by Bob Whitesel Ph.D., 7/6/15.
We all want to know how to grow a small church. And, after coaching hundreds of small churches, the key to their growth is usually organically growing their small groups. Let me explain.
A student once remarked, “The people in my church rarely give feedback. I gave them a questionnaire and only received five back out of 50. We only have two major groups, Worship Service and Bible Study. More people show up for Bible Study. I don’t know if it is because they get to eat afterward or not. Small group intimacy does not play a role in our church, maybe because of the size.”
Yes, he was right. Small group intimacy may not be needed in his church because his congregation was basically one extended family or small group now.
To grow a church in this situation, you usually have to get the people to start another small group. This could be accomplished by adding another Bible Study or Sunday School class, or any other type of small group. And, if often helps if a few people form the existing small group help launch this new group by being in attendance.
Let me give an example.
One of my client churches (a Presbyterian church in rural Illinois) had 35 people on Sunday, and a Sunday School for adults that regularly reached 25. As I interviewed the leaders, they mentioned that they liked the Sunday School because they could share their opinions freely and discuss the Bible. They said they had invited people, but that guests would usually come once or twice, and then stop.
I explained to them some behaviors of the unchurched that helped bring the organizational forces involved to light. First, I explained that most people come to church because of a crisis or need. One of my colleagues (Flavil Yeakley, cited below) found that what motivates people to come to church is: death in the family, followed by illness, followed by interpersonal problems (such as marital problems, etc.). Thus, you can see that when people come to our churches they are looking for a more intimate environment than 25-35 people to share their needs.
A small group (12-15 people) is the perfect environment for people to share such needs. In fact, this is the size of group Jesus used for discipleship. When the Presbyterian Sunday School understood this, they understood they needed to launch another Sunday School.
Two members of the existing Sunday School volunteer to start this new group, and the new smaller group grew with new members.
Whitesel B. (2012) Cure for the Common Church: God’s Plan to Restore Church Health. Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House. Here is the footnote and citation from that book: “The Holmes and Rahe Readjustment Scale is a comparison of the degree to which different crises affect stress in people’s lives.” Flavil Yeakley’s Ph.D. research at the University of Illinois uncovered that many times such crises drive people to religion (and to visit churches) in search of answers, help and solace (Flavil R. Yeakley, Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the School of Communication [Champaign, IL: University of Illinois, 1976].) Yeakley’s research has been summarized by Elmer Towns in A Practical Encyclopedia of Evangelism and Church Growth (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1995), pp. 209-210. One implication of Yeakley’s research is that churches should focus more on offering ministry that helps people deal with crises in their life.”