Multi-site Church Groups Check-up

The Executive Pastor of a large multi-site church trying to revitalize their “life group ministry” once asked me what needed to happen in order for them to do groups well. I summarized the conversation thinking some insights might help you with where you’re at now.

  1. Transition “groups” from a ministry area to the way all ministries express themselves. Relationships that put Christ at the center are the basic building blocks of the Body of Christ and need to be continually and creatively communicated throughout ministry areas for every generation. Emphasize “community” and “relationships.” Build a community culture. Groups is the strategy.
  2. Don’t do a “push” for groups only once or twice a year. Offer a series every season and do it with excellence, equipping everyone to form groups inside and outside the boundaries of your campuses. This will help your people see groups as being a part of your culture versus a sermon series.
    • Emphasis and focus on groups have gotten diffused because you have many other things competing for attention at the same time (particularly in September and January).
    • Creative media and Communications have been very limited in how you have been able to support and message groups. The message and strategy has been lost amidst the noise of all the other initiatives being announced at the same time.
    • In your communications, err toward equipping the saints for the work of the ministry by challenging members to ‘start’ vs. ‘join’ a group and to think of those whom God has already put in their lives (be missional where you’re at).
  3. Challenge each ministry area to set goals utilizing healthy Christ-centered relationships as a key indicator of health. Define measurables for biblical community, such as engagement level in practicing spiritual disciplines with other believers, and refresh metrics each season.
  4. Determine how to measure the growth of relationships with spiritual focus and celebrate them in every ministry area. Communicate that group-life is the barometer of relational health at the campus level and it is the shared responsibility of all pastoral staff; not just those with “groups” as part of their staff role title. Spiritual friendships is a primary motivator and outcome of disciple-making, which is what we are called to do together as God’s people.
  5. Implement a reliable, easy-to-use tool for tracking groups and helping people find a group. Your church database should be accessible to vetted volunteer leaders and be user-friendly. Otherwise, it will not be utilized resulting in more unusable data and rendering your front-end list of open groups ineffective. Coordinate sufficient administrative support for maintaining group information, responding to connection inquiries, etc. Focus on people development over accuracy of data.
  6. Ensure there is a primary community champion with authority that’s accountable at the senior level for groups within every ministry area at each campus. Empower them to appoint and invest consistently into high-capacity volunteer leaders (Community Leaders / Coaches) who work with group leaders at each campus.
  7. Align weekend messaging with community-building initiatives as much as possible. Make sure your platform communicators and community champions are working with each other in the creative planning of weekend programming and even aspects of sermon planning. All that’s needed to create a stellar homegrown campaign is an outline for a sermon series in advance and the involvement of the Lead Pastor in communicating it on video. Checkout open.life.church for examples.

The implementation of any of these insights will bring improvement, but what makes all the difference is the dedicated buy-in and extreme ownership of the Lead Pastor. If you’re not there yet, pray and take steps forward with the ones you think are most achievable for you right now. Progress observed will inspire additional steps forward.

Keys for Building a Community Culture

Culture is something you feel. Every group of people and organization has a distinct culture. It’s the water in which you swim when you’re hanging out in an environment or with a group of people. It’s what you experience through all your senses when you are gathered with others who are a part of it.

You, for example, are experiencing more than just coffee when you sit inside a Starbucks. There is a culture that has been intentionally and artistically created to entice customers to return and build brand loyalty. Although our motivations differ, church leadership want people to return and consistently engage in their community life for infinitely more important reasons.

Pastors love it when people say their church feels like family. They just know it’s a win when folks say they feel like they belong and enjoy connecting with others each week. However, most leaders are not conscious about all the factors that make it that way. The DNA of culture must be deliberately molded, and just like a potter with clay, it is best to do it at the very beginning of a new work.

Regardless of where you would consider yourself to be in building a community culture in your church, here are eight keys I’ve discovered along the way that will help in this process:

  1. Discern God’s plan for building community in your church and reaching your surrounding community with the power of the Good News. It’s safe to assume the Lord is already at work building His Church where you minister and your primary job is to figure out how that’s happening. Invariably, it will be a community of two or more people pursuing Christ together. So how is God already moving in your midst to reach the lost?
  2. Decide together with your core leadership team how everyone will prioritize community and relationship-building. How will each one live it and lead it? The involvement of pastoral leadership in a church’s community life is the linchpin to the ongoing growth of biblical community. There is no substitute for what the most influential and visible people in the church model and advocate, particularly on the weekend.
  3. Don’t allow groups to be viewed as another ministry program/department of the church or to be perceived as something that good Christians do. A programmatic paradigm can be lethal to the life of organic community. It is not groups that we’re after ultimately…it’s what happens in them. Biblical community empowers believers and churches to function as the Body of Christ should (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:21-27).
  4. Dedicate resources towards building community. Invest time, energy, and money into the leaders and resources that serve as the life-source of community in your church. By virtue of resourcing this area of your church, you will be enhancing all There is no short-cut to healthy ministry, which flows out of healthy relationships.
  5. Discover who is gifted in communications and beat the drum of community every chance you get. You want to show and tell people what you believe about the importance of biblical community to their spiritual growth and well-being. Use all forms of communication: Platform, print, digital, visual, and stories to convey what God is doing through the community-life of your church.
  6. Design a community-life calendar and include no less than three church-wide opportunities per year for people to get plugged in. Present new ways for people to get connected in new types of groups. Feature existing groups and new group start-ups in your weekend announcements, website, social media platforms, slides, etc.
  7. Determine that every event you host or program you run will be used as an opportunity to help people take their next step toward greater engagement in your church’s community life. Churches tend to pour a lot of time and energy into planning events and the next step leadership wants people to take is an afterthought. Flip this. When events are built around a clear next step, more people are inspired to actually do something and you’ll see measurable fruit from your organized activities.
  8. Devote yourself to building a community culture. The journey will be filled with successes and set-backs, but stay with it. Study churches that do it well and read books by leaders you respect who are community-building champions themselves. Attend groups conferences and take staff and key volunteers with you. In other words, be a learner and take others along with you. Never settle.

This is all worth doing wholeheartedly because healthy spiritual relationships are essential to having a growing relationship with Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:24-25; 1 John 1:7, 3:14, 4:20). Furthermore, when spiritually lost people come to a loving community, they tend to come to Christ (Acts 2:47; John 13:34; 1 John 4:12). Building a community culture is not optional for a church that wants to advance God’s mission in the world and these keys will help you and your team in the process.

Choosing the Best Group Curriculum

A question every leader contemplates when starting a new group or season is what content they plan to use for their study focus. Sometimes, this question is answered by church leadership if your church creates weekly study material based on the weekend messages or a church-wide groups-based campaign is about to kick-off. Ultimately, you want to have a philosophy and plan in place about how to handle group curriculum.

I’m going to cut to the chase with my biases on choosing curriculum: I look for material that comes from a trusted source, matches my church’s DNA (theology, core values, language, style), is clear with its purpose, manageable in size (5-8 weeks), is designed to build relationships and activate faith (through good, open-ended, application-oriented questions vs. fill-in-the-blanks and leading/predetermined-answer questions), has creative and engaging content delivery, and isn’t too thick academically or homework-wise.

I favor interaction over watching videos together, so I look for bite-size segments vs sermon length teaching. Asking people to watch videos or do homework in advance of group meetings doesn’t seem to work for most folks and has a way of scaring off some personalities. So instead of “required” homework, I prefer material that enriches each member’s personal devotional life and challenges them to serve together, e.g. Rick Warren’s 40 Days in the Word (40ditw.org).

Most group leaders are intimidated by the idea of having a pure Bible study and just using the Word of God, which is too bad. If you discover this too, think of ways you can help them build their confidence and competency in this area. There are plenty of “through-the-Bible” or “exegetical” Bible study tools that can help including biblex.com, gospelproject.com or resources from InterVarsity Press. Regardless, a church’s point leader for groups should prepare to answer questions related to choosing and using curriculum for maximum impact.

