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Category: Small Group Strategy (page 1 of 69)

5 Simple Mistakes That Sink Small Group Ministries

15556193740_f18ec95fa6_cFiguring out why small group ministries fail is not complicated. There is a short list of simple mistakes that sink small group ministries.

5 Simple Mistakes that Sink Small Group Ministries

  1. Allowing the senior pastor to delegate the role of small group champion. It may seem logical to delegate the role of small group champion to the small group pastor. After all, why have a small group pastor if not to be the champion? This simple mistake may seem logical, but when this is allowed to happen you announce to everyone that being involved in a small group is an add-on activity. You also fail to take advantage of the most influential voice in the church. See also, Rethinking the Role of the Small Group Pastor and Your Senior Pastor as Small Group Champion Leads to a Church OF Groups.
  2. Adding members to existing groups instead of starting new groups. It seems like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? After all, don’t you have a commitment to help small group leaders succeed? Why shouldn’t you provide a steady stream of new members to existing groups? There are at least two very good reasons. First, prioritizing launching new groups is a key to building a thriving small group ministry. Second, it is actually counter productive to add new members to existing groups. Once a group has been meeting longer than about three months it becomes increasingly more difficult for a new member to break through the nearly impermeable membrane that forms. Only the most brazen extroverts,  experienced party crashers, and friends of current members succeed. Everyone else finds breaking into the clique too difficult. See also, Top 5 Ways to Start New Groups. Lots of New Groups and Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups vs Starting New Groups.
  3. Starting new groups without providing a coach. While building an effective coaching structure is definitely a challenging part of building a thriving small group ministry, providing someone with experience to walk alongside every new leader is an important key to sustaining the new groups you launch. Failing to provide a coach to guide every new leader is a simple mistake that sinks many small group ministries. You can start as many new groups as you’d like, but if you can’t sustain a high percentage of what you start your ministry will not grow. See also, 5 Steps to Sustaining the New Groups You Launch.
  4. Calling everything a small group. In order to invite unconnected people to something more than an opportunity to develop friendships, what you invite them to must be something that provides the essential ingredients of life-change. Unless everything you call a small group provides the essential ingredients of life-change, you will often send unconnected people in the wrong direction, connecting them to programs that detour them from where they need to go. See also, Groups of All Kinds and the Essential Ingredients of Life-Change.
  5. Promoting small groups on an annual basis. If the annual emphasis for small group ministry (alongside the annual emphasis for volunteering, student ministry, children’s ministry, foreign missions, local outreach, etc.) is the only time you talk about or promote the importance of being connected to a group, you will never build a thriving small group ministry. In fact, one of the most important reasons explaining Saddleback and North Point’s success at connecting such high percentages of their adult attendance to groups is that they never stop talking about small groups. See also, Top 10 Reasons Saddleback Has Connected Over 130% in Small Groups.

Recognize any of these mistakes in your own small group ministry?

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

Image by ierdnall

Growth or Control? Which Do You Really Want?

limitless growthI often get a good conversation going when I write about the small group connection strategy or the HOST strategy (two small group strategies that seem to include high risk). Comments always include things like, “How do you know the people who are hosting a group aren’t ax murderers and adulterers?” Or, “How can you be sure the people who are chosen to lead the connection group are people your elders would approve as leaders?”

In reply, I’ve often said, “There is no problem-free small group model, system or strategy. Every small group strategy comes with a set of problems. Wise leaders choose the set of problems they’d rather have.”

The truth is, every strategy that seems safe also come with a set of problems. Problems included in safe strategies include things like:

  • Can’t find enough qualified leaders
  • Aren’t multiplying new groups fast enough
  • Difficult to match members with available groups

See also, Breaking: No Problem-Free System, Model, or Strategy.

My suggestion? Know that you can program for growth or control…but not both. If you’re stuck, if your small group ministry isn’t thriving, it is most likely because you’ve designed a system that feels safe and you haven’t acknowledged the fact that the factors you believe guarantee safety are actually obstacle that prevent growth.

