Building trust, digging deep

March 15, 2011
Students Praying

Establishing small groups within a megachurch -- heralded by some as a remedy to the drawbacks of burgeoning congregation size -- is "good medicine," but not a cure-all, according to a national study by Baylor College of Arts and Sciences sociologists.

"Simply having a small group program in a church is no guarantee of success," said Dr. Kevin Dougherty, an assistant professor in Baylor's department of sociology and co-author of the article "A Place to Belong: Small Group Involvement in Religious Congregations" in the March issue of the journal Sociology of Religion.

What matters is that the groups meet regularly; that members trust one another enough to divulge matters they would not to a stranger; and that they tackle tough issues in one another's lives, Dougherty said. He and Andrew Whitehead, MA '09, a Baylor doctoral student in sociology, conducted the study.

Past research by Dougherty and others shows that people in large congregations typically attend less, give less financially and feel less connected than people in smaller congregations. But members of small groups -- whether in small churches or "megachurches" with 2,000 or more members -- are more likely to attend worship, tithe and volunteer, Dougherty said.

"Highly committed members make a church strong, whether big or small," he said.

Dougherty and Whitehead tested the effectiveness of small groups at raising levels of participation and belonging. They studied the role of Bible study and prayer groups, using national data obtained from the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey, with 78,474 respondents in 401 congregations, as well as data from a survey of 1,014 participants within an unidentified megachurch referred to in the study as Central Texas Megachurch. The church began in 1999 with an emphasis on "cell" groups. Today the church has more than 100 cell groups and attracts more than 3,000 worshippers weekly.

Study findings support the importance of small groups.

"Any type of small group will benefit a church, whether it's a Sunday school, a service group or a basketball league, because of the belonging and commitment they foster," Dougherty said. "But small Bible study and prayer groups are better at promoting discipleship and spiritual growth."

Frequency of attendance is more important for successful small groups than is length of attendance, he said, and "small size and regular interaction help foster trust. When people trust one another, they open themselves to deeper inspection and reflection. Great possibilities for change result."