If your church is looking to equip your people for ministry and go deeper into the Word, you’re probably considering the ideal size of a small group Bible study.
There are many benefits to studying the Bible and pursuing God with a smaller group of people. When you’re in the right size small group, each member gets more opportunities to share, listen, and learn. You can build stronger relationships that promote healthy accountability. You can encourage each other, and build quality relationships that are desperately needed in our world.
And while the benefits are clear, you won’t fully experience those benefits if your group size is too big or too small. Here at Life on Life, we refer to small group bible studies as discipleship groups, and because of our goals with discipleship groups we recommend having about 4-6 people in them. Ultimately, however, it depends on your goals for your small group Bible study.
In this article, we’ll explore a few different goals and things to consider when trying to determine the ideal size for your group, and then we will close with why we believe 4-6 is such a great number.
Should a small group bible study be co-ed?
One question that is related to the size of the group is this, should groups be co-ed? Or should groups be men-only and women-only?
Again, the answer depends on your goal. There are many benefits to co-ed community groups. For instance, it’s great when married couples can study the Bible together and build relationships with other couples. Men and women also bring unique perspectives and stories to the table, and they can benefit from hearing those perspectives.
On the other hand, it may be difficult to be vulnerable or go as deep in a co-ed Bible study. With discipleship groups, one of the goals is to go deeper, to be transparent, and to hold each other accountable. Both men and women tend to be less willing to discuss trouble at work or with their marriage or with parenting when they are in a co-ed group. Because of this, we have seen many men benefit from being in a group with other men, and many women benefit from being in a group with other women.
The ideal size for a life-on-life missional discipleship group
Life-on-life missional discipleship can be defined this way:
Laboring in the lives of a few with the intention of imparting one’s life, God’s Word, and the gospel in such a way as to see them become mature and equipped followers of Christ, committed to doing the same in the lives of others.
Because our time, resources, and emotional energy are limited, we have consistently found that the ideal size for life-on-life missional discipleship is 4-6 people. If groups get much larger than this, it is difficult for the leader to truly invest in everyone. Group discussions can also become challenging, as time is limited and some may not get a chance to share what’s going on in life.
On the flip side, when groups get too small (below 4 people) it can be difficult to have consistent meetings. For instance, imagine a group with 3 people. If someone is sick or traveling, the group is suddenly just 2 people and feels more like a one on one coaching session.
Most people are surprised when they hear that we keep groups so small. If you search the web, you’ll find many people who recommend 12 as the ideal size for a small group bible study. This is, after all, the number of disciples Jesus had.
Unfortunately, none of us have the same capacity for discipleship as Jesus. Furthermore, his 12 disciples traveled and stayed with him constantly for 3 years. He was able to invest in the lives of each of his disciples because he spent so much time with them. Most discipleship group leaders today are also juggling work, family, and activities around their home and community. If they attempt to invest in too many people at once, they simply won’t have the capacity.
It is also worth mentioning that, when we look outside of the church we see many universities and education systems recommending small groups or study groups of around 4-6 people. For instance, EdWeek recommends that small-group instruction in elementary school classrooms should be 4-6 students. One university recommends that study groups for college classes have 3-5 people.
This isn’t to say that elementary classes or college study groups should be the same as small group Bible studies, but experts recommend those sizes because it simply ensures everyone gets enough attention from the leader, and that everyone gets a chance to speak up.
Expectations in a smaller, small group Bible study
When your discipleship group is smaller, there is a certain level of commitment required by group members.
For instance, a life-on-life missional discipleship group will meet regularly. These meetings have a relaxed, come-as-you-are atmosphere. The group leader acts as a coach, guiding the group in creating a supportive, confidential environment that fosters camaraderie and openness. Group members encourage one another as they share honestly about the challenges they face and support one another through the hard times (and victories) as they grow spiritually.
This means there is an expectation for you to be regularly present. This may not always be possible (for instance, you probably shouldn’t show up to your group when you have a stomach bug), but group members should endeavor to plan their schedule around being present for the group. If you’re not there, it will be difficult to build camaraderie and trust.
Groups should also be confidential – there is no benefit to being open and sharing from the heart if you cannot trust the people with whom you are sharing.
There is also an expectation that you come prepared and be ready to engage. If you rarely speak, then the group will lose out on your unique perspective. Conversations in smaller groups can also quickly become lopsided if you’re not engaging.
How to grow your discipleship ministry
One of the challenges with keeping discipleship groups smaller is that you may have more people in your church than discipleship leaders can cover. For instance, if you have 100 people in your church who want to be in a discipleship group, and only 10 leaders, it may be tempting to just have 10 groups with 10 people instead of 10 groups with 6 people (leaving 40 members without a group).
The problem with this strategy, however, is that the majority of people will not receive the coaching and leadership they need to become leaders themselves.
By focusing and investing in a few people, leaders can help train and equip new leaders. These leaders can go on to lead groups themselves and, over time your church will see exponential growth in your discipleship ministry.
Going back to our 10 leaders, if they lead groups with 6 people, and each of those groups produces 2 leaders, then you will end up with 30 leaders. If those 30 leaders invest in 6 people each, you’re already at 180 people (almost double the size of the original pool of people looking to join discipleship). And if those 30 leaders each equip 2 leaders then you’ll have 90 leaders.
An effective small group bible study or discipleship group can truly transform the lives of people. If you’re looking to start a community group, then the ideal size is probably 10-25 people. If you want to go deeper and truly invest in the lives of others, then you should consider starting a life-on-life missional discipleship group with 4-6 people in it.
This smaller group size is ideal for building lifelong, meaningful relationships, promotes accountability and spiritual growth.
If you’d like to learn more about life-on-life missional discipleship groups then check out our discipleship training program.