I love this line from David Chrzan*, “You can have growth or you can have control. And you have to decide how much of each you want.”

Are you so focused on safety that you’ve programmed out exponential growth?

Image by Stathis Stavrianos

*I’ve also heard this line associated with Rick Warren.

Frequently Asked Questions about Small Group Connections

pointing connectionI get asked a lot of questions about the ins and outs of small group connections.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions:

  1. How many unconnected people do you need in order to hold a successful small group connection? I have successfully connected people with as few as 20 to 30 and as many as 350 in a single room. The more people you have, the better the affinity you can manufacture. The smaller the attendance, the more likely it becomes that you’ll end up with groups that don’t have enough in common to stick.
  2. What do you do if you don’t have enough people to form a good group for everyone at the connection? There are definitely times when there won’t be enough people to form all the groups you hope to form. For example, you might have enough couples and enough women to form couples’ groups and women’s groups, but only have 2 men show up. What do I do? We are always ready to call an audible and promise to do everything possible to connect everyone with the best match possible within 48 hours. That usually means an already existing men’s group. When we’ve done everything possible and there still isn’t a match, we call the person back and do our best to find a way to connect them.
  3. What happens if the group just doesn’t pick a leader or picks more than one? What they are being guided to choose is the “person they’d be willing to follow for a 6-week test-drive.” When you carefully follow the strategy it will almost always produce more than one leader from every group. In rare instances, it will only produce one leader. When the group is unanimous in their selection, something has almost always gone wrong.
  4. What happens if the group picks someone who is not a good choice? When the strategy is carefully followed, the group will almost always choose the best candidate(s). The connection strategy is designed to help each group choose the best potential leader(s). They might not meet the standards you have for a small group leader.  You might think of it as choosing the best candidate relative to the other members of the group. It is very common for the group’s selection to be considered a potential leader subject to a set of next steps (i.e., fill out a questionnaire, meet with a coach during the first 6 weeks, attend a leaders’ orientation, etc.).
  5. What happens when the chosen leader doesn’t want to be the leader? This does happen every once in a while. But since every group almost always chooses 2 (or more) leaders, there is almost always a fall back option. And on those rare occasions when things just go awry, you can always call an audible and ask “who would like to host the first meeting?”
  6. Doesn’t the small group connection strategy feel like a bait-and-switch to the people chosen as leaders? When I gather the newly chosen leaders for a brief standup meeting at the end of the connection event, I always ask two questions. First, I ask, “How many of you came tonight expecting to end up as the leader of a group?” There are always one or two people who raise their hands. Second, I ask, “How many of you feel a little bit like you got tricked? You came expecting to be in a group and you ended up the leader?” And there are almost always several who raise their hands. Which brings me to the main purpose for the leaders standup meeting at the end of the connection. I spend the last few minutes reminding them that there are no good stories in the Bible, Old Testament or New, of people volunteering to be a leader. All of the stories are about people being chosen. You’ll find a very complete example of how I talk about this in Here’s How I Lead a Small Group Connection.
  7. Are small group leaders of already existing groups (looking for a few new members) allowed to use the connection to fish for new members? No. The purpose of a small group connection is to identify new leaders and launch new groups. If you’re looking for a way to add members to existing groups, consider holding a small group fair. See also, Distinctives of the Three Types of Connecting Events.

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

Image by Gabe Austin

How Can I Find More Leaders!?

haystackSmall group pastors fall into one of three categories. Most of us can always use more small group leaders. Many of us are actively looking for more leaders. And some of us are desperately looking for more.

If finding new small group leaders is like looking for a needle in a haystack, you’ll want to take advantage of what I think are the three best ways to find new small group leaders. I’ll share the three methods in a moment, but first I want to point out two important assumptions that make these ideas very potent.

  1. Get over the idea that the best candidates are people you know.  As your church grows it becomes increasingly less likely that your pastor and staff will know everyone.  This makes any leader identification strategy that depends on the personal knowledge of staff doomed to fail.
  2. The most productive strategies will be focused on the edges.  There is nothing wrong with insisting that every leader have an apprentice.  It is a good strategy.  It is a biblical strategy.  It just has limited potential in most churches.  In most churches the largest number of potential group leaders are not currently in a group.  In addition, the least connected people in your congregation are often the most connected in the community.

