Practical Tips for Effective, Multiplying Groups
I shared in our most recent quarterly edition of The Unstuck Church Report: Benchmarks & Trends in Church Health that our data is showing one of the key differences between healthy growing and declining churches is that healthier churches have home-based groups as one of the primary ministries of the church.
There’s something about building community in somebody’s home that’s just a little bit easier than a classroom—with one big caveat. You have to have a lot of leaders for it to scale. And developing more leaders seems to always be something pastors tell me they are struggling to manage their time well enough to do.
So, how do you develop more small group leaders? Turns out, an emphasis on multiplication is one of the things churches tend to leave out of their small groups strategy. It’s also one of the things that helps you develop more small group leaders.
In this episode, I invited Chris Surratt to speak into this topic. You may know Chris from his work at several large multisite churches, including SeaCoast Church in South Carolina, CrossPoint in Nashville. Or you may know him from his work as the Discipleship and Small Groups Specialist at LifeWay. Or as the author of Small Groups for the Rest of Us. Or because he’s on my team at The Unstuck Group as a ministry consultant.
And if you don’t know Chris, just listen to the episode. He’s a wealth of experience and practical wisdom when it comes to small groups.
Here are a few of the highlights from our conversation:
- Why you should focus your group leaders to be thinking beyond just the people already in their living rooms
- Practical tips for effective, multiplying groups
- How the language churches tend to use when talking about group multiplication sabotages the goal
- The best strategies for continually launching new groups AND for developing more leaders
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Welcome to the Unstuck Church Podcast where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. This week on the podcast, Tony sits down with Chris Surratt, author and small group specialists at Lifeway Christian Resources, for a conversation on why growing churches are utilizing the home group strategy and some practical tips for how group leaders can build effective, multiplying small groups. As you listen to this week’s podcast, you can join the conversation by using the #unstuckchurch and posting your question or comment to your favorite social media channel. Connect with Tony, Amy, myself, and our Unstuck team and get your ministry specific questions answered. And don’t forget to subscribe and get the show notes in your inbox every single week. You’ll get one email with all of the information, including the leader guide, the resources that we mention during the episode, and bonus resources to go along with what you hear. You can sign up by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. And now here’s the conversation with Tony and Chris Surratt.
Chris, first of all, thanks for sending me the new book, Leading Small Groups. This is actually kind of the second book in a series, am I correct?
It’s the second book. I don’t know if it’s exactly a series, but yes. I wrote another small groups book in 2015 called Small Groups for the Rest of Us, and this one is Leading Small Groups. I want to know first, did you enjoy the moon pie?
I did. I really appreciated that. So, you wrote the first book and now the second one. What prompted you to write this specific book?
The first one was really for the small groups point person or pastor or director on staff. So I talked about systems and how to build a good small group system and what does that look like from a staff position. So that’s how that book was about. I wanted to write one that was specifically for the small group leader because it can be intimidating; it can be complicating to think about starting a small group. There’s a lot of details to think through and there’s a lot of pressure when it comes to the word leader, what does that mean? You know, how do I do this? Is anybody going to show up if they, if I don’t like them, what do I do with them? Once they’ve shown up, there’s all these little details that we have to think through.
When starting a small group, so I wanted to write a book that could kind of be a manual from, you know, how do I even start thinking about who will be in my small group? Who should I invite? Who do I need to reach out to? You know, what does that look like to, you know, where should I host it? Is my home okay? Should I host it somewhere else? What night of the week works works the best? And then, how do I pick a Bible study? How do I lead a discussion? How do I facilitate a conversation? And then ultimately, how do I multiply? So I wanted to write a book that kind of took them through the stages, so that’s what Leading Small Groups is – it’s for the small group leader so somebody can pick it up.
Maybe they’ve already launched the group but they can turn to the leading section and kind of get some tips on how to lead better. It’s also for the small group’s point person because they can buy all of their leaders the book and give it to them or they can develop training around the different sections, which I’ve already heard from a lot of churches that are doing that. So that’s what this book was for was for that leader or that potential leader who’s thinking about starting a small group.
Chris, I know you’re aware of this as well, but The Unstuck Group in the last couple of years has done a lot of research looking at healthy growing churches and then churches that are plateaued and decline. It’s probably is not going to be a surprise to you when we dive into the data. What we’re seeing is one of the key differences between healthy growing and declining churches is that healthy churches have home groups. It’s one of the primary ministries of the church. And I’m just curious from your perspective, I mean I know you’re a small groups guy, but why do you think it is? Why, what, what’s, what is it about home groups, small groups that is helping these churches become healthier and actually experience growth as well?
