Bible Subjects

Why Large Church Congregations are Inactive, and Small Groups are Active?


Why Large Church Congregations are Inactive,

and Small Groups are Active?

We live in a generation where all pastors and many members dream and work towards one goal and that is having a large church congregation, even a Mega church. Why? Because this is one sign that your church is a success. Social studies on groups reveal that the larger the congregation you have, the more problems you develop, and inactivity increases among the members. However, if you divide the congregation into small groups, the opposite will occur. Personal evangelistic activity will increase, and problems will decrease naturally. It is the aim of this study to find out why?

Why the Minister Can Not Get His Members to Evangelize?

George Simmel developed a taxonomy of groups based on size and found that there are two types of large groups.  There is the society which consists of 20 to 30 mem­bers/people, and then there is the large group which is 40 members/people or more.[1]  When we think of large groups of people in a religious sense, we might think of a large church congregation, a Mega church or even a large Billy Graham evangelistic crusade.  After the handbills have been handed out, and all the advertising is finished in preparation for evangelistic meetings, the proportion of listeners who become inquirers will be greater in large groups than in small groups.[2] This would be normal reasoning for any group which is increasing in number.

Group sociologists say that when people gather in a large-group setting they become de-individuated, or in other words they are people, who have lost self-awareness and their personal identity in the group situation.[3]  It is hiding, blending, and becoming one with the crowd. Denier, goes further to explain that people in a large-group situation do not have the capacity for self regulation and the ability to plan for the future. . . They become more reactive to immediate stimuli and emotions, and are unresponsive to norms and the long term consequences of behavior.[4]  When one takes this into consideration, one can question the methods used in large-group evangelism and Mega churches where there is no Biblical teaching ground work done before hand.  This means that many souls who are won to Christ through large-group evangelistic meetings lose their ability to plan for the future.  They are only thinking of the present advantages for involvement and are reacting to immediate stimuli.  Maybe this is one of the reasons why a thorough statistical study on how many have left the church has never been done, on people won to Christ in the aftermath of an evangelis­tic series.

In my own experience in working with large-group evangelism and well-known evangelists, I have found that one third to two thirds of people who are baptized into the SDA Church leave the church after one or two years. This figure was substantiated by the meeting on evangelism in the last SDA General Conference session in 2015, July 11 at San Antonio, Texas. Although the members tend to blame the evangelist, and the evangelist tends to blame the members, we do not know the actual cause.  One could argue that Peter used the same method of evangelism with the 3,000 souls who were baptized on the day of Pentecost.  These souls who were won to Christ, never left the church.  Why? The 3,000 people baptized on the day of Pentecost were a direct result of the labors of Christ and the disciples in the three years preceding this event; therefore, they had more time to contemplate the future, and were well prepared to make the decision before the event occurred.[5] That is the difference between the two types of evangelistic meetings.  In the former, the people did not have much time to plan for their spiritual future, while in the latter they had ample time to plan for it, and therefore remained in the church.  Therefore, it would be advisable to give Bible studies to new Bible students before the event of an evangelistic series, so as to ground them in the faith. This social group-behavioral pattern helps us to understand the long-term consequences of behavior in people won to Christ, as a result of large-group evangelistic meetings.

Now let us look at the local church congregation meeting once a week in a large building.  It may be a large group of 20 members or more. The pastor preaches his heart out to the members using all the methods of rhetoric and expository preaching.  The large group responds with many Amen’s!  They feel uplifted in Christ, able to go through another week at home or at work. But the problem is that over 75 percent of the congregation in many churches are not engaged in local-church mission activity.  The members sit passively in their pews each week and nothing can be done about it.  What is the underlying cause of this problem?  Have they really been converted or are they really too busy?  It is interesting to note that a group study was done in this area by Richard Petty in 1977. He wanted to test the hypothesis that group responsibility for a cognitive task inhibits the cognitive effort devoted to the task.[6] He asked undergraduates in a classroom to evaluate a poem and a pretentious editorial written by fellow students. He then asked some individuals to go into a room alone and evaluate the articles by themselves, while the rest of the class stayed together and wrote their evaluations down.  The result of the study was that individual evaluators put more effort into evaluating the poem and the pretentious editorial, than those in a large-group situation.

