The church could not be more divided over the correct approach to in-person gatherings during Covid Church the Sequel. Should people meet in-person? Should people only meet online? Should masks be worn even by vaccinated people? Should people be vaccinated? Is the whole thing made up? You don’t have to talk to too many people before you hear any or all of the above.
How are you supposed to connect people who feel more comfortable disconnecting again? How are you supposed to form groups with people who haven’t returned to in-person worship? How are you supposed to create groups knowing that differences over Covid might cause more argument than agreement? Maybe this isn’t your problem to solve.
People are Connecting
In a recent edition of Wired magazine, Jennifer Berney wrote about her preteen son’s experience during the pandemic. “Over the past year, many parents like me have watched their children withdraw, become sullen and angry, and develop difficulty sleeping and eating. Getting West (her son) to shower and eat became an intense negotiation. Little seemed to cheer him, and yet I heard a clear lift in his voice when he played Minecraft while talking over Discord with his friends. He often carried his laptop downstairs and gabbed into his headset while finally eating the sandwich I’d offered him hours before.”*
People are created for community. It’s like we can’t be kept apart. There is a natural tendency to form community, even when it’s difficult or when circumstances dictate against it.
Now, most of you reading this post are not forming groups for preteens, but here’s the point: your people are finding community. Whether they are connecting in-person or online, they are connecting. The other night I looked out the window to see my wife Facetiming on the porch, or so I thought. When I looked again, I saw only her picture on the phone. I thought, “Is she Facetiming herself? This isn’t good. I need to be more available…” What I discovered was that she wasn’t Facetiming to herself. She was sending a video reply to her childhood friend in California over the Marco Polo app. People are connecting. So in those places where they are connecting, how can you help them grow spiritually together?
Get Out of the Connecting Business
In the first sentence of Exponential Groups: Releasing Your Church’s Potential, I wrote, “Everybody is already in a group.” Most people are in multiple groups – friends, families, co-workers, neighbors, Facebook, group chats, Slack, and the list goes on. People are created for community. The people in your church already connect with other believers on a regular basis. Rather than wearing yourself out trying to get them to de-group in order to re-group, leverage their existing relationships to start groups. Stop working so hard at creating unnatural connections that won’t last.
I spent a lot of years trying to place people into groups. They would fill out a sign up card or inquire from the website. After all, I was their pastor. I’m supposed to help them, right? But, here’s what I discovered – most people who inquired this way weren’t serious about joining a new group. Maybe they were emotionally motivated by a sermon, so they signed up. But, they didn’t show up. The people who I helped the most tended to show up the least. There is a better use of your time.
Where Do Your People Find Community?
The Wired author continues, “Minecraft exists outside of Covid. Villagers don’t have to stay 6 feet apart or wear masks, and players can avoid death simply by shifting to Creative mode.”* While I have four Minecraft players in my family, I’m not sure you could create a small group meeting within Minecraft or on Twitch. But, the thought of a meeting place apart from Covid sounds pretty good. Relationships are formed on these platforms. Where there is relationship, there is potential for small groups. But, you don’t have to become an expert in this.
Years ago I had a leader who started a small group on a commuter train. Every Tuesday morning on the commute from Stockton, California to San Jose, Jennifer led a Bible study. Eventually, her group filled up an entire section of the train. I never cast vision for “Commuter Train Small Groups.” I never read a book on it or attended a seminar. I had never thought of it. Jennifer came up with the idea. She just needed permission and opportunity to start the group. The same is true of any person in your church connecting with other people in any space – digital or analog. How can they start a group in that community?
Think About This
You can’t provide community for people — just like you can’t provide sanctification for them. But, you can create an environment in your church to promote community (and sanctification). You can provide guidance and guardrails. You can supply an easy-to-use curriculum and a coach to guide them. You can offer a trial run at doing a study with their friends. You can lead a horse to water…
What opportunities do your people have to start groups with their connections?
*”Missing Peace” by Jennifer Berney. Wired. Volume 29, No 7. p. 22-23.
Exponential Groups: Unleasing Your Church’s Potential (Hendrickson 2017).
By Allen White
The new year is an awesome time for new starts. Everyone is planning to lose weight, lose debt, learn a foreign language, and of course, grow in their faith. The new year is an ideal time to start new groups too. Why not leverage the momentum before mid-February hits and new year’s resolutions crash and burn?
The way you launch groups in the new year, however, will greatly affect your success. While this is an ideal time to form new groups, how and when you form groups will largely determine whether or not those groups last for more than one series, or in some cases, even get started. Here are some mistakes to avoid in new year’s launches.
Mistake #1: Launching in Early January.
Senior pastors love to start new sermon series after the first of the year. While the first Sunday of the year may be for vision casting or giving a “State of the Church” address, when it gets to the second Sunday, they are ready to get their preach on and dive into a new series. This is great for sermon series timing, but terrible for group timing.
If your church launches groups in early January, it forces you to form groups in December. Have you lived through a December at church? No one is thinking about January. If they were, then they wouldn’t be buying so many Christmas presents on their credit cards.
