Some churches practice a simple church model. They offer just a few options to their congregations. These are churches like North Coast Church, Vista, CA led by Larry Osborne or Mariners Church led by Eric Geiger, who wrote the book Simple Church. They promote their weekend worship services, small groups, serving, local and global missions, but little else beyond that. Life seems simpler in a simple church. But your church might be more complicated, especially in a legacy church.
Once I served a church that was the polar opposite of a simple church. They prided themselves on being a complicated church that hoped to offer something for everybody. Promoting small groups was complex to say the least. If you promote everything equally, then nothing is a priority. (More here in my post: The Unfairness of Being Fair). After all, if everything is important, then nothing is important. But, we grew the groups in that church from 30% of 5,000 adults connected to 78% in the four years I served there. Here’s how we did it:
Let’s say your groups meet a minimum of twice per month for the purpose of Bible application, community, and occasional serving projects. By defining a group in your church, you are also stating what a small group is not in your church. Think about all of the things you are offering your adults to see what might be competing with groups.
For instance, let’s say you have a men’s prayer breakfast that meets once per month. Is this a group? Having been to quite a few men’s prayer breakfasts over the years, I’ve discovered there is usually more breakfast than prayer. (The prayer is typically for the food). You might discover that the men who attend this breakfast regard this as their small group, yet by your definition this men’s breakfast doesn’t qualify as a group. It doesn’t have Bible application or occasional serving, but it has plenty of community. Also, it doesn’t meet often enough by your definition. In fact, once a month groups really don’t meet frequently enough to provide deep community. I call these groups a small group placebo. They give the feeling of being in a group but lack the benefits of being in a group.
But with your definition of groups, you are also opening up the possibilities for how many groups you actually have. Maybe you just don’t call them groups.
What Groups, Classes, Serve Teams, or Bible Studies Might Qualify as Groups?
Compare your definition with all of the “groups” in your church. Think of serving teams, Bible studies, small groups, classes, and whatever else you’ve got. Which qualify as a group by your definition? Which do not? Which could become a little more “groupish”?
Can on-campus groups, classes, Sunday school classes, or Bible studies be categorized as “groups”? This is not just an exercise in semantics. You need to consider all of the things in your church that help make disciples. Even the old fashioned options could be good options.
Avoid Competing with Yourself
I am working with a church that’s made a goal of connecting half of their adults into a certain type of off-campus groups. Upon further examination, we discovered that they have a lot of other options for their adults that would also fit the criteria for a group: women’s Bible studies, men’s Bible studies, in-depth Bible classes, and several others. In the current thinking, these other “groups” are competing with their goal of getting half of their people into off-campus groups.
In this situation, you can do one of two things: either cancel all of these other groups leading to a revolt or broaden your definition of groups. Stick with me here. This isn’t just for the sake of numbers and bragging rights. Years ago a friend of mine proudly announced, “Suddenly, we have 92% of our adults in groups.” He was at a traditional Baptist church with a very large, well established adult Sunday school. The vast majority of the adults were in Sunday school classes. He reconfigured his definition of groups and overnight went from nobody in groups to 92% in groups. So what?
My friend knew that an alignment series or a church-wide campaign wasn’t necessary to connect people into groups in his church. Sunday school was meeting that need. He would have preferred everyone to choose off-campus small groups, but he also wanted to keep his job. He left Sunday school alone, because it was working. But, he also discovered an opportunity: 8% of their adults were not in a Sunday school class. How could he help them grow spiritually?
Now, Who at Your Church is Not in Group?
Rather than focusing on draining your women’s ministry to get more people into “groups,” focus on connecting people who are only attending the worship service. (Besides that Beth Moore addiction is very hard to break). You don’t need to regroup people who are already in groups.
Who is not in a group of any type in your church? The bigger question is “Why did they say ‘No’ to what you are currently offering and what might they say, ‘Yes’ to.” They are not being disloyal or unfaithful in not taking you up on their offer. You’re just not offering what they want or need. Offer something different.
