The Secret Sauce of Small Groups

When we create small group systems we want them to give life, create relationships, and grow people in ways that add value to them. Sometimes, though, despite our best efforts, we see our small groups stagnate, diminish, or even die off and we have no idea what the problem is. Well, this article is going to show you the 7 reasons they are struggling and how to revive your small group ministry and save it from being shut down.

In order to revive your small group ministry, you need to:

  • have clear objectives
  • assign point leadership
  • invest in small group leaders
  • adopt an open group mindset
  • broad small group perspective
  • integrate into the assimilation process
  • create a coaching culture

If you do all seven of these you will see your small groups come to life with testimonies of people’s lives being changed.

Have Clear Objectives

Many leaders create small groups because they feel it is a pathway to growth. Others create small groups because they believe they have grown to a size where small groups are necessary to keep a close community developing. Both of these are results of small groups, but if they are the reason your small group ministry exists, then it will not be sustainable.

A small group system needs to have clear objectives as to why it exists beyond numbers growth. Numbers growth is not a compelling reason that motivates people, nor is it specific enough to give any sort of clear direction.

For instance, a student ministry may start small groups to provide an environment where students from different schools can integrate to avoid cliques within the group. This clear objective provides structure as to how the small groups will operate, what sort of activities will be used, and even strategic locations where groups can meet.

The objective has to go beyond fellowship or building relationships also. Though both of these are natural effects of being part of a small group when that is the focus, it can place those who attend in an awkward position because they know attending the group has the expectation of relational engagement and that can be overwhelming. Relationships will naturally happen, so have an objective that is more compelling.

Assign Point Leadership

Each small group should have a clear leader. This leader should go beyond just being present, but they need to actually provide direction through the course of each small group meeting.

Many small groups operate on a discussion structure, But nothing stifles a group more than dead conversations and a lack of engagement from the members. Each group needs to have a leader who can facilitate the conversation, keep the discussion moving, and engage each individual at some point in the conversation.

Often times people attend a small group because of the leader who is overseeing the group. If the group does not have a clear point leader, then there will be too much conflict due to a lack of clarity in the purpose, structure, and operation of the group.

Another vital aspect of having a point leader is to ensure that the group is secure enough and provides an environment that allows people to open up freely in discussion. When there is a leader that is intentionally providing this, then members are more likely to open up and deal with their struggles and challenges that stand in the way of their personal growth.

Invest in Small Group Leaders

Small groups are just like any other ministry: they need leaders who are effectively trained to carry out the responsibilities and a pipeline always developing them. A good small group leadership pipeline consists of two pieces.

The first is an onboarding training experience where new leaders are given the basic foundations of how to be a small group leader. This can be a one session training, an ongoing series of training or an online course new small group leaders go through. However, it is done, there needs to be a gateway of training every small group leader goes through to ensure each leader has the same foundation.

Modern Inklings Ministry Lab

The second piece to a good small group leadership pipeline is mentorship. The best people to develop small group leaders are other small group leaders. This is why the most efficient and successful way to develop small group leaders is to have each small group leader mentoring at least one other leader to either replace them or start a new group of their own. This provides real-time application of the onboarding training experience, and it gives insight into the little nuances and tricks leaders learn from experience and observation.

Adopt an Open Group Mindset

Nothing will kill a small group system faster than a closed group mindset. When a small group has a closed group perspective on how their groups operate, then new people find themselves with nowhere to go or among other new people who also have no ties to the faith community. When people are isolated and unable to integrate with those who identify with the faith community, they quickly find themselves seeking out a different faith community.

Small groups should be open to new people and even geared toward any new people who may be present unless there is a specific reason why the group is closed (for instance, in a progressional training that can’t be entered while in progress).

One of the ways to keep small groups from becoming closed off to new people is run groups in sessions with clear beginning and end dates with breaks in between. This allows a natural break in the cycle of meeting that people can try different groups, start new ones, shut down unsuccessful ones, and run through a promotional cycle with a small group fair where they can be showcased for people to see.

If you want your faith community to be open and welcoming to guests and people who are unfamiliar with your church, then your small groups need to be open and welcoming for anyone to join in at any time.

Broad Small Group Perspective

As was mentioned before, the people in your faith community are diverse and have a wide range of interests and lifestyles. They also exist on a broad spectrum of spiritual maturity. These undeniable facts are reason enough for us to offer a wide range of options when it comes to small groups.

If we offer a small group ministry where all the groups look the same, follow the same format, and cover the same material, then our perspective of small groups is too narrow. If the greatest difference between small groups is the location they meet, then we have shackled our small group ministry and now allowed it to run free.

Small group ministries should offer a variety of groups that span a range of interests, topics, learning levels, spiritual depths, and locations in your community. Some people are looking for intense Bible studies while others just want to get together with other people for some recreational time. Some people need help navigating their addiction issues while others just want to get together and play board games on Friday nights.

When the small group ministry has a broad perspective on what small groups look like, the church has a wide scope of influence for different people in the community. Small groups can serve as a backdoor into the church where people who may not come on a Sunday morning will join a group because they share the interest the group is focused on.

Integrate into the Assimilation Process

Small groups are not islands in the community that simply operate as loose affiliations with the faith community. Small groups are more like far-reaching hubs where the church can be part of the community in relaxed, non-threatening ways. It is vital that the leaders, and regular attendees who are part of the church keep in mind their group is a doorway into the church and its assimilation process.

Whether it is someone new to the church, someone from the community, or a church regular who is just looking to go deeper, it is important for small groups leaders to remember that the natural step for everyone should be the assimilation process the church offers. Whether it is a foundations course, a discipleship process, or leadership training, most everyone is going to fall somewhere on the continuum and should be encouraged to engage in the process.

Expedition Life Cover Graphic

Small groups and small group leaders should not see what they do as a closed system for people to be part of. Instead, they should see themselves as a catalyst for people to get into the assimilation process that integrates them into the faith community as a whole. This ensures small groups do not become cliques and that everyone is afforded the best opportunities for growth.

It also goes without saying, your church needs to have a clear assimilation process that includes a foundations course, a discipleship course, and a leadership training course to have a quality assimilation process.

Create a Coaching Culture

Sunday mornings and small groups should look vastly different. When people come on Sunday morning they are looking for a sermon, not a discussion. When they come to a small group they are looking for a discussion, not a sermon.

Small groups are not a place where the leader has a platform to dominate the conversation, but rather it should be a place where the leader is the facilitator of the discussion and the group is doing most of the talking.

When small group leaders are trained to operate as coaches rather than teachers, then the discussion element is deep, insightful, and everyone benefits from the rich input from everyone in the room.

A coaching culture in a small group ministry is built around crafting good questions, listening with detailed intentionality, and creating a space that is safe, secure, and free from judgment. If small groups operate like that then there is a good chance the faith community as a whole will as well.

(This has been adapted from Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson’s The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry. If you are interested in going deeper and seeing how Willow Creek Community Church operates small groups, purchase the book from Amazon here.)


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