By Jade Mardirosian
The influence of small groups on congregants’ commitment and participation, particularly in large congregations, was the topic of a recent study conducted by Baylor researchers.
The study, which analyzed statistical data from a national survey of 78,474 individuals in 401 congregations of different denominations and religions and another survey of 1,014 individuals from one Protestant megachurch in Texas, questioned the effectiveness of small groups at promoting in-group commitment and participation.
“We found that persons involved in small groups devoted to prayer, discussion or Bible study reported a greater sense of belonging, more frequent attendance and higher rates of giving,” said Dr. Kevin Dougherty, assistant professor of sociology and lead researcher for the study. “The effect of small-group involvement did not differ by congregation size, however. From worshippers in the Texas megachurch, we found the benefits of being in a small group are most pronounced for those that attend small group meetings regularly.”
“A Place to Belong: Small Group Involvement in Religious Congregations” details findings from the study and was co-authored by Dougherty and doctoral candidate Andrew Whitehead. The article was recently published in the journal Sociology of Religion.
Whitehead said the research also found that congregants participating in a small group are more likely to tithe 10 percent, attend services at higher rates and feel a sense of belonging to the church.
“We suggest that small groups could be a useful avenue through getting people involved and doing those things,” Whitehead said. “Also, we found that there was no effect on how big church was. The effect of being in a small group is the same whether you are in a very small church or a large church.”
Dougherty said small groups within a congregation serve several important functions.
“Small groups are a point of contact and connection for people in congregations. People may come and go from worship services with little interaction with fellow worshippers. It can be easy in and easy out,” Dougherty said. “Small groups bring a sense of intimacy and accountability to congregations. Surprisingly, our research doesn’t indicate that belonging to a small group in a big church is more important than belonging to a small group in a small church. By forging relational ties and connecting newcomers with the actively committed, small groups represent a potent source of vitality in congregations big and small.”
According to the 2001 national survey used to conduct the study, 21 percent of adult worshippers were in a small group devoted to prayer, discussion or Bible study. Dougherty said the study focused on this type of small group because it is highly beneficial for individuals and congregations. In the Texas megachurch survey used, 90 percent of respondents were in a small group.
Dougherty offered several pieces of advice for people involved in small groups at churches with large congregations.
“Attend small-group meetings regularly. Make friends. Tackle life’s challenges together. Invite others. And watch God work in you and in your church,” he said.
Whitehead said he believes small groups can be beneficial to those involved and also the greater congregation.
“Those looking to join a small group would be helped by learning what the congregation is about and what the people are like and then seeing where [the church] is going. Small groups would be a good way to get in and learn,” Whitehead said. “For congregations, if they are looking to get people involved and facilitate interaction and get them attending and giving at high levels, then instituting some sort of a small group ministry would be helpful to the church.”