You Will Never Guess What I learned From Panera About Small Groups

On a Saturday afternoon while eating lunch at Panera,  I began to notice a long line forming at the front counter. A friendly high school student behind the register. She smiled and worked hard to get orders in. There was a line of people waiting. I watched as a few more families walked in. It was getting busy.

Sitting to the left were 5 bright and shiny Ipads sitting on kiosks with huge signs saying “Avoid the Line and Order Here.” I wondered, why would they choose the long line? Why not choose the iPad sitting there beckoning them for their orders? Not a single person opted for an iPad. They weren’t old people clutching their checkbooks either. Here were young families and Apple Pay savvy adults. Each opting to order real food from a real person. Even if it meant waiting. Waiting in a line.

Now mommy don’t play that. My 6-year-old sat next to me eating her mac and cheese I had happily ordered from the iPad just 5.2 minutes ago. I like efficiency and have the Fast Pass system at Disneyland down to an art form. I could not stop thinking about the empty iPads.

Take your small group ministry to the next level by attending the “Lobby Gathering” 2018 in sunny Southern California March 13-15th! Register HERE!


As you launch small groups in 2018 and help connect people into community, remember to make it personal.  I own plenty of bright shiny iPads and fancy displays for small group sign ups. I spend way too much time figuring out what kiosk app to download to display my web form. At the end of day, it’s the personal interaction that wins. Panera was a good reminder. We all crave interaction as we make choices about soups, bagels,  or small groups.

The bottom line is this. My small group sign-ups have increased dramatically by having a team of real humans waiting to help people get connected into community. Try looking for ways to add a personal touch every chance you get. An extra phone call or personal email [that isn’t from a mail merge] speaks volumes.


  • Gina Abbas

    Gina's been in full time ministry since the year Mulan hit the movie theater. She's the author of the book, A Woman in Youth Ministry and frequent contributor to The Small Group Network. She lives with her Star Wars loving husband and 3 kids on the East Coast.

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Daniel Thomas

Connections Director


Daniel serves as Executive Pastor at Community Church of Mountain City, TN.  Daniel and his family are on a mission to establish roots within their community, fight for peace and serve well.  He serves as our Connections Director in laying the groundwork for Circles. He loves great coffee and traveling with his wife Tia and two children, Deklan and Aden



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