Ed Stetzer once said that we should seek to move people “out of rows and into circles.” When he said this, he was referring to creating the most important movement in the church – the movement of people from the church’s worship gathering to involvement in Bible study groups.
The Transformational Discipleship research has demonstrated the importance of people in groups. People who are involved in Bible study groups serve more, give more, pray more, confess sin more, and are retained at a higher level than those people who are not connected to a Bible study group.
It is imperative that churches move people “out of rows and into circles.” No matter what you call your Bible study ministry – Sunday school, small groups, community groups, connect groups, LIFE groups, or something else – it is your church’s primary strategy for making disciples. Growth happens in groups, and we must be intentional about creating a pathway for people to become involved in the church’s most important ministry. To give you some ideas for creating this movement, here are some ways you can encourage people to step out of worship and take a step towards group life.
Strategy #1 – Become a church of inviters. In a 2021 survey, Lifeway Research discovered that 47% of people join a Bible study group because the group leader or a member of the group invited them. This far exceeds the percentage of people who come to groups because of an announcement, advertisement, or some other method for communicating group options. If you want to see people moving from worship to groups, you’re going to need to train your members to be “aggressively friendly.” When I started a new group not long ago, members of my group were encouraged to pay attention to guests who sat near them in the worship service. Our group’s mission? To invite every guest who fit our group’s demographic to meet with us for Bible study that day. The result? We captured 8 new people during our launch year simply by initiating a conversation with a guest that led to an invitation to attend our group.
Strategy #2 – Talk about groups often from the pulpit. A tried and true reality in church life is this: if it’s important to the pastor, it becomes important to the church. One way that pastors can help create movement from the worship service to the church’s Bible teaching ministry is to regularly speak about the importance of belonging to a group from the pulpit. A pastor-friend I once served with, Dr. Tod Tanner, regularly said, “If you are going to give the church just one hour on Sundays, please attend a Bible study group and not this worship service.” I admire him for taking that stand. Tod understood that although we have a great worship service with strong biblical preaching, people will ultimately drift away if they are not connected to others relationally. The best place for that to happen is in a small group.
Strategy #3 – Promote your upcoming Bible studies. Most churches use ongoing Bible study curriculum in Bible study groups. The curriculum has a study plan that can be taken advantage of by savvy church leaders. Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life is created in six-session units of study. Explore the Bible normally studies one book of the Bible, sometimes two, every 13 weeks. The Gospel Project moves people chronologically through the Bible. To create movement out of the worship service, encourage guests to attend groups when new studies begin. Say to your congregation, “In two weeks many of our groups begin a new study on the gospel of Mark” or “many groups will start a new study on dealing with difficulties in life.” Emphasize that you’d love to help connect people to a group at the start of one of these new studies. Invite unconnected members and guests to take a connection card that is normally found in the pews, fill in the needed contact information, and then write the words “Groups” in large letters and place it in the offering plate (or perhaps an offering box that many churches have shifted to during COVID). Promise to have a group leader contact the person with an invitation to the new upcoming Bible study.
Strategy #4 – Interview individuals and couples about group life. Attending a group can be very intimidating for people who do not have a background in church life. From time to time, a pastor can help people understand what happens in Bible study groups by interviewing a person or a couple, or both. During the worship service (or perhaps as an illustration used during the sermon) a pastor can interview a few people about their experience in Bible study groups. Helping the unconnected members of the worship service know that groups are places where people have fun, care for one another, study the Bible together, and serve in a variety of ways can reduce the barriers that keep people away from Bible study groups. Pastors can provide each interviewee with one or two questions in advance of the interview so they can be prepared to respond well. If unconnected members hear their peers encouraging them to come and get connected in a group, you might be surprised how much of an impact that can make in creating movement toward groups.
Strategy #5 – Emphasize group involvement at your new members’ class. I lead my church’s new members’ class multiple times each year on Sunday mornings. During this one-session class, I always emphasize how important it is to be involved in a Bible study group. I referenced Dr. Thom Rainer’s research that discovered if people do not attend a Bible study group, over 85% of them cannot be found in five years after joining the church. I then asked if they wanted their children to grow up unconnected to the church, which of course they didn’t. That church’s Sunday school experienced rapid growth, becoming the fastest growing Sunday School in our state by percentage growth. We believed the growth was due in part to the emphasis we placed on belonging to a group.
Strategy #6 – Clearly present the options. Many people who attend our churches begin the journey by looking for information on our church’s websites. It is wise to make sure that people who come to the church’s website find clear information about when and where groups meet. Basic information such as the location of the group’s meeting place who the group is designed for are needed pieces of information. It is not necessary to put the name of the group online, such as “The Joy Class,” if it doesn’t tell people who the group is designed for. In fact, it works against connecting people if they see a class name like that but cannot tell who should actually attend the class! It’s much better to label a class something like “Married Adults 30-35” or “Singles 25-35.” The designation should tell everyone who the group is designed to reach. If people cannot discern their options, they will not move toward a group.
Strategy #7 – Have a well-staffed greeter center. This final strategy is an important one. When guests walk into our churches, they quickly look around for key things like the worship center, restrooms, and a place for them to get information about the church. When guests drop by the greeter center to get connected to a group, they must be greeted by knowledgeable people who know the group options to recommend. And one last thing – you must coach your greeters never to point and tell a guest that their classroom is “down that way.” You should have enough workers so that each guest can be escorted one-by-one to their groups, starting with the youngest family members.