I think it’s fair to say that most of us have complained at one time or another about the cluttered belong and become menu that we’ve inherited. “Whose bright idea was it to let the Precepts class begin in the first place!” “If only they never began approving classroom space for those ABFs back in the day!” “With everything else going on around here, I wish we didn’t have to compete with adult Sunday school classes for small group sign-ups!” See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.
Sound familiar? It should, because if you can’t admit to some of these same feelings it may be that you’re in denial.
And before you get all worked up, I will readily admit to my share of pent up frustration. We are in this together. But today, I want to get you thinking about the other side of the equation. You see, while you can do something about your bloated belong and become menu, it’s easier to become an expert at the skills necessary to only allow the right additions from here on out.
- Learn to think steps, not programs. This is a foundational understanding made clear in 7 Practices of Effective Ministry. Do not miss this. A program (i.e., Precepts, AWANA, Celebrate Recovery, etc.) may be a step, but it may actually be designed or positioned as a destination. If it doesn’t foster movement in the direction you want people to go and instead serves as a destination that gathers proponents, fans, and advocates, it is likely a program and not helping to make mature disciples. See also, Think Steps, Not Programs.
- Develop a clear way of articulating your philosophy of ministry. For example, “We want to provide next steps for every Ridger and first steps for their friends. We want to develop sequential and tailored next steps that are manageable (easy to take), easy to spot (obvious), and only lead in the right direction (strategic). In order to maximize the number of people taking these next steps, we want to make it easy to choose the right one by only featuring the step that is the best way to get from here to there.” See also, How to Design First Steps and Next Steps.
- Learn to clearly define the win for every step. This is no small thing. When every step in your strategy is required to have a clearly defined win, it becomes much easier to determine whether it truly is the best way to do what you are claiming it is designed to do. See also, Clue #4 When Designing Your Small Group Ministry.
- Learn to say “no” with grace and patient determination. You have acquired an educated opinion about the best way to do help unconnected people become mature disciples. It most likely did not develop overnight. In fact, it may have developed over many years. The people who hear “no” do not yet share your opinion or your philosophy of ministry. Even when they assure you that they too are only interested in the best way to do what they want to do, they will almost always struggle to see it any other way. See also, A Smörgåsbord of Destinations vs. Sequential and Tailored Next Steps.
- Never forget that one day someone will question what you allowed to be added to the menu. It is always easier to to allow the wrong thing than eliminate it. Let it be said about you that the things you allowed to be included on the menu were truly the best way to help unconnected people become mature disciples.
Here’s the thing. To some extent, we get to be architects and stewards of the pathway that leads from crowd to core. I believe that one day, just like in the story Jesus tells in Matthew 25, our efforts will be reviewed by the King. May all of us hear “well done.”
Image by Basheer Tome
Every once in a while I like to jot down the most recent lessons I’ve learned. Sometimes they amount to relearning the same lessons. I love the line that “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” Maybe you can learn something from mine!
- Not everything can be learned. Many things can be learned, but not everything. For example, I believe you can learn to be a better recruiter, but some of what comes naturally to some people can never really be learned by those who have a different wiring. I have found that one of the most important skills a small group pastor needs is the ability to identify, recruit and develop high capacity volunteers for key roles. Expecting someone who doesn’t have those skills to do the job that needs to be done is almost always a waste of time. Better to find the right person and help the wrong person find a new role. See also, 7 Skills Every Small Group Pastor Needs.
- No matter the church size, paying staff to do ministry is a bad idea. Ephesians 4 makes it fairly clear that the role of a pastor is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. While this doesn’t mean a pastor will never directly pray with someone or visit someone in the hospital, it does mean that their primary role is to recruit and train (equip) a team of people who will do the work of the ministry. It is not always the case, but if the natural inclination of a pastor is to do the work of the ministry, they may be more fruitful in another vocation (while they may be quite fulfilled in ministry). See also, Rethinking the Role of the Small Group Pastor.