This data and others indicate that persons in large groups, as in a classroom, felt less compelled to work at fulfilling the requirements, than individuals who went to a room alone. This provides support for the hypothesis that group responsibility for a cognitive task inhibits cognitive effort.[7]  Other studies support this hypothesis, and go even further to show that in many situations in which a group is responsible for a physical task, the real or perceived presence of other people produces social inhibition.[8] Some of the consequences of this study for a large-group situation in a church are that preachers such as C. H. Spurgeon, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, A. Campbell, Dwight L. Moody, or even Billy Graham can preach the most eloquent sermons in the world to their congregations, but the members will not react in regard to long-term tasks.  Why?  Because the large-group situation has a negative effect on individuals, so as to inhibit them from participating in social and cognitive effort.  Because of this mentality, when a minister preaches to a congregation, the majority will respond to immediate stimuli with lip service, but do not offer their time in local missionary work.

Problems Increase When the Size of the Church Congregation Increases

There are many adverse effects of increasing the size of small groups, but one must be aware of some prominent ones in order to avoid certain problems.  For example, large groups reduce the members feelings of group identity and commitment to group values.  Large groups require a clearer definition of norms and a greater degree of role differentiation.  Furthermore, they require more control on the part of group leaders.[9]  Bales and Borgatta, the leading figures in group interrelated social studies, found that when the size of a group increases, the following symptoms occur: (1) Increase in tension, (2) Decrease in showing agreement, (3) Increase in disagreement, (4) Increase in antagonism, (5) Increase in asking for orientation, and (6) Decrease in giving opinion.[10]

Many ministers in charge of large congrega­tions can relate to these symptoms among their members.  It is helpful to know that this is a consequence of increasing the size of the group.  Why do pastors want to increase the size of their congregations? We belong to a society that believes that if the church is large, then the pastors are successful and doing their work correctly for example Mega churches.  It is the dream of many church pastors and evangelists to increase their flock, but most of us do not know the reason for these negative social-behavior patterns that follow the increase in size.

Another group study suggests that as size increases, there will be decreasing group cohesiveness and increasing organization and division of labor in the group, along with the development of cliques and possibly of factions.[11]  When applying this to the church situation, the members cannot cope with the increase in membership, the pastoral staff has to increase in number to accommodate for the growth, and in many cases, factions develop and group cohesiveness weakens.  Bales and Bargatta, found that the relative talking time available per member decreases as size increases.[12]  Each person is under pressure to maintain a more or less adequate relationship with the others.  The problem lies in the fact that each person does not have the time to go around a congregation of 50 to 100 persons and greet them all. Therefore, cliques are formed within the large church group to compensate for this talking time; but this in turn excludes others wanting to join the group.  Hare, states that as groups increase in size, they tend to become more complex.[13]

Another problem one would encounter in the church group situation, occurs when the congregation at the church business meeting, decides to take a vote by a show of hands on a matter concerning the church.  In the case of one or two members who went against the majority, Asch found that the larger the unanimous majority facing the lone individual, the greater the conformity.[14]  This means that individuals can vote for something, which is going against their will because of group pressure.  Again, this leads to disgruntled and unhappy members in the church.  Furthermore, when church groups increase in size, subgroups tend to develop in large discussion groups.  When this happens, discussion becomes an exercise in politics, rather than a deliberation about issues.[15] Many a minister has come face-to-face with this situation in the yearly church business meeting.  Factions develop within the church and issues become an exercise in church politics.

Many members have experienced that when a church group increases in size, a smaller proportion of persons becomes central to the organization, making decisions for it and communicating to the rest of the membership.  For example, this can be seen in the church board or the conference committee.  However, as a consequence of such tendencies toward centralization, more members become peripheral and engage in activities that are less crucial for a group’s outcome.[16]  Some of these activities that can be experienced in the church may be more sport activities, hobbies, working on the church building, taking care of the church garden, joining other groups and societies etc.  These time-consuming activities are a sign that members are thinking to themselves: Leave the work to those who think they know what they are doing, and we will find something else to do.

This leads to the final point on negative large-group behavior and that is authoritarian church leadership.  Many of our church leaders are powerful cholerics. They are born leaders. For example, powerful cholerics will exhibit a take-charge attitude very early in life.  They are born leaders and will look out through the bars of their cribs and plan how soon they will take over from Mother.[17]  They like to rule and take charge.  Therefore, the minister should look out for cholerics in a growing church.  As a church group grows in size, there is a tendency for hierarchies to develop within the church. The stronger members dominate . . . while the weaker members suffer a drop in self-esteem and are dissatisfied with their participation.[18]  How do these stronger members influence the rest of the church?  They are usually the most vocal and high-status members at discussion times and business meetings.  To counteract this imbalance, a pastor should encourage the sharing of views among the members, which can lead to group cohesiveness and satisfaction.

