Today’s post by Bob Mayfield is the fifth installment in our Coach’s Guide to Sunday School resource provided by the office of Sunday School and Discipleship. To see the full guide, visit ALSBOM.org/coachsguidetosundayschool.
The book Transformational Groups, by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger of LifeWay Christian Resources, shows the incredibly positive effect a small group has on the spiritual development of the individuals in the group. Research by the authors of the book compare people who attend only a worship service with people who attend a small group or Sunday School. The results are staggering. People who participate in a small group read the Bible 40% more often than people who attend worship only. Small group participants give 42% more money per person, confess sins 25% more often, and 21% more serve in the church.
Since a biblical small community has such a powerful impact on the spiritual lives of an individual, the question to be asked is shouldn’t the church do all it can to get more people into small groups? The obvious answer is yes!
Churches are full of people who love Jesus and have sound theology. Church members want their church to fulfill the Great Commission and make disciples. What most churches lack, however, is a plan. The default growth strategy many churches appear to have is simply to place new people into existing groups, many of which are already full. This default plan is similar to pouring water into an already full container. The church needs a strategy that engages men and women, boys and girls in biblical small groups. What is needed is a passion to form new groups for new people.
Why Do Churches Need New Groups?
Many people do not understand the reasons for launching new groups in order to involve more people in biblical community. Here are five reasons for starting new groups.
Social Circles: We are all human, and we all have a social circle. When our social circle has openings, we are more open to welcoming new people into our circle. As our circle fills with friends, we become less interested in adding people into our already full circle. As extensions of the people in the group, small groups also form social circles. The longer the small group stays together, the tighter the social fabric of the group becomes. Perhaps you have had the experience of being new and trying to break into a closely knit social circle. It is not an easy thing to do. This is the same experience a new person has when attending a small group that has met together for more than two years. A new group has a more open social circle and is easier for a new person to join.
Span of Care: One person can generally take care of about ten people. Jesus had 12 disciples. Most businesses ask their managers to oversee 6-10 employees. In the church setting, as more and more people are added to an individual group’s enrollment, it becomes more difficult for the group leader to care for all of the people in his or her group. New groups help the church offer a better span of care for more effective personal ministry.
Participation: Smaller groups generally require more personal engagement than larger groups. As a general pattern, groups of all sizes talk, share and pray for each other. However, a group of 35 people has stricter time limitations on how many people can discuss the Bible study, share prayer requests and pray aloud. If every person in a 12 person group speaks for five minutes, the total time is 60 minutes. That same five minutes for everyone in a group of 35 would be over 2 ½ hours in length! Smaller groups provide a better environment for personal participation in the Bible study and other discipleship opportunities.
Evangelism: According to research by Ed Stetzer at LifeWay Research, a new group will engage three lost people with the Gospel in its first 12 months of existence. People who help form a new group are excited about their group and tend to invite their lost friends to their new group at a higher rate than church members who attend an existing group. Because of the personal nature of being involved in a group, new groups are usually the most effective way for the church to reach new people for Christ.
Leadership: By necessity, a new group requires expanding the church’s leadership base. Involving new leaders helps the church deploy more people and also involves the spiritual gifts of its new leaders. As a church engages more people in leadership, the church also expands its sphere of influence in the community.
More groups mean more disciples. The Great Commission that Jesus gave to His church is to make disciples. Beginning new groups increases the church’s capacity to make disciples in greater numbers, therefore, helping the local church fulfill the Great Commission.
Sunday School Director as a New Group Catalyst
As the Sunday School director, you can be a powerful influence in making more disciples by teaching, training and encouraging your leaders to make disciples through new groups. Below are some ideas for your consideration in starting new groups.
- Be a catalyst. No one else in the church is going to talk about beginning new groups. Accept this opportunity and bring energy to it.
- Take the long-term perspective. Many small group leaders do not understand why new groups are needed. Be patient, positive and persistent.
- Discover the average per-group attendance of your church. Divide the average church attendance by the number of ongoing small groups (preschool through adult). This is the average attendance per group. For most churches, this number is going to be about ten people per group.
- Set a goal. How many new people would you like to reach in average Bible study attendance this year? Divide that number by ten (or your church’s average group attendance above). That is the number of groups you will need to start this year.
