Small Groups: An Inquiry

I get emails —

We are specifically looking at defining the role of small groups in our “process.” Currently, we have done no training of small group leaders, haven’t really reached any type of consensus on the goals and objectives of the small groups

This is a more challenging question than I thought after my first read. You see, the writer’s congregation is just now beginning a new small group ministry, and as is true of all such ministries, one of the most important questions is the goal of the ministry. And there are a number of possible goals for small groups —

* To do evangelism

* To build closer relationships within the congregation

* To provide instruction to the members

* To provide pastoral support and encouragement for members

* To provide a framework for doing community service

* To provide member accountability

Of course, a groups ministry might do more than one of these, but it’s unlikely that it can do all of these. For example, accountability groups ought to have three or four members at most, as the goal is to be very open about your personal walk with Jesus, including marital and parenting struggles. You just can’t get there in a group of 8, nor can such a group serve to accomplish evangelism, because visitors will feel extremely uncomfortable in such a frank and open setting.

But much of the literature ignores the impact of the size of the group or the gender mix (accountability groups need to be single sex), blithely assuming that people will want to share their struggles with sexual temptation in a mixed group of 30, with visitors present. It just won’t happen, nor should we expect it to.

If the goal is to build friendship or to do instruction (in lieu of classes), the group could be quite large, so long as it doesn’t put an undue burden on the hosts. Large groups can also be quite good at pastoral care. If a member is in the hospital and needs 24-hour sitters, a group of 20 is far more likely to be able to meet that need than a group of 8.

Just so, evangelism requires an “open” group, that is, a group that feels the need for more people. If the house is full, a visitor can be a problem. If the group is too large, relationships can be hard to form. It’ll be more like a party than a circle of friends.

Therefore, function drives such questions as —

* How many members?

* Mixed gender?

* Should there be a meal?

* Must there be a devotional or class?

* How often do we re-sort the groups?

* What about child care?

* Common age groups or mixed ages?

And the most common mistake small group leaders make, I think, is trying to do too much, and therefore doing nothing particularly well. Here’s my advice —

1. Put the books back on the shelves and think about real people in your congregation and neighborhood. How big are their houses? How far apart are their homes? How many will have child care issues?

2. Which possible functions of the small groups is a real need? Do the members feel the need to draw closer to one another? To build relationships? In a small or even medium-sized church, they may not. Do new members have any trouble fitting in and making friends?

3. Do we have classes at church? If so, I hardly see the need for another class. I’m not sure I see the need for a devo regardless of group purpose (many will disagree with me). I think, rather, in a church with classes the goal should be pastoral and service oriented. The best way to truly grow close to others and to grow spiritually is not through studying six questions about the sermon. It’s to serve together — doing something. Cut an elderly lady’s yard, maybe even a non-member. Find a social service agency that needs volunteers at night. Begin a mentoring program for young members. Tutor at the housing projects. Do something worthwhile, in the name of Jesus, as a group, and you’ll accomplish many of the other possible goals better. Don’t just be a party preceded by a bad devo.

4. But if you have no Bible classes, you may well need a groups ministry that accomplishes many of the same functions as a class. And this can be very effective. Indeed, for many churches this is how they do the Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples model. They meet to worship, and they do class in the homes through small groups. The classes are real classes but designed to be accessible to de-churched and maybe even unchurched.

5. Don’t get hung up on a single model. In many churches, if not most, you likely need several group types, and should be prepared to equip leaders for more than one kind of group. A singles small group may be all about being relationships and bringing in more singles through a social network. And just having a safe, Christian environment for finding and building friendships may be a great and necessary service for young singles. For new Christians, classes in a home setting may be a great way to accelerate their maturity. For teens and college students, groups with adults who can serve as mentors may be very key, provided the studies speak to the needs of that age group. And service-oriented groups work for all ages and even for new members. And some people may well hunger for smaller accountability groups to go deeper into their walk with Jesus.

