An ill timed launch is nearly as bad as no small group launch at all. You probably launch groups along with everything else in the fall and in the New Year. Those are great windows to launch groups, so what’s the problem?
In most churches, the senior pastor wants to kick off a big fall series as soon as everyone has settled back into church. The pastor will give a “State of the Church” message right after New Year’s Day, then launches into a major sermon series. If these sermon series are aligned with a small group study, then when do you recruit group leaders? And, when do you form groups? Before everybody gets back?
How Does This Work?
Let’s say that everyone is back onsite in the fall around mid-August. This will vary from church to church by a few weeks either way. If your pastor plans a big fall kick off with a sermon series starting in mid-August, you have to recruit leaders and attempt to form groups in July and early August. For most churches that means you are trying to recruit leaders when many of your people are on vacation.
The same goes for the New Year. If your series begins in early to mid-January, then you are recruiting group leaders and forming groups in December. But just in case you haven’t discovered this: nothing happens in December expect for Christmas.
Attempting to recruit leaders in the middle of summer or in December is completely futile. (Okay, maybe you recruited a couple of leaders once, but for the most part it’s futile.) You have to recruit leaders and form groups when your people are actually back. What does this mean?
If your people are back in church physically and mentally in mid-August, then start recruiting group leaders in mid-August. But, what happens to your senior pastor’s fall kick off? Your pastor can still launch the fall with a great sermon series, but wait to align your small group study with the NEXT sermon series (provided your pastor doesn’t do 20-week sermon series). You recruit group leaders in mid- to late August. You form groups in early September. You launch groups with a sermon-aligned study in mid-September.
Here’s a Great Result
One church in my Small Group Ministry Coaching Group made this adjustment and went from 30% of their adults in groups to 42% in groups just by launching with the next series instead of launching with the kick off series. At our church in California, our people weren’t back until after Labor Day. We recruited group leaders in September. Our Connection event to join groups was in early October. We launched our six-week aligned series on the second Sunday in October with it finishing just before Thanksgiving. Our next study started in late January or early February. The groups focused more on group life between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
But, What About Semester-Long Studies?
And, this strategy relieves another problem for you: every group and every ministry wants to launch all at once. By delaying your aligned series launch for a few weeks, people can sign up for Financial Peace, Rooted, or a Beth Moore study first, then you can recruit the remainder of folks to lead or join series-based groups. After all, a group is a group is a group. As long as they’re doing something intentional about their spiritual growth, does it matter what type of group they’re in? Everyone certainly doesn’t need to do the same thing.
Think About This
Recruiting leaders takes a lot of time and effort. By adjusting your alignment schedule, you put in the same amount of effort, but you get a better result simply by changing the timing. As long as your fall series ends by Thanksgiving and your New Year series ends by Easter, you’re in really good shape.
What does your fall church calendar look like? How can you make this adjustment to maximize your recruiting?
If you need a little help working through this issue, try Burst Coaching. You get three private coaching session plus an additional resource for only $197. For more information, click here.
A year ago I wrote about the Post-Pandemic Small Group Boom. I wrote about it a year too early. In this article, I’m going to build a case for the pattern leading up to the fall 2022 small group boom, then coach you on how to prepare for it.
While the churches I’ve worked with over the last two years have more new group leaders, more new groups, and more people in groups than ever before, they’ve been hampered by first the Delta variant, then the Omicron variant. While the impact of COVID appears to be lessening as of this writing, the emergence of variants continue. The impact on society as a whole appears to have decreased. There is less mask wearing, even in airports (but you should follow the guidelines…)
Two years ago everything stopped. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. Almost no one had experienced a pandemic of this degree except a few centenarians who were babies in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza. The whole world came to an abrupt halt. Originally, a few weeks of quarantine were given in exchange for normalcy resuming quickly. Then, it stretched to Easter 2020 and beyond.
COVID separated the church. The church did not “close,” because the church is a body of believers — not a building, not a service, not an institution. The church couldn’t gather for in-person meetings: worship, small groups, or anything else, but the church never closed.
Many small groups went to Zoom or other online platforms — synchronous or asynchronous. While many groups tolerated meeting online, some have discovered the opportunity of online groups to connect to others who are far from them and far from God. But, Zoom fatigue set in quickly. Online groups are just not the same as in-person groups. And, we found our way around that issue too by making online groups completely different and calling them by another name.
But, right now you are in an unprecedented moment – Small Groups are about to boom!
People have been separated for a long time. Of course, restrictions and attitudes vary across North America. While some churches are just now easing their COVID restrictions, I know of one church that never stopped their in-person services throughout the entire pandemic. I’m not judging right or wrong. I’m just saying “different” restrictions and attitudes. While this is also my first global pandemic, this is where I see things going in 2022 with small groups:
People Will Warm Up to In-Person Gatherings Gradually
While Coronavius numbers are declining, many churches have not seen their worship attendance rapidly bounce back. Pastors grimace at the sight of full stadiums and half empty worship centers. But, let’s face it, nobody’s church could ever rival the Super Bowl. But, on the other side, office space across the U.S. is still only at 38% capacity. Even for those who have been over COVID for a while now, normal has not returned.
When the President of the United States announced in his speech on March 10, 2021 “…if we do this together, by July the 4th, there’s a good chance you, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day. That doesn’t mean large events with lots of people together, but it does mean small groups will be able to get together…But to get there we can’t let our guard down. This fight is far from over” (Source) Politics aside, even the President couldn’t foresee the Delta and Omicron variants. COVID didn’t just blow away by Independence Day 2021. COVID in its various forms seems to be sticking around.
In the meantime, what do you do? Do you just write off the spring semester? I don’t think so. This is the time to experiment. What are your people open to? How are they willing to participate in small groups? Pilot something. Gather groups of who are ready. Be patient with those who are unsure. Try a new approach to online groups. If you’re not sure what your people might be open to, our church-wide assessment can help you find the right direction to go.
People Will Be Gone in Spring and Summer 2022
The Gauge Group, a research firm based in Washington DC, predicted in the fourth quarter of 2021 that people were planning for spring 2022 travel. It’s happening. Planes are full. Airlines are struggling. According to the Morning Brew on April 18, 2022: “People are making up for two years of canceled plans with vacations, weddings, and golf trips to Myrtle with the boys. Some data points:
• Monthly domestic ticket bookings and revenue in February exceeded 2019 levels for the first time since the pandemic began.
• Credit card spending on airlines is also above 2019 levels, JPMorgan said.
“We’re seeing an increase in demand that is really unparalleled,” Delta President Glen Hauenstein said last month. The company reported that March 2022 was its best month for sales ever.”
I’m not suggesting that you raise the white flag for summer, but your people taking a much needed break will create an even bigger fall launch. Use your summer to prepare for fall. Recruit coaches for new group leaders. Create your own video-based curriculum.
Small Groups Will Boom in the Fall
Your people have been apart for a long time. Their need for community is higher than ever. By fall, they will be ready for in-person small groups at a level you’ve probably never experienced. Barring another major wave of the virus, people will be ready to reconnect in small groups like never before.
Are you ready? How will you make the most of this opportunity? This is not the time for business as usual. This is not the time to roll out the same tired small group strategies you’ve used year after year that produce the same mediocre result. What are people willing to say “yes” to this fall?
Preparing for the Fall 2022 Small Group Boom
You may not get a moment like this again. Your people’s lives have been disrupted for a long time. They are ready to get into groups, even if they’ve never been in groups before. Your online congregation is ready to take next steps and to make deeper commitments. Use the spring to make a plan for an exponential group launch this fall. Use the summer to execute your plan.
Choose a Relevant Felt-Need Topic.
What is the greatest need in your community? Locate or create a study that addresses that need. Here are a few topics to get you started: relationships, marriage, parenting, stress, purpose, serving others, or something similar.
