When churches should regather for worship is one question, but an equally challenging question is when groups should meet in person. The issue of COVID-19 has not been solved. In fact, several states are now reporting more cases of Coronavirus than ever before. Just when you thought it was safe for groups to meet in person, the pandemic seems to be flaring up again in many places.
As people are becoming weary of quarantine and some despair of another online meeting, directing groups to meet too soon could only add to the problem. But, eventually groups will meet. When they do, how should you guide them? Here are some things to consider as you direct your groups:
1. What are the restrictions or recommendations of your local government?
State and local governments all have common, yet unique challenges. The Coronavirus pandemic seems to have no rhyme or reason. At first, the pandemic seemed more of a big city problem, but over time it has shown up in more rural areas. It’s hard to predict. While guidance and restrictions related to COVID-19 have unfortunately become politicized in some areas, this is a time to heed the counsel of government in directing your groups and especially observe restrictions on meetings and meeting sizes.
2. What are the recommendations from medical authorities?
While opinions vary among medical experts (and I’m not talking about your Facebook friends), there is some common agreement regarding the spread of disease. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, so breathing it out while talking, singing, shouting, coughing, sneezing, or breathing spreads the disease. It seems to enter the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. It would make sense to cover the body parts that spread the disease as well as those that serve in contracting the disease. Here is a description of how viruses spread from an immunologist.
There is debate over other issues. Can the virus be spread on surfaces? Clean them. Can the virus be spread through food? Avoid refreshments for now. Can the virus be spread through human contact? Maybe go “touchless” for a while in the group, even though group members will be desperate to give and receive hugs. Here are the guidelines from the CDC.
3. What should groups do over the summer?
Summer tends to be a challenge for groups anyway. People plan vacations or weekends at the lake. The rhythm of the public school calendar comes into play. Even though people are still working (hopefully), alarm clocks don’t ring. Longer evenings lead to more leisure. Warmer weather calls people outdoors. For places with long winters and/or long quarantines, once people can get out, my sense is that they will be gone. Don’t fight that.
In a normal year, I usually advise groups to meet as often as they would like, but at least once per month. They can meet socially. They could serve together. Some might want to meet for a Bible study. The bottom line here is that a group is not just a meeting just like a family is not just dinner. Groups also need group life together.
Summer is not the time to launch a new study or a new series. Churches that do a big push in the summer usually lose momentum when it comes to the fall launch. It’s better to embrace the typical rhythm of summer and gear up for a big fall. Even if the fall may bring a resurgence of Coronavirus and a second quarantine, people need a break in the summer. We will talk about fall planning in another post.
4. What do the groups want to do?
Even if the church gives groups the blessing to meet in person again, some people will be reluctant to meet for fear of exposure to COVID-19. Others will differ on what precautions to take. I’ve already heard of churches dealing with mask wearers and non-mask wearers. It hasn’t quite taken on the proportions of the circumcised and the uncircumcised in the book of Galatians, but the spirit is there.
With any small group dilemma, groups need to form their own group agreements going into this next season of meeting (or not meeting). A discussion of the group agreement will help everyone to feel heard and hopefully will lead to agreement on how the group will proceed in the summer or fall semester. For more information on forming a group agreement, click here.
While the church can offer some overall guidelines for groups, it’s really the decision of each group. Encourage your coaches to engage with the group leaders to help them navigate this issue. If you don’t have coaches, first, you need to think about starting your coaching structure. Second, if you don’t have coaches, then you need to talk to your leaders individually and help them.
5. Create Some Group Guidelines.
Groups will need some overall guidance from the church. These should be general guidelines based on the best medical and governmental information you can access with the understanding that groups and their members will have different opinions and feelings about this. Personally, I would avoid making the guidelines too directive, in that, you don’t want to put the church in a place where they might be liable for a group’s actions.
Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, CA published guidelines for groups at one of their campuses in Minnesota. Bear in mind as you read their guidelines that to date this county in Minnesota has had no reported cases of Coronavirus.
Group Grand Opening Guidelines by Will Johnston and Cheri Liefeld
We recognize that some of you may be nervous about meeting at all—and that’s okay, you don’t have to—and others of you may feel like any sort of meeting restrictions are unnecessary. We’ve adopted these guidelines because we want to preserve our witness for Jesus to our communities by following our local, state, and national leaders, and because we don’t want to be responsible for an outbreak that could devastate lives.