- Never confuse delegation or empowerment with a blind eye. ‘Trust, but verify,” was one of Ronald Reagan’s famous maxims. A product of the Cold War era, it is no less valid today. I am a determined believer in the priesthood of the believer and I am convinced that involving high capacity leaders is one key to building a thriving small group ministry. At the same time, I retain a set of capabilities (and so do you) that may only be delegated away with great care. When it comes to vision and mission, short of my senior pastor, I cannot assume that just anyone can deliver. It will always be an “I do, you watch. You do, I watch” maneuver. See also, Are You Playing to Play? Or Playing to Win?
- It is always easier to allow the wrong thing than eliminate it. Have a menu item that you wish you could eliminate? Maybe a program that’s not bad but it gets in the way of making a next step obvious (by cluttering the menu)? The truth is, at some point in the past that menu item (Precepts, BSF, Discipleship Pathway, etc.) seemed like a good addition to someone and it was added. Or maybe someone volunteered to serve as a small group coach and despite misgivings, no one said “No.” It is always easier to allow the wrong thing than eliminate it. The best practice is to become an expert at saying “No” in the very beginning. It won’t be fun and it won’t be easy. But it will pay off in the long run. See also, A Smörgåsbord of Destinations vs. Sequential and Tailored Next Steps.
Honestly, I hope this is helpful. I’ve learned much more in the last year, but these are the most important lessons. I’ve relearned all of them. They are not new. At the same time, every one of them ought to be on a post-it stuck to my laptop screen.
And they ought to be on yours too.
Image by Herman Yung
Get Smart was one of our favorite television shows when I was in elementary school. Maxwell Smart, agent 86, was always almost getting it right and saying, “Missed it by that much.”
He came very close to getting it right, or at least in his mind he was very close.
It was a great show. We loved it. It was very funny.
I thought about Maxwell Smart saying “missed it by that much” today as I listened to several small group leaders describe the small group connection event where they were chosen as leaders. I have to admit I cringed a little as they described things that weren’t part of the original design of the strategy.
What occurred to me is that least little deviation from the design of a strategy can take you quite a distance from the intended outcome. Just little tiny deviations. Worse, what might seem like a small deviation may actually be a very significant strategic departure. Like when I discovered a former consulting church had “tweaked” the small group connection strategy and were essentially calling a group fair a connection. Instead of starting new groups they were simply adding new members to existing groups.
Missed it by that much! Adding members to existing groups treads water. Starting new groups is the best way to grow the total number of people connected. See also, Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs Start New Groups.
There are a number of strategic elements that only have to be tweaked slightly to lead to a much different and far less powerful outcome. If you’re finding a strategy is just not working (or just not working anymore), you may need to go back and look again at the original design. It could be that your tweaks have caused you to “miss it by that much.” See also, 5 Totally Obvious Reasons Small Group Ministries Fail and 5 Obscure but Important Reasons Small Group Ministries Fail.
What skills must every small group pastor have in their skill set? I’ve written about the 5 habits I’d look for if I was hiring a small group pastor. This is really a different thing. There is a set of skills every small group pastor must have in their skill set.
7 Skills Every Small Group Pastor Needs
- Relationship Builder: This is really not a position for monks or hermits. A small group pastor need not be a raging extrovert, but they do need to be a relationship builder (which may be true of both introverts and extroverts). The task of building a thriving small group ministry cannot be done alone. It takes an army and a master relationship builder in the lead role is a powerful advantage.
- Identifier of High Capacity Leaders: In order to build a thriving small group ministry you must have an effective coaching structure. Once you have more than 10 groups, caring for small group leaders will become increasingly difficult without engaging a growing band of high capacity leaders (who can each care for 5 to 10 small group leaders). Span of care issues keep many small group ministries from thriving. Identifying high capacity leaders is a full time job in a thriving small group ministry and can only rarely be delegated. See also, 6 Essential Characteristics of an Effective Small Group Coach.
- Recruiter of High Capacity Leaders: It is not enough to be able to spot high capacity leaders; recruiting them is an essential skill. Skillful recruiting can be developed and there is an art to it. It is my conviction that high capacity leaders are always busy people, wear many hats and will only occasionally volunteer for your ministry. If you want to build an effective small group coaching structure, you must become a skillful recruiter. See also, How to Recruit a Small Group Coach: My Secret Formula.