6. You can train leaders in a class setting, but once the groups get going, they should be coached in very small groups — following Jay’s lunch table rule: no more in the meeting than will fit around a table at lunch, that is, four or so. The biggest reason is that a leader will refuse to discuss personality issues and child care issues and such in a group of 30 group leaders, but will gladly seek advice in a very small group. Therefore, the small groups leader must gather his leaders for coaching in groups of three or so, over lunch or breakfast. He can do large announcements and training once in a while, often by email. Real coaching has to be nearly one on one. And this, I think, is another of those critical mistakes many leaders make. You can’t mass produce small group leaders.

And so, readers, what’s been your experience? What kinds of group ministries have been beneficial to you and others? What kinds have missed the mark? What mistakes should the leader of a new group ministry avoid? What examples should he emulate?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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26 Responses to Small Groups: An Inquiry

  1. Wendy says:

    Jay, it's interesting how the emailer said "we have done no training of small group leaders". Why the need for formal training? Appoint those who are natural leaders, have leadership ability or are leading anyway and provide mentoring.

  2. Jay Guin says:


    Always good to hear from Down Under.

    I kinda agree and kinda don't. I think many churches starting out WAY over train, making this seem much harder than it really is. This is sometimes due to a desire to control — which is impossible and not needed if you've done a decent job of choosing leaders and instructing members.

    Then again, we often fail to train on very important things. More important than how to lead a discussion (as important as that may be in some groups) is how to encourage the members to share the obligations and hosting, how to be helpful to the hostess, and how to deal with irresponsible members.

    More groups have struggled because only one member was willing to share her house or because too many members forgot to bring the green bean casserole or because they refused to share child care duties than anything else.

    PS — To me, the key is to lay out grounds rules early. Be plain and specific. At the very first meeting, insist that members commit to take turns — as a condition to being in the group. You can't be in a group if you won't take your turn with the three-year olds. And if you have unexpected visitors from out of town, you make the casserole and have it delivered anyway.

    (Sarah Palin dropped off a casserole the night before she was announced as VP candidate. Nothing exempts you from keeping your word.)

  3. Wendy says:

    Groups at both churches I have been a member of here are at one member's house. Some groups take turns moving around all the members houses but most are located at one house only. One of the groups I am currently in (a ladies mornings group at my previous church – I'm still in the group even though I am a member of another church now) has most of us taking turns to lead the study. A couple of the ladies prefer not to lead the discussions. We all take turns providing morning tea. There is a leader of the group overall.

    I was in a group (evenings and mixed gender) at my current church but it got too difficult to juggle attending and family responsibilities. That group had a fixed leader and the hosts (a different couple to the woman who led the study) provided tea, coffee and cookies. All we had to do was turn up. Part of the reason it made it "easy" to leave that group was because so little was demanded of me.

    I'm in a women's group (for women whose husbands are not Christians) that meets once a month after Sunday morning church. Women like me find it difficult to commit to evening church activities. We have 2 ladies who share leadership and we take turns providing morning tea.

  4. Price says:

    Jay, one the best instructional books I've ever read on this subject was written by authors Cloud and Townsend, the authors of the book series, Boundaries.
    They wrote a book named "Making Small Groups Work"…

    The very first instruction by them when considering starting a new small group was to Decide on the Purpose and Type of Group…

    Nothing can be more frustrating to join a group expecting that (A) will happen and then (B) happens…

    From my personal experience, one of the key ingredients is to determine up front whether or not a small group is needed….just because church X down the street does it, is not a a good reason for you to do it…Determine the need and then try and meet it..
    The church I'm in is around 10,000 members with various church services. If you are to grow in friendship you HAVE to involve yourself in various activities. Small groups help you make friends in a safe environment and you really get to know people…They have folks set up tables in the "lobby" after services once every so often so that you can see what kind of small groups exist and who is leading them…I've been in small churches that wanted to do small groups and it just ended up being "another" church service to attend and as much as I love the Lord its difficult to attend church services 6 times a week…

    My advice…determine the need, clearly state an objective for the group so that folks know what they're getting into and then be consistent.

