Timing is Everything in Small Groups

I have a love/hate relationship with small groups. I love the community that comes from them, but I’m constantly frustrated on how hard it is to get people to show up. You can read more about my frustrations here, here, and here. But today’s post isn’t about venting my frustrations. It’s about timing, and when it comes to small groups, timing is everything.

all-by-myself

Last Fall I did a small group based around Andy Stanley’s sermon series “Staying in Love.” My wife and I love talking about marriage with other couples, and we’ve always had success getting people to show up. This group was no different. In fact, this group had so many couples sign up that we had to divide it into two different groups. It was a huge success.

Now, fast-forward a few months to this Spring, the month of May to be exact. My church launched a church-wide campaign around a series titled “From This Day Forward.” It was a five-week marriage series very similar to the group we had done in the Fall. My wife and I once again decided to host a group, only this time the results were much different. In fact no one showed up. Ok, one couple showed up one week, but that was it.

What happened? Did we suddenly lose all of our friends? Had people grown tired of talking about marriage? Were the snacks we offered not up to par with other groups? Possibly…but I think the more likely answer was bad timing.

Certain times are better for small groups than others. So, here are a few things you need to think about before scheduling your group.

  1. Time of the Year

Certain times of the year are busier than others. Plan on doing a group in December? Forget about it. Trying one over the summer? Good luck. I’ve found the best time of year for most people happens January to March and September to November. That just seems to be the sweet spot for small groups.

  1. Day of the Week

Weekends are generally off limits when it comes to group participation. People like their days off and try to keep them. The exception may be Sunday evenings. Some people who may have a history of going to church on Sunday evenings will be more likely to attend a group at that time, unless it’s football season, of course. Wednesday night is another good option. The other days of the week seem to be hit and miss depending on people’s schedules.

  1. Time of the Day

The biggest mistake I made with my group in May is scheduling it for Sunday afternoons right after service. I thought it made perfect sense. Why not eat lunch and talk about the message right after you’ve heard it? The problem is families do not like giving up their Sunday afternoons. When it comes to the time of day, evenings almost always work best.

When it comes to small groups, I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers. In fact I have very few answers. These are a few suggestions I would give to those starting out, but remember results may vary.

When have you found is the best time to launch groups? Let us know in the comments below, and if you haven’t already make sure to subscribe to the blog to get tips on church growth, leadership, and more delivered straight to your inbox.

3 Obstacles to Growing Groups in a Small Town

Few things frustrate me as much as trying to grow a groups’ ministry in a small town. What makes it worse is all the experts who seem to have groups’ ministry figured out. Somehow, they never seem to have to deal with the same obstacles that I have to deal with.

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That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy groups. Quite the contrary, I’ve loved every group I’ve ever been a part of. But I’ve come to realize recruiting group leaders and group attenders comes with a lot of obstacles–obstacles that most books and blog posts aren’t going to talk about.

Obstacles like…

  • What do we do with the kids? That’s easy, right? Hire a babysitter because everyone in a small town has plenty of money to pay another ten to twenty dollars a week to attend a gathering that they’re already unsure about. I have a hard enough time trying to find a babysitter to watch my kids when I want to take my wife on a date. Now, I have to find one during the week.

Simple fix, bring the kids to group with you. What group leader wouldn’t want an extra ten to twelve kids tearing down their house? Overly dramatic? Maybe…maybe not. We’ve seen and heard about multiple things broke in homes, including a kid’s arm.

  • How do we find the time? For most people, living in a small town means a longer commute to work for both husband and wife. My wife drives 45 minutes each way. On the days she works, it’s not uncommon for her to arrive home after 6pm. That gives us about two hours to eat dinner, give the kids a bath, and do any homework before their bedtime. Good luck trying to fit a group into that window.

That scenario is not taking into consideration the times during the year when the kids are involved in extracurricular activities. And let’s be honest, if you don’t have your kids in at least one extracurricular activity, you’re the exception not the norm. In the spring, our six year old will be playing tee ball. That means two practices a week, and a game or two every Saturday for roughly three months. Which means I’m unavailable March, April, May, and part of June for All Stars.

  • What if someone weird shows up? I’m sure it doesn’t happen at your church, but weird people show up to my church. It’s kind of a side effect of being really nice to everyone and offering free doughnuts. If you need help identifying them, they’re usually the people who hang around after service to talk to the pastor. All the normal people tend to go home.

You may know them by different names such as: the really smelly guy, the woman who disguises gossip for prayer requests, the guy who looks like an 80’s porn star, and the kid who just devoured a dozen doughnuts.

Now you may be so holy that you can’t wait to wash Weirdo’s feet, but for the rest of us, we’re scared to death that they’re going to sign up for our group. By week two, it’s going to be just us and Smelly there because everyone else abandoned ship.

