Are Small Groups Doomed?


Faces in the crowdIf you’re an Evangelical Christian, chances are that you’ve been in a small group associated with a church or parachurch organization. It’s almost a rite of passage if you’re born again.

My wife and I are part of two small groups. One is affiliated with our old Vineyard church. We’ve stuck with that group because we have a lot in common with the other four couples. It feels like family. We’ve been a part of that group for about seven years, as have most of the other couples in it. We’ve gone through a lot of trials together. Our second group is through our current Pentecostal church. We’ve been in that group for about three years.

The groups are alike in that both meet in the home of one of the couples, eat a meal together, catch up on life, and discuss spiritual things. The Vineyard group has had a flexible focus over the years, though the corporate Vineyard small group emphasis of fellowship, worship, nurture, and prayer have been consistent. It’s the nurture portion that changes over time. That particular group has nucleated to the point that we all agreed it’s a closed group, meaning it isn’t open to newcomers. The Pentecostal group doesn’t have the worship portion of the meeting, so it spends more time on the nurture. It’s billed as a marriage & family group, so the nurture portion has focused on improving marriages. That group is open, and all the participants have agreed that it serves as a step into the church for visitors. Unlike the Vineyard group, our pastor and his wife attend the group, not as leaders, but mostly for their own edification and as a sounding board for new couples.

The Vineyard group has been hosted by the same couple the entire time we’ve been a part of it; same for the Pentecostal group. Just about every couple has led the nurture at some point in the Vineyard group, while the host couple has primarily led at the Pentecostal church, with me filling in when they’re busy. Because the Vineyard church is quite large, the couples in that group, though highly involved in the life of the church, would not devastate the church if they should decide to leave one day. However, the couple who hosts and leads the Pentecostal group are possibly the most actively involved in a church’s life on all levels of any couple I’ve met in my entire life. Calling them pillars of the church seems almost inadequate a description.

Each group meets twice a month, and we asked that the Pentecostal group stagger its meetings to accommodate our other group. Since it wasn’t a huge issue, they did.

Those are our small groups. We are indebted very much to both.

I’ve spent most of this weekend thinking about small groups. As someone who grew up indoctrinated in the idea that the real life of the church happens in small groups, I worry about the small group model.

Some churches, especially those of the mega variety, pin their entire ministry model on the idea that people will flock to small groups and find there what they cannot within the larger ministry of the whole church. Many churches live and die by that ideal. It’s one reason why I’m concerned.

A few years back, Joe Myers, who lives in my general area, wrote a book called The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups. I struggled through that book in all honesty, partly because I thought it was a little too in love with its demographic studies and quotes from sociologists (pretty typical of Emerging lit) and because the studies and quotes painted a disturbing picture.

Myers’s assertions included the following:

1. A church that gets a third of its regular attendees involved in small groups does well. That being the case, it’s ridiculous to drive a church model based on small groups because two-thirds of attendees will never plug into one no matter how hard the church promotes small groups.

2. Having a small group meeting in a private home asks too much of people today. Far too many people feel uncomfortable walking into another person’s home.

Let me talk about the latter statement first.

One of the best parts of both of our groups is the shared meal. I think that echoes the early Church well. I love eating together. I enjoy making meals together, too. There’s a dynamic on that meal prep that bonds the group.

Problem is, that’s hard to do outside a home. Plus, for those people who have a gift of hospitality, part of their gift is thwarted by not being able to host in their own living space. This is not to say that people can’t be hospitable outside their own homes, only that something can be lost by moving to another venue. The Bible appears to reflect this ideal, also, by showing us how the early Church met in each other’s homes.

Worse, if Myers is to be believed on this point, I have got to wonder how bad off we are as a society when people can’t walk into another person’s living space without getting the heebie-jeebies. Honestly, if people today freak as badly as Myers insists they do on crossing the threshold of another person’s house, call Malcolm Gladwell because we’re not only past the tipping point, we may as a society be on the way to the point of no return. If my house scares you, then you’re going to be petrified of my personality. So much for any kind of small group dynamic—please pass the Paxil.

On the first point concerning the one-third involvement, my own experience proves that this is a general number that does, indeed, hold up under scrutiny. Now I know I’m going to get people who write in and say, “Well, in my church, half the people are in small groups.” Great. You are the exception to the rule. But by and large, I’ve been around enough to believe Myers’s statistic is true when viewed on a macro scale.

More to the point, I believe that the one-third number wil increasingly shrink for several compelling reasons:

Bowling Alone Syndrome – The seminal book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam has been quoted by every long-time leader I know, no matter what type of group they lead. Every last one laments the loss of community that once thrived in American culture as exemplified by our fraternal organizations. I don’t care what kind of public group we’re talking about—Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, Sierra Club, softball teams, card clubs, even churches—they’ve all seen the number of involved members drop precipitously. People just are not participating in face-to-face interpersonal groups like they once were. To many, the commitment asks too much. Couple this with the increasingly rootless nature of a society whose individuals spend less and less time in one place. These difficult realities pose enormous problems for churches, especially those that base their ministry model around small groups.

A lack of qualified small group leaders – Too many churches that expect their primary teaching and discipleship  to occur in small groups pin their hopes on people who are increasingly less qualified to lead what they teach. In many cases, the leader of a small group is promoted out of another small group who may have had an inadequate leader. Law of diminishing effects anyone? As so many Evangelical churches have gone this route, is it any wonder that so many Evangelicals display ignorance of even the most basic biblical truths? And if the people lack knowledge, they perish, right? That’s not a formula for successfully perpetuating a thriving small group model.

The Hegelian Dialectic – I’ve talked about this many times here (see this post in particular), but the tendency toward thesis/antithesis/synthesis teaching in small groups undermines genuinely fruitful Bible study more than we care to admit. Unqualified teachers create some of that problem but so does the need not to make anyone feel uncomfortable should they hold an errant view on the topic being taught. I’ve long contended that small groups may do some things well, but, for most, teaching ain’t it.

Busyness – This comprises a part of the Bowling Alone Syndrome. Frankly, I find it amazing that any small group meets at all given how overly scheduled our lives are. To the people I talk with, it’s only getting worse. In the case of both small groups I’m a part of, year over year we’re seeing more scheduling issues. I can’t recall if our Vineyard group has met as an entire group so far this year. Due to the nature of our other small group, it’s never met with the same core people from one month to the next. That makes it hard to develop the momentum needed to keep growing in discipleship through the group.

Expectations – Here’s a loaded issue: group member expectations. I think more small groups burn out due to participants’ unmet expectations than for any other reason. I also think that this was less of an issue in the past because people then didn’t know what to expect of small groups, so their expectations were low. I will also contend that too many people today come to a group with a list of expectations an arm long because we’ve indoctrinated people into believing that the world exists to meet their needs. (In truth, the modern church’s constant catering to felt needs only exacerbates the issue.) That’s a huge problem to overcome because people will flee a small group the second it looks like it won’t meet their needs perfectly. They never find a home, instead flitting from one small group to the next. Worst of all, should the group cater to couples, if one of the spouses sours on the group because of unmet expectations, it puts the other spouse in a bind. You almost always wind up losing two people instead of just the discontented one.

All these issues combine to exert enormous pressure on small groups.

Resolving these issues requires smarter people than yours truly. Several of the problems exist at a societal level, requiring upheavals that too many church leaders are not willing to discuss. That timidity, though, is at the root of the failure.

My contribution:

I have never believed that the small group model works well in teaching the Scriptures to people. I’ve been in numerous small groups over the years, and only one or two have had solid teaching. Perhaps, then, we should focus on other things, especially discipleship through example, which means ensuring the fellowship works well—no small task in itself.

I also think we have to ask ourselves how important the basic philosophy of small groups is to our personal growth. If we believe in what small groups are supposed to provide, then we need to be committed to that belief. We can’t let outside influences distract us from the core vision.

I’ll be upfront and say that I’m pessimistic about the future of small group ministry within churches here in the United States. This is not to say that small groups will cease to exist, only that their influence within churches may be waning.

This begs a greater question: If small groups are increasingly under pressure to provide what churches depend on them to provide, what will replace small groups as the primary means of doing “what small groups do” within our churches? How will churches provide for the spiritual needs of their congregants should the small group model wither?

On this issue, where does your church stand?

32 thoughts on “Are Small Groups Doomed?