I think there’s several reasons. A big part of it is just feeling connected: that’s a big part of small groups. When you go to church, most people are looking for community; they’re looking to get connected with somebody else. And small groups do that really well. Serving teams do that to some degree. You can get connected in a parking lot team or a kid’s team or a student team and serve and that’s great, but usually that ends when the service ends, so you go home and you probably don’t do anything outside of that. Small groups or just another step, you can get connected with people, you can get friendship and it just connects people in when they might drop through the cracks. So that’s a big deal for a lot of churches.
But I think even beyond that it’s how do we help our people grow spiritually? We want to take them from where they are to their next steps, and honestly, Tony, I don’t know a better environment for that then a small group of people. I mean definitely listening to a message I can grow, I can get tips, but then how do I live it out in my everyday life? And so that’s discussed in my small group. I have a small group with my wife and every week we take what we hear on Sunday and we apply it and talk about it and then we follow up on it the next week: how are you guys doing? Did you struggle this week in this area? Let’s talk about that. So if a church wants to grow, not just numerically, it’s important, but if you want to grow your believers, which I think the numbers will follow, then small groups are a great way to do that.
Is that the only way? No, there’s other environments where people can grow. Other ministries, men’s ministry, women’s ministries. But for me, it’s that, you know, 12 to 16 people sitting in my living room helping me on a daily basis, connecting outside of that group time. That helps me grow personally. I’m a professional church guy. I’ve been on staff, you know, churches for 20 some years. I’ve heard all the verses, but if I don’t have that small group of people that I’m really not growing. So I think that’s the key; that’s why churches should offer groups. And I think there’s also something to that home group part. There’s something about building community in somebody’s home that’s a little bit easier than maybe a classroom or somewhere like that.
I love the book. And by the way, Chris, you know this, but the listeners, I lead a small group as well with my wife, Emily, so I always appreciate when I as a small group leader can get advice in a few areas that I’m finding tend to be challenges even for myself as a leader. I think one of the challenges has to do with the multiplication because I don’t want to just get to a place where with my group we’re only focused on just those of us in our living room, but eventually we’re figuring out how can we expand and multiply what we’re learning and really multiply disciples then through the small group strategy. That’s part of what Emily and I personally want to see through our group as well. I know it’s multiplication that is actually one of the elements that’s commonly left out of small group strategies. So, can you share why multiplication is a key ingredient for a healthy small group?
It’s a big reason actually why I wrote the book. I talked to churches all the time about small groups and one of their biggest struggles is how do we get our groups to multiply? I totally get it. Once you’re in a small group of people and you get comfortable with those people, it’s hard to think about multiplication; starting another group. And then we tend to put some negative language around it. We’ll say split or divide, and that’s, that’s not really what we’re doing. Really the reason for multiplication goes back to what you said was creating disciples. If you look at 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul lays out four generations of disciples in that one verse verse. I mean, he’s talking to Timothy, he says, you know, commit this to faithful men and then also to others outside of that.
So that’s four generations. That’s Paul, it’s Timothy, that’s faithful men and that’s others. And I think if we’re going to create those generations of disciples, the best way that we’re going to do that is by creating new small groups. Well, how do we create new small groups? Well, the best way is to raise up leaders, which is discipleship. If you’re raising up a leader in your group then you are discipling them, and then either sending them out to start a new group, which happened to happens a lot. We’ve done that through the years with our small groups or letting them take the existing group and then you as the leader, as the disciple maker, is generation one stepping out and starting a new group. A lot of times that’s easier because there’s already some relational equity there with that secondary leader so they can more easily step in than step out.
And then I think a piece that we missed with the multiplication is we think that’s it: Okay, we’re leaving that group, we’re never going to see them again or never got to talk to them again. But honestly, you know, you can still do group together. You can meet together once a month, you could do missional opportunities through the year together. And also it creates a natural coaching kind of position where that original small group leader continues to coach and disciple that other small group leader as they start their group and they start the process over. So, it’s not easy and not every small group is going to walk through this one, two, three, like easy steps. But I think if you can, you’re going to be able to create those generations of disciples that you would not have if you would just state us four and no more, you know, with within your group. So multiplication is important. That’s why I made it a whole section of this book.
All right. So, honestly, I don’t know if any of the of the group members in our personal group listen to my podcast. So let me ask this question this way. I have a friend that that leads a small group and he has suggested that he has a challenge with cohesion and consistency. In other words, sometimes he’s feeling like the people in the group just aren’t clicking or people aren’t attending consistently. What advice would you give to my friend who’s a small group leader, Chris?
Well, I would say to your friend, which it’s kind of funny, my small group now listens to my podcast and I can’t make up stories anymore. I gotta tell the true story. I would tell your friend that consistency is one of the main group killers. Getting into your group and then the group doesn’t meet consistent consistently, they cancel a lot or they may switch meeting times or meeting places and you know, after awhile people will just give up. And you know, joining a small group is not not easy. I know talking to you over the years, Tony, you weren’t always the biggest small group proponent, but it’s another layer of time that we have to put in. Most of us don’t have it just outright – we’ve got schedules and kids schedules and all that stuff, and so to ask somebody to give up another hour and a half, two hours of the week and go to a small group is a big ask.
So then if you make that inconsistent and they don’t know what’s coming from week to week, it’s going to make it that much harder. So I would say it’s important that when groups are launched that you have the right expectations for the group. So when my group launches, every semester we have a group covenant or a group agreement where we lay out, this is when we’re gonna meet, the days we’re going to meet, we’re going to have childcare and not have childcare, you guys are going to be responsible for bringing food or not bringing food. All of these are laid out in a document, and then a part of it is if you’re going to miss or not be consistent, you’re going to let the group know. This may not be the group for you. If you’re not going to be able to make it on a consistent basis, this may not be this semester or the group.
Speaker 4: (12:44)
And so it’s launching with those right expectations, having maybe a vision statement for the group at the beginning: this is why we exist as a group. We’re going to gather together on Tuesday nights at seven o’clock so we can help each other grow spiritually and also make new friends. It’s being consistent, being upfront with that when you launch your group and it’s easy to cancel. I know, trust me, Tuesday nights, seven o’clock, I’ve got kids, I’ve got a dog that occasionally likes to throw up in the kitchen like 10 minutes before group and or people start saying, “Oh, we can’t make it, we can make it.” and you’re down to like three or four people, let’s just call it. As a group leader, as much as you can stay consistent, keep those group meetings going. Some of our best meetings have been just with three or four people, you know, we’re in the living room or we get to gather around the table, which we never get to because we have 13 people in our group and we have those conversations that wouldn’t have happened. So it’s being consistent and then, you know, don’t cancel, stay at it. You know your group they’ll stay at it if you stay at it.
So are there any other common mistakes that you see a group leaders making, Chris? Any other practical tips for group leaders around some of the common mistakes you’re seeing?
There are common mistakes that I see all the time. One is not inviting enough people. If you’re starting a brand new group, not inviting enough people to that group because the statistics play out that not everyone is going to come to your group that you invite, you want them to, but people are going to be in your group for a reason and for a season. So you want to always invite more people than your home can comfortably handle. I mean for instance, we just launched a brand new group about a year and a half ago and we live in a pretty small kind of inner city condo kind of house and we can comfortably seat 12 people. Well, we invited about 25 and ended up with about 18 on the first night; ended up consistently with about 12. That plays itself out. So invite enough people so you know that not all of them are going to show up. And then also just some of those pick the right night, pick a good time. For instance, our group is a young professional group. It just kind of landed that way. My wife and I are not, but that’s who lives in our area. They don’t like early start times. I mean we go to bed at nine o’clock now we’re old like you Tony.
I just presumed that, you know?
I’m freaking old Chris.
Speaker 4: (15:34)
Well, it’s our bedtime now. But you know, the people that are in our group, they’re 23-25 years old. They don’t get off work until six o’clock so we can’t start our group until seven o’clock, it’s over at 9:30, people are leaving at 10:00 10:30 it’s a late night. That’s not our preference, but that’s who we’re reaching. And so if we got really, you know, this is what we have to do, we got to start at 5:30, 6:00 the group probably wouldn’t do very well. So it’s just thinking through who are you going to invite; invite more than than you think you need or can handle and then set a good time. And also pick a study that fits who you’re reaching. You know, if we pick the studies that we wanted to do, my wife and I, it probably wouldn’t speak to the people that are in our group as much. So it’s just kind of thinking some of those details that will help your group start and then also last and continue and hopefully eventually multiply.
So sometimes in order to make me feel better as a leader, I like to hear the stories, funny stories of leaders maybe not being so effective leading. I was reading your book and you kind of a funny story about a group leader that maybe this wasn’t a strategy you wanted them to live out in the leadership of the group, Chris?
