3 unhealthy things that keep groups from growing

“Healthy things grow.” That’s what one pastor I served with told the congregation regularly. His expectation was that the worship service and the church’s Bible teaching ministry would both grow each year – if they were healthy places.

I teach a Bible study group weekly like many of you. I’ve watched my group grow steadily over the past 4 years. I also know of other groups that haven’t grown. What’s the difference?

Here are a few reasons why some groups struggle to grow:

  1. Not enough potential new group members – this may be one of the biggest culprits. Each group needs 1 prospective group member for each active group member. My Bible study group averages 16 in attendance. To be healthy, I need a prospect file (which can be electronic or a physical one) that contains 16 potential group members at all times. Every time my group has a party, spends time doing ministry, gets together for lunch or a movie, the potential members should be – must be – invited. Many groups have forgotten about this important part of group life: one prospect for every active group member. The solution? Begin a prospect file! Each of your group members knows at least 3 to 5 people not in a Bible study. Start there.
  2. The group has been together longer than 18 months – that’s my group – we’re four years old now, and every group that is older than 18 months will naturally begin to turn inward. It takes significant, strong leadership from the group leader to keep the focus on the people “not yet here.” The solution? Start a new group so that guests can more easily connect to the members of your group. The alternative is to have a serious “come to Jesus” talk with your group members about the lack of additions to your group, reminding them that the group exists to reach those who are not connected to a group yet. Keep the focus on the unconnected and the spiritually searching.
  3. The people in the group have too wide an age range – 10 years is the maximum age swing you want to have in your group. I realize people like “whosoever cometh” groups. Multi-gen groups do have advantages, but they also have a disadvantage that is hard to overcome: people forget the group’s target audience. My group is designed to reach Baby Boomers. We’re a group especially for empty nest adults. That’s who we are. That’s who we’re supposed to go after. I don’t have to focus on reaching young adult couples, singles, or senior adults. Our focus is tightly fixed on empty nest adults. It’s easy for my people to spot other empty nest couples in the worship service when they visit – and it’s easy to invite them to our group because of what Dr. Ken Hemphill has labeled “the homogeneity principle.” Like attracts like. The solution? Talk with your group about starting other groups by grouping your people into age clusters that are more tightly arranged, with a maximum age range of 10 years or less. 

Does Sunday School Still Work? 6 ways to make sure it does

“Does Sunday School still work?” That’s a question I was recently asked at a multi-day meeting of pastors who came together to talk about how to disciple their congregations. Sunday School groups, small groups, D-groups….there are lots of options today, and many churches are experimenting with hybrid combinations of groups. But the question still remains, “Does Sunday School still work?”

I believe that Sunday School can be the most vibrant ministry your church offers, but it may require you to make a few changes to it. If you are willing to make those necessary changes, then yes, Sunday School will still work! If you are not willing, then you should call in hospice care – one day you’re going to show up and find that it’s died.

Change or Die

I can’t imagine why these kids don’t enjoy Sunday School…

If you want to breathe life into your church’s Sunday School ministry (and into your group if you’re a Sunday School teacher), then here are some suggestions that will help make Sunday School your best, most effective ministry:

  1. Clarify goals – In order for Sunday School to be vibrant and on-target, its leaders must know what the goal is. If you’re a pastor or staff leader, how have you communicated what you want your group leaders to do? Do they know what’s expected of them? Sometimes Sunday Schools languish because of a lack of focus and clarity over its basic functions. Tell your group leaders exactly what you want them to accomplish as teacher/leaders. Keep it simple – four or five key things is all you need to define. Show your group leaders the target. Clarify your expectations.

    Now that’s better!
  2. Fund it – I can tell if a ministry is important to the church if it sets aside significant amounts of money for it in the annual budget. “Just follow the money trail” is a way to know if a church values something. How much money have you set aside for curriculum materials? For training? For new classroom equipment and other upgrades? Do you have an annual appreciation dinner for your group leaders? How do you say “thank you” in a tangible way to your leaders? It all takes money. Fund Sunday School in your budget!
  3. Talk about it – If you are the senior pastor, people will value what they believe you value. Talk about the importance of Sunday School from the pulpit. Work it into your sermons. Show the congregation new families who are joining the church because of your Sunday School ministry. Connect its ministry to baptisms, and how people are coming to know the Lord through Sunday School. Lift it up. Put it front and center.
  4. Attend it – If you’re a pastor or staff member, set the example by belonging to a Sunday School class yourself, and mention that from time to time as you preach or have the microphone! It’s hard to expect people to belong to Sunday School when you don’t. So join a group and set a good example.
  5. Organize it – Adult group leaders must be led to organize their groups to get group members involved in leading the class. Adult groups need multiple leaders to take on work and become outreach leaders, care group leaders, fellowship leaders, prayer leaders, and more. Moses tried to do it all (see Exodus 18) and learned a valuable lesson from his father-in-law who told him “What you’re doing is not good.” Jethro’s advice? Train others who could  help carry the workload – and let them do it! It works the same way today. If you’re a group leader, you’ll wear yourself out trying to do all the work of the class. You’re not supposed to! Ask others to take on leadership roles.
  6. Promote it – People need to know the next steps to take when they join your church, or when they visit it as guests. Are you clearly telling people that you want them to attend and join a Bible study group? Or are you counting on them figuring that out on their own? Tell them! Advertise your expectation in your worship bulletin. Say it during announcements. Have a greeter center that has people who are well-trained to know your Sunday School’s options so they can connect guests to groups. Don’t assume people know what to do next. They don’t. So tell them to attend a group and show them their options.


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Should you re-brand Sunday School?

Ghostbusters 2016

Spider-man. Star Trek. Alien. Ghostbusters. Baywatch. CHIPs. Each of these movie franchises has been re-branded in the last few years to reach new audiences. Did I mention The Fantastic Four? I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve tried to re-brand that movie franchise! If you think it may be time to put a fresh coat of paint on your church’s Sunday School by calling it something else, let’s make sure you’ve thought through the positives and negatives. It may be the right move for your church. And on the other hand, it may not. Let’s see if we can reason through some of the pros and cons of re-branding your church’s Sunday School.


Star Trek re-branded itself with a younger cast playing iconic characters
  1. Sunday School isn’t 100% about Sunday. Having the word “Sunday” in the title may lead people to believe that Sunday School is about that hour before or after worship when you gather in age-graded classes to study the Bible. That’s unfortunate, because many good Sunday School groups “do life together” outside of the Sunday morning group experience. They fellowship together, pray together, serve together, and minister to one another. These groups have come to believe that Sunday School isn’t just about Sunday. Good for them!
  2. “School” can be a negative term. Many people associate the word “school” with something difficult, or perhaps boring. It also conjures up images of teachers who lecture, or who are harsh in the way they deal with their students.
  3. In some denominations, Sunday School is just for the kids. Southern Baptists are not alone in their Sunday School philosophy, but they might be outnumbered. Many churches only offer Sunday School groups for kids and teenagers.


  1. Sunday School already has “brand identity.” When you say the words “Sunday School,” most people know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s the hour adjacent to the worship service on our calendars.
  2. People may not accept the new name for it.  LIFE Groups, Adult Bible Fellowship groups, Adult Groups, Small Groups, or whatever other name you can come up with may never be accepted by members of your congregation.
  3. Verbiage changes slowly. I know of churches that changed the name of Sunday School years ago, yet the majority of their members still call it “Sunday School.” Don’t underestimate people’s unwillingness to change.

If you and/or your church have changed the name of Sunday School and survived it, I’d love to hear from you. Post your comments and help your fellow brothers and sisters wrestle with the decision to be more culture-shaping and culture-impacting by changing the name of Sunday School. We’d like to hear words of caution, and we’d also like to hear stories of success!


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6 times when it’s right to start a new group

Years ago I led one of the fastest growing Sunday School ministries in Texas. On “launch Sunday” (we were a mission church startup) we had 44 people in Sunday School (and two teachers quit at noon!) – that’s the original church building in the photo to the right. When I transitioned to my second church just over 10 years later, I left behind a Sunday School of over 2,4oo members. During those days of rapid growth, I learned the importance of starting new Bible study groups.  If a church is not intentional about starting new groups, it will soon find itself stalled out – and that’s exactly where many churches are today – they are flat or declining and they don’t know why. The lack of starting new groups is one reason for it.

For every new group your church starts, you’ll increase attendance by approximately 10 people. From my experience, you know it’s time to start a new class when…

1)  A group has been together for 2 years or more.  It’s really hard for guests to build relationships with people who have been together longer than 24 months (some experts would say it’s even less time that that – maybe as little as 12 months).  When a group approaches its second birthday, it’s time  to think “start a new group.”

2)  A group doesn’t see a steady stream of guests.  It’s true – classes “cool off” after a time and they will often turn inward.  Evangelistic efforts decrease. The focus turns to the group members, not to the lost persons in the community. If you recruit people to leave a group and start a new one, it’s almost a guarantee they will reach more people for Christ and demonstrate excitement for kingdom growth the mother class hasn’t known in years.

3)  A group has ceased to grow.  When a group no longer adds people, it’s time to start a new group.  The group may have done a good job in the past of reaching new people, but over time the growth may have leveled off.

4)  A group fills the room to over 80% of capacity.  The 80/20 rule is real.  When a group exceeds 80% of its seating capacity, the room is visually full to guests.  A group can certainly exceed 80% of its seating capacity (it’s actually pretty fun to have a full room with no empty seats) but any group that does exceed 80% of its seating capacity for very long will almost always drop to an attendance level less than the 80% it once exceeded.

5)  The age span of the group members becomes too broad. Groups need to be targeted to reach people in a specific age range. One church I’ve worked with recently has several adult groups that have age ranges for group members like 30-70 or 50-80. When you see more than a 10-year swing in the age of group members, it’s time to create another group and keep people together who are closer in age.

6) There’s an apprentice teacher and other group leaders who are ready to launch a group. If a Bible study leader has groomed an apprentice teacher, and there are other adults who will help that person launch a new group by becoming outreach leaders, fellowship leaders, prayer leaders, or other key positions within the group – launch a new one! Don’t wait until Fall or back-to-school. Don’t wait until the first of the year. Select a meeting location, advertise the new group to potential group members, and let ’em fly! A church I know locally in the Nashville area is launching three new groups this coming Sunday. Yes, it’s after Easter and pre-summer. Yes, it’s not at a high-growth time like back-to-school, but three group leaders are ready to go, the church has the space, so it’s time to start some new groups at that location.

4 times when starting new groups makes sense

In the book Great Expectations by David Francis, Director of Sunday School for LifeWay Christian Resources, one of the expectations of any Sunday School group is that it start another one.  Great groups start new groups.  New groups typically grow faster and reach more people for Christ than do older, established ones.

If you were going to start new groups in your church, when would you start them?  Here are four optimal times to start new groups:

1.  At the beginning of the new year – many people come back to church after the busy Christmas holidays. They are ready to get back into the swing of things. Others are making resolutions as they start the new year, and among those include getting back to weekend worship services and membership in a Bible study group.  New groups started at the beginning of the new year can reach people who are trying to reconnect with the church.  Superbowl Sunday is a good day to target the introduction of new group options (advertise the new groups in January and build excitement).

2. The Sunday after Easter – That’s this coming Sunday!  Just as people come back to the church after the first of the year, countless others come back to the church for Easter services.  Promote the new groups several weeks leading up to Easter, and have a list of new groups and a registration form in the Easter worship bulletin. Make it very easy for people to express interest in getting connected to one of your new groups.  Simply have guests place the registration forms in the offering plate on Easter Sunday, and give their contact information to a group leader so that follow-up can begin.  If you missed this window of opportunity in 2017, mark your 2018 calendar now! Make the Easter season and the return of absentee members plus your Easter weekend guests work for you next year.

3.  Back to School – If you missed Easter opportunities to start new groups, your next big chance is in August. No doubt your church experiences the “summer slumps” – members take vacations and July is typically the month with the lowest average attendance.  But just wait until August – the people return in large numbers, excited about the start of school, football, and Fall.  This is a great time to begin new groups.

4.  Any Month when Attendance Spikes – Keep track of your Sunday School attendance over time, and you’ll see attendance patterns develop.  You can quickly identify the one or two months of the year when attendance spikes, and that’s the time to start new groups.


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The First Ten Minutes Principle

Today’s blog post is taken from the book First Impressions: Creating Wow Experiences in your Church. The book is written to pastors and staff leaders responsible for their church’s greeter ministries. Guest experiences are important, and the author discusses the importance of the 10 minute principle. Even though you may not be the one responsible for your church’s greeter ministry, I bet you are responsible for a Bible study group. Take what the author says below and apply it to your Bible study group. I did.

Here’s how seriously we’ve taken this challenge to define our guest’s experience in advance. If our guests can’t say “Wow! I’m impressed! within their first ten minutes on campus, then we’ve failed….What could the first ten minutes principle look like in your setting?…You have just ten minutes. In that time, will your guests say, “Wow. I’m impressed!”?

So how would the 10 minute principle look like inside your Bible study group? A guest shows up. Tick-tock. Ten minutes and counting. Is your group ready to receive this new person? Or will the guest sit in silence while your group members visit and catch up from the week? If you wanted to create a memorable experience for your guests that made them say, “Wow…I’m impressed!” what would that look like?

  • Would you have a designated person or team of greeters whose responsibility it is to engage the guest?
  • Would you place a Personal Study Guide in their hand, or whatever resource your group uses to study the Bible?
  • Would other people in the group take the initiative and introduce themselves to the guest, engaging them in conversation?
  • Would you have open seats?
  • What about snacks or beverages?

I’d like to hear what you would add to the list above in order to create that great “10 minute” experience. How have you impressed your guests and made them say “Wow, that was great!”?

6 Ways to Roll Out the Welcome Wagon for your Guests

If your Bible study group is what we call an “open” group, then it is designed to reach new people. In fact, the group leader and the group’s members most likely are on the lookout for new people. If you want to make your guests feel welcome, do the following:

  1. Wear Name Tags – My friend David Francis harps on this, and I have, too. I’ve seen how important those inexpensive stick-on name tags are when guests come to my group’s study. Our group has had three new guest couples attend our Bible study in the past three weeks. Giving them a name tag to fill out and wear is a part of my church’s strategy for assimilating people into life at our church.
  2. Sit in a Circle – If your room is arranged in rows of chairs, consider sitting in a large circle. People are more likely to speak up and participate if they can see each other’s faces.
  3. Introduce Guests to Group Members – Take the initiative and introduce guests to people in your Bible study group. Some folks are pretty shy (both guests and group members), and they need a little push to start talking to one another.
  4. Make Sure your Meeting Place has Extra Chairs – There’s nothing more “neighborly” than having plenty of seating for guests…and if your meeting place is arranged in rows, please don’t make guests sit “up front.”
  5. Call Guests by Name During the Bible Study – wearing name tags will help you do this! Don’t put a guest on the spot, but do affirm any answer they provide. “John, that’s a great insight. Thank you for sharing that with our group.”
  6. Invite the Guest Back! – Don’t let a guest leave your Bible study group without asking them to please join you again the next time your group meets. Don’t assume they’ll come back. Instead, let them know how important they are to you and your group, and that you want them to return.