idea of exponential growth. I could just never get there. So, I redefined exponential.

Brett Eastman tells the story of a challenge Bruce Wilkinson gave to Rick Warren on the eve of the first 40 Days of Purpose. Bruce had just returned from spending several years in Africa after the success of The Prayer of Jabez. His challenge to Rick Warren and Saddleback Church was to take whatever goal they were dreaming of and increase it 10 times by putting a zero on the end of the number. If the goal was 200 groups, then it would become 2,000 groups. If memory serves me, this was about the number of groups for that first 40 Days of Purpose at Saddleback in 2002. (If the details are a bit murky to some, then please forgive my recollection).

Instead of getting bogged down in the mire of leaders not developing apprentices and groups unwilling to birth/split/divorce, bypass all of this and just put a zero at the end of your 2019 goal. Trust God for 100 groups instead of just 10, and so forth. The idea is to set a goal that is impossible for you to achieve apart from God’s help. There is no sense in waiting five years for your group leaders to fail to multiply. Make it happen now. But, how?

Give Everyone a Promotion

In order for you to 10x your goal, you must prepare to receive what you are trusting God for. If you are not prepared when God delivers, then the increase will just be squandered.

If you are trusting God for 100 group leaders in 2019, then you will need someone to coach these leaders, and it’s too many for you to coach alone. For the sake of easy math, let’s say each coach takes on five new leaders. You will need 20 coaches. Where will the coaches come from? How many group leaders do you have right now?

All of your current group leaders will become coaches. They know enough to answer a new group leader’s questions. As long as their available to the new leaders, you’re in good shape. There is no magic in coaching. You just do the work.

If you’re like me, 20 coaches is a lot to track, so divide that group by 5 or so. This is your small group team. The team, in this case, is four leaders, who have five coaches each reporting to them. You can keep up with four people.

Who do you choose for your team? Simple. Consider all of the leaders who are doing a great job. Who has greater leadership potential? Who could do your job? (Remember, you’re giving yourself a promotion too). This is your team. Now, with a plan in place to coach new leaders to supervise new coaches…

Where Do the Leaders Come from?

It would be natural to assume that if the current small group leaders become coaches and small group team members, then the current small group members would become group leaders, right? Wrong. This is the problem we started with. Few want to give up their groups to start new groups. Don’t get stuck here.

I used to think that in order to have 100 groups in my church, I would need 1,000 members to join those groups. I no longer believe this. In order to have 100 groups in your church, you need 100 people who are willing to gather their friends and do a study together. The focus is on potential leaders, not potential group members.

How do you get 100 non-leaders to lead? First, you give them an easy-to-use study. Video-based curriculum works very well in this case. The person doing the study with their friends does not need to be a leader or teacher, and you don’t want them leading or teaching anyway. You want to give them the permission and opportunity they need to gather their friends (either in the church or outside of the church) and do a study together. Every church member is promoted to group leader. Their assignment is to lead the “group” of friends they are already a part of.

Last year a church of 600 in Baltimore launched 147 groups doing exactly this. If your people can gather their friends, then they have enough leadership ability to start a group. They probably don’t think of themselves as group leaders, so you can keep the terms “leader” and “group” to yourself. How many non-leaders could lead your non-groups in 2019?

What Keeps Us From Reaching Our Goals?

First, if you don’t think your goal is possible, then it isn’t.

Second, you don’t have to. Let’s face it, no one is holding a gun to your head and demanding that you get everybody in groups in 2019. Whether you launch ten new groups or 100 new groups, you’re still going to have a job. Who needs the stress, right?

Third, fear or blame. If I state an outrageous goal for 2019 and don’t achieve it, then won’t I be embarrassed or get blamed for the failure? (This is why you need to work with a church consultant – it’s always the consultant’s fault!).

What’s it going to be – Incremental growth or Exponential growth in 2019? If you’re ready to go for it, I can help you.

Beyond Church-wide Campaigns

Beyond Church-wide Campaigns

It’s time for your church to move beyond church-wide campaigns. The first widely publicized church-wide campaign, the 40 Days of Purpose by Rick Warren was launched in 2002. By far, it has been the most popular campaign to date. I am grateful for every person who ever “hosted” or joined a group for that season.

