Group Size & Effective Small Group Christian Ministry

Group size matters in Christian groups!

Recent studies suggest the power of smaller groups to bond and change.

The University of Oxford anthropologist Robert Dunbar discovered that the number of people the average person could have in her social group is around a hundred and fifty. Anything beyond 150 would be too complicated to handle at optimal processing levels. This number changes according to a precise formula, roughly a “rule of three,” which could impact how the church views group size.

  1. 150 is the norm for casual friends. Such relational communities seldom have more than about 150 members.

  2. 50 is the norm for people we call closer friends.

  3. 15 is the norm for a circles of friends that we may turn to for sympathy in times of need. We can confide in them about most things.

  4. 5 is the number Dunbar’s research shows is our closest support group, like the primal groups I’m discussing. Another independent study by MIT These are your best friends, and may be family members.

Another study came up with very similar numbers. They analyzed mobile phone date from 2007, prior to widespread use of social media. These 6 billion calls made by 35 million people came up with these layers based on frequency. 128.9 people in the casual friend layer, then 29.8 close friends, 11.0 in our sympathy circle, and 4.1 for closest support group.

What is the purpose of your group?

  1. Casual friendships: then 128-150. If relationship in the group is unimportant, like for mega-church services, then any size.

  2. Close friendships: then 30-50.

  3. Circle of sympathetic friends: then 11-15.

  4. Vulnerable, open friendships like with best friends, then 4-5.

The smaller the group, the deeper the connection we often have.

For instance, at parties I like to find one person and connect more deeply with that one in conversation. When only a few persons are interacting, adding just one more individual may make a big difference in how they relate. In a three-member group, three possible pairings exist. In a four-member group, there are six possible pairings; add a fifth member for each of the four to relate to and you have ten pairs. For a group of fifteen, this soars to 105 connections. Closeness and collaboration tend to decrease with added pairs. When you select a group size, be sure you know what you want as the end result.

Cooperation, collaboration and teamwork have become essential features in much learning, as have skills in listening, drawing out information, and persuading. This occurs best as all participate in learning.

As the group size increases, fewer members have the chance to participate. Herbert Thelen proposed a principle that for members of groups to have maximum motivation to perform, the number of group members should be the smallest possible and still retain all the social and achievement skills required for the particular activity.

Small Group Leadership

Regarding leadership, in a small group or team, leadership and other roles are likely to be shared or rotated. In a large group, the formation of subgroups and the increasing differentiation of roles will ensure the emergence of a leader. What is the cutoff number? Many theorists, researchers and practitioners agree that five to seven members is the maximum for groups with shared or rotating leadership.

Virtual interactions through social-media increasingly dominate our world, especially the younger generation. So what happens if you are raised from a young age to see virtual interactions as akin to physical ones? No one has yet gathered sufficient data to know how these group numbers may change. And our brain is incredibly adaptable. This bodes well for small groups who have learned to pray for personal needs by appropriately laying on hands.

However, when subjects in a study were lightly touched to measure reflex response, their bodies released endorphins. Our skin has a set of neurons that respond to light touch. Until social media can replicate that personal touch, it can’t fully replicate social bonding. From past research on social interaction, we know how crucial the early childhood experience is in developing those parts of the brain that are largely dedicated to social interaction, empathy, and other interpersonal concerns. Deprive a child of interaction and touch early on, and those areas won’t develop fully. Envelop her/him in a huge family or friend group, with plenty of holding and shared experience, and those areas grow bigger.

Additionally, with social-media, anyone can pull the plug and walk away. There’s no forcing mechanism that makes us have to learn and relate in difficult situations to work through problems together.

What’s the point?

I took extended space in order to show the interconnectedness of the disciples (their oikos). Jesus developed primal groups in part from primary relationships, those with a natural affinity, like the 1st century word oikos conveys.

Please don’t artificially paste primal groups together to launch a large disciple-making ministry, like with a mass call to match up disciplers with disciples. This does not seem to be Jesus’ way since He hand-picked the Twelve after praying to His Father all night. May we be counter-cultural, returning to Jesus’ model, even though it’s not the norm in our more highly structured, big-group training processes in the 21st century. Bigger is not necessarily better.

Primal groups seem to be Jesus’ preferred vehicle to train in LifeChange and ministry.

Jesus not only came to give His life so we might live. He also modeled a dynamic, catalytic way to grow healthy community from the bottom up, like modeled in the Trinity, the first Small Group.

For me, it seems from the list in the post, A Fresh Look at Jesus’ Twelve, that Jesus intentionally gathered His Twelve into mono-gender, closed primal groups, perhaps in three groups of four, for in-depth training for LifeChange. Note carefully. Primal groups are both for deepening relationships and also for ministry so the crowds are not neglected.

This lens provides a solid, broad-based foundation from which to experiment and discover how we can become a vital part of a primal group. This builds in-depth LifeChange and also reproduce other disciples in groups. Although the expert Discipler, Jesus, focused on multiple groups of four, I would suggest each of us begin with one LifeChange primal training group of 3-5 others. “Focus on the few to reach the many.”

Who do you already feel drawn together t0 (your oikos relationships)?

Are they F.A.T.S-o’s (that is, Faithful, Available, Teachable and Serving-others)?

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).

In our 21st century lives, if we do follow Jesus’ model, we must first put to death as the central focus of how to build churches the typical Western Christian focus on size and visibility, hustle and bustle… initially. Jesus built from the ground up. He poured His life into primal relational; training groups as small as three or four persons over a period of two years (deeper), without ever ignoring or marginalizing the crowds (wider).

Then Jesus left, releasing them to cultivate their own primal groups. More than thirty men hung out with Paul on his missionary journeys. Over time, though, Jesus’ initially “slow” approach of exponential multiplication built a movement that has influenced billions.

  • “WIDER” “Come & See” (2-3 months)
  • A transitional bridge between “WIDER & DEEPER” – “Come & Follow Me” (9 months)
  • “DEEPER” – “Come & Be with Me” (20 months) ministering together as partners, sharing their lives deeply in koinonia. Bonding often happens more quickly for those who have worked and sweated together, learning to respect each other in the fires of ministry.

Also read the previous two articles, A Fresh Look at Jesus’ Twelve and Jesus’s Strategy

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