- Developer of Leaders: Although some leader development may be delegated, there is no avoiding the need for this skill. Because whatever you want to happen in the lives of the members of your groups must happen first in the lives of the leaders of your groups (and because this informs what you must do to and for (and with) your coaches), some of the most important leader development must be done by the small group pastor. Small group pastors without this skill will struggle to build an effective coaching structure. See also, The One Thing Every Small Group Pastor Must Do for Small Group Leaders and Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Small Group Leaders.
- Strategic Thinker: You may have your doubts that this skill is essential, but I am convinced that the most effective small group pastors think strategically and in fact are students of the craft. Next steps for everyone and first steps for their friends that are easy, obvious and strategic isn’t a naturally occurring phenomenon. To the contrary, a crowded belong and become menu is the ministry equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics (In an isolated system, natural processes are spontaneous when they lead to an increase in disorder, or entropy).
- Story Teller and Hero Maker: In many cases, the small group pastor has the greatest potential to know the best stories about life-change and be close enough to the action to identify the heroic actions of ordinary people. When the small group pastor is skilled at identifying great stories and making heroes and willing to pass those along to the senior pastor on a regular basis…you have the recipe for a powerful collaboration. See also, 5 Keys to Starting New Groups. Lots of New Groups and 5 Things Every New Small Group Pastor Needs to Know on Day 1.
- Behind the Scenes Producer: If the senior pastor must be the small group champion (and this is the case in all thriving small group ministries), the small group pastor must be a skilled behind the scenes producer. The role of a Hollywood movie producer might provide clarifying insight. “He shepherds the production from start to finish. In a typical arrangement, the producer develops an idea or script with a writer and secures the necessary rights. He often hires the director, supervises casting, and assembles a crew. Additionally, the producer oversees the budget and then coordinates the postproduction work—everything from editing, to commissioning music, to encouraging the film’s stars to plug the movie on talk shows.” The key? The producer plays a critical role but is almost entirely behind the scenes…until they accept the Oscar. See also, Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.
Image by Melanie Hughes
Back in 2011 I wrote about what I felt were the current trends in small group ministry. It’s been over 4 years and definitely time to update the list of current trends. As you’ll see, some of the trends have continued to strengthen while others are emerging. I should point out that just because a trend is gaining strength does not necessarily indicate that it is the best way to accomplish the goal.
5 Important Trends in Small Group Ministry
Here are what I believe are 5 of the most important trends in small group ministry:
- Intentional discipleship groups, clusters, and triads. Books such as Transformational Discipleship by Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation along with Jim Putman’s Discipleshift and Robby Gallaty’s Growing Up have strengthened the trend of churches focusing on discipleship as a separate endeavor, at times competing with small group ministry. See also, Would You Rather: Connect More People or Make More Disciples?
- Church-wide campaigns remain a strong trend with Saddleback leading the way with an annual spiritual growth emphasis. Along with a number of off-the-shelf campaigns developed in churches like Lifechurch.tv, Cross Point and Woodlands Church, a growing number of churches are developing their own curriculum using services like Lifetogether and LifeWay’s SmallGroup.com. See also, 7 Powerful Benefits of a Church-Wide Campaign.
- “If you have a couple friends…you can start your own group.” Whether a strategy within a church-wide campaign strategy or just another angle for starting new groups, the change in thinking from groups of ten to groups of a few friends is a very important trend in small group ministry. It may seem to be an asterisk, but I believe it is the most significant reason that Saddleback had over 8400 groups meeting during their Transformed campaign. See also, Saddleback Changed the Church-Wide Campaign Game…Again.
- In what may lead to a group, building intentional relationships with neighbors, friends, co-workers and family and using a home (or even a third place like a coffee shop) as a hub is a strong trend. Proposed in books like The Next Christians, and strengthened in resources like The Art of Neighboring and Life As We Know It, “come over to hang out” is becoming a much easier invitation than “come with me to church.” This trend becomes more and more important as we slip further into the 21st Century. See also, 5 New Assumptions as I Step Further into the 21st Century.