At this point, some of you may be confused. I wrote a book called Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (Hendrickson 2017), which is all about church-wide campaigns or alignment series. You might ask, “Now you’re telling us that campaigns don’t work.” That’s not what I’m telling you.

Church-wide campaigns used to work. But, there was a time and a season for campaigns. Here are the reasons for those seasons.

When to Stop Using Campaigns

There are two measures for when campaigns are no longer effective. Your church will hit these marks, and then campaigns will no longer be helpful.

First, if a high percentage of your members are in groups, you no longer need to use campaigns. For most churches, there is a 1-3 year window when campaigns are highly effective to recruit leaders and connect people into groups. Beyond that three year window, your church will experience “campaign fatigue.” It’s a strange phenomenon.

Every week, your people will hear a message in the weekend service. Every week, your people will meet in their group and probably study something. But, the idea of continually aligning the weekend service with the group study gets exhausting for people. This seems strange since there is a sermon and a study every week. But, it’s a reality with a few exceptions.

Some churches use sermon-based groups, which I believe is genius from a Christian education point of view. The normal course of sermon-based groups is steady. You don’t face all of the ups and downs of church-wide campaigns. While there’s a push to join groups every semester, it’s not the bandwagon effect over and over and over again. The bandwagon is fatiguing, which leads to the second point.

If your church has used campaigns for more than 3 years, you will experience a diminishing return. For about 8 years now, I’ve told the story of a church who had dramatic success in connecting all of their people into groups within a 9-month 3-campaign push. The pastor was engaged. They were naturals at creating their own curriculum. They launched multiple campaigns year after year. They began facing a steady skid downward. When I caught up with them about a year ago, groups were at an all-time low. Did the campaigns fail?

Their campaigns succeeded for the first year or two. But, by year 3 campaign fatigue had set in. They were excellent at the sprint of the campaign, but suffered when the sprint became a marathon. Your church will suffer this too.

Once the majority of your congregation is connected into groups and you’ve run campaigns for two or three years, it’s time for a change. If you don’t make the switch, your groups will decline, except for two scenarios…Click Here for Part 2.

Join Allen White for a Free Webinar: Beyond Church-wide Campaigns on Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 3pm EST or Wednesday, Nov 14 at 12:30pm EST. CLICK HERE for more information

The Right Topic Will Make or Break Your Fall Launch

The Right Topic Will Make or Break Your Fall Launch

By Allen White 

Nothing will accelerate your group launch faster than the right topic. When you choose a theme for an alignment series that is a common felt need in your congregation and your community, people will run to join groups. But, the reverse can also be true. Choosing the wrong topic will drive them away.

1. More “Mature” Topics Will Limit Your Launch

Several years ago, I was working with a church that started every year with a 21 day fast. They wanted to design a curriculum to support the fast. While I would never attempt to talk a church out of such a significant initiative, I did caution them that forming new groups might be a little challenging. On the bright side, the refreshments would be very easy. They started a handful of new groups for their members and had a great experience with their fast. But, they were far from involving the entire congregation.

Some topics are for more mature believers rather than for people in the community who may have never darkened the door of your church. Anything to do with money: budgeting, giving, generosity, capital campaigns, and so on are challenging to form groups around. While many people need help managing their finances, too many evangelists desiring $65 million jets have created a poor association between the church and money for most of the world. Don’t go there.

Other topics like evangelism, spiritual disciplines, and spiritual gifts are great for the congregation, but probably won’t draw much interest from the community. There are ways to promote these topics more indirectly.

Instead of creating an alignment series around a capital campaign, why not create a series around what the church is raising money for? If the church is taking new initiatives to help the poor or become a resource in the community, then these are the topics to promote. Maybe the church is investing in the next generation. People are very concerned about the world their children will grow up in. They can get behind the vision of the church to reach the community, and then they might even give.

Instead of creating curriculum to teach your people evangelism, why not produce a series that is evangelistic? Talk about the needs in the community. You could even include a presentation of the Gospel. You could do evangelism with the curriculum rather than teaching how to do evangelism. A series like All In focuses on the story of Jesus and offers the Gospel message.

There are ways to introduce mature topics to a broader group. But, the largest group launches come from topics that touch a nerve.

2. Felt Need Topics Will Attract People Who Need Help

When you talk to your neighbors and others in your community, what are they concerned about? Many people struggle in their relationships, their marriages, and their parenting. These are great felt need topics which can reach a broad audience.

