How Do the Audience Groups in Your Church Affect Small Groups?

How Do the Audience Groups in Your Church Affect Small Groups?

September 2, 2015 by

Whenever I read about church audiences, it inevitably turns into a battle of generations. Baby boomers vs. Gen Xers vs. Millennials. But people vary so much within their generations that classifying them by age alone is rather limiting.

So, when I read Five Audiences: Identifying Groups in Your Church by Warren J. Hartman, I was pleasantly surprised to hear next to nothing about age groups. Instead, Hartman focused on the personalities of small groups in the church and narrowed it down to five group types that tend to make up a typical American church.

While the book was published in 1987, the qualities it points out in each group still resonate today. Knowing these groups can help you as a communicator. For example, knowing the types of men and women in your church can be a valuable draw for visitors because you’re more accurately able to sum up the culture in your church as well as understand how the groups in your church best connect to others.

Which of these groups are most prominent in your church?

People vary so much within their generations that classifying them by age alone is rather limiting.

1. The Traditionalist Group

While the term traditionalist typically describes a curmudgeon who is constantly muttering about the “good ol’ days,” don’t roll your eyes at this one yet. The traditionalist population are the ones who are most often the church planters and (naturally) the ones with the highest attendance rate.

Traditionalists are the glue in your church. Granted, they’re also the ones to conflict most with the pastor, but you won’t find a group more loyal to its particular church. Theology matters deeply, and that’s why most traditionalist-formed study groups last a long time. Their instructors are synonymous with their group, and the group prefers to learn by lecture rather than activities.

2. The Study Group

This is the crowd whom small groups were made for. Think a rousing roundtable discussion about whether or not Adam and Eve had belly buttons. (OK, so this group studies more theologically impressive topics than that. But you get the picture.)

Ironically, many of these individuals are those who grew up in the church and left for a certain period of time. However, upon their return, they often rise up to leadership positions in the congregation. As their name indicates, these groups are intensely interested in spirited theological discussions and are very eager to learn. This makes these individuals easy to get along with since their curiosity helps them to be open to other religious viewpoints.

3. The Fellowship Group

When visitors come to your church, this is the direction to point them in. The fellowship group is one who gets together for Bible studies, but spends more time on the appetizers than the Bible study DVD. And that’s not a bad thing. The fellowship group loves to do exactly what its name says: fellowship. And this comes from informal get-togethers, whether it be the stereotypical church potluck or a child care exchange program.

Probably the most interesting part of this group is that their loyalty tends more toward their Sunday School or small group rather than the church itself. This is probably because their faith is a little more informal, so the denomination lines don’t mean as much to them. The point of their small groups is not for Bible study per se, but to draw closer together as a people. A fellowship-style group creates an informal atmosphere where any sort of question can be asked and received.

4. The Social Action Group

This group is often made up of “radicals” since they take the Bible and apply it very strongly to their worldview. These are passionate individuals, intent on making a difference in their world. With that in mind, their small group curriculum is current, relating to world affairs and trends of the day. This curriculum is studied and immediately discussed on how it can be best applied to the local church and its community.

Despite being very vocal about their social and political views, this group of people tends to keep their faith more private. In this instance, their social actions are physical manifestations of their faith. These individuals are also very open to other faiths and usually come from a variety of different religious backgrounds. Like the fellowship group, they appreciate socializing a lot with their group, especially in community service events.

5. The Multiple Interest Group

Just as dividing people up by age doesn’t always work, not everybody fits into a nice, neat category. Thus, a group for everybody else. People in this group fall in the middle of a lot of the strong characteristics of the other groups. Individuals in this group care about theology, but not as strongly as the traditionalists do. Likewise, they often care about theology more than those in the fellowship group. Over half the people in the church are combinations of the first four. So if the first four groups didn’t deeply resonate with you, you’re probably in the multiple interest group.

So What?

Maybe you’re wondering why all this matters. We have so many ways to divvy up the different types of members in our churches, so why should the categorizations of a 28-year-old book matter to us?

Answer: small groups. What makes the Five Audiences book significant is that it ignores generational limitations and focuses on the small groups that make up a church. And if all the hipster megachurches are anything to go by, small groups matter. So, how do these different audiences affect small groups? More importantly, how do they affect you as a communicator? Let’s look at some implications:

Different Classes Might be in Order

Do all your classes rely on the discussion method? Change a few of them! Maybe it’s time to make your classes more engaging by doing hands-on activities rather than just talking. Or maybe you need a good old fashioned lecture class. And there’s even more ways to switch it up. Conduct a survey asking convenient or preferred meeting times. Try to organize a small group based on mutual hobbies rather than gender. It’s time to stop organizing small groups by only age or marital status. Depending on how your church is made up, this can make a huge difference in your small group attendance rates, which then affects your overall congregational attendance.

The mere fact that you’re changing the way you’ve done your small groups in the past is also a good way to research the types of people in your congregation. Surveying the people is a good way to start gathering more information. You can ask about class style and times, but you can also go deeper and ask what their passions are. This will give you a chance to hear how they want to learn information (more on that in a minute).

New Small Group, More Visitors

In particularly tight-knit churches, it’s not unheard of to have groups (who are taught by the same teacher) remain together for a long period of time. While this is nice for that group of people, it’s not conducive for newcomers. Being new to a church is awkward enough—try joining a small group that’s been meeting together for over a decade. Help out your visitors by switching up your classes frequently and welcoming fresh faces.

If People Complain, Maybe It’s Not the Teacher’s Fault

Yes, sometimes your Sunday School teachers just can’t teach. It happens. But before you blame the professor, consider the dynamics of the group. Is it taught as a lecture? Socratic seminar? Activities? Sometimes it’s not the teacher, but the teaching style. When you know the types of audiences that make up your church, you’re better able to tailor the style of your small group studies to be attractive to each type.

Cohesive Small Groups = Smoother Communication

Moreover, the way the individuals in these groups relate to each other also affects how you communicate with them. When these small groups become more cohesive, they are also easier to reach by you, the church communicator. If you are considering a new service project for the church body, maybe you should consult the social action group. If you know there’s a small group with a strong love of fellowship, you can feel more comfortable directing your visitors there.

With this knowledge, you can start focusing on how these groups affect your church. If you have a lot of traditionalist people in your congregation, then maybe those old-fashioned bulletins are a good way to communicate upcoming events. Or when you’re helping your pastor plan the next sermon series and you know there’s a lot of study group folks in your audience, you can maybe focus more on word studies and less on cute anecdotes.

Know Your Congregation

Knowing the five audience types isn’t meant as a breakthrough study—rather, it’s a way for you as a communicator to learn a little more about your congregation. And that means you can do a better job reaching them.

It’s time to stop organizing small groups only by age or marital status.


  • Target market knowledge is key. Get to know your church audience better through these tips.
  • Not sure how to leverage small groups in your church? Try taking them out of the box.
  • When you’re changing up your small group settings, don’t let important communication mistakes happen.
Post By:

Celine Murray

Celine is recent graduate who is still getting used to sitting for eight hours at a time. She blogs regularly at Latchkey Writing & Editing.
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2 Responses to “How Do the Audience Groups in Your Church Affect Small Groups?”

  • Will Rice
    September 4, 2015

    Wow! This is really helpful, thought provoking stuff. Looking back over years of trying to get groups to work, this really reflects what I saw but I never had the specific language to name it and think through it. Thanks for the post!

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  • Pastor Conrad Halyburton
    September 17, 2015

    Great Posting…would like to know more because at present my wife and I are engaged in the “Simple Church” ( Hoe Church) resulting from the fact that many people have dropped out from “Church”…..we have six and looking and praying to extend …Pray for us, my wife is Ruth and keep us informed…Blessings Ps Conrad

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