6 things to do if your group has flatlined

It was almost 5 years ago that my wife and I launched a new LIFE Group (Sunday School class) at our church. At one point, we weren’t sure that our fledgling group was going to make it (we had anywhere between 3 to 5 people who attended it regularly). There was a time that our group “flatlined.” It needed to be shocked back to life.

Thankfully, things have changed (more on that later) but there are plenty of small groups and Sunday School classes that are in a similar situation to where we were a few years ago. Groups that once had a pulse have lost their way. Decline has set it. What do you do if your group isn’t growing? Having lived through it, I’ve realized there are at least 6 things you can do:

  1. Consider the size of the place you meet.  The growth of groups can be limited by the space itself.  The 80/20 Rule states that groups have difficulty growing when the place they meet is over 80% full.  There may be a few empty seats, but the crowded nature of the room gives the impression that there isn’t room for anyone else. If your group has stopped growing, could it be because you need a larger place to meet? My group has changed meeting locations three times, and we’ve continued to grow each time we made a change. I don’t want to move the group any more, though. Our next move is going to be to “split the class” or “franchise” the group and start another one. The answer isn’t to always move to bigger quarters indefinitely.
  2. Evaluate the place where your group meets.  If your group meets on a church campus, can people find your classroom? Is the signage clearly visible? Is there adequate lighting? Do you have the equipment and supplies you need to lead an effective Bible study?  Is it in a good location (for instance, young adult groups should meet close to their kids’ classes). If your group meets off campus, is the location difficult to find, is there excellent childcare, and is there adequate parking?  Is there something limiting your growth because of the place where your group meets?
  3. Examine yourself. This is a hard one.  It could be your style of leading the Bible study, or your leadership of the group that isn’t effective. If this is the case, then make adjustments.  It could be time to step aside and let another person lead the group Bible study.  Perhaps you should assume a different leadership role in the group and continue to help it grow. Talk with your pastor or staff leader and ask for their help in evaluating your leadership.
  4. Ask your group members.  They will have their own ideas and could give you valuable insights as to what they see as the main reasons for the lack of growth.  Ask them to share openly and honestly. Sometimes others see things we do not.
  5. Don’t give up.  No one said leading a group was going to be easy.  If it was, everyone could do it.  The answer to your dilemma may be to reinvest your time and energy into the group.  Be aggressive in looking for new group members in your church’s worship services, and ask your church staff for a list of people who’ve visited the church recently. Have your group members brainstorm people they know who would fit your group, but are not attending church anywhere. Reclaim absent members. There’s a lot you can do!
  6. Pray.  You know that God wants your group to reach new people.  When Jesus looked out onto a field that was white for harvest, He told his disciples to pray that His Father would send out more workers into the field.  Prayer was Jesus’ answer for reaching people with the gospel.  Prayer should still be our first response to the great need to reach people for Christ, Bible study, and church membership.  If your group isn’t growing, take the situation to God in prayer and ask Him to help you continue to reach new people through your Bible study group.

I am thankful to be able to report that our Bible study group is averaging 18 people each week. There were times when attendance was very anemic, and Tammy and I were concerned that it wasn’t going to make it. But the Lord provided new people, we remained faithful to prepare well each week, expected new group members, had regular fellowships, and the hard work has paid off.

If your group isn’t growing, hang in there and see if one of these 6 things might be the key to turning things around.


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3 Ways to Grow a Sequoia Sunday School

I am planning a 30th wedding anniversary trip to San Francisco later this year. My wife has never been there, but years ago I sequoia-forest-california-_vq9ntrained group leaders on two different occasions about a year apart. Both times the leader of our group of trainers took us on a tour of San Francisco, and of course we ended up at Muir Woods. Just north of San Francisco, it is the home of a forest of Sequoia trees. These giant trees are over 250 feet tall, and some have been around since the time of Christ’s resurrection! But the truly amazing thing about Sequoias is that their roots only go about 4 feet into the ground. It’s so counterintuitive! You’d think the roots would have to extend hundreds of feet to support the giant trees. The secret to their longevity is that the roots intertwine and they support one another – that’s why you don’t see Sequoia trees growing alone – they always grow together in groves. What a perfect analogy for what Bible study groups should be like, right? People growing together, intertwining lives, and being discipled toward Christ-likeness.

If you want to see people connect and intertwine lives in your church’s Bible study group system, you’ll want to consider whether or not the three things below are happening. The good news is that if they are not, that is something that can be addressed just like Hope Church in Las Vegas did.

  1.  The pastor must point.  In a recent lunch conversation with Tom McCormick, small groups pastor at Hope Church in Las Vegas (Vance Pitman is the pastor), he explained the church’s phenomenal growth in its Bible study groups by focusing on Pastor Vance Pitman’s role. Vance believes in his church’s small group system and its ability to make disciples, so he challenges members and guests to be involved. The message of belonging to a smaller group of people is said weekly, and Pastor Vance has begun telling people, “If you only give us an hour a week, don’t hear me preach – spend that time in a Bible study group.” Tom McCormick told me this has made all the difference for Hope Church in Las Vegas. When something becomes important to the pastor, it becomes important to the people. Hope Church has discovered this, and it’s working.
  2. The people must be in small groups. Recently I’ve been hammering this point. I’m not sure it’s getting through just yet, so I’ll hammer some more. Disciples are going to be made in smaller groups – period. “Master teacher” classes with a lecturing instructor are going to create unconnected group members – not Sequoias. For there to be connection like in a Sequoia forest, there must be relationships. Relationships mean there must be conversations. Conversations mean there must be questions. Questions mean that we are discussing life and how the Scripture impacts it. You can get all of this done in groups of 10-16 people, not in groups of 30-50 people.
  3. The people must be in even smaller groups. As good as a church’s primary small group system may be, and even if the groups are composed of 10-16 people, there is still a need to get even smaller! Jesus discipled 12 men, but He also took 3 of them and spent even more relational time with them. Churches today are rediscovering the ability for single-gender groups of 3-4 people to grow as disciples. The church’s primary group ministry (let’s call it Sunday School or LIFE Groups) “catches” couples and singles; they find a place to belong and grow with a group of 10-16 other people like them – similar in age or life-stage. Then those 10-16 are challenged to belong to one more group – a group of 3-4 of their peers for the purpose of praying, relating, studying, and intertwining lives.

If your church does the three things above, you’ll see people moving from pews into groups, and from groups into even smaller groups. Disciples will be made. Lives will be connected in deeper ways. You’ll grow a Sequoia church, not just a Sequoia Sunday School.




Unlocking the Sunday School Passcode…0-0-8-0

This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ve decided to deliver on the topic of unlocking your Sunday School’s passcode.  If you have a smartphone, no doubt you’ve set a passcode to secure your information.  You (or someone else) can’t get to critical information without the right passcode entry.  So over the next few weeks, I’ll give you some passcodes to unlock “secrets” to Sunday School growth and health.  In this first post, your passcode is 0080.

Churches that have experienced growth in Sunday School groups have discovered the importance of what is known as “the 80% Rule.”  That’s why our passcode today is 0080…to remind us that the number 80 is very important to groups.

Groups that consistently see more than 80% of their available space filled with class members and guests will struggle to continue a growth trajectory.  Although there is a small amount of space available, people will perceive the classroom as being full.  This will have the unfortunate side effect of communicating that there is no room for them in the class for them.  The next time you are at a movie, watch this in action.  My wife and I recently saw a movie that had just released, and the theater was crowded…it was beyond 80% full, but there were still a few seats together, and lots (I mean lots) of single seats.  We watched couples walk into the theater, look up, then freeze because they could not find a place to sit.  Some left, others stood there for 5 or more minutes trying to decide what to do while the previews were playing.  Two couples went and brought a manager back with them to help them locate seats.  The 80% Rule is alive and well, and it affects your Sunday School class.

Ken Hemphill, in his book The Bonsai Theory of Church Growth, wrote about this real phenomena and said that if an organization’s “pot” is too small (in his analogy of Bonsai tree growth, he equated the size of the pot with the size of the Sunday School organization and classroom) then growth would be limited.  In order to grow the church or class, a larger container was needed.  He advocated starting new groups to allow the Sunday School to grow.

Church growth consultant Lyle Schaller also has similar thoughts and experiences about the 80% Rule.  He’s written more than 30 books on church growth and health, and Christianity Today quoted him as saying, “When a sanctuary is 80 percent full, it’s full as far as Americans are concerned since Americans tend to prize a large personal space separating them from others. Get closer, or wedge in together, or put chairs in an aisle, and visitors will think there’s no room for them. Church growth can stall.”

What to do if your class is beyond 80% full

> Talk with your pastor or staff leader about starting a new group. If your classroom is getting maxed out, don’t think that the biggest class wins…that’s not the goal.  Have room for members and guests by starting a new group and reducing the number of people in your classroom.

> Move to a larger classroom.  This isn’t my favorite option, but it’s an option.  If your class has a great care group system, this could work in the short-term, but we moving toward starting a new group as quickly as possible.

> Ask class members to help you find a solution that keeps the class growing.  Ask for their input.  The Bible says, “With many advisers plans succeed; for lack of counsel the fail.” That simply means that none of us is as smart as all of us.  You may be surprised with the solutions your class members come up with.

Pay attention to the 80% Rule in all education ministries…they’re connected

It’s one thing to pay attention to individual classes, but you must also pull back and take a broader view of your entire Sunday School because if one area of your Sunday School ministry is climbing to over 80% of its capacity, that will affect your ability to grow the other areas of your Sunday School.  For instance, if your nursery is 80% or more full, then it will most likely have a negative impact on your young adult Sunday School (parents aren’t comfortable leaving their children in an overcrowded room and they won’t attend your young adult classes).  Take an even broader view of the church:  if your worship service is over 80% of its capacity, it can have a negative affect on your Sunday School attendance.

87.5% of Vibrant Churches are Using Sunday School

The words “Sunday School” cause people to react in different ways.  Some people have fond memories of their experiences in Sunday School – a favorite classroom, a beloved teacher, a lesson that really made an impact on them.  Other people may have different ideas about Sunday School.  They may associate it with boring lessons, or something that “their parents’ church” does.  Sunday School has gotten a bad reputation in some circles, and that’s too bad, because Sunday School is the most powerful ministry for teaching God’s Word, assimilating people into the church, and for mobilizing people for ministry.  And the research proves it!  Have you given up on Sunday School?  Don’t.  Keep reading and learn what’s happening in vibrant churches.

David Francis, Director of Sunday School at LifeWay Christian Resources, conducted a survey of the 400 vibrant churches that were surveyed for the book, Simple Church.  He was able to gather data on 94% of the vibrant churches (a vibrant church was identified as one that had experienced at least 5% growth for 3 consecutive years).  He discovered that 87.5% of those vibrant churches conducted Sunday School adjacent to the worship service on the Sunday morning schedule.

Simple and complex churches utilize Sunday School as a strategy, but HOW they utilize Sunday School differs greatly.  Simple churches are using Sunday School strategically, but complex churches are simply putting on a program.  David Francis identified several characteristics of simple churches that utilize Sunday School strategically.  To read the full article, click here to go to the article!

The research doesn’t lie!  Almost 9 out of 10 vibrant churches have continued to discover the power of Sunday School to teach God’s Word to people of all ages, and to see those people becoming transformed followers of Christ.  Read David’s article above and share it with your church staff.