I’ve talked with small group pastors across the country and one thing many of them say is: “Our church’s small group ministry is not doing well and it’s the senior pastor’s fault. If they would emphasize groups more in their messages, in our membership classes, and in our church communication, our groups would really take off. But they just don’t get it.”
Perhaps you are thinking this yourself. If so, you are dead wrong and I’ve got hard evidence to prove it!
I too used to think that the health of a church’s small group ministry depended largely on how much the senior pastor and the overall church emphasized the importance of small groups. In fact, I was so convinced of this that I made proving this a part of my Ph.D. research. I crafted survey questions to measure the prominence of small groups in a church’s sermons and in their overall church communication, and I statistically analyzed how this correlated to their small groups’ health and growth, looking at thousands of groups in hundreds of churches in 21 different countries.
I was shocked by the results. A church’s emphasis on small group shows absolutely no causal relationship to whether their groups are healthy and growing! (The full results of my research on what creates thriving groups is outlined in Small Groups, Big Impact, the book that I co-authored with Dwight Marable.)
Experts and group pastors got mad at me and argued with my findings. But in my defense, let me say these research results also ran counter to what I believed and had been saying! It was not at all what I expected to discover. It also was disconcerting to me as a small group pastor because it meant I had to quit complaining about things outside of my control, and I had to start working harder on the important factors which were under my control.
Some people questioned my findings because it was international in nature. They said that if I looked specifically at American churches, perhaps I would find different results.
So I just completed another round of research, surveying 1140 small group leaders in 47 U.S. churches. The results were the same. American churches’ emphasis on groups shows no causal relationship to whether their groups are healthy and growing.
However, two other factors make a huge difference in whether a church’s groups are thriving: the coaching of its small group leaders and the effectiveness of its group leader training.
What does this mean for those of us who are small group pastors? It means we should quit being cry babies and get to work improving the coaching and training of our leaders.
The bad news is that we can’t blame mediocre results on someone else. The good news is that the critical factors for a small group ministry are under our control! It takes time, prayer, discernment, and hard work to get these elements humming. But if we continue to sow personal coaching and effective training into our leaders, “we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.” (Galatians 6:9, NLT)
What about you? Do my discoveries surprise you or not? What questions or insights do you have on small group health and growth?