Allen White is the author of four books on small group ministry including Exponential Groups: Unleashing Your Church’s Potential. After serving churches in California and South Carolina, he has coached over 1,500 churches in the last 17 years. Allen also serves as the outsourced Life Group Pastor for a church in Lansing, Michigan. He and his wife, Tiffany have been married for nearly 22 years. They have four children ranging in age from 8 to 20. And, last summer they moved back to his hometown of Topeka, Kansas after being away for 38 years.
In This Episode, Allen Answers Listener Questions About…
Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.
#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?
“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)
No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.
But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.
What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?
#2 What groups do you already have?
Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).
When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.
#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).
Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?
You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.
#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?
Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?
When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.
What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?
#5 How will you support the leaders?
The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.
The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.
How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.
The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.
New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.
What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.
#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?
We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)
Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.
Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?
Recently, I came across a post that I wrote on March 13, 2018 called The Future of Church. It struck me because things that I had written back then are exactly what we’re living right now amid the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m not saying this in the guise of “Oh, look how smart I am,” because to be honest with you, I’m just as surprised as you are that I got something this right. Here are some updated thoughts on what I wrote two years ago, but I would encourage you to go back and read the original post for yourself.
Ministry Outside of a Church Building was Coming
I started that post by saying I was reluctant to share these things, but they’d been on my heart. These were things that I’d been sensing for a while. It talks about problems with church buildings. While they’re not the exact problems that we’re having right now due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we are certainly having a problem with church buildings.
There are no mega churches meeting right now, except for one that meet last Sunday. Only 30% of churches are conducting in-person services. Most of those churches have only about 25% in attendance. For some it’s because of spacing and social distancing issues. I know of one church that’s at about 40% of their summer attendance, but they’re in North Dakota in a county that has literally three cases of Coronavirus. For the most part, buildings are not being used.
This brings us to a question that Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson raised in their book, The Externally Focused Church. If your church disappeared from your community, would you be missed? Your church, your in-person services, the things that happened in your building — your church today has disappeared from your community. Is it being missed? That’s a hard question because I know that pastors work hard. I know that they invest a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into the work of the ministry, but is what we’re doing being missed?
The attractional model was a great model for the last 30 or 40 years. We saw a lot of people come to Christ. We saw a lot of great churches built. We saw a lot of great things happen because of that strategy. But, the reality is that what happened in the last 30 or 40 years is not what’s going to work in the next 30-40 years. As of four months ago, nothing that we’ve ever done before is working. The whole game has changed. I hear of a lot of pastors really struggling with discouragement right now, because if you’re holding yourself to a standard that you had a year ago, or if you’re still defining a win by what you had a year ago, you are living in a very discouraging and very depressed place. We don’t even live in that world anymore.
Pastors Need a New Measuring Stick
There are new ways to measure how effective we are. The first thing is decentralized organization. The church could not be more decentralized than we are right now. To borrow from Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird in Hero Maker, the hero in any church is the member, not the pastor. When you think of your congregation, you have to ask yourself: do you see your congregation as an audience or as an army? If they’re an audience, they have to be entertained. You have to perform for them. You have to give them something so that they’ll keep coming back. And the win is that they come back.
But if you see your congregations as an army, then you see a group of people that need to be equipped and empowered to serve. What they need from their pastors is permission and opportunity. Your church building may not be functioning in the way that it normally does, but your church is in the community. Your church is dispersed. How could you encourage your church to serve others — to check in on their neighbors, to check in on elderly people, to make calls, to send texts? People are on their phones all the time. Why not use their phones to encourage other people and see how they’re doing? You see the focus changes from gathering to scattering. And this is what I say in the article: “In the last 25 or more years, the church gathered well, but scattered poorly. It’s time for a change.” If you’re in a gathering mindset in a scattering climate, you’re living in a very frustrated place.
You have to embrace the scattering mindset. Here’s something interesting. The initial fulfillment of Acts 1:8 when Jesus told to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” The fulfillment of Acts 1:8 is found in Acts 8:1, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” We’re not in persecution per se. (Some people would say that we are). But we’ve definitely been scattered. How can you use this scattering as an opportunity to fulfill your mission?
Flexible, Unstructured Gatherings
The second thing is flexible, unstructured gatherings. This goes back to a conversation I had about eight years ago with Josh Surratt at Seacoast Church. Josh mentioned that a family from his church had moved to the state of Maine. They had about 30 people gathering at their house to watch Seacoast service every week. I looked at Josh and said, “Well, maybe you need to redefine what a campus is.”
