Closing the gap between worship and groups

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 in groups. 

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.

Saddleback 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:

Leadership. Training 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 Lifeway's Masterworks Series.

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

Training. Training 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 series on 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 appreciated.

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 Simple Church?

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 priority.


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 group
  • Prioritize group life