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.
By Allen White
I am a coach. The reason I’m a coach is because once upon a time, I was greatly helped by a coach. In fact, I still have several coaches and mentors I turn to regularly for help and advice. They ask me thought provoking questions. They offer me their experience. They care about my success. Here is the story of my success in working with a coach.
After attending conferences and reading every small group book I could get my hands on, our groups hit a wall. I followed what I understood from the best and brightest. We made a plan and executed it wholeheartedly for seven years. We connected 30 percent of our average adult attendance into groups, then we got stuck. I was up against a wall, and I was banging my head against it. As our church continued to grow, our groups fell further and further behind. I needed help.
2. A Laboratory and a Network
I found help in a coaching group with 40 other churches from across the country. While we tended to be from churches of the same size, the group crossed denominational lines and represented about every region of North America. While it was a little ridiculous to have 40 other pastors on a weekly conference call, we learned from each other and from our coach. Some pastors would jump ahead and try a new idea when it was thrown out. I was one of those. Others would hold back and see if there were any survivors before they jumped in. And, that was okay. Everybody adopts new ideas at their own rate.
3. Place to Discuss Small Group Stuff
As I became more enthused about discussing small groups, some of our church staff became less enthused to hear about it. While my senior pastor was completely on board (after all he found the dollars to fund it), other staff weren’t so thrilled to hear about small groups. The coaching group provided a place with like-minded people who also had small groups on the brain. This was our community. Our band of brothers (and sisters) in the small group trenches.
Everybody faces setbacks, especially when they try new ideas. After all, when you’re performing experiments, sometimes an experiment blows up. The coaching group provided a place to test new ideas; debrief less than stellar results; and gain the momentum to move forward. As Winston Churchill once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” As one of my friends and mentors, Carl George said, “Do whatever it takes to keep yourself inspired.” The coaching group kept me encouraged.
5. I didn’t have to walk alone.
What I discovered in my coaching group is that everyone else’s coaching structure was also lousy or nonexistent. They struggled to recruit leaders. Air time in the weekend service was scarce for small group announcements. Their group leaders didn’t like to attend meetings either. Leading up was always a challenge. I soon realized I wasn’t defeated. I was normal.
Now don’t get me wrong.
I love conferences. In fact, I wish every day was a conference, because at a conference your mind is filled with vision and grand ideas. But, as soon as you get home, reality slaps you in the face. Reality stinks.
But, what if you could take the benefits of a conference and spread it over an entire year for basically the same money?
My next coaching group is starting in a few weeks. Will you join me?
By Allen White
If you have managed to connect 30 percent of your adults in small groups, then congratulations are in order! You are among the top one half of one percent of all churches in America! Go ahead and pat yourself on the back! You deserve it!
Now that you’ve been congratulated, let’s get to work. Quite a few things could contribute to your state of stuckness. Here the biggest factors in small groups getting stuck.
Stop Handpicking Leaders
If you are still personally recruiting every leader, you have completely maxed out this method of starting groups. When our groups got stuck at New Life in northern California, we had 30 percent in groups. I had handpicked each leader over the course of seven years. I had asked the same question for seven years: “Would you like to become a small group leader?” And, for seven years, many people turned me down.
Now, if I had 100 years to catch up with the connection needs of our growing congregation, then I would have been in good shape. The problem is that well before we reached the 100 year mark I would be dead along with most of the people who needed to be connected into groups. While I thank God for the groups I had, the recruitment strategy had to change in order to recruit more leaders faster. We changed it and doubled our groups in one day.
Consider an Alignment Series
One of the fastest ways to propel your groups forward and get out of your stuckness is an alignment series where the senior pastor’s weekend messages are aligned with the small group study. You can either purchase a curriculum like My Near Death Experiment or Transformed, or you can create your own curriculum. Either will work. The key is to tie what’s happening in the small groups with the weekend message and particularly tie the small group study to the senior pastor.
Only Your Senior Pastor Recruits New Small Group Leaders
The first time my senior pastor stood up in a weekend service and invited our people to host groups, we doubled our groups in one day. [You can read the whole story here.] After seven years, we had 30 percent in groups. After one weekend, we jumped to 60 percent in groups.
Other than Jesus Christ, the reason unconnected people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. They like his personality. They laugh at his jokes. They enjoy his teaching. Now, don’t mention this to your worship pastor. It will break his heart.
When the senior pastor stands up and offers curriculum based on his teaching (or at least aligned with his teaching, if you’re going the purchased route), you are giving your people more of what they already like — your pastor’s teaching. Then, when the pastor invites the people to open their homes and host a group, they will follow his leadership. Believe me, I’ve been an Associate Pastor for most of my 25 years in ministry. If I made the same invitation in the service, I would get 30 percent the result of our senior pastor. Once my pastor starting recruiting from the platform, I never handpicked another group leader ever again.
Get Your Coaching Structure Started
Many churches have given up on small group coaches. Even very large churches who are well-known for their small group ministries have abandoned coaching or use paid staff to coach. This is a mistake. First, most churches could never afford to hire all of the staff they need. Second, if you are not personally caring for your leaders, your leaders will eventually stop leading. I was able to coach my leaders up to about 30 percent connected into groups, but to be honest, I didn’t do it very well. But, I learned not to beat myself up.
When we doubled our groups in a day, I was in a coaching crisis. Then, it dawned on me, since we doubled that meant half of the small group leaders didn’t know what they were doing, but the other half did. I matched them up like the buddy system, and it worked. Then, I built the rest of the coaching structure on that. Read more about small group coaching here.
Leave Established Groups Alone
Now, here is what I didn’t do. I didn’t invite my established small group leaders to do the new series. I didn’t ask my established small group leaders to change anything. In fact, I didn’t even tell them. Why?
I already had them. They didn’t need to change. They just needed to continue. If it ain’t broke… Now, many of the established small groups did participate in the alignment series, but I never asked them to. They asked me!
If you are killing yourself and only have 30 percent of your adults in groups, it is time to make a change. Now, you could change to another church who has no groups and become a big success by connecting 30 percent of their people into groups. Or, you could change up your strategies of how you recruit small group leaders and make huge progress right where you are.
Where are you stuck?
For more posts by Allen White or Information on Allen White Consulting