I am a product of the church growth movement. I admit it. I have an earned doctorate in evangelistic church growth. Yes, it is trendy these days to criticize the movement. And I admit there was much to criticize. But the church growth movement also got a lot of things right, including the emphasis on small groups. In my denomination we usually called them Sunday School classes. If you wanted to have a growing Southern Baptist church, you had to have a growing Sunday School.
I was introduced to Andy Anderson and The Growth Spiral in the 1990s. Andy Anderson worked for the Baptist Sunday School Board (LifeWay Christian Resources) as a church growth consultant. He believed that church growth was a process. He wrote, “Everything in God’s universe grows in a process. Every tree, bush, flower. Every person. Why then, do we try to grow the church with programs, rapid spurts, high attendance days and special events?” (p. 16). He believed that a controlled process was the key to sound church growth.
During the first two decades of my ministry, I used The Growth Spiral to lead three different churches to experience growth. We applied Andy Anderson’s formulas. We worked the plan. And the churches grew. One of the churches even won a Growth Spiral Eagle Award.
These days, we don’t hear much talk about church growth or Sunday School growth. But Sunday School is still the key to reaching and assimilating members into the life and ministry of the church. Thom Rainer is considered one of the leading voices in the area of church leadership, church growth, and church revitalization. I have heard him say on many occasions that people who connect with a small group (Sunday School class) are five times more likely to be active in the church than those who don’t connect.
I am convinced that having a healthy small group ministry is essential for all churches. Even more so for churches who need to experience revitalization. With that in mind, I want to revisit The Growth Spiral by looking at nine important principles:
The importance of biblical community – The growth spiral called this “enrollment.” And enrollment controlled everything else from the number of classes needed to the number of baptisms a church could expect during the year. Andy Anderson reduced everything to a formula. In revisiting The Growth Spiral, I am not concerned with the formula. I am concerned that we rediscover the concept of biblical community. That we effectively minister to church members. People who are not a part of a class are not a part of healthy community.
The importance of gospel relationships – The Growth Spiral called this prospects. To be honest, I never liked the word. It sounded like people were projects. When I sold insurance, I had prospects. In seeking to reach people with the gospel I need to have relationships. To this end, I routinely encourage church members to identify at least four people they know who do not appear to have a relationship with Jesus: family, co-worker or schoolmate, friend, and someone in the community. We don’t keep a prospect list. We do encourage our members to keep a relationship list!
The importance of healthy groups – Biblical community and gospel relationships come together in healthy small groups that reproduce other healthy small groups. It is important to create new groups so there is room for new relationships. Existing groups tend to become closed. Andy Anderson discovered that when a Sunday School class reaches twelve months in existence, it ceases to grow. It ceases to grow because the relationship patterns of the members are set. It is important to have new groups so there is room for new relationships.
The importance of leadership development – Sunday School classes need leaders. They need teachers. They need prayer warriors. They need ministry group leaders. They need outreach leaders. The list could go on and on. The Growth Spiral called for one leader for every five class members. Therefore, churches must be constantly developing leaders to do the work of ministry.
The importance of competency and commitment – It’s not enough to enlist leaders. They must be trained. Twenty years ago training meant going to a conference. Today there are excellent resources available online like LifeWay’s Leadership Pipeline. We have videos, podcasts, blogs, books, etc. There is no reason to have leaders who are not competent and committed to the work.
The importance of alignment – The Growth Spiral called this having regular planning meetings. The important thing is that every leader and every class needs to be working toward the same missional goal. Rogue leaders and classes create division. Do whatever you need to get everyone on the same page.
The importance of having room to grow – This isn’t a problem for some churches. Empty rooms are plentiful. The bigger issue for churches in decline is having rooms that are appropriate and attractive. These churches need to do what they can with what they have. But some churches have no available space. Every room is full. You can’t start new classes if you don’t have anywhere to put them. Get creative.
The importance of ministry within the class – Andy Anderson suggested that every member receive a contact every week. Not just those who are absent. Phone calls. Text messages. Emails. Meeting at a coffee shop. Ministry within the class is simply doing life together.
The importance of gospel conversations – Remember the four people I asked members to identify? It’s important to invite them into the community of the class. It’s also important to have gospel conversations with them at some point. One tool that I am especially excited about is Turning Everyday Conversations into Gospel Conversations by Jimmy Scroggins and Steve Wright.
The emphasis in church life has shifted from church growth to church revitalization, and I think that is a good thing. Healthy churches need healthy small group ministries. Revisiting The Growth Spiral can help you focus on what is important.