If you are the only one recruiting all of your group leaders, invite people to volunteer to host a group in their homes. If you’ve been using the host strategy since 40 Days of Purpose launched 20 years ago, then the gig is up. People know that host really means “leader.” Instead encourage people to get together with their friends and do a study. Provide an easy entry point to LEAD a group. Pastors talk about easy entry points to join a group, but that misses the mark. Your leading metric should be leading a group instead of joining a group.
How Do You Pull This Off?
You have a few options here.
A good option is for your senior pastor to invite your members to lead a group with an easy-to-use curriculum that you purchase. There is a lot of great video-based curriculum out there. Go to topbiblestudies.com for a curated list.
A better option is for your senior pastor to invite your members to lead a group with an easy-to-use curriculum that you create based on your senior pastor’s teaching. This does not need to be aligned with the sermon series. Your pastor on the teaching video will greatly increase your group participation.
The best option is for your senior pastor to invite your members to lead a group with an easy-to-use curriculum that you create based on your senior pastor’s teaching that aligns with the sermon series. The senior pastor asks. The senior pastor teaches. The senior pastor aligns. The key to all three of these options is your senior pastor.
What if my senior pastor isn’t interested? Pay attention to where your senior pastor is headed in the fall, in the new year, or after Easter, then link your small group launch with where your pastor is going. For more, read here.
Think About This
You don’t need to compete with yourself. Your people might already be engaging in the very things you want to see them do in groups. Getting people to shift from classes to groups is a losing battle, and you’re the loser. You don’t even need to relabel classes as groups. Just regard them as groups. If a person receives care, community, and Bible application in a class, they’re not going to join a group anyway. This is their group!
You don’t need to compete with your people either. They’re already in groups! They have friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives, and others in their lives that they already enjoy spending time with. You don’t need to unnaturally place them into a group of strangers. Give them an easy-to-use curriculum and a coach to guide them, and then let them do what groups do in your church.
What is a group in your church? What groups do you already have? Where is your pastor headed around the time of your next major group launch? Do this work now and you will have a great opportunity to make more disciples than ever before.
As you think about the fall small group boom, one of the best ways to recruit new leaders is with a church-wide campaign or small group in a box. We’re just going to talk about curriculum in this post, but curriculum alone won’t get big results. You also need strategy. Add to strategy, prayer. Then, you’ll have something.
Campaigns or alignment series can be rolled out in several different ways. I see sort of a Good, Better, Best in the approaches:
Good – Purchase a video-based curriculum that your pastor promotes.
Better – Purchase a video-based curriculum that aligns with your pastor’s sermon series and that your pastor is willing to promote.
Best – Create your own video-based curriculum with your pastor’s teaching. Not only will your pastor promote groups more enthusiastically, but your people will respond more enthusiastically.
What Curriculum Will You Use?
Will your church purchase curriculum or create curriculum? If you purchase curriculum, then you need to plan for $70-$100 per group. Creating curriculum varies widely as you’ll see below.
Will you sell the curriculum to the group members? I recommend providing the video and a study guide to the group leader at no cost, then charging the group members for their study guides at cost or less. Also, plan to give away a few study guides to those who cannot afford them.
If you are purchasing curriculum, what platform carries the video? Once upon a time, we bought DVDs at $25 each. That adds up. Is there a curriculum on Right Now Media, Studygateway, Amazon Video On Demand, or another source? If so, your current subscription might already cover the video costs. Otherwise, you’ll have to rent or purchase the content. This adds up quickly.
Creating Your Own Curriculum
The methods of creating curriculum vary widely. I’ve helped churches develop video-based curriculum with budgets ranging from $25,000 – $50,000 or more. I’ve also coached churches who created their curriculum with an all volunteer team or even shot the video with an iPhone. It all worked. It just depends on how you want to work it! Here are a few things to consider:
Who will produce your video? A professional videographer, a wedding videographer, your in-house production team, your volunteer team, you and your pastor (that’s how I produced my first one!), or an iPhone user? There are pluses and minuses with each option. Hiring outside expertise can cost a lot of money, but also guarantee a finished product on time. In-house production teams can save money, since the church is already paying them, but you are at the mercy of the 156 other projects on their list. The same flexibility goes with a volunteer team. They may have the skills, but they’re moonlighting. Patience is required. You have to allow plenty of time (read: If you’re shooting a fall campaign with staff or volunteers, start now!)
