You work hard in your small group ministry. It’s great to know how well you’re doing, right? So, what is a healthy number of groups in a church? This question comes from a member of the Small Group Reset Facebook Group (Join us. It’s free!)
I’ve commonly heard that churches with 30 percent of their adult worship attendance in small groups are in the top one half of one percent of all churches in the U.S. If that’s you, then congratulations. You’re in the top of your class!
The problem here is being exceptional in an unexceptional group. It’s kind of like back when I was in junior high: I was the least dorky of the dorks. Yet I was still a dork. (Sorry to poke at that wound). But, what this stat says to me is that out of over 300,000 churches in the U.S. who are woefully lacking in making disciples, if you have 30 percent in groups, then you are at the top of the heap. Or, as I said when our daughter started attending the best rated school in our state: “She’s at the top of the bottom.” Congratulations!
Bear in mind that small groups are only one tool to make disciples. Jesus never said to “go and make small groups.” Your mission is to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). But, some of the things churches do to attempt to make disciples don’t work. For instance, sermons don’t make disciples. When it comes to making disciples, I’m still depending on small groups.
The Problem with 30 Percent in Groups
This is the easiest percent to get. It’s the low hanging fruit. You have your Innovators, Early Adopters, and even some of your Early Majority (according to Everett Rogers in The Diffusion of Innovations). That’s a solid start. It’s also an easy place to get stuck.
After seven years of personally recruiting leaders and starting groups, my church in California got stuck at 30 percent in groups. Group leaders weren’t developing apprentices. Groups were unwilling to “multiply” or “birth.” We might as well have called it a “small group divorce.” At least that’s what it felt like. After much frustration, I did several things: (1) We added a new model for groups. Notice “added” and not “replaced.” (2) I joined a coaching group to support me. In our next group launch, we doubled our groups in a day.
What About the Other 70 Percent?
If you’re content to rest on your laurels with 30 percent in groups (which I know you’re not), what about the other 70 percent who aren’t in groups? Are they exempt from the Great Commission? Or put frankly, how many of your people are you willing to allow to continue to live in disobedience to the Great Commission? I don’t know about you, but the more people in my church who are living obediently, the better off everybody is!
When you think about this other 70 percent (or whatever number that is in your church), why did they reject the small groups you were offering them? What could you offer them that they might say “Yes” to? You know why you want them in a group. Why would they want to be in a group?
The problem here is that even the top ½ of 1% are doing a poor job at making disciples. This is the Church’s one job! The Church has been at it for 2,000 years. Why haven’t we figured this out?
Is This the Right Target?
Most churches are made up of far more people than are represented in the weekend service. According to a study by The Provisum Group, 80 percent of your people attend 33 times per year, while the other 20 percent attend 2.4 times per year. When you do the math, you’ve probably got about five times as many people who attend your church compared to the average weekly attendance. The task of connecting your congregation and making disciples just got a whole lot bigger. (For more on the true size of your church, go here).
When you add your online congregation to all of this, the numbers will get really crazy. Your church’s experience throughout the pandemic has radically changed how you do ministry forever. How are you discipling your online congregation? How are you forming online groups?
You are working hard. You are doing a good job. But, this is no time to rest on your laurels.
Many churches go about ministry like a cruise ship. What do you do on a cruise? You do nothing. Everything is done for you. Your church is not a cruise ship. Your church is a battleship. It’s all hands on deck! Don’t worry about the number of people you have in groups. Instead focus on two areas: (1) How are you multiplying yourself? and (2) How many people can you get to start groups? Imagine if you had 30 percent LEADING groups.
Have you thought about joining my 12 month Small Group Ministry Coaching Group. When my groups were stuck, I joined a coaching group. Not only can a coaching group help you get unstuck, it will offer you great relationships with like-minded small group point people to share the journey. For more information, click here. A new group is forming now!
You’ve experienced your small groups getting stuck. It’s very common for groups to get stuck with only 30% of your people connected. Some churches get as high as 50% in groups, then get stuck. A rare few achieve more than that. But, this year brings a different kind of stuck to small groups.
The Stuckness of 2021
Willingness to start and join small groups is beginning to thaw, but not everyone is there yet. As I talk to pastors across North America, I’m learning that everyone is experiencing their own version of small group ministry in 2021. Even in states that removed restrictions a while ago, there is still a reluctance to join or lead a group.
Vaccination, fear, denial, and new strains of COVID have increased the complexity of launching groups. While some are actively fearful, others are just over it. Some churches have even split over COVID precautions. It’s a complex time.
You can simplify the complexity of starting groups by offering flexibility and variety. Invite people to form groups they’re comfortable with. Invite them to start an in-person group or an online group. What suits them best? Encourage them to invite people they are comfortable being around. Whether it’s members of their “pod” or people they already know and love.