Illness – Group members should stay home if they or anyone in their household is sick.
Location – Select a gathering place where you can safely distance. Meeting outside is encouraged when possible.
Masks – We are asking group members to wear masks, especially in the time people are arriving and socializing. Once group members are safely distanced, masks may be removed at the discretion of the leader and participants.
Food – We are big proponents of food at small group gatherings, but during this season we are recommending that groups not eat together. If you do choose to eat, encourage members to bring their own beverage and snack.
Greetings – As much as some will miss hugging or shaking hands with other group members, for now it is wise to avoid physical contact.
Cleaning – The host should be prepared to clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are frequently touched both before and after group (Door handles, chairs, restrooms, etc.).
Virtual Option – Not everyone will feel comfortable attending in person at first. Consider setting up a computer in your meeting area so group members can join in via video conference.
Childcare – Due to the challenge of having young children practice distancing, at this time we are asking groups not bring children to meetings at this time.
High Risk Individuals – Those who are 65+ or who have serious underlying health conditions are strongly encouraged to join an online small group rather than an in-person one. Groups comprised largely of high risk individuals are encouraged to continue meeting virtually.
Group Size – Groups of more than 10 people that choose to meet in person should divide the group up and meet in different places or at different times.
Guidance for groups regathering is not a simple cut and paste. While I feel that the guidelines from Eastside are thorough, you need to come up with what’s right for your small groups. And, then encourage each group to determine what’s right for them. Online groups may not feel perfect to some, but they may need to be an option for a while.
In all of this, don’t forget why we’re doing this. Groups are not for the sake of groups, but for the sake of disciples making disciples and practicing the one another’s (which can be done in ways other than meetings). Groups are one method of making disciples. Group meetings are one component of groups. Don’t limit yourself with in-person meetings.
Join a Conversation about Regathering on Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 1 pm Eastern. To register, click here.
What does it mean to learn? Is it merely an acquisition of more facts?Or is it taking those facts and putting them into practice? Meetings are not the only place for groups to learn. Often lessons are learned better by doing.
At New Life Christian Center where I served in California, we challenged our groups to prepare and serve a hot meal every Friday night at an emergency homeless shelter which ran five months of the year. We asked for groups to volunteer together instead of individuals, because the positive peer pressure of the group would guarantee 10 out of 10 group members participating, whereas individual recruitment might have netted 4 or 5 out of 10.
Our groups took this project to heart. Even on the
year when both Christmas Eve and New Years Eve were on a Friday, the signup
sheet was completely filled up by our groups within an hour of placing it at
our information center. My group didn’t even get a chance to sign up!
One group member told me he was very reluctant to participate. His attitude toward the homeless had always been “I started with nothing and pulled myself up by the bootstraps and built a successful construction company. Why couldn’t the homeless work hard and do the same.”
He was part of a small group of middle aged adults who had about 40 years of Sunday school under their belts. There wasn’t much of the Bible they hadn’t studied. Yet, all of this Bible study had done little to change this man’s attitude toward the poor.
He went with his group to serve the meal at the
shelter. He later admitted that as he stood in line serving those men and
looking them in the eye, he realized if circumstances had been different in his
life, then he might be standing on the other side of that line receiving the
Six months later, he was sending his construction crews over to San Francisco every Friday to renovate a building which would be used as a homeless shelter in the Tenderloin. Talk about a change of heart. Not only did he see the homeless differently, he was compelled to do something about it. Instead of his crews building multimillion dollar homes on Fridays, they were renovating a homeless shelter. The positive peer pressure of a small group serving together made a difference not only in his life, but in the lives of many homeless people he might never meet.
In making disciples, Jesus instructed us to “teach them to obey what I have commanded” (Matthew 28:20). In Matthew 25, Jesus tells His disciples, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). The words must lead to doing in order to make disciples in the way Jesus directed us. By simply inviting groups to serve together during the Christmas holidays or during Summer break, we can help them apply what they’ve learned and become more Christ-like in the process.
Have you worked hard to launch groups only to see them disappear after a church-wide series or semester? I heard of a church once who launched their entire small group ministry from a campaign. They didn’t have any groups when they started, and then hey recruited 233 groups for the series. When the campaign ended, they only had three groups that continued. This situation can and should be avoided.
For some reason when we invite people to lead a group for a six week study, they get this crazy idea that once the six weeks is over, they’re done. Where would they get an idea like this? The same is true for a semester-based groups. Where are they headed in the next semester?
