Top 10 Signs It’s Time to Abandon Your Small Group Strategy

Although you never want to give up prematurely…there are signs that it’s time to throw in the towel.  Let’s just say if very many of these happen…it might be a sign:

  1. Your capital campaign reaches the hallelujah goal and you can finally build the Taj Mahal of adult education space with a lifetime supply of rows!
  2. You have a recurring dream of napping in a row in theater style chairs with headrests and cup holders.
  3. You discover that 2% of the grab-and-go hosts really were ax murderers.
  4. Your end of the year host survey revealed that 2013′s most popular small group study was The Secret.
  5. The preferred future your senior pastor casts vision for sounds suspiciously like a smaller version of the weekend service.
  6. You can’t find enough Bible school graduates who are church members, will commit to your monthly three hour leader’s meeting and give at a tithing level to meet the need for group leaders!
  7. Your end of the year evaluation of your coaching structure reveals that being an elder may not qualify you to be a coach.
  8. In a stunning development, flannelgraphs are the surprise comeback media hit of the year!
  9. The follow up to Willow Creek’s Reveal study demonstrates conclusively that the optimal environment for life-change is a row!
  10. It turns out that better fill-in-the-blank workbooks are the secret key to making disciples who make disciples.

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

Here’s a Front Row Seat to Saddleback’s HOST Gathering

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If you read my recent interview with Steve Gladen on the power of a host gatherings you might want to see one for yourself.  Well, at least for now…you can!  Here’s a link to their most recent HOST gathering (Sunday, February 23, 2014).

An interesting tidbit you’ll learn in watching the host gathering is that earlier in the day, Rick Warren had suffered a dizzy spell and not spoken at Saddleback’s 11:00 a.m. service.  4 hours later…he made the most of the HOST gathering!

I learned later that Saddleback’s Host Gathering was attended by 2100 hosts at the Lake Forest Campus (their other campuses had not yet reported in) and 3507 individual ISP’s watched online.  Think about that!  Next time you do a training event…you might want to video it and make it available online!

You’ll hear some amazing statistics during the gathering.  For example,

  • 8,481 small groups participating in Saddleback’s 50 Days of Transformation
  • The groups were in 5 counties, 218 cities, and 22 languages
  • 1204 online groups are participating in Saddleback’s 50 Days of Transformation (594 are outside the 5 county area)

I hope you’ll take the time to watch the HOST gathering!  I learned some very helpful things and I’m sure you will too.

Top 10 Ways to Launch New Groups

There are many ways to launch new groups.  If you’ve limited your attempts to one strategy…you truly do not know what you are missing.

Here are my top 10 ways to launch new groups:

  1. Launch a church-wide campaign.  If you want to launch a wave of groups, there is absolutely no better way.  This strategy leverages the external connections of hosts and with the right campaign can provide an amazing link into the community.  See also, The Exponential Power of a Church-Wide Campaign and 10 Simple Steps to a Great Church-Wide Campaign.
  2. Hold a Small Group Connection.  The key to this strategy is that it connects the people who come to the event and doesn’t require “pre-qualified leaders” going into the event.” See also, How to Launch Groups Using a Small Group Connection.
  3. Plan and launch GroupLink.  This is an excellent strategy.  If you are a fast growing church and late to the game, it will not catch a moving train.  But…if you’re looking for a plug-and-play concept that will work in season and out…you’ve got to consider this one.  See also, North Point’s Small Group System.
  4. Launch sermon-based groups.  It is hard to argue with North Coast’s sermon-based semester concept.  They’ve been successful at connecting 80% of their weekend adult attendance for many years and it is a very viable strategy.  See also, An Analysis of the Sermon-Based Small Group Strategy.
  5. Hold a small group fair.  Most commonly used in conjunction with a free market strategy, this is a very good way to help unconnected people find a group they’d like to join.  See also, Distinctives of the Three Types of Small Group Connecting Events and A Potentially Game-Changing Mashup We’ll Be Testing in September.
  6. Plan a “book club.”  See also, Two Big Opportunities That Will Connect More People This Spring.
  7. Reconfigure existing Bible studies or classes into true group experiences.  See also, True Community? Or a Smaller Version of the Weekend Service?
  8. Design a menu of short-term on-campus “classes” that lead to off-campus groups.  See also, North Point Increases GroupLife Participation by Adding an Easier Next Step.
  9. Plan a special event with a speaker (live or video) on a topic that attracts an affinity (couples, singles, men, women, empty nesters, single parents, etc.).  With the right advance planning and a little creativity, it’s easy to imagine the strategic grouping of unconnected people at an event that includes a speaker, dessert, and conversation.  Would you like to meet one more time to talk about what you’ve learned tonight?
  10. Make the small group vacation strategy a regular part of your annual playbook.  This really is a genius move.  Simply suggest that existing groups consider taking a six week vacation from their group to help jump-start a new group.  Ingenious!  See also, Take A Small Group Vacation!