In addition, when large groups develop in size, the members make greater demands on the leader.  Thus, the greater demands on the leader in the large group, tend to make the person more authoritarian and use a more centralized communication network.[19]  Just from this statement, one could question the present role of the average pastor in a large church.  In many cases, he is a leader with authority and a communication network backing him, and not a pastor who has the time to visit, care, and serve his flock in the truest sense.

Increase the Membership by Dividing Your Congregation

It is looked upon as a catastrophe if the minister tries to divide or split the congregation up into small groups. However, social studies reveal that the opposite will occur. It will not end up in a catastrophe, but an increase in the membership cohesiveness to work together towards one goal. Therefore, it would be to the minister’s advantage if he has a split church congregation or has problems in getting his members to work; all he has to do is divide the members into small groups.

What are the advantages of having small groups when looking at social-behavior patterns?  George Simmels studies reveal that the smallest of small groups is the dyad consisting of two people.  Then there is the triad, consisting of three people.  A gathering is considered to have from four to twenty members.[20]  The dyad exists in every nation on earth and is easily seen in married couples or even best friends.  The reason why people get together in two´s in the majority of cases, is because they are opposite in character or personal­ity.  We have all heard that opposites attract. When we look at the strengths of the individuals, it is a great asset to have the opposites united together.[21] They support and supplement one another. That is one of the reasons why they stay together and develop deep relationships.  On the other hand, Taylor and Faust found that playing the game Twenty Questions, four-man groups correctly solved more problems than two man groups.[22]  The reason for this is that there is more input into solving problems when there are four persons than two.

Furthermore, research indicates that an ideal size for effective group participation is five members.  Robert Bales, a leading authority on groups, says five or seven is the ideal size for a problem-solving group.[23]  If one has less than five, a group lacks diversity of opinion.  He goes on to say that members are reluctant to disagree in groups of four or less for fear of alienating their colleagues.[24]  As we have seen, when the group increases in size, many other negative social problems tend to develop.  The object is to get the right balance in the size of the group, so it can operate in such a way as to please all members; the group should be the right size so as to give enough time to explore the opinions and feelings of each member in depth. Other group studies recommend that six to eight is a good number to aim at.[25]  Whatever the number, one should take into account the time for each member to participate.  Even if members do not participate, they should go away with the satisfaction that they are free to do so. Both frequency and duration of participation are important factors in establishing group cohesiveness.[26]

It is known, that groups that contain an odd number of participants, solve problems more quickly than even-numbered groups, but Bales and Bargatta say that the data also suggest that the even groups may be higher in showing solidarity.[27] This means that for a problem-solving group like a committee, the ideal is an odd number, while in a group which works together, because solidarity is very important for cohesiveness, it is most important that a person in a small group should not be alone or be in a group of three, five, seven, etc.  Lastly, Rice says that a small group, if it is to be alive and active, must have a primary task, a task that the group must carry out if it is to survive.[28]  This task in the church setting would be the proclamation of the gospel and the Three Angels Messages in their community, and helping other people to come to know Christ as their Savior, through establishing other small groups.

What is the Maximum Number for Establishing Personal Relationships in Small Groups?

Although George Simmel has suggested the maximum for a small group is 20 members, more recent studies suggest a lower number.  For example, in a study on committees according to Cartwright, a membership of 12 seems to be getting near the upper limit of a single mem­bers capacity to encompass and take in, with sixteen as the extreme limit.[29]  Another interesting study was done by John B. Calhoun on rats and overcrowding. Calhoun bought a number of rats and put them in a 1/4-acre pen, where they were given proper food and water. After some time, the rats increased their numbers to around 150, and then stopped producing.  He further observed that the rats lived in subgroups of 10 to 12 members, and groupings with more rats tended to show signs of aggression and disruptive behavior.[30] We have seen that when groups of people grow in size, they also develop these behavioral patterns, but why do rats develop similar symptoms in subgroups of ten to twelve? It is because twelve is the upper limit for members of a small group to participate in meaningful relationships.

