“It took me two years to find a small group,” a young lady at my church once told me. She stuck it out a long time until she finally got plugged into our church.
But how many dozens of others came and left because they couldn’t meet people, build relationships, and experience community? I realized in that conversation – which took place during my candidating weekend for the position in which I now serve – that one my first goals would be to build a system for plugging people into our small groups ministry.
What we didn’t do
I didn’t want to reinvent the proverbial wheel, so I started researching how other churches did assimilated people into small groups. Lots of churches hold an event where anyone who is interested in a group can come and find a group that works for them.
There are two problems I’ve found with this approach. The first is that it is a big undertaking administratively, and there is no guarantee many people will come. The second is that it doesn’t scale – you only get people into groups if you keep doing the event regularly.
So we opted to go in a different direction. The decision we made enabled us to grow from about 400 people attending small groups to about 525 in the first eight months of implementing our system. If you do the math, the addition of 125 people constitutes a little over 31% growth. It also pushed our small group attendance from about 40% of our Sunday morning attendance to over 50% (our goal is to hit 80% eventually).
So what did we do to make this leap in small group attendance?
(Warning: prepare yourself to be massively underwhelmed.)
The simple action that led to our growth
The brilliant move we made to grow our small group ministry was printing sign-up sheets.
Previously, the only way you could connect to a small group was if you knew someone at the church who could point you to one, or by browsing small groups on our website and contacting them – both difficult hurdles for newcomers. In other words, it was almost entirely up to the individual to plug themselves into a group.
Now we have a system where we do it for them. Our sign-up sheets have check boxes where you indicate the type of group you’re interested in, where you could travel to meet with a group, and whether you are interested in starting a group of your own (which has helped us launch a few new small groups).
Okay, so maybe this is an obvious way to streamline getting people plugged into small groups. But we didn’t have any way for people to sign up! Not having a simple, easy way for people to get into a group was costing our church many, many community opportunities, as the quick growth results indicate.
Where do we have these forms?
- At our main entrance.
- At our secondary entrance, where the receptionist desk is.
- At our information table.
- At our newcomers’ lunches.
- In our membership application.
- And, soon to come, on our new visitor connection cards.
- On our website.
That seems too easy…is there a catch? Yeah, three of them.
In retrospect, we had three things going for us already that made the simple addition of a sign-up sheet such a game changer.
Catch #1: Many of our groups were open to accepting new people. One of the problems I have heard from several people in our church is that although they knew people they would like to be in a small group with, those small groups were “closed” to new folks looking for a group. However, once we had someone’s info – including what kind of group they were looking for – we could connect them with “open” groups that fit their profile, but that they didn’t know existed.
Catch #2: We had a lot of “open” groups that had space for new people. Many of our “open” groups were newer, and had only 6-8 people attending. They were eager to welcome new people into their group. Many of these groups now have 10-12 people.
Catch #3: We had someone to play matchmaker behind the scenes. We have an administrative assistant who connects small group leaders with people who turn in sign-up sheets. He does a lot of emailing back and forth between the people looking and the leaders so that people can get plugged into a group. Our goal is for someone to be able to visit a group within two weeks of turning in a sign-up sheet – a massive improvement over two-years.
Where we are going from here
Although this growth is great, it’s not sustainable. Eventually all the groups we have will grow too large to accommodate new people. I realize now I need to focus more attention on starting new groups – whether by recruiting new leaders to start new groups, or by encouraging current groups to send capable people from their group to plant a new group.
I have a feeling that is going to take a little more than a sign-up sheet.