By Ken Braddy
Each year millions of people turn to their primary care physicians with a complaint about a pain or chronic symptom. They trust their doctor to diagnose their condition quickly and accurately.
Normally a doctor begins with diagnostic questions. He or she probes verbally, listens, but watches for visual clues, too. One question leads to another.
Sometimes a question leads to a dead end, but the doctor pivots and heads in a different direction, asking a different kind of question.
Ultimately they gain the information and the perspective needed to proceed with a treatment regimen.
Similarly, are there ways to diagnose whether or not you have a healthy Bible study group? I believe the answer is yes. Here are diagnostic questions that will give you an indication as to whether or not your group is in good shape.
Because many groups launch in the fall, now is a good time to ask hard questions, diagnose the group’s true condition, and make adjustments so it can become healthier in time.
1. Is the group growing?
Healthy things grow; that’s a fact of life. A healthy groups ministry will grow and reach new people. A church’s groups ministry is made up of many individual Bible study groups, and healthy groups will grow numerically.
In the book of Acts, God added daily to the number of people being saved (Acts 2:47). On special occasions, the early church grew by thousands in one day (Acts 2:41).
If your Bible study group is healthy, it should be growing (unless it is an intentionally closed group whose purpose it is to provide a deeper level of discipleship and accountability).
Ask your church staff to help you determine the growth of your group by asking for a report that begins around August or September 1. You’ll either see an increase or a decrease in attendance. No group flatlines; it either grows or it declines.
How is your group doing at this point in the year? Are you on an upward trajectory, or is the group declining?
2. Is the group reaching new people?
This question is closely tied to the first one. If your church uses an on-campus Bible study strategy, it is most likely designed to be an open group ministry (open groups expect new people every week and are open to newcomers any time the group assembles for Bible study).
On average, how many guests does your group have each week? Chart that out, too, just like you would the overall growth of your group.
Groups need one prospect for every group member in attendance. A group of 15 people needs a pool of 15 potential group members it is regularly encouraging to attend a group Bible study.
Are the group members actively inviting friends, coworkers, and associates? Are group members intentionally searching for potential group members as they participate in worship, carefully looking for first-time guests who fit the age profile of the Bible study group?
3. Are people sharing their faith?
Unhealthy groups turn inward and focus on educating the members. Healthier groups focus their attention outward and continue to reach people who are far from God.
Is your group helping to keep the baptismal waters stirred? Do you hear stories of your group members sharing their faith during the week?
Is there an emphasis on using each Bible study session to share the gospel, or has the group settled for having Bible history lessons?
The focus of groups will be either outward or inward, and too many are focused inward. David Francis, former Sunday School director at Lifeway once said, “The natural inertia of any group is to turn inward.”
He’s exactly right—it was a great insight! It takes vibrant, strong leadership to keep a group’s attention focused on reaching new people for Jesus.
4. What’s the attendance pattern of the group’s members?
It is no secret that many groups and therefore many churches struggle with irregular attendance of members.
A couple of decades ago, a church member would have considered themselves to be a faithful attender if they came to church and Bible study three to four times a month.
Today, individuals and families would say they are loyal and dedicated, but their once or twice a month attendance record says otherwise.
Church software such as ACS or Shelby can quickly generate attendance reports for each group, providing valuable information to a group leader who can take that attendance information and rally the group to reach out to fellow group members who have gone AWOL.
5. What are the subject matter of prayers?
When a group first forms, prayers tend to be a little on the shallow end. At that stage of group life, people are more guarded with their personal information because they don’t know everyone in the group.
Usually the subject matter of prayers at this level are “safe,” like world peace, Aunt Susie’s stubbed toe—somewhat superficial topics.
As the group grows and matures, the prayers shift to people the group may have ministered to collectively; people begin talking about the places they went and the things they did in Jesus’ name.
At the final level of group life, prayers shift again. This time the focus is outward, and people pray for lost persons they know – perhaps even people with whom they’ve shared the gospel.
6. Are people leaving the group to serve?
This is a great diagnostic question, because the last thing churches need are “spiritually fat” group members who are so engrossed in their own selves they become of no use to the Lord.
Instead, we want to know that God is speaking to group members as He calls them to leave the group in order to serve someplace else. Acts 13:1-3 contains the story of Paul and Silas, who were set apart by the church at Antioch to go to the Gentiles.
The church “lost” two of its best leaders, but the walls didn’t fall in. Instead, Paul and Silas had an effective church planting ministry, all because they were set apart by God to leave their church and serve others.
How many people has God called out of your group to lead a Bible study for preschoolers? Students? Adults? A healthy group doesn’t mind releasing people to serve.
In fact, healthy groups have a “catch and release” mindset. They catch new members, but they hold on to them with a loose grip, knowing they belong to God—and He might want to use them to serve in other parts of the church or community.
Based on these six diagnostic questions, how would you say your Bible study group is doing? Is it healthy or not? If you have a concern, why not speak to your pastor; there’s no doubt he wants your church to have healthy groups.
Ken is Lifeway’s director of Sunday School and is a 30-year veteran of church education ministry. He is a blogger, author, and practitioner—serving a church in the Nashville area as its director of Sunday School and discipleship ministries. He is the author of several books, including Breathing Life Into Sunday School.