Why Your Church Needs Small Group Ministry & Two Ways to Make It Better

Simply put: small groups allow interaction and building of relationships that cannot exist in the large group setting of worship.

Small groups are simply smaller groups of people (typically 12 or less) that gather together to accomplish some specific purpose. In the church, these purposes generally include worship, prayer, ministry, outreach, study, or fellowship.

Many people put their own definition of small groups into the word “small group.” They may think it is a home Bible study, a time of fellowship, a group that doesn’t meet on Sunday, or a group that is like a little church. None of these things are necessary to the concept of small groups.

When you realize that a small group is a just a small group of people gathering together for a specific purpose, then you realize that every church has small groups. Sometimes they call them Sunday schools. Sometimes they call them boards. Sometimes they call them committees. Sometimes they call them Bible studies. But all of them are small groups.

The universality of small groups in churches demonstrates that virtually all Christians believe that small groups are necessary for the health of the local church. There is a level of discipleship that requires a more intimate group, and ministry is best organized by a small group of people.

So, the question is not really whether or not you will have small groups. The question is whether you are using your small groups to their full potential.

So, how can we do them better?

There are many spiritual graces that contribute to good small groups: humility, prayer, courage, and hope.

However, simple practical wisdom is also important for running small groups. My dear friend Art Stump has written a helpful article on meetings (one form of small group), “How Not to Bore People to Death with a Meeting.” Most of the insights there apply to running a small group as well.

Let me suggest two important ways that we can make our small groups better.

First, get everyone involved. The strength of a small group is that everyone can contribute. So, get everyone involved.

We have all been to meetings (and maybe led meetings) where the leader of the group thinks he’s figured everything out. He or she goes on and on about what they are going to do and then simply asks people to agree.

This can make a small group worse than one person deciding everything on their own. A small group dominated by one person gives people the false impression of a consensus that doesn’t actually exist. It gives outward assent without a commitment of the will.

In whatever way you do it, get people involved in the discussion. That doesn’t mean that there can be no teaching time, but allowing people to share their thoughts will make everyone feel that they are a part of the group and have a stake in it.

Second, use your small groups to build relationships. Small groups provide a unique context in which people can connect and build relationships.

As I think of my own church, the people I have met with regularly are those to whom I feel closest. Every time I’ve come to the end of a small group, I’ve felt much closer to the people who were involved. Those connections stay with me, even when the group no longer meets.

One reason we forget that small groups are about relationships is because small groups are also about doing some sort of task. It’s easy to get focused on the task and forget the people (we can also make the mistake of enjoying the people and forgetting the task!).

Small groups provide such great opportunities to build relationships that we should not let that opportunity pass by. In every small group setting, we can add something that will help us connect. We can have refreshments, share a meal, share something about ourselves briefly, have one person share what they are learning, or pray in smaller groups. All of these things help build relationships.

Every church has small groups of some sort. These are essential to the ministry of our local churches. As leaders, we should work to make our small groups more effective in accomplishing what they can do best: building relationships that can help us grow in Christ.

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6 Replies to “Why Your Church Needs Small Group Ministry & Two Ways to Make It Better”

  1. I would generally draw a hard line between the term “small group” and “Sunday school”. The original cell group movement had a very different idea for their groups in mind than for the general purposes of a traditional Sunday School. Based on previous involvement in being a part of the starting and growth of a very successful small group ministry over many years, I think by lumping them together, you lose the power and importance that the distinct differences and purposes produce.

  2. Hey Wes, thanks for your feedback on this. I think you’re right that it’s good to make a distinction between “Sunday school” and what the original cell groups had in mind.

    I’d love to hear you share how you describe those differences. Could you flesh out what you think those differences in function and purpose are? I’d be interested in hearing how you describe it.

  3. Hey Wes,

    I think I would start by arguing that the statement, “Many people put their own definition of small groups into the word “small group.””..”None of these things are necessary to the concept of small groups.” isn’t actually helpful to understanding their original purpose or continued greater purpose.

    This is primarily for the same reason every dinner with family that involves eating Turkey isn’t Thanksgiving dinner, though they look and feel the same. If we said every dinner with turkey was Thanksgiving just because we wanted to put our own definition on it, would remove the significance that it has.

    While Sunday School traditionally tends to be primarily about Christian Education, Small Groups were originally created for the purpose of helping larger church bodies be able to segment in to “smaller groups” with the express purpose of being more intimate, open, and building deep relationships through the act of “doing life” together.

    Typically, Small Groups also practice replication, which is also not found in most Sunday School models. Meaning, a typical small group will stay together for a very long time so relationships can go really deep, while also having predetermined ‘size limits of effectiveness’ in mind.

