Some small groups never really “click.” And as any seasoned pastors know, where small groups go, the church goes. If people aren’t building deep relationships outside of the Sunday service, overall engagement will be low. It opens the church up to clique-building, “insider” groups, and a general lack of fellowship in the entire body.
But that’s not what the church is for.
The church is meant to pray for the sick at 2 a.m.
The church is meant to support grieving families when their loved ones have passed.
The church is meant to help each other with temptation when it comes.
The church is meant to listen, care, and minister the gospel to people parched by suffering and secularism alike.
These things all happen outside of the Sunday service.
That’s why you need to take small group engagement seriously:
If your church has any shot at real, lasting growth, your small group culture will be the closer to lock in that growth and to deepen the buy-in of your growing member base.
Here, we’re going to look at 7 ways to boost engagement in your small group so that you can build a legacy of care, and a reputation for loving everyone who walks through your doors, in your community.
1. Use your church app
Your church app should be the center of member engagement throughout the week. Many churches think that their website is the center of member engagement. But it’s exactly the opposite. The church website is meant for first-time visitors who find you through Google, advertising, or a friend referral. Your church app is meant for anyone who’s been to your church once so that you can send them push notifications, enable them to register for events, collect and adjust recurring giving, and coordinate with their small group.
You shouldn’t require people to visit your website—no matter how good it looks—to get the information they need. People are on their phones almost every second of every day. People are on their desktops maybe 3-4 hours per day if they use it for work. Capitalize on the centrality of the mobile phone in modern digital life by setting up interactive and collaborative small group features on your church’s mobile app.
These features could include a forum, the ability to create unique calendar events, in-app messaging, and the ability to create and receive payment for event registration. People will begin using your church app the way they use Facebook—to stay in touch with friends.
2. Make it easy for new visitors to sign up
It’s supremely common—especially in big churches—for new visitors to get lost in the crowd. Your church should be pointing every member every Sunday to be a member of a small group—even if you're re-engaging your church.
Make joining a small group as easy as applying through your church app. Now, you don’t want to auto-accept members to small groups. This is a security issue. You don’t want anyone with an iPhone to be able to find all your small group locations.
So, you should be sending visitors to pastors—ideally wearing color-coded shirts—who will put them in the small group most convenient for them. This weeds out people who aren’t willing to go through multiple social gets to become part of a small group community, and it gives the hosts an opportunity to consent to the new members.
Nevertheless, you should make the door to entry extremely visible. Structure your church service communication strategy so that it’s impossible for someone to walk into your doors and walk out without knowing exactly how to join a small group.
3. Focus on relationships, not numbers
People are lonely. Increasingly in America, even those with happy families are sucked deeper and deeper into internet culture, until there feels like a deep divide between their mental life and the real world. Psychologists are creating cohorts to address this issue as a mental health crisis.
But the church is uniquely equipped to assist in this enterprise by doing the one thing mental health professionals can’t do—real life together with real people.
Find key small group qualities that you can track to ensure that the small group culture is healthy. Check in with the small group leaders—how do they feel it is going? What do they need to thrive? Does the church need to host quarterly church-wide small group events so that new visitors can visit and existing members can fellowship? Do you need to teach on the value of small groups for the Christian life? Are there toxic elements in your small group culture that need to be carefully addressed?
Your small group is like a bonsai tree—you need to tend to it often in order for it to take proper shape and to be healthy. The last thing in the world you want is a huge, growing movement of weird small group culture that’s ready to implode. It’s easy to guard against that.
Set key metrics for group health. Check in with leaders. Check in with members. Look at growth numbers—are they welcoming new visitors? Are there opportunities to start new groups? All of these variables play into the reality of small group engagement.
4. Double down on food
In marketing, people say “Content is king.” False. Food is king. There is no tagline, sales pitch, or well-designed logo that can wrap the human will around its finger like food. A sweet & tart raspberry sour cream coffee cake. Pumpkin spice scones with a creamy glaze and a dusting of nutmeg. Crumbly apple cinnamon bake—with tender morsels of slow-baked apple folded into a flakey crust.
