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Two Things to Know about the Primary Point of Connection in Your Church

What’s the primary point of connection in your church?  Is it the weekend service?  This is a no-brainer question in most 21st century Western churches.  The primary way a person is connected is to the Sunday morning worship service (or Saturday night) of a particular local church.

Hear me on this.  I’m not suggesting that is a legitimate point of connection.  I’m only saying that the weekend worship service is the primary point of connection (weak though the connection is) for most members and attenders in our churches.

With me?  Isn’t that how it is in your church?

I realize that’s how it is for many, many people in our churches.  And I realize that it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

Still, I think it’s important to note two things:

  1. The primary point of connection in the 1st century wasn’t a weekend service.  It was a group that met in a house (or by a river).  I love Andy Stanley’s line that the primary activity of the early church was one-anothering one another and when everyone is sitting in rows…you can’t do any one-anothers.”  See also, The Primary Activity of the Early Church.
  2. The primary point of connection in the mid-21st century won’t be a weekend service.  The time is quickly approaching when it will be much easier to say “come over” to my house or “meet me at Starbucks”  than “come with” me to church.  In some parts of the Western world it is already happening.  See also, 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group System and 10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry.

Peter Drucker famously pointed out that, “Tomorrow is closer than you think.”  William Gibson pointed out that, “The future is already here.  It’s just not evenly distributed.”

I’m not suggesting that you make one abrupt move to a group as primary point of connection, but I’d be remiss if I knew it was coming and remained silent.  And so will you.  Tag…you’re it.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Are You Aware of a Culture in Search of Belonging?

Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (published in 1995) offered an eerie first glimpse at a changing America.  The title came from a trend noticed by the owner of one of the largest bowling alley chains in America who told Putnam about the declining participation in bowling leagues.  At the heart of Putnam’s study?  ”How we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures — whether they be PTA, church, or political parties — have disintegrated.”

Have you seen this in your area?

I connect Putnam’s research with my own anecdotal findings in communities across America where only a small percentage of residents have family nearby.

What’s your community like?

About six months ago I referenced the findings of a 2013 Barna study.  There were a number of very interesting points, but two were very important for all of us to note:

  • Ten years ago, 10% of Americans saw themselves as lonely.  Today, that number has doubled.
  • The desire to find a few good friends has also increased and in certain key demographics there has been an even larger increase.

Are you paying attention to the symptoms?

One of the most important societal/cultural shifts in our time is the absence of connection; the painfully absent sense of family.

When you think about your church, when you evaluate your small group ministry, have you built in steps that help meet this need?  If you haven’t…you’re missing one of the most significant opportunities to connect people in our generation.

What do you think?  Have a question?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

5 Keys to Building Small Group Ministry at the Corner of “Belonging” and “Becoming”

Want to make disciples who make disciples?  If you want to develop more than a program for high achievers seeking the most challenging merit badge, making disciples who make disciples must be built into the way ordinary life happens at your church.

Making disciples who make disciples must be built into the way ordinary life happens at your church [click to tweet].

This is a very big deal friends.  One of the most significant strategic misses in the 21st century is the belief that small groups are good for connecting people but making disciples requires something more.

If you’ve been along for much of this conversation, you know that one of my assumptions is that “the optimal environment for life-change is a small group.”  You might also remember that one of the major roadblocks to small group ministry is a myopic understanding of the culture that, among other things, holds onto “participation expectations are determined according to decades old pace of life realities.”

Add these two ideas together and you’ll probably arrive at my conclusion:

Making disciples who make disciples must be built into the way ordinary life happens at your church.

How can we do that?  How can making disciples who make disciples be built into the ordinary life of your church?  I believe it happens at the corner of belonging and becoming.

Here are 5 keys to building small group ministry at the corner of belonging and becoming:

  1. Celebrate small group involvement as a way of life.  Tell stories regularly.  Highlight testimonies frequently.  Take advantage of every available format (sermon, announcement, bulletin, website, e-newsletter, email, video, etc.).  See also, Gather Stories as If Lives Hang in the Balance.
  2. Build easy first steps out of the auditorium.  Remember, unconnected attenders are almost always infrequent attenders.  In addition to infrequent attendance, coming to church for the first time was a very difficult step.  If you want to connect unconnected people, you need to build first steps out of the auditorium with them in mind.  See also, 5 Key Ingredients that Motivate a First Step Toward Community and How Would You Rate the First Steps out of Your Auditorium?
  3. Develop a coaching structure that delivers a healthy span of care.  This key is often unfortunately missed.  In my opinion, you cannot expect #4 or #5 to happen without developing an effective coaching structure.  Very important to note though, that what is needed is care and life-on-life discipling.  Not accounting or reporting.  Coaches need to do to and for your group leaders what you want the leaders to do to and for their members.  See also, 7 Practices for Discipling and Developing Your Coaches.
  4. Model belonging and cultivate a sense of family.  Humans come factory equipped with a desire to belong.  Psychologists understand this.  Marketers understand this.  Cult leaders understand this.  The desire to belong is a very powerful human need.  We all feel it.  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, your small group leaders need to learn how make belonging and a sense of family an ordinary part of grouplife.  See also, The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group and Do Your Small Groups Cultivate This Important Ingredient?
  5. Build a small group culture that is about becoming like Jesus.  Everyone has their own definition of what it means to be a disciple.  I’ve always found Dallas Willard’s definition of a mature disciple very helpful: “A mature disciple is one who effortlessly does what Jesus would do if Jesus were him.”  At its core, discipleship is not about knowing.  It’s about becoming.  See also, 5 Keys to a More Dynamic Group Experience and 10 Things I Need to Know about Discipleship.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

What Can a Class Do That a Small Group Cannot?

What can a class do that a group cannot?  Specifically…what benefits or upsides can a class provide that a small group cannot?

Ever have this conversation?

I have this one more and more frequently, both in person and via email or blog comment.  Long-time advocates of classes have difficulty seeing both the downside and the upside of the strategy.  Remember, there is an upside and a downside to everything.  No exceptions.

Can you see that this is another angle on the discussion of rows versus circles?

Here’s my take on the benefits (or upsides) a class can provide:

  1. A class can leverage the teaching gifts of a live master teacher to impart knowledge or information.  True, the members of a small group would also benefit from a master teacher, but it would impact a smaller number.  There is no upside to a class viewing video content.  A small group receives the same benefit.
  2. Because communication is typically one-way (with the exception of an opportunity for Q&A), a teacher can often cover more ground and deliver information more systematically.

Of course, depending on what you hope to produce, there are a number of disadvantages or downsides to a class.  There are a number of essential ingredients that produce life-change that are difficult to incorporate into a class.  See also, Essential Ingredients for Life-Change and The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group.

What do you think?  Have one to add?  Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

FAQ: How Often Should Our Group Meet?

How often should our group meet?

This might be one of my most frequently asked questions.  And it’s actually a very good question.

How often should our small group meet?

There are at least three important considerations:

First, keep in mind that especially when your group is just starting out, frequency is very important.  I suggest that new groups meet weekly because if someone misses a meeting it will only be two weeks between meetings.  If you only meet twice a month and someone misses a meeting, it will be a month between meetings.

Second, keep in mind that consistency plays a major role in connection.  Lyman Coleman pointed out over 20 years ago that six weeks is short enough for unconnected people to commit to and long enough for them to begin to establish a connection.  I’ve found that the stronger connective tissue that holds groups together is formed in weeks 7 to 12.  New groups that make it into their third six week have the best chance of forming an enduring connection.  See also, 8 Commitments for Small Group Leaders

Third, keep in mind that the meeting itself plays a very small part in how men and women become like Jesus.  Whether you meet weekly or twice a month, it is those purposeful conversations over coffee or a meal or dessert that have the greatest potential.  It can be as simple as a text message or Facebook comment or as complicated as sitting in silence in a hospital waiting room.  Real connection grows in between meetings.  See also, 8 Habits of a Life-Changing Small Group Leader.

The most frequent responses to my three considerations?