R = N (N-1) is a simple equation which expresses the number of relations possible among people in various sized groups.[31] Researchers in group communication say, if you have 12 people in a group then R = 12 (12 – 1). This is then broken down to R = 12 x 11. Therefore, R = 132.  This is the maximum number of lines of communication that can operate between one person and the rest of a group.  When a group outgrows its size above the figure twelve, then the individual in the group develops tension trying to maintain the additional communication lines.  Negative behavior increases such as aggression and disruption of the group.  Twelve not only sets the upper limit for meaningful relationships, but provides a non-threatening situation for those who are new to the group and all those participating.  Further­more, Fox, Large, Weltz, and Herrold found that the quality of solutions to complex human-relation problems, were significantly greater for groups of 12 and 13 than for groups of 6, 7 and 8.[32]  Maybe this is one of the reasons why Christ chose twelve disciples for His first group, because He understood the maximum number of lines of communication that could exist between them. Moreover, leadership was shared; hence, solutions were greater for the immense complex human-relational problems that faced the group and the members of a growing church.

In addition, when catching the vision of small groups and how to apply them to the church situation, one should take into account the dangers of organizing artificial groups.  These are those we form by administrative action, which may be composed of persons who have diverse value systems and who distrust or even dislike the cultural systems of each other.[33]  The minister should take into account the mixing of races, the blending of different nationali­ties, or putting Generation X in the same group with Baby Boomers, etc.  One should use much wisdom and consideration in placing people in groups, because the process should be as natural as possible.  Groups should be formed, through the ongoing process of group dynam­ics, composed of members who share similar relevant values, beliefs and attitudes.[34]  The ideal is people who come from the same culture, area, family, and background.  But the world being as it is, with people moving around to obtain employment, it is becoming unnatural.  Nevertheless, we have to do the best we can in reaching this ideal in as natural way as possible.


The majority of members who belong to a large congregation are inactive because the large group influence prevents them in taking on individual responsibility and personal involvement. When increasing the size of the congregation one increases the social problems, because individual members do not have the time or capacity to maintain relationships with more than 12 persons. When a church divides its congregation into small groups, it is not causing a split in the church, but it is preparing the church for personal responsibility and personal involvement. In dividing the church into small groups, it is helping every member in working towards one goal, and it develops their characters of love and friendliness in a natural way. Hence, the local church will become a dynamic social structure that would resemble the day of Pentecost experience in the book of Acts.



[1] Donelson R. Forsyth, Group Dynamics (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1990), 9.

[2] Ibid., 448.

[3] Ibid., 449.

[4] Ibid., 450.

[5] Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles (Boise, ID: Pacific Press, 1911), 45.

[6] Richard E. Petty, John T. Cacioppo, and Stephen G. Harkins, Group Size Effects on Cognitive Effort and Attitude Change, in Small Groups and Social Interaction, 2 vols., ed.  Herbert H. Blumberg (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1983), 1:168, 169.

[7] Ibid., 168.

[8] Ibid., 166.

[9] A. Paul Hare, A Functional Interpretation of Interaction, in Small Groups and Social Interaction, 2 vols., ed.  Herbert H. Blumberg, 2:443.

[10] Bales, Robert F. and Edgar F. Borgatta.  Size of Group as a Factor in the Interaction Profile.  In Small Groups Studies in Social Interaction, eds.  A. Paul Hare,  Edgar F. Borgatta and Robert F. Bales, 499-501.

[11] Ibid., 531.

[12] Ibid., 500.

[13] Forsyth, 10.

[14] Ibid., 149.

[15] Robert S. Cathcart and Larry A. Samovar, Small Group Communication (Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Pub., 1992), 15.

[16] Dorwin Cartwright and Alvin Zander, eds., Group Dynamics (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 499.

[17] Florence Littauer, Personality Plus (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1992), 63.

[18] Cathcart and Samovar, 15.

[19] Hare, 2:443.

[20] Forsyth, 9.

[21] Littauer, 157.

[22] Hare, Borgatta, and Bales, 526.

[23] Cathcart and Samovar, 15.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] John Mallison, Growing Christians in Small Groups (Melbourne:

Anzea Pub., 1989), 25.

[26] Cathcart and Samovar, 238.

[27] Hare, Borgatta, and Bales, 503.

[28] A. K. Rice, cited in Analysis of Groups, eds.  Graham Gibbard, John

  1. Hartman, and Richard D. Mann (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pub.,

1974), 350.

[29] Ibid., 350.

[30] J. B. Calhoun, cited in Forsyth, 338.

[31] Mallison, 25.

[32] Hare, Borgatta, and Bales, 526.

[33] Cathcart and Samovar, 390.

[34] Ibid., 390.

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