  1. Dan – I’ve been in small groups since 1987. While I’ve read all of the standard why should we and how to books (finding some value in most), the best I’ve read in terms of how to think about organized church as a whole and how small groups fit into that is The Search to Belong. Until then I was a “throw out the larger meetings and just do groups” guy. I now value all expressions of the “gathered community” and find that one without the other is incomplete.

    Net, the future of small groups? Essential and we cannot experience all that it means to be church without them. And the converse is also true, we cannot experience all that it means to be church solely through small groups.

    • Rick,

      While I found some parts of Myer’s book fascinating, I also recoiled at the “science/sociology will show us the way” mentality that is so, so prevalent in Emerging Church circles. I also thought that for all his interesting work, he ultimately had no real solutions. That, too, seems to be all too prevalent in those types of books. What does a church look like that satisfies all types of community experience in practice? The ” it’s going to look different for different churches” answer is kind of a cop-out. Could he have given us come concrete examples of different churches that use different models to address the issue at all levels? Well, he could have. Instead, Myers danced around that question, leaving me disappointed.

      I agree with your last paragraph in part. Somehow, the Church got through the Middle Ages without a strong small group presence, unless you want to call the monastic movement a proto-small-group experience.

      • It’s interesting what you say about EC books. I have the same feeling. They seldom offer much in the way of answers … but of course “they” would claim that as their strength.

        The Search to Belong helped me nonetheless because I had wrongly devalued the larger corporate experiences and previously leaned toward making small groups the answer to nearly everything.

        That aside – good blogging and peace to you.

        • Rick,

          The Search to Belong showed me things I didn’t realize, too, especially about those people who fall between the cracks, the ones that never run in the same church circles that I do. Call them the 80 percent, but for heaven’s sake, don’t dare question their allegiance! Myers’s comment about the woman who insisted to her pastor that she was a member of the church because she watched that church’s TV broadcast most Sunday mornings (instead of actually attending the church in person) was telling.

          EC books are strange. I’ve read many. They are typified by an inordinate love for science, demographic studies, and sociology. This from supposed postmoderns who grimace at the idea that there are usable facts that can be known about certain things. They are almost universally correct about their assessments of the state of the Church in the West, preternaturally so in fact, but their solutions (on those rare occasions when they provide them) are often out of touch with reality or tread the same, tired programming pathways that have trod before unsuccessfully, just with more postmodern cool. Many are like a bad pulp novel that had been gripping in acts one and two, but concluded with some deus ex machina plot point that leaves you groaning. George Barna, not normally thought of as an Emerging Church hero but darned close to it nonetheless, is a perfect example of biting analysis yet with boneheaded solutions.

          I was also a little put off by Myers’s obvious “hey, if you want real answers, come to my expensive seminar” approach. It made the book a teaser for his consultation and speaking business. Too many of these books have that gotcha at the end, which tends to make them into little more than ads.

          Okay, so I’ve been a bit critical about a book I read about three years ago. In summary, it’s one of those books every Christian serious about community and reaching outliers should read, but what you’re going to get out of it will vary wildly depending on where you are and what you’re looking for.

          • I love your thinking, “what you’re going to get out of it will vary wildly depending on where you are and what you’re looking for.” This is why I NEVER recommend an EC book to a new believer. They can be good for a relatively mature person who needs a little “shaking” but for guidance to someone on the wrong or shaky path, no way.

            But now I’m way off topic. Thanks for bearing with me. Peace.

  2. I found your blog via a google alert with key words on my church. I began glossing over your entry, with skepticism, but ended with … yeah, you’re probably right.

    It reminds me of a megachurch in my area that doesn’t have Sunday school for adults and relies on small groups to “teach” outside of what might be heard in a sermon. Small group leaders can be anyone who wants to be one. The church stopped taking “membership” numbers (everyone’s a “partner” that comes) and the church growth keeps growing and growing (i.e. more services, locations, etc.)

    I wonder, will the bubble pop on their success, or have they caught onto something and if so, is it good or bad or neither.

    • Steve,

      I think a lot of new readers come here, write this blog off as the ravings of a crackpot, but then, for some reason, keep coming back.