People are going to show up.
When advertising your small group, show pictures of food. Bring lots of food. Coordinate with people to get food. Delinquent attenders will turn into food zombies knocking down your door in a matter of minutes.
After that, all you have to do is host.
5. Master small talk
I’m going to be honest with you.
This is the reason most small groups fail.
Most first-time visitors come to a small group, feel exceptionally awkward and out of place, and never return. While there’s something to be said for “sticking it out,” you don’t want to assume people will be willing to endure social awkwardness for the sake of escaping loneliness. Often the opposite is the case.
As a host, here are a few ways that you can master small talk in a way that makes those you host feel very comfortable. And, these tips can
The basic principles of small talk.
Ask about other people, not yourself. Commit to making the entire first conversation about the people you’re talking to. That doesn’t mean you can’t share about yourself—every conversation requires give and take. People want to know you as well. But skillful small talk will shape your instinct to fill conversational silence with questions about your guests. Every answer they provide to you supplies you with details about them that you can ask about.
Trace this line of details to dig deeply until you’ve sparked an engaging conversation in which you’re learning about something. This saying is trustworthy and true: Interested people are interesting people. People will like talking to you if they hear their own ideas come out of your mouth. Give them the opportunity to say them.
Your personal script.
Have you ever known someone who seems to have a funny story for every event? This isn’t a coincidence. They’ve built this arsenal of stories that work in social situations, and they repeat them.
Come up with three short stories about your life that you can tell in 30-60 seconds. With each social situation, experiment with these stories to see what makes people laugh. Eventually, you will have a stock of refined stories that are attuned to evoke laughter, which is a social lubricant.
Smile. Relax your shoulders. Find something to do—an object, a task, a social centerpiece that can be the gravitational “sun” of the room while people enter the small group. If you send everyone to the same place, and occupy yourself with the same thing, a flow will occur—like a river—where people will gravitate toward one area, and not overburden the host with too much conversation until the formal small group event begins.
If you really struggle with small talk, try taking a toastmasters class. Some people find these to be very wooden and fake, but they are a fantastic way for people who are nervous speaking in front of people to gain confidence in leading small groups, cracking humor with new people, and giving presentations that are organic and compelling.
6. Plan small group events
Small group events are the icing on the cake for small group members. It’s something to do on a Saturday or Sunday. It’s an escape from the kids (or something to do with the kids). This is where life can feel like “Friends,” but for real. Deep down, everyone wants to be someone who has something to do on Saturday.
Proactively planning these sorts of events gives small group attendees a reason to engage during the week. Oddly, though time is scarce for many small group members, attending two events is easier than attending one—it facilitates psychological buy-in, and feels important.
7. Find each other on Sundays
This is the unspoken payoff that every small group member wants on Sundays. It’s easy to take for granted, because talking on Sunday—before and after service—feels so natural once you belong somewhere. But imagine the opposite situation: You walk into church. You sit down for service. You look around. No one knows you. No one knows what to say. The service ends. You walk out.
Sunday can be a very isolating experience for newcomers.
For the lonely, the Sunday church service can feel similar to dating culture—like the dregs of awkwardness.
Now think of what you do with your church small group on Sunday mornings—laughing, catching up, and even standing comfortably together in silence while drinking coffee. These are blessings—fruit, really—of the relationships formed during the week during small group. And they are a grace from God that he gives through small group engagement. If your church makes it easy to join these communities, you will see it in your Sunday service. Small group engagement translates directly into Sunday-engagement.
Over to you
Take these steps and implement them in your church. Make it easy to join. Emphasize food (ideally in pictures). Find ways of tracking relational health—not just the numbers. Plan outside-group events. Master small talk. Care for your members.
If you do these things, you will begin to see results in the quality of your small group of relationships and the overall small group attendance in your church.