What Makes Groups Grow Most?

I recently surveyed more than 1,000 small group leaders and Sunday school teachers, asking them what helps their groups to grow. What is the number one factor in making your group grow?

Faith.

Growing classes are 11 times more likely to believe they will be growing than are non-growing classes. Eleven times.

Again, the question of cause and effect comes into play. Do growing classes believe they will be growing in the future because they are growing now? Does the growth cause the belief? Or does the faith cause the growth? Are they growing because they expected to grow? Truth be told, we can’t be sure, but I’d say there was some of both.

If you want to grow your class, start with a strong belief—an expectation that you can grow your class. If you want to develop that belief, get your class growing now. There’s nothing like seeing progress to start building your faith.

There’s a foundational biblical principle at work here. Faith preceeds almost everything. Jesus said, “It will be done for you according to our faith.” Indeed. We sometimes hear people say, “I bet he never believed THAT would happen.” That may be true occasionally, but more often, I would guess it is not. More often, he (or she) saw it happen because he believed it would.

The story is told about Lillian Disney on the day Disney World opened during an interview with Walter Cronkite. Her husband had passed away and never got to see the opening of the magic kingdom. Lamenting this, Walter Cronkite said to Mrs. Disney, “Isn’t it ashamed Walt never got to see this!” Her reply was quick, “He did, that is why it is here.”

Indeed. Everything that exists, exists because someone saw it first. Can you see your class growing? Can you see your class doubling? Can you see a mighty army of God raised up to double microcosms of the church growing and dividing, growing and dividing, growing and dividing?

Develop Faith and Confidence

If confidence that our group will grow tends to predict growth, then how do we develop confidence? Here are just a few ideas.

Get some small wins — and celebrate them. Don’t expect overnight success. Do celebrate every victory. Every new person who comes to your group is a big win. As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. John Maxwell talks about the importance of “The Big MO” — momentum. It is far easier to move a moving object.

Take action. Reading books doesn’t grow a class. Action does. There’s nothing like “stepping out of the boat” to build your faith. Plan some parties and invite people who’ll probably either turn you down or not show up. Get a team together and give up some of the control you have over the group. Get going. Watch what happens.

Meditate on God’s Word. The Bible says, “So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ.” (Romans 10:17) If Paul were a statistician, he would have said, “There is a predictive causal relationship between exposure to the Word and faith.” Here are a few verses to start meditating on and internalizing:

  • “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)
  • “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  • “And so he did only a few miracles there because of their unbelief.” (Matthew 13:58)
  • “Then he touched their eyes and said, ‘Because of your faith, it will happen.’” (Matthew 9:29)

God said it. So let’s know it—then do it.

Get Around People Who Have Grown Their Groups

Confidence that you can grow your group is as much caught as taught. Do all you can to rub shoulders with leaders of growing groups. One of the reasons I believe so strongly that groups can grow is because I’ve heard so many stories about groups that have grown.

At my site, joshhunt.com, you’ll find dozens of videos of teachers who have doubled their classes every two years or less. You’ll get the idea, after watching a dozen or so of those, “I can do that!” And you can. But you must believe.

You sometimes hear people say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Usually, the opposite is true. We see it when we believe it.

Believe You Can Grow

One of the most common questions I am asked goes something like this: “Josh, I know your plan will work. But how do I get my people to work the plan?”

We have to lead people to believe that they can grow their groups. I may be overly optimistic, but I really think that if your average leader really believed he or she could reach 1,000 people in the next 10 years by growing and reproducing groups, that leader would embrace the vision and work the plan. But most leaders don’t believe this is realistic. The challenge is to get them to believe.

The issue of how belief affects the success of an idea has been carefully researched elsewhere. Everett Rogers, in his landmark study The Diffusion of Innovation, tracked more than 5,200 independent studies of how ideas spread through a population and discovered that faith is always a huge component.

Dr. Rogers’ own story is a good illustration. After graduating with a degree in sociology and statistics, he took a job at the university extension service. It was his job to convince farmers to try a new strain of corn that produced 25% more yield, was more drought resistant, disease resistant, and worked better with the new mechanical harvesting machines. He met with countless farmers multiple times, trying to persuade them that the new seed was better. After five years, only 10% of the farmers had adopted it.

