Groups Matter: An Interview with Ed Stetzer on Transformational Groups

The following is an interview with Dr. Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Ed and I recently co-authored a book, Transformational Groups.

Ed, you and I worked on this book together, so I know a little bit of your thoughts on groups and community, but why did you see a need for a book on church groups and community in the first place? Aren’t there enough books on groups already?

That’s a great question Eric. The easy answer is, evidently not!

There certainly are many resources to help people and churches with their groups, but our research shows that groups are still not prioritized in churches. For instance, we asked pastors what the most significant discipleship tool in their church was, and a large majority basically said that it was any time they were in the pulpit teaching.

Now, I believe in the teaching ministry of the church, I usually preach 3-4 times a month, but the research tells us that groups are the most effective tool a church has, and they still are not committed to it. So, I wanted to write this book to help churches prioritize their groups, and use them effectively.

You’re the research guy, Ed. What were some of the statistics about church groups and community that really stuck out to you as we worked on Transformational Groups?

There are quite a few helpful statistics, but a few that were particularly important to me revolve around pastoral leadership. For instance, we asked pastors who, in their church, was responsible for selecting the curriculum in their groups.

This is important as it’s hard to imagine a pastor letting just anyone preach. Pastors guard the pulpit, and they should. With the importance of groups, you would think they would equally guard what is taught in their groups, but the data shows otherwise.

Among churches in the U.S., the curriculum is selected by the group leader almost 2/3 of the time, and most of that time it occurs with no input from the pastor or staff.

Another stat that struck me has to do our assessment of our effectiveness. Disciple making is the one commission that Jesus gave the church. Because of that, I believe we should evaluate our effectiveness regularly. Sadly, we rarely assess our groups.

For example, 92% of Protestant pastors agree with the statement: “Our congregation is making significant progress in their spiritual development.” That sounds great until we followed that up by asking if their church regularly assessed the spiritual progress of their people, over half (56%) admitted that they do not.

But more than being a research guy and a pastor who teaches on community, you have a group that meets at your house. What has that group taught you or reminded you about Christian community?

More than anything, I lead a group because ministry is about people. The more we know, the better we can advance God’s mission, so I am glad to do the research. However, with that said, we need to study God’s mission and engage in God’s mission. Beyond that, leaders cannot lead what they do not live. I want my church to understand the importance of groups, and the importance of people, so I’m going to invest my time in a group. 

Outside of establishing the programs, what role do church leaders (pastors, elders, etc.) play in the initiation and success of transformational church groups?

This is a pretty big question, but to start with I would say that leaders need to lead. Leaders say that groups matter, but they’re not investing time and energy in their groups. Leaders need to develop strategy for their groups, invest in curriculum selection for their groups, pour into leadership development to help lead their groups, and finally, leaders need to be in a group themselves.

What about group leaders? What were some of the biggest takeaways regarding the people that lead church groups? 

Maybe the biggest number in the study for me was that 75% of group leaders tell us that they want more direction from church leaders when it comes to their groups. Leaders are asking for help, we just aren’t always giving it. So, let’s invest in our leaders.

What are two or three actions that any church of any size can take today that would set them on course to establish a biblical, transformational culture of community and groups ministry?

Good question.

First, I would encourage churches to develop a strategy for their groups. Why do their groups exist? How does that fit in the churches overarching discipleship strategy?

Secondly, leaders need to get more involved in curriculum selection and leadership development. An easy question to ask here is, “In comparison to our weekend worship, how much time, energy and money do we invest in our groups?” Create a bit more balance between the two.

Finally, I would encourage churches to create a clear pathway for visitors to get into groups. Do you have an easy to describe manner in which people can choose a group? Have you clearly defined each group, their leader as well as times and locations that they meet?