Fall 2022 promises to be the largest small group launch season you’ve ever seen. Now that COVID is behind you for the most part and the weather is warming up, people are gone. Don’t believe me? Go price an airline ticket right now. For more on this prediction, go here.
Now that you are convinced, partially convinced, or skeptical that this small group boom is a few months away, how do you prepare? What do you need to have in place? Here are some things to consider:
Maximum Groups Require Maximum Leaders
If you want to launch a group, you have to have a leader. No leader means no group. It’s as simple as that. This reminds me of a conversation back when our church was on-boarding a new children’s pastor. I said, “There are two parts to children’s ministry: (1) Recruiting the leaders, and (2) Keeping the leaders happy.”
Our new children’s pastor asked, “But, when do I get to work with the kids?”
I replied, “You weren’t listening.” He chose to invest his time and energy into leading the kids instead of leading the leaders. His children’s leaders weren’t happy and started quitting. We hired a new children’s pastor not long after that.
You could say the same for small groups. There are two parts to small group ministry: (1) Recruiting group leaders, and (2) Supporting those leaders. Don’t get bogged down trying to find groups for people. Don’t hold the hand of every person who fills out a sign up card for groups. To put it bluntly: this is a waste of your time. Put your effort into recruiting leaders, and then teach the leaders to gather their groups.
Don’t Worry About Connecting 100% into Groups
In the early days of church-wide campaigns, this was the rallying cry: Connect Your Entire Congregation into Community! Been there. Done that. What we discovered was that connecting 100% of a church’s adult attendance into groups is too small of a goal. The more significant metric is the percentage of your congregation LEADING groups.
Our family moved back to my hometown of Topeka, Kansas last summer. We attend the church where I grew up. I get to sit next to my dad every Sunday. It’s nice. But, the church is probably 10% of the attendance it was back in the day. On a good Sunday, there are about 50 people there.
When I showed up, the pastor said, “Well, we’re doing pretty good with small groups. We have one group. That takes care of everyone who wants one.”
I wanted to grab him by the lapels and yell, “You’re looking at this all wrong. You don’t want 50 people in groups. You want 50 people leading groups!” But, I refrained, primarily because he wasn’t wearing lapels, and I promised my wife that I wouldn’t wear my consulting hat to church. I just sit there biting my tongue (until I’m asked). This is also a good marriage lesson for some.
How do you launch 100 groups in your church?
You don’t need 1,000 people to start 100 groups. You need 100 people willing to lead a group. If you have a leader, then you have a group.
Think about who you have in the church. These are the people who rode out the pandemic with you. These are the people who stuck with you and the church through thick and thin. You have to admit that the last two years were not for the faint of heart. Do you think they stuck with you to just take up space? These are your leaders. This is your army. Give them their marching orders.
I know what you’re thinking. You are thinking about that guy or that gal who is a little off. Right? You’re afraid that if they step up to lead a group that you will just have another headache. Your biggest problem is found in the first two words of the last sentence: You’re afraid. Fear not!
Janet Logan gave me a priceless thought about 25 years ago: “Some of the most unlikely people will make some of your best leaders.” That has proven true.
Everybody has friends. If the people who are a little odd invite their friends and acquaintances, those folks know what they’re in for. They know the person. They’re friends! If they don’t have any friends, well, that’s different story.
Loosen Up Your Leadership Requirements for a Season
Don’t lower the bar, but delay some of your requirements to let people test drive a group. You can attempt to convince people that small groups are awesome until you are blue in the face, but they won’t understand until they experience it for themselves. If you invite your people to gather a group of friends, meet online or in-person, give them easy-to-use curriculum, and support them with a coach, most people will have a very good experience that they’ll want to continue. Once they’ve completed a study or two, then you can invite them to fulfill the requirements that you initially delayed.
Most people don’t regard themselves as being any kind of a leader. But, most people DO regard themselves as being a friend. If they have enough influence to gather their friends, then they have promise as a group leader. As John Maxwell says, “Leadership is influence.”
Think About This
Things aren’t going to go back to 2019. They’re just not. The world has changed. The culture has changed. What used to work for your groups will not work as well now. It’s time to try something new.
Spend some time thinking about a new approach to recruiting leaders. Pray about what’s next for you and your church. If you need to talk about this, then click this link and set up a time with me. No charge!
In the last two years, you’ve experienced about a decade’s worth of cultural change. Organizations that were breaking quickly broke. Some startups and skunk works quickly accelerated. Just to give you an example. You probably thought the legalization of gay marriage in 2015 appeared rather quickly. Now with the promotion of non-binary designations and transgenderism, gay marriage seemed simple. Western culture has become very complicated to say the least.
