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Creating Spiritually Vibrant People, Part #1

I have just completed a survey of 1036 people aimed at discovering what creates spiritually vibrant people. This is the first of several articles reporting the results.

This survey is a follow-up to another survey I did on what makes groups group. The #1 and #2 thing that corresponded to a high growth rate were spiritual vibrancy and faith (which appear to be related).

This puts to rest the myth, by the way, that you sometimes hear: "Well, we are not growing numerically, and God doesn't care about numbers--( am not sure where that idea came from)--but we sure are growing deep with God." Turns out, this is usually NOT the case. Numerical growth and spiritually vibrancy are normally found together.

First, I'd like to report on the things that did not matter very much. Then, we will move up the scale toward those things that mattered the most

Things that didn't matter all that much in creating spiritually vibrant people

Teaching style didn't matter very much. I have a bias--a strong bias--in favor of discussion oriented groups. To me, they are just much more interesting. Maybe I have sat in on too many boring lectures. Maybe I just like to talk. Maybe I am a little ADD and just can't sit still and listen. I am not sure why, but I strongly prefer discussion oriented groups. I believe in them so much that I write four small group lessons a week that consist of about 20 questions per lesson. See www.joshhunt.com/lessons.htm I would argue that I have written more lessons, and more questions about the Bible than anyone else alive (Recently, I started including answers to the questions in the form of footnotes from some of the great commentaries out there.) Anyway, I would like to report that discussion oriented groups create greatly more spiritually vibrant people than do lecture oriented groups. I'd like to report that discussion oriented groups are better in every way. I 'd like to report that discussion oriented groups rule the world! I'd like to report that, but the facts don't support it. There was NO DIFFERENCE in the spiritual vibrancy of discussion oriented groups compare with lecture oriented groups.

Teaching style did influence other things. For example, teachers who use at least some discussion were twice as likely to be growing numerically, compared with those who use all, or almost all lecture. It is hard to grow a class using the lecture method. Discussion groups were almost twice as likely to produce people who felt loved by the people in the group and to have close personal friends in the group. Discussion groups were nearly three times as likely to strongly agree with this statement: "The atmosphere in my group is honest and open and encourages transparency." They are five times as likely to provide accountability around having a quiet time.

One question I wish I had asked was about the quality of the lesson. And, I'd like to ask the question of the participants, not the teachers. Question: how good is this lecture?  I am telling you, I have heard a lot of bad ones. Before you adopt the method of lecturing 100% of the time, make sure you are good--really good. Lectures are like violin playing. When you are good, you are good, but when it is bad, it is really bad.

How long have you you been in this group? No real big surprise here, but how long you have been in a particular group did not tend to predict spiritual vibrancy. It would be nice to report that the longer you are in the group, the more likely you are to be spiritually vibrant. Sadly, this is not the case.

Home group or on campus group?  It is clear that God is doing a work in a home group movement in our country. I remember when Cho's book came out on cell groups. I wondered, "Would home cells ever become popular in America?" Clearly, that day has come. I just read two books by two of the leading spokesmen for church growth today--Nelson Searcy of The Journey (you know it is a cool church when it starts with "The") in New York City, and Larry Osborn, Pastor of North Coast Church, based out of Vista, CA and a leading example of the growing multi-site movement. (I think the multi-site movement will be the biggest change in church during my life-time.) Both of these writers, along with Andy Stanley, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Ed Young Jr. (NOT Ed Young Sr.) recommend home groups. There is clearly a growing movement. But, home groups were only a little (26%) more likely to report high spiritual vibrancy as compared with on-campus, Sunday School style groups. The highest level of spiritual vibrancy was reported by those who attended BOTH home groups AND Sunday School style groups.

There is a tendency in many arenas of life to get stuck in an either/or mode of thinking. Mac or PC? Coke or Pepsi? McDonalds or Burger King? Often times, both is a better answer. You sometimes hear people say, "People feel more comfortable coming to a home group than an on campus group." Yeah? Why then do churches with on campus groups nearly always have two or three times the percentage of their worship service in groups when compared with the percentage that home group churches have in groups?

Or, we have Sunday School churches that think they have the only way. It is a wonderful word: both. My favorite way to do groups is as have seen practiced in only a few churches. "We have groups. Lots of groups. Lots of choices. Big. Little. Old. Young. On campus. Home groups. Short term. On going. We have lots of groups. Get in one. Get in more than one if you like, but get in at least one. They are all good."

Level of involvement. I reported on a survey once and had a participant say to me, "I disagree; I don't like that." Well, I might not like it either, but this is how people answer the question. Highly active people were only marginally more likely to report high spiritual vibrancy as compared with those who are not as active. (30%)

This is congruent with George Barna's research reported in the book The Revolutionaries. He reports that there is a large and growing movement of people who are deeply committed to God, but not deeply committed to churches as we traditionally think of them. They may be involved in house churches, or some other expression of Christian community, but they are not deeply involved in traditional church.

