Large groups of people studying the Bible can be exciting for the group leader to teach, but are they the best plan for making disciples? Do smaller groups have advantages over their “big brothers”? I believe the answer is, “absolutely”! There are unintended consequences of large “pastor classes” that most of us don’t think about until it’s too late. In this post, let’s consider some reasons why keeping groups to a smaller number of members may actually be a great, or essential, church practice.
- Smaller groups can meet anywhere – A group of 12 people (which I would consider to be “about the right size,” give or take a few) can meet in any on-campus room at the church, and they will fit comfortably in someone’s living room or even around a few tables at a Panera Bread restaurant. In the book Countdown, David Francis and Rick Howerton propose that after seeking counsel from Sunday School and small group experts, the general consensus is that a group of 12, plus or minus 4, is the right size for groups.
- Smaller groups increase conversational community – People in a large class tend to remain quiet. Speaking up in front of a group of 40 or 50 peers can be very intimidating, so some really great comments always go unsaid. In a smaller group, the intimidation factor doesn’t exist like it does in a large group. As Dr. Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research, said in his book Transformational Groups, “A small group or class Bible study should be a ‘groupalogue.’ A groupalogue is a study built on great questions…Your effectiveness goes up incredibly as does learning when everyone is talking…” (p.24). When is the last time everyone in your group spoke up?
- Smaller groups help people connect – People are “social Legos” and have only so many relationships they can give their time, attention, and energy to supporting. Each of us has only so many connections we can make (and keep). Smaller groups tend to help people “Lego up” with one another and connect relationally, in part because of the room arrangement (people sitting in a circle see one another’s faces and this helps form connections, as opposed to people sitting in classrooms with many rows of chairs facing the front of the room). Dr. Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay, has discovered that 80% of new members will drop out in year 1 if they don’t get involved in a small group, meet new friends, and find a place of ministry. Smaller groups are “sticky” when it comes to helping people find new friends.
- Smaller groups are easier to teach – Have you ever tried to recruit someone to teach a large “pastor’s class”? It takes a special person with special biblical knowledge to teach such a large group of people. When that person steps down, moves away, retires, etc., finding a replacement can be just about impossible. In smaller groups, teacher-leaders are much easier to recruit. Guiding the Bible study of a group of 12 is much easier than trying to teach a large class. In a smaller group, it feels like a gathering of friends; “pastor’s classes” tend to feel like you’re back in a college lecture hall full of interested, but disconnected people.
- Small groups keep people from falling through cracks – One of the jobs of a teacher-leader is to act as a shepherd for their group. To read more about this, pick up a copy of the book 3 Roles for Guiding Groups. In this book, David Francis and I spend an entire chapter on the role of shepherd, and how a good teacher-shepherd knows his sheep, keeps up with them, prays for them, and watches over them. It is just physically impossible to do this in a large classroom setting with dozens and dozens of people in the group. I teach a group of 16 adults weekly at my church, and between my full-time job, my role as a husband and father, and other responsibilities, it is all I can do to minister to this smaller group of adults! I cannot imagine trying to teach and shepherd a group of 30, 40, or 50 adults.
- Small groups are places where discipleship takes place – Jesus taught and ministered to large groups, but His favorite method for making disciples was investing in 12 disciples, not 100 disciples. Even within His group of 12 there was an “inner group” of 3 men with whom He spent even more relational time. Jesus’ model was to use a small group as the basis for discipleship. Somewhere along the way, we’ve gotten away from this biblical example. A teacher who disciples his people knows each of them, their needs, their shortcomings, and what each one needs to progress in their journey toward Christ-likeness. In a large lecture-oriented class, I might make a good presentation, but I won’t generate much conversation and I certainly won’t see as much transformation as I might when I lead and disciple a smaller group of adults.
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