Just as we thought everything was going back to normal, we’ve discovered that normal is not so normal. COVID seems to be returning. While I’m not an epidemiologist and don’t want to weigh in on the politics of the pandemic, COVID is yet again making a real impact on life and ministry. From empty Olympic stands to empty seats in our churches to an increase in mask wearing, uncertainty appears to be our biggest obstacle. But, not for small groups.
In-Person Worship Services are Not Essential
A big learning from 2020 is that the church can thrive amid adversarial conditions. Most churches have not returned to their pre-COVID in-person attendance numbers, and that’s okay. Some churches have yet to reopen for in-person worship. As I mentioned in a recent video, while in-person attendance is down, giving is steady across North America, and salvations and baptisms are up! Churches are doing a better job of fulfilling the Great Commission at a worse time (and that’s not so bad).
Since many people are unnerved by the Delta variant (and the emerging Gamma variant), you see more people wearing masks in public. Vacation hot spots like Orlando and Branson, Missouri have become Delta variant hot spots. One church I’m coaching in Orlando has re-closed for in-person worship due to the number of new COVID cases in their church. What does this mean for you?
Online worship services are here to stay (I hope you already knew that). Churches who are doing online services well are recording a separate online service with the pastor speaking direct-to-camera rather than merely streaming the in-person service. Streaming video is not church online. Streaming services create a passive experience for the viewer. By offering an optimized online service, you have a better chance of engaging your audience. But, don’t just give them a service. Offer next steps like your growth track, membership class, Church 101, or whatever you call it. Encourage them to give, to participate in the level they are comfortable, and to start a small group. While this is a different way to do ministry, remember sermons don’t make disciples anyway.
Community is Essential
Your church can survive without in-person worship services. It already has. But, community is essential. The problem with small groups in this variant environment is your people’s varying discomfort in the pandemic. Do they only want to meet with vaccinated people? Do they want the group to wear masks? Do they want the group to meet outside? Do they want the group to meet online? Do they believe the whole thing is made up? Fortunately, this is not your problem to solve.
It was already difficult when you were trying to place people in groups based on their preference of day, time, location, study, affinity, childcare, language, or other variable. Now COVID has upped the ante. Here’s the good news: None of this is your problem to solve. Give your people permission and opportunity to gather their people in whatever way they feel the most comfortable. They can meet with anyone, anytime, and any place – in-person or online. If you will stop trying to figure that out for them, they will figure it out!
If people don’t get invited to join a group, then create an environment for people to meet face-to-face or at least face-to-screen. Don’t resort to sign up cards or online sign ups. These are a lot of work and don’t net many results. Offer prospective members an opportunity to meet group leaders and then sign up for the group they want to try. Sign up cards and online forms set people up on blind dates. At least by meeting the leader ahead of time, you’ve moved from blind dating to speed dating!
Think About This
Like you, I had hoped COVID would be completely behind us by now. The good news is that the fall small group boom has not been cancelled. People crave community. Small groups are more important than ever. Rather than putting all of your energy into getting people back to in-person worship services, double up on getting people into groups. After all, people in groups will attend more, give more, serve more, invite more, and reach more than people who aren’t in groups (To learn more about the research on groups, listen to this episode of the Exponential Groups Podcast with Dr. Warren Bird).
Leading Online Small Groups: Embracing the Church’s Digital Future
Starting Online Small Groups Course
Sermons do a lot of things, but sermons don’t make
Here’s the dilemma: the church’s mission is to “go and make
disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20). If sermons don’t make disciples, then how does
the church fulfill its mission? If sermons don’t directly fulfill the church’s
mission, then why is so much emphasis placed on the weekend worship service and
What Do Sermons Do?
I’m a preacher. I have nothing against preaching. I take
exception, however, in depending on preaching to accomplish what it cannot
Sermons serve to inspire, inform, and motivate. People can
come to Christ as a result of responding to a pastor proclaiming the Word of
Truth. Preachers are brokers in hope. They can help people reframe their lives
from a context of frustration and despair to embrace hope and God’s love.
