A New Strategy We’re Testing

testingA New Strategy We’re Testing

We’re testing a new strategy at Canyon Ridge I thought you might want to know about.

Here’s the basic concept

The basic concept of the strategy is based on this question*:

Since our weekend message series are conceived and developed to move our congregation in a certain direction, could we identify (or create) next steps that can more naturally be promoted as the best next step (based on the content of our weekend message series)?

See where this is going?

When you think about your church’s normal plateful of events, programs, and activities and the tremendous pressure applied by every ministry owner and their constituents to promote their events, programs and activities from the stage…

I think you see where this is going. Right?

Forget the push from every ministry, program, event, and activity to promote their thing.

Sometimes it’s difficult to promote strategically important next steps naturally in the sermon or even in the announcements when what you’re promoting seems to come from left field. For instance, when you’d like to take advantage of your senior pastor’s influence by having him mention the upcoming small group connection in his message…but his message is on having an impact in the world.

Now…honestly, there is a little chicken and the egg going on here, but I think you see where I’m going.

An example of the new strategy at work:

Remember, the essence of the new strategy is to identify (or create) next steps that can more naturally be promoted as the best next step (based on the content of our weekend message series).

Two tracks to look at:

On the weekend message series track: Our current message series is called Margin and the four messages will unpack the need for financial, calendar, and relational margin. We began 2017 with a series called Impact: Be One. Have One. Our teaching team felt it made sense for the following series to be on having enough margin to include the most important things in life (that often get crowded out by a lack of financial, relational, or calendar margin).

On the providing the best next step track: At the same time, our Groups team hoped to promote a short-term on-campus strategy (that leads to off-campus groups) in order to connect unconnected people. We had planned to offer three options: Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage, Authentic Manhood, and Comparison Trap (for women), promote them via announcements, sermon mentions, website content and church-wide emails and generate sign-ups with a bulletin insert. We’ve done this for three years running and it’s been reasonably effective. You can find out more about this strategy right here.

Where the new idea comes in: In order to take advantage of the natural momentum of the current message series on margin, we’re highlighting a short-term on-campus study called Simplify by Bill Hybels. We’re mentioning Simplify in both our weekend messages themselves and the announcements because it is a natural next step that can be promoted out of the margin series. The original three options (i.e., Laugh Your Way, etc.) will be promoted on the back side of the bulletin insert.

Can you see it? I’ll keep you posted as we test the new idea. It feels like a good step to me.

*Note: We are always asking questions about what we’ve just finished doing, currently doing or thinking about doing next. See the further reading for some of the best questions we ask.

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

Further Reading:

Image by Shaun Fisher

Evaluate the Connection Potential of Your “First Step out of the Auditorium”

first stepEvaluate the Connection Potential of Your “First Step out of the Auditorium”

Most churches have already adopted, adapted or developed a “first step out of the auditorium” that is regularly promoted and held on a regular basis. It may be Saddleback’s CLASS 101, an adaptation of some other first step class, or a class completely of your own design, but most churches have this strategy in play (and let’s just say, if you don’t yet have a “first step out of the auditorium” you need to!).

The basic question is, how effective is your first step out of the auditorium?

Don’t Miss THIS

The more advanced (and more pertinent to all of us) is how effective is the connection potential of your first step out of the auditorium? Don’t miss this point. A well designed first step out of the auditorium points participants to a carefully crafted next step.

