Discover the power of stories in your group

Mondays on the blog are all about featuring a short excerpt from a book on group ministry, and today I’ve selected a book that I’ve never featured before.

Friend and colleague David Francis has written a series of books on group ministry, and his book The Discover Triad: Three Facets of a Dynamic Sunday School Class, has some excellent observations about the elements that help make a Sunday School class, small group, etc., more impactful for the group members. Here, in David’s own words, are his thoughts about the power of stories (one of the three facets of a dynamic group):

A Sunday School class can provide a safe place to share how Scripture is impacting our stories…”Learning occurs when we attach prior knowledge, wisdom, and experience to the information, knowledge, and material being presented at the current time. The process of connecting the two – prior experience and current information – brings about behavioral life change.” The purpose of Bible study is more than learning its content. The Bible is God’s “owner’s manual” for human life. He does not want just want us to know it; He wants us to live it. An effective way to begin a Bible study session is sharing a story that connects a life issue with the passage the group is about to encounter. A current news story works great if it fits. A third person story found on the Internet can be effective. Even a personal story told by the teacher  might be appropriate…Perhaps the best story is one told by a class member…”

As a group leader, learn to allow your people to talk and discuss their life experiences and how those intersect with the truth of Scripture that you are studying. Group leaders who are serious about allowing stories to be shared create a dynamic group experience. Those group leaders look for stories throughout the week and encourage group members to become vulnerable and share their own stories. Group members are also encouraged to share stories when they hear their group leader regularly sharing his or her stories and how those relate to the topic being studied.

Give this a try the next time you teach your group. Pre-enlist a group member to share a story, or be ready to share one yourself. Find a great current event that connects to the Bible study session, or use a story from the world of sports, politics, entertainment, etc., that tells a story that is relevant to your topic.

David also contributed to the development of a discussion-centered Bible study series, Bible Studies For Life, where this concept was incorporated into the DNA of the group Bible studies. It’s the one that my Bible study group uses weekly, and has for the past 4 1/2 years. It’s made a huge difference in my group, and now my group members love hearing and telling stories week-after-week.

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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The Extreme Sunday School Challenge

Today’s blog post is an excerpt from a book by David Francis, Director of Sunday School for LifeWay Christian Extreme SS ChallengeResources. In 2012 he and co-author Bruce Raley created the book Extreme Sunday School Challenge to remind us all of the importance of starting new groups. I am delighted to introduce you to their book, and their words below about the importance of intentionally starting new groups:

Starting new groups also gives the church an opportunity to grow beyond its present scope of influence. Most groups become closed after they have existed for 18-24 months. Even new people who come into an established group may find it difficult to build relationships. A few probably will, but seldom more than the number of group members who leave for various reasons. So, even though a few new people may ‘stick,’ there will rarely be any net growth. New groups will move your organization beyond your present sphere of influence and into the next circle of influence in your community. 

A new group will bring an average of 10 new people attending Bible study within a year if properly begun.

The group itself may not grow by 10, but the Bible study organization will. The key is the group must begin properly. A class begins properly when:

  • A target audience is identified.
  • Leaders are enlisted and trained.
  • Emphasis is given to the birth of the group.

So if you want your Sunday School to grow by 50 people next year, start at least 5 new groups…

A few years ago my wife and I began a new LIFE Group at our church. Sure enough, we average about 17-20 people in our group today. I’ve lived the truth of this book’s message that new groups will attract 10 or more people on average.

If you’re a group leader, is it time to help your church grow by releasing some of your members so they can start a new group?

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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.

The one phrase you aren’t using in your Bible study group – but Chik-Fil-A is

Here are some phrases that group members don’t want to hear spoken in their Bible study groups:

  1. “We’re going to split your class.”
  2. “It’s time to divide the group.”
  3. “Let’s birth a new class.”

If you’ve been around group ministry long enough, you’ve heard one or more of those phrases! And most groups don’t respond very positively to them. In some churches, staff leaders even avoid approaching groups about starting new ones because they just don’t want the fight.

May I propose a new name for this process? Franchising!

Franchising is a common practice in the NFL, MLB, NHL, and just about any other sport you can name. It’s the way leagues have continued to expand and capture new people. Franchising is also a common practice in the business world. Chik-Fil-A, McDonalds, IHOP, Jiffy Lube, and many other companies grow by franchising. They don’t tear down an existing point of sale and build a bigger one – they just start another one on the other side of town – or in a new town – and the company grows. It can work the same way in our Bible study groups. Let’s start thinking about the process of beginning new groups as “franchising.”

