How Small Is a Small Group?

By Michael C. Mack

QUESTION: What size should a healthy small group be?

ANSWER: This is one of the most frequently asked questions about small groups, and as with many questions, the answer is, “It all depends.” Here are three factors to consider when determining group size.

 

Group Types

Small groups come in a variety of types with different purposes and needs. An accountability group, for example, works best with about 2 to 4 members. A serving group, and some more socially oriented groups, can be quite large, in the 20s or 30s. Holistic groups, discussion-based groups, and a variety of care groups seem to work best somewhere between 8 and 12 participants, yet the factors I’ll discuss below may allow for much larger groups.

 

Group Dynamics

Al White, associate minister at First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, believes the “right size” is “any number where everyone feels comfortable enough to share.” That’s true, and I’ll take it a step further. The right size for a healthy group is the size at which the group can live out the “one another” passages in the New Testament (see sidebar on next page).

Another huge factor to consider is what I’ll call discussion dynamics. At what group size do shy people feel too intimidated to participate? At what size are there too many verbal and nonverbal signals to really hear and care for one another?

Much study has been done on the mathematics of communication. With just 2 people there are only 2 communication signals: you to me and me to you. But add just 1 person and that increases to 9 signals; 4 people, 28 signals; 5 people, 75 signals; and so forth. At 10 people in a group, there are 5,110 signals! The good thing is that God made the human brain capable of taking in a lot of signals. But there is a limit, and that’s why there are about 10 to 12 people in an average discussion group. Yet I’ve overseen groups of couples with nearly 30 people that were very healthy. How was that possible? The groups had really dynamic leaders who used some of the tactics I’ll suggest below.

Kent Odor, director of spiritual growth at Horizon Community Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, believes subgrouping well is just wise leadership. He explains,

The proxemics of people in a circle and time together mean that every person is valued X amount of minutes per meeting. If the meeting is an hour and the leader talks just 15 minutes, including the Bible lesson, and 12 people are in the group, then 11 people have about 45 minutes to talk, which is about 4 minutes each. Often, one story about a life event takes that long. If after the initial Bible input is shared and the group subdivides into 3 or 4 people, then everyone has 12-15 minutes to share stories, make personal application, and pray. This small adjustment makes everyone valuable.

Another practical factor I’ve heard discussed is the size of the room where the group meets. Obviously, if members live in smaller homes, their groups need to stay smaller, right? Yet in many Third World countries, and especially where Christianity is illegal, 20, 30, or more people cram into very small apartments. Now you see why I say, “It all depends”!

 

Subgrouping 

Here’s the big secret to growing larger groups while still staying small enough to communicate and care. Craig Tucker, small groups minister at Central Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas, points out that when groups get to be 14 or more participants, subgrouping is beneficial for more intimate discussions. Otherwise, he says, the more extroverted will tend to dominate. You may subgroup for entire meetings, with a social time for everyone at the beginning and end (which is what many larger groups do) or for different parts of the meeting time.

I like to be creative with subgrouping. Some weeks I’ll subgroup by gender during prayer time. Men share much more deeply when in same-gender groups, but women tell me they do too! Other times, I subgroup during the application part of the study to encourage more accountability for action steps.

Even the size at which you begin to subgroup is not a formulaic equation. Randy Boschee, who oversees groups at Liquid Church in New York, says he has subgrouped with as few as 6 people, and has tried to subgroup with 14 where it didn’t work. He advises leaders to prepare the group to understand why they are subgrouping. That gives the group ownership.

I use subgrouping even before groups get very large to accomplish two vital objectives: (1) to develop more authenticity and accountability (and sometimes confession) in the group—this usually occurs best in groups of 2 or 3; and (2) to develop leaders and get the group used to the idea of multiplication. Here’s how this works: I ask a person on my core team to lead the subgroups in another room. After the subgroups end, I debrief with the team leaders. Doing this every week is a great opportunity for leadership development!

Fred Thomas, who led a men’s group in Southern California, watched God grow his group of 8 men to more than 80 in a couple years. How did he do this? “We broke into subgroups of 7 or 8 men,” Thomas told me. “From that group, I saw no less than 6 new groups form, and another grew to such a degree that we had to break that one into subgroups.”

Thomas shared why this is so significant: “I think the importance of a small group is the intimacy, connectedness, and willingness of group members to be accountable to one another. Dynamics are far more important than size.” I couldn’t say it better myself.

 

Michael Mack is the author of a dozen small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? How to Guide an Effective Small Group (Standard Publishing) and his latest book, Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish (Touch Publication). E-mail your questions to mike@smallgroupleadership.com.

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New Testament One Anothers

Small groups are great environments for living out the directives given to the church in the New Testament. How are you doing in your small group?

“Encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13).

“Build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

“Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7).

“Be devoted to one another in love” (Romans 12:10).

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

“Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10).

“Instruct one another” (Romans 15:14).

“Admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16).

“Serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13).

“Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

“Be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

“Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephesians 4:32).

“Forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone” (Colossians 3:13).

“Confess your sins to each other” (James 5:16).

“Pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).

“Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9).

Speak “to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19).

“Use whatever gift you have received to serve others” (1 Peter 4:10).

—MCM

 

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