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5 Important Trends in Small Group Ministry

Important TrendsBack 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, Cross Point and Woodlands Church, a growing number of churches are developing their own curriculum using services like Lifetogether and LifeWay’s  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, “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

Crowd-to-Core: An Essential Understanding at the Heart of My Strategy

circles crowd to coreI’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

4 Bogeys* That Might Not Be on Your Radar…Yet

radarHave you ever said, “I’m not sure how I missed that!” Or maybe, “That caught all of us by surprise!” If you’ve said anything like that, you’re in good company.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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Is It Time for a Course Correction?

course correctionOn 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

FAQ: When Should We Launch Small Groups in Our Church Plant?

FAQI get a lot of questions.  Here’s one I’ve gotten before and never answered on the blog:

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.

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Top 10 Posts on Connecting Unconnected People

crowdIf it is true that unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again (and I think it is), then connecting them ought to be a very high priority for all of us.

Here are my top 10 posts on connecting unconnected people:

  1. 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People
  2. Design Your Connection Strategy with Unconnected People in Mind
  3. Help! We Need Fresh Ideas for Communicating with Unconnected People
  4. 4 Types of Unconnected People and How to Connect Them
  5. What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?
  6. God’s Heart for Unconnected People
  7. 4 Secrets of Connecting People
  8. How to Calm an Unconnected Person’s Second Greatest Fear
  9. 5 Things to Remember When Planning Connecting Events
  10. How Would You Rate the First Steps Out of Your Auditorium?

Didn’t find what you need?  You’ll find the rest of my articles on this topic right here.

Image by James Cridland

Do You Know What Business You Are Really In?

FactoryPeter Drucker was known for asking great questions.  I love his line that “the important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question.  For there are few things as useless–if not dangerous–as the right answer to the wrong question (The Practice of Management).”

“What business are you in?” is one of my favorite Drucker questions.  Reflecting about the power of this both simple and profound question, Drucker wrote, “That the question is so rarely asked—at least in a clear and sharp form—and so rarely given adequate study and thought, is perhaps the most important single cause of business failure.”

Clearly, Drucker believed that knowing what business you are in is very important.  Do you?  Have you ever sat down and puzzled through a defining statement about the business you are in?  I’ve written about this many times.  I’ve even posted a few examples.  But I’m wondering if you’ve ever figured out for yourself, for your own ministry, what business you are in?

You may believe you are in the connecting business and all you are doing or the main thing you are doing is connecting people.  Or you may believe you are in the disciple-making business.  Alternatively, you might have decided you are in the life-change business or the transformation business.

Doing the hard work of figuring out the answer to the question is critical but only rarely done.  And that’s unfortunate because until you find this answer you can’t answer the next question.  What’s the next question?  “How’s business?”  See also, If I Was Starting Today, The First Question Every Small Group Pastor Must Answer and Clue #4 When Designing Your Small Group System.

Image by Daniel Foster

Help! We Need Fresh Ideas for Communicating with Unconnected People

QuestionsI get questions.  Sometimes I get a lot of questions from readers looking for answers.  And sometimes, the best way to answer them is right here with a blog post.

Here’s a question I got yesterday:

We are in need of some fresh ways to communicate to the four types of unconnected people as we discuss small groups all the time.  Do you have any blogs (or could you create a blog) with literal scripts of ways to promote small groups?

There’s a great question in those two sentences.  It’s slightly different than the reader expressed.  I’d put it this way:

Are there some one-size-fits-all ways we can get the attention of the four types of unconnected people?

And the answer to that, I believe, is “no.”  There are definitely some things we can do to better understand the particular slice (or slices) of unconnected people in our churches…but there really isn’t a script that would work everywhere.

Here are four things to think about and talk about on your team:

  1. If you want to connect unconnected people you have to know them.  As long as they remain a faceless category they will be a mystery.  When great design companies are creating a new product or service they go to great lengths to truly understand and know the customers the product is being designed for.  They spend time with them.  They watch them use the product.  Sometimes they actually move in with the customer!  If we want to connect unconnected people we must actually know them.  See also, Learn to Empathize with Your End User and 5 Things You Need to Know about Unconnected People.
  2. If you want to connect unconnected people you have to design the first step with them in mind.  This is incredibly important for us to understand.  What the core and committed and congregation do without thinking, the crowd automatically rejects as too hard or too inconvenient or just plain boring.  When the first step is designed with unconnected people in mind it will be easy, obvious and strategic.  It will be at a convenient time, in a room they already know about, on a topic they actually care about and it will offer childcare.  See also, How Would You Rate the First Steps out of Your Auditorium? and 5 Key Ingredients that Motivate a First Step into Community.
  3. If you want to connect unconnected people you will make the ask with them in mind.  Language is so important.  How you craft the ask is critically important and if you’re not already wordsmithing, you need to begin.  As you’re crafting the invitation, whether it will be in your pastor’s message, a verbal announcement, an email or on your website, pay careful attention to how it will be received by your target.  They care about things like convenience, relevance, and length of commitment.  See also, Design Your Connection Strategy with Unconnected People in Mind.
  4. If you want to connect unconnected people you will have to creatively make the ask on a regular basis.  Remember, unconnected people are almost always infrequent attenders.  They are not there every week and will only occasionally be there the week of your annual push for small groups.  If you’re not talking about connecting all the time you cannot expect to connect them.

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4 Types of Unconnected People and How to Connect Them

LegosHave you picked up on the fact that unconnected people are different in some ways than connected people?  If you have, you are already moving in the right direction.  Next, though, you understand there are four main types of unconnected people and how you might connect them depends on improving your understanding of their needs and interests.  See also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People, Design Your Connection Strategy with Unconnected People in Mind, and What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People?

There are four main types of unconnected people.

  1. Busy with other priorities and commitments.  This segment of unconnected people is a very large and quite diverse group.  It includes everyone frantically preoccupied as their children’s chauffeurs as well as those who own extracurricular activities crowd out the truly important.  It also includes those who have commitments to church functions and activities that produce little more than sideways energy.  See also, A Smörgåsbord of Destinations VS Sequential and Tailored Next Steps and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.
  2. Satisfied customers of a less than recommended or minimum dose.  Another large group of unconnected people, members of this group are unaware or unconvinced that they are missing anything.  If you are communicating about the importance of being connected and its vital role in producing life-change, they are either not getting the signal or the signal is unclear.  See also, Determining the Minimum or Recommended Dose.
  3. Dissatisfied former customers.  The size of this group of unconnected people is determined by several factors (i.e., the quality of your leader development pathway, the effectiveness of your coaching structure, clearly communicated expectations, etc.).  While it is rarely a large group, it is important to understand their objections and concerns.  See also, Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciple Your Leaders and Small Group Ministry Roadblock #5: A Leadership Development Disconnect.
  4. Infrequent attenders.  The size of this group is determined by a few key factors (most importantly, the size of your “crowd”).  They may share some common traits with the first two types of unconnected people, but they are distinct in that their attendance pattern makes any awareness of the importance of connecting unlikely.  Unless you make a strong case for the importance of being connected every week, it is likely they know nothing about it.

How to Connect Unconnected People

First, keep the needs and interests of unconnected people in mind.  Their interests and needs are not the same as those who are already connected.

Second, relentlessly communicate the importance of being connected.  Talk about the recommended or minimum dose on a regular basis (announcements, messages, bulletins, website, newsletters, etc.).  Take the mystery away along with any confusion.

Third, teach your congregation to prioritize the main things.  Clarify the main things.  Challenge the presence of menu items that distract from the minimum dose.

Fourth, focus on raising the quality of the experience in every group.  Build an effective coaching structure, identify a leadership pathway that develops leaders out of hosts, and constantly clarify expectations.

Image by Michael Scott

5 Faulty Assumptions about Small Group Ministry Impact

eyes shut 2

Courtesy Wan Mohd

You know how kids sometimes believe that if they close their eyes, you can’t see them?  That’s an assumption they eventually grow out of.

Do you have an assumption or two about small group ministry impact that you need to grow out of?

I was imagining the Family Feud set-up when I wrote this.  See yourself standing at the podium.  “What are the top 5 faulty assumptions about small group impact.  100 people surveyed.  The top 5 answers on the board. Survey says…”

Here are 5 faulty assumptions about small group impact:

  1. The optimum environment for life-change is a small group.  While this is a very popular notion, it’s only true when the small group environment is designed for life-change.  It is much more common for groups to never move beyond being about connect unconnected people.  If you want groups to be about life-change…intentionality is an essential ingredient.  See also, Design Your Group Meeting for Life-Change.
  2. The small group champion role can be delegated.  NOT!  If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, there is no workaround for a senior pastor who insists on delegating the small group champion role.  Period.  There is no question that in churches where a vibrant and thriving small group culture exists there is a senior pastor who walks the talk and talks about it all the time.  See also, The Real Reason Saddleback Connects So Many in Small Groups.
  3. Coaching is primarily about problem solving and improving technique.  Nope!  “Coaching” small group leaders is nearly 100% about doing to and for (and with) your leaders whatever you want your leaders to do to and for (and with) the members of their groups.  And this is one of the main reasons that retroactively assigning a coach to an experienced leader is so deadly and almost never works.  Existing leaders know for sure that they do not need a coach.  If they needed a coach, they would have need a coach in their first 90 days.  See also, Coaching FAQ: How Much of Coaching Is about Technique and Small Group Ministry Myth #5: Only New Small Group Leaders Need a Coach.
  4. Requiring leader training as a prerequisite ensures a better member experience.  The truth is that the only thing requiring leader training as a prerequisite ensures that you will always have a shortage of qualified leaders.  Requiring leader training in advance sets in motion a system that does one of two things: (a) hand selecting prime candidates (which indicates that you think you already know the best candidates) or (b) advertises an upcoming leader training course and takes volunteers.  Either way this doesn’t ensure a better member experience.  The only thing that even comes close to ensuring a better member experience is a coach working with a leader doing to and for (and with) whatever you want the members of your groups to experience.  See also, Small Group Ministry Myth #4: High Leader Entry Requirements Ensure the Safety of the Flock.
  5. Unconnected people will respond because “it’s good for them.”  Listen, unconnected people don’t respond to “what’s good for them” anymore than children eats their vegetables because it’s good for them.  If you are banking on that, you are relying on a faulty assumption.  If you want to connect unconnected people, you must shift your thinking and focus on understanding the things that appeal to them in their current state.  What are their hopes and dreams?  What keeps them awake at night?  What do they long for?   When you understand those things you will finally begin to understand how to help them take first steps into authentic community.  See also, 5 Things You Need to Know about Connecting Unconnected People.

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

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