      Personally, and I’ve been around the block a time or two, I think not having a structured adult Sunday School program is humongous mistake that threatens the very fabric of space time itself! Okay, well, maybe that’s a bit overblown, but not by much. I would say that churches that combine Sunday School for adults with a healthy small group model led by good leaders will be vastly ahead of most other churches who lack one or both.

      The Vineyard church I was a part of had an outstanding small group structure at one point in its existence, but after a while, no one was really teaching the Bible any longer in those small groups. At one point, the small group I led for men was the only one in a church of 2,500+ people that was a strict Bible study. All the others had begin to focus on other things. That blew my mind. Yet the church’s perpetual response on teaching was that the meaty Bible study was supposed to happen in small groups! Major disconnect.

      Yes, the bubble will pop on that church’s success. I will tell you why: commitment. You have to have people who commit to the life of the church, and that means doing the tough stuff that hurts. All churches will reach that stage at some point, and when they do, the real disciples either stand up or get out. That will make or break the church. Too many times, though, it breaks it.

      You can’t be a follower of Christ and not be committed. If the thought of the pastor asking you to give till it hurts means you do without, most people in megachurches will pack up and leave. “Don’t shove the cross in my face,” they say. There can’t be partners, just disciples. A partner is someone who really doesn’t want to make a commitment; think of how unmarried couples who live together introduce each other. “This is my partner,” they’ll say. What they should be saying is “This is an example of my inability to grow up and make a commitment.”

  3. My church is a small group…a house church! 🙂

    I never have been enamored with the idea of small groups, although I have been involved with small groups most of my walk in Christ, with Sunday School classes, singles groups, Bible studies, my house church, and just getting together with believing friends. But busyness and expectations tend to be the biggest enemies to small group success, as I look back.

    I and others are too busy to be involved in small groups. I even have a label for it. I have “church friends.” I see “church friends” once, maybe twice a week. I do not see them outside of church. We never do other stuff together. I met a Christian online, whom I wanted to befriend in a deeper way. I faithfully sent long emails, but it is clear now that she may never have time to really be my friend. I hear from her once a week or so. Great. Another “church friend.” I have enough of those, thank you very much.

    I am not innocent in this regard, either. The Pentecostal campground has summerlong revival meetings every year. I determined earlier this summer to go at least once a week. I went for the opening meeting, but I went in the morning, and the opening meeting was not until that night. I never got back. I had other things to do, and I did not think about it.

    I have a friend, recently divorced, whose young son has no positive male role model in his life. I determined to see him once a week. I saw him once this summer. I told his church’s pastor that he needed a father figure. I am not a father. I am a big brother and uncle. And the church’s pastor talked to some men in his church about it. So far, no one from the church took him under the wing. Too busy, I guess.

    • Michael,

      The devil is destroying us by making us so busy, with no time for each other. We are overcommitted to items/events/concepts and not committed enough to each other. We can be—if we want to be. It’s just that we don’t want to love our brothers because loving those perishable things is easier, so much less messy.

  4. I personally think that small groups are only doomed in so far as the leaders of a given church believe that they are doomed. People will follow and pastors are called to lead. If we teach and model the value of small groups I think that people respond. At our church here are some things that we have talked about as necessary to see healthy small groups:

    1. Church leaders teaching and modeling the value of small groups

    2. Small group leadership by invitation only

    3. Having a structure for developing leaders and investing in those who are already leading

    If we don’t do small groups where do Christians have intentional relationships with other believers? If you go to a church of 50-100 people that can probably happen pretty organically, but in the church where I work that is between 800-1000 on a Sunday morning, if we don’t structure it, people don’t do it. And if they are not doing it, or we are not helping them do it, how do the relational commands for the church of Jesus take shape? In my view, small groups are the best way to do it (given good leadership), but I would love to hear about other models that are working. Thoughts?

    • Zach,

      You talk as an experienced believer well immersed in the culture of Christianity. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, either. My point is that you are the rarity because you are aware. I would guess that 90 percent of people in a church are not that aware. Yet those are the people we have to involve. But they are out doing other things. They are busy with their lives, being American consumers. It’s a chicken/egg thing with them. To get them to break out they have to grasp the concepts, but to grasp the concepts they have to break out.