By giving your people permission and opportunity, they will figure out what’s right for them. Demanding that all of your groups meet on-campus or online won’t work. Throwing strangers together in hopes that a group might form is risky business. But, in addition to the COVID complexities, there are other reasons why your groups might be stuck.
Why Groups Typically Get Stuck
Groups get stuck for a variety of reasons. Using only one small group model routinely loses steam at around 30%. This is usually when you’re ready to abandon your current small group model for the newest, shiniest one. After you change models two or three times, your next announcement will be met with more of an eye roll than a drum roll.
As the small group point person, if you do all of the recruiting, your groups will get stuck somewhere around 30%. (I worked hard for seven years to only get stuck at 30% in groups). Any staff member, regardless of their longevity or likability will only get 30% the result the senior pastor would get.
In the last 31 years of ministry, I have served twice as an associate pastor and twice as a vice president. I know what it’s like to be the #2 guy. Once my senior pastor started recruiting leaders, our groups jumped from 30% to 125% in just six months. Same words. Same invitation. Different inviter.
Then, there are all of the other things you’ve experienced in getting stuck. You can’t recruit enough leaders. It’s difficult to connect people into groups. People are busy. Groups aren’t a priority at your church. You don’t have enough help. You don’t have enough budget. You don’t get enough airtime on Sunday morning. I’ve checked all of those boxes. Then, once you get the leaders, they burnout. They get busy. They leave the church or start working in another ministry area.
You have a lot to build in small group ministry. You have to recruit leaders, form groups, and build a coaching structure to support it (don’t try coaching everybody yourself). Maybe you’re writing curriculum. Maybe you’re desperately trying to get your church leadership’s attention. You have to offer the right training at the right time for your leaders who are at so many different levels of experience that half of them don’t show up most of the time. It’s a lot.
Culture Shifts are Hard
The reasons small group ministries get stuck at 30% goes back to research from the 1940’s. You may not have picked up a copy of the Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers, but you have heard of “early adopters,” “mid adopters,” (or “early majority” and “late majority”) and “late adopters” (Rogers calls these “laggards.”) Stay with me. Even if you’ve heard these terms, you haven’t heard what I’m about to say.
When you launch groups, all of the Innovators in your congregation jump on board. This is the first 2.5% of the church. These are followed fairly quickly by the Early Adopters (13.5%). If you get the Innovators and Early Adopters to join groups, then you have 16% of your church in groups. This may not be the right place for them. As you persist in promoting groups, you start to reach the Early Majority (34%). You don’t get all of the Early Majority, but you get a start. The Late Majority are skeptical. It will take a while to win them over. The Laggards are traditional and stubborn. Don’t waste your time on Laggards.
You launch groups. You get the low hanging fruit (Innovators, Early Adopters, and some Early Majority). Then, you get stuck. I’ve been stuck. And, I stayed stuck until I made one crucial change.
Instead of inviting that first 16% (Innovators and Early Adopters) to join groups, invite them to LEAD groups. Just imagine the difference if 16% of your adults were leading groups. Even if you only have five or six people in the groups, you have groups for 100% of your congregation. How can you get that 16% to lead groups? Go back and look at the previous section of this article.
Once upon a time, my groups were stuck at only 30% for exactly the reasons I just described. In just 18 months, we went from only 30% in groups to having nearly 40% of our adults lead a group for at least one six week series. Our final result was 11% of our adults leading groups and 125% of our worship attendance in groups. The good thing about feeling stuck and frustrated is that it led me to figuring out how to get unstuck. These are the lessons I share with my coaching groups and help small group pastors adapt to their church’s unique culture.
If you are feeling stuck right now, I am ready to help you. Do you want my help?
Click here to learn more about my next Small Group Ministry Coaching Group.
Click here to set up a time to talk.
Stuck is not a good feeling. It’s that place where you feel you’ve tried everything you can think of to recruit more leaders, connect people into groups, and keep them going, yet your numbers aren’t showing the success you would hope for.
Getting stuck is common in small group ministry. Some people get stuck at the start of a groups’ ministry and just don’t know what to do. More commonly, groups get stuck at having only 30-50 percent of the congregation connected into groups. This is the point where a single strategy typically runs out of steam. The temptation is to scrape the strategy that got you part of the way there and replace it with another strategy that will get you all of the way there. But, there’s a problem.
No single strategy will help you connect 100 percent of your adults into groups. It simply does not exist. But, there’s good news. There is no rule that says you can only use on strategy at a time. Rather than replacing a strategy that got you 30-50 percent there, just add another strategy that will help you connect the next 30 percent of your congregation. Then, add a third strategy after that.
One size does not fit all. Everyone won’t say “yes” to the same thing. If 30 percent said “yes” to say, the metachurch model or the host home strategy, then celebrate that success. While if you persist, you can bump participation up to 50 percent or so, neither of these strategies will get 100 percent. And, that’s okay. If half of your congregation said, “no” to these approaches, then you need to figure out something different that they might say “yes” to.