Sermons anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit are dynamic things that can
make an impact. Yet, sermons don’t make disciples.
If discipleship was a uniform process or the mastery of a body of knowledge, then the information delivered in a sermon would certainly add to knowledge acquisition. But, that’s not what discipleship is. Disciples aren’t processed. They’re crafted.
How Do You Make Disciples?
Disciples make disciples. While much of Western Christianity
has depended on the definition of a disciple as a student, then placed the
student in a class and delivered thorough teaching, it has ended up with very
educated, yet disobedient students. Here’s the proof: what they know is not
adequately reflected in their attitudes and actions. I’m not building a case
for perfectionism. But, I am a believer in the principle that what people truly
believe is reflected in what they do. Or, put another way, “faith without works
is dead” (James 2:17).
Now, I realize that some at this point will wonder if I am
advocating some works-based approach to Christianity. This is where I’m going:
if church-goers have no desire for the things of God, then I would question
whether they truly belong to God. As Paul writes to the Philippians, “Therefore,
my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now
much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and
trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to
fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). We don’t work for our
salvation, but we work out our salvation because God is working in us.
If disciples aren’t merely students, then what are they? The
word “disciple” is derived from several different words including follow and
“to rub off on.” The model Jesus gave us was to spend 75 percent of His time
with His disciples and 25 percent with the crowd. How much time is spent on the
sermon? How much time is spent making disciples?
Why did Jesus spend such a disproportionate amount of time
with a small group of people? Jesus knew how we learn. People learn by
imitation, not instruction.
Who has been the most powerful influence in your life? For
most people, they would say their parents. You act more like your parents than
anyone else. After all, you could read a dozen books written by experts in
marriage, yet your default is a marriage that more closely resembles your
parents’ marriage than anything presented by the experts. (Depressing thought,
huh?) Change requires intentional effort, committed support, and better models
Paul challenged his followers to imitate him (1 Corinthians
4:16; 2 Thessalonians 3:9). Imitation requires transparency. Imitation requires
time and attention. Disciples make disciples.
Why is the Sermon so Important Then?
Sermons can start something. A presentation of the Gospel
can help someone start their relationship with Christ and their journey of
discipleship. The sermon can lead a congregation to love their neighbors, to
focus on the majesty of God, and to hold on to hope. But, the result of a
sermon is not another sermon. The result of a sermon is a next step – make a
decision, join a group, lead a mission, serve your neighbor, pray…you get it.
This is why I’m a big believer in alignment series and
groups that help church-goers take their weekends into their weeks. The sermon
can deliver a challenge, and the group can provide the support and
accountability necessary to meet the challenge. The sermon by itself, however,
is forgotten usually within 48 hours. If they can’t remember it, how are they
supposed to do it? Groups help with this.
On any given weekend, pastors have the opportunity to lead a
large portion of their congregations to take a step. The weekend service is the
largest things a church does in any given week, but it’s not the most important
thing they do. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Disciples make
For most pastors, whether their churches are 100 people,
1,000 people, or 10,000+ people, would view the sheer scale of disciples making
disciples as completely daunting. The key is to start small and multiply. Jesus
invested in 12 disciples which multiplied over 2,000 years into some 2 billion
people. If pastors invested in just eight people, and then those disciples made
disciples within four years the church would have 4,096 disciples making
disciples (8x8x8x8). Without disciples making disciples, pastors have audiences
for their sermons.
Back in college a speaker challenged us to think about 5
sermons that influenced our lives for Christ. To be honest, most of us couldn’t
come up with one – not even the sermon from last Sunday. Then, the speaker
asked us to name 5 people who had influenced us for Christ. Those names
immediately came to mind.
The key to discipleship is not a process or a proclamation. The key to discipleship is a disciple.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.