Familiarize yourself with what’s out there. There’s a lot of great materials available to stream Netflix-style through online resource houses like rightnowmedia.org. If leaders can’t find a digital ‘on demand’ solution, they will probably look to you for guidance so here is a list of twelve criteria designed to help you think through the best choices for group curriculum with your group leaders:

Criteria to Consider Question for Leader
Publisher / Author Does the study come from a reputable source?
Theology Does the group curriculum look to the Bible as its source of truth and concentrate on the essentials of our Christian faith?
Communication Does the language, emphasis and style of what’s being communicated reflect our church’s DNA?
Purpose Does the curriculum goal or purpose support your group’s focus this upcoming season?
Duration Do the number of sessions required to work through the group material make it a reasonable commitment for new or existing members?
Video If your group curriculum is video-driven, does the average length of each segment work easily within your allotted meeting time?
Engaging Is the delivery of the content dynamic or boring?
Scripture Does the content do a good job at referencing Scripture and getting group members to dig deeper into God’s Word?
Questions Are the questions designed to be thought-provoking, stimulate conversation, and promote life application?
Homework If there is homework, how much are participants being asked to do in advance of meetings? How do you think group members will respond to this idea?
Access & Cost How easy does the access and cost of the material make it for people to join in? (This varies depending on whether the content is for the leader or the members, if it can be downloaded, etc. Find cost effective options.)
Chemistry Does the content fit the personality of the group? In other words, based on what you know about your group members, do you think they will resonate with the “feel” of the curriculum and the style in which it’s communicated?

If you’re not the lead/senior pastor, I recommend having a conversation and learning their preferences. A simple step like this might even inspire greater alignment between the weekend programming and group life of your church!

I always like to remind group leaders that curriculum is meant to serve the group – not the other way around. Always be flexible and prepared to scrap the material if it feels like the energy of the group is waning. Essentially, the group curriculum you choose should support the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. It shouldn’t feel like a chore to get through it…it should be inspirational and challenging!

At the end of each season in a group’s life together, you want to see evidence of people loving Jesus more, loving others more, loving God’s Word more, and loving lost people more. Remind group leaders of this and how the Lord will use them, their group members, and many other factors, including the curriculum, in the process.

Guiding Group Logistics

It doesn’t take long for a list of questions to grow as people think about starting or joining a group. During the initial orientation of new group leaders, I work with them to create a “group profile” that provides potential members with a snapshot of the new group. It also helps the leaders-in-training process through questions that need to be answered so everyone understands the commitment involved.

Here’s a list of group meeting details to address up-front along with some things to think about as you guide them:

GROUP PROFILE FIELD THINGS TO CONSIDER
Group Leader Name I like to make the name and contact info of the leader easy to see and access for potential group members. This can be tailored to the preferences of the group leader and can include best time to contact.
Group Leader Contact Info
Type of Group It’s good to be clear on who the group is for, e.g. men, women, married, shared interest, families, young adults, etc.
Title of Group My church combines the Group Leader Name and Type of Group to create the Title of Group, e.g. Reid Smith Men’s Group
Start Date List both the day and date and maybe clarify that people are welcome any time after it launches.
Duration of Upcoming Season Most groups organize around a study or season that runs for a certain number of weeks. Some group leaders could have the intention of meeting for a year or more, but I recommend featuring the group duration in more of a “bite-size” way. You can’t force commitment, but you can grow it after people form relationships they want to continue building.
Start & End Time It’s important to set the expectation that groups will start AND end at specific times. That doesn’t mean members can’t come earlier or stay later. You just need to be clear so newcomers know whether it can work considering their commute, children, etc.
Frequency of Meeting Most groups meet weekly or every other week, which is advisable because groups that meet less frequently make it harder for relationships to grow. Plus, if people miss just one session of a group that meets monthly, they just missed a sixth of the whole year!
Basic Description of Group Encourage brevity here – no more than three sentences that conveys the make-up and purpose of the group. Only the most critical things should be communicated – set expectations.
Current Focus/Study Groups are organic and will change with each passing season. One area where this is evident is the curriculum it chooses to use or what its emphasis might be for a period of time. It’s also good to clarify here if materials are provided or need to be purchased in advance.
Meeting Location Oftentimes, it’s helpful to have somebody else besides the leader carry the responsibility of hosting the group. If you or the host home is uncomfortable displaying the full street address – at least feature the city so people can answer the proximity question.
Childcare This can be addressed simply by saying “unavailable” or “available – contact the leader for more details.” Depending on the prospective member’s stage of life, this can be a ‘make or break’ factor in their decision-making.
Current Group Members Ask this of new group leaders too because you never know if they already started to form a core group before “going public!” This would not be listed publicly, but it is good for you to know who is connected, which you can’t do without the help of your group leadership. This is ever-changing, but even if you get feedback once per semester/season – it’s enough to reveal helpful trends.

