This year the book Small Groups Big Impact
was released. This book is going to demand a rethink on some of small group world’s most basic assumptions. For the first time in my recollection someone has done serious and comprehensive research to find out the most important facts about how to have a healthy, discipling, missionally minded small group ministry.
The authors, Jim Egli and Dwight Marable interviewed over 3,000 small group leaders and found out what really impacts people’s lives and what small group ministries must give their attention to if her small groups are going to do more than have meetings and assimilate people into church life. From a personal perspective… I was forced to rethink many of my ideas after reading this book.
Jim has been kind enough to allow me to interview him. I’m hoping today and the next three days of blog posts will draw you in and get you to read this book for yourself. This is very, very important stuff.
Rick: Jim, thanks for being willing to be interviewed. I’ve gotta tell ya’, the research in your new book, Small Groups Big Impact is creating a stir in the small group movement. What brought you to write the book?
Jim: For eight years my full-time job was working as a small group consultant and trainer. A couple of years into that, I had this troubling feeling that said, “I don’t know what I am talking about and neither do the other small group consultants and writers.” Then, as now, there were a lot of small group books being published and conferences being offered but it was all model-based and different books and experts were contradicting each other with great zeal and confidence. I also saw some of the churches that I was personally working with get wonderful results with small groups but others were really struggling. It seemed like the successful small group ministries and the failing ones were all trying hard and the differences eluded me.
I told my boss, “I don’t really think we know what is going on. We need to do some serious research.” He encouraged my honest questions and blessed me to do a Ph.D. to do real research and get to the bottom of things.
Two questions guided my quest. They were: “Why do some small groups succeed in reaching new people and multiplying leaders, while others fail?” And, “Why do some churches see wonderful results with small group ministry while others struggle?”
My doctoral courses gave me statistical research skills and tools and I started shaping and testing survey tools and probing different key factors on the small group and church levels. A couple of years into the research, someone put me in touch with Dwight Marable, the director of Missions International. He was also doing extensive small group research probing the same issues. It was logical to begin working together.
Rick: Jim, for way too long the small group community has made strategic decisions based on assumptions, group think, or someone’s perspective on what might be the right thing to do. Small Groups, Big Impact does what no book I have seen before does, it uses concrete data based on substantial research to unveil what really is working. Tell me, how many churches did you work with? How many countries did you work in? How many small group leaders did you interview?
Jim: To date the research has involved over 3000 small group leaders in more than 200 churches in 21 countries. Most of the research has been quantitative, which means statistical analysis using a survey tool that has been tested and revised seven times. But we also have done qualitative research at different points in the research journey using focus groups of pastors and small group leaders to help us ensure that we are probing the right issues.
Rick: I must confess… I was blindsided by some of the facts that came to light. What was the most surprising fact for you?
Jim: There were several big surprises. I think the biggest discovery related to how small group leaders prepare for their meetings. In one of the initial versions of the survey we simply asked leaders how much time they spent preparing for their group meeting. There was a small positive correlation between the amount of time leaders spent preparing and how rapidly their group was growing. In the next iteration of the survey tool, we probed this in a different way and asked two different questions: How much time do you spend preparing your lesson? And, how much time do you spend praying for your meeting?
I was shocked by the results. There was zero, I mean absolutely zero, correlation, between how much time a leader spent preparing their lesson and whether their group was growing. In other words, comparing hundreds of leaders who spent a couple of minutes preparing their lessons with hundreds of leaders who spent a couple of hours, showed absolutely no statistical difference in the growth of their groups.
But there was an extremely high correlation between whether people were praying for their meeting and whether their groups were growing.
The research also showed that almost everyone was spending more time preparing their lesson than praying. Not just this question, but all questions related to the leaders’ prayer and devotional lives showed strong correlations to small group health and growth.
It made us see that the most important factor in leading a growing small group was something that no one in the group itself sees—the prayer life of the group’s leader or leaders.
Rick: How has that one fact changed the way you do small group ministry in your church?
Jim: This radically changed the small group leader training in my own church. Up until that point, much of our training was focused on teaching new leaders how to prepare and lead a meeting. The research showed, however, that the most important dynamics were relational dynamics that happened outside the meeting.
So we shifted our training to focus on the four factors or relational dynamics that fuel small group health and growth. We labeled these factors with four action verbs that capture their essence—pray, reach, care, and empower.
Rick: Jim, what would you say to a small group pastor who is going to read this series of blog posts over the next few days? That is, what would you tell them that they don’t want to miss as they read the rest of these blog posts?
Jim: That’s a great question, Rick. If I could boil it down to one thing, I would say, “Don’t concentrate on teaching your leaders to lead a great meeting. Focus on envisioning them to love God and others in life-giving ways.”
The crazy thing is that over eight years of research really boiled down to two truths that shocked us in their simplicity. The groups that thrive and grow and multiply are those whose leaders and members love God and others in practical and real ways. Somewhere I think I’ve heard someone emphasize these two great truths or commandments before! Perhaps it was in Mark 12:28-31.
Focus your small group vision and training on leaders and members loving God and others.