What You Won't Learn at the Big Church Conference

I can vividly remember sitting at my office desk one year ago beyond frustrated.

This wasn’t a normal “this is tough” moment that comes with ministry. I literally was beside myself. Every end of the year season, I review steps taken in the past 12 months to identify the positives and also areas to improve.

The only problem was my inability to see through my frustration. Everything looked like an area to improve. No rose colored glasses here. Call it what it was (a pity party), but I couldn’t see any wins for the year.

My main area of focus at our church is small groups. When we arrived at the church, there were three groups in total. My mandate handed to me by my pastor at the time? “Build me a small group system that holds 1,000 people.”

Ok. Yes, sir.  Will do. (Because don’t we all start at a “I’m going to act like I know what I’m doing until I figure it out” position at some point or another?)

So I studied. I prayed. I found systems at other churches. My podcasts were on repeat, and most importantly – I attended classes and conferences. Over a six month span my notebook was full… and so was my brain.

Soaking up all I could, it was time to move to practical application. Following what we felt was best for the church culture and community, my team implemented the steps we heard for more than a year.

Dedicated and meticulous, we embodied the values that were taught. No suggestion went unimplemented. We did everything we were told and our small groups still weren’t consistently growing, neither in number of leaders nor attendance.

Back to the opening scene.

It’s with this background info that many ministers can begin to empathize with the scenario in which I was stewing. It’s the brick wall standing between understanding and reason. It’s the moment you’ve done everything you’ve been told.

You’re dedicated to the system. You’ve saturated the ideas and steps in prayer, and – after everything you were told would come after paying an $80 registration fee to listen, learn and implement – they still didn’t work.

Now against my initial instinct, I didn’t throw the playbook out. I didn’t change the system or start from scratch. Instead, we retraced our steps and figured out where things could have gone wrong on our part or be different for the future.

We all can relate to the desire of going back in time and relaying insights to our past self. They’re the “if I knew then what I know now” reflections. While I did help my future self out by pre-recording a video for my husband to show me when I’m stressed -- that’s another story for another day.

It does no good to think on the “what ifs” of our past, but we can always effect the “what ifs” of someone’s future.

Here’s three things I learned that could apply to any ministry during a time when everything I was told would work actually didn’t.

1. Be more committed to your culture than the details.

I would suggest that most church conferences are held in big cities. The trend in church planting right now within America is to plant in big cities. So, it’s with no surprise that the information received at these conferences are extremely productive for churches in big cities.

Only… what if your church isn’t located in a big city?

Our church is a rural church in South Louisiana. Whether we’re considered large or small in perspective of attendance doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day we’re still located to the immediate left of a Wal-Mart only a couple of miles from a bayou and across the highway from a giant field.

These are things that will simply never change. We’re rural, and we love it.

So, while the conference speakers says to have people sign up for small groups online – we’re going to continue to use paper and pen on Expo Days in the lobby. It simply doesn’t make sense in a rural area where some individuals still don’t have the Internet to force that detail on them.

I’m not going to make my small group leaders meet every week when several of my leaders or their spouses work offshore. I may even meet with a potential leader for leadership training outside of the scheduled teaching simply because they couldn’t find a sitter in time to attend.

These examples would be things most likely never considered in past conferences I’ve attended. There are very good reasons why they had to set those parameters in their churches, but their church isn’t ours. So we do what’s best for our culture. Having every detail exactly like the mega church is no longer the standard of success.

Is your benchmark to do everything like the large church? Or to do what’s best for your people?

2. Learn to speak from “why” and not “what.”

After reevaluating the system, we then evaluated how we talked about the system. The problem wasn’t with the steps we had in place. The problem was how we communicated about those next steps.

“Join a small group, and you’ll have life-giving relationships. Join a small group, and you’ll grow in your faith. Join a small group, and your marriage will be restored. Join a small group and… and… and…”

It’s embarrassing to me now that we could take out the phrase “join a small group,” insert in any current cause to join, and both would promote the same profits. Ouch.

All of the things we encouraged were true! We’ve seen them happen. We’re continuing to witness those restorative events take place. Only, we were speaking from what would happen instead of why it should happen. Our language highlighted benefits but lacked the core purpose of relationships.

We went back to the basics.

The system was fine, but our why was off, and it showed in our message. We revisited why we did small groups. We revisited why God wants us in relationships. We researched the basic needs of human existence – and found relationships in the top tiers. So now I can communicate why someone should join a small group because I am confident it’s because no one was created to walk through this life alone.

Our method may not be off, but our messaging can create hurdles between people and the first step.

From what source are we speaking when talking about our areas within the church?

3. Never underestimate the value of time.

While our messaging was tweaked and a few details were cultured, I can promise that our small group system and main components never changed. So what made the ultimate difference? The passing of time.

I had great leaders then, but I have better leaders now because personal development takes time. We had influence then, but we have greater influence now because influence takes time. Small groups were tolerated then but significant now because trust takes time.

That is probably why larger churches never offer classes about the subject of time at their conferences – it’s a slight buzzkill to hear “Yes, plant all of these systems! And now wait 10 years for them to mature while you develop your culture and love on your people.” If we all looked deep, we could probably admit it’s easier to blame the system than to blame ourselves for being impatient.

I mentioned earlier that we started with three small groups. We now ended our fall semester with 35 groups and project to have over 40 in the spring. The secret sauce? There is none. Just time – and commitment to the culture and people during the process.

My parents planted an oak tree in their front yard when I was a teen. I was in amazement when they explained that I would be well into my 30s or even older when the tree would finally be full grown. It would continue to be their job for decades to water the tree, to take care of the tree and to protect the tree. Still, the only element left that they couldn’t control – the factor that would ultimately bring along maturity and beauty -- is time.

How long are you willing to wait to see your systems work? Are you dedicated to offering care and leadership to your people while you wait?