A well designed first step out of the auditorium points participants to a carefully crafted next… Click To Tweet

Evaluate your “first step out of the auditorium”:

  1. Are you holding it often enough and promoting it regularly enough to capture the attention of unconnected people (who are typically infrequent attenders)? Your church’s size and the number of new or unconnected people you hope to see take this first step are probably determining how frequently you are holding the class. How frequently you are holding the class is probably determining how regularly you are promoting it. Note: If your size and number of new or unconnected people make the first step awkward to hold on a frequent basis, it may the wrong first step. An intermediate first step held more frequently, designed to feel good with only a few people, may be begging to be implemented.
  2. Is your “first step” easy to take? Is it at a convenient time? Does the way you offer it remove obstacles (i.e., by providing childcare, including a meal or a a snack if the time dictates, short enough to fit in busy schedules, etc.). Note: Pay close attention to any obstacles or issues that prevent offering an easy “first step” (i.e., another ministry or program has the best room reserved, childcare can’t be offered at the best time, etc.). Removing obstacles is not a nice extra. It is essential practice if you want to connect infrequent and unconnected attenders.
  3. Is your “first step” obvious? Are you offering it in a way that is unopposed (that is, alone on the calendar or time slot as the singular opportunity)? Is it clear from your promotion that this class or experience is the thing you want everyone to do? Or does it actually feel like one of several equally valid next steps? Note: While all of these steps are challenging, converting from a buffet of options to a single best choice might be the most difficult. Until you are able to take this step, it will be challenging to offer an obvious first step out of the auditorium.
  4. Is you “first step” strategic? Does the class or experience point attenders to a clearly marked next step (or a very narrow set of possible next steps)? To be strategic your “first step” must offer built-in and predetermined next steps that are designed for infrequent and unconnected attenders to take. These built-in and predetermined next steps must be easy, obvious and strategic themselves. Note: This is where you must do some of your best work. If your “first step” does not include as one of a narrow set of next steps attending a connection or signing up for a short-term group, you are leaving a very important opportunity on the table.

How did you do? Do you have a “first step” out of the auditorium? Are you holding it often enough and promoting it regularly enough? Is it an easy step? Is it an obvious step? Is it strategic?

Your answers to these four questions will reveal your assignment going forward.

Further Reading:

Image by minolta102


Your Philosophy of Ministry and Decision-Making

decision-makingYour Philosophy of Ministry and Decision-Making

Have you ever really thought through your philosophy of ministry? How about the assumptions that shape your small group strategy? See also, 10 Ideas that Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry and 7 Assumptions that Shape My Small Group Strategy.

I know, it may seem like something you will do someday or something that would be nice to do if only you had more time. But, I have to tell you…once you have firm certain aspects of your philosophy and the assumptions that undergird your strategy, you will have a much, much easier time making decisions!

How will it make decision-making easier? Here’s an example:

A couple days ago I posted an article about How to Budget for a Thriving Small Group Ministry. In the article I listed four categories that I budget for and one of the categories was starting new groups. Another was our annual church-wide campaign. In the category for starting new groups I noted the following:

We budget money that will make it easy for a new host to say yes to hosting. When someone says “yes” to inviting a couple friends to do the study, we want to make it more affordable. We do that by “buying” down the price of the host kit (for example, the retail value of the Transformed host kit was $65. We sold them for $20).

We’ve made connecting unconnected people one of our highest priorities. It’s a higher priority than helping our existing groups continue (although we do want to do that too!).

My reference to this budget item drew a very good question from a reader:

“Are you offsetting the cost of the DVDs? I think you usually say you charge about $25 for the host kit and most DVDs that I’ve seen with the studies average [are much more expensive].”

And my answer to the reader was entirely shaped by my philosophy and assumptions:

Yes. When we did Transformed, the study guides retailed for $15 and the DVDs for $25. We had a budget for campaigns that allowed us to distribute the DVDs free to our group leaders and charge each member $10 for their study guide. In order to make it easy (and affordable) for new hosts who were inviting a couple unconnected friends to do the study with them, we sold them the kit for $20 ($70 retail).
We did not have the budget to do this when I first arrived. We got to this point by prioritizing new groups and the needs of the least connected.