You can read 8 Secrets for Discovering an Unlimited Number of Leaders for more, but can you see why you need to understand these two when it comes to finding more leaders?

Three Best Methods for Finding New Leaders

With that, here are what I think are the three best methods for finding new small group leaders:

Church-Wide Campaign

Launch a church-wide campaign with the HOST strategy. The very best way to recruit small group leaders is to do a church-wide campaign on a great topic and leverage your senior pastor’s influence to recruit people to host a group. The topic you choose for your campaign is very important. The topic determines who will say yes to hosting and who will say yes to joining.  I’ve written extensively on this topic.  It is not hard, but it does require the cooperation of your senior pastor.  Trust me.  If you select the right campaign, it becomes easy to recruit hosts.  And now with Saddleback’s latest game-changing way of inviting people to host a group, it is even easier and more productive. See How to Make the HOST Ask: The 2012 Version, Saddleback Changed the Church-Wide Campaign Game…Again, and 10 Simple Steps to a Great Church-Wide Campaign.

Small Group Connection

Hold a small group connection. Another great way to identify new small group leaders is to hold an event and let the design of the event itself do the heavy lifting. The small group connection process actually helps group members choose leaders at every table. This is not GroupLink. You don’t need preselected leaders to do it.

When I discovered the Small Group Connection event back in 2000, I was very skeptical.  VERY skeptical.  I became a believer after my very first event.  I’ve written a very detailed 5 part article on How to Launch New Small Groups Using a Small Group Connection.  I’ve recently written a very detailed explanation of how I lead a small group connection. Between the two, you will learn everything you need to know.  The key to this idea is that the event is designed to identify leaders in a way that nothing I’ve ever tried can beat.

Small Group Vacation

Encourage your small groups to take a small group vacation. Can’t see yourself pulling off idea #1 or 2?  Leveraging your senior pastor’s influence to challenge your existing groups to consider taking a small group vacation is another great way to identify some fantastic new leaders.   The plan is really very simple.  Choose a great small group study.  Ask your existing small groups to consider not meeting together as a group for the 6 weeks of the study you choose.  Instead, ask group members to pair up with another couple or 2 or 3 others and help launch a new group.  When the study is over…they can go back to their original group if they’d like.  Their commitment is only for the 6 weeks.  Time after time I’ve found that once group members experience what it’s like to be used by God to help connect a few more…they often choose not to go back to their original group.  See also, Take a Small Group Vacation.

Image by John Pavelka


5 Simple Rules of Effective Small Group Ministry

rulesCan I let you in on a little secret? There are actually just a few simple rules of effective small group ministry. And if you can just follow the rules…you can build a thriving and effective small group ministry.

Here they are:

  1. Always be launching new groups while training leaders of existing small groups to fish for new members. One of the greatest dilemmas in small group ministry is whether to start new groups or add new members to existing groups. If you want to build an effective small group ministry, you need to focus on launching new groups. Whether you are brand new in a new place or a long-time veteran in a very familiar place, if you will focus on launching new groups while training leaders of existing groups to fish for new members, you will be headed in the right direction. See also, Top 10 Ways to Launch New Groups.
  2. Never stop looking for leaders of leaders. A relentless commitment to identifying and recruiting leaders of leaders is essential. If you want to launch and sustain new groups you must build an effective coaching structure at the same time. Make it a weekly priority to be on the lookout for high capacity leaders with a passion for community. Set aside time every week to spend time with the right candidates. See also, How to Identify a Potential Small Group Coach.
  3. Personally invest in the development of the leaders you recruit. Remember, whatever you want to happen in the lives of the members of your groups, must happen first in the lives of the leaders. That means your investment in developing and discipling your coaches must be a priority for you. See also, 7 Practices for Developing and Discipling Your Coaches.
  4. Share success stories every week with your senior pastor. Even if you have to stake out your senior pastor’s office and look for any opportunity to tell them a good story…do it. They need to hear it and you need to let them tell the best life-change stories. See also, 6 Ways to Help Your Senior Pastor Make the Small Group Ask.
  5. Put your own oxygen mask on first. Just like on every airline’s safety message, if you want to have any role in the spiritual growth of others you have to be growing. It won’t happen in your ministry if it isn’t happening in you. And it won’t happen in you unless you make and keep a commitment to pursue it. That means a daily commitment to time with God and regular investment in your own journey. See also, Investing in Your Own Personal Growth.