- Churches like Willow Creek and Cherry Hills Community Church are using a section leader strategy to build mid-size community environments right where people sit during the weekend service. Banking on a team of high capacity part-time staff (10 hour a week employees), the essence of the strategy is for the section leader to “own a section” of the auditorium, helping regular attendees begin to feel known. “You get the best of the small church feel—you walk in, people start knowing your name, they’re saving you seats, shaking hands, you’re doing a potluck once a month or so. You feel known. You don’t have to be best friends though. You can build relationships at the acquaintance level. Then over the course of time, you’ve got a set of acquaintances and from there, we equip you to form small groups (from Mid-Size Strategy at Cherry Hills).”
Have you picked up on a trend I’m missing? What are you seeing that might be significant? Use the comment section to add your two cents.You can leave a comment by clicking here.
Image by Patrick Denker
I’ve written previously about ten ideas that have shaped my philosophy of ministry. One of those ten ideas can be summed up in the phrase crowd-to-core. What does crowd-to-core mean? Essentially, it means that instead of pouring everything into the most committed members with the expectation (or hope) that they will then go out and win others or disciple others (core to crowd), crowd to core focuses on building next steps that will help the crowd take steps and move toward Christ, toward the core. See also Next Steps for Everyone…and First Steps for Their Friends.
This is Purpose Driven Church terminology. Based on Rick Warren’s concentric circles (community, crowd, congregation, committed, and core), it is easy to see how it works conceptually. I describe our strategy by saying we want to provide next steps for every Ridger and first steps for their friends.
Crowd-to-core is the opposite of a core-to-crowd strategy. If you’ve ever heard someone talk about discipling or investing in the core and committed (in anticipation of them investing in their friends), you’ve been listening to core-to-crowd strategy. In some ways crowd-to-core versus core-to-crowd is a key difference between cell group philosophy and a number of small group strategies.
Core-to-crowd sounds good. It is often characterized as Jesus’ strategy (i.e., He invested in His disciples and they invested in the next generation, etc.). And while some of what Jesus did can be interpreted as core-to-crowd, it isn’t the best explanation for Jesus’ pattern of ministry to the crowd or His frequent challenge to the crowd to act on what they had heard (i.e., “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”). Crowd-to-core is actually a better explanation for what happened at Pentecost (and indeed much of what happened in the Book of Acts).
And it’s not that a degree of core-to-crowd doesn’t happen. It simply isn’t the foundation upon which the primary ministry strategy is built. As a crowd-to-core strategy and philosophy is established, it is only a matter of time until the next steps you’ve designed lead sequentially to the congregation, committed and core. What are some of the next steps you develop for members of the core and committed and congregation? Developing mission ownership and activating ones gift-based, passion-driven ministry.
What do you think? Have a question? Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.
Image by Sérgio Bernardino
Life has a way of encouraging preoccupation with that which is urgent, often at the expense of those things that are truly important. And sometimes that unnoticed blip on the screen turns out to be very significant.
To an air traffic controller a bogey is an unidentified aircraft; a suspicious blip on a radar screen. They don’t know what it is or whether it is friend or foe.
For my purposes, I’m defining a bogey as something more than suspicious and probably something quite deadly. See what you think.
Here are 4 bogeys* that might not be on your radar…yet:
- Belonging trumps believing and becoming. All three are important, but, although there are exceptions, belonging is a much higher motivation for most people. That said, it is more effective to make it easy to connect to a small group and build discipleship (becoming like Jesus) into the group experience than the other way around. If you’ve missed this bogey, you may have implemented a strategy that repeatedly hopes against all odds to leverage a lower motivation (becoming) as first step. For first steps to be effective, they must be easy, obvious and strategic. First steps can be clearly marked (obvious) and strategic (only leading where you want people to go), but unless they are easy (come and see vs come and die), they will only rarely be taken. See also, Would You Rather: Connect Unconnected People or Make More Disciples? and Create Connecting Steps that Are Easy, Obvious and Strategic.