Around that the same time period, 8-10 years ago, people in a number of ministries around the country began to think about this notion of microsite churches. What I saw in the 2018 article were microsite campuses in smaller communities where multisite churches wouldn’t build a campus. The question I asked in the article is what if the service via streaming video was brought into homes, restaurants, or smaller meeting places to serve these areas?
Here’s the deal — if your church is not meeting in person (which is about 70% of churches right now), you have microsite churches. You have families gathered in homes. Maybe a few people are doing “watch parties” where they’ve invited some neighbors. Right now your church is gathering in microsites.
The challenge right now is that I, personally, attend a multisite campus that is a video venue. There’s a campus pastor and a team. There’s live worship and a service host, and then the messages are on streaming video. Why would I go back to my video streamed multisite campus when I can stay home and participate from my microsite campus? If I want more people to gather with me, I can invite them to my house.
Here’s the other side of it — nobody was meeting in those buildings anyway because of the pandemic. They had all been closed down. There was no reason to pay rent on the buildings. There is no reason to maintain a building for a multisite campus that nobody is meeting in because everybody is meeting at home.
These flexible unrestricted gatherings can multiply without church-owned property or paid staff. Now there needs to be some training. Where do you get trained volunteers? This goes to the next point in this 2018 article — meaningful volunteer ministry. I hate the word “volunteer” because Paul says to the Corinthians that one part of the body can’t say to another part of the body, I don’t need you (1 Corinthians 12:21. By definition, “volunteer” means that people aren’t being paid for their time. But, the dichotomy between volunteer and staff has become as great as the one between clergy and laity.
Churches have reached the point that they keep hiring all of these people to do tasks, because it seems easier to motivate them and get them to meet a deadline than it would with a volunteer. But the reality is that every one of us has spiritual gifts that God’s given us. Every one of us has a calling. The calling is not just limited to clergy. Ministry is not limited to paid staff.
What do we need volunteers for in the church? Volunteers are needed to maintain in-person worship services. Since there are no in-person services, there is no need for “volunteers.” Again, quoting from this 2018 piece, “the church burdens many of its members with meaningless ministry, parking lot attendants, greeters, coffee servers, and so forth. Potentially the worst staff position in any church is the guest services coordinator, because this person must constantly hustle to fill vacant spots every week of the year. Why? Because no one is called to this!”
Today, if you’re the guest services coordinator and your church is only meeting online only, you’re like the happiest person in the world! You’re like on vacation. Here’s the thing — believers will rise to the occasion for gift-based ministry, things that they’re called to do, things that they see a need for and could fill it. They could do something about it with their gifts and abilities. They just need to be equipped. They need to be released to do that. JD Greear said this, “Even when you can’t come to church, you can still be the church.” When you look at Ephesians 4 you see the work of pastors and teachers is to equip the saints for doing the work of the ministry. Pastors and staff should be ministry multipliers to release their congregations to serve rather than doing the work themselves. We are decentralized. People can use their gifts. They can invite people into their homes. The church can be the church.
This is a Major Shift
We can’t meet in-person for various reasons. The church doesn’t revolve around the building. This is a shift. The multiplication of microsites is easier than multiplying megachurches. What about training? What are they doing in the houses while they’re being friendly? They get people together. They’re watching the service online. You can train somebody to do a microsite much more quickly than you can train a pastor. A person doing a microsite doesn’t need a Master of Divinity, but they do need supervision.
Most churches will never have the budget for all of the paid staff or buildings they need to accomplish what God has called them to. Yet, the church already has millions and millions of dollars worth of property in the homes of the church members. The “staff” for these microsites originates from gifts-based assessments.
Now, when I wrote this original article on March 13, 2018, this might have all seemed weird to you. It may still seem weird to you right now, but if these things are put it into practice right now, it would make a huge impact in your communities.
We have a world that is hurting in so many ways. They’re afraid of a virus. They’re afraid of meeting together. They can’t see a loved one in a hospital. Some of them can’t even go to a funeral. We have political unrest to an extent that I don’t even remember in my lifetime. We have racial injustice. We have so many things that are plaguing our country, and there’s such a great spiritual need. In fact, I would say the last time we saw a spiritual need at this level was 9/11. And if you remember, after September 11, 2001, that next Sunday, our churches were packed.
People are feeling that level of anxiety, depression, and uncertainty. Some people don’t know if they’re going to have a job. How can they buy food? There’s so much uncertainty. They can’t go to church or they’re afraid to go to church, but they can go online. They could go to a friend’s house. They could go to a small group. They can watch a streaming service.
Here’s the crazy thing. These things that I’m talking about — a year ago, they were a novelty. Four months ago, this became a necessity. Today, this is an opportunity. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.