By Allen White
A group’s location says a lot about the group. If a group meets in a classroom at church, it feels like Sunday school. It’s formal. Sometimes the room is distracting because it’s normally used as children’s space. I remember leading a group for Pete Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality in a third grade classroom. A child had created a poster for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. While I really wanted to help people work through their ennagrams and get to their family dynamics, I kept thinking, “No, it’s chocolate. Really!”
This is why off-campus groups are just better:
1. Better for the Group.
A home is more personal than a classroom. While a group could cover the exact same content in both environments, there is something about a home that reframes the meeting as “group life” rather than just a class. Hospitality has become a bit of a lost art. Growing up families would regularly have each other over for dinner. Today, families are generally too exhausted to think about volunteering for another thing. Inviting a group into a home is a meaningful gesture. Group members can get to know the group leader by asking about family pictures or mementos from years gone by. What’s even better is having the group trade off homes. This way the group can meet in every member’s home and get to know them better as well.
A home is a more casual environment. The meeting doesn’t necessarily feel like a “church thing.” They are meeting with a group of people to encourage each other, study God’s Word, and pray for each other. Granted, it’s not a Thursday night poker game, but you can have that kind of community.
This can also apply to a third place like a bookstore, a coffee shop or a community room at an apartment complex. While these settings are not as personal as a home, they certainly are not as formal as a classroom. The other great thing about meeting in a third place is there is no cleaning up before or after the meeting, and possibly no refreshments to provide. Latte anyone?
2. Better for the Church.
Now, by better for the church, I don’t mean less wear and tear on the building or giving the childcare workers a night off, but that’s not a bad start. Most churches do not have adequate educational space to house every small group who meets. When I served at Brookwood Church, groups met every day of the week, Sunday through Friday, morning, noon and night. Even though there were a couple hundred groups, we completely ran out of space. We weren’t going to build anything else, so where do you turn?
Once we embrace the idea that the church is not merely a building, but the body of believers, suddenly the church has all kinds of space. In fact, churches have millions and millions of dollars worth of property that they aren’t even utilizing — the homes of their members. No need for a capital campaign or building a new building, the church has buildings. They just need to plant group life there.
3. Better for the Neighborhood.
Pastors debate whether their churches should be missional or attractional. I would argue they need to be both. Churches should offer a weekend service where unchurched people would feel welcomed and interested. A place where they friends can invite them, and they can hear the Gospel. But, the church should also go to them. When our church in California, New Life Christian Center, launched our first self-produced curriculum (read more here), we encountered a result we didn’t count on — people who had never darkened the door of our church were meeting our pastor in the homes of their friends. As our group leaders reached out to friends, neighbors, and co-workers, they were invited into a comfortable place, their friend’s home, rather than a church service where they might not feel as comfortable. After a few weeks of watching our pastor on video, the leader asked if they like to come to church with them. When they came to a service, they felt like they already knew our pastor because they had just spent a few weeks with him at their friend’s house.
4. Transitioning Your Groups without Transitioning Yourself Out
There are some exceptions to where groups meet. There will certainly be some resistance. In some places, there will be a flat out sense of entitlement. After all, didn’t the church members fund the building campaign, so why can’t they use the building?
As I mentioned, when I first arrived at Brookwood Church, the vast majority of groups met on campus, and I wasn’t about to change that. It’s not that I’m a chicken. I just lack the gift of martyrdom. After all, what we were doing was working for a lot of the groups. If it ain’t broke…
I made two commitments to the existing on-campus groups. First, while we were starting many new groups off-campus, I would never ask them to move off-campus. Second, I promised them I would never split up their group if they exceeded 12 members. That’s for another day. Remember, if you kick them out, they might just kick you out.
Now, over the course of the next four years, we started hundreds of new groups off-campus. And, we started a few groups on-campus. Now by “few” I mean four groups. A couple of people could not figure out another way to have a group, so I gave them a room. Then, we started a group for single moms. Not only did I give them a room, I gave them free childcare, free curriculum, tickets to a Chonda Pierce concert (with free childcare) — the whole works. After all, single moms and their kids are our modern day “widows and orphans.”
Once we changed the expectations for most groups to meet off-campus, they figured it out: meeting place, childcare, and whatever other objection they had. They didn’t feel like second class citizens. They just understood that we were out of space. We may have missed starting a few groups along the way, but the groups we started were better in so many ways.
By Allen White
By Allen White
There is a reason you have the groups you currently do. They are working for somebody. Whether they are connected in Adult Bible Fellowships, Inductive Bible Studies, Sunday School (gasp…more on this later), or women addicted to Beth Moore groups, it’s working for them. As long as the groups aren’t worshiping the devil or talking bad about the pastor, leave them alone.
At Brookwood Church, we had a very large women’s group, about 200+, who met every Wednesday morning and called themselves WOW. They would meet in a large group setting to view teaching by Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Kay Arthur and others, then they broke into 17 different groups that met in the adjacent rooms. When it came time for a church-wide “campaign” with the group curriculum aligned with the weekend messages, I didn’t even ask the WOW women to participate. Why?
