the shape of leadership

Four Questions to Ask About Small Groups

How leaders can replicate their influence in the church

Chris Railey on August 11, 2017


Small groups come in all shapes and sizes. Whether you call them life groups, community groups or cell groups, these smaller gatherings can be vital to fulfilling the vision of growing churches. No matter how big or small, young or old your church is, you can use small groups to replicate your leadership and advance your mission.

Studies have shown that people can naturally and effectively interact socially with about 150 people. But the number of people an individual can influence one-on-one is even smaller — as few as 30. The same is true in your church. Think of all the people in the seats you know on a first-name basis. There is a cap. And if you want to grow, you must empower leaders and create environments for them to become effective. That’s what small groups do.

If your church doesn’t already have a small group ministry, you need to start one. And if you already employ some sort of group strategy, you must reevaluate it along the way. Here are four questions every leader needs to ask about small groups.

1. Why Do We Have Groups?

Before starting a small group strategy, it’s always important to formulate your purpose. What’s the end goal? How do you want people to grow and change in small group settings? If you can’t articulate these things, it will be virtually impossible to get people to join in.

In a general sense, your small groups should reflect the vision of your church and supplement your discipleship pathway. This is where your leadership is critical. As you train small group leaders, make sure you keep the vision in front of them throughout. Also, stress the importance of funneling newcomers through a process of growing in their faith. Instead of just being a social gathering, small groups are a way to accomplish Kingdom priorities.

From a practical standpoint, there are several different types of small groups, including the following:

Discipleship groups. These focus on new believers learning the basics of their faith or established believers growing in spiritual disciplines.

Bible study groups. These groups meet to study a particular passage of Scripture together. Unlike a discipleship group, the focus is on biblical literacy alone.

Special interest groups. These groups come together with a shared interest, like biking, knitting, cooking or sports, and then do them together in a spiritual atmosphere.

Missional groups. These groups are usually short-term and focus on fulfilling a mission or evangelism project, either locally or globally.

Care groups. Members of your church sometimes need specialized help. In times of divorce or grieving, or when people face addiction or mental illness, small groups can be a great form of recovery.

2. What Size Works Best?

There is no magic number for a small group. Most experts agree your group should have at least 10 and no more than 20. But I’ve seen groups as small as four or five work great. Really, the function of a group should determine the size.

Small groups are a great way to replicate the passion and responsibility you have for the vision of the church.

Groups that want to focus on deep discipleship or accountability should probably limit the gathering to fewer than 10 people. The next level — 10 to 15 people — is great for meeting together weekly for prayer and growth. And groups of 20 to 50 or more are perfect for meeting the social needs of your church.

If you have a large church, visitors may find it difficult to plug in. When attending a small group of 10 strangers, they are most likely to disengage. So a mid-size group of 20 to 50 is a great way for them to find new people and create friendships without the anxiety of being the center of attention.

3. Who Will Lead?

This may be the most critical question, but it can also be the most stressing. Every church feels the strain of volunteer recruitment, training and retention. And leading a small group implies a higher commitment than many other areas of ministry. You are asking people to open their homes and lives to virtual strangers and provide discipleship and care when needed. These are big asks.

But with big responsibilities come increased blessings. As you evaluate the needs of your small groups, make sure you have systems for training and support in place. When you let your leaders feel appreciated and protected, they will embrace their roles.

If your vision includes creating new groups as your church grows, make sure you’re doing it the right way. One theory of reproduction prescribes allowing groups to grow to their max and then splitting them into two, thus creating a double harvest. But rarely does that approach work. You usually have some segment of the original group check out because they don’t like the new dynamics. Instead, ask your group leaders to be on the lookout for quality candidates who have what it takes to launch new groups.

4. What If We Have Problems?

One of the most overlooked but important questions to ask about small groups is this: What are you going to do when things don’t go as planned? One key area of emphasis in group leader training should focus on how to handle a group session when people don’t engage, people argue or people simply don’t show up. These are realities I’ve personally faced, but with the right attitude, it’s possible to overcome them.

Outside of the regular group meeting, small groups have potential for even more problems. Small groups are a way to do life together. And the truth is, life gets messy. What will your group do when someone is in the hospital, suffers a job loss, goes through a divorce, or loses a loved one? Take advantage of your systems by providing continued support from your staff. Also, think through ways to provide a toolkit to your leaders for when tragedies and problems arise.

Influential leaders are always looking for ways to increase their leadership rather than consolidate it. Churches will hit a ceiling when pastors fail to find others who are willing to carry the vision alongside them. But small groups are a great way to replicate the passion and responsibility you have for the vision of the church the Lord has given you. Don’t neglect this great leadership tool!


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