If this sounds like your story, then you’re in good company. This was also my story. I worked for seven years handpicking leaders and forming groups only to see 30 percent of our adults connected into groups. My leaders couldn’t identify apprentices in their groups, so recruiting new leaders all fell on me. Not only were there no apprentices, but groups didn’t want to divide and make new groups. After seven years, we were stuck. But, then we tried something different.
We actually did a few things different. We created our own curriculum based on our pastor’s teaching videos. My pastor recruited leaders from the pulpit rather than me handpicking them. We even reached a place where people just invited their friends to do a study together. They didn’t even call themselves “leaders” or “groups.”
Long story short, within six months, we had connected 125 percent of our average adult attendance into groups. We were actually using five different strategies at the same time! Everybody in our church found something they could say, “Yes” to.
Then, we faced the task of keeping these groups going. It’s fairly easy to generate a lot of excitement about groups for a six week study, but motivating groups for the long haul takes some effort. We supported our new leaders with coaches and offered them next steps for studies to continue their groups. We also discovered that how the groups were formed made a big difference in whether or not the groups would stay together. Hint: Groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
By Allen White
When I started talking about writing a book on small groups, I often encountered a reaction that went like this: “Really, another small group book? What else is there to say?” Truth be told, I would have thought the exact same thing. People who are smarter and more experienced than me had written really great books. What was left to say?
Then, I began to notice some things in the church world. These weren’t hidden things, but there were certainly needs. This is why I wrote Exponential Groups.
I Saw Pastors Who Were Stuck.
Some of these pastors had tried groups and failed. I’ve been there. Others connected 30 percent of their congregations into groups, then once they had the low hanging fruit, they began to spin their wheels. I’ve also been there. Others were stuck at 50 percent, and then others were stuck at 65 percent. Quite a few had topped 100 percent of their congregation in groups for a church-wide study, but then watched their numbers slide once the series was over. That doesn’t feel very good. I’ve had that feeling too.
I remember reading about a chef (stay with me), who through all of his failures and frustrations learned to not only properly make sauces, but also to teach others to make sauces. If the trainee’s sauce didn’t turn out correctly, then the chef knew exactly where the young cook had made the mistake, because the chef had failed at every point of making the sauce himself over the years. This is how I feel about groups ministry.
I remember launching 10 groups in January 1994 and seeing them all end in December 1994. I know exactly why that happened. The same for getting stuck with only 30 percent of our adults in groups after seven years of building groups. (By the way, 30 percent is a very common place for groups to get stuck). And, I have stories for every other place listed above. What I’ve discovered is my education in the school of hard knocks as well as working through the frustration that eventually helped me find success is the most valuable thing I can give any pastor and church. It’s very gratifying to me to watch what was once my ceiling become other pastors’ floors.
I Saw Christians Who Were Comfortable.
Back when we invited people to seeker services, often we encouraged folks to “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the service.” When we eventually came around to ask these folks to serve, we discovered they had taken us up on our offer to get comfortable at church. While this isn’t true of every church and every believer, it is true of many. Comfort prevents growth — personal growth, ministry growth, and church growth.
For the most part people grow when they are going through a painful circumstance or when they take a risk. Let’s face it: we are all more motivated to pray while we’re facing a problem than when things are calm. I quickly realized that Discipleship through Suffering was not going to catch on very quickly. But, what if we challenged people to take a risk? Could they leave their comfort and try something a little risky for a short period of time? More people jumped at the opportunity than I thought possible. There is a way to grow your church and grow your people without wrecking the whole thing.
I Saw a Sleeping Giant and a World in Need.
Our guests became an audience. Audiences must be entertained or else they will find another church that is more entertaining. It’s as if the American church has retired.
Francis Chan said the American church is not “good soil,” but is really “thorny ground.” We live in an age of constant distraction. It’s an era of convenience. Even though people are busy by their own choice, what they invest their lives in typically has little to do with the Kingdom. Why?
For one, they may not know and understand the significance of God’s work. But, as Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of the Highlands, Birmingham, AL said this last week at the ARC conference, “Growth is not an option as long as Heaven and Hell are realities.” But, this leads to another problem — many Christians perceive ministry as another thing to add on to their already busy lives. They just don’t have time. But, what if ministry could be done with the friends they have during the activities they are already doing? Where’s the excuse?
Well, then they might say, “I’m not a leader. I’m not a teacher.” Give them a video-based curriculum. They don’t have to be the teacher, and you don’t have to worry about what they might teach a group of friends. The teaching came from you. If they can gather their friends for the video teaching, then they are leaders whether they give themselves that title or not.
Audiences must be entertained. But, what if we saw our church members as an army? An army must be equipped and empowered. An army must be led. What if we could awaken the sleeping giant of the American church, call them out of retirement, and give them new marching orders? What if they began to depend on God and each other instead of borrowing from their pastors’ spirituality?
If you’re willing to try something new, I wrote a book for you.