To flesh out my response, here are a few other considerations:

  • When I arrived at Canyon Ridge in 2012 I discovered we were subsidizing the cost of many programs that were primarily designed to meet the needs of the already connected and more spiritually developed.
  • When I arrived at Canyon Ridge there wan’t a budget for connecting the least connected (i.e., church-wide campaigns, small group connections, etc.).
  • Over the course of the last 4 1/2 years we have progressively reapportioned the budget to prioritize the needs and interests of the least connected (and the least likely to have the discretionary funds to sign up).
  • While most of our already connected and more spiritually developed attenders (core, committed and congregation) have been understood the change, there have consistently been a few questions and comments (steadily decreasing) that required conversations.
  • All of this falls neatly under the heading of two of my most important assumptions
    • There are no problem-free solutions. All solutions come with a set of problems. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they would rather have.
    • Unconnected people are one tough thing away from not being at our church.  Every delay at connecting them puts many of them in jeopardy.


My philosophy of ministry and assumptions that shape my small group strategy make this a very simple decision.

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

Image by Jessica Pankratz

Don’t Miss the Upside of a Good Problem, Crisis, or Constraint

doorwayDon’t Miss the Upside of a Good Problem, Crisis, or Constraint

I’ve written extensively about there being no problem-free solution, strategy, or model. If you’ve read much here you know the next line is that wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they’d rather have.


I don’t talk about it as much, but it’s also true that we should never waste a good problem. A problem can lead to delay, frustration, or even despair. But it doesn’t have to. It can lead to some of the best thinking you will ever do. A good problem can force or help you to try out a new perspective and “perspective is worth 80 IQ points (Alan Kay).”

Before you simply chalk up what’s happening as a problem, spend some time analyzing the problem itself. Ask, “How might this problem actually help us rethink the solution?” See also, 4 Foundational Questions for Small Group Ministries.


In a slight modernization of Machiavelli*, Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The essence of his thinking? Crises afford opportunities to do things you wouldn’t do (or be able to do) in the absence of a crisis.

The next time a crisis develops in your ministry, spend some time evaluating what opportunities the crisis might be affording. See also, Avoid These 4 Realities at Your Own Peril.


Constraints (budget, volunteers, the attention span of your senior pastor, etc.) can feel like deal breakers. Constraints can feel like impassible barriers.

But they don’t have to. Jason Fried, a co-founder of Basecamp, has pointed out that, “Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.”

The essence of Fried’s thinking? Simple. When confronted by a constraint, focus your thinking and action on what you can do. See also, Diagnosing Your Discipleship Strategy.


Don’t miss the upside of a good problem, crisis, or constraint. They each offer a doorway to great opportunity.

*“Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” Niccolo Machiavelli

Image by Joanna Paterson


What Are You Trying to Produce?

produce assembly lineOne of the questions I ask all the time is, “What do we want people to do?” Another is, “What do we want people to become?” The correct answers to these questions are not generalizations (i.e., fully devoted followers, disciples, etc.). The correct answers are very specific and defined.

Think about these two questions. Can you see that they are both about next steps? Can you see also they are both about outcomes and products?

When we think in advance about what we want people to do we are more likely to design the program, event, or message with that next step in mind. When we think in advance about what we want people to become we are more likely to design the program, event, or message with that outcome in mind.

Thinking in advance about outcomes and products is at the very heart of designing effective next steps and first steps. When we take the time to thoughtfully determine these two things in advance (i.e., “What do we want people to do?” and, “What do we want people to become?”), we dramatically increase our chances of succeeding, of actually arriving at the preferred future we dream of for our ministry and for the people we are leading.

Can you see that asking these questions in advance actually helps clarify what a win will be for the program, event or message we are planning? That’s right. Determining and declaring on the front end the outcomes and products you desire will not only help you plan the program, event or message, it will enable you to know whether you are winning.

I love this quote from Mike Bonem’s Leading from the Second Chair:

“I am convinced that the reason for so much burnout, lack of commitment, and low performance in our churches among staff and members is directly related to the failure to declare the results we are after.  We don’t know when we are winning.”