What equipment do you need to purchase or rent?
Where will you shoot the video? Is there a cost? (I recommend shooting in a large home and NOT at the church).
What are the costs of feeding the crew? A fed crew is a happy crew. A hungry crew will think twice about your next project.
How will you provide the video to your groups? Streaming on Youtube or Vimeo? DVDs? You can also stream your videos through your Right Now Media account.
Creating Study Guides
Will you produce a physical study guide or provide a digital download? If this is a major launch, then a physical study guide in people’s hands will show the effort you put into the study. For any other launch, a download will do.
Who will design your cover? You are not a designer. Don’t design your own cover.
How will you print your books? On demand printers like Kindle Direct Publishing or Ingram Spark charge about $2.25 each for a 120-page study guide whether you purchase one copy or 1,000 copies (plus shipping). You do need to allow 30 days for printing and shipping. You could go with a conventional printer, even a local printer, but to get $2.25 per book, you’d have to order 2,000 copies. And, if you need more copies, the price goes way up!
The most affordable way to deliver curriculum is with streaming video and a digital download. There are no costs. This is perfectly suitable for regular seasons and semesters. For major group launches, the extra effort of producing a physical book will create more interest in your church and net huge dividends.
As you work through these questions, you will find clarity for planning and budgeting your next church-wide campaign. If you need any help, I have produced curriculum for a wide variety of pastors and churches including Rick Warren, Dr. Tony Evans, Chip Ingram, Gene Appel, and many others. For more information, click here.
Whether you are writing curriculum for a video-based study or a weekly sermon discussion guide, effective curriculum requires some dedicated steps and some finesse that comes from experience. Based on studies I’ve written for both churches I’ve served on staff as well as other churches and ministries, I want to share some of the things I’ve picked up over the years.
Every Lesson has Four Parts.
Bible studies consist of these four things: Ice Breaker, Observation Questions, Interpretation Questions, and Application Questions. Or, to put it another way: How are You? What does the Text Say? What does It Mean? What are You Going to Do About It? While some studies may appear to have more parts and pieces, it all boils down to these four. The purpose of an Ice Breaker is to get the conversation started. You want to ask a simple question that anyone can answer to get the conversation going. You don’t want an ice breaker just for the sake of an ice breaker. You want a question that will lead into the discussion to follow. A great resource for ice breakers is Cheryl Shireman’s What’s Your Story? Observation Questions are questions anyone can answer from the Scripture passage. (I am old school and believe that a Bible study should involve the Bible.) Questions can come from quotes or actions in the text. Even a question like “What jumps out at you from this passage?”can be a great start. These are the Who, What, and Where questions. The answers are the facts from the text. Try not to oversimplify these questions or else the group will avoid them. These questions are to help the group members dip their toe into the water. Interpretation Questions ask the How and Why questions. How do you feel about Jesus’ words? Why did the person in the passage react this way? The caution here is to ask questions that can be answered without knowledge of other passages of Scripture. If your questions assume the same vast Bible knowledge that you have, then you’re going to leave some people behind. If a cross-reference will shed light on the meaning of the passage, then add the cross-reference to the question. Don’t assume the groups know as much as you. Application Questions are the meat of any Bible study. In our mission to “teach them to obey” as Jesus commanded us (Matthew 28:20), practically applying what the group members are learning to their own lives is the most important part of the study. How does this passage challenge their attitudes? What action should they take? Encourage group members to take on an assignment or set a goal for them to live out the following week. Then, in the next lesson, after the ice breaker, check in on their progress. Create a template with these four parts. You can name them whatever you want to name them. If you write from a template, you never start with a blank piece of paper. For a sample template, contact me at email@example.com.
