This last year, I had the privilege of coaching Dr. Tony Evans and his team at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. When we started the partnership, they had a solid small groups system producing strong incremental growth, but a few adjustments netted a huge dividend.
1. Dr. Evans Produced Curriculum for His Sermon Series
Partnering with The Urban Alternative, Lifetogether helped to produce the first video-based curriculum based on his Destiny book, which was actually shot in Dr. Evans’ home. I am firmly convinced that other than Jesus Christ, the reason anyone joins any church is because of the senior pastor, especially if they are not connected to others in the church through a group, Bible study or class. (Don’t tell the worship pastor. This news will break his heart.)
People are there because they like the senior pastor’s personality and style. They glean from his wisdom and laugh at his jokes. When the senior pastor offers a curriculum featuring his teaching, it’s difficult for the pastor, but it’s a no brainer for his people. They want in!
2. Dr. Evans Invited His Members to Start Groups
On Sunday, September 1, 2013 (Labor Day weekend), Dr. Evans preached a message called The Connection Commandment.
“Even though it depresses me to know you forget my sermons week by week, I do have issues with that, the good news I have for you today is if you just remember two Jesus says everything else hangs on them. You are to love [God] with everything that you got and you are to transfer that to others and when you do you got the whole Bible starting to live inside you because He said the whole scripture depends on just these two,” said Dr. Evans.
He went on to invite people to open their homes and gather groups to grow together. On Labor Day Sunday, 260 people at OCBF said “yes” and turned in a card committing to launch a group. By the time the Destiny series started three weeks later, 500 people offered to start groups.
3. Dr. Evans’ Team Rearranged the Requirements
Intially, small group leaders at OCBF went through extensive training prior leading a small group. In fact, their leadership process is a year long. But, for this series, they reframed what they were asking for. This wasn’t a call to “leadership” per se. This was a call to obedience, because everyone is called to go and make disciples.
After people said they would start a group, the staff made sure everyone was a member at OCBF, which was a requirement. Now, I’ll be honest, I was nervous about this requirement until I discovered the church had 7,000 members. That’s a number I can work with. The staff invited the people starting groups to a one hour orientation to cover the basics, then let them get started with the series. Following the series the church offered additional training to these new leaders. The end result is including all of their small group leaders, new and established, in the same small group system.
What did Dr. Evans and his team do that you haven’t tried yet? What’s holding you back? Leave your comments below.
You know when I graduated from Bible college 25+ years ago, I never imagined I would ever work in video production. Now that I’ve been working with Brett Eastman over the past decade, I’ve actually interviewed hundreds of people on-camera for various projects. But, this interview was the most challenging by far.
Video-based small group curriculum has been with us for about a decade now. Early innovators like Rick Warren and Brett Eastman at Saddleback Church brought the local pastor into the living room. Brett went on to found Lifetogether.com, which has sold about 4 million units to date. Many other video-based studies have followed and have succeeded.
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.
1. Takes the Weekend 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.
2. Engages the Senior Pastor’s Teaching Gift.
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.
3. 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. Other than Jesus Himself, 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 about a decade ago. I had spent seven years recruiting and training leaders only to find 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.
4. Moves 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.
5. Puts Group Multiplication on Steroids.
A DVD curriculum is easy to use. In fact, someone who has never led before simply needs to follow the instructions. The teaching on the DVD 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.
I’ve created quite a few DVD-based studies in both churches I’ve served at over the last 10 years. If you’d like some help creating your own curriculum, shoot me an email at allen (at) lifetogether.com (For non-Outlook users, replace (at) with @).
Church-wide campaigns are a powerful vehicle for connecting congregations into community and impacting spiritual growth. 40 Days of Purpose from Rick Warren, One Month to Live by Kerry Shook, and a number of other church-wide experiences prove the catalytic impact of a small group study aligned with a sermon series. Churches and their members will never be the same.
One size never fits all, especially in a church-wide campaign. When you invite all of your groups to do the same study that aligns to the weekend service, you might have just set yourself up for trouble. Your groups are made up of new Christians and non-Christians, “mature” Christians and critical ones. How do you meet the needs of all of your different groups with one curriculum?
Over-Promising + Under-Delivering = Great Frustration
1. State Up Front What the Curriculum Is and What It Isn’t
Managing expectations is key to focusing your groups on the right track. If your curriculum is designed for the broadest appeal, you will soon be hearing from your “mature” folks that the study is “light weight.” For the critics I know well, my usually is “I can see how you could think that if you were only talking about the material….”
Recently in helping a church full of nuclear engineers and rocket scientists develop a curriculum on the One Anothers of Scripture, we concluded that if the group members simple memorized all of the One Anothers, then we had failed. Practicing the One Anothers was the key, and it isn’t rocket science.
Let your groups know up front how the curriculum is designed and why. “We have created this curriculum for any person to use in doing this study with their friends.” It’s not that you avoided creating a “deeper” study – boy, that’s a loaded word – but, you have intentionally designed or chosen a study to include as many people as possible. After six weeks, they can choose something that’s maybe more to their liking.
2. Mayday, Mayday — If a Study Does Work, Throw It Out.
The worst thing that can happen to a group is to feel obligated to complete a study because they spent $10 on the book. Some studies just don’t work in every group. It’s better to lose the study rather than to lose your group.
Problems with ill-fitting studies can range from outright complacency to lack of participation to high absenteeism. This is not the time to just tough it out or put your head in the sand. State the obvious: “Is it just me or is this study not going very well?” Then, get feedback from the group. If the feeling is mutual, then it’s time to move on. If your members didn’t use the books (and they didn’t), there’s always Ebay.
The problem may not be the whole study, but just part of the study. A few years back, a group of 20-somethings were participating in a church-wide study. They were enjoying the study guide, but felt the DVD-teaching wasn’t scratching them where they itched. I recommend that they do the study without the DVD. Their response, “Oh, we’re way ahead of you on that one, Pastor Allen.” Some groups will never do a study without a DVD. Others will never do a study with one. And, that’s okay.
The bottom line is to do what makes sense for each group. Even if other groups raved about the study, it has to fit each group in order to work.
3. Design Your Curriculum to Meet a Variety of Needs
In designing your own curriculum, you can meet a variety of needs with one study. As my friend, Brett Eastman at Lifetogether.com says, “You need to double clutch the study.” At the beginning of the study offer two different ice breaker questions. For new groups and new believers, maybe the question is light-hearted and offers a way for folks to get to know each other. This is something that everyone will feel comfortable talking about. “Who is your favorite super hero and why?” “What was the source of warmth in your home?” “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” (That last one’s a joke.) For more mature believers, the question should go something like, “How did you apply what you learned in last week’s study?” Deeper involves doing.
For the rest of the study, you can offer a variety of questions at different levels. For newer folks, you want to start with questions that are easy to answer right out of Scripture. For more mature members, it’s good to include a “Going Deeper” section that offers more personal questions as well as Scripture cross-references to the core text. The aim in the “Going Deeper” section is to meet a need for knowledge along with a greater need for application.
The point here is to create different questions for different types of people, then articulate the study design to the group members. Some groups will use the first half of the study only. Other groups will skip the first section and dive into the deeper questions. Giving group members the full picture of the design will help them to understand and appreciate what you have developed.
You can’t please everybody all of the time. But, by taking the time to develop your own study with different group members in mind, you go a long way in meeting a variety of needs. Hearing and addressing their expectations up front will go a long way in leading a unified campaign.
The Curriculum Workshop starts May 7.
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