The Small Group Boondoggle


It’s hard to get away from the emphasis in some Christian circles on small groups. Just today, I was reading Brad Hightower’s excellent blog 21st Century Reformation and his post “Are the Popular Methods of Doing Church Working?” It’s a good question and good people are trying to answer it. Many of them are saying small groups are the answer, as does Brad. The bleeding edge of ecclesiology today runs red with the hope that house churches will be the salvation of the American Church.

I dunno.

We tend to forget that small groups in the church are not new. I’ve been in small groups since the 1970s. The modern roots of the small group movement predate even that time. Small group guysPsychologists of the 1950s had discussed the need for small encounter groups, but that idea didn’t express itself until the 1960s and the experimental groups of Big Sur. (The less said about them the better.)

In another attempt by Christians to co-opt what was going on in psychology circles, we started seeing a redemption of pop-psych methods by certain churches, parachurch organizations, and nationally-known Christian leaders. Who could impeach the argument that Jesus gathered twelve men around Himself? (True, yes, but that idea hadn’t been re-examined until pushed into the limelight by 1950s behavioral science.)

Since the 1960s, folks have been trumpeting the salvation of the Western Church through small groups. All I ask is this:

We’ve had 40+ years of small groups in churches, but are we any better for it?

I certainly would not say that the Christian Church in America is more devout, more mission-minded, more prayerful, or more effective for Christ now than before the small group push started. If that’s true—and I’m sure most of you reading this will agree we’re not better off—how then can we insist that small groups will somehow turn the tide in the future if they’ve failed to do so thus far?

Part of the reason I believe that small groups have resoundingly failed to deliver on their promise is that no one seems to look at them from the right perspective. We never view small groups as aiding the church as a collective body. Our model is more based on the idea that we’re helping individuals plug-in on a more granular level.

But that’s the typical Evangelical obsession with the individual. Meet the individual’s need on a very intimate level and you’ll build a wildly effective church from that core. Forty years later, that failed mentality still prevails.

We’ve got to stop viewing the world through the lens of the individual and start thinking more about the corporate Body of Christ. If small groups are not translating into a better church filled with better people, then perhaps we need to start thinking about making our entire church a small group, the whole assembled mass of people. Rather than fragmenting our assembled community into small groups, perhaps we can find ways to translate what small groups do well to an entire church.

For instance, we belong to two small groups that start their meetings with a shared meal. What if we decided that our churches would meet every week for a shared sit-down meal and serve communion at the same time? What if we made our Sunday messages open for whole church comment just like the discussions we have in small groups? What if…?

Obviously, megachurches will have some troubles with these things. But then maybe a 500-person church that acts like a small group is the better model than a 5,000 person church cookie-cuttered into 500 small groups.

All I know is that the small group model that was supposed to better our churches hasn’t. If the model’s broken, then we either fix it or dump it. Or we find a third way that considers the whole church a small group. Whatever the answer, pouring more energy into our current practice of small groups isn’t going to get us anywhere.

For more on the problem of small groups, see this previous post:  That Nutty Small Group Dialectic

34 thoughts on “The Small Group Boondoggle

  1. The reason that small groups don’t work is that only Christ works. Christ can fill a small group so that lives are changed and he can fill a large group so that lives are changed. Look to the 3,000 on the day of Pentecost or at Philip speaking to the Ethiopian and you’ll see that God isn’t confined or bothered by our forms either small or large. If we look to forms to solve character flaws we will always be disappointed.

    I believe we (myself included as I’ve posted in favor of small groups/house churches here before) miss the boat when we point the finger at forms such as small groups, small Bible studies, mega-churches, etc. Christ gives life. Not small home churches, mega-churches, or middle sized churches.

    It is unwise to hang out hat on forms. Having said that 🙂 I do believe in small groups or house church because we see the beauty of family-like fellowship in the Scriptures. Most of all I believe in God the Holy Spirit who gives life to the church in its various forms.

  2. If small groups had anything to do with discipleship, I would support them. Since they do not, I must agree with you wholeheartedly. It’s like the personal quiet time. So much of the church measures your spirituality by things that are not to be found in the Bible.

    Great post!

  3. I think you’ve said it well when you say that perhaps the whole church should be a “small group”. In other words, the things you identified (shared meals, open participation, etc.) are the very things that pulled us toward the simple church (aka house church) concept.

    I think what you’re seeing in the “failure” of small groups is that churches tried to make small groups one of their programs, instead of the central experience of the church. Small groups were viewed (and still are) by the megachurch as something to help grow the big church. In fact, I have seen some megachurches go out of their way to make sure people understand that the small groups are not “church”. They couldn’t be more wrong, in my opinion. Wrong to make that distinction, and wrong to see small groups as a means toward a bigger end.

    steve 🙂

  4. I must disagree with Doug here. Small groups within our churches are what the leadership designs them for. If they are for nothing more than a social gathering, then yes, you have a point. If, on the other hand, they are designed with discipleship and life change in mind, they can be very effective. As a pastor, I lead two groups within my church. One specifically designed for our older retired folks at mid-day and another that’s learning evangelism on Sunday evenings. Our mid-day group has grown and the people involved there say it’s the best thing that’s happened to their spiritual lives in a long, long while. They build relationships with each other, study God’s Word together, and pray for one another’s blessings and burdens. They are stronger for it. That’s just one example. Other times, I lead “elective” groups made up of people I want to become future leaders and our whole time together is on nothing but deepening their walk, teaching them our goals for a small group, and then giving them the reins to lead one.

    If the design and goals are correct from the beginning, small groups can have a large impace. The reason many are not having success is because this ministry (small groups) has become like many other things in the modern churches. People are afraid to broach biblical topics, spend quality time in the Word, and pray. It’s easier to serve bruschetta, gourmet coffee, and have a social gathering; close with a paltry prayer and think they’ve accomplished anything.

  5. Ekval

    I totally agree with your main premise here Dan. In particular in the “newer” model of churches, be they seeker or EC, there seems to be this idea that small groups are the panacea. Churches like in the emerging movement who focus on nonprogrammatic things still tend to put so much emphasis on this.

    Don’t get me wrong, there is great benefit to small groups, but just like accountability partners, personal devotion, etc. They are all just a part of the solution, not the solution.

    I agree that a lot of it has to do with our individualism, and along with that I also believe that a lot of it has to do with us just wanting quick and/or simple solutions. We want one thing to fix things, in church, in schools, everything. The world doesn’t work like a science lab where you get to change one variable at a time. Rather, things are interconnected, you can’t just place the emphasis on a part or even a couple of parts and expect the whole to be okay.

  6. Diane Roberts

    “They met from house to house.” Those groups must have been rather small since how many people can fit into a house? Even a Roman house? Small groups totally depend on two things:
    1) what foundation are they being built upon? The above Scripture and others like it? Or man’s reasons?
    2) Preparation, preparation is the key. Lack of is the reason most small groups fail–not enough preparation and then poor or no supervision afterwards.
    I am a BIG small group fan IF the above two items are on board. If not, forget it. Nothing is more demoralizing to church members than their small groups falling apart.

  7. Everyone,

    One of the main reasons I believe that house churches and small groups are not the answer in their current forms is because they make assumptions that can’t be made. If I’m an astronaut performing experiments in space, I may very well get different results than on Earth for no other reason than a lack of gravity, a force we take for granted. But that force we take for granted makes all the difference.

    American cultural and societal distinctives play a much larger role in how we live out our communities than we care to think. As much as we say we’re doing house church or small groups like they did in the Book of Acts, we simply are not because we’re ignoring the differences between the cultural and societal distinctives of America 2006 AD and Palestine 60AD.

    The early church met in houses, yes, but they also met nearly every day, something our American lifestyle precludes. But what if that factor alone makes the difference between an ineffective and effective small group experience? Or living within a block or two of each other, or working the same profession, or sharing our material wealth among group members? In order for us to be like Palestine 100AD, we would have to radically alter how we work, live, play.

    But I don’t believe we’re ready to challenge the societal and cultural norms of America 2006. For that reason, we may never see the kind of community we need to have in order for small groups and house churches to really be effective.

    As for other needful things, I’m not even sure that the standard Evangelical spiritual components are as necessary as some of the things I’m mentioning in this comment. I’m in two small groups right now that bear little resemblance to each other in how they practice their group experience. Both have a couple of the standard elements of discipleship, but not all. Both are helpful, but in different ways. The only thing the same about them is that both are hampered by the same cultural and societal impediments.

    We’ve got to start thinking more radically.

    • John


      I enjoy your blog. I’ve been reading your writings for several months now, but this is the first time that I’ve commented. This subject, like many “Revolution Christians”, is very important to me. I believe that Christianity is first and foremost “relational”. The NT speaks of fellowship with one another in Christ through the Holy Spirit:

      AC 2:42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.

      1CO 1:9 God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

      2CO 8:4 Praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints.

      PHP 2:1 If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies,

      PHP 3:10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;

      1JO 1:3 That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.

      1JO 1:7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.

  8. Dan,

    I love the fact that you make me think! Thanks! I have been wrestling with many of the same questions that you have. I agree with some of the comments made here that the “purpose” and “format” of the small group can hinder its effectiveness. I also wouldn’t go so far as to say that cell groups in homes is THE ANSWER for the American Church. I do think it is a move in the right direction, but in my mind if small groups become another “program” than we have solved nothing. The overarching and underlying philosophy of methodology in the Church is what I perceive to be the biggest problem.

    “In order for us to be like Palestine 100AD, we would have to radically alter how we work, live, play.”

    I agree! We must be considering radical solutions. That is why I appreciate your take on the economy even if I don’t always understand or agree.

    “As much as we say we’re doing house church or small groups like they did in the Book of Acts, we simply are not because we’re ignoring the differences between the cultural and societal distinctives of America 2006 AD and Palestine 60AD.”

    I hope that this comment isn’t intended to mean that you are giving up. Sometimes the situation can seem hopeless. I do believe there is a LONG way to go for the American Church, but I don’t believe it is hopeless. It does appear that any type of true change could be a couple of generations away.

  9. Scott Cheatham,
    Bless you for taking something that a majority of churches use for superflous reasons and using it to build up your church. My comment was directed toward the majority and not at your model. Thanks for taking your duty as a pastor seriously.

    And no, I don’t have anything snarky to say.


  10. Anonymous

    My church started a small group program in lieu of Sunday pm services recently. I believe one of the big reasons was to grow our church. The small group goes by an “expand upon the sermon” question and answer format. Since these groups have started the gifts of the Spirit have been cut off at the knees. All members are encouraged to attend, and I do mean encouraged. I looked up some of the phrases that have been used by the pastor and looked them up on the Internet, and found out plenty. Bottom line, I see a shift from God pleasing to man pleasing. A few Sundays ago I sat in church and felt so sad I cried in my pew, as my feelings of queasiness turned into words I could understand, oddly enough from the pastor’s sermon! Trust had left the room. Needless to say, I am “homeless.”

    I many years ago attended a small group that truly worshiped the Lord and haven’t been able to find one since. My feelings about the church as a whole are not good.

  11. Small groups, eh? It’s been so long since I’ve been in one; I’ve forgotten what they’re supposed to be about. The ones at my church seem as if they were meant for retirees who could afford to sleep in late in the morning, as they are usually scheduled on weekdays in the evening and going till late. I’m sorry but if I were to go to one of them, I’d be so dog tired in the morning when I have to get up before dawn to go to work. I’ve asked about this, but still nothing has changed yet.

    Small groups, eh? I wouldn’t know.

  12. Dire Dan: “Whatever the answer, pouring more energy into our current practice of small groups isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

    Actually, Dan, I’m much, much more dire than you are. I’m firmly convinced that unless we have a full-tilt-boogie Spiritual Revolution in this country, and soon, the U.S. is gonna be destroyed, toasted, gone, hasta la vista baby.

    Do I get to die by the sword, by famine, or by pestilence? Or radioactive fallout? Let me know if I get a choice.

    But obviously small groups aren’t doing much good so far.

  13. Diane Roberts

    I think I need to define what I am talking about. I am NOT talking about home or cell churches in lieu of what has been called (negatively sadly) the “institutional church.” These IMO can be dangerous. I am talking about home groups started by churches where by their members are in small groups begun and overseen by the church. If they are done geographically that seems to be better as it offers more diversity and breaks up cliques. I am passionate about these. Sadly, I haven’t seen alot of successful small groups in churches BECAUSE of poor planning and supervison. However, I was in one church where they worked fantastically and achieved their purpose. I’m not sure our 21st North American culture has that much to do with this as people need to relate to other people whatever country or age they live in. I do know one thing. These churches where the elders and pastors don’t know their people must cease. And I find small groups really help with this problem. It really levels the playing field for everyone, especially newcomers and singles who often are overlooked or even shunned by the larger church.

  14. Small, big, personal, cell-groups, whatever. Worship of God, the fellowship (communion) of believers, teaching, discipleship, and exhortation are the reasons (or should be) for believers to get together in what we euphemistically call “church”. The body is dead where the reasons for gathering have been forgotten. If the answer to the question “Why do you come to church?” is anything like “Because the bible says to” or “because it’s good for me” there is cause for worry. unfortunately, I would imagine that those reasons are the ones most church-goers fall back on. If we would search their hearts, I believe many would find they don’t have a biblically-based reason for going to church, they just go, and that, more than any other, is why any gathering of Christians, whatever the size, is doomed to failure.

  15. brad

    You missed the point of my article. I was not saying small group is the answer but street level mission. My point is how to mobilize the church for mission. My first point is how to get people to see themselves all as missionaries. I have found that the way to get this mobilization is to focus on mission at the street level.

    For example, our group tithes at the small group level and we are able to give 100% to mission in our local city. My main point was that spectacular church services produce spectator Christians. The path out of this spectator Christianity is certainly not narcissistic small groups based on inner healing psycho babble. Oh “God forbid”!!! I am talking about mission at the street level meaning at the level of your street.

    • Brad,

      It’s not that I missed your point, but that I wrote on a tangential topic raised in the #2 solution you offered in your post.

      Hope that clarifies things.

      And like I said, I think your post is a good one in its major theme. From my own experience, I’m just not sure that small groups are the best means to accomplish the goal of developing folks to be “street level.”

  16. Dan,

    I think that the problem is not with the ministry form of small groups but rather with what takes place in the group meetings. As you mention, small groups are not a new idea. Christianity is relational, and God often uses people in relationship with us to work in our lives. Small groups are helpful in a society in which we are so busy that we have very little time to invest in relationships.

    But the problem is that many churches look at small groups as a magic pill that will solve all their problems. Then in most cases they turn out to be mainly a social gathering. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but in order to produce spiritual results the groups need a spiritual focus. If small groups are made up of people who are dedicated to seeking Christ together and holding each other accountable in their daily lives, then the groups can be very effective. Just consider the central place of Wesley’s class meetings in the revival that took place in England in his time.

    Small groups don’t guarentee spiritual growth, but God can work through them if they have a clear spiritual purpose.

    • Ken, et al.,

      Studies have shown that even in churches with outstanding small group emphasis and dynamic groups, participation in small group life by all church members is around 35%. That means 65% of the people in a church with a good small group program will be missed. If the church is hoping that discipleship growth occurs in the small group, they just cut out two-thirds of the folks in the church. That simply will not work. That’s one reason why I think we need to start applying small group ideas to the entire church.

      • 65% will be missed, or 65% show no interest? Discipleship is a two-way street. It cannot be forced. If someone does not want to be a part of a discipling group, which I would counter is the majority of church-goers, then they cannot be made to “toe the line.”

        That being said, the church today does a poor job of even beginning the discipleship process.

        • David,

          Small groups do not appeal to everyone. A few people here have said they don’t attend small groups. That does not mean they aren’t interest in discipleship.

          Joe Myers’s The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups goes into some detail why small groups do not work for everyone. I’m not sure I agree with Myers’s conclusions, but his demographic studies are interesting.

  17. I am very leery about the ‘cell group’ concept. From what Scriptures I read, it seems that the small groups in the Bible were formed more out of needing covert places to worship without fear of the Roman government dragging the people off to be executed. These people were under very serious persecution for their beliefs and needed fellowship in the midst of a society that had it’s own idols they worshipped.

    I’ve always had this ‘anxiety’ about the small group concept. I always feel when I go to these small groups that I have to put on the mental and spiritual armorplate before going to these types of meetings. I feel as if I have to turn the alertness and discernment meter up a couple of notches and stay in a heightened and extra-tense state throughout the entire session. I feel as if they are not a group of believers, but an ‘interrogation committee’ trying to hide their ‘junk’ to make themselves feel more spiritual while griiling you out asking all sorts of questions that you do not feel need to be answered in public.

    I have been in some good small groups and I have been in some very bad ones (in a previous church) that backfired from:

    (1): One where the leader also had a local ‘outreach’ ministry and would tailor the ‘service’ aspects of small group life into volunteer sessions for free dangerous labor to do the things they did not want to pay qualified people to do (one such ‘service’ project was the renovation of the ministry’s offices involving internal demolition, reconstruction of the walls, electrical rewiring and plumbing repiping done ‘secretly and in the overnight hours’ and without proper permits).

    (2): One got very controlling and no matter what excuse you had for missing group, it was never valid. You had to work late, tell the boss no God is more important. You are sick with a 100 fever, come here and get prayed for. You overslept, You wanted a week off, shame on you. It turned into a ‘drill seargent / probation officer’ mentality of ‘rebukefest’ and accountability but he was only accountable to his section leader. Then we found out later on that this leader fathered a child out of wedlock (the church disbanded the group immediately without telling “Why?” and had other group leaders calling us inviting us to another group) with a girl we never met. It was the mother of his child who had to go to the small groups pastor about it and she told us what had happened and how she had to get a court order to force him to a DNA test to verify he was the father because he played the ‘slut’ tactic on her.

    (3): One group was where issues were talked about in reference to the Bible, and at the end, we received a form with our congressmen’s addresses, phone, fax, and e-mail telling us to call them to vote “NO’ on a certain piece of legislation.

    (4): One literally ‘parrotted’ the Sunday sermon using it as a discussion panel.

    However, in many church trends, the concept of small group is tragically growing to the point where in order to get ministry, you have to get involved in small group to where the small group leader is the one who ministers to you and if you have urgent and emergency needs, the small group ministers to you in the name of the church ministering to you. You call the church for help and the first question asked is if you are a member or not. When saying yes, then you are asked if you are in small group. If ‘yes’, go there and if they are unequipped to help, then you will get referred back to us for counseling. If no, we can see you on January 17th 2046 at 9:00 AM due to the backlog.

    Or they are used to ‘parrott’ down policy and agenda from leadership and usually are heavily filled with teachings of either never complain about the church, disagree with leadership is touching God’s anointed, questioning is rebellion, etc.

    What is now being touted as personal care in reality sets up the †˜class war’ where leadership furthers the chasm from pastors, shepherds, and elders to the common laypeople and supporters. Instead of being the church, it appears as if the small groups pastor becomes the overseer of many smaller churches within the main church.

    If done right, I really believe small group could help. However, I’ve seen too much of the bad uses of God’s people for personal agendas that I really wonder.

    In fact, my church is into small groups and I went to one (before I had to work over alot and lost contact) and even they are wondering now if they should in addition offer a standard Wednesday night service again for those who do not prefer the small group mentality.

  18. Totem to Temple said it well. The group I used to be in wanted me to contribute to the discussion when I was not ready to divulge stuff about myself. That does not sound very Holy Spirit led to me.

    I read in a Christian magazine once of a place where Christians can go to get healing from church hurts, but they did not publish their location, trusting God to send the right people. That sounds like a wonderful idea to me.

  19. Anna

    This post is so old, I probably shouldn’t even comment, however…

    Our large church is built on the small group format. I long to be in a small group, but the one time I committed to joining one, after two months I was the only one who still wanted to meet.

    One of the other women wanted to find another group. “I just want to go camping,” she said. Ugh! If people were honest, I think most would admit feeling the same way she did. They want a social group of “good” people, but let’s not get too religious. So much for Jesus in the small group.

    I know I should keep trying until I find a good group, but I’m wary.

    • Anna,

      I think we need to lower expectations of small groups:

      Group around a common affinity
      Meet together
      Eat together
      Pray together
      Worship together
      Laugh together
      Cry together
      Make space for each other in our lives

      That list is a good expectation. I wouldn’t expect enormous teaching and book or Bible learning to come out of a small group, though. Yet that is how we often position them. This is why so few gain traction. They need to be microcosms of the larger church. Grouping them around common affinity (like parenting, bicycling, or birdwatching) may be the best and most organic way for them to develop and hold people. Never finding a unity of purpose is the reason so many groups fail.

  20. Anna

    Thank you for your reply.
    What you said is true: Grouping them around common affinity (like parenting, bicycling, or birdwatching) may be the best and most organic way for them to develop and hold people. Never finding a unity of purpose is the reason so many groups fail.

    I thought I had found a group with a common affinity: Jesus.

    Anyway, I would have loved to go camping with that group, but I think they wanted a cooler crowd.

    I will try again, though. Maybe I’ll get it right eventually. =)

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