Writing for the Entire Congregation is Tricky.
Every congregation is made up of a broad spectrum of believers. You have everyone from new believers to seasoned saints. You have people who perceive themselves as not having much to offer spiritually and people who pride themselves on their spiritual maturity. (But, how mature are they really?) You have members who have a strong command of Scripture, and you have people who are just discovering their Bibles have both Old and New Testaments. How do you write curriculum that will connect with every member in your church? Unfortunately, most curriculum is written toward the least common denominator. You don’t want to go over anyone’s head, so you write easier questions for newer, less knowledgeable believers. The problem is you leave out those who are well beyond the new believer stage. I have found that creating a section of the curriculum simply titled “For Deeper Study” meets the needs for those who regard themselves as “deep.” This could include questions based on cross-references to the text or questions assuming greater Bible knowledge. Deep is a slippery word. I don’t believe you need to parse Greek verbs to meet this need. You want to avoid writing lessons to what I call Bible connoisseurs who are searching for some nuance of the text they have never learned before. Read more here. To me deep speaks to deep application. How does the word penetrate my Christian façade and speak to my true self? What if Jesus was serious about what he commanded us to do? How should my life change starting today? You don’t want to leave anyone behind whether they have vast knowledge of Scripture or no knowledge. Creating different levels of questions in the curriculum will help you to bridge this gap. Explain to your group leaders that say the first 10 or so questions are for newer believers, but then the Going Deeper section is for more mature believers, then let them decide which questions are the most appropriate for their groups.
Integrating the Video in Your Curriculum Writing.
If you are creating video-based curriculum, then you need to provide links connecting the teaching on the video with the study guide. I’ve found that transcribing the videos with a service like Rev.com is very helpful in writing curriculum. Take exact quotes from the video teaching and put them into the study guide followed by a question. “In the video, our pastor said __________________. How does that statement impact what you think about _____________?” If you don’t refer to the video in the study guide, then sometimes the video can seem unrelated to the group study. I prefer to write the study guide after the video shoot. This way the video doesn’t change. It’s done. Then, using your template from #1, write your questions using the same passage(s) of Scripture, the teacher used and add some quotes from the video. If something wasn’t thoroughly covered in the video, then you can add material in a lesson introduction which should be read in the group meeting. Video-based curriculum is a great way to start discussion on a topic. The group leader does not need to be a Bible expert, because the pastor on the video is the expert. Video curriculum also makes the link between the pastor and small groups stronger. The pastor’s effort is meaningful to the group. For more on video curriculum, click here.
Training Your Group Leaders with the Curriculum.
Whatever you want your group leaders to do in a meeting should be stated in the curriculum. I prefer to put these instructions in every book rather than creating a leader guide and a student guide. I want group members to see how easy it is to lead a group and maybe they’ll lead a group on their own eventually. Leader instructions that are taught in a meeting or hidden in the introduction to the study guide will never make it into a group meeting. If you want the group to pray together at the end of the discussion, then add a question or statement about prayer at the end of the application section. If you want group members to take responsibilities in the group like bringing refreshments, hosting the group in their home, or leading the discussion, then add these instructions into the application section during the first two weeks of the study. If you want group members to invite more people to the group, then put that in the study. If you want group members to avoid spending time on prayer requests like “Please pray for my Aunt Gertrude’s big toe,” then add those instructions into the study. You get the picture. Leaders will be reminded if the instructions are in each lesson. If the leader skips something, then a group member will be quick to bring it up. And, in the process, group members will discover that they could lead a group themselves.
There is an art and a science to curriculum writing. Curriculum requires a basic structure to get the group to where you want it to go. Remember the four parts? Curriculum writing also requires the finesse to write for an entire congregation without leaving anyone out. Integrating quotes from video teaching will make your curriculum more cohesive. Training leaders and their whole group is another great way to cast vision for future groups and get the Word of God deeper into your members’ lives. Oh, and if all of this seems too much for you, then recruit a volunteer team of writers to help you. Don’t make any promises on what you will or won’t use, but ask them to help. Other paid services like Lifeway’s smallgroup.com can also help you create your own curriculum. There is nothing wrong with purchasing your curriculum. But, writing your own curriculum gives you the chance to encode each lesson with your church’s DNA and address specific things to your congregation.
