Note: this article is one of six articles that eventually grew into a book: Make Your Group Grow. Available here:

I have just completed three months of asking 1031 teachers thirteen question designed to help us understand what makes groups grow. This article is the second in a series of reports on this survey.  (Note: this is not a scientifically randomized survey, but rather a survey of group leaders that I filled out surveys online and at conferences.) I divided the findings into four sections:

  • Things that didn’t matter hardly at all. (Less than 10% difference in likelihood of growth in the bottom and top group)
  • Things that only mattered a little. (Between 11% and 100% difference likelihood of growth in the bottom and top groups.)
  • Things that mattered a lot. (If you are in the top group in these factors you are twice as likely–or more–to be growing than if you are in the bottom group. Between 101% and 1000% difference in likelihood of growth in the bottom and top groups.)
  • Things that matter most. (If this is true of you, you are almost 11 times more likely to be growing than if it is not. More than 1000% difference in likelihood of growth between the top group and the bottom group.)

Last week we gave an overview and talked about things that didn’t matter much. For that article, see This week we will move on to the second grouping: things that matter a little.

#1 – Time spent on group more than time spent on the lesson

I predicted that this would matter. I thought it would matter more than it did.

A Sunday School teacher or group leader is very different from a school teacher. Paul spoke of the idea that “we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.” 1 Thessalonians 2:7 (NIV) and, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.” 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 (NIV) Sounds more like a parent than a school teacher.

Jesus’ concept of making disciples was largely around what the Navigators call the “with them” principle. “He appointed twelve–designating them apostles–that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.” Mark 3:14 (NIV) His plan for making disciples had a lot to do with spending time–lots of it–with them.

For all these reasons I predicted that teachers who spent lots of time with the students would be growing and teachers who spent lots of time on the lesson would not. Again, I was wrong.

Spending time with students is a predictor of the growth of a class. Teachers who spend more time with their students than they spend on the lesson are more likely to be growing than those who spend more time on the lesson than they do on their students. But, only marginally so.

Teachers who spend more time with students than they do on the lesson are 34% more likely to be growing than those who spend more time on the lesson than the spend with their students.

I have a guess as to why this is true. People who spend more time on the lesson are more likely to be better teachers. People like to hear good teaching. Teachers who spend more time on the lesson are more likely to report that they are four or five star teachers.

This demonstrates that there is more than one way to slice the pie. You can get there through great teaching, or you can get there through spending lots of time with your students.

My pastor and my former pastor are a good illustration of this. My current pastor, Dr. Maurice Hollingsworth is one of the finest pastors I know. He spends LOTS of time “with them.” He really love us like a mother or a father would. There are a thousand people who are more active at First Baptist than I am. (We spend about 40 weekends on the road.) But when my dad had triple by pass surgery recently, Dr. Hollingsworth asked about my dad.  I don’t hear a lot of people going on and on about his preaching, but I have heard a lot of people say, “He sure is a caring pastor.” He is a people person par excelance and the church is doing well.

My former pastor was the opposite kind of pastor. (Have you ever noticed how churches will tend to hire opposite kind of pastors, one after another?)  He was not much on hospital visitation. I think he did some, but you had to be really sick. (I wouldn’t want to be so sick that Dr. Z would come see me!) But, boy could he preach! Wow. He would knock it out of the park every time. And, the church did well.

You can grow a class on either strong teaching skills or strong people skills. Lucky the man or woman who has both. If you are bad enough at either one you are going to struggle. A rule of thumb is to shore up your weakness–make sure you are at least half way decent at both. Then, lean into your strengths. Strengths research suggests people do better by leaning into their strengths than fixing their weaknesses.

#2 Purpose of the group: is it mostly about growing members spiritually, or reaching out to outsiders?

Groups that saw their purpose as more about reaching to outsiders than growing spiritually were 53% more likely to be growing than those who saw their purpose primarily about growing spiritually.

This raises an interesting question. Can you grow spiritually without a deep interest in the lost? Does a deep interest in reaching the lost tend to enhance spiritual growth, or distract from it?

There is a tendency to make false dichotomies where no tension exists. Truth is, you can’t grow close to God without caring about what He cares about–the lost.

Here is a Bible trivia question for you–what is the context of this phrase: “Low, I am with you always.” That is a familiar phrase quoted from the AV. Do you remember where it is found? What is the context?

I have heard jokes around the idea that this is an admonition to drive, not fly. LOW I am with you always. It doesn’t say anything about 30,000 feet.

Do you remember, yet? What is the context? It is the Great Commission. Jesus taught that as we engage on mission with God in the task of advancing the kingdom, pushing back the darkness, we are going to know a closeness to God that no Bible study has ever produced. (Please don’t hear me say I am anti-Bible study; I think I have a life that proves otherwise.)

Many have experienced this in the context of a mission trip. There was something that happened on that mission trip that went quite beyond the excitement of jet travel. God was there. As we engage on mission with God in fulfilling the Great Commission, God with us in a special way.

It is one of the many things I love about speaking and writing and serving the Lord. I feel close to God when I serve. You will too. Many of you have.

This is what is wrong with the sit and soak group. A group that wants to just get closer and closer to God and doesn’t care one whit about bringing others close to God can’t get close to God themselves. God on on mission. Henry Blackaby taught us that if you want to get near to God you must join God in what God is doing. God is moving. If you want to stay near to God, you must stay moving.

A group that is on mission with God in growing and reaching is not only more effective growing and reaching, they are also more effective at getting people closer to God.

#3 Teaching ability

Teachers that are self-described as 4 or 5 star teachers are 68% more likely to report they are growing than those who are self-described as 1 or 2 star teachers.

I don’t know about you, but this is one thing that is not a surprise to me. I would have predicted that the better teaching, the more likely the growth.

  • Five star teachers — 48% growing
  • Four star teachers —  47% growing
  • Three star teachers — 37% growing
  • Two star teachers — 35% growing
  • One star teachers — 6% growing

This  puts to rest another myth you sometimes hear: “We are not growing; I just concentrate on quality teaching.” Maybe. But the likelihood is the opposite. The better the teaching, the more likely the growth. The less growth, the more likely the teaching is not all that good either.

#4 Visitation

Regular participation in visitation was a strong positive predictor of growth. Teachers who regularly participate in visitation are 78% more likely to be growing compared with those who never or almost never participate.

It is not quite as strong a predictor of growth as having lots or parties, but that is next week’s topic. Next week we will talk about the four things that REALLY matter in predicting the growth of a group.