Review: Small Groups, Big Impact

In late 2010 I had the opportunity to read the final draft of Small Groups, Big Impact by Jim Egli and Dwight Marable.  Based on research involving over 3,000 small groups and more than 200 churches in 21 21 countries, the authors looked “at the dynamics that make small groups and small group ministries healthy and growing.”

Interestingly, the book is based on a research project “conducted to answer the question, ‘what are the factors that impact conversion growth through small groups (p. 12).'”  The study’s extensive statistical analysis revealed three “distinct growth dynamics,” essential ingredients that must all be present for a group to grow.  The study also revealed the “leadership and group characteristics that contributed to small group growth.”

I have to say, I found the premise very interesting.  It can be scary, but who doesn’t want a thorough diagnosis?  I also found the results to be very helpful in a number of ways.  And, the critic in me also found the slimmest opportunity for debate (much like my analysis of the surveys that produced Willow Creek’s Reveal study).  More on that later.

First, here are the three dynamics: Conversion Growth, Assimilation, and Group Multiplication.  Little surprise here, the surprising discovery was that all three had to present for a group to grow.  In other words, one or two without the other(s) means growth is inhibited.  These dynamics are also referred to as small group growth outcomes.

Second, and for our purposes perhaps more important, the study probed over 100 behaviors and traits of small group leaders…and identified four factors that make the biggest difference in a group’s growth.  The four factors “can be captured in the verbs pray. reach, care and empower.” These four factors, also referred to as small group health dynamics, turn out to play key roles in producing growth outcomes.

The best part: A significant portion of the book, just less than half, is spent examining these small group health dynamics.  Each of the four factors is covered in a chapter and it’s way more than an explanation of what it is or why it’s needed.  You’ll also find ideas for the how as well as a link to free downloadable resources for each of the factors (making Small Groups, Big Impact an excellent leader training tool!).

You’ll also find helpful chapters on leading a great small group meeting and taking next steps in small group ministry.  While you’ll have to apply the concepts in a way that makes sense in your own ministry, I found quite a bit in these two chapters that could make its way into my leader training initiatives.

Where is there room for debate? I’ve really wrestled with the authors’ conclusions about growing your small group system (chapter 8).  On the one hand, Small Groups, Big Impact makes an excellent case, based on extensive research, for the importance of the four factors mentioned above in the health and growth of individual groups.  In the sense that the health and growth of a collection of individual groups should lead to a growing system, the authors’ also make a great case.

The single area of concern? In my mind, the one area of contention concerns the conclusion there is “no significant causal relationship between how much a church emphasizes small groups and the growth of the church’s small group system (p. 82).”  It may be semantics, and I don’t have data from over 3,000 groups in more than 200 churches in 21 countries, but I see way too much anecdotal correlation where senior pastors playing the role of small group champion are an essential ingredient in becoming churches of groups.

Still, I really like and appreciate Small Groups, Big Impact.  It can be a great addition to your arsenal as you equip and train small group leaders and I highly recommend it.

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