By Allen White Video-based small group curriculum has been with us for a while now. Early innovators like Rick Warren and the team at Saddleback Church brought the local pastor into the living room. This proved to be an easy way to start groups and an easy way for group leaders to prepare for meetings. With all of the professionally produced video curriculum out there, why would a church want to create their own? While well-known pastors have produced some excellent studies, your pastor’s face on the screen presents some strong advantages for your congregation.
Help People Take Their Weekend Experience into the Week.
The hustle and bustle of life tends to edge out the Sunday morning sermon after a day or so. While some sermons are remembered better than others, most are long forgotten by mid-week. By providing small groups with studies based on the weekend message, the points made on Sunday can take deeper root. By creating space in the small group to review the weekend message via a short video (no more than 10 minutes), the group has a chance to review the points, ask questions, discuss issues, and make a specific application to their lives. Giving groups the opportunity to think about the message and what it means to them causes the group members to retain more. In groups they can involve more of themselves in the teaching. Rather than simply listening and maybe taking notes, group members can wrestle with hard questions and get the encouragement and accountability they need to live out the message.
Producing Your Own Curriculum Engages the Senior Pastor.
A senior pastor without a teaching gift is not a senior pastor for long. This is the most public and most personal role of any senior pastor. Speaking is hard work. Even the most gifted teachers spend hours gathering material, studying, collecting illustrations, and polishing their messages. Once Sunday is finished, for most pastors, the countdown clock to next week’s sermon begins. The one they worked so hard on for this week is now a thing of the past. But, it doesn’t have to be. What if the pastor could sit down in a living room with his church members and teach them the part he couldn’t get to on Sunday morning? What if in that circle the pastor could share his heart about what the Bible passage means and what it would mean if people started obeying it? A video-based curriculum can breathe new life into a message destined for the archives. Not only will the congregation learn more, but the message will go farther through the group.
The Senior Pastor’s Involvement Elevates the Role of Groups.
For most churchgoers, the initial draw to a church is the pastor’s teaching and the music. As hard as the other church staff work in their roles, this is the simple truth. The senior pastor plays a highly significant role in the spiritual lives of his congregation. By connecting the small group study to the weekend message, you can leverage the influence of the senior pastor in leading his people to connect in small groups. Once the pastor has created a video curriculum, his next question will be “How do we use this? How do we recruit more leaders? How do we get people into groups?” Don’t you want your senior pastor asking those questions? What’s important to the senior pastor will be what’s important to the congregation. Bulletins, video announcements, website – none of these come close to having the #1 influencer in the church direct the congregation. When the pastor asks for people to host groups, people will host groups. When the pastor invites members to join groups, members will join groups. When E.F. Hutton talks… I learned this lesson over a decade ago. I had spent seven years recruiting and training leaders to find only 30 percent of our congregation in groups. But, the first time our senior pastor stood up and asked for host homes, we doubled our groups in one day. I never looked back. He did all of the recruiting and leading from that point forward. I have not recruited a group leader myself since 2004, even though I have served in another church since then.
Take the Weekend Message Beyond the Church Walls.
When church members invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers, relatives and others to join them for a church-produced Bible study, the senior pastor is introduced to many more people than actually attend the church on Sunday. In homes, workplaces, Starbucks and even commuter trains, the pastor’s teaching goes out to many new people. Often new people will meet the pastor via video before they meet him in person. But, the transition from the living room to the church auditorium now is not quite as daunting. New folks feel they’ve already met the pastor through the weekly group studies. And, don’t tell the group hosts and leaders, but they’re actually doing evangelism. Shhh.
A Simple Teaching Tool Multiplies Small Group Potential.
