"Fix My Small Groups!" 6 Church-Tested Solutions
Many small groups suffer from uncommitted members, poor leadership and other serious dysfunctions. Read on to discover cures.
It was a great small group. Members shared from the heart, learned from the Word and genuinely cared for each other.
When they showed up, that is.
One couple in particular seemed to find any reason to miss a meeting, offering excuses about being too tired or needing to run errands. When the couple did show up, the leaders noticed a change in the group dynamic—some people became more cautious and reserved about sharing, leaving the other members feeling disengaged and frustrated.
“When group members consistently don’t show, it can really drain a leader and the group,” says Bill Donahue, author of Leading Life-Changing Small Groups (Zondervan), who oversaw this particular group during his time at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.
If your church has a small groups ministry, chances are you’ve faced this same problem of commitment, as well as a host of other common small group issues such as poor structure and untrained leadership. In fact, most churches struggle to keep their small groups healthy, but with the right strategies and the right values, you can strengthen your groups and your church’s ability to reach more people in a meaningful way.
Outreach presented the most prevalent small group dilemmas to several trusted leaders in small group innovation. Read on to gain their meaningful insights and sensible solutions to these six common problems your small groups might be facing.
Our small groups lack authentic fellowship.
Solution: Several years ago, Scott Christenson, then the small-groups pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Palatine, Ill., joined a small group and immediately clicked with nine of the 10 group members. The 10th, however, challenged Christenson’s ability to love his fellow small group members.
“He ruined an otherwise perfect group for me,” he admits. Later, Christenson realized he wasn’t alone in his sentiments. One night while sitting across the circle from the difficult small group member, Christenson saw that others were clearly frustrated as well.
“As he droned on with one of his typically annoying responses, I noticed that the girl sitting next to him was rolling her eyes and mocking him,” recalls Christenson. “That was a Holy Spirit moment for me because I realized that I had probably done the same thing before.” Convicted and rebuked, Christenson began learning the true meaning of authentic fellowship.
“I learned how to love someone I didn’t particularly like,” he says. “It wasn’t fun, but I think I grew more in Christ-likeness than in any other small group since, and it was all because of this one difficult member.”
Indeed, small groups can become the medium through which churches teach the hard lesson of loving one another by encouraging people of various backgrounds and personalities to spend several hours together, week after week. Donahue recommends challenging your groups to ask themselves, “Are we being the church to each other?”
“People sometimes try to develop a small group system in a nonrelational culture, but that doesn’t work,” Donahue says. “You must teach people what it means to be the body of Christ, to love and serve each other.”
Bottom Line: Remind leaders and participants that a small group is not just an easy social gathering, but an opportunity for members to learn to love others as Christ would—even through difficult relationships.
Our small groups lack structure.
Solution: Creating an effective small group ministry structure was a daunting task for North Coast Church in Vista, Calif., with some 6,500 attendees scattered throughout five satellite locations and a sprawling main campus. Yet today, nearly 82 percent of its 4,000 adult members are enrolled in small groups. [Since this article originally appeared in Outreach magazine four years ago, the church has grown to more than 8,000 attendees; small group enrollment has continued at more than 80 percent.] Dave Enns, pastor of Growth Groups at North Coast, attributes the ministry’s success in part to the implementation of a small group structure that suits the congregation’s needs.
“People [here] live in one place, work in another, and everyone wants to find someone like themselves,” Enns explains. To best accommodate the logistical and social needs of its Growth Group members, North Coast decided to separate members based upon their age group (20-somethings, 30-somethings) or family background (single, married, divorced).
Other churches find that organizing groups geographically makes sense for the needs of their congregations. Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., created Neighborhood Networks, enabling their church members to establish a presence in their communities, and Willow Creek also launched new groups with geography in mind.
“When group members live close to each other, the opportunity for greater connection increases,” says Donahue. “If the person you see at the grocery store or the Little League game is the same person you were studying Scripture with two days ago, you’re going to develop authentic fellowship.”
Bottom Line: Choose a structure that fits the unique needs of your community and your members. Connect people on common ground, whether it’s affinity, season of life or geography.
We can’t find solid small-groups leaders.
Solution: When Jana Swenson was hired as pastor of community and equipping at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Marion, Iowa, the congregation had just completed Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose curriculum, during which 40 small groups were launched. [Today, Swenson is a church consultant with Kairos and Associates.] But once the 40 days were over, Swenson found herself managing these small groups with no training or accountability system for leaders.
“We were scrambling to get a training structure into place,” she recalls. But instead of panicking, Swenson started four “turbo groups,” a method introduced by Carl F. George in Prepare Your Church for the Future (Revell). Turbo groups are high-intensity, fast-paced groups purposed with developing future small group leaders. After 18 months of training, St. Mark’s turbo group members were equipped and ready to start their own small groups. Now, five years later, St. Mark’s has 75 flourishing small groups with able leaders at the helm of each.
