Is there a Recipe for Church Growth? (Suddenly Surging Part 4)


(Part four of five in David Roseberry’s Suddenly Surging series on church growth.)

A Pivotal Moment

In the early days of Christ Church, the congregation I started in 1985, I was moved by a random encounter in a suburban parking lot. My heart was broken after I met one man and learned what had just happened to him. What I saw and felt in that moment changed me and ended up setting the course of how Christ Church would grow over the next 30 years.


Like most homeowners in the mid-1980s, I made weekly pilgrimages to a new chain of home improvement stores called The Home Depot. One Saturday morning, as I walked toward the entrance, I saw a man walking out of the next-door McDonald’s. I had nothing in my hands, but he was carrying three or four large bags of food. The bags didn’t look heavy, but he seemed like he had a heavy burden. He looked distraught. I walked over to him and offered to help carry some of his load to his car. He agreed and let me help.

As we approached his car, I asked him what kind of food was in the bag. I was trying to make small talk, to connect with the stranger. My stomach was growling, I joked.

He said he bought two dozen Egg McMuffins. I told him that was enough for an army. What was the occasion? Feeding an army? It was men’s banter.

When we had put all the bags in the backseat of his car, he stood up to answer my question. He looked at me. His eyes were red. He’d been crying. Then he said, “Our son died in an automobile accident last night—we got the call this morning. He is—I guess now ‘was’—a teenager.” He paused to catch his grief and swallow. Then he said, “I don’t know what to do. I think I need food at the house in case people come by. And I don’t have it in me to spend time in the kitchen to make anything myself.”

I was heartsick and speechless. My happy trip to Home Depot was over, and I felt for this man.

I expressed how sorry I was. I told him I lived in town and that we were starting a church; could I help in some way? I offered to come by in the afternoon and meet his family. He said he’d like that, and he scribbled his address for me on the McDonald’s receipt. Then he closed the car door and drove away.

I went to his home later that day. I knocked on the door and was welcomed in, and I met his wife and their other younger son. They offered me something to drink, and we talked in the living room. Then he offered me one of the Egg McMuffins I had carried to his car earlier that day.

When he mentioned the sandwich, he looked into the dining room and gestured toward the Egg McMuffins piled on a tray on the table. There were dozens of them. No one had come by. I was the first visitor they had all day. Neighbors were out of town, and they didn’t know anyone else—at least, they didn’t know them well enough to call them to come by to share in their grief. They were alone.

I asked if I could pray for them. They agreed. Before I left, I had their phone number and would give it to others in our new church whom I knew could reach out and care for them. They asked me to conduct their son’s memorial service in a few days, which, of course, I agreed to do.

Christ Church looked differently because of that man’s loss and need.

That encounter—from the parking lot that morning to the visit in the afternoon—was a seminal moment for me. My heart went out to this man and his family. They were alone. They had no one. I was so glad I met him and thankful to have been invited into their family and their grief. However, I realized this experience brought home one of the purposes of our new church. I wanted our new church to be a place to preach the Gospel and worship our heavenly Father. But it was made clear to me that our new church should be a place where a grieving family would never grieve alone.

Rethinking Small Groups

This experience made me commit to developing and expanding small groups across the congregation. They were the best way for people to connect to others in the church and for me to ensure that people would never be alone, no matter what they faced.

Small Groups are not the secret sauce for church growth, but they are the main ingredient for the recipe. When a church successfully attracts and welcomes new visitors, it must have a clear plan for integrating these individuals into its life.

So, if I may ask it boldly, what is your plan to help the people who are visiting your church understand it, connect to it, meet new people, become involved, grow in their faith, and subsequently invite their friends?

Remember the point I made in the Good Shepherd Economy article? The Lord is the Good Shepherd, and he will not send his sheep to a place where they will not be cared for and fed.

Here’s another way to think about it. Ask this: What if we grow? What if we learn to invite people, and they come? What if more people start to attend our church? Where will they go when they get here? What ministry or program will they connect with? Where will the next 100 people find meaningful engagement with the congregation?

Four Areas of Engagement

Most churches typically offer just four types of engagement opportunities. Newcomers can usually choose from only four distinct areas or initiatives to make a significant connection.

  • First, there are the infrastructure and activity groups. These would include the Altar Guild, Lay Readers, Ushers, Missions, Set up Groups, and Greeters. Many churches use these groups as a catchbasin for new people. But as everyone soon finds out, vacancies are limited. Once someone becomes an usher, without the establishment of term limits, they don’t readily surrender that position.
  • Second, there are rules groups and committees of the Vestry. These groups are usually busy helping set policies, budgets, etc., but they are hardly the place for new members.
  • Third, there are Bible study programs and classes. These are important, and, in my view, a church cannot have too many of them. However, they depend on a few things: space, usually on campus; teacher, usually an ordained leader or well-educated layperson; and availability. Often, these classes are offered only on a certain day or evening of the week.

Do you see the problem here? If people cannot find a place to light, they will leave the church within a few months. Limited opportunities exist between the three different types of groups. However, failing to provide meaningful opportunities for connection and engagement can result in new members feeling disconnected and eventually drifting away.

While Bible studies, volunteer roles, and committee positions can offer some avenues for involvement, they often have limited capacity. One traditional church I worked with used ushers to guide people to their seats. They were told to recruit more ushers to include new people. They did. The problem was that there was a six-year waitlist before any new people could join that team! In other words, some programs or volunteer tasks may not be suitable for everyone, especially those new to the church.

The fourth and last category of church involvement is small group or life group meetings. A well-designed, thriving small-group ecosystem is the most effective and scalable solution for connecting new people.

Small Groups: An Eco-System Approach

Small groups provide a relational environment where individuals can build deep, authentic connections with others, grow in their faith, and experience a sense of belonging within the larger church community. These groups can be diverse and cater to various life stages, interests, and spiritual needs, ensuring that there is a place for everyone. There is no need for an extensive campus of management system.

The church must invest in a robust training and development program for small group leaders to support a growing small group system. This program should equip leaders with the necessary skills, resources, and ongoing support to facilitate group discussions, foster meaningful relationships, and guide members’ spiritual growth.

The church should also prepare for herding cats. Small groups are different from a regular program. They are messy, hard to corral, and difficult to direct. Small groups are not really a church program. We should consider them an ecosystem. They should be offered, supported, advertised, developed, started, ended, encouraged, and created throughout the church. Each of them should have a front door to welcome new people and an empty chair where new people can sit.

Furthermore, it is essential to have a dedicated staff member or team overseeing the small group eco-system. This individual or team should regularly communicate with small group leaders to assess the health and progress of each group, offer guidance and support, and gather feedback on how the church leadership can better serve the groups and their members. By maintaining open lines of communication, the church can ensure that the small group system remains dynamic, responsive, and effective in meeting the needs of both new and existing members.

While small groups can meet on the church campus, encouraging groups to gather in homes or other off-site locations can create a more intimate and welcoming atmosphere, particularly for those new to the church. This approach also allows for greater flexibility and scalability as the church grows.

By prioritizing the development of a robust, adaptable small group system, churches can create an environment where every person, whether new or established, can find a place to belong, grow, and contribute to the life and mission of the church. This, in turn, will lead to a more vibrant, connected, and growing congregation that consistently attracts and retains new members.

Photo by doidam10, courtesy of Canva.


David Roseberry

David Roseberry leads the nonprofit ministry, LeaderWorks. He was the founding rector of Christ Church, Plano, Texas, and is the author of many books. He lives in Plano with his wife, Fran.

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