John Finkelde on Reaching 60+% of People in Small Groups
Joining me on the unSeminary podcast this week is John Finkelde from Perth, Australia. John has been in the ministry for about 33 years. He spent 10 years as a team pastor, followed by 20 years as a lead pastor. About 3 years ago, John and his wife began a new ministry, “Grow a Healthy Church.” Over the past 36 months, the couple has completed 64 four-day consultations with churches, working with pastors and their churches on-site to help them get healthier: focused and with more clarity about their ministries.
In our conversation on today’s podcast, John and I focused on small groups and getting people in our congregations engaged. At Liquid Church, our average attendance at small groups averages at around 45%. We seem to be stuck there, despite throwing our best efforts toward increasing those numbers. I asked for John’s wisdom in this area and he offered some great advice.
John offered that it’s been his experience, in the more than 30 years that they have been holding small groups in his church, that they have started to go through shorter cycles of effectiveness. What this means, is that about every three to four years, you almost have to reinvent small groups: Re-launch and re-invigorate them.
As you start thinking about how to re-invent your small groups, keep one basic goal in mind:
Small groups are about relationships with people and connection to Christ.
Keeping this primary principle as your focus, and building from it, John offers these suggestions:
- Empower your leaders: Release the leaders of your small groups to be in charge to run the groups the way they want to, as long as they are achieving the basic goals (building relationships with people and connecting to Christ)
- Follow their passion: Groups can form around what people are passionate about. Is it Bible study? Is it a certain stage of life? Is it cycling? Just make sure they are tying in the Christ-connection, especially in the groups focused on crafts, sports, hobbies, etc.
- Curriculum: In John’s church, most leader’s were mature Christians, so they were trusted to lead in a more eclectic style, but you can also provide materials based off of a sermon series, a Bible study, etc.
- Committed leaders: It’s hard to get buy-in from your members if the leaders are not committed to leading or to being involved in a small group themselves. This is crucial.
- Train your leaders: In John’s church, the training for small group leaders was intensive.
- Re-branding: What’s in a name? Consider calling your small groups by another name. John’s small groups re-branded as “Connect Groups.”
Even though Australia is known for being a secular society, (only about 10-15% of the population attends church on a given Sunday), John’s church saw attendance at their Connect Groups increase to over 60% when these basic changes were implemented.
I asked John if he would leave the podcast with a final word to North American churches. He had this to say:
Given what I see the trends to be in the States, you are trending towards a post-Christian society and culture. So there is a lot to be learned from healthy churches in Europe and Australia for American churches . . . American pastors and leaders can learn a lot from churches that have thrived in secular societies and can find some other edges for dealing with secular scenarios.
You can learn more about John and his ministry at growahealthychurch.com.
00:33 // Rich welcomes John to the show.
01:10 // John talks about his ministry background.
02:14 // Rich highlights the challenges of transitioning from one generation to another.
03:04 // John tells us how his church overcomes the challenges of running small groups.
05:44 // John talks about the wide variety of groups within his church.
07:28 // John talks about his style of leadership within small groups.
08:34 // John gives examples of how his church encourages group engagement.
09:12 // John talks about the importance of having senior leaders involved in small group engagement.
09:58 // Rich and John discuss cultural shift within the church.
11:40 // John talks about the training schedule for group leaders.
13:33 // John talks about the onboard training for new leaders.
14:43 // John tells us why they call their groups connect groups.
17:11 // John highlights the growth seen in his church in relation to the connect groups.
19:30 // John advises lead pastors to “get passionate about small groups”.
Helpful Tech Tools // Trello
Ministries Following // Thom Rainer of LifeWay
Influential Book // The Grasshopper Myth by Karl Vaters
Inspiring Leader // Tony Morgan of The Unstuck Group
What does he do for fun // Photography
Contact // growahealthychurch.com
Rich – Well hey everybody, welcome to the unSeminary podcast. So glad that you’ve decided to spend some time with us, I know there’s a lot that you could be doing as you’re getting ready for this weekend at your church and I’m honored that you would take some time out to listen in today.