The logistics of your groups collectively reveals the philosophy backing your community disciple-making strategy. Logistics influence culture, so take the time to answer what you believe about the following questions:

  • Should I allow groups to meet onsite in the church building (permanently or only for a season) or should I set the expectation from the beginning that all groups meet offsite?
  • Will I direct groups to be always be “open” or can they be “closed” (or full)? If the latter, will this only be permitted for a limited time for specific reasons?
  • Do I want to “segment” group life into semesters so there are clear on and off-ramps for people into the community life of my church? If I choose a “semester system,” how will I formalize this with my group leaders and get their participatory buy-in?
  • What kind of parameters will I give to group leaders in terms of their meeting frequency, format, and focus?
  • What studies will I recommend to leaders? How will they select and use them? Will you purchase resources for your group leaders and have them return to you for reuse?

There’s a lot to consider within each ‘Group Profile Field’ and group leaders will need your guidance as they create a picture of what they anticipate their group will look like. Whether people are thinking about starting or joining a group, these details are important guideposts that will help people connect and grow together in Christ!

Challenging Paradigms

All of us come to the table with our own experience, biases, and presumptions about what works best with starting and multiplying healthy groups in a church. Over time, paradigms (or ways of thinking) about groups formulate in our minds, which in turn influence the culture of community being built. This is natural, but should be challenged so the culture of community in your church is being shaped strategically around informed convictions instead of unchallenged paradigms.

One of the best ways of challenging paradigms is by asking questions. As you search God’s Word and your heart, your paradigms might change or be further solidified. These inquiries are meant to be thought-provoking and are good to process with other trusted leaders whether or not you’ve launched groups in your church yet.

Are you ready to begin building a strategic culture of community in your church? Clear your mind and honestly grapple with these 10 questions:

  1. Do you think of groups as a “ministry” of your church or as the building blocks of every ministry area of your church?
  2. Is there a clear vision for groups? What language does leadership intentionally use to support this vision?
  3. Does your church put more emphasis on joining or starting groups? What are the pros and cons of the language leadership uses to support this emphasis?
  4. Do you consider it to be more advantageous to have a broad/open-ended or narrow/specific definition of what constitutes a “group” in your church? Explain why.
  5. What is the primary motivation of getting people in groups? (Retention, member care, increasing engagement in church activities / volunteerism, spiritual maturity, mission, etc.) Are other critical things being under-communicated as a result of this emphasis?
  6. On a scale of 1-10 (with ‘1’ being “if I have time and feel like it” to ‘10’ being “a vital spiritual habit I prioritize weekly”), how important do you think your average church member views their personal involvement in a group? Explain why.
  7. What are the qualifications for serving as a group leader? Would you consider yourself to have a high or low bar? Explain why.
  8. Do you have an ongoing rhythm of equipping leaders after they get started? Describe any gap you see between what it looks like now and what you think it should look like.
  9. What does success look like to your group leadership? How is it measured and celebrated?
  10. How is growth and multiplication built into the way groups are communicated and stewarded in your church?

It is actually a good thing if you’re walking away from this exercise with more questions than answers. Take your time to figure out how the Lord wants you to plant, prioritize, and prune your group life so Christ-centered community can grow healthy and strong.

If you’re not the Lead/Senior Pastor, then find a way to process these questions together, agree on responses, and document them. This will establish and maintain a strategic culture of community that will start and multiply healthy groups throughout your church moving forward.