People also deal with anxiety, worry, and stress. Some feel like giving up or are lost in even successful careers. What will bring them meaning and hope? Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef who recently committed suicide once asked, “What do you do after your dreams have come true?” Even those who seem to have it all often feel a deep void. How can your series help them?

Of course, the granddaddy of all church-wide campaigns is The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. Other series which have drawn in the community include Kerry Shooks’ One Month to Live, Live Like Your Dying, and Half Time by Bob Buford. I’ve worked with churches to produce series that deal with leaving a legacy, common fears, hope, or ambition that have helped some churches more than double their current numbers of groups. A couple of churches now have twice as many people in groups than they have in weekend attendance.

3. What is Your Senior Pastor Passionate About?

The best topic you can choose for a successful curriculum and group launch is the idea that your pastor is the most passionate about. Does he have a life message or dominate them he speaks about often? Does she have a clear direction on what the Fall series should be? The best topic is not necessarily the hottest topic to the church, but the hottest topic for your pastor.

Once you have that direction, you don’t have to start with a blank piece of paper. Most pastors have files full of sermons they’ve preached over the course of their ministries. There is no shortage of content. Why not research the pastor’s hot topic in past sermon files? You’ll be surprised what you come up with.

And, remember, you’re not creating the next Purpose-Driven Life! Your study may not make the bestseller list, but your pastor’s teaching on your video-based curriculum will be very popular with your congregation. What’s even better is that when your felt need topic draws in the friends, neighbors, and co-workers of your members into groups, they will be introduced to your pastor through the video curriculum. When these new folks are invited to church, they will feel like they already know your pastor from the videos!

Concluding Thoughts

Where are you headed this Fall? If you’re creating your own curriculum, I hope you’ve already started. If not, there are semi-custom offerings from allinsmallgroups.com and other sources that have scripts and study guides already written. The hard work is taken care of. Your pastor just needs to personalize the scripts and shoot the video. If push comes to shove, curriculum you purchase can also help you form new groups as long as your pastor is passionate about it.

The topic will make or break your next alignment. Where are you headed?

Group Hosts versus Leaders

Group Hosts versus Leaders

By Allen White 

Recently a small group pastor asked me, “Where do you stand on the Hosts versus Leaders Debate? People grow in groups, but you don’t have to know anything to be the leader??? I feel like I need to train more but no one wants to sit through training.” This are very important issues. Let me break down this question and offer a few thoughts.

The Hosts versus Leaders Debate

I don’t believe a Hosts versus Leaders Debate is necessary. It’s like a Children versus Adults Debate. At one point in our lives we are children, and then we become adults. Back in 2002 with the launch of 40 Days of Purpose, Rick Warren and the team at Saddleback Church introduced us to the term “Host.” The thought was that most people wouldn’t say they were “leaders,” so the invitation was changed to “host a group” by brewing a pot of coffee and being a “Star with your VCR.” What we discovered were a few problems, but a ton of new leaders who would have never called themselves leaders. “Host” was a great way for people to self-identify as a leader, even if they didn’t know that’s what they were doing.

A host, in turn, becomes a leader. Usually churches will “lower the bar” to allow anyone to host a group. I prefer to say “delay the requirements.” Every church must decide what the minimum requirements would be to allow someone to test drive a small group. If the hosts enjoy leading the group, then they are invited on a pathway to become official small group leaders. This is when the requirements come back into play. But, there is an important loop hole here.

Some people are content to be hosts. They don’t want to become official. Does the church require them to become official? The church could. But, the cat’s already out of the bag. The host doesn’t need the church in order to continue. They just need another video-based curriculum. At that point communication breaks down, and the hosts operate outside of the group system and coaching structure. This doesn’t need to happen, if the church is patient.

The hosts should be given a choice whether to become official or to wait for the next church-wide campaign to come around. It’s not perfect, but it may very well be more than what they were doing before.

Some leaders are children. Others are teenagers. Most become adults. But, all leaders follow that pattern.

“People grow in groups, but you don’t have to know anything to be the leader???”

Years ago I started teaching theology and practical ministry classes at a Bible institute. I was a little intimidated about teaching in my first semester. I felt I needed a better understanding of the subject. I didn’t want to appear foolish. And, I certainly didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my class. A veteran teacher coached me, “You just have to be one week ahead of the students.”

Granted I had earned a B.A. and an M.Div. I knew the subjects. I just hadn’t taught the subjects. I held the veteran teacher’s secret dearly. I just needed to be one week ahead of my class. And, that’s exactly how I taught at the Bible institute for the next 10 years.

People grow in groups. I absolutely agree. New leaders also grow in groups. They don’t need to have a lot of training to get started. They just need to get started. As issues come up with the group, the new leader should have a coach to turn to. The new leader’s problems become teachable moments. Those lessons will stick with the leaders forever. Put an experienced leader in the life of the new leaders and most of the training will take place on-the-job.

“I feel like I need to train more but no one wants to sit through training.”

I used to feel the same way. Seminary prepared me to lead training meetings. Then, I discovered real ministry. I would carefully plan my training meetings and advertise them well in advance only to stand in an empty room questioning the call of God on my life.

Training with centralized meetings didn’t work for me. I had to stop and ask myself, “What is training?” What I discovered was that training could be a two minute conversation in the hallway or a two minute video sent out to all of the group leaders. (If you need topics and content for your training videos, check out the training section of my book, Exponential Groups, on pages 178-200). Training can be a text message or a voice mail. The best training comes in the relationships between leaders and their coaches.

There is a place for formalized training. A one-time basic training event could be held after each six week campaign to give the new leaders or hosts instruction on how to lead a group at your church. Beyond this, the leaders will gauge what training they need regardless of what small group pastors like me think they should have.

I finally reached a place where I only held two centralized training events per year. I gathered all of the group leaders each Fall to introduce them to the new curriculum and to recruit coaches from our established leaders. In the book, I refer to this as the “Sneak Peek.”

The second meeting was often a group leaders’ retreat early in the year. We would choose a place that was an hour and a half or so away. (In California, this retreat was in Monterey, so if you have that option, take it!) The leaders would pay for their lodging and some of their meals. I would budget for the speaker. This became a very popular event for our leaders. The best part was the leaders could articulate things they learned at the retreat six months after the retreat, because the training was set apart from the normal routine of life.

Closing Thoughts

I appreciate honest questions like this. I don’t believe the hosts versus leaders thing needs to be an either/or. I see it more like Stage 1 and Stage 2. If people don’t respond to an invitation to lead, then an invitation to “host” might do the trick. Personally, I think the term “host” is a bit dated at this point. There are other ways to invite people to lead without using the word “leader.”

Training is not a dinosaur, but the form of centralized training might be. Someone asked me once why I thought their leaders didn’t come to their training. Having no knowledge of this person’s training, I said, “Well, they don’t come because your training is boring and irrelevant.” He was taken aback. How could I make such an accusation about his training? I told him I knew it because that’s why people didn’t come to my training meetings. The good news is there are so many ways to communicate with people these days, there are many training opportunities, we just need to update our methods.

5.5 Questions with Allen White

5.5 Questions with Allen White

By Allen White

Photo by Luke Tevebaugh

Allen White is the author of Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential (releases February 1, 2017 from Hendrickson Publishers. Download the Introduction and First Chapter Here). He has worked with over 1,500 churches across North America in the last 12 years. Admittedly, interviewing one’s self is pretty odd, but I have interviewed many people sharing about their ministries and books, so why not?

Q1. What makes groups exponential?

Well, let’s start with strategies that don’t produce exponential groups. If small group pastors are focused on connecting people into groups, they will grow by addition. Prospective members must be provided with a group that they will be assigned to. If you’re doing this and your groups are growing, then you’re lucky.

Other churches focus on multiplying leaders, which usually implies dividing groups. A high quality group leader is recruited, who then mentors an apprentice, who will eventually take part of the group and start a new group. The problem I faced with this model was that my leaders weren’t able to identify apprentices for the most part. Oh, and our groups didn’t want to split.

Exponential speaks to equipping and empowering people to gather a group of their friends and do a study together. Imagine 10 people volunteering to lead, who then invite 10 of their friends to join them. Suddenly, you have 10 new groups and 110 people in groups, and all you did was give them permission, then help them. Now, 10 groups is tame. But, what if the number of groups equaled the number of people in your church? Think about the impact. That turns into some crazy math. In recent years, I’ve seen churches of 2,500 with 500 groups, and a church of 260 start 75 groups. That’s exponential.

Q2. In the first sentence of Exponential Groups, you say, “Everyone is already in a group.” How did you reach that conclusion? What if they’re not?

Think about your own life. If you made a list of your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, you would quickly see you are already in a group or even multiple groups. Now, if you took these groups that people are already in and gave them an easy-to-use tool that would intentionally help them grow spiritually, then you have what we typically call a “small group.”

Years ago our congregation took a health assessment. Not only did I want to see where people were growing and where people were stalling out, but I also wanted to see the impact of small groups on their growth. The assessment was based on the five biblical purposes as expressed by Rick Warren: Fellowship, Worship, Discipleship, Service, and Evangelism.

What we discovered was that everyone in our church rated themselves in this exact same order. People who were in official small groups were highest in Fellowship, but so were the people who weren’t. So, I took another survey to ask the non-small group folks who they were in fellowship with. Their responses: friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. They weren’t joining “small groups” because they were already in groups. Then the light bulb went off — what if we gave these groups a study, drew a circle around them, and called them a “group”? It worked better than we imagined.

Now, there are people who are new to the church or new to the area, who genuinely don’t know anyone. These are the exceptions. They need a little help getting connected into a group. Help them, but don’t build your entire system on the perceived needs of the exceptions.

Q3. You talk some about launching groups through church-wide campaigns. Many churches have done this only to see groups fall apart once the study is over. How is your approach different? What’s the best way to form groups that will last?

In order for groups to last beyond a church-wide campaign, three factors are crucial. First, the way the group is formed will largely determine whether the group will continue. See question #2. Second, they need a next step. Many groups don’t continue, because we didn’t ask them to. Lastly, every leader needs a coach. There’s a lot to unpack about coaching, but unless you are supporting your leaders, they will not last for the long term.

Q4. Some pastors are very cautious about lowering the bar on leadership. What would you say to them?

Don’t lower the bar on leadership. Delay the requirements.

Have you ever bought a car from a car dealer? You don’t start with all of the requirements and paperwork necessary to purchase a car. You start with a test drive. In the same way, potential leaders need to test drive small group leadership before they’re ready to seal the deal.

What’s the requirement for a test drive? A drivers license. The question you must answer is: What is the “drivers license” for a small group test drive in your church. For some, they’ll take anyone who is breathing. For others, it’s salvation, baptism, membership, an interview, and/or something else. In chapter 3 of the book, I talk about an acceptable level of risk. You must decide what your church is willing to try.

After group leaders do the test drive and decide to move forward in leading groups, then you can gently reintroduce the requirements you delayed. The end result looks a lot like what you expect from your current groups. You just have a lot more of them.

Q5. Where do you feel churches are missing it with small groups?

I believe some churches don’t think well enough of their people and assume they can’t or won’t lead. They might fear that if “anyone” can lead there will be a lot of problems. Let me assure you — there will be problems. But, the problems I’ve faced in both leading small groups at two churches and coaching other churches amount to about 2 percent of the total leaders you recruit. But, here’s the deal, you already have these problems. Small groups don’t create problems, but they can reveal the problems you already have.

The biggest mistake churches make by far is the lack of a coaching structure. This is difficult work, but it is the backbone of a lasting small group ministry. You cannot coach more than probably 30 leaders yourself. You can never hire all of the staff you need to oversee groups. But, if according to Exodus 18, you have leaders of 10s, leaders of 50s, leaders of 100s, and leaders of 1000s, you can get there. I’ve never had a small group staff. In fact, in the last church I served, we had 6,500 people, and I had one full time assistant. My leadership team was volunteer. My coaches were volunteer. The great thing is I had the privilege of working with people I could never afford to hire. Build a coaching structure or brace for impact.

Q5.5 You are a native Kansan who spent almost 20 years in California, and has now spent the last decade in South Carolina. What teams do you root for?

Well, for college basketball, it’s KU. (Rock. Chalk. Jayhawk). For college football, it’s Clemson. For MLB, it’s the San Francisco Giants. For NBA, it’s the Golden State Warriors. For NFL, I don’t care. How’s that for a mixed bag?

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