4 Signs Your Church Should Stop Doing Small Group Ministry

Post-it notesWe all know small group ministry is a must for a healthy church, right?

But what if we’re wrong? What if small groups aren’t right for a lot of churches?

I’ve struggled for decades (wow… decades! I didn’t realize that until I wrote it…) trying to do healthy small group ministry in my church, with no long-term success.

I went to all the seminars, read the books, tried the best curriculum and trained leaders. You name it, we did it. But the same scenario kept repeating. A new small group would start strong, settle into a good pattern, then fade into obscurity in a matter of months. The strongest of them might last a year or so before fading away.

So in the last few years, I gave up.

That’s right, my church and I just quit trying to do small group ministry. And it was one of the best decisions we ever made.

No more wasted energy, no more failed attempts and no more frustration trying to do something that wasn’t right for our church, to begin with.

But how can a church be healthy without a dynamic small group ministry? After all, everyone says healthy small groups are one of the non-negotiable essentials for a great church.

This is one area of ministry where the rules for a Small Church are different than the rules for a big church. And it’s an example of why we need ministries like New Small Church to help us discover where big and small diverge.

Here are 4 signs your church may not need a small group ministry:

 

1. Your Small Church Is a Small Group

If you’re a Small Church pastor, you’re not failing at doing small groups. You’re better at small groups than the people writing books about it!

The best small groups experts have maybe 50-60% of their Sunday attenders coming to a small group. But 100% of the people in your church are in a small group because your church is a small group.

Big churches need small groups because they’re… well, they’re BIG. But Small Churches don’t need small groups because they’re already… what’s the word…? small.

Small groups matter because the most personal, intimate aspects of our spiritual lives can’t thrive if we’re only involved in large meetings.

But Small Churches have that already. Or we can. We just need to let go of what we’re not, stop thinking like a big church, promote the intimacy of the Small Church experience and be who we are. Relax and enjoy the small.

 

2. If It Feels Divisive, It Is Divisive

When I first arrived at my current church, the small, discouraged, aging congregation was splintered into factions. Having five pastors in one decade will do that.

That divisiveness was everywhere, including the Sunday seating arrangements. Every chair they owned (about 150) was set up in four sections with massive gaps between them. The most prominent feature was a huge center aisle. When 35 people came to worship on Sunday, the church literally divided them from each other.

On my second Sunday, I set up only half the usual number of chairs. Then I rearranged the seating into three sections, dominated by a glorious center section where I encouraged everyone to gather. That Sunday started a healing process in the church.

Why? They no longer felt separated because they no longer were separated.

Sometimes when we push people into home groups in a Small Church, we run the risk of doing what my church’s old seating arrangement did. Separating people who need to be gathered together.

 

3. You’re Only Doing It Because You’re “Supposed To”

Ask yourself this question. If an expert hadn’t told you your church needs a small group ministry, would you have seen the need for yourself?

Yes? Then proceed with small group ministry.

No? Then your church probably doesn’t need one.

The books and seminars that told you small groups are an essential component of a healthy church weren’t wrong. Churches do need small groups. But, like we saw already, that instruction was probably given from a big church perspective and it didn’t take into account that you’re already doing small just fine.

 

4. There’s No Natural Leadership

Is there someone in your church who has a heart, passion, drive, gifts and leadership to run a great small group ministry?

If so, turn them loose. If not, you’re fighting a losing battle by starting a small group ministry, then hoping and praying for someone to step in and lead it. Or, worse, leading it yourself. Remember, you’re already leading a small group – your Small Church.

Great leaders don’t fit into ministries. Ministries get built around great leaders. If you have someone with all the prerequisites to lead one group, but they’re not gifted to oversee a bunch of groups, don’t call it a small group ministry. Just call it what it is. A Bible Study, Seniors Fellowship, Prayer Group, etc.

In my church, we have all of those, and then some. But there’s not a Home Group Ministry that oversees them all.

And here’s a final, hard-won word of advice – put an expiration date on the group. It doesn’t have to stop then. It can always be renewed. But that way, if it does fizzle out, it didn’t fail, it finished.

 

Using Ministry Teams as an Alternative

In big churches, small groups are needed so people can experience times of prayer, worship and fellowship they can’t get on Sunday. But people already get that on Sundays in a Small Church. It’s one of the reasons they attend a Small Church to begin with, and why a small group ministry may not be needed.

So let’s put our energy into something the congregation can’t get on Sundays. Here’s an idea.

Ministry Teams.

No, not committees. Actual working teams. (If anyone starts a committee based on this post I’ll hunt them down and … give them the hug they obviously never had as a child).