Today we’re in for a real treat. We have John Finkelde with us from Perth, Australia. John welcome to the show.
John – Hey Rich, great to be with you and with the listeners today.
Rich – I’m so glad you’ve taken some time out to be with us. I’m fascinated for this conversation because I’m aware that this is a whole part of our leadership, at our church that we’re really wrestling with and my own leadership stuff we need to learn and so I’ve got my notepad out, I’m looking forward to learning big time. But John, why don’t tell us a little bit about yourself, about your ministry background, give us the John story.
John – Yeah Rich, I’ve been in ministry for about 33 years. Pastored in our church for 30 years. I was 10 years as a team pastor in our church. I did youth, small groups, I was a music director, I did everything except kid’s ministry and women’s ministry. They are the only two areas of church I’ve never been involved in, and really have no aspirations in either.
Rich – That’s fine.
John – Then led our church for 20 years and kind of grew our church. So great growth, we’ve planted a new church about every 3 years over those 20 years. 3 years ago we transitioned to next generation leaders on our team that we’ve raised up and released them into the lead pastor role and now Di and I, my wife and I started the ministry called Grow a Healthy Church, which is consulting and coaching churches and pastors.
So over the last 3 years we’ve done 64 onsite consults with churches, that’s a 4 day consult, working with pastors and churches, just helping them get healthier, get them focused with some clarity.
Rich – Amazing, now there’s a lot we could talk about there. I’m interested obviously in the transition from one generation to another, that’s a significant issue that a lot of churches are facing. But the thing that stuck out to me about your church particularly, was just this whole area of small groups and getting people engaged in small groups. It seems like, I know for me, I’ll just try to be as honest as I can, I think at our church we struggle with it. We’re probably averaging, or we are averaging about 40% to 45% of our people and that’s in actual attendance, because we take attendance every week on those groups, as opposed to just like aspirational like, “Ah we think there’s that many people,” but it seems like we’re stuck at that number to be honest. We seem to throw a lot at it to try to get there, but we really haven’t been able to move beyond that. Now tell me about the experience that you’ve had at your church.
John – Yeah look, we’ve had small groups in our church for over 30 years, but small groups, I think especially in the last, I would say 15 to 20 years, have gone through more of a short cycle of effectiveness, where about every 3 to 4 years you almost need to reinvent them, re-launch them, reinvigorate them.
Probably about 15 years ago we sat down and said, “Look, we really need to reinvigorate our small groups,” and we actually were so desperate about it, we went away for a 2 day retreat with all our pastoral team and we just hurt our heads. We did a lot of pre-reading, a lot of thinking, then went to the retreat and just talked and talked and worked out, what do we really want in our small groups? I tell you, my brain was aching during that 2 days, with just so many concepts, ideas, systems, we were praying with think and talk.
We came up with a basic simple concept that small groups were about relationships with people and connection to Christ. Sometimes, I think when you get things down to a very simple, basic idea it’s a lot easier to focus on what you’re trying to do.
I think out of that we also decided that groups really need to have an empowered leader in charge. So we wanted to kind of release our leaders from not being locked down to a certain style and way of doing this small group, to actually find out what sort of small group is in you? What sort of small group would you like to run that’s going to build people’s relationships and connect them more to Christ? So as long as those 2 purposes and outcomes are getting fulfilled, what do you want to do with those groups? I think that was probably one of our, if you like, if there was a tipping point in that 2 days, I think it was coming across that thought of, hey let’s empower people to run the group the way that they want to run them, as long as they’re achieving those outcomes.
Rich – Okay, so let’s pause on that one a little bit, that’s an interesting idea. I think sometimes there seems to be a bunch of different camps in the small group world.
John – Yeah there is.
Rich – It could either be like all affinity based, so like there should be groups of people who are very similar. So I would be like the 40 something bald guy’s group and those guys really like hanging out together because they all can talk about razor blades and stuff and the latest shave cream. Or you go kind of more community based right, where it’s like people in my neighborhood, with the ideal of that, it’s like everybody walks over together, who walks to someone’s house, brings something for the potluck. Did you have that kind of variety across the spectrum or was it..?
John – Yeah.
