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How Long Should Your Small Group Meeting Be? (I think you will be surprised by the research results on this one!)

Over the years I’ve surveyed over 4000 small group leaders to uncover the key elements that produce vital, growing groups. I’ve consistently asked the leaders how long their meetings are. But I’ve been too busy looking at other things and actually never analyzed how the length of small group meetings impacts their growth.clock

I finally took the time to do this. Wow! I was shocked by the results. I think you will be, too. Or maybe you’re smarter than I am.

In this round of research I surveyed 1140 small group leaders in 47 different U.S. churches.

The specific question I asked them about their meeting length was: “Normally our small group meetings last:”, to which they could answer:

a. Less than 60 minutes
b. 60-90 minutes
c. 91-120 minutes
d. 121-150 minutes (2.5 hours)
e. More than 150 minutes

Just 2.3% said that a normal meeting of their group lasts less than 60 minutes, 34.4% said that their meetings go 60-90 minutes, almost half (45.8%) said that their meetings are 91-120 minutes, 14.2% had meetings 121-150 minutes, and 3.2% said that their meetings are more than 150 minutes or two and one-half hours long.

I compared the length of group meetings to four small group growth measures:

1. The number of people visiting the group.

2. The number of people coming to Christ through the influence of the group.

3. The number of people joining the group.

4. The number of new groups and leaders emerging from the groups.

I found the length of meeting only impacts the third of these growth factors, the number of people joining the group.

Now, which groups do you think grow the fastest: those with short meetings of 90 minutes or less (a. and b.), those meeting a medium length (c. 90-120 minutes), or those with long meetings of over 2 hours (d. and e.)?

I wasn’t sure what I would find out, but I expected it to be  groups with short or medium length meetings. I personally have been biased toward medium length meetings. As a small group leader I have aimed for years for a 90-minute small group meeting, so often I’ve led meetings that went just over 90 minutes. That seemed like the sweet spot to me; perhaps the research would validate my bias. Or maybe, I thought, short meetings are better, like the 1-hour small group meetings of some famous churches like Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea, the world’s largest church, which has tens of thousands of groups.

I was wrong. The fastest growing small groups are those that meet for over two hours! My hunches and biases have again been obliterated by solid research!

Why do groups meeting longer have more people join them? I think I know. The research clearly shows that a primary driver of people joining groups is the level of community or caring relationships that the members experience. In longer meetings people have more opportunity to deepen relationships.

Let me quickly add that meeting length is not a primary driver of growth. It’s much more important that your group has an outward focus and that you as a leader are involving other members in ministry and leadership. (You can read more about those things in another recent post.) Both of those factors—an outreach focus and empowering others—drive all four measures of small group growth.

But how long you meet does have some impact, particularly on whether people decide to keep coming back. I’m not proposing that we all have super-long meetings. But this is what I think this says to all of us:

1. Don’t aim for less than 90 minutes.

2. Allow ample time, particularly for the parts of the meeting that deepen relationship: the opening icebreaker question, interactive Bible study, prayer for one another, and food.

3. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to rush people out the door.

This is how my wife Vicki and I schedule our current small group that meets each Thursday:

6:00pm Meal together (yep, we eat together ever week)

7:00pm Meeting
– Small Group Icebreaker
– Bible Study
– Worship
– Ministry Time

8:15pm Dismissed

We have a group that includes families with preschool children so we start and end earlier than most groups.

Did it surprise you, like it did me, that groups that meet longer grow faster? What insights or questions do you have about small group meetings and their length?

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5 Responses to How Long Should Your Small Group Meeting Be? (I think you will be surprised by the research results on this one!)

  1. Andrew Mason December 9, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

    Jim, this was surprising. Thanks for putting all of this together. I think it shows that a group that “lingers” together grows together. I think groups consistently go longer than 90 min through prayer sometimes, but also through food and voluntary fellowship. It’s that organic sense of sharing life together that turns a quantity of time into quality time.

    Impressed that you eat a meal with your group every week too, very inspiring. God bless Jim!

  2. Michael Fleming December 11, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    Jim, this makes total sense to me and I’m not surprised at all. If you were to ask how long the fastest growing church services were, I’m sure it would be the other way around. In participatory environments that are biblical, I personally feel that interaction is more natural and engaging than when I listen to sermons. The data you present communicates that this is true for everybody. As the old saying goes – “time flies when you’re having fun!”

  3. Michael C. Mack December 12, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    Jim, thanks for investigating and sharing this. As I’ve talked with many group leaders over the years I’ve found a similar pattern, at least for groups that have been around for a while. But I’ve found (only through empirical evidence) that newer groups tend to grow in numbers and be healthier when they meet in the shorter to medium time range. If you’ve ever seen Lyman Coleman’s “flying wedge” illustration, this “birth” phase (or what I’ve labeled the “conception” and “connecting” phases) is a time for the group to connect, and learn how to become a “group.” I’ve found that these meetings are best at about 60-90 minutes, but I’ve taught leaders to end the official meeting and then let people hang out for a while. The longer the group has been meeting the longer they stay and hang out–which then leads to being able to extend the “official” meeting time.

    Just wondering if you’ve noticed anything similar in your research?

    Also, what did you notice when you look at types of groups, i.e., men’s women’s couples, singles, mixed, etc.?

    My men’s group only meets for 1 hour because we meet in the morning before guys go to work, so that’s all the time we have, but our other health factors would be pretty good.

    This stuff is fascinating to me, and I think it can really inform us as we coach leaders through the myriads of decisions, helping them to be healthy and growing.

    • Jim Egli December 12, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

      Interesting thoughts, Mike. I looked at meeting length and group growth for all groups no matter how long they had been together, but I actually have enough data that we could break it down and see if it varies for groups depending on how old the group are. I’ll need to do more analysis to see if that changes things. Thanks for offering a new angle to look at it from.

  4. Amy Jackson December 13, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    I concur with Mike. My newer groups tend to naturally take more time as they learn to be a group together. Interesting finds!

    I also wonder if it matters how groups spend those 2 hours together. In your example, Jim, you’ve shown that half the time was more study/focused, and half the time was more connecting/fellowship. I imagine 2 hours of straight study would be a lot for most groups. What do you think?

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