As church leaders, many of us don’t have the time to stop and reflect on what we’re doing. And even if we did, our reflections are often not enough. We are too close to situations, too immersed in real time ministry, to properly evaluate it or to ask the right questions. We need perspectives outside the pastorate.
Yet, some pastors are reluctant to learn from non-pastors, routinely dismissing anything from an academic simply because he or she is not a pastor. But researchers may offer a better picture of our ministry than we have as pastors. They can spot trends or patterns that we can’t see because we’re so close to the trees that we miss the proverbial forest. Conversely, pastors can help add more nuance and colors to ‘data’ that a researcher may be struggling to interpret. They may map the forest, but the miss the subtle differentiation from tree to tree.
Small groups are a perfect example of how pastors may learn from researchers. At many church conferences, pastors speak confidently of their latest, greatest small group model, sure that it is the new breakthrough in discipleship. But their only ‘sample size’ is their own congregation, and they all-too-often have no metric for its effectiveness– except for the number of people in groups. Oh, and they may just be a little biased about their model. 🙂 (I know: I’ve done this.)
Enter the researcher. Below are the results of a study done by Dr. Roger Walton, a theologian (former faculty at Durham University, England) and the District Chair at West Yorkshire District of the Methodist Church in England.
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Walton conducted his research in 2011, working exclusively with church small groups. The study involved 700 people. This was a closed survey; people answered questions that they were asked.
There was one open question: What was the best thing about a small group? The two most used words that came up were fellowship and friendship. Walton notes that Bible study, learning, mission, etc did not really come up.
Below are his findings as they pertain to the individual and to the church, along with his summary of what it means.
For the Individual:
  • 87% said ‘it brought me closer to God’
  • 79% said it ‘strengthened my prayer life’
  • 77% said ‘it made me more confident in my faith’
  • 76% said ‘it made me more able to connect faith and everyday life’
  • 72% said ‘it made me more accepting and forgiven of others’
  • 68% said ‘it made me more confident in speaking about faith’
  • 51% said ‘it made me more likely to help my neighbors’
  • 23% said ‘it got me more involved in justice issues nationally or internationally’
  • 18% said ‘it got me more invoked in local issues’
For Churches:
  • 54% of people who belong to American mega-churches (3000+ people) say they belong to a ‘close-knit’ community. Why? Small groups!
  • Those who join small groups (note that this is correlation not causation):
    • Attend worship more often
    • Feel a stronger connection to the church
    • Give more time and money
  • Small groups tend to:
    • enhance racial-ethnic diversity
    • promote congregational growth (and retains members)
    • have positive effects on members’ beliefs and practices
So, what does this mean? 
Walton summarizes this way:
  • Small groups are highly valued by participants
  • Small groups create a sense of community and provide pastoral care
  • Small groups acts as mediating agents in churches.
  • Small groups have a capacity to help people own and develop faith
  • Small groups tend to replicate the value of the church to which they belong
  • Small groups borrow from and are shaped by forces in wider culture
  • Small groups are not intrinsically missional

[Roger Walton’s book which contains this research and more theological reflection can be found HERE.]

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What should we– pastors– make of this?

For me, there are two points for further reflection:

1. Small groups don’t inherently facilitate learning.
There are two possible decisions that one may make as a result: either we find a different vehicle for actually learning about God and what it means to be His people, or we work to help groups develop better content. Our church for years had a ‘free market’ approach to small groups: anyone could lead a group about anything, and if people kept coming, that meant it was ‘working’. This is fraught with problems, not least of which is why the premise of Western economics ought to be imported into an ecclesial context! But the most glaring deficiency is it’s lack of an intentional way to help people learn. It is true that discipleship is not simply knowledge-driven; but while discipleship is more than learning, it is not less than learning.

2. Small groups pull inward unless they are pushed outward.
How can groups be led into mission? Some churches have groups cluster into ‘missional communities’ that host house parties or neighborhood gatherings as a way of extending outwards. Others have their groups build in a regular day of serving the community or partnering with local non-profits. Whatever the model, the challenge remains: groups have a centripetal force and must be intentionally pushed outward.

What about you? What are some reflections you have? What are some ways you and your church have intentionally helped small groups be better at learning and at mission?

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4 thoughts on “What Church Small Groups Do Best…And What They Don’t.

  1. Thanks for sharing this study and your views on it Glenn. This is very helpful stuff.
    One of the features of most small group ministries that I have experienced or worked with is a disconnectedness from the other two main areas of spiritual life – the congregation and personal practice. The problem I often see is that what happens in small groups, from a teaching perspective, is not related to what happens in the personal devotional practice of the members, or the teaching journey of the church in which they participate.
    This means that the teaching of each facet (personal, small group and congregation) acts separately, and sometimes even in contradiction to one another. This is why, over the years, I have become an evangelist for linking small group study material with what is taught in church services, and linking both the sermon and the small group content with guided resources for personal spiritual practice. I have personally found the Revised Common Lectionary to be a great framework for bringing the three facts together into a cohesive whole for teaching. But, again, my thoughts have not been the basis of a study – what I’m offering is all anecdotal (at this stage). 😉
    I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspectives on this if you have a chance.
    Grace
    John

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  2. Glenn,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. There was a time when the free market idea worked and we were able to infuse some intentionality into the process. It became too complicated to “manage”, and impossible to measure. Culture is shifting fast, people don’t want to be managed and measured and time is our biggest commodity. Today, I believe that people are more willing to be a part of something that is more organic in nature and operates simply. Denise and I lead a small group at our church–we meet for 5 weeks in the fall and 5 weeks in the spring, with informal get togethers between. We eat and fellowship together, and discuss the sermon and pray together. A very old idea, but it is simple and everyone seems to love it. Our group has been together for three seasons. We are a mix of ages and life stages–churched and unchurched. This fall I can tell that everyone is truly invested in each other’s welfare and growth. Our group is now a group of friends who push and encourage each other outward in their daily lives. Thanks for posting the research–great info!
    Ted Whaley

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  3. John…thank you so much for sharing what you guys do. It’s very helpful. The kind of contextual out working of this is what is hard to get from a study. And it’s what pastors can contribute to the conversation.
    Ted, wow…I didn’t even consider that you might read this. Thank you for being kind and gracious. We too are adopting a simpler model. Your input is priceless given your experience. I agree with you in the shift you describe.

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  4. Thanks for sharing Glenn.
    In regards to being intentional about learning and teaching, our pastors and elders have made themselves available for teaching to any one of our small groups upon request. They come like a guest speaker, but for small groups. It’s great to interact with them in a more intimate setting.
    I agree with the need to be intentional about what we do with small groups. My wife and I host a group in our home and have found that simply gathering with no agenda (seeing where the Spirit leads us) is great but doesn’t really produce spiritual growth over the long haul. It’s easier just to ‘fellowship’ (which has it’s place) and not do much else.
    In light of this, we try to plan some things a week or two in advance (listen to and discuss Sunday’s sermon, buy groceries for a family in need etc). At first I feared this might be too ‘structured’, but I can honestly say this kind of structure is what we’ve needed all along.

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