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

New from Chris Mavity: “Your Volunteers” Packs a Powerful Punch

your volunteersI tripped across a fantastic training resource over the weekend! Your Volunteers: From Come and See to Come and Serve is a short little book that packs a big impact.  Written by Chris Mavity, Executive Director of North Coast Training, Your Volunteers is a book you’re going to want to read right away and again and again.  More to the point…you’re going to be passing this on to your staff and key volunteers because this book is a game changer.

Your Volunteers is short–just 84 pages in the Kindle version–but it is packed with great ideas!  There are a number of aspects that I really love:

First of all, Chris Mavity is not a theorist.  The principles and practices outlined in Your Volunteers are time-tested and true.  They’re in evidence at North Coast (and many of the other churches that have been trained and have adopted them).

Second, the section on environment is golden.  Although it will strike you as a no-brainer, it will give you some language that will really help you cast vision, reframe expectations, and just in general envision a new way of thinking about the kind of environment that produces volunteers.

Third, the section on volunteer operations is really way beyond ordinary.  The way Chris fleshes out the five operational skills is very, very helpful.  The five skills are recruiting, training, placing, supporting, and monitoring and I’m willing to bet that your copy will be just as marked up and highlighted as mine.

Finally, I really love the chapter-ending set of key ideas and discussion questions.  You’ll begin imagining the and planning the good conversations and clear next steps that your team is going to take from the moment you finish chapter one (on valuing your volunteers).  Seriously, seriously good stuff and very helpful.

I loved Your Volunteers!  Can’t wait to get it in the hands of my team…and I know you’ll feel the same way.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

5 Key Ingredients that Motivate a First Step Toward Community

Here is today’s question: What are the key ingredients that motivate unconnected people to take a first step toward community?  Is there a recipe that helps motivate a toe-in-the-water?  What is it?  Do you need all of the ingredients?  Or do you just need 3 or 4 of the key ingredients?

Just like any other recipe, I think there is almost always a nearly perfect mix.  The right ingredients, in the right proportions, prepared in just the right way, add up to deliver the results you desire.  And I think when you want your congregation to be connected in community (because you know that is the optimal environment for life-change), you get serious about the recipe!

Here is what I believe are the key ingredients:

  1. Senior pastors’ stories about their own need for community.  This may be a no-brainer, but all of us should know that no one is trying anything new that the senior pastor isn’t already doing.  The evidence is in on this ingredient.  You might be able to get by without one or two of the other ingredients…but not this one.  See also, Note to Senior Pastors: Authentic Community Begins with You.
  2. Compelling stories from satisfied customers.  ”I use ______.  You should too!”  There is a reason that marketers love the power of a great testimonial.  When the testimonial comes from someone who looks and sounds like me, I am much more likely to give it a try.  See also, Gather Stories as If Lives Are in the Balance.
  3. First steps that are easy, obvious and strategic.  Unconnected people can be motivated by senior pastors and the compelling stories of satisfied customers, but first steps must still seem reasonable in their eyes.  It doesn’t matter what you and I think is an easy first step.  If the unconnected people in your congregation (and crowd) don’t feel like the step you’re offering is doable…it’s not.  See also, How Would You Rate the First Steps Out of Your Auditorium?
  4. First studies that are designed with unconnected people in mind.  Not only must the first steps offered be easy, obvious, and strategic…the topic must be something that matters to unconnected people.  Ever wondered why some church-wide campaigns work better than others?  This ingredient is at the heart of the issue.  Choose the right study, the invitation is accepted.  Choose the wrong study and the invitation is dead on arrival.  Never had a chance.  See also, Does Your Topic Connect with Your True Customer?
  5. The sense that everyone else is doing it.  This may not seem like it is a big deal or should be a big deal…but it is a big deal.  This is why it’s important to get everyone on board when you’re launching a church-wide campaign.  It’s also why it’s important to eliminate competing programs (or at least don’t promote them) during intentional efforts to encourage everyone to take a baby step and take a group for a test-drive.  See also, Small Group Ministry Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.

The remaining question?  Are all five of these ingredients essential?  Do you think there’s a missing ingredient?

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

Are Your Next Steps Premeditated?