Over the years, I’ve tried to recruit and train new small group leaders in December. I’ve also found myself standing in an empty room wondering if I had missed God’s calling on my life.
People don’t think about the new year until they are actually in the new year. To effectively launch groups in January, you need to use the first three weeks to form groups, then launch in late January, or better yet, launch in early February.
Mistake #2: Failing to Leverage the Christian Holiday of Super Bowl Sunday.
I know some of you might immediately be objecting to associating something as holy and spiritual as a small group with something as hedonistic as Super Bowl Sunday. After all, promoting anything about the Super Bowl will only weaken the attendance of the Sunday night service. At least, that’s the way I grew up.
But, think about this: how would your members respond to the idea of small groups if it resembled something that looked more like their Super Bowl parties and less like what they fear a small group might be? No one calls the church to see who they should invite to a Super Bowl party. They invite their friends, co-workers, neighbors and family members. That’s the same group they should invite to their, well, group. In fact, if groups were launched after the Super Bowl, maybe the Super Bowl party could serve as an “open house” for a group and then the next week, the study could start.
You may be saying, “Well, not every Super Bowl party would be suitable to introduce people to small groups. They might overeat or something and be a bad witness.” These things could happen. But, what if a small group became more “normal” to the average Christian’s life?. That would be a huge win.
Mistake #3: Launching Groups in January without an Easter Plan.
The downfall of most church-wide campaigns, including some I’ve launched over the years, is you can experience great success for 6 weeks, then the whole thing falls off the cliff. But, it doesn’t have to. If in the middle of your post-Super Bowl series (formerly called “New Year’s series”), you announced a next step series which would run between the Christian holidays of Easter Sunday and Memorial Day, you could easily retain 80 percent of the groups that start in your Super Bowl series. By offering a next step, your groups are given a good reason to stay together.
Now, if your church is about to launch groups this Sunday, it might be time to take a timeout and regroup. Call an audible. Do what you need to do before you have to throw a Hail Mary or punt!
If you try this, you should get at least 50 percent of your people connected into groups. If you don’t, call me. We’ll figure something out!
by Allen White
Some of you know me because I was your pastor at one time. Some of you know me as a fellow small group pastor. Some know me as the guy who wrote an article about Robin Williams that half a million people read. And, some know me as the Vice President of Lifetogether Ministries.
Lifetogether has had an amazing 12 months. We’ve created projects The Daniel Plan curriculum for Rick Warren, Destiny and Elijah for Dr. Tony Evans, Lifegiving Relationships for the Association of Related Churches (ARC), I See a Church with Greg Surratt and Josh Surratt at Seacoast Church, What If with Jonathan Falwell at Thomas Road Baptist Church, You Have It in You by Pastor Sheryl Brady at The Potter’s House of North Dallas, Believe with Dr. George O. Wood, General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, and In the Gap by Pastor Wilfredo (Choco) De Jesus. And, I’m forgetting a bunch of others.
I am not a video producer. I am an executive producer, which means I solve the problems and pay the bills. While it was fun developing these projects, the greater fun for me is coaching churches who are launching small groups using these curriculum titles. It’s not about numbers. For me, it’s about an ordinary believer gathering a few friends around a user friendly curriculum and experiencing God using them to serve others. That’s why I do this every day.
What do you think about video curriculum?
Almost every small group pastor or director will agree coaching small group leaders is important. Yet, many of those pastors would also admit they don’t know how to adequately coach their small group leaders. Having tried and failed at various coaching structures many times myself, I have found three key issues in unsuccessful (and eventually successful) coaching.
Many coaching structures fail simply because no one knows what a coach is supposed to do. Is the coach an administrator or record keeper? Is the coach a trainer? Is the coach a figurehead so we can say we have a coaching structure? What do we expect our coaches to do?
If we need coaches to train leaders, then why are small group pastors still running centralized training meetings? Do we really need coaches to collect rosters and reports? Don’t we live in the 21st century? After all, churchteams.com will solve all of these administrative issues. (In an effort for full disclosure, I believe ChurchTeams is the best small groups’ database on the planet. Boyd Pelley did not pay me to say that. He did buy me an ice cream once.)
What do we need coaches to do? We need coaches to do the things we can’t do ourselves. If we had, say, five small groups, then what would we do with those leaders? We’d call them on a regular basis. We’d get together for a cup of coffee. We would personally encourage them, answer their questions, and pray for them. We would invest in the relationship. What if our coaches started there? Coaching is based on relationship. If there’s no relationship, not much coaching will take place.
A friend of mind called me a while back. He was frustrated because many of his coaches were quitting. I asked him what he was asking them to do. He wanted his volunteer coaches to hold a monthly training meeting with their leaders on the church campus. Then, I asked him if he’d ever driven in his city?
This was a major metropolitan area. So, think of requiring volunteer small group coaches to hold monthly training meetings in the middle of one of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. It wasn’t working, and his coaches were quitting.