      So churches get caught in this weird stasis field, trapped by culture, yet wanting to break into counterculture. The average guy is looking to the other average guy to take the first step. When that other average guy looks to some other average guy, it becomes a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

  5. Excellent piece Dan. I am torn somewhat in that I see the benefits you ascribe to the small group but alas, I’ve also witnessed the indifference of some to get involved despite my best efforts to model and promote small group health. Even the three comments here prior to mine (as of this writing) are interested because you have one from each dynamic.

    I pastor a church plant and we are small for now. We are moving into our own space in a few months after renting from a school for our first three years. We do not have room for a bunch of small groups but we are going to first grow by hosting groups in a more traditional Sunday School model. Why? Several reasons. One is the gas crunch. Being an urban church, I have several families that drive 20-30 miles for worship and they do not want to make extra trips. Even a small group is hard for them given the activities for children available here in Denver. We may host a “family” night through the week with a meal and bible study and a youth night for the kids but by and large, I see a lot of apathy in the small group model. In fact, a church I know of here in my area suffered greatly from untrained laity running a group as it became a “gripe” session on what was wrong with the church. They eventually sucked some other families in and the entire group left the church without even talking to the pastor. He was devastated and had done nothing wrong but because this group had gotten so tight meeting at a local restaurant, they felt they knew more about the church than he did. No where did anyone at any time state that the gossip needed to stop and unity be built within the group for the betterment of the church. It became a selfish, ego grab by a pastor wannabe.

    • Scott,

      Our church of about 300-350 does whole church well, but small groups suffer. That’s no surprise, either. Churches under 500 people tend to do better than larger churches when it comes to “body life.” Still, there a “hide in plain sight” mentality one finds in churches that do whole-church functions well, but suffer when it comes to small groups.

  6. Another problem: Many American Christians view Sunday morning services as sufficient, the standard by which you are considered a member of a church. Sure, you may go to Sunday night, Wednesday night, and small group meetings. But if you do not attend Sunday morning service, then you are not a real member of the church. It would be an interesting experiment, too, for someone to involve himself only in off-Sunday activities of a church for some time and then ask to become a member, telling the church leadership that you are never available for Sunday morning services.

    • Michael,

      Bowling Alone Syndrome and Busyness force people to lie to themselves about what they truly need. Before the 1970s, I think most churches expected people to be involved Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. Now it’s the rare church that still has those formal whole-church meeting times. In truth, I think the rise of the small group killed off those non-Sunday-morning services, but it also came about because of those two other causes. And because nature abhors a vacuum, we found a way to fill those missing church times with other, usually less spiritual, pursuits.

  7. Having changed churches the past year, I went from a very small group focused church (Vineyard) where we tried 3 different small groups and well, none seemed to work out. Two don’t exist and the other still does… but we didn’t fit it. Current church doesn’t have them as we are a small church although we get together a number of times during the month for womens ministries, etc… I do miss that dynamic though. I thought about starting a group of my own (not church specific). I have to pray on that.

    Funny.. I just finished Bowling Alone… I find it interesting that most people now think that a “group” is more like AA or another support group… its stigmatized now. That and when they are run by immature believers, it gets to be a clique filled with gossip. It’s so important mature people run and oversee them.

    I attended a group that personified what Robert Wuthnow said, “Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others.” Yes, we are to be there for each other but when week after week the same people are the center of the group and we are ministering to them… it gets unhealthy.

    I think the shift towards personal responsibility and self feeding is a needed shift. I know our pastor this week alone preached on “grateful Disciples”. People who self feed, and do the work to find the treasure in Christ. Those who are not content to merely pick the gems at the surface of the dirt, but are willing to dig to find the vein of gold are rare and if we are to mature, we must be willing to work and dig.

    I do miss my small group…

    • Ronni,

      I think just about every couple in our Vineyard small group has been the focus at one time or another. I think the maturity of the people involved make the difference there.

      • Oh I understand that and I know it’s necessary… someone is going to need their group and I”m not saying thats wrong…

        …what I was referring to is when the same people are the focus… every week it seems.

        I’ve been the focus when I needed it… and God really ministered to me through that. That is being the church, but if the focus is constantly drawn to the same people every week… that isn’t healthy.