Yesterday I asked, “How would you rate the first steps out of your auditorium?”  If you’ve been around much in the last couple years you know that we’ve been working on the idea that our strategies ought to include “next steps for everyone, and first steps for their friends.”  See also, Clue #2 When Designing Your Small Group System.

Taking a cue from the Saddleback circles (representing their crowd-to-core strategy), we’ve wondered, what would it look like to design next steps that would help everyone in our church take a next step?  Everyone meaning the people in the crowd who come only on Easter and Christmas as well as the people who really do consider your church to be the church they go to…even though they only come when it’s convenient.  And then doing the same kind of thinking to describe the people in your congregation, committed and core.  See also, Next Steps for Everyone…and First Steps for Their Friends, The Engel Scale and the Need for Customized Next Steps, and 5 Powerful Ideas that Could Shape Your Ministry Approach.

First steps for their friends has to do with designing first steps for the friends of the people in your church.  Many of us already have events or programs that are intended to be first steps from the community.

Here’s Today’s Question:

Are your next steps premeditated?

I’ve been thinking about this idea for a couple weeks now.  Mulling around in my head the notion that there is a difference between a murder that is premeditated and one that is a crime of passion.  They’re treated differently.  Why?  A premeditated murder is calculated.  In a kind of Walter White way, all of the details have been thought about…in advance.

Now stop and think about the next steps you’ve designed in your strategy?  Could you be convicted for committing a premeditated next step?  Or do the next steps in your strategy have more in common with an afterthought?

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

How Would You Rate the First Steps out of Your Auditorium?

indiana jonesEver stop to really examine the first steps you are offering?  What if an independent first step auditor with fresh eyes and no emotional attachment showed up to look over your strategy?  What would they say?

Take a moment and just think about the first steps the unconnected people in your congregation (and crowd) will have to take.

Here’s a little bit of a quiz:

  1. Are your first steps easy?  Or do unconnected people need to be willing to take a scary leap of faith (like Indiana Jones onto the invisible bridge)?
  2. Are they obvious?  Or do unconnected people need to be Sherlock Holmes with a twist of Carnac the Magnificent to figure them out?
  3. Are your first steps strategic?  Always leading in the direction you want people to go?  Or do unconnected people sometimes feel like Alice in Wonderland (and have to ask the Cheshire Cat for directions)?

How did you do?  Perfect score?  Better than most?  Counting on the curve? Are you keeping in mind that unconnected people are always one tough thing away from never being at your church again?  See also, What’s Your Urgency Level for Connecting Unconnected People? You may remember that one of my small group ministry resolutions for 2014 was:

“to create even easier first steps out of the auditorium that lead to toe-in-the-water opportunities for community.”

Why did I add this resolution to my list?  Easy.  In my own assessment I concluded that while we had a first step that passed the easy test, it was not obvious and was mixed in with a number of counterfeit first steps that don’t actually lead in the direction we want unconnected people to go! Trust me…the process is not without challenges.  The process of evaluating and designing first steps that are easy, obvious, and strategic is more than a little daunting.

Considering the stakes of this game and what is at risk…isn’t it actually worth our absolute attention and greatest insightfulness?

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

Steve Gladen on the Power of HOST Gatherings

steve-gladen-e1328876116556I had a great phone call with Steve Gladen (Saddleback’s Pastor of the Small Group Community) last week, thinking that I’d glean enough to turn around and create an overview of the host rally event.  I was right…I got a ton of great ideas…but there was so much good stuff that I decided to post an edited transcript and a link to my recording of the phone call.
Spoiler Alert: Waaay longer post than normal.  My suggestion, read along while you listen to my recording of the phone call.  Here’s the audio: Steve Gladen on the HOST Gathering.
MH: At Saddleback, you always seem to be working to improve the way you do what you do and the church-wide campaign seems to be no exception.  One aspect that I’m really curious about is the post-campaign host rallyWhy hold a rally?
SG: First off I want to say a couple things.  Our language is more of a “host gathering.”  And we really do two different gatherings.
  • First, we do a gathering prior to the launch and we’ll do this with both our existing hosts, to get them familiar with what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it.  We’ll also do one for brand new hosts and give them an opportunity to get their materials first.
  • On the backside we’ll do another event that is for celebration, Rick will love on them a lot,  and also get them new curriculum for what’s going to happen next.

MH: What are the key ingredients of the rally?  It would be good to know things like how long it is? what’s the program like? with as many hosts as you have do you have more than one time? does each site have their own rally? how are the hosts seated? is it a meal? etc.

There are three main ingredients to the gathering.