Rich – So tell me about that.
John – We had people meeting in homes, like people who really wanted to do a bible study in a home, so it’s a great. People who wanted to meet in a café and have more a discussion, life issues, kind of more relationally based in a café, right through to craft groups to your kind of common interest sort of purpose groups like writing groups, that sort of thing.
We were kind of making sure also that the groups that were like craft or bike-riding, we’d push them really hard like, “Okay that’s fantastic, you’ve got a common interest and you’re building friendship but where’s the God connection in that?” So we monitored that, really pushed that hard in culture, make sure there’s a God moment within that group. Once you’re sitting around having a coffee after a bike-ride there needs to be in the conversation a connection to Christ, so it’s not just talking about the weather or the latest sports event or some sort of concert they’ve been to.
So I think to me it was kind of finding out, “Okay what sort of group do you want to run? What are you really passionate about?” “I’m really passionate about getting people into the bible.” “Great, I reckon there’s people in that church who are passionate about that.” “I’m really passionate about men, maybe in my age group,” I’m a little bit older than 40, I’m in the 60 plus group, so guys who are at this stage of life, who are maybe thinking of the next stage of retirement or a change of career and try something completely different in their 60s, get those guys to go and… “Great let’s release you to do that.”
We worried less about process and more about outcome. So there was a wide variety of groups in our church.
Rich – Now did you end up having kind of a calming curriculum, how did you try to ensure..? I think the idea of a place for relationships, I think it’s opening that up, passion driven I think will help that, but how did you kind of ensure the connection to Christ piece?
John – So we did a whole range of things in terms of curriculum. We gave leaders discussions that they could do. Sometimes they’d be based on Sunday sermons, but I found that a group trying to discuss a Sunday sermon, every fortnight, every week, every month, whenever they were meeting, was a little bit… People say, “Yeah, I got the message, I got the point, I don’t really want to talk about it anymore. Let’s talk about something a bit more relevant.”
So sometimes we’d do that, sometimes we give them a discussion with a curriculum base. At other times we say, “Look this month just go with the flow. Whatever you kind of feel like you want in your heart.”
So again it was fairly, I guess eclectic in the style of not locking down, “Hey here’s a B, C, D,” and most of our leaders… Look I would say that 60% to 70% of our leaders are quite mature believers, so we were trusting them, we weren’t putting any sort of weirdo in to run a group, we want it run by someone who was kind of feet on the ground who would know what to do. So again, a fair degree of empowering down at the leadership level.
Rich – Wow. Other kind of pieces of the puzzle to kind of help encourage, you know, kind of boost small group engagement in the church?
John – A couple of things that we did that was different for us. We committed our entire pastoral team to running a small group. So I, as the lead pastor, was running my own, we call them connect groups, which was part of the re-badging to a different name, about 12 or 15 years ago. I ran a group, my wife ran a group, the pastoral team ran a group. All our key leaders were committed to being in a small group. So right through our board, key leaders across all departments. If you were in a key leadership role in the church you were committed to being in a connect group.
Rich – Now how important was that for the fulfillment of..?
John – Critical, absolutely critical. The fact that… You know what it’s like when you’re preaching Rich, if you’re living it, it’s so much easier to preach it with authenticity. People believe you if you say, “Hey, I’m doing this and here’s the story of me doing it, so come on, join with me in doing it.” So for me to stand up there and say to people, “Hey you should all be in a small group,” and I wasn’t in one, you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot right there, it would be very easy to ignore, but when I talk about my small group and share stories of what was going on, I’d be multiplying my group and growing it.
That was kind of like, wow I think that was a massive culture shift in our church, when our leaders, right at the very top and down were going, “Hey this is so important, we’re going to give ourselves to it as well.”
Rich – Yeah, you know, I’ve said to teaching pastors in the past, and you can do like the once a year, “Okay we’re going to preach on why small groups are super important,” I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that, but if I was going to take one Sunday a year, where you get up and talk about how important it is, or throughout the year, sprinkle and throughout your content talking, just off-handed, you know, “Hey I was in my life group or my connect group this weekend, this is what I learned,” or “Hey my guys in my connect group, we were out serving at the soup kitchen this last weekend.”