  • Franchising reaches more people. My Bible study group is almost out of space. No more rooms are available to us. If we want to take the mission of reaching people for Jesus seriously, we’re going to have to “franchise” our group and start another one.
  • Franchising means you have a model to follow. Franchisees often have to sign contracts that specify how they will relate to the parent company that launched them. They are expected (or required) to stick with color schemes, menu choices, training programs, etc. There is a successful model to follow, so they follow it. When Bible study groups get to the point they are ready to franchise themselves, they do well to pattern the franchise after the group launching it.
  • Franchising gives you every opportunity for success. People lined up around the block (literally) when Chik-Fil-A opened a new restaurant in the town where I live. Now we have two Chik-Fil-As, and both are doing a thriving business. Opening one didn’t hurt the restaurant chain – in fact, the franchise has increased their reach in my town. People were already familiar with the Chik-Fil-A brand, and people were glad to have another option that would be just as good as the original restaurant. When a Bible study group decides to get serious about reaching people and it launches a franchise group, the people who attend it can pretty much bank on the quality and the excellence of the parent group being duplicated – that’s what franchises do.

    Chik Fil A has franchises in almost every state!

As you lead your Bible study group, lose the phrases “split our group” and “divide us up.” Instead, talk in very positive terms by using the “franchise” language. Help your people see that starting new groups is the best and fastest way to reach new people for Jesus. It’s the right way to “go and make disciples.”

 

 

Release Your Group Members!

Welcome aboard to about 90 new subscribers to this blog this past week! You may have been a part of some recent training seminar I led, or perhaps you found the blog by accident. But I’m glad you’re now starting to get these daily Monday-Friday posts! As an FYI, here is the schedule on the blog:

Monday – Book excerpt…I introduce you to a book, quote a paragraph or two, and then apply it

Tuesday – Teaching tip…something you can use in your group next time you teach

Wednesday – Original post on anything related to group ministry

Thursday – Original post on anything related to group ministry

Friday – Hot Links to others articles and podcasts from trusted friends and resources

Today’s Monday, so you know what that means, it’s book excerpt day! Today’s post is taken from the book 3 Roles For Guiding Groups that David Francis and I co-authored a couple of years ago. Let me start out with a question before I quote from the book.

How many people belong to your Bible study group? Oh wait – I misspoke – it’s not really your group, is it? The group is a part of Jesus’ church, His body. I’m a group leader at my church just like many of you, but “my” group isn’t really my group – it belongs to the Lord. It contains His people. I’m just a temporary teacher-shepherd, trusted by Him to feed His lambs. So when it comes to letting people leave the group to start another one, or releasing them to serve in the church’s kid, student, or adult ministries, why are so many group leaders overprotective of “their” people? It’s not uncommon to hear a teacher tell a staff person, “Don’t take those people out of my group – we worked hard to get them – you’ll ruin our group!” There are staff leaders who actually avoid recruiting people from certain adult groups because the staff person knows he’ll have a fight on his hands with the group’s leader! That’s terrible.

In 3 Roles For Guiding Groups, David and I say the following in a section on the importance of releasing people (p.35).

The second key result for those who excel in the leader role is the number of people the group has serving with kids and students. Track it. Celebrate it. Put posters and photos of the group’s ‘missionaries to kids’ on the wall. Talk it up. Invite them to all the parties. Assign them to the best Care Group leader…treat them like celebrities…but be willing to release them. Your group should be a clearing house, not a storehouse! The ‘win’ is not how big you can grow your group, but how many people you can send out to serve.

Hold onto your people with a loose grip – they really aren’t your people after all! Please don’t be “that guy” or “that gal” who aggressively protects his or her group members. Instead, be known as the supportive, people-releasing, loose-grip holding teacher/shepherd/leader who sees the bigger picture and loves to support the church by encouraging group members to leave and serve in other places.

Bonus thought: If you look at Acts 13:1-3, you’ll see the church at Antioch. It had lots of great leaders. Paul/Saul and Barnabas were among them. The Holy Spirit told members of that church to set aside Paul and Barnabas for missionary work – the church was to release two of their very best leaders. And so they did. Guess what? The church at Antioch didn’t collapse. It didn’t cave in when two good people left the group – the church kept right on going. And so will you and your Bible study group as you release people! I promise, the walls won’t fall in and your group will be just fine. Hold onto “your” people with a loose, loose grip.