  • Appreciation: We want to appreciate and honor long time hosts.  We want to have a prayer time for new hosts and celebrate them.  They’re standing and we all applaud them.  Everybody needs appreciation.  It’s the fuel for motivation and taking next steps.  You have appreciation and then you have vision.
  • Vision casting: This is where Rick comes in and plays a big role.  The other beautiful thing is the he’s very scriptable and is the first one to ask what you need said.  How can I help you. This is about vision casting from the senior leader.  And the other major ingredient is recruitment.
  • Recruitment: A lot of times when you think of recruitment you think of just gathering people that you can bring along with you on the journey, which is very, very true.  But also part of recruitment is mentally getting the hosts into that next phase of what we want them to do.

Pre-rally it is clear, bring somebody with you.  Nobody comes alone.  At our last rally for our new hosts we had 100 to 130 of their invitees in the room sign up to lead groups themselves.  We’ll do the same thing on the post-side.

But also recruitment is getting them to take the next step and continue on.  Part of that is having curriculum available, having our bookstore in full operation and they can buy online or onsite.

MH: So there are three main components.  Appreciating and honoring.  You’re casting vision.  And then recruitment is really more than to the next curriculum or what your group is going to do next.  It has to do with what the leader or the host’s next step might be.

SG: We never miss an opportunity to take people from where they’re at to where we want to take them.  A great thing I haven’t talked about yet is that at our rallies we know that everybody is at a different place in their spiritual journey so we will give hosts an opportunity to step across the line of faith.  Because we engage people who aren’t even followers of Christ yet, as long as they have two friends, we don’t advertise their groups, but if they have two friends, we’re going to engage them and let them be a part of our community.  Rick will clearly say, “And if you haven’t stepped across the line of faith, you need to do it.”  We will also have our baptismal ready, for those that want to make a public declaration and share that with everybody that is there that night.  They can have an opportunity after the gathering to get baptized.  (Here’s a sample of this year’s “My Spiritual Next Steps” commitment card)

The net is somewhat wide in that aspect because we’re always trying to say at everyone of our gatherings we’re saying what is the next step?  Because we do this so wide, we keep the funnel wide at the top, and it narrows as it gets through.  We will meet them where they’re at, they come because of the content, but they stay because of the relationship.

MH: When the post-rally happens, and the campaign is over but the group might not have had their celebration yet, how do you help the people that said, “Yes, I will open my home 6 times” take their next step to a group that will continue?  And the role of your leadership pathway?

SG: In all sales, people need to hear things 7 to 9 times, before they make that little aha, that connection, that actual step through.  So the rally is emphasizing what has been emphasized all along. During a campaign, hosts are getting multiple touches:

  1. One is on the DVD itself we have “helps for hosts,” that are always trying to encourage them to their next steps.  So, about two thirds of the way through the campaign, the helps for hosts are saying, “hey be thinking about your group, what could be your next study?” We’re not asking them to decide whether they’re going to continue or not, we’re asking them to think about their next study.
  2. Also, in the weekly tips that either I send out or Rick sends out, we do the same thing.  We’re saying “be thinking what’s that next step you could do with your friends?  what is that you would want to do?  Here are some great curriculums.  If you’re brand new, here are some other ideas.”
  3. We’ll also have our community leaders that are calling through all of our new groups and trying to do three touches throughout the campaign.  On their second touch, they’re saying, “Hey be thinking about what you can do.”

So when they come to the gathering, whether it’s online or at one or our sites, the powerful thing is that they’re getting that same reinforcement only their call to action is a little more prominent because they’ll have the curriculum there, that they can buy right then and there for their group.  We will have a little more of that pastoral push because both myself who will host it and Rick who will be there will be giving that emphasis to it.”

MH: You guys have a vision about how you develop a host into a leader, how do you help them take the next step from a leadership standpoint?  Is there something in the rally that moves them?

SG: You have to know where the escalator is going.  We are clear and precise on where we want to take them on our leadership pathway.  Inside the pathway you’ve got to have a cognitive arm and a relational arm.  For our relational arm there are community leaders that are coming alongside new hosts.  This is about trust and trust takes time.  There’s also the cognitive arm that is our training that we will do with our group leaders.  Inside the DVD curricula there are guardrails that are set up.

What the gatherings do, they give motivation, they give hope, they give inspiration, they give vision.  When you’re in your group you just need that injection of something bigger than you.  We inject fun.  We inject serious moments.  We inject next steps.  We script our rallies so they have a flow.  They help move people along.  We try to orchestrate a next step for every type of host who will be present, whether they’re brand new, maybe need to respond to Christ, be baptized.  Experienced hosts as well, that they would be able to take a next step.