Can I tell you something? It really is this simple.

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

Image by Erin

How Are You Evaluating Your Small Group Ministry?

evaluateHow are you evaluating the effectiveness of your small group ministry? Are you simply comparing the current number of groups and the current number of members with some previous snapshot? Or maybe against a goal? Are you maybe comparing your percentage adults connected with some preferred future goal? See also, Start with the End in Mind.

How are you evaluating the effectiveness of your small group ministry?

The Key Question

How you should evaluate your small group ministry actually depends on what you have predetermined you will call success. What you have decided in advance will be called success or a win ought to shape the questions you ask to evaluate your ministry. See also, Clarifying the Win for Your Small Group Ministry and 5 Non-Negotiables that Define True Small Group Ministry Success.

Need a few examples?

3 Examples:

If you’ve decided that success for your small group ministry is to make disciples, you should be asking questions like:

  • As a result of being in your current small group, are you becoming (a) more like Jesus, (b) less like Jesus, (c) staying the same, or (d) other?
  • How have you become more like Jesus this year?
  • Who are you discipling?
  • Where are you serving?
  • How have you become more generous this year?

If you’ve decided that success for your small group ministry is to create natural connecting opportunities for friends, neighbors, co-workers and family to join a group, you should be asking questions like:

  • Who have you invited to join your small group this year?
  • Who are you building a relationship with and will soon invite to your group?
  • How could your group have a more inviting atmosphere?
  • What might be happening in your gatherings that is an unnecessary barrier to inviting friends?

If you’ve decided that success for your small group ministry is to connect unconnected people in your congregation (and crowd) so they can make friends, you should be asking questions like:

  • Do you feel more connected now that you are in a group?
  • Have you made friends that you connect with outside of your group meeting?
  • Would you recommend joining a group as a way to make friends?

Takeaway: How you are evaluating the effectiveness of your small group ministry must be determined by what you’ve decided in advance to call a win. See also, 3 Questions You Should Be Asking about Your Small Group Ministry.

Image by Kenny Louie

Who Is Your Small Group Ministry Designed to Connect?

post christianWho is your small group ministry designed to connect? Have you ever spent any significant time evaluating who your small group ministry is designed to connect? Have you ever evaluated who your small group ministry is actually connecting?

What if your ministry is designed to connect a kind of person that is disappearing? What if the most likely people to connect are a shrinking minority in your crowd or community?

Did you know that the most recent Barna Group study indicated that “from 2013 to 2015 the percentage of Americans who qualify as ‘post-Christian’ rose by 7 percentage points?”

It’s important to understand how the Barna Group measures a person’s level of irreligion. They have identified 15 metrics related to faith (see below), and “in order to qualify as ‘post-Christian,’ individuals had to meet 60% or more of the factors (nine or more out of 15 criteria).

Here are the factors:

  1. Do not believe in God
  2. Identify as atheist or agnostic
  3. Disagree that faith is important in their lives
  4. Have not prayed to God (in the last year)
  5. Have never made a commitment to Jesus
  6. Disagree the Bible is accurate
  7. Have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
  8. Have not attended a Christian church (in the last year)
  9. Agree that Jesus committed sins
  10. Do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
  11. Have not read the Bible (in the last week)
  12. Have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
  13. Have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
  14. Have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
  15. Do not participate in a house church (in the last year)

Think about the significance of a 7% increase in just two years.