First, I didn’t need to enter into a fight that I wasn’t going to win. You can call me a wimp. I call it wise. Why volunteer for unnecessary trouble? Next, I knew if the WOW women did the church-wide study on Wednesday morning, I was giving their husbands an out. If the ladies were already doing the study, then more than likely, the men weren’t going to join a men’s group, and she wasn’t going to do the same study on the same week in a couples group.
By encouraging WOW to continue on their path of study, the ladies and their husbands also participated together in a couples group for the church-wide study. Not only were the men involved in groups, I got to count the women twice! Ok, not really, but you understand what I’m saying.
A day will come when group membership to a failing initiative will decrease. That is the time to consider a hard conversation about ending the group, class or ministry. But, as long as it’s helping someone, it’s worth keeping around. If you attempt to transition a ministry to quickly, you will upset its constituency, which could come back in many ways from reduced giving to personal “political” fall out. Don’t fight battles you can’t win or will greatly injure you. Be patient.
Why Do Pastors Long for a Magic Bullet?
If one strategy could connect every member in our church, if one model could work for everyone, it would be a pastor’s dream come true. Why? Because it’s efficient or dare I say, convenient. For busy pastors, it’s easier to manage one system, not three, four or five.
Your members are looking for variety, not uniformity. Look at how many car models were made last year. Look at how many new books appear on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Look at how many ways you can drink coffee at Starbucks. The Blue Plate Special died 50 years ago.
What is a Small Group Anyway?
Why do you have small groups? Coolness is not the right answer. Merely forming small groups could contribute to more problems. Rather than individuals leaving the church, now they might leave linking arms. (Keep reading. It’s okay.) If groups offer care, encouragement, fellowship, Bible study and leadership development, can that only happen in a small group? What if a Sunday School class was accomplishing those things? What if your existing groups were already doing that? Isn’t this meeting your goal? Isn’t this building people up?
Do New Things with New People
Rather than forcing them into the existing model, discover what will work for them. Men don’t join groups for the same reasons as women. Younger generations are motivated differently than older generations. Some folks will join because they ought to. Others will see what’s in it for them. Still others will see a chance to make a difference together. And, some will think the whole thing is lame. That’s okay.
When new freshmen enter college, they are given a college catalog. The catalog delineates all of the requirements to graduate with a chosen degree. If the college chooses to change any of the requirements along the way, they do so with the incoming freshmen. They can’t make the changes with the upperclassmen. Their contract, if you will, was established during their freshman year.
Your existing groups are like the upperclassmen. They came in while you were doing groups, classes or Bible studies a certain way. While you can always invite them to try something new, you should refrain from making the change mandatory. Again, if you lose what you have for the sake of something new, you’re just being stupid. (Some take offense when I say this, “Are you calling me stupid?” I tell them, “No, because you’re not going to do that.”)
When we launched our groups for The Passion of the Christ at New Life years ago, we didn’t even tell our existing groups what we were doing. Partly because we were in a bit of a rush having decided to launch the groups only three weeks before the series started, but also because we already had the existing groups. We just needed to build on that.
My leaders came to me and asked, “Can our group do the Passion study or is it only for new groups?”
Being the kind, compassionate pastor I am, I said, “What’s it worth to you?” Nearly all of our existing groups participated in the study. They didn’t have to, but they wanted to. You attract more flies with honey…
One Size Does Not Fit All
When I arrived at Brookwood Church in Simpsonville, South Carolina, about 30 percent of the adults were in groups. It was a solid foundation. We had on-campus groups, off-campus groups, Beth Moore Bible study groups, and the Holy Smokers, who focused on Bible and barbecue. Remember them? We launched lots of new groups through church-wide campaigns. We connected hundreds of new folks to groups. We gained another 30 percent in groups. Sixty percent ain’t bad.
But, as I became better acquainted with the congregation, I discovered that some in the Bible belt really were intimidated by the Bible. They resisted small groups because they were afraid they would have nothing to contribute to the discussion. Whoa. In California, we just asked folks to do a study with their friends. They did it. But, this was a whole other deal.
We created large groups for men, women, young couples, business people, law enforcement, and senior adults. These are what Carl George calls “fishing ponds.” In these large groups people could move from the crowd of a 2,500 seat auditorium to a living room of a few friends, old or new.
We offered a solid recreation ministry for adults and children. We created a system of classes called BrookwoodU where people could get to know each other while they learned cooking, digital photography, leadership, Microsoft Word, sign language and even Hermeneutics. (Many friendships were forged in their hermeneutical fox holes.)
I didn’t join the staff of a megachurch to start classes or to send seniors to Branson, Missouri. But, those not connected into groups didn’t necessarily care about what I wanted. What did they need?
After four years, we reached 78 percent of our, then, 5,000 adults connected in small groups, large groups, and BrookwoodU. We didn’t get to 100 percent, but maybe someone else can take them there in the future.
You wouldn’t transition small groups to a Sunday School model, would you? Build on what’s working. Then, figure out what you can add to that. And, for the pastor on that webcast, I wish you well.