What’s the right group size?

Just before Christmas, I wrote a post and challenged you to suggest topics you wanted me to address in the coming weeks. Well, you responded! Today’s post is an answer to Randy Lamon’s question about group size. Here is what Randy asked:

Ken,

Effective group size is a topic that would help me. My fastest growing classes are the ones that are larger in size, however, they tend to be the same classes where people “hide” and won’t get involved in ministry that needs to be done. Is there a size class that maximizes growth and ministry involvement?

Randy, thanks for submitting that question! It’s one that affects all of us who lead a groups ministry. I, too, had a similar experience when leading the groups ministries of the two churches I served. Big groups tended to be like “black holes,” drawing in guests and members alike! I begin a new role as Minister of Education at a church here in the Nashville area this coming Sunday, and no doubt I’m going to run into several groups that are too large, so your question is timely! I’m doing this part-time, and I’m still keeping my day job.  🙂

Over the past year, I’ve read about 20 books on discipleship. I have a strong opinion about group size, and I do not favor large groups. Here is my reasoning on this, and then I’ll answer the part of your question about the group size that maximizes ministry involvement.

  • Jesus didn’t develop disciples in large groups – The example we see in Scripture is that of Jesus limiting the size of his “class” to 12. He even had a smaller group of 3 he met with. Every author on the topic of discipleship says the same thing: bigger groups are not what we find in Scripture. As Jim Putman says, “We want the results of Jesus without using the methods of Jesus.”
  • Larger groups limit leader development – So imagine if you were a member of a 50 person class. A teacher would likely have a microphone and a podium. He might even use PowerPoint or some other presentation software. He would likely be a very good expositor. The trouble is, though, that very few people in this group of 50 would dare step up and teach the group in his absence. That doesn’t foster leader development, and most church’s leadership pipelines are fairly empty. Big groups hinder the starting of new groups and the development of apprentice teachers.
  • Larger groups create hideouts – Randy already addressed this problem, and I bet you’ve seen it, too. Large classes are places for people to hide out. It’s really hard to get people to step up and step out of the group to serve in other ministries that need workers.
  • Larger groups open up the back door of the church – Granted this may not take place in every large group, but unless the group has an amazing administrator who organizes the group into smaller care groups, people are going to fall through the cracks. They’ll get sick and no one will know to follow up. A death in the family will take place and the group won’t reach out because it didn’t know. Now all of a sudden people start to disengage, angry that needs were not met.

So now, if larger groups aren’t all that beneficial to the process of making disciples, what’s the right size? You may or may not agree with me on this, but my conviction is that of others whom I would consider to be groups experts. My good friends David Francis and Rick Howerton (one a Sunday School guy, one a small groups guy) said in their book Countdown, that the optimal number of people in a Bible study group is 12, plus or minus 4.

I agree. Anywhere between 8 to 16 people is a good size. At this size, people can be discipled. They can be discipled in a way similar to the way Jesus discipled his group. People can be known. People can be developed. People can be encouraged and trained to do ministry. People are missed and followed up with at this size.

I’ve taught a group for the past 5 years that has hovered around 14-16 people in attendance each week. At times I wished we’d grown to be 30 people, but then I realized that I wouldn’t be doing New Testament discipleship. I’m glad we’ve been a smaller to medium sized group. We know when people are absent. People have stepped up to serve. People have intentionally sought out others to build relationships. I couldn’t be happier!

So my final answer is: a group of 12, plus or minus 4.

____________________________

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