Would you like to decrease burnout, lack of commitment, and low performance? Spend more time determining in advance what you want people to do and what you want people to become. Be specific. Define the next step you want people to take and what you want them to become. And then design the event, program or message with that outcome, with that product in mind.

Further Reading:

Test-Drives, Taste Tests, and Toes-in-the-Water

toes in the waterTest-Drives, Taste Tests, and Toes-in-the-Water

Buying without trying is down.

Contracts and long commitments are out.

File these under #ThingsYouMustKeepInMind

Test-Drives, Taste Tests, and Toes-in-the-Water are in.

Question: How does this affect you and me?

I think it ought to affect us in two ways:

First, it ought to reshape our thinking about the importance of offering test-drives, taste-tests and toes-in-the-water. Think about it. Virtually everything is now available to be experienced now and purchased later.

You can listen to the song before you buy on iTunes. You can read a portion of the book on Amazon. You can arrange a test-drive of just about any car you’d like to drive. You can ask for a taste at the ice cream store or the brewery. Many clothing and shoe manufacturers now offer free shipping and free returns to entice you to try on their product.

If we want to connect unconnected people we should be offering test-drives, taste-tests and toes-in-the-water. Most of what we are offering feels like something you buy before you try (which is a very antiquated sales strategy). How long ago did that pass into history in just about every other arena?

Second, it ought to reshape our thinking about the length of commitment we’re asking for. Think about it. Renting is on the rise. Services like Spotify, Apple Music, Netflix and Hulu make it increasingly common to pay for access rather than purchase.

When we plan small group connecting events we should keep in mind that long commitments are out. If we want to help unconnected people take a step to join a group we should be offering baby steps.

Note: Baby steps must be designed with babies in mind. What is a baby step to a baby is a very important thing to understand. What we think is a baby step is often seen as a giant step by the babies themselves. And their perspective is the only perspective that matters.

Further Reading:

Image by Christine Rondeau

How Foggy Is What’s Next for Your Small Group Ministry?

foggyHow Foggy Is What’s Next for Your Small Group Ministry?

Do you know where you’re going? Can you see it clearly? Or is the road ahead kind of foggy?

I’m often asked, “How do you determine what’s next for your small group ministry?”

Here’s how I think about what’s next:

First, I begin with a honest evaluation of how it is going right now.

I am convinced that Andy Stanley is right when he says, “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing.” These are the facts and they are undisputed.

Why start there? Easy. Before I plan what’s next I need to think about how it is actually going right now (i.e., is our current strategy or plan working?). It’s important to look at what you are doing through the lens of “is what we are doing actually working?”

If you care about where you are going you must begin with an honest appraisal of how well or poorly your strategy is working.

Second, I look again and again at the preferred future we have identified.

We talk about our preferred future many ways, but it always includes the following:

  • We want to have more adults in groups than we have attend a worship service on the weekend.
  • We must focus on making disciples as we connect unconnected people.
  • We want to make as easy as possible for people to step into leadership and nearly automatic that they step onto a leader development conveyor belt.

There are certainly other aspects to our preferred future, but these are preeminent. When these are truly preeminent, we are forced to view our current results through the lens of “is what we are doing actually working?”

Third, I determine which aspects of our preferred future could be attained next.

This is important and it is often overlooked. While connecting more adults in groups is certainly an aspect of our preferred future, it is not the only one.

  • We should be determining what we can do in the short term to make more and better disciples.
  • We should be determining what we can do in the short term to make it easier to step into leadership and more automatic that new leaders step onto a leader development conveyor belt.

I refer to this as keeping one eye on the preferred future and the other eye on the next milestone. Maintaining focus on the end in mind, using preferred future language to cast vision for the promised land is a non-negotiable. Milestones that are clearly visible in the near future enable your team to stay focused and encouraged.

How are you determining what’s next for your small group ministry?

Can you see it? Are you seeing your preferred future clearly enough? Are you honestly evaluating how it’s going right now? Are you determining aspects that are attainable in the short term?

