A perennial problem in many mega-churches is the gap between
worship attendance and group attendance. Often, there are four or
five times as many people attending worship as are attending groups.
If you believe that church life is lived out in relationship, this
is a real problem. And, it is not just a problem with mega churches.
Many medium sized churches have twice as many people in worship as
There is a danger of inoculating people against the gospel rather
than infecting them with the real disease. (The metaphor is a little
negative, I know: the disease of the gospel.) Just as a shot can
give us a very small dose of a disease, and thus build up our
immunity against it, so a small dose of church can give us the
feeling that we have a little bit of religion and that is enough.
This false self-confidence prevents us from the poor in spirit
attitude necessary to enter the kingdom. Getting people in an
occasional worship service could do that.
Still, I wouldn’t be too hard on these churches. It is possible
for a pastor of a plateaued church of 200 to look at a pastor that
has started a church and grown it to 10,000 in worship and fixate on
the fact that they only have 20% in groups and be critical of that
ministry. There is a certain irony in this. I remember as a young
minister being critical of certain ministries. A discipler of mine
used to rebuke us, "There way of doing things is better than your
way of not doing things."
Still, these churches could readily agree that they could do
better. Usually, they want to do better. This article will explore
some proven ways to close the gap.
is one mega church that has closed the gap. For years, they were
like every other mega church in this regard with group life lagging
way behind worship attendance. I heard Rick Warren say recently that
they have 2500 groups. Each group averages around ten which puts
their group attendance at or above their worship attendance. How did
they do it?
Improve the quality of the group experience
There is a saying in the seminar business: you better get good
before you get famous because if you get famous before you get good
you won’t stay in the seminar business for long. I would like to
apply this concept to groups. You better make sure your groups are
good before you promote them because if you promote them and they
are not good, people won’t stay. See
Three things affect how good your groups are:
is over-rated. I am a full-time group trainer and I will tell you
that in some circles training is over-rated. Selection is
under-rated. Jesus stayed up all night praying about who he was
going to select to be his disciples because he knew that selection
matters. You could train me for years and I wouldn’t sing as well as
Chris Tomlin, even if he
had had no training at all. Think about training. Think hard about
selection. Who you train is more important than how you train.
Select your best people to be your group leaders.
Curriculum. I have
an old college buddy, Lance Witt, that until recently lead groups at
Saddleback. He told me that when they went to a video-based
curriculum, group attendance shot up. Curriculum matters. The good
news is, there is lots of good stuff out there. My favorite is
When I was a Minister of Education, I couldn’t find enough
qualified teachers to start the new groups we wanted to start. Our
best people were often tied up in a million things that called for
their talents. So, I struck a deal with some of them: I will write
the lessons, you teach it and care for the people. I started writing
20 – 30 discussion questions that I put in their hands each week.
These were ready-to-use lessons that would almost teach themselves.
Soon, other teachers heard about these lessons and the whole church
started using them. These lessons reduced preparation time
dramatically. They also insured that groups became conversations,
not lectures. I remember once getting our wires crossed with who was
teaching one weekend and handed one guy the questions as he walked
down the hall to class. He read the questions while someone else
took prayer requests. Even with this little preparation he did a
more than half-way decent job.
I am still writing these questions 20 years later–three fresh,
new lessons a week that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines.
For details on you can get them, see
matters. The Georgia Baptist Convention has done extensive reseach
showing that there is a relationship between training and church
growth. Churches that train their people grow. Churches that don’t
train their people don’t grow.
I stumbled onto a training approach that might work for you. A
couple of weeks ago, I gathered ten or so Sunday School teachers in
my home for a Saturday morning of training. We used Rick Warren’s
Preaching for Life Change. We watched about an hour of video and
paused to discuss it about every five or ten minutes. We spent one
hour watching Rick Warren, and two hours discussing what we heard.
It was great: training small group leaders in a small group with one
of the nation’s best communicators coaching us by way of video.
I am pondering doing a new video series myself based on this
model. I have in mind to call it Saturday Morning Training. Each
training piece would consist of about an hour of video with
discussion questions interspersed into the video. The training would
be a watch and discuss, watch and discuss, watch and discuss format.
The first three I have in mind are:
- Developing a Heart like God’s Heart
- The Amazing Power of Doubling Groups
- Giving Friday Nights to Jesus
I have in mind to price each DVD at $29. Let me know if it is of
interest to you. (Just reply to this email.) I am kind of on the
bubble as to whether or not to pursue this project. Your input is
There is a reason why some groups don’t grow. The group
experience is not worth inviting people to. We must improve the
quality of the group experience.
The pastor must model what he wants to see happen
Lance told me that when Rick Warren got in a group and talked
publically about the fact that he was in a group, group attendance
shot up. Leaders must embody the vision. We must lead by example.
In many churches the message that comes across works like this.
The pastor stands in the pulpit and waves the flag occasionally for
group life. "I believe in Sunday School. Rah, Rah Sunday School. Blah.
Blah. Blah." But, the pastor is not in a group. The staff are not
groups. Many of the deacons are not in a group. It is impossible for
me to imagine how, in an environment like that, groups will thrive.
The leadership must do what they want the people to do. If the whole
staff is not joyfully involved in groups, you will never persuade
the masses that groups are important and wonderful.
The thing is, I think they are wonderful. Asking pastors to be in
a group is not some sort of punishment. Group life really is
wonderful. It is wonderful whether pastors attend or not. It is just
that pastors will never persuade the masses unless they are
enthusiastically involved in a group.
Note: group = Sunday School or home group.
Prioritize group life
I didn’t realize it until this week, but Rick Warren has started
a podcast. It is really cool. Each week he sits down with three or
four church leaders from around the country and talks about issues
related to church life. These are usually done on conference calls.
For details, see
On a recent podcast, Rick gave another reason that group
attendance now approximates or exceeds worship attendance at
Saddleback: they cancelled the Wednesday night service. They wanted
to make group life a priority and realized that if it were
prioritized in third place behind weekend services and Wednesday
night, they would never get the masses involved.
I work mostly with more-or-less old fashioned Baptist churches. I
don’t work with a lot of Saddleback style or Willowcreek style
churches. Many of these churches are experimenting with home groups.
The most common mistake I see in this regard is to layer home groups
on top of an already over crowded church schedule. Have you read
A more effective strategy is to replace Sunday night or Wednesday
night with home groups.
Andy Stanley defines the win at
Northpoint by how many
people they get in groups. It is not how many people they get in
worship, but how many they are able to move into groups. They have
no Sunday night or Wednesday night services. Groups are the
priority. Andy is personally in a group and stands regularly in the
pulpit and says, "Sandra and I are in a group that is doubling; I
want you to be in a group that is doubling."
Johnny Hunt at Woodstock is
famous for saying that if you only have one hour of the week to give
to church, give it to Sunday School, not to worship. (This is a
pretty safe thing to say. I have never seen a case where the pastor
said this and emptied the auditorium.)
Saddleback and Northpoint and Woodstock are all very different
churches, but they have this in common: they make group life a
If you want to close the gap between worship attendance and group
life, consider these three things:
- Improve the quality of the group experience
- The pastor and staff must be enthusiastically be involved in a
- Prioritize group life