Establishing small groups within a large church—heralded by some as a remedy to the drawbacks of burgeoning congregation size—is “good medicine,” but not a cure-all, according to a national study by Baylor University sociologists.
“Simply having a small-group program in a church is no guarantee of success,” said Kevin Dougherty, an assistant professor in Baylor’s department of sociology and co-author of the article “A Place to Belong: Small Group Involvement in Religious Congregations,” published in the March issue of the journal Sociology of Religion.
What matters is that the groups meet regularly, members trust one another enough to divulge matters they would not tell to a stranger, and they tackle tough issues in one another’s lives, Dougherty said. He and Andrew Whitehead, a Baylor graduate student in sociology, conducted the study.
Members of small groups—whether in small churches or megachurches with 2,000 or more members—are more likely to attend worship, tithe and volunteer, Dougherty said.
“Highly committed members make a church strong, whether big or small,” he said.
A growing number of Americans attend large congregations. Nearly a third of worshippers attend congregations with a weekly attendance of 1,000 or more, although fewer than 3 percent of the country’s congregations are that size. Past research by Dougherty and others shows that people in large congregations typically attend less, give less financially and feel less belonging than people in smaller congregations.
Dougherty and Whitehead tested the effectiveness of small groups at raising levels of participation and belonging. They studied the role of Bible study and prayer groups, using national data obtained from the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey, with 78,474 respondents in 401 congregations, as well as data from a survey of 1,014 participants within an unidentified megachurch referred to in the study as Central Texas Megachurch. The church began in 1999 with an emphasis on cell groups. Today the church has more than 100 cell groups and attracts more than 3,000 worshippers weekly.
Study findings support the importance of small groups.
“Any type of small group will benefit a church, whether it’s a Sunday school, a service group or a basketball league, because of the belonging and commitment they foster,” Dougherty said. “But small Bible study and prayer groups are better at promoting discipleship and spiritual growth.”
Almost 90 percent of the nondenominational Central Texas church’s participants are in a small group, with groups typically consisting of eight to 15 members, usually in the same life stage. They gather in homes to sing, discuss, pray and receive instruction. “Small groups are the center of the church—not just one of many programs,” Dougherty said.
Frequency of attendance is more important for successful small groups than is length of attendance, he said, and “small size and regular interaction help foster trust. When people trust one another, they open themselves to deeper inspection and reflection. Great possibilities for change result.”
At The Heights Baptist Church in Richardson, with about 3,000 weekly worshippers, many small groups have been started by worshippers who said they wanted to “go deeper,” said Chris Havard, pastor of spiritual growth and formation.
He suggested topics they explore—such as prayer and building mates’ self-esteem—and accompanying questions, Bible passages and books. “It’s not tons of work, but it’s practical,” he said.
At Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, with about 200 worshippers, “life groups” that began several years ago “just exploded,” said Kessa Payne, who served on an interim basis in Calvary’s small-group ministry.
“Once the first group had been around for eight months, they started new ones, from four groups to a peak of 27 groups,” Payne said. “Part of the philosophy is that you don’t lead a group until you’ve been part of one. Another part is ‘No one ever leads alone.’”
They share meals and life stories and choose what they wish to study. Members are more apt to be involved on Sunday mornings and serve one another and the community—a low-income, high-crime neighborhood—during the week by mentoring youths or tending a community garden, she said.
Small groups risk crossing the line from intimacy to cliquishness. By constantly adding new members, “you can’t go very deep, because it takes time to build relationships and trust,” Havard said. “But a closed group, while it’s good for intimacy, lends itself to being inward-based. We want them to serve and think outside themselves.”
At First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., with about 1,200 worshippers, church members are trying a “microchurch” approach as well as traditional worship and Bible study and small groups. Pastor Jim Somerville encourages “a very flexible, loose format,” said Steve Booth, associate pastor for Christian formation. Sermons are telecast and streamed live, and some members meet in homes to view and discuss sermon clips, sing or incorporate other activities.
While many churches have opened multiple campuses, the microchurches “are an answer to multisites instead of opening full-blown campuses,” Booth said. “It’s an open form of small groups. Our philosophy is that not everyone is ready for (more structured) small groups.”
The best way to get people into small groups is by personal invitation, Dougherty said, while the challenge is to help new members find a group.
“For growing churches, this can occur by regularly forming new groups,” he said. “A second approach is to limit the time period for which groups meet. For example, groups might exist for one year and then be expected to split or multiply or be reconfigured in some other way.
“In congregations where people are empowered to form groups around shared interests, there should never be a shortage of groups to join. And more groups mean more active members, if done right.”