If you haven’t decided what’s next for your groups, then prepare yourself for a hard landing. Otherwise the celebration of new groups at the conclusion of a series will end with a deafening thud, unless you’re prepared for what’s next. Next year, you’ll be right back at re-recruiting leaders and re-forming groups just like you did this year. It’s not good for the groups or for you!
You see all of this grouping, de-grouping, and regrouping is really an exercise in futility. It produces an effect I refer to as Ground Hog Day after the namesake movie starring Bill Murray. If people are already meeting together and they like each other, then we should encourage them to continue, not break up.
Now a few folks who signed up to lead for a literal six weeks will object: “This is like bait and switch.” My response is something like, “That’s because this IS bait and switch. Do you like meeting together? Then, continue. If you don’t like meeting together, then go ahead and end the group this week. Life is too short to be stuck in a bad group.” If they really can’t continue with the group, then ask if a group member could take over leading.
If the middle of your current series or semester, introduce a next step. Whether the next step is an off-the-shelf curriculum you purchase, a church-wide study in the season or semester, or a weekly sermon discussion guide, invite your new groups, especially, to pursue one specific next step. Don’t offer 12 different choices to new groups. The decision you want them to make is whether the group will continue, not what they will study. Established groups can follow what you’ve set in place for a curriculum pathway or library. Established groups need choices. New groups won’t have an opinion, so choose for them.
Before the groups disband at the end of the current series or semester, ask the group to decide about continuing. If you wait until after the study ends, then you have a much lower chance of getting the group back together for the future.
With the Christmas season upon us or when Summer hits, have groups focus on group life rather than group meetings. The new series might not start until January or October, but the group can meet socially, have a party and invite prospective group members, or serve together. Then, in the next series or study, they can continue their regular pattern of meeting. If the group insists on doing a Bible study between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day or over the Summer, then encourage it. Most groups will not take this option, but a few might.
You can avoid the disaster of Day 41 after a 40-day campaign. You can avoid experiencing Groundhog Day for your next series or semester. By offering a next step now, you can retain more groups, then build on what you’ve accomplished in your groups’ launch.
When it comes to discipleship and small groups, there is a
tension between series, seasons, and semesters. On the one hand, you don’t want
to fight against the community calendar. But, on the other side of things, you
can’t have only 8-12 weeks for discipleship in a year. What’s the balance?
Don’t Fight the Losing Battle of the Calendar
Most people have been conditioned by the academic calendar,
even if they are no longer in school. You’re hard at it from Labor Day to
Thanksgiving, and then from the New Year up to Memorial Day, but between those
holidays there are breaks. People are conditioned to this. There are a few
exceptions, but even communities with year-round school still see an ebb in
attendance and participation in the Summer.
Where I live in South Carolina, everyone goes on vacation
either in the week before or after the Fourth of July. Back in the days of the
textile industry, the mills closed for the weeks on either side of Independence
Day. Now, all of the textile mills are long gone, but the pattern remains.
Your community also has seasonal rhythms like this. But, do
you give up on discipleship during the Summer. Think of alternatives like a
Summer devotional that people can take to the beach or the lake (or on their
phone). Discipleship doesn’t need to stop, but the form might need to adjust
for the Summer months.
Don’t Win the Battle and Lose the War.
I’ve seen churches do semesters or even church-wide
campaigns during the Summer months. As you might expect, participation was a
third or less from either a Fall series or a New Year’s series, but there were
some folks who benefited. The problem was the Summer launch reduced the
momentum for the Fall launch when everyone is back in church and available.
They saw less participation and fewer new leaders than in previous Fall
launches because the Summer study took the steam out of it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I led a group for four years that
met for all 52 weeks of the year for Bible study. It is possible, but is it
practical or necessary? You have to decide for your church.
How Do You Use the Summer?
The effort to make well-rounded disciples requires more than
group meetings and Bible studies. Relationships and group life play a big part
in offering the encouragement and accountability that each member needs to
grow. While there is a place to learn what Jesus commanded, His command to us was
to “teach them to obey what I’ve commanded” (Matthew 28:20). You have to know
the commands to obey them, but you have to obey them to become the kind of
disciple Jesus had in mind.
Summer provides the opportunity to grow by other means.
