I had my guess about which matters more. And I was right. But I thought it would matter a lot more than it does.
A Sunday School teacher or group leader is very different from a school teacher. Paul spoke of the idea that “We were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too. And you know that we treated each of you as a father treats his own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11). Sounds more like a parent.
Likewise, Jesus’ method of making disciples was largely built 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). Jesus’ plan for making disciples had a lot to do with spending time—lots of it—with them.
For all these reasons I predicted that groups with leaders who focused primarily on their group members would be growing—and, in contrast, groups with leaders who spent lots of time on the lesson would not.
As it turns out, spending more time with group members is a predictor of growth. Groups with leaders who spend more time with group members are 34% more likely to be growing than those with leaders who spend more time on the lesson.
So, it does make a difference. But compared to other factors we’ll look at later on, it’s a comparatively small difference. I have an educated guess as to why there wasn’t a bigger gap between the two.
People who spend more time on the lesson are more likely to be better teachers. And 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 suggests that there’s 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 group members. Either route shows that you care about the people in your group—and that shines through. But spending time with your group members conveys that message more directly—and thus is more effective.
My two previous pastors, both at the same church, are good illustrations of each approach. My former pastor Dr. Maurice Hollingsworth is one of the finest pastors I know. He spends lots of time “with them.” He really loves us like a parent would. There are a thousand people who are more active at First Baptist than I am. (My speaking schedule requires me to spend about 40 weekends on the road.) But when my dad had triple-bypass 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 excellence and the church is doing well.
Our previous pastor, Dr. Frank Zamora (we called him Dr. Z.), was the opposite kind of pastor. (Have you ever noticed how churches tend to hire opposite kind of pastors, one after another?) He wasn’t 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 Dr. Z preach! He would knock it out of the park every time. And again, the church did well.
You can grow a group with either strong teaching skills or strong people skills. Lucky the man or woman who has both—and luckier the group who has him or her for a leader.
And if you’re truly bad enough at either one, you will struggle. Therefore, shore up your weaknesses. Make sure you’re at least halfway decent at both. Then, lean into your strengths.
Most of us tend to believe that the path to success is to shore up our weaknesses. For example, 77% of Americans believe that a student’s lowest grades deserve the most attention. If little Johnny comes home with school with one A, three Bs and one C, most parents want to talk about the C. Strengths research done by the Gallup organization suggests that what they ought to be talking about is how to lean into the A subject. “Even the legendary Michael Jordan who embodied the power of raw talent on the basketball court could not become, well, the ‘Michael Jordan’ of golf or baseball, no matter how hard he tried.” (Rath, 2007, p. 7)
Not to say we should avoid improving weaknesses. If we’re bad enough in critical areas, we’re in trouble. If a kid is bad at math and incredible at English, we need to get that kid good enough at math to function in society. But, the idea is to shore up weaknesses and then concentrate on building up strengths. Don’t try to make your student brilliant in math—you’ll both get frustrated trying.
Over the past decade, Gallup surveyed more than 10 million people worldwide on the topic of employee engagement (i.e., how positive and productive they are at work). People who are working in the area of their strengths are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and three times more likely to have an excellent quality of life in general. (Rath, 2007, pp. -iii-)
You can grow a group either through strong people skills or through strong teaching skills. Shore up whatever weaknesses you have and lean into your strengths.