3 observations:

  • If your small group ministry is designed to connect people who already believe what you believe, your target market is rapidly shrinking.
  • If the most common people you are connecting already read the Bible at least once a week, your current customer is far different than the fastest growing segment of Americans.
  • If the majority of your small groups never connect anyone who doesn’t already attend a Christian church, the fastest growing segment of your community is unreachable.

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

Image by Barna Group

I’ve written about this on a regular basis over the last 7 or 8 years.

7 Things You Should Know about the HOST Strategy (for starting new groups)

x's and o'sWhen the HOST strategy was introduced by Saddleback in 2002 during the launch of 40 Days of Purpose it truly was a game-changing innovation. The idea that the senior pastor could challenge members of the congregation who had a heart for unconnected people to open up their home for 6 weeks, serve a simple snack, and turn on their VCR–and the results would be nothing short of miraculous–well, it was an amazing idea. See also, HOST: What Does It Mean?

13 years later it is still a powerfully effective strategy. It’s also a strategy that is often misunderstood (and poorly implemented) by many.

And I’d hate for you to be one that misunderstands or poorly implements this powerful strategy.

Here are 7 things you should know about the HOST strategy:

  1. The HOST strategy connects the friends, neighbors, co-workers and family of the people who say yes to hosting a group. Because the host is gathering their own group (and you’re not assigning members to the new groups), there is usually less concern about the qualifications of the host. See also, FAQ: How Should We Respond to Objections about Who Can Host? and Customized Leader Requirements and Benefits.
  2. The HOST strategy is not an effective way to connect large numbers of unconnected people in your congregation (and crowd) who do not know a host. What about unconnected people in your congregation (and crowd)? Since you will not be assigning members to HOSTs, you will need another strategy to connect those who do not know a HOST. It is very common to hold a small group connection to connect unconnected people within the congregation (and crowd) and use the HOST strategy to reach into the community. With a little work you can also use a mashup of HOST sign-up along with a kind of small group fair to connect people. See also, A Potentially Game-Changing Mashup We’ll Be Testing in September.
  3. The most effective HOST asks are made by your senior pastor during a message. There are two keys to this point. First, your senior pastor is almost always the most influential person in the church and the HOST ask cannot be delegated if you want it to be effective. Second, the best time to make the ask is during the message. You can include the opportunity during the preservice slide roll and you can include it as an announcement, but the most effective moment is during the message. See also, How to Make the HOST Ask: The 2012 Version.
  4. “If you have a couple friends you’d like to do the study with” is a game-changing secret phrase. You don’t need 10 friends to start a group. You need a couple. You don’t even need to refer to what you’re doing as “starting a group.” All you’re asking them to do is “invite a couple friends to do the study with you.” See also, Saddleback Changes the Church-Wide Campaign Game…Again.
  5. The most effective HOST asks reach the outer edge of the congregation (and into the crowd). Don’t miss this important understanding. The most connected people in your congregation have the fewest connections with unconnected people. When your HOST ask compellingly invites the least connected people in your congregation (and crowd) to consider inviting their own friends (who often have never been to your church) to do the study, you have the recipe for a powerful church-wide campaign. See also, Do You Know about This Game-Changing Connection Secret?
  6. You must make the HOST ask several weeks in a row. There are at least two good reasons to make the HOST ask several weeks in a row. First, if you want more of your congregation (and crowd) to have an opportunity to respond to the ask, you need recognize that everyone will not be there on one weekend. Second, the people in your congregation (and crowd) with the strongest outside connections are almost always less frequent attenders. See also, Why You Must Make the HOST Ask Several Weeks in a Row.
  7. The study you choose absolutely determines who will say “yes” to hosting a group. Potential hosts decide right away whether they could invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers and family to study that topic. Keep this important reality in mind when you choose the topic. If you hope to connect the friends, neighbors, co-workers and family of your hosts, you need to choose a topic unconnected people would be interested in. See also, Your Church-Wide Campaign Topic Determines Two Huge Outcomes.

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

Warning: Without This Essential Skill You Can’t Build a Thriving Small Group Ministry

speaking the truthI believe there is an essential skill that is missing in almost every case where building a thriving small group ministry proves difficult. What is it? I believe it is the ability to speak the truth in love.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus the Apostle Paul wrote, “We will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.”