Further Reading:

Image by Emma Story

Who Designs Your Next Steps? Starry-Eyed Dreamers or Steely-Eyed Pragmatists?

next stepsWho Designs Your Next Steps? Starry-Eyed Dreamers or Steely-Eyed Pragmatists?

Who designs your next steps? Starry-eyed dreamers or steely-eyed pragmatists?

It makes a difference, you know.

Starry-eyed dreamers often put steps in place that Carl Lewis* wouldn’t attempt. Steely-eyed pragmatists can sometimes design steps that are dismissed by dreamers as lacking challenge.

While next steps should be easy, obvious, and strategic…reasonable and doable are clearly in the eye of the beholder. [Click to Tweet]

If you want to design and offer next steps for everyone and first steps for their friends…you must keep the needs, interests, and maturity of the step taker in mind. The real test is not what seems reasonable or doable to the designer.

Not sure whether your next steps are designed correctly? Results are the true test. “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley).” Not getting the results you hoped for? The design of your next steps determines everything.

Further Reading:

*Lewis’ world record long jump at 8.79 meters (28.83 feet) has stood since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.


The Future of Small Group Ministry (and how to prepare for it)

future weather vaneThe Future of Small Group Ministry (and how to prepare for it)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve long been intrigued by a somewhat obscure Old Testament reference to the men of Issachar. Tucked away into a long list of those who joined David when he was banished by King Saul, we’re told about the men of Issachar “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do (1 Chronicles 12:32 NIV).”

Do you understand the times? Do you know what we should be doing? Can you see where things are going? Have you taken the time yet to stop and think about what where things are going means for small group ministry?

When you read the reports coming out of the Barna organization, when you read what Gabe Lyons, David Kinnaman and James Emery White are writing, for that matter when you simply listen to the news and read the headlines, it’s not hard to feel a change in the wind. The truth is, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed (William Gibson).”

As I think about what is coming, here’s what I think is the future of small group ministry…and how to prepare for it.

The future of small group ministry (and how to prepare for it):

“Meet me at Starbucks” will be a much more common invite than “meet me at my church.”

As even the most attractional churches become less appealing to post-Christian America, it will become much easier to invite someone to “meet me at Starbucks (or the pub.” As a first step for unchurched (or dechurched) friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members, “Come to my church” will just seem so 20th century. On the flip side, the next Christians will see their home for what it really is: the 21st century equivalent of an excellent host in the 1st century.

“Tonight we’re studying John chapter 15” will require a lot of explanation.

You do realize that the further we go into the 21st century, the less biblically literate the culture becomes. Every study demonstrates this conclusively. This means you need to anticipate that even references that were assumed all your life (who Joseph was or that the Gospel of John was written by one of Jesus’ closest friends and followers) are now obscure and remote, Culturally savvy group leaders will approach teaching opportunities like Paul did in Acts 17 and assume unfamiliarity while deftly connecting spiritual truth with what is familiar.

Connecting strategies will be tilted toward strong ties.

Face it. The most connected people in your congregation are the least connected people in their neighborhoods and offices. The least connected people in your congregation and crowd are almost always the most connected people in the community. When the least connected people in your congregation and crowd participate in a social event (office party, block party, Little League game, softball league, etc.), they are strengthening ties with people who have never attended your church. Why not leverage these already established strong ties?

If all of your connecting strategies depend on unconnected attenders signing up to attend an event that happens on-campus you are already missing out on the most natural way to connect people. Wise leaders will gravitate toward and develop new strategies that leverage pre-existing strong ties.

Vision and training will focus on cultivating friendships in the community.

As the shift to a Post-Christian America accelerates, it becomes ever more important to envision and equip members to invest in their neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances and family, cultivating genuine friendships in the community. What about your fall festival and your Easter egg hunt? Wise observers of culture will innovate and experiment with neighborhood and even cul de sac expressions that make introductions and developing friendships more likely.

The value added element will be relationship and the byproduct will be discipleship.

