Do you know the best time to start making disciples? The philosophical answer is, “Right now!” The practical answer is often different. There are a crazy number of factors that affect the success of a discipleship group. If you are doing a formal plan (especially the most effective one-year plan), one of the most significant factors is the start date.
After years of trying everything under the sun and helping others get started, we have found three simple things about when to start that increase our long-term success. Here we go.
1. Start by Valentine’s Day.
We have tested all kinds of start dates: at the end of summer, after Labor Day break, in January, and even in summer. And the results weren’t so great. Disciples often find the end of summer starts a challenge as their families are busy getting back to school. Late fall starts often get derailed by the holidays before everyone gets in the groove. Spring starts face the temptation to skip weeks as the flowers bloom. Summer starts wrestle with the vacation-time mindset.
Statistically, the best time to start your group is in the first two weeks of February. February start dates produce the most self-sustaining, self-replicating disciples with the lowest dropout rates. When you start before Valentine’s, you start after the holiday recovery. You advertise before and after the new year (the same time everyone signs up for weight loss, counseling, and the gym). Disciples are “in the groove” long before the end-of-school chaos. And winter is a slower time for families.
Starting before Valentine’s Day works – the numbers don’t lie. You can fudge your start plus or minus two weeks without much impact but why not try the best dates first?
2. Start discipleship groups off-cycle with other groups.
Healthy churches (even, small and strong ones) have some form of small groups. They may have Sunday classes, focused help groups, or life groups. Small groups allow for relational connections. And, the people have grown used to these small group models. They know what to expect if they sign up for a Sunday School class. They know that life groups will be lighter on teaching, heavy on relations, and very unstructured. Small groups are great. But they are very different from disciple-making groups. This is critical if you are just getting started.
We have found that success suffers when discipleship group marketing, recruiting, and signup are done at the same time as small groups. Dropout rates are higher (five to ten times as high) than when discipleship groups are launched off-cycle with other groups. Based on exit interviews with dropouts and their leaders, it seems to be a matter of expectation. Most dropouts expressed that they thought discipleship groups were just another kind of life group. And they were overwhelmed by the difference.
Leaders expressed that the church was not adequately able to explain the value of discipleship amidst the recruiting for standard groups. Combining this with thing #1, you could increase your wins by moving your small group starts to the end of summer and starting discipleship in February.
3. Summer and after September Sucketh
This may seem obvious, but in our zeal to make disciples, start new groups, or help other churches start quickly, we actually tried this. Dumb us!
I guess summer could work if it needed to, but vacations will pull people out during the early months of discipleship before routines become life habits. We have never seen much success after September either. October runs into Thanksgiving which bumps into Christmas. After September has the same challenges as summer starts. If you try this and get it to work, call us.
It’s often better to wait for the best time than to suffer the losses of a quick start…
If you are starting an independent group out of your home or office, you have more flexibility but thing #2 and thing #3 will still impact your success. It’s often better to wait for the best time than to suffer the losses of a quick start.
What do you do if you can’t do February?
You get a plan together and make those disciples.
We use a Spiritual Journal to get people in interim groups until the next year starts. You can do informal discipleship (yes, there are a hundred ways to make disciples) using the same effective principles in the Sustainable Discipleship Method. You can start late, with a little caution, and shorten the year so you end at the beginning of January, ready to go for the next year.
If you need help creating a plan or getting an idea, we love helping. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. The key is having a solid plan before you start.
Your start date is only one of the many factors that increase your disciple’s success (and yours!). You can learn the entire method that continues to deliver 95% success across churches and cultures at a workshop. We’d love to have you there.