Donahue agrees that developing leadership rather than simply recruiting people to fill leadership positions is far more effective in the long run. “If you are intentionally building into people, those people become leaders,” Donahue says. He suggests that pastors identify potential leaders who demonstrate integrity and character and gather them into small groups—like St. Mark’s turbo groups—where they learn the biblical values of leadership.
Bottom Line: Recognize potential leaders and mentor them. Provide ongoing leadership training and development for small group leaders.
Our small-groups members are not committed.
Solution: When Scott Christenson entered his role as small groups pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, he made three requests of his senior pastor: Be in a small group, use the phrase “in my small group” in sermons, and tell others they need to be in a small group. According to Christenson, the key to getting members committed to their small groups is through the teaching and example of the senior pastor.
“The number one issue for people in our suburban setting is busyness,” he says. “Everyone sees the pastor as a busy person, so if he’s in a group, that takes away their excuse for not being in one.” Additionally, frequent mention of the pastor’s small group from the pulpit normalizes the idea of group life.
After small groups have been reinforced as a valuable part of church culture, Christenson, now Prince of Peace’s senior pastor, suggests using signed covenants (contracts that delineate the expectations of group members) to further reinforce small group commitments.
Dave Enns of North Coast also encourages Growth Group participants to sign covenants, but only after they’ve attended the group for three weeks. “We do all we can to make the commitment reasonable for the average person,” says Enns. “At the end of 10 weeks with a Growth Group, members have the option to stay, change groups or take a quarter off.”
Bottom Line: Church pastors must visibly model commitment to small groups, as people are more likely to be committed to something the church and its leaders value. Use short-term covenants to reinforce member commitment.
Our small groups are inbred and exclusive.
Solution: Thirty years ago, one of Christenson’s relatives began a small group at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. Together, the four couples involved in the group have grown in their knowledge of the Scriptures, built meaningful, lasting relationships and supported each other through hard times.
“They still meet regularly today, but they’ve never caught a vision for outreach,” Christenson shares. “While their influence is great, it is limited to just four couples.” Christenson contrasts his relatives' small group with a group he started nine years ago.
“We had essentially the same vision as my relatives had 30 years ago, with one significant exception—we wanted to stay focused on others,” he says. Today, that single small group has grown to a ministry of 60 small groups with 450 participants.
If a church has small groups without a vision for outreach, Christenson encourages leaders to challenge members at every meeting to think about how many lives they want to touch. Dan Lentz, director of SmallGroups.com—an online network of small group leaders, churches and resource providers—agrees that an ethos of outreach must be established if small group leaders want members to reach out.
He advises churches to specify outreach as one of the primary purposes of small groups. “When a group knows that providing a place for new people to come is its goal,” says Lentz, “reaching out becomes part of the small group’s lifestyle.” He suggests having an open chair at every meeting—an empty chair—as a physical reminder that the group is looking to grow. Leaders can then mention the chair and begin each meeting with prayer that a new person will come to fill it. Once a group grows to be double its original size, split the group in half to allow for more growth to take place.
Bottom Line: State and repeat the expectations of openness and outreach at every small group meeting. Give leaders and members a vision to impact more lives through small groups.
We can’t get new church members plugged into existing small groups.
Solution: According to surveys conducted by Lentz through SmallGroups.com, there is a 10 percent chance that a church visitor will become a member, but if the visitor is invited to a small group, the likelihood of his becoming a church member increases to 50 percent. These percentages show that new members need to connect with the church community or they won’t stay.
“Ideally, you make community the front door of the church,” Lentz explains. “That’s a big paradigm shift for many churches, but it’s a much more effective way of reaching people and assimilating them.”
So when newcomers attend your church for the first time, Enns of North Coast recommends welcoming them with open arms into your small group community. North Coast’s staff makes sure that when newcomers arrive, they hear about Growth Groups from the start. Joining a small group becomes attractive because the church culture is built on them.
In addition, the church limits other opportunities that would compete with groups, such as adult Sunday school or choir. “We created a vacuum,” says Enns, “so people will meet their need for community in Growth Groups.”
Furthermore, almost all of the church’s Growth Groups study a sermon-based curriculum, making corporate worship a springboard for group discussion. For any newcomer attending a small group for the first time, discussions are less intimidating because they’ve heard an entire sermon on the topic. The opportunity for further discussion of the sermon hopefully compels newcomers to want to attend a small group, not just for the fellowship, but also for more interaction with the topic and Scriptures.
Bottom Line: Introduce newcomers to their small-group options immediately and often. Utilize sermon-based curriculum to ease newcomers into small-group discussions.
Facing the above six challenges is a normal part of small groups ministry. While addressing each problem is necessary, the best solution is to establish a church culture that values small groups. “Are people building their lifestyles around Christian community, or are small groups just another obligation to your members?” Lentz asks.
For a truly flourishing small groups ministry, ensure that the ethos of your church community values the benefits small groups bring—fellowship, spiritual growth and empowered lay ministry.
Keri Wyatt Kent is a writer and speaker and has been leading small groups for 20 years.
From the Outreach magazine archives: This feature originally appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of Outreach.