This is not the time for a series on fasting, tithing, or another mature topic. Those are important, but not to connect the most people possible this fall. You’ve had a lot of new people join you in worship services both in-person and online over the last year. What kind of a study would appeal to their friends? (For more on creating curriculum)
Reconsider Your Definition of a Small Group.
What is an “official” small group in your church? Once you define an official small group, then you can experiment with “unofficial” groups.
One pastor was struggling with recruiting enough leaders to meet the demand for groups in his church, yet he had very high qualifications for leaders which not everyone could meet. I asked him, “What number of people is too small to be a small group in your church?” His answer: Three people. So, he invited his people to join with two others (You plus two) and do the sermon discussion guide together. Once they get going, then he’ll invite them to fulfill the requirements.
How could you offer your people a small group test drive this fall? Could you call these groups by a different name? Key thought: Don’t advertise these groups. Don’t send anyone to these groups. Allow them to gather their friends. (But, give them a coach!)
Consider Delaying Some Requirements Temporarily.
Many people don’t consider themselves to be any kind of a leader. Yet, most people have the ability to gather a group of friends. This is leadership. As John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.”
But, to get there, you must decide: what are the minimum requirements for someone to “lead” a group in your church? Breathing or willing? A confession of faith? Church membership? Small group leadership training? A Coach? An interview? The more requirements you pile on, the fewer potential leaders you will have. As my friend Randal Alquist says, “You’re not recruiting elders here.”
Start Building Your Coaching Structure
If you choose to launch groups “wide open” this fall, then you need help ASAP. The key to multiplying small groups is multiplying yourself. Which of your experienced group leaders could help you coach new leaders? If you’re not going to be picky about who leads a new group, then you need to be picky about who coaches them.
When you look at your current group leaders, what groups would you like 10 more just like? Ask those leaders to help coach new leaders. What groups do you NOT want 10 more of? Quarantine that group (sorry).
There is a lot of debate about coaching small group leaders. Some churches have the luxury of hiring enough staff to coach all of the leaders. If that’s you, go for it. But, that’s not where most churches are. There is also a struggle with giving up control (I was there), disconnecting from group leaders, and sharing leadership with others. Let me ask you this: if you had four times as many group leaders as you have right now, how would you support them? The answer is not “more meetings.”
The fall of 2022 will be unlike any other season you’ve experienced in small group ministry. You need to be ready. But, let me give you a hint: the strategy for fall 2022 is not pulling out the same tired small group strategies that have connect less than 30% of your members into groups. It’s time to add a new strategy. It’s time to do something different. You may not get another moment like this again. Make the most of it.
Easter 2022 is an interesting moment. With most of the country easing their COVID restrictions, will people feel free to worship in-person for Easter? Or have two years worth of people watching online sunk in deep? And, considering these mixed feelings going into Easter, how big should the Easter 2022 group launch be? Or should there even be one? Let’s work this out.
Easter is Normally the #3 Group Launch of the Year
Easter is the Trip, Tracy, Trace of group launches. The biggest group launch by far is the fall launch in most places. The second biggest is the New Year. The third is Easter. Now, there are reasons not to launch groups after Easter, but Easter is also the biggest Sunday of the year. Easter is when everybody who calls your church “my church” will be there along with a handful of visitors. Why would you ignore the biggest Sunday of the year when it comes to launching groups? If everybody is there, wouldn’t it be a good idea to start something?
Easter 2022 Is Still Not Normal
Just when we thought that COVID had disappeared, we must acknowledge that COVID has still made everything weird. Pastors in states that just removed their mask mandates are saying that people who were comfortable attending with a mask are now staying home. Maskless worship seems a little too risky for some right now. They’ll be back, but not for a while.
Some people have become comfortable worshipping at home. While I’m a big proponent of digital discipleship, why isn’t the in-person service drawing them in? Why do people feel they don’t need the community of an in-person service? Will they come for Easter or will they stay home?