John – Yeah that’s it.
Rich – All those small little things will gain so much traction in the culture and people will pick up on that for sure.
John – That’s right and the culture’s the thing. We found after a couple of years of running really hard with this, we did a couple of things as well to help push it, but we found the culture became so much that people who weren’t in a connect group felt like they were in the minority in our church.
Rich – Right.
John – That was a shift and that still is that way today, 15 years later, that if you’re not in a small group, you’re not in a connect group you kind of go, “Well, hang on, what are you doing with your walk with Christ? You can’t just turn up on a Sunday, get home, that’s it you’re done. That ain’t going to work.”
Rich – Right very cool.
John – So cultural shift, when I started to hear that, even… I remember a long term member in our church kind of saying to me that he hadn’t kind of gotten with the program yet after a couple of years and he kind of said, “I feel a little bit out of place. I feel like I’m missing out,” and, “Well, jump in man,” and he did. But that to me was like, “Ha-ha, okay we’ve got culture going on here,” which is a huge monster, once you get that thing rolling.
Rich – Yeah absolutely, that’s very cool. Other pieces, so making sure everyone’s involved, what else was kind of critical?
John – We did a crazy thing in the first 12 months. This is off the charts, this is nuts but we did it and look it was hard, it was tiring, but we committed to fortnight training for small group leaders. So every fortnight for one year, we got our small group leaders in small group and did ongoing training with them. I mean, for goodness sake, that’s crazy to be honest with you.
Rich – It is yeah.
John – That’s a lot of energy, that’s a lot of effort and after a year, I think we might have gone 18 months, we said that’s enough, it’s too much, let’s kind of pull it back. But that really developed high quality, high caliber leaders because they would talk about the issues going on, their groups, the problems they were facing, we were able to pray with them and you build this collegiate type feel amongst the small group leaders. So you had these kinds of development groups going on fortnightly through a year, now that’s going to raise the standard in your groups straight away.
Rich – What did you do in those conversations? Give me a sense of what a typical one of those looked like.
John – We’d run it for about an hour, an hour and 15 minutes. We’d have prayer in that time. Definitely have some coffee and some nice food, so you create a real sense of ambience around the evening as well. Then we would do a specific training of a skill. So how to lead a great discussion. How to kind of dial down some of these dominating discussions. How to be praying for people and we’d do a bit of role play in that and a bit of kind of enjoyment in acting that out, a little laughter related to that. Then also continuing to cast the vision, why are we doing this? Even as the lead pastor, we’re a fairly sizeable church, “Why as the lead pastor, am I running this training every fortnight and am I running a connect a group?” “This is why we are doing it.” So vision did not drift in that time, it was fantastic.
Rich – Very cool. For folks that are listening in and they don’t know what a fortnight is, that’s every other week or every fourteen days. So that’s a lot. That’s a ton of training over a year. That’s an incredible commitment to that, that’s incredible.
John – Yeah. I think we also did ongoing, and we did this, well pretty well I think we’ve done this for the last 12 or 15 years. We did very good onboard training of new leaders. So as new leaders would come onboard they would go through a training program that they were really trained both in a kind of, classroom sounds wrong, but in a setting where they were taught about the whole vision and so on, but then also apprenticed into a group. So they’d watch a skilled leader of high caliber actually involve them in the process.
I remember doing that in my own group, kind of making sure I was training a couple of leaders all the time, giving them discussions to do while I was there and when I was away and developing them, so we had an apprenticeship pipeline system going through. But then when it came for them to run a group, the onboard training was meticulous and they were well shepherded and well coached and well cared for in that process as well.
Rich – Very cool. Now I noticed earlier you talked about how you rebadged or rebranded to connect groups from small groups, why did you do that? Why did you call them connect groups?
John – Yeah, I think it kind of captured that… you know, I love intuitive words, words that you don’t have to explain.
Rich – Right.
John – I mean what does connect mean? It means connect. It’s easy to grab and small groups. I remember years ago, this is going way back, you won’t remember these days, the 1980s, it’s gone, way back, ancient history, then we called them home group fellowships, or home fellowship groups, that sounds very 70s and 80s doesn’t it?