  8. I wonder if the small group was supposed to be the correct model to begin with. I believe that the reason of small group in the Bible was more for persecution sake (easier to have church with numerous small settings where a large church could attract the Roman government and murder all the believers)

    At my previous church, the small group was the way you got discipled during the week and supposedly your counseling / physical needs met. You didn’t call the church, you called the small group leader and if the group couldn’t handle it, the elder got involved and if serious, then the pastor got involved. However, the more I stayed in small groups, the more they weren’t small groups to form relationships with people and pray for each other’s needs, they ended up being ‘agenda armies’. My history of small groups were:

    small group that grew and split into two groups. Group A was now led by a person who worked for a local non-profit ministry that tried to use the group as his ‘freebie labor pool’ to do the tasks the non-profit ministry didn’t want to pay professionals to do (remodeling without proper permits, off-site cooking to where the health department didn’t get involved , etc a ‘loophole ministry’ where loopholes in the law were searched for and used calling it ‘revelation from God’) in the name of ‘servantitude’ and ‘humility’ and the ones who did this ‘servantitude’ and ‘humility’ were considered as being ‘more spiritual’. That one tanked and everyone went to

    Group B – It lasted for three months until the small group pastor disbanded the group one night without reason. Then members were assigned to various groups. We learned later that the leader had committed adultery from ‘the other woman’ herself (long story)

    That should have been the warning sign to leave that church in hindsight at how they tried to cover everything up.

    Group C – This group was ok but lasted for two months when the leader’s father became terminally ill and the group disbanded to where the leader could take care of his father (noble thing to do, I understand) and members were assigned to various groups. I quit going to groups altogether for six months opting to play afternoon golf instead

    Group D – This group started out ok but the leader started becoming politically active and the group turned into a patriotic prayer rally and receiving canned faxes to fax our congressmen for/against certain legislatures. I just drifted away and quit going to groups altogether and left that church months later

    new church is in the group concept. Two years into attending this church, I started going again to a newly-formed group ‘designed for people who didn’t go to groups’ that never was able to really get started when the leader announced that they were going to have to start working evening shifts or face layoff. I quit going to groups altogether. I gave up and became convinced that the group thing was not the way.

    In many ways, I wish we had the old Wednesday Night disciple Hard Core Church-wide Bible studies again at the church. One thing I really noticed in this setting was the unity within the body that the small group setting was suppose to ‘restore’ (I never saw it go away when people prayed for each other and actually cared about each other and ministered needs in the Wednesday night setting) but also one critical thing…

    The ‘agenda’ was the Bible (usually a Bible Book study done in the expository manner) and Jesus and not some man’s ministry or ego-kingdom. Everyone was in sync doctrinally because there was no groups that provided the possibilities of divisive doctrine or heretical re-interpretation of core doctrine. The Pastors or teaching elders (rotated quarterly) taught those once a week sessions and not some Joe who is given a small group leader title because he is charismatic, attracts people, and went away to the weekend small group leader training retreat. Those pastors and elders taught directly from the Bible with sermons based on the Bible and not the popular small group concept of teaching from a #1 Christian bestseller turned workbook, studyguide, clothing line, and a version for every marketing demographic known to man.

    I want the Wednesday night Church back with a qualified pastor or ruling/teaching elder teaching from the Bible.

    • Boy, OFT, that sounds like some bad experiences, for sure. That has not been the case in my own life, by and large. Rarely have I been a part of a group with an agenda. In fact, I wish more of the groups I was in had developed an agenda. Too many had a fuzzy focus that diminished the reason for the group to exist. In the end, I think that’s the main reason most people drift out of groups and explpains why groups falter and wither.

  9. Vince


    I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the reasons for what I would call the successful small group and community life of my church of ten years from 1988-1998, compared to what I would have to call the complete failure of both in every church I’ve been in since then (when I moved back to a different part of the country). Several points come to mind:

    1. Small groups will be unlikely to develop a sense of community or closeness that is absent in the larger group. Obviously small groups are more intimate and the larger group can’t manifest every aspect of that as a unit, but there should be some aspect of the same life in both.

    2. We need to be willing to accept the reality that not every group is going to last forever, nor should they. I don’t know that any group I was in lasted more than a couple of years (except of course the worship team on which I served), but the friendships continue to this day, even from a distance. We need to be okay with the idea of a group serving a larger purpose and then, perhaps, ceasing to exist in its original form.

