SUB-CONGREGATIONS & How To Use Them to Grow a Small Church in Just 6-Steps

by Bob Whitesel D.Min. Ph.D., 2/5/15.

Are you the leader of a small church who doesn’t feel you have enough people to launch a new worship service?  Well actually you probably already have the “seeds” of a new worship service within your church.  These “seeds” are “sub-congregations” and they can be multiplied into an additional worship service by following just 6-steps.

Let me explain, leaders in very small churches may feel they do not have a sub-congregation that is large enough to have its own worship celebrations.  I noted in my chapter on “Organizational Behavior” (Foundations of Church Administration, 2010) that “sub-congregations naturally develop as a church passes 100 attendees.”  This however does not mean that you do not need to worry about them until you near 100 attendees.

Foundations COVERIn fact, to get to 100 attendees you usually will need to identify and grow your emerging sub-congregations. Let me explain.

An emerging sub-congregation is usually a group in the church around the size of a large small group (30+ attendees, though in large churches they can number in the 100s).  They are often departments (such as the music department, youth department, etc.), Sunday school classes (with 30+ attendees), or a cultural group.

Sub-congregations will have their own cultural distinctives such as behaviors, ideas and ways they serve and celebrate.  They enjoy one another’s company and they usually see themselves like his (as one person told me): “We are larger than a small group but we’re not the whole church. We are more like a ‘small church’ within the bigger church.”

The temptation is to just ignore such sub-congregations, but they are your building block to growing the church. The key is to identify these emerging sub-congregations and then find out which ones have the most likelihood of growing.  Usually their potential for growth will have to do with the demographics in the community.

Once you identify an emerging sub-congregation that has a potential to grow, you then put more energy and resources into mentoring a leader of this group, expanding it into multiple small groups (rather than the one large small group it usually is already) and giving them their own worship service (once you have 50 people in this sub-congregation).

Here is how these emerging sub-congregations were taking place in one student’s church.  The student wrote;

“We are a church that is averaging 70 people (roughly) this conference year, we do not have an abundance of sub-congregations. There is one definite sub-congregation, and is the women’s Bible study group. They meet every Tuesday morning at the church, and that is only because they became too large for the home they were meeting in. Each week, they have up to 15 women meeting. They are mostly older, with the youngest women in the group being in their fifties…. This group has met for more than the last decade… This group also connects somewhat with the unchurched community … they have been able to reach out to people in their generation that were unchurched…. As far as other sub-congregations, I really do not see any. I thought of one more – those who are in small groups. I hesitate to do this because it takes away from the women’s group, but the other two small groups also have leaders, have a pulse on those outside the church, and are generational.”

To me it looks like there is an emerging sub-congregation comprised of the two small groups that are generationally orientated.  If there are generations like these in the community, then the strategy would be the following:

1) Find out which emerging sub-congregational culture is also growing in the community.  In the example above, it might be that one of these small groups is Boomer and another Postmodern Xers.  If this was the case, then the strategic intention of this church should be to develop one of these small groups into a full-fledged sub-congregation.  The next steps are how you go about doing this.

2)  Mentor an indigenous leader from the culture you identified in Step 1 who will bring together a small group of this indigenous culture.  This will be the spiritual leader and figure-head of this emerging sub-congregation. They should be a mature Christian leader (c.f. 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9) who can submit to the lead pastor of the congregation. This is very important, for the church must become a united “multi-cultural” congregation. Thus, the leaders of each cultural sub-congregation must be bridge-builders across cultural gaps.

3) Get the existing small group to plant another group like themselves. This is where the real work takes place.  Often people don’t like to split up their group, so don’t try to force them to divide. Rather, encourage them to reach more people by starting another group like themselves at another time or place. Show them how this will help them reach out to more people of their culture (e.g. generation, ethnicity, etc.) through offering a new small group that newcomers of their culture can fit into.  The best way to start a new small group is to ask the existing small group to be its sponsor, and for anyone who feels led (usually two apprentices from the existing small group) to form the new group. This is called “seeding” a new small group, where a couple leaders and a few people volunteer to start this new small group.

4)  Cluster or network your small groups at least once a quarter. By this I mean get your small groups from the same emerging sub-congregation together at least once every three months for unity building.  Help them build identity, sometimes with a name.  The leader (of Step 2) must be a unifier between the various small groups of the emerging sub-congregation.

5)  Create more small groups as new ones approach 12 in attendance.  Use the small group “seeding” strategy of Step 3 above.  And, use Step 4 to keep these new small groups “clustering” once a quarter with other small groups of their cultural sub-congregation.

6)  Once you have a total of 50 people in your small group network, or cluster, create a new and regular worship encounter for them. This then becomes the new worship encounter for this emerging sub-congregation.  (Notice that like John Wesley, small groups [class meetings] are created before big worship gatherings [society meetings].)

Once COVER Gospel After Christendomyou have reached Step 6, your emerging sub-congregation has officially emerged 🙂

This can be done over and over again, with as many sub-congregations as needed.  I have analyzed some congregations of only 1,000 attendees and found they are comprised up of 7+ sub-congregations (see my chapter “From Gathered to Scattered: Saint Thomas Church of Sheffield” in The Gospel After Christendom, ed. Ryan Bolger (2012).  The key to growing a church, is to strategically spot and develop these emerging sub-congregations. That is how you manage organizational behavior in a church … by growing and leading sub-congregations.

DUNBAR NUMBER & Don’t Believe Facebook; You Only Have 150 Friends #NPR #GoodResearch

By National Public Radio, 6/5/11

According to Acording to “Dunbar’s Number,” human beings can maintain a network of only about 150 close friends.

Most of Dunbar’s research … is based on the idea that human beings can hold only about 150 meaningful relationships in their heads. Dunbar has researched the idea so deeply, the number 150 has been dubbed “Dunbar’s Number.”

Ironically, the term was coined on Facebook, where 150 friends may seem like precious few.

“There was a discussion by people saying ‘I’ve got too many friends — I don’t know who half these people are,'” Dunbar says. “Somebody apparently said, ‘Look, there’s this guy in England who says you can’t have more than 150.'”

Dunbar has found 150 to be the sweet spot for hunter-gatherer societies all over the world. From the Bushmen of Southern Africa to Native American tribes, a typical community is about 150 people. Amish and Hutterite communities — even most military companies around the world — seem to follow the same rule.

The reason 150 is the optimal number for a community comes from our primate ancestors, Dunbar says. In smaller groups, primates could work together to solve problems and evade predators. Today, 150 seems to be the number at which our brains just max out on memory…

…Dunbar says there are some neurological mechanisms in place to help us cope with the ever-growing amount of social connections life seems to require. Humans have the ability, for example, to facially recognize about 1,500 people. Now that would be an impressive number of Facebook friends.

Yet the problem with such a large number of “friends,” Dunbar says, is that “relationships involved across very big units then become very casual — and don’t have that deep meaning and sense of obligation and reciprocity that you have with your close friends.”

One solution to that problem, he adds, can be seen in the modern military. Even as they create “supergroups” — battalions, regiments, divisions — most militaries are nonetheless able to maintain the sense of community felt at the 150-person company level.

“The answer has to come out of that,” Dunbar says, “trying to create a greater sense of community.

“In a way, Americans are lucky in that respect,” he adds. “There’s this long tradition of commitment to ideals that binds Americans together. That isn’t always true elsewhere.”

While modern society does make it hard to hang on to friends who aren’t geographically close, Dunbar says, his research shows family is different.

“Friends, if you don’t see them, will gradually cease to be interested in you,” he says. “Family relationships seem to be very stable. No matter how far away you go, they love you when you come back.”

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