Face to face meetings are great. If you can pull them off with all of your leaders together, that’s really great. But, most people can’t. Fortunately, there are some alternatives.
Why not meet “together” with small group leaders on freeconference.com or Skype? Every day I coach small group pastors across the country over the phone or by teleconference. I’ve met few of them in person, but we connect on a weekly basis. We have a relationship, and they have seen success in growing their groups. This works with leaders locally too.
Facetime is necessary (the real, in-person version). Again, coaching is built on a relationship. But, maybe the face to face meetings are with one or two group leaders and not all of them. We can use other means to connect at other times. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating a simple “Like” on Facebook or a bulk email to all of the leaders at once. The connection must be personal to grow the relationship.
Lack of Accountability
None of us likes to make people uncomfortable. Some of us avoid this discomfort to the point of not asking our coaches if they’re coaching. Then, we discover not much coaching is taking place. We shouldn’t be surprised.
Only what we supervise gets done. Now, we don’t have to come down on our coaches like a ton of bricks, but we do need to ask. Rather than asking, “Have you contacted your leaders?” we should assume the good, qualified people we recruited to coach are actually coaching. The question could go like this, “What are you learning from your leaders?” They won’t get defensive.
They might respond, “Well, I haven’t contacted any of them lately.” That’s okay. Give them a deadline, “I understand you’re busy, but connect with your leaders in the next two weeks, then I’ll check-in with you again.” Presuming the best about our coaches both honors and motivates them. Giving them accountability helps them keep their commitment to coaching and eliminates the guilt of not fulfilling their commitment.
Effective, motivated coaches need direction that is clear, reasonable, and accountable. How do I know? A good coach taught me that…as he was resigning. Do your coaches know your expectations? Do you know your expectations? Are your requirements reasonable? And, if it’s truly important, are you holding them accountable? These three simple words will transform your coaching structure.
Other Posts on Small Group Coaching:
Small Group Coaches Are Not Bureaucrats
Recruiting Small Group Coaches without Resumes
The Role of a Coach
Writer’s Note: This one is from the archives, but it still has a good application. Makes me smile to remember all of my great friends at New Life Christian Center, Turlock, CA. Those were some good times.
“How do you track that?” I don’t believe that question was asked about converts at Pentecost. But, it’s the question that I get from pastors of small groups who need to justify their salary or otherwise guarantee job security. After all, that is what this is all about, right? But, what if our need to track, control and direct keeps us from a wave of ministry that resulted in dramatic kingdom proportions?
I know all of the evangelical adages. “Don’t we count our money? Are people less significant than cash?” After all, the Shepherd did count his sheep only to discover that one had gone astray. If the counting hadn’t taken place, then the sheep might have risked deadly peril. Matthew 18 makes it very clear that one individual sheep matters to God.
At the risk of taking the analogy of the Shepherd too far, let me challenge you on this: the Shepherd counted his sheep, but the shepherd didn’t limit the multiplication of his sheep because he might overwhelm the accounting system. My thought is that if the shepherd had an overabundance of sheep to the point where the lily white mass stretched as far as his eye could see, his joy over a prolific flock would far overshadow his compulsion for a spreadsheet. When Acts 2:41 records that about 3,000 newly baptized, dripping wet believers were added to the church, I don’t think they were rounding up from 2,857.
We say that people are not statistics, then we quote the statistics about how many people we’re runnin’ and how many people we’re keepin’. Don’t get me wrong. We should know whether our service is effective in building the Kingdom. If we’re ineffective, then certainly no number will save us. If we are effective, then no number will do it justice.
I must admit that I am enamored by some numbers myself. I am amazed that less than a year ago only 30 percent of our adults were in small groups, but since then about 40 percent of our adults have hosted groups in their homes. That’s pretty amazing going from 30% sitting to 40% leading! But, here’s where this breaks down for most folks. I don’t know how many people are in each group. In some cases, I don’t know the person who is hosting the group personally. It’s gotten out of control—well, out of my control, anyway.
What I have learned is that God’s people are capable of much more than I have given them credit for. The people in the pews can lead a DVD based small group study and refrain from heresy and criticism of the pastoral staff. They’re too nervous about getting through the lesson to even think of interjecting theological error. God’s people filled with God’s Spirit interacting with God’s Word leads to more great things than bad.
Here’s another thing I’ve learned. A general contractor, a retired school superintendent, a multi-level marketer, and a substance abuse counselor together can do a better job of leading our small groups than I can alone. I don’t need to train a multiplicity of new hosts. These four do the training. I don’t need to review applications and interview prospective leaders. These four along with their coaches know every one of them. They know what’s going on in their lives and what’s going on in their groups. That’s better than I ever did sitting them all in neat rows and lecturing them for weeks.
We have this need to know numbers. Part of me is curious about that too. But, does a number tell us if our church is healthy? Does a number tell us if a group is growing? Does a number tell us if individual believers are being conformed to the image of Christ? Are these numbers good stewardship or just bragging rights?
How many do we have in small groups? Well, more than I care to count.