When the Covid crisis hit, every church made the pivot to online everything: online worship, online groups, online prayer. And while online services have primarily hit their stride (if your online worship is tanking, read this), small group ministries have struggled since summer.
When countries were almost universally locked down, Zoom small groups flourished. People were stuck at home, lonely, and desperate for any human connection. There was a sense that a new era had dawned for groups, and this might be the future. To be sure, there is still a future for online groups and should remain a part of your strategy long term.
However, as states and communities started to lift restrictions, people started going back to work and “essential” activities. As the limits lessened, engagement in online groups plummeted even though in-person groups mostly had not (and in many places still haven’t) restarted.
Naturally, church leaders are nervous. Are groups dead? Can groups thrive, despite the pandemic?
In Episode 55 of The Church Revitalization Podcast, I spoke with Bo Patterson. Bo is a Guide on our team, but more relevantly, he is an expert in group ministry. He’s personally launched dozens of groups at the churches where he has served over the past five years and launched ten new groups since the pandemic started.
Bo gave highly practical insight into growing your small group ministry, even in this challenging climate. Listen to the full episode below to glean all the tips. I’ve summarized the highlights from my conversation with Bo below.
A Guiding Philosophy for Thriving Groups Ministry
Regardless of your methodology, you need a guiding principle that helps your church maintain a thriving groups ministry, no matter what curveballs come your way.
We mentioned this in a recent article, but when we have an operating framework that guides us towards health, we can have clarity for decision making even when we can’t have certainty. Think of it this way: north is always north, even if it’s raining, snowing, or foggy. And north will always lead you north, even if you have to navigate around a few obstacles.
When it comes to a thriving groups ministry, Bo outlined the central principle breaks into two chunks: New Groups, Healthy Groups. Let’s break down both components.
The lifeblood of a thriving small group ministry is launching new groups. New growth sparks new energy.
I have a crepe myrtle in my front yard. Every year, it gets new growth on it. As that new growth comes in, I guide and decide what old branches need pruning and where the new growth gets to expand. Over the years, this practice has led to a vibrant and healthy plant. Blessedly, my crepe myrtle doesn’t look like the mess that so many do.
If your groups ministry—whether it’s primarily Sunday School, home groups, or a mix—hasn’t seen any new groups started in years, the chances are that things aren’t growing.
So, what type of groups should you start?
Bo wisely said in our interview, “Start groups out of people’s pain or their passion.”
People have never been more aware of their pain than they are right now. Get into the business of meeting people at their pain points. Launch Financial Peace University groups to address peoples’ financial problems, grief share groups as people deal with tragedy, eldercare groups as people struggle with aging parents.
Existing groups have difficulty reaching new people because they’ve used up their “connection points.” New groups enable you to expand the number of potential connection points for people in your community.
Expect a degree of turnover in groups. Rather than seeing this as a negative, see turnover as an opportunity to expand and experiment.
The second key to a thriving groups ministry is group health. If you want your group ministry
maximize its effectiveness, ensure that all of the groups are living out the DNA you designed.
In the Strategic Envisioning process, we map out specific discipleship outcomes for your groups ministry. For example, your church may determine that groups are supposed to produce a love for God’s Word, an active prayer life, and authentic community. Once you’ve defined your discipleship outcomes, measure the effectiveness of your groups according to that criteria.
When you notice that a group is drifting away from that DNA, Bo expressed the need for setting clear expectations. Rather than scheduling a passive-aggressive training meant to “remind” leaders about your groups’ discipleship goals, communicate your expectations to leaders. Have consequences for groups that you can’t coach into health.
The exception might be decades-old groups that are unlikely to change their ways. In this case, unless they are toxic, allow them to continue as-is. However, don’t funnel any new people into these groups or promote them. Cordon them off with minimal support. Invest your time, energy, and resources into the groups that you can coach into health.
Where do I get started?
If you feel paralyzed, Bo recommends that you start by launching a new group next Sunday. Yes. Next Sunday.
Announce a one-time, one-meeting group that’s going to get together to discuss the same text or topic from your sermon. Open it up to anyone. You might just be surprised who shows up! After all, when you aren’t sure what to do, and things feel uncertain, you can’t go wrong by going back to the guiding principle for thriving groups ministry: new groups, healthy groups.
Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott)