4 questions guests have about your Bible study group

Unless you’ve been a guest in a Bible study group lately, you’ve probably forgotten what it’s like to be an outsider. It’s not fun.

Today people are visiting your church’s worship service long before they attempt to visit a Bible study group. Guests have all kinds of questions about what takes place in our groups. Although we know what happens, they do not. Unanswered questions lead to anxiety. Anxiety is a barrier to visiting a group. Not visiting a group leads to lower attendance. Lower attendance in groups leads to people falling away from active membership because they aren’t fully assimilated.

Here are 4 questions that are on the minds of the guests who may actually take a chance and darken the door to your group’s Bible study:

  1. Will I be asked to read out loud? The answer should be “no.” Never ask a guest to read out loud. You can ask for volunteers to read specific verses or portions of Scripture, but don’t put a guest on the spot. They may be unfamiliar with the Bible, and they may struggle with some of those hard-to-pronounce names. Just try asking a guest to read a verse with the name Mephibosheth in it and see what happens.
  2. Will someone ask me to pray in front of the group? This answer should be “no,” too. Like #1 above, don’t put a guest on the spot. You’d be surprised how many people are uncomfortable praying out loud and in front of others. The fear of public speaking is one of the highest ranking fears people have.
  3. Will I learn things that will help me day-to-day?  Make sure that you connect the Bible to life and demonstrate how the Bible speaks to life today. Explain the history and background of the people and places mentioned in the Bible study to help people know the context, but don’t stop there. Leave time in the Bible study to help people see how to live out the Scriptures.
  4. Since I already attend worship, why should I go to a Bible study group? Some guests will mistakenly think that attending worship is all they need to do. Help them see the value of investing another hour of their time in a Bible study group with a group of their peers. Dr. Thom Rainer’s research has demonstrated that people who only attend worship have a high attrition rate; in fact, if a person only attends worship, about 85% of them cannot be found in five years! Belonging to a group matters – a lot!
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3 things to keep in mind about absent group members

Absent group members are just one facet of group life. Most Bible study groups have regular attenders, guests, prospects, and the absentee member. How soon should you reach out to someone who goes AWOL? Or perhaps the question is, “Does contacting an absentee group member cause them to think, ‘Why is the church bugging me?'” Perhaps we should leave them alone. After all, they know where we are and they’ve got two legs – they can come back any time they want to.

There was a time in my younger days when I dropped out of church. If it were not for the herculean efforts of one young man in the church who regularly contacted me and encouraged me to get back into the groove, I might not be in church today. My life could have taken a very different path. So yes, I’m a big fan of reaching out to absentees. My life and ministry owe a debt of gratitude to a persistent young man who cared more about me than he did his feelings of awkwardness every time he contacted me to come back to the Lord and come back to the church. Here are three things we should remember about absentee group members:

  1. They may have dropped out because they are hurting – and they just haven’t said anything. This happens all the time. A person’s feelings get hurt, or they have a tragedy in their life and just don’t feel like they can open up to the group about it, so they leave. Leaving is one way they deal with the pain, whatever the source. It’s not true in every absentee’s case, but sometimes the absence is a symptom of a deeper issue they are facing.
  2. They aren’t going to just jump back into group life. As much as we’d like them to come back, many absentee group members feel very awkward about their absence. They think that everyone would stare at them if they came back. They imagine that people are whispering about them. The fear of being embarrassed in front of their group becomes overpowering. When these feelings settle in, the active group members must continually encourage the absentee member to come back – the person simply isn’t going to do that on their own.
  3. The longer you and your group wait to contact the absentee, the more awkward it is for everyone involved. Try calling someone who has been absent from  your group four or five times in a row – talk about your awkward phone calls! You might imagine the absentee saying something to you like, “What took you so long to call me? I’ve been missing for 4 weeks now!” Or worse yet, you imagine they’d say something like, “Buzz off!” The first time a person goes AWOL, it’s time to reach out to them and find out what happened. It may be nothing. It might be sickness. It could be work-related travel. Or it could be that they are on vacation. But you’ll never know unless you call or contact them.

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Do you know why Personal Study Guides are a Good Idea for Groups?

Not to be confused with MSG (bad) PSGs (good) are an essential discipleship tool for Christians today. Unfortunately, in an attempt to trim costs, some churches have opted to order only leader materials – or worse: they order nothing at all and teachers have to “make it up as they go.”

Other churches PSGshave chosen to provide every member and guest with their own Bible study booklet. That PSG (Personal Study Guide) is an important part of a group Bible study experience. I’m a big fan of every group member (and guest) having their own PSG.

It sounds self-serving, I know, because I work for a Christian publisher that creates PSGs for its Bible studies. But even before I went to work for LifeWay, I was what Ken Blanchard would describe as “a raving fan” – a raving fan of PSGs. In fact, I was such a big fan that every kid, student, adult, and guest in my Sunday School received a PSG. Here are 4 reasons why PSGs are a good idea:

  1. Discipleship doesn’t take a day off. You know as well as I do that people attend Bible studies sporadically. People are often present one week, then absent two. But if that person has a PSG, they can continue to read, study, and respond to God’s Word between Bible study sessions. Just because the person is absent doesn’t mean they should take time off from being immersed in God’s Word! Having a PSG means the absentee can keep up with the group.
  2. The group experience is better with PSGs. Having a PSG before the group meets for Bible study makes it possible for group members to read and study ahead. They can jot down questions, respond to statements made by the author, and mark words or phrases for which they need more clarification. Coming into a group Bible study “warmed up” helps every member to get into the Bible study. We’ve all been a part of a group in which no one prepared in advance. Boring! People just sit there, waiting for the teacher to do it all. PSGs give group members plenty of material to jog their thinking, challenge their understanding, and apply biblical principles to their lives.
  3. The PSG helps guests fit in. Savvy churches are handing out PSGs at their guest centers  and in their groups. When a person fills out a guest information card, they are handed a PSG. The PSG is theirs to keep whether or not they attend a group. Having PSGs at greeter stations sends a healthy signal that the church cares for its members and guests, invests financially in people’s spiritual growth, and raises expectations about what will take place in the Bible study groups. It’s difficult to get visitors to attend a Bible study group; fear of the unknown often keeps some people away. But having a PSG in advance puts the guest on a level playing field with every other member of the group. Now they know what the group is studying (and will study).
  4. The financial investment is fantastic. A PSG produced by my company costs approximately $2.65 per person. Before you say “that’s a lot of money” (because you may be purchasing them for hundreds of people), consider this: each PSG contains 13 complete Bible studies. By doing the math, that means each session costs just $.20! There is no other resource a church could provide to help people mature in their daily walk with Christ, and nothing more economical they could provide to create better group experiences for everyone, than a $.20 a week Personal Study Guide.

That’s just 4 reasons to consider using Personal Study Guides in your group (or groups). I can think of at least that many more! I’ll save those for a future post.

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3 unhealthy things that keep groups from growing

“Healthy things grow.” That’s what one pastor I served with told the congregation regularly. His expectation was that the worship service and the church’s Bible teaching ministry would both grow each year – if they were healthy places.

I teach a Bible study group weekly like many of you. I’ve watched my group grow steadily over the past 4 years. I also know of other groups that haven’t grown. What’s the difference?

Here are a few reasons why some groups struggle to grow:

  1. Not enough potential new group members – this may be one of the biggest culprits. Each group needs 1 prospective group member for each active group member. My Bible study group averages 16 in attendance. To be healthy, I need a prospect file (which can be electronic or a physical one) that contains 16 potential group members at all times. Every time my group has a party, spends time doing ministry, gets together for lunch or a movie, the potential members should be – must be – invited. Many groups have forgotten about this important part of group life: one prospect for every active group member. The solution? Begin a prospect file! Each of your group members knows at least 3 to 5 people not in a Bible study. Start there.
  2. The group has been together longer than 18 months – that’s my group – we’re four years old now, and every group that is older than 18 months will naturally begin to turn inward. It takes significant, strong leadership from the group leader to keep the focus on the people “not yet here.” The solution? Start a new group so that guests can more easily connect to the members of your group. The alternative is to have a serious “come to Jesus” talk with your group members about the lack of additions to your group, reminding them that the group exists to reach those who are not connected to a group yet. Keep the focus on the unconnected and the spiritually searching.
  3. The people in the group have too wide an age range – 10 years is the maximum age swing you want to have in your group. I realize people like “whosoever cometh” groups. Multi-gen groups do have advantages, but they also have a disadvantage that is hard to overcome: people forget the group’s target audience. My group is designed to reach Baby Boomers. We’re a group especially for empty nest adults. That’s who we are. That’s who we’re supposed to go after. I don’t have to focus on reaching young adult couples, singles, or senior adults. Our focus is tightly fixed on empty nest adults. It’s easy for my people to spot other empty nest couples in the worship service when they visit – and it’s easy to invite them to our group because of what Dr. Ken Hemphill has labeled “the homogeneity principle.” Like attracts like. The solution? Talk with your group about starting other groups by grouping your people into age clusters that are more tightly arranged, with a maximum age range of 10 years or less. 

Does Sunday School Still Work? 6 ways to make sure it does

“Does Sunday School still work?” That’s a question I was recently asked at a multi-day meeting of pastors who came together to talk about how to disciple their congregations. Sunday School groups, small groups, D-groups….there are lots of options today, and many churches are experimenting with hybrid combinations of groups. But the question still remains, “Does Sunday School still work?”

I believe that Sunday School can be the most vibrant ministry your church offers, but it may require you to make a few changes to it. If you are willing to make those necessary changes, then yes, Sunday School will still work! If you are not willing, then you should call in hospice care – one day you’re going to show up and find that it’s died.

Change or Die

I can’t imagine why these kids don’t enjoy Sunday School…

If you want to breathe life into your church’s Sunday School ministry (and into your group if you’re a Sunday School teacher), then here are some suggestions that will help make Sunday School your best, most effective ministry:

  1. Clarify goals – In order for Sunday School to be vibrant and on-target, its leaders must know what the goal is. If you’re a pastor or staff leader, how have you communicated what you want your group leaders to do? Do they know what’s expected of them? Sometimes Sunday Schools languish because of a lack of focus and clarity over its basic functions. Tell your group leaders exactly what you want them to accomplish as teacher/leaders. Keep it simple – four or five key things is all you need to define. Show your group leaders the target. Clarify your expectations.

    Now that’s better!
  2. Fund it – I can tell if a ministry is important to the church if it sets aside significant amounts of money for it in the annual budget. “Just follow the money trail” is a way to know if a church values something. How much money have you set aside for curriculum materials? For training? For new classroom equipment and other upgrades? Do you have an annual appreciation dinner for your group leaders? How do you say “thank you” in a tangible way to your leaders? It all takes money. Fund Sunday School in your budget!
  3. Talk about it – If you are the senior pastor, people will value what they believe you value. Talk about the importance of Sunday School from the pulpit. Work it into your sermons. Show the congregation new families who are joining the church because of your Sunday School ministry. Connect its ministry to baptisms, and how people are coming to know the Lord through Sunday School. Lift it up. Put it front and center.
  4. Attend it – If you’re a pastor or staff member, set the example by belonging to a Sunday School class yourself, and mention that from time to time as you preach or have the microphone! It’s hard to expect people to belong to Sunday School when you don’t. So join a group and set a good example.
  5. Organize it – Adult group leaders must be led to organize their groups to get group members involved in leading the class. Adult groups need multiple leaders to take on work and become outreach leaders, care group leaders, fellowship leaders, prayer leaders, and more. Moses tried to do it all (see Exodus 18) and learned a valuable lesson from his father-in-law who told him “What you’re doing is not good.” Jethro’s advice? Train others who could  help carry the workload – and let them do it! It works the same way today. If you’re a group leader, you’ll wear yourself out trying to do all the work of the class. You’re not supposed to! Ask others to take on leadership roles.
  6. Promote it – People need to know the next steps to take when they join your church, or when they visit it as guests. Are you clearly telling people that you want them to attend and join a Bible study group? Or are you counting on them figuring that out on their own? Tell them! Advertise your expectation in your worship bulletin. Say it during announcements. Have a greeter center that has people who are well-trained to know your Sunday School’s options so they can connect guests to groups. Don’t assume people know what to do next. They don’t. So tell them to attend a group and show them their options.

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Should you re-brand Sunday School?

Ghostbusters 2016

Spider-man. Star Trek. Alien. Ghostbusters. Baywatch. CHIPs. Each of these movie franchises has been re-branded in the last few years to reach new audiences. Did I mention The Fantastic Four? I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve tried to re-brand that movie franchise! If you think it may be time to put a fresh coat of paint on your church’s Sunday School by calling it something else, let’s make sure you’ve thought through the positives and negatives. It may be the right move for your church. And on the other hand, it may not. Let’s see if we can reason through some of the pros and cons of re-branding your church’s Sunday School.

Pros

Star Trek re-branded itself with a younger cast playing iconic characters
  1. Sunday School isn’t 100% about Sunday. Having the word “Sunday” in the title may lead people to believe that Sunday School is about that hour before or after worship when you gather in age-graded classes to study the Bible. That’s unfortunate, because many good Sunday School groups “do life together” outside of the Sunday morning group experience. They fellowship together, pray together, serve together, and minister to one another. These groups have come to believe that Sunday School isn’t just about Sunday. Good for them!
  2. “School” can be a negative term. Many people associate the word “school” with something difficult, or perhaps boring. It also conjures up images of teachers who lecture, or who are harsh in the way they deal with their students.
  3. In some denominations, Sunday School is just for the kids. Southern Baptists are not alone in their Sunday School philosophy, but they might be outnumbered. Many churches only offer Sunday School groups for kids and teenagers.

Cons

  1. Sunday School already has “brand identity.” When you say the words “Sunday School,” most people know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the hour adjacent to the worship service on our calendars.
  2. People may not accept the new name for it.  LIFE Groups, Adult Bible Fellowship groups, Adult Groups, Small Groups, or whatever other name you can come up with may never be accepted by members of your congregation.
  3. Verbiage changes slowly. I know of churches that changed the name of Sunday School years ago, yet the majority of their members still call it “Sunday School.” Don’t underestimate people’s unwillingness to change.

If you and/or your church have changed the name of Sunday School and survived it, I’d love to hear from you. Post your comments and help your fellow brothers and sisters wrestle with the decision to be more culture-shaping and culture-impacting by changing the name of Sunday School. We’d like to hear words of caution, and we’d also like to hear stories of success!

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6 times when it’s right to start a new group

Years ago I led one of the fastest growing Sunday School ministries in Texas. On “launch Sunday” (we were a mission church startup) we had 44 people in Sunday School (and two teachers quit at noon!) – that’s the original church building in the photo to the right. When I transitioned to my second church just over 10 years later, I left behind a Sunday School of over 2,4oo members. During those days of rapid growth, I learned the importance of starting new Bible study groups.  If a church is not intentional about starting new groups, it will soon find itself stalled out – and that’s exactly where many churches are today – they are flat or declining and they don’t know why. The lack of starting new groups is one reason for it.

For every new group your church starts, you’ll increase attendance by approximately 10 people. From my experience, you know it’s time to start a new class when…

1)  A group has been together for 2 years or more.  It’s really hard for guests to build relationships with people who have been together longer than 24 months (some experts would say it’s even less time that that – maybe as little as 12 months).  When a group approaches its second birthday, it’s time  to think “start a new group.”

2)  A group doesn’t see a steady stream of guests.  It’s true – classes “cool off” after a time and they will often turn inward.  Evangelistic efforts decrease. The focus turns to the group members, not to the lost persons in the community. If you recruit people to leave a group and start a new one, it’s almost a guarantee they will reach more people for Christ and demonstrate excitement for kingdom growth the mother class hasn’t known in years.

3)  A group has ceased to grow.  When a group no longer adds people, it’s time to start a new group.  The group may have done a good job in the past of reaching new people, but over time the growth may have leveled off.

4)  A group fills the room to over 80% of capacity.  The 80/20 rule is real.  When a group exceeds 80% of its seating capacity, the room is visually full to guests.  A group can certainly exceed 80% of its seating capacity (it’s actually pretty fun to have a full room with no empty seats) but any group that does exceed 80% of its seating capacity for very long will almost always drop to an attendance level less than the 80% it once exceeded.

5)  The age span of the group members becomes too broad. Groups need to be targeted to reach people in a specific age range. One church I’ve worked with recently has several adult groups that have age ranges for group members like 30-70 or 50-80. When you see more than a 10-year swing in the age of group members, it’s time to create another group and keep people together who are closer in age.

6) There’s an apprentice teacher and other group leaders who are ready to launch a group. If a Bible study leader has groomed an apprentice teacher, and there are other adults who will help that person launch a new group by becoming outreach leaders, fellowship leaders, prayer leaders, or other key positions within the group – launch a new one! Don’t wait until Fall or back-to-school. Don’t wait until the first of the year. Select a meeting location, advertise the new group to potential group members, and let ’em fly! A church I know locally in the Nashville area is launching three new groups this coming Sunday. Yes, it’s after Easter and pre-summer. Yes, it’s not at a high-growth time like back-to-school, but three group leaders are ready to go, the church has the space, so it’s time to start some new groups at that location.