  5. Todd Collier says:

    Yep, I have used Making Small Groups Work for not just small group leader training but for leadership training in general for the past five or six years. It is quite comprehensive in helping you understand the dynamics of groups and of helping you diagnose and handle potential problem issues.
    The last time I taught this course – just this past winter/spring – we set up a special class during the bible study time. We will begin again in January. Our eventual goal is to run most, if not all, of our members through this class. It will build better leaders and also, by creating a bit of understanding, better followers as well.

  6. abasnar says:

    From the beginning of my life in Christ I have always been part of small-groups:

    The youth group
    A small Bible Study group for new believers
    A home Bible Study Group for young adults
    A prayer group
    The choir (where I met my wife)
    another home-bible-group (all generations)
    A theological training (leadership)
    another home Bible Group (young families with kids)
    house church

    There are so many different kinds of groups, through which I have been blessed and could become a blessing for others as well.

    Jay, this has been a very good and practical article of yours, and the list of questions are really important to deal with.


  7. Doug says:

    I am currently in 2 "small" groups. One is a group of 4 men and we meet weekly. This group is called a "reunion group" and it is a result of me having attended a Cursillo weekend about 14 years ago. Tthe others in the group are not from the CofC. We've been meeting continously for about 6 years and have grown close enough to confess sins, disclose serious family issues and share our spiritual state with each other. Sometimes I am asked to tell them why the CofC does this or that and I wind up explaining CofC doctrine to them (baptism by immersion, for example) and so far this has never been an issue.

    The other smail group is a Church sponsored Lifegroup and it is usually a group of 8-20 people. These groups is composed of mostly only those who attend the CofC. These groups turn over on an annual basis. I have chosen a different group each year so I can get to know people in the Congregation that I really know little about. I have tried to be as open as I am in the "reunion group" but it is obvious that there are obstacles in doing that. One year isn't long enough to develop the trust to do that and it is also clear that most CofC people play their cards much closer to their vest than I do. I am generally more open to saying what I think than most of the others in the lifegroup and I never know when I am going past the point with which the group is comfortable. I discovered this in one lifegroup when I went past that point and a controvery erupted. I eventually retired from that lifegroup because the group couldn't get past what was said. I think I did that in a manner that didn't create a division, it didn't create one on my side at least. Never-the-less the lifegroup is a good thing in my opinion. Our minister develops questions to answer related to his sermon and we simply try to answer his questions. The problem that I encountered was in a group that didn't want to use that approach and was milling around trying to decide what they wanted to talk about. So, I do think that some overall guidance to the small groups on what topics they are going to discuss is good. But, it'll still be like this blog and a lot of different opinions will surface so a spirit of love is definitely needed.

    I do think that most personal spiritual growth occurs in a small group setting. The Sunday AM meeting just isn't the place to experience personal spiritual growth.

  8. Alan says:

    Do we have classes at church? If so, I hardly see the need for another class. I’m not sure I see the need for a devo regardless of group purpose (many will disagree with me). I think, rather, in a church with classes the goal should be pastoral and service oriented. The best way to truly grow close to others and to grow spiritually is not through studying six questions about the sermon.

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    If you organize your small groups by life situation you may be able to meet specific needs better. For example, a small group consisting of parents of preschool children could have discussions about struggles they are facing, and solutions. That is especially effective if an older mentor / shepherd is available to provide guidance. We've had excellent results from this kind of small groups. We started with a group of parents of teens. That worked so well that we implemented similar small groups for parents in other stages, as well as for "empty nesters".

  9. Rich W says:

    I personally enjoy the small groups where I have attended the last two years. They helped my wife and I assimilate when we moved from out of state.

    I personally know of six congregations who converted from a Sunday evening worship to small groups. All reported higher total attendance the first year. All report a drop in attendance (from the previous all at the church building on Sunday evening) after the newness wore off.

    This personally makes me question the true value of swapping togetherness with separateness.

    Anyone have similar or different experiences?

  10. Alan says:

    Rich, I'm not sure it makes sense to treat Sunday evening services and small groups as mutually exclusive options. I wouldn't suggest stopping one in order to have the other.

    More importantly, I wouldn't measure success by comparing the attendance between the two. Was the goal of the small groups really to increase attendance over the traditional Sunday evening service? If not, then maybe attendance is not the right measure of success anyway. Instead, measure progress toward the real goals. And give it plenty of time to work.

  11. JMF says:

    How do you guys feel about inviting new people to your small group?

    Personally, I get a bit selfish about this. For instance, I love my group — great dynamics, nobody demands too much attention, etc. And all of those dynamics will change (no even necessarily bad) if we add others to our group.

    Part of me feels inviting others to our group is Christ-like — part of me feels that inviting in someone that alters our dynamic will cause all of the rest of us to gain less spiritual fulfillment.

    That said, I've heard amazing stats that if you invite a visitor/guest to small group, they are about five times more likely to return to your church.

    I've also heard that inviting guests (friends, neighbors, etc.) to small group is one of the most effective ways to grow your church. Here is a link to an article on that:

    If you go to the "articles" link on his website, there are many other essays on church growth through small groups.

    The gist of it is basically Sales 101 (or Evangelism 101): Consistently introduce your product (small group > church > Christ) to people, and a certain percentage of them will be interested. Once a few couple join your small group, split into two groups. Rinse and repeat. Essentially, compounding interest.

  12. nick gill says:

    Buddy Bell's material is simple, straight-forward, and easily implemented. It is the model we've decided to use at Holly Hill.

  13. Rich W says:


    I basically agree with your comments. i guess the term "small groups" means many things to many people. We've had special activities (visitation, service projects, Lads to Leaders training, bible studies) beyond the traditional Sunday am Sunday pm and Wednesday pm services for years. The term small group in our discussions has usually inferred in lieu of either the wed or Sun evening services.

    I agree additional attendance is not the only goal. However, a reduction in attendance cannot be good. Fewer people participating means fewer people being reached.

    Most of the literature on small groups claim great results by those who didn't already meet as a congregation three times a week. For example, Saddleback started as Sunday morning only services. It added small groups to get people together more often each week. Meeting more together is positive regardless of whole congregation or small groups.

    What has been the experience of folks here?

  14. nick gill says:

    Holly Hill is currently experiencing 51% greater participation in Sunday night gatherings since we've initiated small groups.

  15. nick gill says:

    PS- we haven't ended the traditional assembly. We've simply added small groups.

  16. Alan says:

    Rich, we also have no Sunday evening service, and we have small groups. Everyone in our congregation is a member of a small group based on their life situation. We define the membership of our congregation by the combined membership of the small groups, and joining a small group is how a person joins the congregation. (We call them family groups).

    Our family groups typically don't have events every week. They work out their own schedules based on the needs and schedules of their members. But much of the work of our church occurs in the family groups — everything from evangelistic outreach to serving the poor to shepherding to serving one another. Each group has a leader. The family group leader is sort of a project manager for the group — handling the scheduling of events, communication with the group, other organizational aspects. Additionally, we have selected mature couples who serve as shepherds / mentors for the family groups, addressing spiritual needs, advice and counseling within the group. Each shepherding couple has responsibility for two or three family groups. Then each of our elders takes responsibility for a couple of the shepherding couples. We've found that providing the shepherding couples makes the role of family group leader more manageable, and as a result there are more candidates available who are capable of serving in that role.

  17. Rich W says:

    Nick and Alan,

    Thanks for the information. Both are encouraging and generating ideas.

  18. nick gill says:

    You're welcome! I really like Alan's information – I think that making LIFE Groups the bricks out of which the local church is built is really healthy – and I particularly like how their whole orientation is set. In many/most churches, you "join the church" by having a discussion with the leadership and then your name is announced on Sunday morning.

    I think "joining a small group is how a person joins the congregation" is much healthier.

  19. Though not a book about small groups per-say, Larry Crabb's "Connecting" is a great testament to what small groups can do to transform lives. Much of his emphasis is on accountability-type groups.

  20. Doug says:

    Small groups should allow their members to go much deeper than they can go through involvement in the more traditional Church Services. This requires a fair amount of trust and building that trust may take some time. Among the things that could be discussed are the studies that a person is personally conducting and that would include both bibical studies, devotional studies and religious books that a person is reading. It shoudl include what life lessions are being learned from these studies. It could include the action that a person is taking to bring others to Christ and that would include both sucesses and failures. It could include a discussion of those moments when you felt God's presence especially close. It would include the special needs and prayer needs of the people who make up the group.

    If you can get to the point where all members of the group can honestly talk about these things, I'd say that you have what's needed for a good small group.

  21. Alan says:

    Doug, for us the family groups are far more focused on life application than on additional Bible study. Bible study tells you that fathers should bring their children up "in the training and instruction of the LORD." Life application helps the fathers figure out what that means they need to do tomorrow night.. or how to deal with the latest behavioral problem, etc. In our case, those are the areas where family groups fill the need best.

  22. Doug says:

    Allan, I agree with your approach and must have been unclear on what I meant by what I wrote. I'm not endorsing simply a small group bible study but a discussion on what a persons bible study, religious book readings and devotional time has brought to their personal everyday life. Chances are that someone else in the group can benefit from that disclosure or someone else in the group is struggling with the same issues that that study has assisted. But, that kind of discussion will only happen if the members of the group are open to being vulnerable with each other. If we are in the Sunday greeting mode of vulnerablility . "How are you? I'm fine, How are you doing? Fine! Fine!" . People will never open up to the point of being able to truly love and help each other. The same thing goes with discussions aboout our sucesses and failures and our personal needs. If I think that I have confided in someone trustworthy and find out that person has told the entire Church about something I'm struggling with, I'll probably never confide or trust again. It's important to be vulnerable but even more important to be trust worthy. Some of the discussion in my group get very, very personal and My tightest group operates under the 'What's said in the group stays in the group' philosphy.

  23. The church has already operated under the premise of small groups, starting with Jesus and the twelve (or Jesus and the three, even).

    Even pagans have arrived at this idea, via Dunbar's number, which is typically stated to be an average of 150 relationships that a person can actually be involved in at any given time.

    The question is not "if" small groups, but "how in my culture". In this case the culture of a downtown Dallas small group will be different from my Dublin, TX small group. Paul told us there were all sorts of parts in the body, and various small groups coming together for various reasons is what it looks like.

    – Want to study the bible in your small group? Great!
    – Want to review the sermon? Excellent! (If your preacher is hearing from God about what to tell the congregation, then the congregation should at least give the sermon a second thought, if not discuss it).
    – Want to simply discuss deeply the pains of life and the provision of God? Go for it.

    When raised in a legalistic atmosphere (even if it's only via historical link), it's easy to undermine small groups right off: "What's the 'right' way to do this?" Any small group "way" that glorifies God, and takes ground from the enemy is the "right" one. (And it's the taking ground part that silences the arguments.)

    But small groups with healthy leaders who know how to "let go and let God" help to rejoin the logical and organic sides of the church.

    Incubated well, small groups will put both logic and interaction with the Spirit in their proper places.

  24. @JMF

    Inviting people is a seasonal thing. You might be in a season of getting your needs met by the small group, so inviting others to break what's working seems illogical.

    This is normal! Feel no shame about that. One of the largest struggles for churches that implement small groups is including visitors, and growth/multiplication of the small groups.

    Two things:
    1. New life revitalizes everybody. When new people (and new problems) come into the group, God gets an expanded opportunity to work through you, and in them. It makes things better!

    2. The goal is not church growth, it's taking Kingdom ground. A visitor may come to Jesus in your small group, and go attend another church, all the while staying in your small group. That's great: the Kingdom is growing, and someone found where they fit!

    When you're ready, focus on the open heaven above your group, the conduit nature of its purpose, and the privilege of showering anyone and everyone with the goodness of God.

    It's great to be served, and it's great to serve. There is a time to give, and a time to receive. Enjoy both seasons guilt-free!

  25. nick gill says:

    Brilliant stuff, Brad. Are you on Twitter? I just tweeted two of my favorite statements that you just made. Thank you for the challenge and the encouragement! My small group is in the midst of overcoming its first attack from the enemy, so this helps a lot.

  26. I haven't touched twitter in forever, after being a daily junkie for a year or so awhile back!

    But I'm there: @bradstanford

    So I'll go post something and pop up on the old twitter radar.

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