Why were farmers so reticent to adopt this new seed that was clearly better? It was all about faith. Dr. Rogers wasn’t “one of them,” and so the farmers didn’t believe him. What did he know about farming? He was fresh out of grad school; did he even know how to drive a tractor?

Dr. Rogers enticed one farmer to try the new hybrid seed early on. This farmer wasn’t much like the other farmers. He was a rather hip fellow who wore Bermuda shorts and drove a Cadillac. He was open to new ideas. He drove to the city more often than the rest of the farmers. The farmer in the Bermuda shorts tried the seed and enjoyed a bumper crop. “Now,” Dr. Rogers thought, “they’ll see the results of this new seed right before their eyes. Now they’ll believe and try it.” Wrong again.

Why didn’t the farmers try the new seed? “The farmers didn’t adopt the new corn because they didn’t like the weirdo in the Bermuda shorts who spurned their lifestyle any more than they liked the pretentious academic who had the nerve to tell them what to do.”

I see this same dynamic in church life all the time. A young guy comes out of seminary all fired up to grow his church. He starts teaching the church how to grow. They don’t buy it. He’s different from them. He doesn’t have any dirt underneath his fingernails.

So the pastor takes matters into his own hands. He takes a class—probably the young married class because he’s young and married—and puts his ideas into practice. He’s spiritually vibrant, has confidence his class will grow, uses good people skills, plans parties, and gets the whole team involved. The group grows.

“Now,” he thinks to himself, “the church will believe this works.” He knows it’s all about belief. If they see it and really believe it, everything will change.

They don’t.

“Well,” he thinks to himself, “it’s because I’m the pastor that they don’t believe. If I turn this group over to someone who doesn’t work for the church and isn’t seminary-trained, surely then they’ll believe it.” The pastor turns the group over to one of his group members.

It doesn’t help. They still don’t believe. They can see it right before their eyes—just like the Iowa corn farmers—and they still don’t believe. What’s going on here?

The biggest finding to come out of Rogers’ massive research was this: The merit of an idea did not predict its adoption rate. Further, it’s not enough to get a few people to adopt and let the rest watch. You have to get the right people to adopt.

Rogers’ research revealed that the first people to latch onto a new idea are usually not the influencers. The first people to latch onto a new idea are the innovators, the think-outside-the-box types, the guys in the Bermuda shorts, the young-married-adult teachers who have only been members of the church for 18 months.

So how do you find out who the people of influence are in your congregation?

Ask.

Ask your people who the five most influential people in the church are. Then make it your aim to get those people on board. Once they’re on board, it becomes almost impossible for everyone else not to join in. If they resist, you’ll never get the rest of the church to believe. How do you get your influencers to believe in the plan?

Experience.

Experience is the holy grail of persuasion and belief. Telling almost never works. Most people are more like Thomas than they’d like to admit. Once Thomas put his hand in Jesus’ side, he believed, and not a moment sooner. Most people are like that. You’ll never lead them to believe that it’s possible to grow a group by telling them that it’s possible to grow a group. When they experience it for themselves, however, it will be almost impossible to disbelieve.

So give your influencers their own success stories. Invite them to some parties and invite some other guests—recent visitors to the church, absentees from the group. Don’t talk about why you’re doing it. Don’t raise their expectations to think that someone is going to join every time there’s a party. Just have some parties, invite them, and invite potential members. Do this for six months or so. Before six months is up you’ll hear them say, “You know, it seems every time we have someone over they start coming to church.”

That moment is the win. Your church is about to change.  

Josh Hunt is passionate about small groups. He encourages small group leaders through online lessons, books, and live conferences. He is the author of You Can Double Your Group in Two Years or Less (Group) and Disciple-Making Teachers (with Larry Mays, also Group). His new book, Make Your Group Grow, will be released by Group in June 2010. Find more help from Josh and other small group leaders at SmallGroupLeaders.com.

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Josh Hunt
Josh Hunt loves small groups. He travels extensively training group leaders. He has spoken in some of America's leading churches including First Baptist Church Atlanta and Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, VA. He has written several books on group life including You Can Double Your Class in Two Years or Less, Disciplemaking Teachers and Make Your Group Grow. He writes a popular online curriculum called Good Questions Have Groups Talking. His website is www.joshhunt.com

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