Today I want to call your attention to a book you probably don’t have in your library. The book is an old one, The True Functions of the Sunday School, by one of my heroes, Arthur Flake. Written in 1930 and revised several times, this timeless treasure of advice from LifeWay’s first Director of Sunday School has something to say about the need for smaller groups within the Sunday School and why bigger may not be better. Here, from 1930, is what Arthur Flake had to say about this, which still rings true today in 2018:
Things we knew to be true in 1930 are still true today in 2018. You must downsize to make disciples. Jesus’ primary method for making disciples was life-on-life, and he made disciples by choosing a group of 12 and a smaller inner group of 3. If preaching to the masses and teaching large groups of people by the hundreds or even thousands would have been effective, that’s how Jesus would have spent His time. It wasn’t then, and it’s not today. Preaching in our church’s worship services is important, and must be paired with a system for placing people in smaller and smaller groups for the purpose of making them into the disciples they are called to be.
Arthur Flake even acknowledged that the teaching changes in smaller groups – it is more participatory and engaging than a method like lecture that tends to be a one-way communication method. Used appropriately and sparingly, lecture can be a highly effective method; used inappropriately and too frequently, it deprives groups of much needed interaction around the Scriptures.
“How big is too big?” I recently led a workshop for a group of pastors and Bible study leaders in which a pastor asked that question about the best size of a Bible study group. “What is the optimal size for a Bible study group?” asked another attendee. My answer was “It depends.” It depends on a few factors, but generally, bigger groups aren’t better groups. While teaching a large group of adults (30, 50, 65+ people) can be a fun experience, it’s probably not the best option. Here are 4 reasons why bigger groups aren’t necessarily better groups.
- Bigger groups provide camouflage. Large groups give people a place to hide out and remain on the fringe. People can attend and maintain anonymity. It’s better for them if they get to know people and are known by people. Dr. Thom Rainer’s research has indicated that 80%or more of new first-year members will drop out of church if they don’t find a group, make friends, and find a way to serve.
- Bigger groups make it harder to find new leaders. One of the greatest fears people have is of public speaking – that’s a fact. It takes a special Bible study leader to stand in front of a group of 50+ adults and teach the group. Many group members will say to themselves, “I could never do that.” But if the group was smaller in size, say 12-16 people, that feels like something that is doable. One way that churches grow is to start new groups, and a culture of very big groups can actually work against this important goal because you can’t start new groups without new leaders.
- Bigger groups must be highly organized. If a big group is going to be effective (and it can be – but those are rare) it must be highly organized to care for people. There must be a strong care group system in which people are placed into smaller groups for ongoing care and ministry. Care group leaders must be trained on how to properly care for people and how to follow up with absentees each week. A group with an average attendance of 50 people will have that many or more people who are absent (attendance is almost always 40-50% of enrollment). That’s a lot of people who need ongoing follow-up each week.
- Disciples usually aren’t made in big batches. If you look at Jesus’ ministry, He made disciples in two primary groups: a group of 12 and a group of 3. Making disciples requires you have a relationship with the disciple, and that’s just about impossible in a mega-group. If I am going to make disciples as I’m commanded to do in The Great Commission, I’m going to need to be able to relate to my group members on a personal level.
So what’s the optimal group size?
In my opinion, it’s somewhere between 12 to 16 people. Rick Howerton and David Francis maintain that 12 plus or minus 4 people is about the right size for a group. I agree. Sunday School (insert the name your church calls this Bible teaching ministry) is best when groups of disciples gather to study, serve, pray, and know one another. In my experience, this happens best when a group is smaller rather than bigger.
How large are the largest groups at your church? Too large to effectively make disciples like Jesus did? If that describes your group, please consider downsizing in order to make disciples the way Jesus did – and the way Arthur Flake knew was best – by placing people in smaller groups!