    When those limits are reached through natural growth, the group will split/replicate. This is important because it enables the church to equip people for ministry and then place them in real leadership roles within the body on an on-going, and intentional way.

    It has also not been uncommon for small-groups to become the first line of defense in handling smaller church discipline issues as well as providing oversight to individual and familial issues. In a proper small-group setting, ideally these people know the families involved better than most others in the church ever would and will have valuable insight not available to others. This certainly is typically not demonstrated in a Sunday School setting, yet holds real power for helping a healthy church stay vigilant for the Lord, care for each others hurts, and to show God’s mercy to families in specific ways.

    That said, without consistency in the roster and attendance of a small-group over long periods of time, it’s nearly impossible for relationships to go deep enough and folks to feel vulnerable enough to be able to truly “do life together”, as it were, let alone be willing to take criticism/rebuke from someone you haven’t been laboring beside.

    I would say you likely agree with a lot of the bigger arguments being made here, but we would likely differ on the methodology of how to accomplish the same end goals.

    Definitely love and appreciate your ministry to our church, so please do not hear this as anything other than a conversation about a topic, and not a personal criticism of you.

  4. Hey Wes, thank you for your reply. I really appreciate you giving me feedback on small groups, and I will definitely take what you’ve said into consideration as I think about my own small groups and small groups at Evergreen.

    Let me just say one thing. Your dinner analogy is a good one. Part of what I’m saying is that whether it’s Thanksgiving or whether or not you have turkey, when a group of people sit around the table to eat, it’s a meal. It’s dinner, and something unique happens when that occurs.

    Granted, what you describe as “small groups” is a way of moving people from 1 to an 8-10 on the relationship scale. All I’m suggesting is that there are other types of groups that may help us move from 0 to 1 or from 3 to 5 and so on.

    You are right that not every group is going to be able to bring us to that level of intimacy that you have described here. However, I think we can use other “small group” contexts to move the relationship ball forward as well as to accomplish particular tasks.

    Take your example of Sunday School. If the group is much larger than 12 people, then it probably will not possess small group dynamics. It is really a large group.

    However, if it is around that size, even if the purpose is primarily Christian education, you can use the groups to connect people better in relationships. You can do this by having specific relationship oriented activities, by encouraging everyone to participate, by breaking into even smaller groups for discussion and prayer. If that happened over a long period of time, it’s certainly possible that you could develop the sorts of dynamics that you are talking about in your comment.

    So, bottom line. My main point is encouraging people to make use of the times they gather with small groups of people for a purpose to move the relationship ball further down the field.

  5. “However, I think we can use other “small group” contexts to move the relationship ball forward as well as to accomplish particular tasks.”

    Speaking for only myself and my family personally, I find little value on the relationship scale in knowing a large number of people at surface level. Conversely, I find a huge level of value on the relationship scale of knowing a small number of people really well and allowing myself to be vulnerable enough for them to also know me really well.

    That said, I can definitely see value in wanting to create activities that encourages the body to be involved with the church community outside of Sunday morning. I would encourage those things. I just wouldn’t call those things “small group” since I think there is well defined guidance that exists in the world of what the term “small groups” typically means, looks like, etc.

    Of course it’s a completely a-biblical concept in a number of ways, but like numerous a-biblical realities of life, I think there tends to be best-practices and/or approaches/methodologies that have been generally accepted as best.

    I think where we primarily differ is in our belief of how deep relationships in the church ultimately get formed and how I perceive people generally growing comfortable to talk about “real” stuff, and how an ecosystem gets created where real, personal ministry can happen.

    For example: When people read long lists of prayer requests on Sunday morning to the whole body about people I barely know (or maybe don’t know at all), I personally find myself bored and disconnected – just being honest here. And while I may agree with the request in prayer, I’m not able to share their burdens or really know specifically how to pray. Furthermore, it’s sometimes isolating and also emotionally exhausting because only the people closest to that person will really know what the outcome of the situation was most of the time.

    I’ve always felt that 90-95% of prayer requests read off to the whole body would be way better tended too if a healthy small-group ministry was in place and those prayer requests were handled within that small group. It enables people that know the person to be able to specifically pray, minister to them and tend to their needs along the way, and then also give Glory to God when they see the resolution and get to experience the journey of God’s grace with that person. It’s so rare that a majority of prayer requests shared on a Sunday morning about a person I haven’t been doing life with will be followed up with a result. Even more rare that we got to participate in the journey.

    I’m not speaking specifically of Evergreen here, as many of these observations come from various past church experiences.

    I know you guys have specific goals and tasks in mind, and I applaud you guys for moving towards building a healthier, more active church community.

  6. Hey Wes, I do appreciate you being honest about your feelings and perspectives. I think that is really important for building a community. So, thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

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