Whether we simply haven’t developed the skill or ability to speak the truth in love, or perhaps we lack the courage to speak the truth, I am more convinced every day that if this essential skill missing build anything of significance.

  • Speaking the truth in love is essential if you want to build an effective coaching structure. Only the right men and women can do what needs to be done by a coach. Keeping a coach on the team who is not capable or not willing to do the job weakens the entire structure.
  • Speaking the truth in love is essential if you want to develop and disciple leaders. If all you do is make it easy to begin as a leader but never personally invest in developing and discipling them, you cannot expect them to become the kind of leaders who will disciple members.
  • Speaking the truth in love is essential if you want your groups themselves to be circles of mutual care. If it’s easy to join a group but the group members never learn to speak the truth in love to one another, they will never be more than surface level acquaintances.

Can I give you a simple test to see if you’ve developed the skill?

  1. Do you have coaches who are really aren’t the right people?
  2. Do you have leaders who aren’t growing in Christ?
  3. Do you have groups of surface level acquaintances?

How’d you do? If you’re like me…hopefully you are seeing room for improvement and an area to focus on in training.

Image by Sabrina M


Top 5 Reasons Small Group Leaders Quit

quitThere are a number of reasons that small group leaders quit. While some quit for good reasons, most quit for reasons that are completely avoidable.

Here are what I believe are the top 5 reasons:

  1. They aren’t being developed and discipled by a coach. This is probably the most common reason small group leaders quit. If someone (a coach or mentor) isn’t investing in them, it is unreasonable to think that the average leader will continue for long. While there will always be exceptional leaders who are essentially self-motivated, they are by definition the exceptions to the rule. Intentional investment in your leaders will overcome this very common reason for quitting. See also, Skill Training: Equip Your Coaches to Develop and Disciples Leaders.
  2. No one in their group is sharing the load. Some small group leaders don’t know any better and have never been coached to share the load with the members of their group. Others come naturally by misplaced pride that “since they do everything better than everyone else”…they can’t really let go of anything. Both patterns ultimately lead to burnout; both patterns lead to pent up frustrations that they have to do everything for the group to thrive or survive. In order for the leader and the group to survive, the leader must learn to share the load. See also, Skill Training: Priming the Leadership Pump and Skill Training: Rotating Host Homes.
  3. They are discouraged by member’s lack of participation. There are two main reasons for lack of member participation. First, not every leader comes equipped with a natural ability to facilitate. Those who don’t must learn the art of facilitating a discussion/conversation. Poorly facilitated groups usually die on their own, long before the leader quits. Attendance dwindles when everyone isn’t engaged in the group meeting. Teaching leaders the how to facilitate a great discussion ought to be part of your leader development plan. Second, smaller groups allow and encourage more participation. As a group grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for less dominating personalities to participate. Learning to sub-group is an essential leader skill. See also, Skill Training: How to Stimulate Better Discussions and Skill Training: Sub-Grouping for Deeper Connection.
  4. Their group dwindles in size and they can’t (or won’t) fish for new members. Some small group leaders are only interested in “leading” a gathered group. When members move away or otherwise opt out of the group, this kind of leader’s only recourse is to inform the small group pastor that they need some more members. And since feeding additional members to existing groups is almost never a successful strategy for growth, training your leaders to fish for their own new members is not optional. It is an essential skill for small group leaders. See also, Skill Training: Top 10 Ways to Find New Group Members.
  5. The leader is unable to manage an issue within the group. Many groups come with a difficult personality or two. Carl George coined the term EGR (extra grace required) for the group member that requires extra attention. When the leader is unprepared for the challenge of skillfully leading through issues with problem personalities, sometimes it is just easier to quit than lovingly confront. This is primarily a coaching issue. When new leaders are given a coach from the beginning, challenging personalities can usually be spotted quickly and an appropriate strategy developed. See also, Four Questions Every Coach Should Be Asking.

Image by Pabak Sarkar

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