A video curriculum is easy to use. In fact, someone who has never led before simply needs to follow the instructions. The teaching on the video provides the wisdom and expertise. The questions in the book provide the pathway for a great discussion. Pushing play and reading questions is not so hard. Think about this: every person in your church has friends. The people who are less involved in the church will actually have far more friends outside of the church. What if your church members each gathered a group of 8-10 people for a video-based study featuring your senior pastor? Could a church of 100 members reach 1,000 people? What about a church of 1,000 going after 10,000? What about a church of 13,000 reaching over 100,000? Is it possible? The Bible says all things are possible with God.
How do you know if your small groups pastor should stay or go? How do you measure success in small groups? Today, I want to give you some milestones for small groups. You might just find a new scorecard for success in your small groups.
1. You have less than 30% in groups.
It’s fairly easy to connect 30% of a church’s adults into groups (unless you have more than 70% in Sunday School). This is the low hanging fruit. Any strategy can help most churches connect at least 30% into groups. Whether you are handpicking leaders, developing apprentices and birthing groups, or launching church-wide campaigns, 30% is a pretty low threshold for connection. In fact, most churches I’ve coached have become stuck at with 30% in groups. Few have less than 30% if they are giving small groups any effort. Determine whether your groups pastor believes your church is a cruise ship or a battle ship. Is everyone kicking back and relaxing about groups, or is it all hands on deck?
2. Your Groups Pastor spends time connecting people into groups.
Connecting individuals to groups is nearly a complete waste of time. Either the leader never contacts the prospective member, the prospect doesn’t show up, or the prospect leaves the group as soon as the study ends. Why? There is simply not enough affinity if the group only has a neighborhood or night of the week in common. This does not create lasting connection in groups. Besides, everyone is already in a group. It’s the first sentence of my book. They have neighbors, co-workers, family members, and all kinds of people they do life with. To support unrecognized, yet existing groups is a far more effective way to grow groups. While there will be exceptions, in the wise words of Brett Eastman, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” Don’t develop a whole group system to accommodate for possible exceptions.
3. You don’t have a coaching structure.
Developing a coaching structure is where your church will get the most bang for its buck. If you applied the same energy to coaching that you currently exert for recruiting leaders and connecting people into groups, you will have a far more effective small group system. Leadership support and development is the key to healthy small groups. If you don’t have a coaching structure, then you are limited to just the handful of groups a small groups pastor can manage on his or her own. While many churches, even prominent churches, have abandoned coaching, the truth is an email distribution list or another training meeting is not an effective investment into your small group leaders. Coaching is built on a relationship. Without that relationship, groups will disappear over time.
4. Your Groups Pastor isn’t begging you to create self-produced curriculum.
The best way to connect people into groups is to start new groups. The best way to start new groups is through a church-wide launch using the Senior Pastor’s teaching in the video curriculum. Whether you hire a full production crew and invest tens of thousands of dollars or shoot the video with an iPhone, your people want more of your teaching, Pastor. After all, if they aren’t connected to each other, the reason they attend your church, other than Jesus, is you. They like you. They like your teaching. They laugh at your jokes. If you give them exclusive content through small groups, you are giving more of what they already like. When you encourage them to gather their friends to do the study, that 30% connected in groups will become a small dot in the rearview mirror of your ministry. Whether you preach in a series or preach standalone messages, there are ways to craft new sermons and even past sermons into a video-based curriculum. Some production companies even offer curriculum that’s already prepared for you — you just need to add your teaching! If your groups pastor isn’t begging for this, then you’ve missed the boat.
A Closing Thought…
There might be another reason your small groups pastor isn’t reaching his or her optimal performance — it might be you. Are you open to talking about groups from the pulpit? Have you made small groups a priority in your church? Are you willing to create curriculum? Do you see small groups as one of many ministries in the church or do you see groups are the chief way to connect, disciple, equip, train, and empower your members for ministry? Small groups could grow your church like nothing else. What’s blocking your growth?