How big is a small group?

by Josh Hunt

"How big should a small group be?"

Ask 10 Ministers of Education and 10 State Sunday School Directors and you are likely to get 30 different answers. It is one of the fine points of group life that pundits enjoy debating.

For me, the answer is a number that ends in "een"--thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, or nineteen--more or less. (By the way, in this article, I am talking average attendance, not enrollment.) Andy Stanley puts the number at 12. This is a good biblical number. Jesus had 12 in his group, perhaps we should have 12 in ours.

I have seen groups, however, function in a healthy way that were in the 20s and a few in their 30s. Let's face it, some people like the energy of a larger group.

And, I have noticed an inverse relationship between the size of the group and the amount of openness and authentic sharing. I was in a group of 4 recently--me, my wife and one couple. Too small by some standards, but we had a very meaningful conversation. Some of the things we talked about likely would not have come up if even one other couple showed up.

When I was a Minister of Education I often started new classes. Sometimes these were not all that well attended. Sometimes, it would just be me and one or two other people. At first, I was disappointed, but over time I learned that sometimes these were the most life-changing small groups I ever led. In a group of 3 you can really figure out where a person is at and brainstorm ways to get to the next level. Application can be very specific and personal in a group of 3.

So, I have seen groups from 3 to 30 work pretty well. But, there is a whole different model that some churches use that I would invite you to consider. It is the model of Adult Bible Fellowships, or, Mid-sized groups. (By the way, the title, Adult Bible Fellowships is probably a better name than adult Sunday School for many of us, whether or not we follow the philosophy outlined below. Sunday School, for many, speaks of a kids' organization. Adult Bible Fellowship says it all--Adult [this is not for kids], Bible [it is about studying the Bible], and Fellowship [it is also about fellowship]).

Mid-sized groups

Mid-sized groups have up to 90 in attendance. This is the size of the average size church. There is a reason for this. This is about the number of people that the average person can get to know. It provides for a variety of relational opportunities, yet, given a little time, people can get to know everyone in the same way that in churches of 90 everyone knows everyone.

My friend Steve Lizzo is the one who tuned me into this model. He manages a web page dedicated to informing people about this model. He also speaks regularly on the topic. Here is a quote from his web page about mid-sized groups. (From http://www.abfresources.com )

The ABF philosophy of ministry believes "midsize" Adult Bible Fellowships (ABFs) or communities are the foundational ministry to adults in a church setting. Although there are several other influential ministries to adults such as Men's and Women's Ministries, Small Groups, etc. this philosophy believes it is essential to encourage as many adults as possible who attend a church to identify with and become part of an ABF/community. They are "mini-communities" or "mini-congregations" within a congregation. Each ABF is a mix of ages, but normally organized by peer group or similar "life" situations. Others are multi-generational or have some other special interest that draws them together in community. In the context of these communities "body life" takes place. (John 17:20-23; Acts 2:42-47; The "one another" passages of the NT; Eph. 4:12-16; Heb. 10:24, 25)

Most of ministry to adults flows thru these ABFs/Communities. ABFs are the main vehicle in which most of the ministry to adults flows including: fellowship, socials/activities, small groups, care opportunities, outreach, serving/ministry, assimilation of newcomers, etc. As a result, instead of having separate ministries for small groups, newcomer follow-up, care and fellowship that experience very little communication and/or networking, the church can do a better job of caring for their flock and assimilating new people into the church because "the right hand knows what the left hand is doing." This synergy multiplies the effectiveness of all the ministries.

Leadership Teams within ABFs are essential to build and care for the group. Each ABF has a class/community leader. It is this leader's responsibility to organize, lead, and meet regularly with a leadership team that builds "community life." The team consists of the teacher(s) and those who lead the social & ministry events, caring opportunities, welcome/assimilation, outreach, newsletter, etc. Each ABF/community is "self-governed" so the people within the group decide who will be asked to serve on the leadership team, how many team members there will be, and how long they will serve. The leadership team meets on a regular basis to plan, evaluate, and hold each other accountable for their responsibilities.

Note that there is a level of organization below the level of the mid-sized group. They still have small groups that come out of the mid-sized group. The difference is, in this model, the mid-sized group is central.

In a lot of Sunday Schools, you have a department structure that is, in essence, a mid-sized group. It may have up to 90 in attendance. But, after a brief opening time, participants move to their classes. The classes, or small groups are central.

In the mid-sized group model, we have the opposite. The teaching time is done through a master-teacher. The small groups may meet for a short time of prayer at the end, or may not meet at all. It may be an organizational care unit, or, they may meet during the week. There is a level of organization below the mid-sized group, but the mid-sized group is central.

Does this really work?

I remember hearing Ed Young Sr. speak years ago about the idea that they could not find enough qualified people to teach the Bible to their small groups. Thus, they were moving to much larger Sunday School classes at Second Baptist in Houston. Southeast Christian in Louisville, KY major player in the mid-sized approach. Add Lakepointe (Dallas area) to your list of ABF churches. Yes, it is working.

"It takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people," says Rick Warren. Mid-sized groups may not be for everyone, but they are clearly a working model that works for some.

What do ALL growing churches have in common?

  • Charismatic churches and non-charismatic churches
  • Contemporary and traditional
  • Mid-sized group churches and small group churches
  • Sunday School churches and home group churches
  • Purpose Driven churches and non-purpose driven churches.
  • Willowcreek loving churches and Willowcreek hating churches

What do all these churches have in common? What do ALL growing churches have in common? It is not. . .

  • Seeker sensitive worship services
  • Contemporary music
  • Topical preaching
  • Drama
  • Small groups

What do all growing churches have in common? They all have doubling groups. These may be groups of 12 or groups of 90, but, if they are growing, the groups are doubling.

Imagine a tree. How big should the branches on a tree be? Well, if an engineer was designing a tree, it would have a distinct symmetry, and all the branches would be of prescribed size. But if you look at a tree that God creates, it has a certain balance, but it doesn't have mathematical symmetry. In a similar way, when God builds His church, He builds it with a variety of sizes of group. I think it is healthy for a church to have very small groups, normal small groups, larger small groups and mid-sized groups. It takes all kinds of groups to reach all kinds of people.

For more information on mid-sized groups, I recommend Knute Larson's book, The ABF Book