Groups could serve together. Is there a Summer youth event or camp where they
could help? How about a missions trip? Does a neighbor have a neglected yard? Maybe
the group could pitch in to help? But, it doesn’t need to be all work.
I’ve seen groups go on vacation together, go camping together,
or go exploring on a day trip. One group in our church went on a cruise
together. They met another couple from our town on the cruise, who ended up
being part of their group when they returned.
Groups need to work hard together, but they also need to
play hard together. Often you catch a better glimpse of someone outside of a
meeting. Meetings are important, but group life is equally as important.
Make Summer your ally, not your enemy. Don’t fight the
calendar. But, remember, chances are people will be more faithful to their
group over the Summer than they will to weekend services. Don’t stop your
groups, but maybe make an adjustment.
What will your groups do this Summer? Leave your comments below.
The temptation to start new groups after Easter is fairly irresistible. Easter is by far the largest Sunday of the year. Why not launch groups from the largest crowd you’ll see all year? You might not see them again until Christmas.
But, there are three group killers after Easter: June, July and August. Why start groups in the Spring only to watch them die out over the Summer? It seems they would have a better chance of survival in the Fall.
I have to admit this is exactly what I used to think about launching groups off of Easter, but I had a change of heart once I discovered ways to sustain 80 percent of those new Spring groups in the Fall. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Groups Need a Next Step.
Most new groups do not have an opinion of what they want to study next. How many times has a new group leader presented a selection of curriculum to the group only to hear, “They all look good. Why don’t you pick one.” Happens almost every time.
Of course, the other factor here is the fact you invited folks to join a group for six weeks and not for the rest of their lives. For some strange reason, once the six weeks ends, they feel like their commitment is up – because it is.
The first time we launched groups in the Spring, we gathered the new leaders mid-way through the Spring study and invited them to join our next series which began on the second Sunday ofOctober. Then, we held our breath. It’s a long stretch from mid-May to mid-October. October held a big surprise.
When we gathered groups in the Fall to give them a sneak peek at the Fall curriculum, 80 percent of the groups who started in the Spring were right there to join the Fall study. You could have knocked me over with a feather. By giving the groups a next step, even a huge step over four months, is key to helping groups sustain. If I hadn’t experienced this first hand, honestly, I wouldn’t have believed it.
If your groups were launched with a video-based curriculum, you should offer another video-based curriculum as a next step. This could be your next church-wide campaign or a curriculum about how to be a small group. Over the years, I’ve challenged churches to create their own new group curriculum, but no one has taken me up on it so far. I decided to make this easier for you. I have written a new study called Community: Starting a Healthy Group which comes with the video scripts for you to record your own videos!
Whatever you choose, offer a next step to your groups and most will continue.
2. Very Few People Take the Entire Summer Off.
Only a handful of folks spend the entire summer at the beach. For the rest of us, chances are we will miss more weekend services in the Summer than group meetings. Before the group hits Memorial Day ask everyone to bring their calendars. Then, find six dates during the Summer when the group can meet. You might choose a six session study or you might choose one of the options below.
The six dates probably won’t fit neatly in a row, but that’s okay. Even if the group can only meet once per month, it’s a great way to stay connected to group life, even if you don’t have a formal group meeting.
3. Summer is a Great Time to Recruit New People to Your Group.
You will find more neighbors outdoors during the Summer than any other time of year. With longer days and kids out of school, why not host a neighborhood block party with your group? Roll the barbecue grill out onto your driveway to grill a few hot dogs. Rent an inflatable bounce house for the kids. Bring plenty of lawn chairs. Maybe even have a little music. Invite everybody.
People will wonder by and join in before you know it. This is a great way to meet your neighbors, and maybe even invite them to your group. By putting the party in the front yard rather than the backyard, neighbors will come and see what’s going on.
4. Get Your Group Outside.
Group discussions don’t work so well outside. The neighbors haven’t agreed to confidentiality for what they hear over the backyard fence. Outdoor Bible studies usually don’t work, but there are plenty of other reasons to go outside.
Who does your group know who needs help? Plan a service day and help a neighbor. They don’t need to ask the church office, or even inform the church. They just need to look around and get to work.
Experiencing life together in a different setting will add depth and richness to your group. Once everyone sees the group in action, the dynamic of your meetings and studies will become dramatically different.
Summer shouldn’t be the death of small groups. In fact, June, July and August can breathe new life into both new and existing groups. With a little planning and a lot of flexibility, Summer could become the best time of year for group life.