Does it seem like your church’s small groups aren’t working? You might be overlooking several critical things that are key to making small groups work. Those are exactly what we’ll be looking into today.
Organizational theorists may make small groups sound like the best course of action for any organization to take. However, it’s not an approach that can be haphazardly applied by churches. It will work and be a great boost to church growth if you have a fine understanding of the seven critical reasons we will be discussing.
Why Church Small Groups Don’t Work
Before we go to the seven reasons, let’s first understand how to tell an approach is working. You’ll need to determine your church’s goals in establishing small groups. The specifics will differ across most churches, but in general, we can identify three main goals of this approach:
- To foster real community among members;
- To uphold compassionate care for each member; and,
- To make disciples.
If your church barely achieves the goals above, then your small groups are not working. Now, we’ll identify the main reasons why small groups don’t work.
1. The small groups are forcibly created.
Most pastors that introduce the small group approach to their church are well-intentioned. They study the approach through the lens of organizational theorists and seek a biblical basis for applying the approach. After much time and effort, they draft a plan and present it to church leaders. Once approved, the plan is executed and the congregation is divided into small groups.
While this looks like the ideal way of doing things, it’s quite programmatic and unnatural. And this is commonly the top reason why small groups don’t work. Using this approach, some churches shared having experienced poor results and even intense resistance from members. Why is that?
Firstly, it takes time to identify which members will match one another greatly. Secondly, when you come from a broad perspective in grouping people (e.g. grouping those living close together), it’s easy to miss the intricacies of their relationships. We can lose opportunities to match members that can bring the best out of one another, like those already friends outside the weekly services.
How to make it work:
Let it happen naturally and spontaneously. That’s easier said than done, but if you take the time to let things run their course, then you’ll be greatly content with the results. But what should you be looking for exactly?
Letting things happen naturally doesn’t mean the pastor should just idly stand by. Observe your local churches. Identify people that desire to form a small group and people that are naturally drawn to one another. Start creating small groups through people with the strongest desire for one. As things go smoothly with a couple of groups at first, encourage them to share their experiences with non-group members.
Slowly but surely, you will see the number of people wanting to form or join a small group increase. This will eventually lead to a small group ministry established naturally among the church attendees.
2. The small group is too big.
It’s easy to conclude modeling the small group after the example we see in the New Testament—Jesus and his 12 disciples. But we need to understand that this was done not because this is the ideal. Most scholars agree that this was done as a statement about the twelve tribes and a new Israel.
What can happen when a small group is too big? You’ll find that instead of the twelve or more people in the group becoming tightly knit, they begin forming smaller groups—a few select people to whom they can truly pour their heart out. In some cases, the attendance begins to drop as members don’t see the need to gather with the entire group.
How to make it work:
Instead of the 12 disciples, look to Peter, James, and John’s inner circle. Three people are the smallest group you can have and it can prove to be more effective than beginning with a group made up of a dozen people. Let the groups themselves come to you to suggest additions to their numbers, so the growth of the group comes naturally.
3. Members have a lot on their ministry plate.
This is one of the main things we should be considering when forming small groups in churches: the extent of the ability of a person to handle all their church ministries. In a week/month/year, how many days are asked of people to be spent in the church? You have to note all church activities: worship services, bible studies, church events (e.g. anniversaries, thanksgiving, mission trips, etc.), ministry meetings (e.g. for youth members, choir members, Sunday school volunteers, etc.), among others.
All you’ll have jutted down are events that can compete with peoples’ time to attend their small group meetings. Not to mention, people also have their personal life to manage. People in the church may eagerly agree to attend these meetings. After all, serving God is an integral part of our Christian life. But when so many events coincide, we’ve got only ourselves to blame for making them choose which to attend (and most of the time, small group attendance will be the last choice).
How to make it work:
Put a lot of thought, planning, and communication whenever you add a new program or execute a new approach. Pray and seek the guidance of God’s holy spirit. Doing so will make things a lot easier for you and the congregation. Are there outdated events still planned for the year at your local church? Consider items that can be taken out to make attending small groups more manageable for people.
4. The senior pastor is not involved enough.
Most people will be hardly convinced by the concept of small groups when their senior pastor seems to be the foremost nonbeliever of the concept. They’ve never heard him say he doesn’t believe in the concept. But when small groups gather and he is never to be seen, it’ll be difficult to convince people of the contrary.