You might have jumped onto the darlings of the pandemic like Peloton, Netflix, and Zoom. But, now that much of Coronavirus has subsided, these online platforms are losing value. Has everyone forsaken digital? Considering that the average adult touches their smartphone 2,600 times per day, I don’t think so.
This is the tip of the iceburg of complex cultural change. Add in inflation, a pending recession, war, and a heavy dose of politics and you have a recipe for much stress and apprehension. Easter wasn’t what you expected. That’s okay. You are not your numbers. Church ministry isn’t working the way that it used to work. But, some things are working. How do you discern what to invest your life and ministry in at this point? Here are some things to consider in navigating cultural changes in ministry.
First, Look at God‘s Word
The Bible has stood the test of time and has been applied in every culture for the last 2000 years. Whether the church was under Roman oppression, living in the Dark Ages, or embracing the Enlightenment, the Bible clearly explains the church’s mission.
I know that you know and understand God’s Word. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be in ministry, right? But, stick with me. This next part is a little more like Vince Lombardi saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Consider the commands of Jesus (Matthew 28:20). The Great Commission is the same: Go and make disciples…baptizing them…teaching them to obey…” (Matthew 28:19-20). You only have one job: Go and make disciples. Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself hold true just as Jesus gave in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40). That’s the summary of the commands we are called to obey. And what about the Great Compassion (Matthew 25:45)? How are you serving the “least of these?” You may think of some other things as part of your mission, but these are the big ones.
If you created three buckets labeled: Great Commission, Great Commandment, and Great Compassion and assigned the various activities of your church to a bucket, where would those activities fit? What wouldn’t fit? What would you need to add?
In planning ministry for a changing culture, start with the church’s mission as articulated by Jesus Himself. The methods have changed, but the message is consistent.
Next, Look at Best Practices
Over the last 18 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with over 1,500 churches across North America in the areas of small groups and disciple-making. While the last two years were vastly different than the previous 16 years, practices in small groups and disciple-making are working very well. What is struggling right now are worship attendance and other centralized events, voluntary serving especially in children’s ministry, and bringing new people through the traditional front door of the church.
Digital ministry is a new frontier, but it’s not the answer for everybody. Don’t write it off. There is much to be explored. The church needs to enlist digital missionaries to this growing culture. Online small groups are the pits compared to in-person small groups, but if your only option is online, then it’s a great option.
Which ministries and methods are still relevant post-pandemic? Which worked better in a pre-Covid, attractional context? Which worked better in a locked down pandemic context? Which will survive going forward? Pay attention to what is bearing fruit in your church and ministry and make the most of that.
Third, Talk to Your Current Regular Attenders
What are they open to? What have they left behind? What are their needs? After all, at this point, you must lead the church you have rather than leading the church you lost. Don’t assume that everyone who has stuck around is still waiting for things to go back to 2019 ministry as usual. Their lives have radically changed as well.
Talk to them about what they are open to. Don’t assume that this group is unwilling to change. They have stuck with you through a very difficult period. They are committed to the church. They want to see the church succeed. Some pastors are wringing their hands afraid to change anything out of fear over losing more people. If you’re people have stuck with you in the last two years, they are with you. Move forward!
What are the Needs of Those who You Want to Reach?
What’s going on in their lives? What are their greatest concerns or fears? What can you offer them that is relevant to them? How can you connect with them? Where are they finding community?
It’s not a new principle, but find a need and fill it. How is your church uniquely equipped to meet the needs of your community? What are you willing to try?How can you reshape your current ministry based on what you’ve discovered?
What methods continue to be valid? What methods are you partial to? You must admit your own bias here. The thing that you love to do may not be the thing that’s the most needed. Or the thing that you love to do may be relevant in new ways.
Think about this
While there is a certain amount of evangelism that happened over the last 30 years, a good part of church growth was merely transfer growth from other churches. Your church might’ve been good at attracting consumers, but was not great at making disciples. Now that ministry has decentralized in a lot of ways, what is your best tact?
The impact of the attractional model was waning prior to COVID. I know that’s tough for some to hear, since so much of their churches were built on the attractional model. But, the acceleration of the attractional model’s decline happened during COVID. Why would people rather stay at home? What’s the benefit of in-person attendance other than making the preacher feel good? I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to meeting in-person, but can you name them for your church? Community comes to mind. So does incarnation.
If you are unwilling to adjust your methods to fulfill your mission in a very different culture, then you owe an apology to the pastors of traditional churches who resisted the methods you adopted in the 1980’s and 1990’s. You are the traditional pastor now.