- Until the why is clearly communicated, what is unfamiliar and how is irrelevant to unconnected people. You may have designed genius communication methods that clearly explain how to get connected. You may have worked diligently to develop steps that are easy, obvious and strategic. But until you’ve made it easy to understand why doing life in community is so important, you will struggle to break through the most basic of barriers. Only after you’ve clearly and compellingly communicated the why will unconnected people see the essential qualities of what you are asking them to do. And only then will how to do it become relevant. Far too many of us are starting the conversation with how to get connected, overlooking the need to articulate what a small group is and never getting around to crafting a compelling why. See also, How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
- Discipling and developing small group leaders is an essential activity, not a nice extra. This is why an effective small group coaching structure is not something you build later. You must acknowledge that “whatever you want to happen at the member level, will have to happen to the leader first.” That makes discipling and developing small group leaders an essential activity. See also, Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Leaders.
- Guiding the selection of study material is responsible, not intrusive. Responsible parents make certain choices for their children. Parents may go above and beyond to prepare meals that are nutritious and appealing, but knowing the importance of a nutritious diet, they don’t delegate meal planning to their children. In the same way, guiding the selection of study material is the activity of responsible small group point people. If you are providing little or no guidance you should not expect to produce mature disciples. See also, Small Group Ministry Myth #2: Effective at Connecting and Ineffective at Discipling and Small Group Ministry Myth #3: Leaders and Members Know Best What to Study.
Image by Official U.S. Navy Page
On a coaching call yesterday I realized that one of my coaching clients was doing several of the things they were doing in a slightly different way than I do them. That is, the strategies they were using were close, but not quite, to what they needed to be doing.
Close…but missed it by this much! [Cue Maxwell Smart]
Something in our conversation reminded me of the Apollo 13 launch on April 11th, 1970 where an oxygen tank exploded 2 days into the mission causing the mission to be aborted. The next several days were touch and go as several adjustments and heroic actions adjusted the course and ultimately brought the astronauts safely home on April 17th, 1970. At one point, had they not made a slight adjustment they would have missed the earth by 80 miles on their re-entry attempt.
So my question for you today is this: Is it time for a course correction? What are you doing that is just slightly off course? What strategy are you using that is just slightly off, but will miss the target by 80 miles? The reason we loved the Apollo 13 movie is that it was a true story that had a fantastic ending (while the tragedies of Apollo 1 and Challenger were still very fresh).
Is it time for a course correction? Is a little diagnosis in order? How much would it be worth?
What if I help you course correct and help you get where you want to go?
If you’d like a little help you can set up a coaching call right here. It’s easy to set up. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind. It will lead to clarity on your next steps or your money back. And I’m a lot of fun to talk to!
Image by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center
We launched our church in 2013 and have about 50 adults attending regularly. About 40% of them are connected in church groups like choir and ushering. Do you suggest we start small groups or wait until we raise the adult worship attendance.
Great question, don’t you think? Many of you may have an opinion and I’d bet a fair number of you have actual experience in a church plant. I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
When Should We Launch Small Groups in Our Church Plant?
Keep in mind that there are several different strategies and if you ask around, you’ll probably get several different answers. I think there are two main ideas:
- Wait until you’re large enough. Kerrick Thomas, Nelson Searcy’s Executive Pastor, recommends that you wait until you have over 100 adults attending before beginning small groups. You can read his rationale right here.
- Start small groups before you launch worship. Eric Metcalf, Leadership Director at the New Thing Network and a Pastor at Community Christian Church, begins building small groups first and later launches a worship service. You can read about this method right here.
I’ve seen it work both ways and I’ve also seen it work to launch small groups at nearly the same time as the public worship service. An important factor may be what you recognize as the purpose of a small group. For example, if almost anyone can pick up a small group host kit and invite a couple of their friends to join them for a study, wouldn’t that be an excellent way to speed up outreach? On the other hand, if you’re counting on your small group leaders to help establish a brand new culture, you’ll want to be extra careful about which leaders and groups you send new members to.
Personally, my small group strategy is designed to leverage the outreach potential found in unconnected people whose closest connections are with neighbors, friends, co-workers and family. Rather than wait for my weekend adult attendance to reach a minimum size of 100, I’d look for ways to help foster a growing number of outsider focused groups. See also, 7 Assumptions that Shape My Small Group Strategy.
What do you think? Have an opinion? Want to argue? You can click here to jump into the conversation.
Image by PhotoSteve101