Across many churches, the schedule of senior pastors can indeed be very hectic. They certainly can’t be blamed if invitations to small group gatherings are often unwillingly declined. However, to ensure that a program or approach will carry on smoothly, the presence of senior pastors is vital. This is especially true at the very beginning of a program.
How to make it work:
Make sure to allow time for attending small group gatherings. The early stages of a program are especially crucial. Though they may already have leaders in place, senior pastors will still need to lead them, in the beginning, to ensure that things will proceed as planned. So, no matter how tight schedules are, be there for your small groups.
5. Small group leadership is underdeveloped.
The prospect of church growth through small groups can have many churches implementing the program at record-breaking speed. Unfortunately, in doing so, the standard for small group leadership becomes unreasonably low. Instead of developing great leaders to care for each group, anyone with any reasonable amount of time spent in the church becomes eligible to lead.
Now, let’s say your church leaders are taking their time in choosing leaders for the groups. Another problem can arise when the wrong or incomplete criteria is followed for selecting leaders. For example, placing someone in charge because of how long they’ve been in the church may or may not be a good decision. What if they are more suited to be followers than leaders?
Of course, there won’t always be a perfect candidate for small group leaders. However, do take great care in selecting a leader for the groups.
Once a suitable leader has been chosen, small groups can still fail if insufficient and unclear authority is given to the leader. From the get-go, they should be aware of all their duties and responsibilities, as well as the extent of their authority, which should be enough to handle matters of the small groups without the need of escalating issues.
Some have a limited view of what small groups are. They treat it like a bible study group. While there’s nothing wrong with including bible studies in the agenda, treating small groups as such limits the potential of the groups.
How to make it work:
Developing great leaders will take time and effort but reap bountiful fruits for your congregation. Have seminars and other activities in the church that will help cultivate the existing leadership skills of group leaders. Also, take great care in creating the criteria for selecting leaders.
Once a leader is in place, make sure that they will be given sufficient authority, as well as a clear understanding of duties and responsibilities. Ascertain that they fully understand the importance and potential of small group ministries.
For example, these groups can be an integral part of pastoral care. They also help make a large church feel small, as they have a close circle of other Christians they often spent time with.
6. There’s little to no space afforded for small groups in the church’s budget.
How the church’s budget and resources are allocated can say a lot about the priorities and focus of those leading the congregation. You can say that the small group ministry is important to the church and people’s church life. But if little to no resources are set aside for this ministry, that statement becomes hard to believe.
It cannot be denied that this ministry, like all church ministries, will need to be considered in the church’s budget. We can’t expect growth from this ministry if we’re reluctant to invest our resources in it.
How to make it work:
Always consider this ministry when planning the church’s budget allocation. Perhaps the reasonable space afforded for this ministry in the budget is all that the ministry needs for people to go beyond bible study for their group activities.
7. The small groups are too focused inwardly to do anything outwardly.
A notorious weakness of small groups is the tendency for people in these groups to become increasingly focused inwardly. They become attached to the group and their friends in it, to the point that they could not care less for people and things outside the group. This kind of focus is counterintuitive to what God expects from us, that is disciple-making.
It’ll be difficult to motivate people to contribute to the ministry of making disciples when they are too engrossed with themselves. They are too focused on their own story to share Christ’s story. In some cases, even when an opportunity arises for them to talk to others about God, they go about it half-heartedly or completely let the opportunity slip.
If left unchecked, people belonging to these groups can have stunted spiritual growth. In the same way, church growth can also become stunted when multiple groups have this excessive inward focus.
How to make it work:
To be certain, inward focus in itself is not wrong. It can be a sign that your church community is healthy. A good amount of inward focus tells us that people in these groups have fun serving God together, have compassionate care for one another, and that the relationships they’ve established are bonds that they’ll keep for life. So, what can you do to keep your community healthy?
Lead the people in the groups towards activities focused on making disciples. See how you can guide them to approach discipleship.
For example, each week or every other week (depending on what’s possible for your groups), have the groups go out to the community and talk to people about the Lord’s Good News. The groups can also hold events where they can invite people to hear God’s teachings through their local pastor.
Even inviting others to a bible study and taking prayer requests in their home group could also be a good approach to discipleship. Having them join other community activities—volunteer works especially—can also be a great way to cultivate genuine care for others outside their groups.
Implementing small groups in your church can be a great challenge. This approach looks great on paper but can easily take a turn for the worst when applied with little care or direction. Hopefully, what we’ve discussed in this post has helped you understand why your approach isn’t working and what you can do to make it work.
While you’re here, have a look at our previous post.