Start a food pantry, a youth outreach, a prison visitation or anything else that meets these three criteria:

  • A Need – no sense doing it if nobody needs it.
  • A Leader – someone with the passion and gift mix to head things up. 99% of the time, they’re the one who raised the idea to begin with.
  • A Team – don’t send a leader out alone. That’s not leadership, that’s burnout waiting to happen.

If you have those, you’ll have Ministry Teams that will bless others, bless the participants and bless your church. They might even put a smile on God’s face, too.

 

So what do you think? Have you been frustrated trying to do small group ministry in your Small Church? Do you know of any other signs a church might not need a small group ministry? Has anything worked for small groups in your Small Church?

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(Bulletin Board Notes photo from the Clemson University Library • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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14 thoughts on “4 Signs Your Church Should Stop Doing Small Group Ministry”

  1. Great article!!!

    We do have a fellowship/study group that has been going well in our small church for about 2 1/2 years now. We have gone through video/book studies (Crazy Love & BASIC from Francis Chan; currently going through The Bible Jesus Read, Philip Yancey).

    The video/book approach has helped because I just facilitate the conversation (YES, I know, I already lead a small group!!!! I just felt you cringe! But I didn’t realize this until just reading this article!!! Cut me some slack brother!) the group does very well at talking over the study. We also meet before and have dinner, pot luck style. This group also only meets every two weeks, every week is too much for our schedules.

    I have tried to branch out…starting up another group…getting others to take over…but that has not worked, so those finished.

    I also am fed during our group, it gives me the chance to interact more with the folks.

    I really like the idea of ministry teams! How have you implemented those and teamed people up…that would be very helpful. Oh, and no worries…I found out a long time ago that I am allergic to committees!

  2. Great article!!!

    We do have a fellowship/study group that has been going well in our small church for about 2 1/2 years now. We have gone through video/book studies (Crazy Love & BASIC from Francis Chan; currently going through The Bible Jesus Read, Philip Yancey).

    The video/book approach has helped because I just facilitate the conversation (YES, I know, I already lead a small group!!!! I just felt you cringe! But I didn’t realize this until just reading this article!!! Cut me some slack brother!) the group does very well at talking over the study. We also meet before and have dinner, pot luck style. This group also only meets every two weeks, every week is too much for our schedules.

    I have tried to branch out…starting up another group…getting others to take over…but that has not worked, so those finished.

    I also am fed during our group, it gives me the chance to interact more with the folks.

    I really like the idea of ministry teams! How have you implemented those and teamed people up…that would be very helpful. Oh, and no worries…I found out a long time ago that I am allergic to committees!

  3. Scott, we do something similar. Occasionally I’ll host a group when I find a book worth reading and discussing. We call it Book Club. It’s great for me, too. It’s a chance to connect with congregation members on a less formal basis over something I enjoy. And everyone’s input adds something to it. We used the Francis Chan book and DVD, like you did. It was great.

    The ministry teams pop up more-or-less naturally. When someone has an idea they’re passionate about, I work with them to help with organization, recruiting and financing – and by being its biggest cheerleader. I’ll probably deal with this idea in a future post about how to get more great ideas by saying “yes” as often as possible.

    I put an expiration date on ministry teams, too. For the same reasons I mentioned in the post.

  4. Scott, we do something similar. Occasionally I’ll host a group when I find a book worth reading and discussing. We call it Book Club. It’s great for me, too. It’s a chance to connect with congregation members on a less formal basis over something I enjoy. And everyone’s input adds something to it. We used the Francis Chan book and DVD, like you did. It was great.

    The ministry teams pop up more-or-less naturally. When someone has an idea they’re passionate about, I work with them to help with organization, recruiting and financing – and by being its biggest cheerleader. I’ll probably deal with this idea in a future post about how to get more great ideas by saying “yes” as often as possible.

    I put an expiration date on ministry teams, too. For the same reasons I mentioned in the post.

  5. Again, good stuff and I really get the bulk of what you are trying to say here. But from everything I have ever read, or personally experienced, anytime you get a group that is larger than say 8-12 people, then smaller more intimate groups either will form out of natural affinity, or you need to be intentional about fostering some of that.

    You said “In big churches, small groups are needed so people can experience times of prayer, worship and fellowship they can’t get on Sunday. But people already get that on Sundays in a Small Church. It’s one of the reasons they attend a Small Church to begin with, and why a small group ministry may not be needed.” I would tend to agree with you here, accept for one fact…every person that I know that goes to, or has been a part of a larger Church (including me) go for those exact same reasons: prayer, worship, and fellowship. True, there are lots of consumer Christians who go to the larger Churches because when they drop off their kids there is a slide to the downstairs kids ministry area that feeds their “need”. But I think its not really fair to assume that that is the only reason, or the predominant reason why people go to larger Churches.