Rich – Right, exactly, exactly.
John – It might come back though Rich in the 2020s or something.
Rich – You never know.
John – It’s possible to come back.
Rich – Exactly, exactly.
John – But we had kind of small groups and we might have mucked around with life groups at one stage but connect groups was just a name we’d never used. So we designed a logo around it, got some colors around it, just freshen the whole thing up, so it just grabbed people’s attention. Something new is changing.
The Australian church here runs from January through to December, calendar year style, so February is like our big launch month of the year to get rolling in Australia. So in February/March we actually didn’t run any small groups, which was really strange for our church, we’d always start in February, but we did training, vision casting, refocusing and then kind of launched around mid to late March with the new name, which again just focused everybody on, “Hang on, what’s happened to my small group?” “Well hang around, something new is coming.” It kind of built some curiosity and momentum towards it.
Rebadging things, I reckon today, this is 15 years on now, today I think you almost have to reinvent your small groups every 3 or 4 years, just freshen them up, rebadge them, rethink them, make them think like there’s something new, which is something we’ve done over the last few years. My successor has done that in the last few years as well.
Rich – Yeah I’ve wondered that. Even in our church we call them life groups and one of the questions I’ve been asking recently of the folks that are involved in leadership in that area is, I’m not sure that name really works anymore, it doesn’t make sense, because what is a life group? I don’t know, it’s a place where life happens, like it’s not… and I think even just the idea of, hey even if it works, just rebadging it, rebranding it every few years to keep it in front of people and be like, hey now here’s a new kind of renewed focus on whatever it is that we’re kind of focusing on for this season within our small groups.
John – Yeah.
Rich – So what ended up happening out of all of this? Did it end up working? Did you end up increasing numbers, it’s a lot of work? Did you have more people in the groups?
John – Yeah a lot of work. Yeah, look we got our attendance up to the mid-60s, got through the 60% mark, mid-60s.
Rich – That’s incredible.
John – Sustained it around the mid-60s and still today it’s around the mid-60s. So probably our best step would have been about 68%, round about up there, but 65%, 67% was pretty regular for our church and it’s still sitting there today, which is just remarkable really.
Rich – That’s incredible.
John – Australia is a secular society, it’s not a Christian society. 10% to 15% of people in Australia on a good Sunday go to church. That’s a high Sunday.
Rich – Right.
John – So in Australia, people that go to church are really, they are believers, they’re into it. There’s no general, “I go to church because that’s a good idea,” thing in Australia, it’s kind of weird if you go to church in Australia to be honest.
So what happens in Australian churches is people get quite committed to the idea of building relationships with other believers. There’s no place like a small group to do it. So I think the kind of ambient atmosphere in Australian churches is, “Hey get into relationships.” So if it starts from the top, from the lead pastor, flows through the team and the key leaders, I think you can actually make it work in our environment, in our culture and in our nation without… well with a lot of work but you can keep it up there at 60% plus. I think it’s a very doable goal.
Rich – That’s amazing. That’s incredible, I think a church, if we were to experience that kind of growth on the small group side, it would transform what’s happening in our churches for sure.
John – Yeah.
Rich – Your church was fairly sizeable as well, this wasn’t a small church in this timeframe right?
John – Yeah.
Rich – How large was your attendance on Sunday?
John – We kind of ran in the 800 to 1000 sort of mark.
Rich – That’s incredible, which again, I know, obviously for folks that have been listening to this show for a while, they know I’m Canadian and the spiritual dynamics in Australia and Canada I understand are similar.
John – Yeah it’s true.
Rich – God bless our friends who live in the south in the United States, because they seem to love church down there. That hasn’t been my experience and it’s obviously not the experience in Australia as well.
Is there anything else around this whole small group thing we want to talk through before we jump into the lightning round?
John – Yeah look, I think just any lead pastor listening in out there, get passionate about it. Even if you don’t like all the admin related to small groups, get passionate about running a small group, run one and start a fire and just see what happens in your church. If it’s in you it will get in your people.