  1. People’s lives are too busy to commit to meeting weekly (let alone connecting between meetings).  This is true almost everywhere.  Your community is not unique.  Making disciples requires recalibration.  The right toe-in-the-water, a simple test-drive, is often enough to give them the taste they need to begin.  This is one of the reasons a church-wide campaign works so well.  See also, 5 Keys to Getting Everyone to Join a Group.
  2. People are too busy with other church commitments to commit to meeting weekly.  This is true almost everywhere.  If you want to make disciples you need to clarify the minimum and recommended dose.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

The First 7 Questions I Ask When Evaluating a Small Group Ministry

I get a steady stream of emails asking for help with small group ministries.  I also find myself sitting down with small group pastors and senior pastors when I’m at conferences (or when ministry teams stop in to see me in Vegas).

It’s fun and I love the opportunity to help.  But I thought it might help you to know that I ask the same basic diagnostic questions in almost every case.  Yes…there are exceptions and yes, the answers lead me to different follow up questions.  But the set of first questions is such a pattern I thought it might help you to see what they are.

The First 7 Questions I Ask:

  1. What is your church’s average adult worship attendance?  Depending on your church’s philosophy of ministry, you might need to back out children and students in worship, but this is an important number.
  2. What is your church’s Easter or Christmas Eve adult attendance?  Again, this may take some thinking and it might require an intelligent guess.  You need to know this number though, since it is a more accurate reflection of the number of adults who consider your church to be their church.
  3. How many small groups do you currently have (and how many adults are in them)?  This is an important number but must be wisely defined.  I’m only referring to small groups that meet certain criteria (i.e., they need to meet 2 to 4 times a month and they need to be integrating most of the basic ingredients of life-change).  Using the right criteria will usually exclude some groups.  That is important because the count is meaningless if you don’t.  See also, What Percentage of Your Adults are Actually Connected? and What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting People?
  4. How did the groups you currently have get started (and how old are they)?  This is important information.  If you’re not launching new groups on a regular basis, you’re often falling for the temptation to add members to existing groups instead of prioritizing launching new groups.  See also, 5 Clues that Reveal Your Small Group Ministry’s Best Next Step.
  5. Is your senior pastor in a small group?  Very hard to believably champion something in which you’re not involved.  Your pastor doesn’t need to lead a group.  They do need to be a member of a group.  See also, What Part Does Your Senior Pastor Play?
  6. Is your senior pastor the small groups champion?  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, there is no substitute or work-around for a senior pastor as small group champion.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.
  7. Are small groups the way you connect and disciple adults?  Or are small groups one of several options?  The answers to these questions actually reveal two very important understandings.  First, how clearly have you defined this important next step?  If you’re offering multiple menu options you shouldn’t be surprised when adults have difficulty choosing.  Second, if you’ve designed (or allowed to exist) a strategy that makes discipleship an extra step you shouldn’t be surprised when it begins to be defined as a step for spiritual super heroes and ninjas.  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue?  You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Five Keys to Getting Everyone to Join a Group

I get questions…a lot of questions!  When they apply to lots of people, I try to answer them here on the blog!  This is one of those times.  Here’s a question from a reader:

How do you motivate people in the pews & leadership to join a group? What are the keys to get everyone into a group?

That is a great question…don’t you think?

I’ve answered this question in different ways a number of times, but maybe never quite from this angle.  Let me take a fresh shot.

First, motivating everyone to join a group (from members and attendees to church leadership begins with your senior pastor.  It cannot be otherwise and to attempt it without your senior pastor’s full engagement is folly.  Don’t get me wrong, you can have small groups without your senior pastor’s help.  In my experience almost all churches have a group of people who will find a way to connect to a group whether groups are a priority or not.  In fact, there are people in nearly every church who find a way to connect even if it was discouraged.  But if we’re talking about getting everyone in a group…that begins with the full engagement of your senior pastor.  See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups and The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many in Groups.

Second, motivating members and attendees to join a group requires the enthusiastic endorsement and participation of key influencers.  I’ve seen too many churches try to become a church OF groups without the support of key influencers (elders, senior staff, key volunteers, etc.) to be very enthusiastic about your chances without it.  See also, How to Engage Everyone: Notes and Resources.

Third, motivating everyone to join a group requires budget and staff that reflects its importance.  Declaring that being part of a group is important without redrawing and recalculating the budget and staffing is ludicrous.  See also, Budgeting for the Preferred Future.

Fourth, motivating everyone to join a group requires prioritizing group participation.  This often means paring back what is offered.  At a minimum, it means choosing to promote only small groups during certain key seasons.  This step, by definition requires choosing who you will disappoint.  Can you see it?  Prioritizing small groups as an essential step requires not prioritizing other menu options.  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

Fifth, motivating everyone to join requires an all out effort over several seasons.  This isn’t a mission that can be accomplished in one all out effort.  If you want to connect everyone, way beyond the usual suspects, you must stay this course for several seasons.  The best example of this, at least in the U.S., is Saddleback where they’ve been on a mission since the mid to late 90s.  Since they’ve currently connected over 140% of their weekend adult attendance in groups…they are a good example to emulate.  See also, Wash, Rinse, Repeat and the Long Run and The Unexpected Twist in Saddleback’s Exponential Growth Formula.

Full Disclosure: The very best way to do all of this is to commit to an annual church-wide campaign.  I can coach you on this.  I regularly have 5 to 10 churches that I work with personally to help design a custom strategy.  I’ve worked with a long list of churches of all sizes.  Interested? Email me to find out how.

What do you think? Have a question? Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

Do Your Small Groups Cultivate This Powerful Ingredient?

What have you designed your small groups to produce?  Such an important question.  When I’m asked a question like that, I’m always drawn back to Andy Stanley’s line that “your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing.”  It’s easy to substitute the words small groups for ministry as in “your small groups are perfectly designed…”

So what have you designed your small groups to produce?

I guess the easy answer is something like, “our small groups are designed to produce disciples.”  Or “disciples who make disciples.”  Or fully devoted followers.”

All good.  Hopefully all true.  But I want to shine the spotlight for a moment on an ingredient I’m thinking about more and more.  I want our small groups to intentionally cultivate a sense of family.  This was one of several ingredients I wrote about in The End in Mind for My Ideal Small Group.

A sense of family.  Why is that ingredient important?  Clearly the family is God’s design and yet a growing number of people don’t live anywhere near their family.  You may live near your family, but if you do, you are rapidly becoming an exception.

With one exception, most of my ministry has been in areas that were quite transient.  Cities or parts of cities where it was common for few were from there.  Southern California. The Woodlands, Texas.  Roseville, California.  Las Vegas.

The one exception has been Orland Park, Illinois in southwest Chicago.  What an amazing thing to realize that many in our congregation lived within 20 minutes of where they grew up.  Southwest Chicago is one of the most static communities in the country.  It is very common for adults to have large extended families, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts and cousins who live nearby.

My sense is that one of the ingredients we must help our groups cultivate is a sense of family.  Far beyond a Bible study.  Way beyond a group that gathers for two hours on Thursday nights…we need to be cultivating a sense of family.

In The End in Mind for My Idea Small Group I wrote:

My ideal group will definitely have a sense of family.  A really healthy family.  We may not always agree, but we’ll always feel like we’re safe, loved no matter what, forgiven when we do dumb things or say dumb things.  Or mean things.  When something good happens for us everyone will celebrate with us.  When something bad or difficult happens, those same people will be the ones crying with us.  My ideal group will make it easy for me to belong.

Life-change happens when we’re known.

What are you doing to cultivate a sense of family in your groups?

What are you doing?  Have a question?  Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

FAQ: What Needs to Be Done in the First 100 Days?

I get asked a lot of questions.  Emails.  Twitter and Facebook messages.  Blog comments.  You get the picture.

I answer a lot of questions.  And some of them turn into blog posts.  Especially when they are a question a lot of people have.

The question yesterday was: “If you were in my shoes what would you do in your 1st 100 days in a new small group ministry position?”

That’s a good question.  You might not have it right now…but you may one day.  And in the meantime, the answer is a collection of agenda items that will help you too.

And it turns out I’ve got a lot of experience at this very thing.  I’ve had 5 first 100 days in the last 10 years.  You read that right.

Here are the things I do in the first 100 days.  Very important: These are not sequential.  The first three are done concurrently.