You may get some first time guests who are not “first time guests.” They’ve never been to your church. They’ve been watching online for a while. Since Easter is a big deal, this just might be the first time they decide to attend in-person. But, here’s the deal, when they show up, they are not technically first time guests. Some have been with you for quite a while. When they show up, they are ready for a next step. They are ready for a small group. They are ready to start growth track. You have to offer them something.
But, there’s another dynamic at play. Similar to the Roaring 20’s that followed the Spanish Influenza, after Easter people will be gone. They have been cooped up too long. The weather is getting warmer. AirBnB is calling. Soccer is kicking off. Baseball is in full swing. Track is…okay, I’ll stop. People are ready to get out. According to the Gauge Group, people will be traveling widely and just won’t be around. So, what does all of this mean for your spring group launch?
Plan an Easter Group Launch, but Lower Your Expectations
As I said before, traditionally an Easter launch is the smallest of the year. But, this Easter you will have some dedicated online worshippers showing up for the first time looking for a next step. Offer them a group. And, while many people will be headed out to enjoy the warm weather, not everyone will be on vacation from Easter until Labor Day. Offer them something too. Even if your groups focus more on group life than group meetings, it’s still worth offering something. But, keep your expectations low. Your Easter launch will not be as far up and to the right as you’d prefer. And, that’s okay. Any progress is progress these days.
Plan for the Fall Small Group Boom
Depending on where you live, your people have experienced various levels of restrictions, freedoms, and fears related to COVID. Some churches are seeing worship attendance equal to or even exceeding their pre-COVID numbers. Most churches are sitting around 50% in worship. Some churches have dramatically declined. COVID accelerated much of what was unfortunately inevitable for some.
A year ago, I predicted a Small Group Boom. Now, I will admit that I predicted it a year too soon. Our boom went bust with the appearance of the Delta and Omicron variants. But now, it’s game on! I anticipate that once COVID restrictions have finally disappeared, and people have had their time in the sun, the fall 2022 small group launch will be bigger than ever. People will be ready to get together. They’re ready to get back into community, but not just in any way.
The pandemic has made everyone a little pickier about how they spend their time and who they spend time with. New and online folks who just want a next step into groups won’t have as much of an opinion of whose group to join. They just want a spiritual next step. But, people who’ve been around don’t just want to be thrown into any group. By offering flexibility, allow your people to meet with whoever they want, whenever they want, and however they want. Groups can meet online or in-person, on-campus or off-campus – let your people choose the place. Then, let your people gather their people. After all, everyone is already in a group!
Think About This
Did I just talk out of both sides of my mouth? Probably, but purposefully. Any group launch that connects more people into groups and offers a spiritual next step is significant, even if it’s only a handful of groups. Offer something after Easter, but don’t pull out all of the stops on your group launch until fall. For now, make offerings, not demands. Post-Easter groups are available to everyone who is interested and available, but certainly not mandatory. Encourage groups to gather for fun, to serve together, and to gather prospective members socially over the spring and summer. Then, plan for the biggest fall group launch you’ve ever had.
The last two years have been unprecedented, unbelievable, devastating, incredible. (Pretend this is the Amplified version of this blog. You pick the word!) Now, as the last holdouts for Coronavirus mandates, Oregon, Washington, and others, are planning to reduce their restrictions, it’s time to put COVID behind us and move forward as a church. But, moving forward is not the same as returning to life as it was in 2019. Here are some things you should expect.
Don’t Expect Everyone to Rush Back.
Churches that’ve been fully open for more than a year are seeing 50% in in-person worship. Your people fall into one of three categories: Cautious, Comfortable, or Curious. The cautious are still not sure they want to take the risk. While COVID numbers are falling, new variants are lurking around the globe. Maybe they’re concerned about their health or a loved one’s health. They will probably continue to stay away for a while. Many comparisons have been made between this pandemic and the Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919. Do you know when the Spanish Influenza completely disappeared? It lasted until 1951 when it was replaced by Bird Flu. (Sorry for that bit of bad news).
Some of your people are comfortable. It’s just more convenient to stay home in their pajamas to watch the worship service while they’re eating brunch. Bad habits have formed. Think of a health club membership. Health clubs survive on people paying their monthly dues but never showing up. They intend to show up, but they just have trouble getting there. The same is true for your congregation.
If your weekend service is largely built on programming, here’s the rub – people can equally access programming at home. So, why don’t you just cancel your online stream? Because they will switch over to someone else’s online stream. Your weekend service has to be more than programming. They might have come for programming initially, but they will come back for community. It’s time to rethink your Sunday morning. No one is going to start attending in-person again just because they are “supposed to.” Those folks are already attending in person.
The third group who’ve been watching online are the curious. They’ve enjoyed watching the service without anyone watching them. This is the group to pay attention to when they show up in-person. They aren’t a “first time guest.” They’ve been watching online for weeks to months. When they show up, they are ready for next steps. A pastor told me recently that someone showed up for the first time in-person, made a profession of faith, attended their Growth Track, and joined a small group – all in one day! When they show up, be ready to engage with them.
Don’t Expect Volunteer Roles to Fill Immediately.
During the pandemic, people divested themselves of everything – going to the office, attending worship services, going to school, volunteering their time, shopping for groceries, going out to dinner, and everything else. Why go somewhere when it can be brought to you? Why live in San Francisco with its high taxes, when you can telecommute from Miami and pay no state income tax at all? Why go out to a movie, when you can Netflix and chill at home? The world has changed.
Many churches who have been open for a while have struggled to offer additional worship services because they just don’t have the help they need in children’s ministry. Some of the workers left. Some of the workers continue to stay home. Some went somewhere else. Others were just burned out. Much energy and effort will be required to rebuild this. You should count on those who are already gathered in-person to help before you expect folks to show up and reengage immediately. Lead the folks you have.
Expect People to be Gone.
The Spanish Influenza of 1918-1919 was followed by the Roaring 20’s. (Hey, we’re in the 20’s). Two significant things happened after 1919. First, the Spanish Influenza was never mentioned again. People put it completely behind them and didn’t talk about it anymore. Second, people were gone. They traveled extensively both nationally and internationally. They had been cooped up for too long. They had been limited for too long. Now, they were gone.
The Gauge Group, a secular research firm in Washington DC, predicted during the fourth quarter of 2021 that people were planning for Spring travel at the end of 2021. If you don’t believe me, just check the prices of an AirBNB in the hot vacation spots!
What does this mean for you and your church? Don’t make big plans following Easter 2022. While every church is different based on its region of the country, many people will be gone and you won’t see them much until fall 2022. One exception: I am working with a church in Gresham, Oregon, whose school year extends into June, so their people typically stay engaged until then, but people aren’t officially back in their church until mid-October! Follow the patterns of your community, but if you’re launching groups after Easter plan for a smaller launch. In these COVID times, any gain is significant!
Expect a Small Group Boom in the Fall.
Barring a fourth major COVID variant in North America, fall 2022 should be prime for a small group boom. Honestly, I thought this would come a lot sooner. I hadn’t anticipated the Delta and Omicron variants. But, if things continue as they currently are, then fall 2022 should be huge for small groups.
Begin planning for a major fall small group launch. Create your own curriculum or purchase a great published curriculum. Open things up so as many of your people: in-person and online can start a group with their friends. Remember what Jesus said: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37, NIV). Look for “workers” not “leaders.” There’s a difference!
Think About This
As much as you are weary of pivoting in the new normal, things have changed. In a recent webinar, Jeff Vanderstelt said, “The Reformation brought the Bible back to the people. [This disruption] brought the mission back to the people.” How can you empower and equip your people to fulfill the mission? How can you decentralize ministry in your church? How can you give your people ministry responsibilities and not just ministry tasks?
We are living in anxious times. In fact, the #1 selling small group studies at Zondervan right now all center on the topic of anxiety. Counselors schedules are booked. Small group launches aren’t back to where they were. The world has changed. Church ministry is changing. This is all cause for much anxiety. But, God has given us a use for anxiety that will produce peace as Allen explains in this video.