Yeah, this was the craziest one I’ve have seen in my many, many small group years, but we had a coach visit a small group several years ago. This is when The Matrix, the movie, The Matrix was a big deal. And somebody had written, a pastor had actually written a book about The Matrix and he took it from a biblical perspective, which is interesting on the face of it. But he did it. And so this leader decided that that was going to be their study they were going to do it on The Matrix. I don’t remember it was the gospel of the Matrix or something like that, but that is going to be, which is fine, but the coach went to visit the group and it was awkward from the beginning, but you can kind of imagine with that as your topic. But anyways, there was about two other people in the group. They sat down for the discussion and the group leader just launched into literally acting out a scene from the movie, The Matrix.
So they didn’t show the movie, he acted out the scene?
All the parts plus the sound effects, and the whole thing took about probably five, seven minutes to act out the scene. Then he sat down and said, “Okay, what do you guys think?” And parser silence, you know, so maybe he was reaching those two people, I don’t know. But the coach said, you may look at other ways of doing the book, but maybe not act out the scene. But yeah, that’s one of my favorites.
All right, that does lead to, I think a common question. If as a small group leader, you’re not getting guidance from your church on curriculum at, what would you suggest to a leader as far as, because there are so many options for curriculum out there, what would you suggest? What are some best practices that you’re seeing, Chris?
There are a lot of options. And if you just went to Amazon and search Bible Study, you’re going to get overwhelmed. I think having a balanced plan for your curriculum is good. So thinking through first, where are your small group members in life? You know, what, what kind of issues are they facing? For example, our group, again as a young professional group, and so a lot of their issues tend to be time issues. You know, they’re working long hours, they’re having financial struggles, and so a study that we’re doing in house called Making Space. It’s by Jeff Vanderstelt is a great study – it goes through how do we best use our time? It’s really a study through Proverbs, but it’s how do we, in a biblical way, in a Gospel centered way, you know, use our time, use our money, use our resources.
And so that fits our group well on this season that they’re in. Now, if I just stuck with kind of those felt needs then our group probably wouldn’t grow much out of that. So probably our next study will be more of a kind of a Bible study. So we’ll do, you know, we did that before we dug into the book of Genesis with the good Bible study on Genesis, but we’ll come back to those. But it’s having a balanced look at it. You know, we’ll tend to do studies that we’re comfortable with. That’s kind of in our wheelhouse to talk about. But then we don’t grow, we don’t stretch and we don’t come out of that. So it’s getting some help. You know, I’ll just give you one resource site, the go-to, it’s called lifeway.com/abalanceddiscipleship. On that you’ll see kind of a wheel that takes people through different attributes of a disciple and then some suggestions for curriculum. There’s other sites out there, but it’s, you know, having a balanced look at it and then knowing who’s in your group, what do they need. And also don’t take a vote on it because that never works. It’s never worked. In groups maybe get a feel for it. Know who your group is, but in the, at the end of the day, you as the group leader here need to choose what your group’s going to study.
That’s right. All right. So Chris, the reality is there probably are a lot of people listening that are leading a group themselves, but the vast majority of people that are listening, they’re leading the small group strategy in their churches. And so, how could those leaders leverage this book specifically for their small group strategy? What would you suggest?
I would suggest one, if you can buy the book for all of your leaders. You can get bulk discounts at different places, so I would suggest doing that. Then I would look at the possibility of building training around each section of the book. And I broke it up that way on purpose so the small group point person can take draining and talk about how do you gather your small group, do two or three training pieces on that. Then how do you launch your small group? Do a couple of pieces on that. How do you lead your small group? There’s obviously a lot of training you can do around that. And then finally, how do you multiply your small group? And I wouldn’t do all of those training pieces at one time. I would do a training for brand new group leaders.
So how do we gather in launch? And then existing leaders, they need ongoing training. So do something online with maybe some videos. I actually shot some videos to go along with the book that you can get at lifeway.com/groupsministry, but you can shoot your own. But shoot, you know, two or three, five minute videos on those sections that are reinforced by the book. It’s just kind of a blueprint, a guideline that you can use to help your group leaders go all the way from, we have no clue what we’re doing, how do we even invite people? All the way to, you know what, we’ve been together for a while. It’s time to multiply. We need to create generations of disciples, and kind of walks them through that process.
Chris, I really appreciate how you’re helping to equip churches and church leaders and in this specific case, small group leaders in our churches. But more than my appreciation, the people in my personal small group really appreciate the fact that you wrote this book too. So thanks for doing that, Chris.
You’re welcome. And thanks for having me, Tony. This is great.