Change is intimidating. When you change, you experience loss. Reaching new people and meeting needs going forward is very exciting, but leaving behind the familiar is hard. Giving up what you’ve perfected or at least what you’ve worked hard at is difficult. Familiar routines are comfortable. Right now, you either have to learn something new, watch your church decline, get a new job, or retire. But, your calling hasn’t changed. What will that look like in the years ahead? Stay tuned. The best is yet to come!
What new thing (or old thing) is working well in your church right now? Answer in the comments below.
Why let your sermons go dormant when they could do so much more? Pastors have lots of sermons. Even as an Associate Pastor over the years, I have lots of sermons, Bible studies, and class notes. What are you doing with those sermons now?
Pastors have lots of sermons sitting in files. Whether they’re in an old school filing cabinet, on your hard drive, or safely stored on Dropbox, your sermons are sitting around. But, as my friend, Brett Eastman, says, “There’s gold in them hills!” You have no shortage of content. But, why allow your content to lay dormant when you can use it to help people grow?
Why Turn Your Sermons into Group Studies?
One of the chief barriers to people leading small groups is they are intimidated by the thought of leading. Or, they don’t feel they are knowledgeable enough about the Bible. Or they don’t have time to prepare a Bible study. On the other side of the equation, pastors are fearful of new, unproven leaders teaching in groups. By creating your own video-based curriculum, you help both of you.
By offering a video-based (or podcast-based) curriculum to your congregation, your members can gather a group of friends, play your teaching video, and follow the instructions in the workbook. You will have more leaders than ever before by removing this one barrier. Now, to help you feel better about letting anybody lead, don’t advertise these groups. People gather their friends. Their friends already know them. They know what to expect. You simply provide an easy-to-use curriculum and an experienced leader to coach them. The coach will both help and supervise them. This doesn’t need to be overly risky.
Create Your Own Curriculum
The formula to create your own curriculum is simple. First, choose a topic. For the broadest reach choose a topic that people, both inside and outside of your church, are really interested in and a topic that you are the most passionate about. Have you thought of one?
Next, gather all of your great sermon content about that topic. Imagine if you wanted to create a series on relationships. You’ve already got a lot of great material on relationships – communication, conflict, parenting, friendship, marriage, the one anothers, and so forth. You probably don’t need as much content as you can probably gather. I helped one pastor create a six-week small group study from two sermons. Each sermon had three points. Each point became a session for the six-week study.
Then, turn your sermons into scripts. The video sessions can’t be 30-45 minutes long. There’s a big difference between video teaching and live preaching. You can engage a live audience much longer. So, why not just gather people midweek to preach another sermon? Well, sermons don’t actually make disciples, but they can catalyze a decision. Create a 10-minute video script to summarize your sermon content for each session. (You can make the sessions shorter than 10 minutes, but not longer).
Next, shoot your video. Hire a crew or a local wedding videographer. Shoot it on your iPhone and post it to Youtube. However you want to do it, just do it. If this is your first video-based curriculum, your people will overlook the quality because they’re excited about receiving your teaching. You can learn the tips and tricks of video production as you go. Just get started and do something.
Once your video is shot, write your discussion questions. I prefer to write the questions after the fact, because the video doesn’t change. Some pastors have preferred that I write the questions before the video shoot. Inevitably, I rewrite the discussion questions after the video shoot. For more on writing discussion questions, check out the Writing Effective Curriculum Workshop.
Lastly, promote your new series broadly, recruit new leaders, and form groups. (You can get the whole game plan in the Exponentials Groups book and workbook). You can either create fully downloadable resources through your church’s website or app. Or, you can create a physical workbook for people to buy. With so much virtual and downloadable stuff over the last two years, people will probably want to hold something in their hands. Services like Kindle Direct Publishing and Ingram Spark offer print-on-demand, so you only pay for the books you need and can order them as you go. Both services are pretty affordable whether you order dozens of books or thousands of books. The price is the same per book.
Think About This
The fall 2022 small group book is coming [LINK]. Use this summer to prepare for possibly the largest small group launch you’ve ever experienced. Producing your own curriculum is affordable and effective. Pastor, your people want more of you. Once their friends can meet you through the video, they will start coming to church!
Video-based curriculum is just one way to repurpose your great content. You can also craft your content into books, workbooks, courses, devotionals, and so much more. If you need help getting started with your project or even doing the whole thing for you, check out Allen-Writes.com for more information.
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.
Pastor, you are not your numbers. Your worth and your value come from who you are in Christ. You are called. You are chosen. You are valued and loved. Your numbers are your numbers. Sometimes they will be up. Sometimes they will be down. Your worth isn’t based on the appearance of success. Easter is coming, but is everybody coming back? Probably not. And, that’s okay, because you are not your numbers.