These are just a few of the obstacles I’ve been thinking through, but I’m sure there’s more. This has led me to ask myself, how much community do we really need? I mean we’re already more connected than ever before because of social media. Our families are involved in so many things. At what point are we asking too much of our people? How can we make sure groups are a blessing, and not a burden? That’s the question I’m trying to figure out.

Do you offer groups at your church? Do you think it’s working? I’d love to hear from some small town pastors who have figured this out.

Small Groups for the Rest of Us

An Interview with Chris Surratt

One of my favorite reads of the year so far has been Small Groups for the Rest of Us: How to Design Your Small Groups System to Reach the Fringes by Chris Surratt. It is the best and most practical book I’ve read on creating a small group system in your church. Imagine my excitement when Chris agreed to let me ask him a few questions about his new book, and how to make small groups work for your church.

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  1. Your new book is “Small Groups for the Rest of Us”, who are the “Rest of Us”?

As an introvert by nature, I have always felt left out by most small group systems. Between the connection hoops and the demand to share my secret sins in a room full of strangers, small groups felt like an intimidating concept. While thinking through how we could better design a system to reach people like me, I started running into other groups of people we were missing through our processes. If we were going to say we believed in community for everyone, what does that look like? The typical small group system is designed for the typical church attender. We have to begin thinking differently if we want to reach the people on the fringes.

  1. In your book you say, to the church outsider small groups are weird, I totally agree, how can the church overcome that perception?

I think a good start would be to acknowledge the awkwardness from the beginning. When pitching the idea of small groups to our congregations, the tendency is to only play up the potential benefits – which there are many – but a lot of people are only thinking about how scary and weird it seems to show up at a stranger’s house and “do life together.” Church leaders should publicly acknowledge how big a step joining a group is and offer to make it as easy and weird-free as possible.

  1. Would you say message studies based around the Sunday sermon are the best curriculum for groups, why or why not?

I think they are great starting point for any group. I don’t believe every group should do them or groups should use them forever, but well written sermon-based studies take a lot of the potential hurdles away for a new group. There is no cost. Homework for the group members is showing up for church or listening to the podcast. It reinforces the message beyond Sunday morning. New groups can use them for a semester while they get a pulse on what type of group they have.

  1. I love the idea of the group curriculum menu that you discuss in your book, do you think narrowing the options helps produce more leaders?

Producing a curriculum menu or map has several benefits for groups.

  • It takes the burden of what to study next off of the small group leader and puts it on the staff. Most group leaders want to be lead on what their group should be studying. Any step that we can take off of our leaders will help attract new leaders.
  • It gives a clearly defined discipleship path for groups to follow.
  • It gives doctrinal fences for the groups to stay in. There a lot of curriculum choices out there, and not all of them will line up with your church’s dogma.
  1. You talk about how important it is for the Senior Pastor to be involved in a group, why do so many pastors resist this?

It’s scary for some senior leaders to think about exposing their lives to a small group of church attenders. That’s why I believe it’s important to allow the pastor to hand pick his group if possible. It’s also essential to give him the option of not leading the group. He has to lead everything else, so a small group should be an environment where there is safety and low-pressure to “perform.”

  1. Can you talk about the difference between open groups and closed groups, and why churches need both?

Open and closed groups can serve different purposes in a discipleship ministry. For instance, closed groups can have more accountability for spiritual growth than an open group. An open group can be more evangelistic by leaving room for for neighbors and friends to join. However, there are downsides to both. Closed groups can become stale and stop growing spiritually if together for too long. Open groups are difficult for new people to join because they already have established relationships. It’s like joining a new school in 10th grade.

  1. In the book you state, “Our goal for small groups is to feed people into our ministry teams as they discover their gifts for service in the church.”. Can that happen in a fun group, like volleyball or date night? Why or why not?

It can definitely happen, but I believe you have to make sure to define what the expectations for a small group are before labeling everything in the church a group. An affinity group can work well for assimilating someone into serving in the church, but are they being discipled? What is the mechanism for helping someone take their next step and can a volleyball group provide it? Those are questions every church has to think through when designing their discipleship system.

  1. What would be your best piece of advice for a pastor who is wanting to begin a small group ministry in his or her church?

Read and attend everything you possibly can. When I took over the small group ministry at my last church, I immersed myself in every book and blog written on the topic. And I know a pretty good book to start with! 🙂 There are also great conferences put on by churches who have been there and done that. Find a way to attend one and connect with as many other practitioners as possible. The small group world loves to support each other. The Small Group Network is an awesome community to be a part of. Please don’t do it alone!

Chris Surratt is a ministry consultant and coach with over twenty-two years of experience serving the local church. Chris served on the Executive Teams at Cross Point Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and Seacoast Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He also manages SmallGroup.com for LifeWay Christian Resources. Chris’s first book, Small Groups For The Rest Of Us: How to Design Your Small Groups System to Reach the Fringes, was just released by Thomas Nelson.