  1. Get an accurate sense/count of the existing small groups and their leaders.  I want to know how many there really are, how long they’ve been meeting, and how they began.  I want to know how many members actually attend.  I want to know if they have an apprentice or co-leader.  Depending on the size of the church and the number of existing groups you can gather this information several ways (email survey, phone call, cup of coffee, etc.).  See also, How to Diagnose the Groups in Your System.
  2. Get an accurate sense of any existing coaching structure.  This is very important and it’s second on my list because it determines some very important moves.  This information tends to be most effectively gathered in person because it’s difficult to assess someone’s capacity in an email response or even over the phone.  I want to form my own opinion about the capacity of each current member of the coaching team (30, 60 or 100 fold).  I also want to know whether they are really engaged in it.  See also, Diagnosis: The Coaches in Your System.
  3. Get a very accurate sense of your new senior pastor’s enthusiasm for small groups, discipleship and community.  Ideally, you will have begun this before you agreed to join the new team, but this is of great importance.  What you are able to expect in the way of support, whether your new senior pastor is in a group, if they freely talk about the importance of being connected, and if they are willing to embed asks into their weekend messages are all extremely important to understand.  What they are willing to do absolutely determines what you are able to accomplish.  See also, 5 Things Senior Pastors Need to Know about Small Group Ministry.
  4. Develop a grouplife calendar and strategy for the first year.  What the next 12 months look like is somewhat based on what you are discovering in the three assessments you are processing.  You’ll need to include strategies that launch groups and connect unconnected people and take advantage of the three main connecting seasons.  You’ll also need to include coaching development and leader development.  The season in which you begin and the urgency of the connected/unconnected ratio play key roles in what you do first but the big rocks are nearly the same everywhere.  See also, How to Build an Annual GroupLife Calendar.

I’ve written a couple series of articles that are important understanding about the bigger picture.  If I Was Starting Today is a 7 part series that tackles this same idea from another angle.  Keys to GroupLife at Crowd’s Edge takes an important look at the design of a small group ministry capable of reaching  beyond the congregation.

5 Reasons Why Groups Matter To Me

I’m often asked why I care so much about groups.

I know everyone has their own opinion about something like this.  These are the reasons why I do what I do.  These are the reasons groups matter to me.

5 Reasons Why Groups Matter To Me:

First, groups matter because they are the optimal environment for life-change.  The Willow Creek team from the early 90s got this and introduced a way of talking about the reality that life-change happens best in small groups.  20 years later Andy Stanley and the North Point crew have introduced a new line: “life-change happens best in circles, not in rows.”  Willow was right then.  Andy Stanley is right now.  See also, Andy Stanley on Creating a Culture That’s All About Circles and What’s Better? Rows or Circles?

Second, groups matter because disciples are best made in a group.  One-on-one discipleship or a triad may be the model you are most familiar with, but it’s interesting that one-on-one is not the model Jesus or Paul used.  Of course…they also didn’t seem to use study guides either.  Disciples are best made in a group because everyone in the group brings a different set of experiences, a different gift-mix.  If it’s just me and you, you get what I bring (good and bad) and nothing more.  See also, Four Leading Indicators of Small Group Ministries that Make Disciples.

Third, groups matter because they help make a large group small.  There may be an advantage to anonymity when you’re not sure if you will like something, but that advantage quickly loses its appeal.  To feel like a face in the crowd is to be lonely and being alone or lonely is not God’s design.  We were created with an innate desire for connection.  See also, How to Calm an Unconnected Person’s Second Greatest Fear.

Fourth, groups matter because unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again.  Loss of a job.  Divorce or separation.  A devastating diagnosis.  A child in trouble.  One tough thing.  See also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People.

Finally, groups matter because in they are a more attractive invitation in the 21st century.  Listen…we are moments away from the day when it will be much easier to say come over than come with me.  In some parts of the world we are already there.  In the words of William Gibson, “The future is already here.  It’s just unevenly distributed.”  The handwriting is on the wall.  See also, 5 Essential Practices of a 21st Century Small Group System.

What do you think?  Have a question?  Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.

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