- Involve your pastor. Pastoral involvement and support are vital if the church is going to develop a culture of beginning new groups.
- Develop an expectation for new groups. Talk about new groups at every leadership meeting.
- Lead teachers and group leaders to have a positive mindset about new groups. Equip and train leaders about why new groups are needed. Remember that people are “down” on what they are not “up” on.
- Have a new group trigger point. Determine the optimum group size in your church, and when a group reaches that size, immediately begin launching a new group.
- Develop a plan. A plan communicates to your group leaders and participants that you have thought this through. A plan also provides communication regarding expectations and involvement from your leaders.
Here’s a suggested plan to launch a new adult group from within an existing group (branch a new group):
- Ask the teacher or small group leader to enlist and train an apprentice leader.
- Meet with the leader and apprentice to select a launch date for the new group.
- Have the leader and apprentice select people from the current group to enlist as core members of the new group (suggestion: select core members that attend 50% of group meetings or more).
- Direct all new guests to the new group until it is healthy.
Five Methods to Begin a New Group
Form: One way to begin a new group that works very well with people under the age of 18 is simply to form a new group from an existing group. For example, if the church has one Bible study group for 1st–6th grade children, simply form a 1st–3rd grade group, and a 4th–6th grade group. Children and youth that are under 18 years old generally respond well to this new group method.
Target: Observe the people who are attending a worship service. Is there a specific group of people attending worship that are not participating in a small group, such as single adults or empty nesters? Begin a new group especially for this particular area of your church. Another option is to look at who is not being reached for the Gospel in your community and begin a new group for them. Examples might be medical professionals, residents of apartment complexes, or single parents.
Branch: Branching is an effective method to start a new adult group. Rather than split or divide an adult group, branching provides group members with the choice to either stay in their current group, or join the new group that is forming. This method requires the group leader to develop an apprentice who will eventually begin the new group. Group members can be enlisted to help begin the new group or can be given the choice of which group to attend.
Connection Group: This style of starting a new group is focused on people who attend worship but do not participate in a group. A connection group is a short-term group that meets from three to six weeks and is led by the pastor or a church staff member. After six weeks, the group members have made friends and developed the habit of coming to group meetings. Then, the pastor hands the group to a new leader (usually from within the group) and it is rolled into an ongoing group. A connection group is designed to address the following three reasons why many people will not attend an existing group:
- They do not know the leader. Many people are afraid that the leader may embarrass them in the group or ask them to read from Habakkuk and pronounce names that they do not know.
- They do not want to try breaking into an already existing social circle.
- They are afraid of a long-term commitment. Today’s culture typically does not make long-term commitments.
A connection group addresses these three concerns. First, the new connection group is led by the pastor or a church staff member. The pastor is often the most trusted and wellknown person in the church. This addresses the issue of not knowing the group leader. Second, because the group is new, the social circles are open. Finally, because it begins as a six-week group, it is easier to join for people who do not like long-term commitments.
Tips on beginning a connection group
- Publicize the connection group three Sundays prior to the launch.
- Insert sign up cards in the church bulletin.
- Mail an invitation to all church members who have not attended any Sunday School or small group in six months.
- Enlist another adult group to provide the refreshments for the first meeting.
- Wear name tags.
- Use curriculum that a novice leader can easily lead.
The pastor should plan to lead the group only through its initial launch stage. Then the group should be given to a new leader, preferably one from within the group. This method allows the pastor the freedom to begin another new group as often as possible.
New Groups Campaign: A campaign is similar to the connection group method, but instead church members are asked to begin the new groups, not just the pastor. A campaign focuses on starting as many groups as possible, with the hope that many people not involved in a group will continue on after the campaign ends in six to eight weeks. Because many of the group leaders are untrained, most campaigns use DVD curriculum to provide the biblical content, and the group leader facilitates the discussion. As a goal, many churches try to begin as many new groups in a campaign as they currently have in existing groups. For example, a church with ten existing groups would try to start ten more groups, for a total of 20 groups. If half of the new groups continue after the campaign, then the church would net five new groups.
New groups are vital to a healthy growing church. The pastor and the Sunday School director are the primary catalysts to develop a church that is consistently beginning new groups. Although the work can often seem slow at first, be persistent, and as your leaders realize the new groups are important, they will begin to support them too.
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