Though much is still unknown about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on churches, one thing is certain: The health of the Body of Christ will depend largely on a vibrant small group system, a researcher has said.
“Megachurch 2020,” a survey conducted by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability in partnership with the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, found that overwhelmingly, small groups are central to megachurches’ spiritual formation of members.
When asked if small groups are central to their strategy of Christian nurture and spiritual formation, a staggering 90% of megachurches — defined as churches with attendance of 2,000 or greater — said “yes” — a 40% increase from 2000.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Warren Bird, vice president of research and equipping at ECFA and co-author of the report, said small groups have become a “far higher priority” for megachurches over the last 20 years.
This trend, according to Bird, is likely to continue. He predicted that, as the COVID-19 pandemic fades away, the churches that “do small groups well” will most likely be “stronger” than those that do not.
"In light of the pandemic, so much of church health today depends on a vibrant, small group system underneath the big gatherings, whether they're in person or online," he said.
“Much like in the pandemic, the churches that are most threatened are those with preexisting health conditions,” Bird explained. “The churches that are going to have the hardest time re-surfacing will be ones that depended solely on the Sunday morning gathering. They will have a hard time re-gathering, rebuilding momentum, and reestablishing their mission as a church.”
The study, which followed the most significant patterns and trends from 582 churches, found that small group participation is directly related to a number of positive trends for the congregation. This includes growth rate, frequent worship attendance, participation in local service projects, and the ability to incorporate newcomers into the congregation.
Additionally, megachurch congregations with the highest percentage of their people in small groups were more likely to meet new challenges and to emphasize living out one’s faith in all aspects of daily life.
“In short, having greater percentages of one’s congregation participating in small groups and in other programs offered more benefits than just growth of the church,” the authors noted. “It created a climate of improved spiritual development for the congregation on many levels.”
“Megachurch 202” is the largest national study ever of trends in U.S. megachurches. Research for the study concluded just before the pandemic hit, forcing churches across the nation to close their doors.
In response to the pandemic, churches across the U.S. have been forced to innovate and adjust to hold services. Bird contended that “whether we like it or not, larger churches tend to be influential in terms of the priorities, the programs, the strategies that all churches follow."
“Even in the pandemic, many of the pacesetters for how to navigate outreach during a pandemic have been highlighted and developed by larger churches. Whatever size church you are, often, ideas that you consider come from larger churches,” he said, adding that 74% of megachurches are growing, often at fast rates.
“That’s just the opposite of, sadly, of other size churches where four out of five are plateaued or in decline,” Bird continued. “So it's natural to be curious and say, ‘What are they doing that is that is leading to growth that we might learn from?’”
The correlation between smalls groups and church health is well documented.
Rick Warren, head of the 22,000-member, California-based Saddleback Church, recently identified small groups as the “antidote” to loneliness.
“I’m preaching this constantly, ‘You’ve got to be in a group. You’re not really a part of this church unless you are in a group.’ And that’s how we have more people in small groups than actually come on Sunday morning,” he said.
“Small groups are not a ministry of the church, small groups are not a program of the church, small groups are not an outreach of the church, small groups are not an event of the church, small groups are the church.”
Warren recently revealed that over 3,000 new small groups have been started during the pandemic and added to the church’s existing network of 6,010 small groups.
“We now have 9,023 small group Bible studies meeting weekly online, helping people cope with the stress and ‘dis-ease’ created by the disease,” he said.
The full “Megachurch 2020” report is available to download for free at: ECFA.church/surveys.