The Southern Baptist Convention, along with most evangelical denominations, are in decline. That is the statistical reality. The question is what can we do to change the spiritual reality.
It seems there are three aspect that should be part of any effort to see churches better reflect Jesus and better reach their communities.
- Recognize the value of commitment – demonstrate to new believers that in order to grow as a disciple of Christ they must be a committed part of a local church.
- Recognize the value of small groups – seek to move people from merely sitting in pews to investing their lives in community with others.
- Recognize when a church is dying – continually evaluating the health of a local congregation and taking the steps needed to encourage life.
The importance of the second principle can be summed up in two words: groups matter.
Why Groups Matter
As Ed Stetzer frequently says, we must move people from sitting in rows in pews to sitting in circles in groups. And that’s not always happening.
In a typical month, less than 6 in 10 churchgoers attend some type of small Bible study group at least once. This means that over 40 percent of those who are in your church building at least on a monthly basis never go a small group.
A new study from LifeWay Research found that those who are not involved in a group are missing out on one of the most effective tools for Christian growth.
In an upcoming article in the summer 2014 issue of Facts & Trends, senior writer Bob Smietana breaks down the data.
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.
Part of the reason why people have not seen groups as being as important as they are has been a disconnect between the church leadership and those actually in small groups.
Virtually every pastor (97 percent) says groups are an important part of their church, yet less than half (42 percent) have a “well-defined” approach to group ministry.
The majority of pastors want their groups focusing on eight separate things: Bible study, prayer, service to those outside the church, care for those in the group, socializing during regular meetings, socializing outside the regular meeting, inviting people to join their group, and follow-up with visitors.
Stetzer and Geiger write that while all of the activities pastors list are important, research indicates it is impossible to focus on each of them appropriately. Some will rise to the top and others will be neglected.
Group members had much more focused objectives. Eight in 10 say Bible study is important, followed by prayer (64 percent), and caring for group members (47 percent).
Pastors and group leaders should work together to develop a strategic plan for groups and devise realistic expectations for what should be accomplished.
Another part of connecting people with small groups is helping them do what they’ve already done or what they want to do.
More than 6 in 10 (63 percent) of those who currently are not in a small group participated in the past.
Those who stopped attending a group did so because of a life change (51 percent) or the class ended (32 percent). For those who said a life change prompted their dropping out, it was most frequently a general busyness: responsibilities at home (26 percent), got too busy (26 percent), work requirements (25 percent), or they had a child (6 percent).
When asked why they aren’t in a group currently, it goes back to an issue of time – 33 percent said they were busy with personal responsibilities during the scheduled meeting time and 22 percent said the group met at an inconvenient time.
Despite all of that, 78 percent of churchgoers who are not involved in a group are open to attending. Simply put, churches need to start new groups that meet at times convenient to those who aren’t already group members.
Less than 1 in 4 pastors strongly agree their church regularly starts new groups. This must change.
New groups create a level playing field for those previously involved and those joining a group for the first time. They bring in new members and reproduce new leaders.
When churches stop bringing in new members and reproducing new leaders, they have begun a slide to the death of the congregation. Our next post will talk about the warning signs of a dying church and what to do to fix it.
Aaron Earls (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.