MH: Any lessons that you’ve learned from previous gatherings?

SG: First, people often come to me and say my pastor isn’t on board yet.  If that’s you, just ask your pastor to come by the gathering and say “hi.”  Make it easy for them.  Also, it’s easier for them to edit than create.  Give them 3 things that they could say and let them shape it.  Think crawl, walk, run.

Also, engage people who are better at creating fun than you are.  Have them work on making it fun.  Find people who are great recruiters and talk about how to get more hosts there.  Get decorators involved.  Think through not only the event but what are they going to walk away with.  Make sure you have a commitment card with next steps for your hosts with the different steps for them to take.  If you just have the gathering and no way to respond, you’ve missed a great opportunity.  (Here’s a sample of this year’s “My Spiritual Next Steps” commitment card)

Top 10 Articles on Launching New Groups

I’ve written many articles on this subject over the last few years.  Some people would say I have an obsession with new groups.  I don’t know about that.  I do know this…if you want to build a thriving small group ministry, you better learn three things:

  • New groups are the very best way to connect unconnected people.  Period.
  • You already have the leaders you need to start new groups.
  • Paying attention to the feelings, needs, interests and prejudices of the wrong people is almost always behind the obstacles to starting new groups.

Here are my Top 10 Articles on Launching New Groups:

  1. Top 5 Keys to Launching New Groups. Lots of New Groups
  2. 5 Keys to Sustaining New Groups
  3. Top 5 Advantages of New Groups
  4. What Is the Best Way to Launch New Small Groups?
  5. Critical Decision: Add Members to Existing Groups VS Start New Groups
  6. The Four Biggest Obstacles Standing in the Way of Starting New Groups
  7. Tall Tales and Downright Whoppers that Keep Churches from Starting New Groups
  8. Top 5 Ways to Multiply Small Groups
  9. 5 Blatantly Obvious Truths about Starting New Groups
  10. Take a Small Group Vacation

5 Blatantly Obvious Truths about Starting New Groups


You know how sometimes there really is an elephant in the room and no one wants to talk about it?  Or if certain people are in the room a kind of code is used to disguise the real topic?  Depending on who’s in the room, the subject of starting new groups can be like that.

Don’t believe me?  Try having conversations (or even casting vision) about the need for new groups:

  • In front of the leaders of groups that aren’t full.
  • In front of certain members of groups that everyone knows ought to be leading a group.
  • When space is at a premium and the new groups will need to be off-campus.
  • When two or three unconnected generations have already voted with their feet…but the leaders of the status quo want equal time when it comes to promotion.
  • Etc.

Sound familiar?  What is a leader to do?  You might need to begin to lead by acknowledging the truth about the need to start new groups.

5 blatantly obvious truths:

  1. There is a very good reason you need to start new groups.  After all, ”Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you are currently experiencing (Andy Stanley).”  If you’ve not already connected 100% of your Easter attendance, you have work to do.  Obviously, your current strategy is either ineffective or incomplete.  See also, Ten Ideas That Have Shaped My Philosophy of Ministry.
  2. New groups offer distinct advantages.  This may not be a mystery to you, but it might not be intuitive for your existing leaders.  The degree of difficulty connecting into longstanding cliques, the opportunity to engage a new wave of leaders, and the opportunity to easily bring a friend are just three of the advantages that new groups bring.  See also, Top 5 Advantages of New Groups.
  3. You already have all the leaders you need to take the next step.  Whether you have a congregation of 100 or 1000, you have men and women who have been prepared by God for such a time as this.  Praying the Matthew 9 prayer that God will send workers?  He already has!  You just need to give them a chance!  10 Powerful Benefits of a Thriving Small Group Ministry.
  4. You already have nearly unlimited space to start new groups.  Nearly everyone knows that constraints actually produce novel solutions.  Running out of room on campus?  Perfect.  All your existing off-campus groups are full?  Even better.  ”People think of creativity as this sort of unbridled thing, but engineers thrive on constraints. They love to think their way out of that little box: ‘We know you said it was impossible, but we’re going to do this, this, and that to get us there.’” See also, Marissa Mayer’s 9 Principles of Innovation and Creativity Loves Constraint.
  5. The lack of commitment on the part of unconnected people is not the underlying issue.  Imagine a business bemoaning the lack of commitment (or the failure to know better) of their hoped for customer as the reason for their failure.  It does happen (I’m sure the buggy whip manufacturers of the early 1900s were included), but do you really want to be part of that club?  See also, Preoccupied with the Needs and Interests of the Right People and Responding to Yesterday vs Reminiscing about the Future.

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

photo credit: CrankyPK

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