By Bob Smietana
Most weeks it’s hard enough to get people to show up for church on Sunday. Does it make sense in today’s hectic world for pastors to ask people to give another evening or morning for group Bible study?
Yes it does, according to a new study by Lifeway Research on the impact of Bible study groups. The study of 3,500 Protestant churchgoers found that being in a group plays an essential role in Christian growth.
The research showed that groups remain one of the most effective tools for learning the habits of faith, such as prayer, Bible study, and serving others. People who regularly attend groups show an increased level of commitment to building their individual relationships with Christ and with others. Simply stated, groups matter.
Sixty-three percent of regular group attenders say they intentionally spend time with other believers in order to help them grow in their faith. Only 22 percent of those not in a group say the same. And 73 percent of group attenders say they are intentionally putting their spiritual gifts to use serving God and others, compared to 42 percent of non-attenders.
Churchgoers who belong to a group are more likely to go to church at least four times a month (79 percent), and to read the Bible daily (28 percent).
Being in a group also impacts people’s daily lives. Group members feel closer to God (69 percent), understand the Bible better (74 percent), trust God more (66 percent), and become more loving in their relationships (48 percent).
“God has supernaturally ordained community to sanctify His people,” write Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger in their book Transformational Groups. “In other words, groups provide environments for people to grow in Christ. A call to discipleship and spiritual maturity is a call to biblical community.”
No matter how you define groups—life groups, Sunday school, discipleship classes, or Bible study fellowships—the importance is the same, the authors say. You cannot make disciples apart from community. Although groups are not the only place transformation happens, the authors are convinced it is the primary place.
Developing a plan for groups
Though most pastors say groups are important to the life of their church, research revealed a disconnect between the stated importance of groups and the reality of that importance. Many churches don’t have a visible strategy for groups. Pastors and other church leaders don’t always know what the groups are studying or how they operate. And they don’t always communicate clear expectations to the groups.
That can lead to chaos and ineffective ministry, say Stetzer and Geiger.
The study found less than half (42 percent) of pastors say their churches have a “well-defined” approach to group ministry. Researchers also found a significant disconnect between what pastors expect of groups and what the groups think is important.
According to the study, most pastors want their groups to do at least eight key things. These range from Bible study (97 percent), prayer (95 percent), and care for those in the group (85 percent), to inviting new people (79 percent), socializing during meetings (78 percent) and outside regular meetings (68 percent), serving those outside the church (65 percent), and following up with visitors (60 percent).
Stetzer and Geiger write that while each of these activities is important, research indicates it is impossible for groups to simultaneously achieve all of the outcomes at the same level.
Most group members have fewer expectations. Eight in 10 (80 percent) say Bible study is an important activity, followed by prayer (64 percent), and caring for group members (47 percent).
Outreach is not on the agenda for most group attenders. About 1 in 5 (21 percent) say inviting new people matters. Only 1 in 20 (6 percent) say following up on visitors is important for groups. The vast majority of those in groups never invite anyone to be a part of their group.
Stetzer and Geiger suggest pastors and other church leaders discover their church’s disciple-making strategy and then determine what kind of group best supports that overall vision. According to the research, the most effective groups were the most focused. Writing a mission statement for groups is a good first step toward having a strategic plan for groups. They also suggest setting clear goals for each group and finding the right leader to match the goals. Having a review process, or at least some guidelines for what groups can study, also helps align groups with the church’s overall theology and mission.
Importance of launching new groups
Another element that surfaced from the research is the importance of starting new groups. It’s no surprise that group members often develop deep friendships, frequently staying together for years. But having tight knit groups has a downside, says Bruce Raley, director of church education ministry for Lifeway. It’s hard for new people to join in.
“The reality is that many groups close after a few years,” he says. “Often the relationships in the group go from being social to being personal. That’s good for the group but bad for people trying to get through the door.”
The Lifeway Research data also showed that new small groups connect more people than
Bob Mayfield, a small groups expert in Oklahoma, agrees. He’s spent the last two years helping churches launch more groups, in order to make room for more new people.
A good group will form a tight social circle, he says. That’s hard to break into. “But in a new group, the social circle is wide open,” Mayfield says.
Starting new groups gives churches a chance to be more intentional about creating mature disciples, say Stetzer and Geiger. Those new groups also make it easier for new people to join. The Lifeway Research study showed that many churchgoers who don’t attend groups are open to being part of a Bible study group.
Raley suggests churches offer groups at a variety of times and in a number of settings to accommodate the most people. An online resource from Lifeway called Groupsmatter.com offers guidance on how to start groups that meet on Sunday mornings (the most popular time for about half of churchgoers) as well as during the week.
The reality is people in groups are more likely to share their faith, repent of sins regularly, give sacrificially, serve faithfully, and read their Bibles. While groups influence individuals to become more like Christ, Stetzer and Geiger say, “the significance of groups goes beyond the benefits of personal life change and become crucial for the transformational church.
“Living in community with other believers, wrestling through life issues, embracing the gospel together, reminding one another of our identity in Christ, lovingly holding one another accountable for involvement in the spiritual disciplines, and watching the way authentic Christians do life is God’s transformative platform.”
Groups really do matter.
Bob Smietana (@BobSmietana) is senior writer and content editor of Facts & Trends.