the shape of leadership

Why Church Groups Are Better Than Church Crowds

Reaping the benefits of interaction, identity and interdependence

Kayla Pierce on January 22, 2019

There is something infectious about crowds. People pack into stadiums to cheer on their teams and press in with strangers to get the best view of their favorite bands. Whether celebrating your team’s touchdown or belting out your favorite song, some experiences are arguably better in a crowd.

People might assume that a group is a smaller version of a crowd, but to social psychologists, the distinction is much more pronounced. Correctly characterizing your gathering as either a crowd or a group has important implications, because they have different functions and produce different outcomes.

So, what’s the difference between a group and a crowd, and why does it matter? A crowd is simply a collective of people, but groups must possess four characteristics: interaction, a shared identity, a common goal, and interdependence.

A few summers ago, I was in Chicago alone attending a conference, and I walked upon a free symphony in Millennium Park. Thousands of people were there listening to the beautiful music, taking in the cool evening air and watching, in awe of the skilled musicians. I sat among these strangers for most of the show, thoroughly enjoying myself.

When it was over, I slipped away, without having interacted with anyone. We all had a common goal of listening to music, and you can even argue that we had a shared identity as music lovers, but there was no interaction and certainly no interdependence. We did not constitute a group.

Our church gatherings often possess only two or three characteristics of a group, and therefore miss out on the full benefits groups offer. People in your church may share a common goal, but they may be pursing the same goal in isolation, lacking interdependence. In other churches, people may have a strong group identity and an abundance of interaction but lack a common goal.

Cultivating strong groups takes intentionality, but groups bring advantages to our Christian life that crowds can’t. There are three reasons why church groups are better than church crowds:

1. Crowds dissipate after the event ends or the object of their attention is gone, but groups endure. The qualities of a group bind people together like glue. That isn’t to say that crowds are bad. In fact, they can give us perspective by helping us realize that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. But crowds don’t endure unless they have groups embedded in them.

Cultivating strong groups takes intentionality, but groups bring advantages to our Christian life that crowds can’t.

2. Crowds encourage people to show up, but groups encourage commitment. To some extent, crowds are easier because they don’t demand interdependence, which requires trust. On my children’s ministry team, if someone doesn’t show up, the rest of the team feels it. We can pull together and function, but it will be a strain on our team. Because of this, each team member knows he or she matters.

In the body of Christ, we need one another to function and to fulfill the Great Commission, but Christians often do not realize how vital their gifts are. Once a group becomes established, this need becomes more apparent. People begin to see that they play a special role no one else can fill.

3. Crowds create excitement, but groups fuel productivity. Crowds can be fun, but if you want to get something done, you’ll need a group. Our churches are mission-oriented, so if your gatherings only consist of crowds, you may be in trouble. To accomplish your goals, you’ll need organization and delegation — which require groups.

Jesus modeled how ministry flows in both crowds and groups. Although Jesus was often at the center of a crowd, He prioritized group ministry by carving out time for His twelve disciples, and it was His investment in the Twelve that spearheaded the Early Church. The crowds were important, but the group was crucial.

Forming Strong Groups

Is your group actually a crowd? It can be frustrating when our crowds do not produce the benefits of groups. Here are four components you need to form strong groups:

1. Interaction. Technically, a group can be the same size as a crowd. But breaking into smaller groups, even for just a few minutes, encourages everyone to engage. Otherwise, two or three people will dominate the conversation. If your group is 100, break into groups of 20. If your group has 20, break into smaller groups of three or four. At my church, one of the larger Wednesday night classes randomly assigns people to a table when they sign in, which encourages interaction with new people.

2. Shared identity. Symbols remind people of their group identity and can help bolster it. One of the most effective strategies for heightening a group identity is T-shirts. It sounds silly, but it works! I was on a drama team when I was a student, and never did we feel more bonded than when we put on our team shirts right before our competitions. While T-shirts may not be applicable for your group, other symbols, such as car decals, may work.

3. Common goals. Churches have numerous goals, many of which are abstract. However, people often find it easier to respond to goals that are concrete, so help bridge the two. For example, a goal of your church may be to serve people, but a concrete version of that goal is to work the food bank every Tuesday. Remind people that their individual commitments are accomplishing the overarching vision.

4. Interdependence. As leaders, we take responsibility when things fall through, so this characteristic can be the most challenging to obtain. It requires vulnerability and trust. However, if you want to build strong groups, you have to delegate and walk away. When we don’t, we rob others of contributing, and we rob ourselves of their gifts. Most tragically, we miss out of one of the best benefits of groups — productivity.

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