    I went to a larger Church, and pastored at a larger Church because I felt like the intentional nature of the ministry towards pushing people smaller and deeper was of immense value.

    So isn’t this something that the small Church should still strive for?
    Granted, it may not look the same and maybe we are talking even smaller groups than 8-12, more on the level of 4-6…or even smaller.

    Isn’t there still a lot of value in pointing people to living in community with other believers on a day other than Sundays?

    I think that the idea of ministry teams does this in part, and l love the idea. My wife and I were involved in a Church that had, and still runs a food pantry, in a town 0f 15,000, that feeds nearly 1000 people a week…so I really do see the need for this. But at the same time that a ministry team serves a need, has a passionate leader, and a comitted team, at some point all that pouring out empties a person and they need to be filled back up. And even in a small Church, I would argue that Sunday’s is just not enough for this to happen.

    1. I fully agree that Sunday morning alone is not enough. My point is that Small Churches may already be providing a deeper experience without a “small group program”. Maybe I should have emphasized the word “program” more in my post.

      In our church, the age & gender groups, missions & ministry teams, and naturally-occurring friendships provide more opportunity for small group ministry than any small group program we ever tried. And the ministry & missions groups tend to counteract the tendency for some small groups to become self-centered. So we abandoned what didn’t work for us and embraced what did.

      I agree that small groups are essential. But in a Small Church, they may be happening more naturally than we realize, so we need to assess our own church and do what works best for it.

      As I re-read this post, I realize that I came across as saying you can’t get times of worship, fellowship and prayer in a big church. That was not my intent. I should have said something like “you can’t get the extended small group experience of worship, fellowship and prayer in a big church.” That’s still not the best way to phrase it, but it would have been closer to my intent.

  6. Again, good stuff and I really get the bulk of what you are trying to say here. But from everything I have ever read, or personally experienced, anytime you get a group that is larger than say 8-12 people, then smaller more intimate groups either will form out of natural affinity, or you need to be intentional about fostering some of that.

    You said “In big churches, small groups are needed so people can experience times of prayer, worship and fellowship they can’t get on Sunday. But people already get that on Sundays in a Small Church. It’s one of the reasons they attend a Small Church to begin with, and why a small group ministry may not be needed.” I would tend to agree with you here, accept for one fact…every person that I know that goes to, or has been a part of a larger Church (including me) go for those exact same reasons: prayer, worship, and fellowship. True, there are lots of consumer Christians who go to the larger Churches because when they drop off their kids there is a slide to the downstairs kids ministry area that feeds their “need”. But I think its not really fair to assume that that is the only reason, or the predominant reason why people go to larger Churches.

    I went to a larger Church, and pastored at a larger Church because I felt like the intentional nature of the ministry towards pushing people smaller and deeper was of immense value.

    So isn’t this something that the small Church should still strive for?
    Granted, it may not look the same and maybe we are talking even smaller groups than 8-12, more on the level of 4-6…or even smaller.

    Isn’t there still a lot of value in pointing people to living in community with other believers on a day other than Sundays?

    I think that the idea of ministry teams does this in part, and l love the idea. My wife and I were involved in a Church that had, and still runs a food pantry, in a town 0f 15,000, that feeds nearly 1000 people a week…so I really do see the need for this. But at the same time that a ministry team serves a need, has a passionate leader, and a comitted team, at some point all that pouring out empties a person and they need to be filled back up. And even in a small Church, I would argue that Sunday’s is just not enough for this to happen.

    1. I fully agree that Sunday morning alone is not enough. My point is that Small Churches may already be providing a deeper experience without a “small group program”. Maybe I should have emphasized the word “program” more in my post.

      In our church, the age & gender groups, missions & ministry teams, and naturally-occurring friendships provide more opportunity for small group ministry than any small group program we ever tried. And the ministry & missions groups tend to counteract the tendency for some small groups to become self-centered. So we abandoned what didn’t work for us and embraced what did.

      I agree that small groups are essential. But in a Small Church, they may be happening more naturally than we realize, so we need to assess our own church and do what works best for it.

      As I re-read this post, I realize that I came across as saying you can’t get times of worship, fellowship and prayer in a big church. That was not my intent. I should have said something like “you can’t get the extended small group experience of worship, fellowship and prayer in a big church.” That’s still not the best way to phrase it, but it would have been closer to my intent.

  7. I know this article was written some time ago. I recently became the Executive pastor of a church with 250-300 regular attendees. I am trying to gather a better understanding of how best to establish a discipleship program that uses alternatives to small groups. Can we chat.

  8. I know this article was written some time ago. I recently became the Executive pastor of a church with 250-300 regular attendees. I am trying to gather a better understanding of how best to establish a discipleship program that uses alternatives to small groups. Can we chat.

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