Belonging absolutely precedes believing or becoming. If this isn’t obvious, refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There was certainly a time in the mid 20th century when it was still common to grow old in the neighborhood you were born in, to know your neighbors and even socialize with your co-workers. As mobility increases and neighborhoods and cities become more and more transient, loneliness and a vague sense of disconnection grows. Wise leadership will make it ordinary to prioritize and normalize loving your neighbor as yourself. See also, 5 Things I Wish You Knew as You Build Your Small Group Ministry.

Leader development and encouragement will be almost entirely decentralized.

Churches everywhere are beginning to discover that the pace of life is making centralized gatherings more difficult to demand and less productive to implement.  Far easier to instill and more productive are decentralized gatherings at the local coffee shop or for that matter, in the living room or kitchen.  See also, 7 Decisions that Predetermine Small Group Ministry Impact.

Storytelling will emerge as a best practice in thriving small group ministries.

We live in the era of storytelling. Yes, people have always been captivated by stories, but today more than ever before to tell a compelling story is to catch and hold the attention of a culture that suffers from an attention deficit disorder. We do have the greatest story. If we want to convince the unconnected crowd and community of the priceless value of authentic community, we must become better storytellers.

Organic connecting practices will be the rule rather than the exception.

You may have become a master at planning and executing connecting strategies (small group connections, GroupLink, small group fairs, etc.), but the further we step into 21st century post-Christian America, the more important organic connecting practices will become. As even the most attractional churches become less attractive destinations, it will become more and more important that we naturally, organically, build relationships with neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members. Effective small group ministries in the future will feel much more like interconnected hubs of relationship woven into the fabric of the neighborhoods, workplaces, and third places of our cities.

Disciplemaking will be the priority and practice of ordinary Jesus followers.

As the 21st century post-Christian America feels more like the pre-Christian 1st century, the lives of authentic Jesus followers will become more and more attractive to a culture several generations removed from experiencing the life-on-life impact of people who truly love their neighbors as themselves. That kind of love is the basis for true disciplemaking as come and see leads to taste and see.

Click here for 4 Keys to Preparing for the Future of Small Group Ministry.

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

Further Reading:

Image by Frank Alcazar

This Concept Might Change Your Strategy

circle and squareSpoiler Alert: The most connected people in your congregation almost always have the fewest connections in the community.

Four Things You Need to Know

I use this drawing to illustrate an important concept.  There are four things you need to know in order to understand the drawing,

First, the circle represents your adult attendance on Easter.  As you know, the difference between your average adult attendance and your Easter adult attendance is not that everyone brings a friend.  Instead, the main reason your attendance is higher on Easter is that everyone comes on the same weekend. See also, What Percentage of Your Adults Are Actually Connected?

Second, the square represents the people in your congregation who are truly connected.  That is, if something happened to them or a member of their family, someone else in your congregation would find out about it within 24 hours without anyone calling the church.  A pink slip at work.  Marital issues.  A scary medical diagnosis.  A teenager who goes south.  24 hours.  Someone else knows.

Third, if you were to interview the folks in the square (the most connected people in your congregation) and ask who their 10 closest friends are in your area, you’d find out that 8, 9, or even all 10 of them are also inside the square.  Now, before you get excited, there are exceptions (many church staff members, those with the gift of evangelism, etc.).  But in general, the most connected people in your congregation are the least connected in the community.

Fourth, when you interview the folks in the circle you’ll find out that 8, 9, or even all 10 of their best friends have never been to your church.  Let me repeat that:

When you interview the folks in the circle you’ll find out that 8, 9, or even all 10 of their best friends have never been to your church.

Here’s the big idea: If you want to recruit hosts who can fill their own group with unconnected neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members…you need to learn how to recruit from the circle.  Churches that keep going back to the well of the usual suspects (the most connected) shouldn’t be surprised when hosts from the square don’t know their neighbors.

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

Further Reading: