By Ken Braddy
In 2001, the United States Navy launched a new aircraft carrier. Named after one of our most popular presidents, the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan began its service that year.
When a ship is launched, it is done with a lot of fanfare. Nancy Reagan, President Reagan’s wife, was invited to speak at the ceremony as the ship’s sponsor. Hundreds of sailors lined the deck of the massive aircraft carrier, standing at attention while Mrs. Reagan gave her speech.
She concluded her tribute to her husband, and signaled the beginning of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan’s service by uttering eight words that are spoken at ceremonies like this. As she ended her speech, she said, “Man the ship, and bring her to life.”
Hundreds of sailors ran to their duty posts and assumed their stations. The massive aircraft carrier was brought to life as sailors eagerly ran to their assigned work stations. It was an unforgettable moment.
The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan was for all practical purposes “dead in the water” until her crew brought the ship to life.
Does your groups ministry feel a little like the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan prior to the speech? Does it have potential but needs to be brought to life? If yes, don’t despair. Many Bible study groups lack health and vitality.
But any groups ministry can regain health and strength as it goes about the important task of making disciples. Here are 12 actions you can take to breathe life into your Bible study groups.
1. Teach with variety.
Bible study group attendance has declined. A contributing factor is the mediocre quality of teaching that often takes place. God communicated in a variety of ways in the Old Testament, and Jesus taught in a variety of ways during His earthly ministry.
Teachers don’t have to rely on one or two methods all the time; instead, they can expand the number of ways they communicate God’s Word to their group members.
2. Feed it financially.
If you starve anything long enough, it will die. This is true of people, pets—and Bible study groups. Because of the Great Recession, churches have tightened their financial belts, and group ministries have suffered.
In numerous churches, education staff leaders’ jobs have been eliminated, curriculum expenditures have been cut back, training has been reduced, and other cutbacks have starved the group discipleship ministry of life-giving resources.
3. Give it attention.
Groups ministries would be healthier if the congregation’s attention was focused on it. Pastors can do this from the pulpit by sharing stories from small groups, and encouraging guests to attend and join a Bible study.
The importance of group discipleship can be emphasized through the church’s website, the pastor’s messages, and the new members’ class, to name just a few ways.
If the people sense that group discipleship is important to the pastor, it’ll become important to them. In many churches, the people never hear about the importance and the value of belonging to a Bible study group.
4. Train the leaders.
If you’re going to ask people to volunteer to lead a small group, you owe it to them to provide training. Research has demonstrated that churches that provide regular training grow more than churches that have no plan for training leaders.
Almost every industry has requirements for its workers to continue in their roles each year. If secular companies require workers to be trained, how much more important is it for the church’s lay leaders to be trained?
5. Start new groups.
Bible study groups have stopped growing in part because churches have stopped launching new groups, forgetting the importance and necessity of this critical part of group life. Every new group that is started will add 10 people on average to the total attendance of the Sunday school. Newer groups grow faster than established groups, reach more people for Christ than established groups, and provide a place where people can meet new friends and find a place of service.
6. Clarify the win.
Small group leaders must know the essential tasks they and their groups are to accomplish. Sadly, most churches do not clearly communicate what a “win” looks like to leaders or group members.
If leaders aren’t given direction, they’ll self-determine what winning looks like, and their goals may or may not align with the goals of church leadership. Clarifying the win aligns the actions of groups with the mission and vision of the church.
7. Downsize for discipleship.
The goal of small groups is to make disciples. This includes evangelism, community, Bible study, and ministry. Some groups have grown too large and can’t produce disciples the way Jesus did.
In order to make disciples, groups must follow biblical principles for developing them. Jesus created disciples by recruiting a small group of 12 men. He also had an inner group of three. His method of making disciples was doing so life-on-life.
8. Enroll your guests.
It’s a fact of group life that approximately 50% on a group’s ministry list or class roll will attend any given Bible study. The implication is clear: To grow attendance, you must grow enrollment.
If enrollment increases by 100 persons, attendance will increase by approximately 50 persons. Growth goals can be established by church leaders who understand this principle. This brings a cadence of accountability to those who are in charge of discipleship groups.
9. Know key numbers.
Many church leaders don’t know key metrics that are important to a healthy groups ministry. Certain numbers have important implications for the growth and health of their group bible studies.
When the numbers are understood, a church’s education ministry can be changed to accommodate growth.
10. Follow up fanatically.
People are taking longer than ever to join churches—up to 18 months, according to some research. The goal for churches and their discipleship groups is to take a longer-term approach to assimilating the guests who attend their churches.
Churches must create a plan to reach out to guests, enroll them, and continue to build bridges relationally that lead to official church membership.
11. Provide ongoing studies.
Ongoing Bible studies create balance in all age groups and are excellent tools to provide an outstanding Bible study experience.
There are many other benefits of providing curriculum for each person, such as providing a tool that helps people read and understand Scripture between Bible study sessions.
12. Embrace a philosophy.
Having a clearly articulated philosophy is foundational to these 12 essential actions. Too many churches make decisions about curriculum, groups, and overall strategy without having a clear understanding of their philosophy of education that should be driving those critical decisions.
So is it time to “man the ship, and bring it to life?” I say yes! In fact, it may be past time to breathe life into your Bible study groups. But the good news is, you can do it.
Remember that grass isn’t greener on the other side; it’s greener where you water it. If your groups ministry is struggling, don’t throw it out! Revitalize it—give it new life and vibrant health.
KEN BRADDY (@kenbraddy) manages the ongoing adult Bible study department at LifeWay, blogs about Sunday School and groups at kenbraddy.com, and disciples a group of adults at his church in Shelbyville, Tennessee. He is the author of several books, including Breathing Life Into Sunday School.