This is also corroborated with Willowcreek's Reveal Study. I quote from page 33, "Involvement in church activities does not predict or drive long-term spiritual growth. Personal spiritual disciplines -- tithing, evangelism, serving, quiet time, etc does tend to predict spiritual growth, but church attendance doesn't. I don't like it either, but that is what the data indicates.

One other insight coming out of the Reveal study. The study revealed that church involvement does predict spiritual growth in the early stages of growth. For seekers and new Christians to be heavily involved in church predicts their growth in the faith. But, as time goes along, church activity is less important and personal disciplines are more important.

Let's consider this passage: "In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." Hebrews 5:12-14 (NIV) Implication: we ought to, at some point, get past needing someone to teach us the elementary truths of God.

There may be more to it than this, but it occurs to me that when you are eating milk, someone else is feeding you. When you get to eating meat, you are feeding yourself. How do we get people to feed themselves? Perhaps accountability will help. Sorry, wrong answer. (We will get to what does help in the next article.)

Accountability: does anyone every ask you about having a quiet time? You might think this would matter a lot. I thought it would matter quite a bit. I wanted it to matter. But, facts are, it only matters a little. Groups that ask each other about whether they have a quiet time are 30% more likely to report high levels of spiritual vibrancy, when compared with those who don't ask about having a quiet time.

Thirty percent is nothing to sneeze at, and suggests it is not a bad idea to regularly ask your group, "How are you doing these days in terms of your time alone with God." We know from the Reveal study, (and common sense agrees), if we can get people starting their day with the Bible on their lap we have some chance of creating mature disciples. Conversely, I have no concept of what it means to live the Christian life other than to spend time regularly in prayer and in the Word.

Do you have close personal friends in the group? People who strongly agree with this statement were only 30% more likely to report high levels of spiritual vibrancy. This question, has an interesting twist, however. I also asked if they felt loved by the people in the group. This, as it turns out made a huge difference. People who felt loved by the people in the group were more than twice as likely (111%) to report high levels of spiritual vibrancy compared with those who didn't feel loved by the people in the group. Having a lot of close friends doesn't matter all that much; feeling loved matters a lot.

We must conclude that "feeling loved" and "feeling close" are not the same thing. It is possible to feel the people in my group care about me, but, I am not all that close to them. 27% of those who said they don't have close friends in the group strongly agreed with the statement, "I feel loved by the people in my group." Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.

What is your role in the group, teacher or participant?  Teachers were 33% more likely to report high levels of spiritual vibrancy compared with those they lead. Looks like we have the right people leading.

How many outside activities does your class do? Groups that have lots of parties and activities are 43% more likely to be spiritually vibrant. They are also about twice as likely (94%) to be growing. Having lots of parties and activities helps you grow your group both numerically AND in terms of spiritually vibrancy.

Parties help in other ways. Groups that have lots of parties (one a month or more) are 65% more likely to report that the group is "honest and open and encourages transparency." I think that is a good thing. Groups that have lots of parties are 79% more likely to strongly agree with the statement, "I have close personal friends in the group." Groups with lots of parties are 42% more likely to feel loved by the people in the group and 55% more likely to feel loved by the teacher. Most anything that is good about the class gets better with lots of parties.

I am reading Seth God's new book Tribes. Let me quote a section from page 52:

The first thing a leader can focus on is the act of tightening the tribe.

It is tempting to make the tribe bigger, to get more members, to spread the word. This pales, however when juxtaposed with the effects of a tighter tribe. A tribe that communicates more quickly, with alacrity and emotion is a tribe that thrives.

A tighter tribe is more likely to hear its leader, and more likely still to coordinate action and ideas across members of the tribe.

Two observations. First, this seems to be exactly the way Jesus operated. He seemed to have a kind of gravitational pull in the direction of tightening his tribe (the disciples). He often left the masses to be with the tribe. As time went on, he seemed to spend more and more time with the tribe. Robert Coleman wrote about this in the classic, Master Plan of Evangelism. (If you have not read it, run, don't walk to get and read a copy.)

Second observation: This is exactly the opposite of the way most churches operate. They are all about trying to get the tribe bigger. We tend to be enamored with quantity; Jesus was enamored with quality.

Teacher cares about me personally. Those who strongly agreed with this statement were 47% more likely to be spiritually vibrant compared with those who didn't strongly agree with that statement. Again, recall that being loved by the members of the group make a huge difference as well. Turns out the old adage is true: people don't care what you know till they know that you care. (Note: this is not a scientifically randomized survey, but rather a survey of group leaders that I filled out surveys online and at conferences.)

Well, those are the things that didn't matter all that much; next week we will get into the things that mattered a lot.

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