    3. As long as Christians are taught that God’s “next great move” for their church is the inevitable building project/expansion etc., and they see 90% of the money they give year after year go toward erecting and maintaining edifices while the people in the pews aroud them see basic material needs go unmet the whole time, they will never have a biblical understanding of community.

    4. As our culture becomes increasingly mobile, virtual, disconnected and “technified,” more and more people need basic instruction on the nature of and need for community itself, which instruction I have heard virtually none of – not from pastors, radio ministries, TV preachers, or anyone else. An entire generation has now grown up that doesn’t even have a realistic idea of what countless millions before them understood as “friendship” – their church is MySpace (complete with virtual “friends”), and their best friend is their iPod. They need to be taught so that a mindset can be developed that sees community and connectedness as things genuinely desired, and which adjusts its priorities and pursuits accordingly. Intentional though it must be, genuine community and life-sharing cannot be programmed; they can only develop out of the desires of people’s own hearts.

    5. In my church with the successful community and small group life, one lesson stands out today more than perhaps any other: The sense of community, openness and friendship must be genuinely manifested by the leadership, or it will never be manifested in the life of those they’re leading. I’m not saying the pastor is supposed to be everybody’s “bud” – it’s wrong even to expect that – but I am saying that leaders who are not genuinely open an approachable will never see real, authentic community life under their ministry. There may be groups from time to time, but I firmly believe they will not exhibit the kind of freedom or truthfulness necessary for real body life. My pastor and elders during those ten years were respected, but they were also open, approachable, inquisitive, interested in us as individuals, and completely without airs. Compare this with churches where the leaders, especially the senior pastor, are considered separate, above the rest, and not to be bothered, etc. I’ve been in churches where the pastor was considered “above” the flock and treated almost as an untouchable high priest. I have never seen real community or deep, lasting friendships develop in that kind of atmosphere. There may be a form of one or the other, but in my experience, it’s guarded, insulated, and not often truthful beyond a superficial level. (All one need do to evaluate their own situation in this regard is ask themselves how much of their own problems, secret burdens and moral failures they would feel safe sharing with their pastors or elders.) Leaders can’t expect those in their care to develop a sense of relationship that they don’t model themselves.

    Just a few thoughts. I’ve seen evidence that “simple church” and some house churches around the country are rediscovering real community, but I share your lack of optimism for the future of the small group in the mainline church, for some of the reasons I’ve stated here.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Vince,

      You have some excellent analysis in your #4 and #5 comments.

      I disagree strongly with your first two points, though. I think small groups can and should stay together for years and make that a priority. We have too much mobility in our society, making it impossible to forge any level on genuine intimacy with others. The end result is that we take few relationships seriously and lack what it takes to be committed to anything, especially if that anything exists outside the walls of our homes. If we can’t commit to a small group, then what can we commit to? We’re not going to find a great deal of intimacy in a large church setting. In fact, the entire megachurch model assumes that people want to be anonymous in the seats. That’s not only socially deviant, it strikes at the heart of what it means to be a church.

      I’m scratching my head at your comment that small groups can’t be the place to find relational intimacy. I’m on the complete opposite side of that view. I think they are one of the few places where you CAN find relational intimacy. I know that small groups have been at the core of my own relational life, with almost all my close friends being a part of the small groups I am currently a part of.

      • Vince


        If you got from my first point that small groups can’t be the place to find relational intimacy, then I expressed myself badly, because that was definitely not what I was saying. Of course small groups are the main place to find that. All of the lasting relationships I mentioned came out of small groups. What I said (or meant) was that if you get or witness no sense of relationship, or at least hint of one, as you mix with the larger group, it’s unlikely that you’re going to see much more of it when you enter a small group from the same crowd. I was trying to be concise, but I should have made it clear that I was working backward, as it were, off my point #4. When the large group consists mainly of people who don’t really have a sense of community of their own, and some of them decide that, “Okay, we’re going to have a small group,” what often results (in my experience) is a forced, over-programmed routine that people quickly tire of because of the lack of real life in that group. I may have been overinterpreting things from my own observations, but I just don’t think the “feel” of a large group should be so radically different when said group is made up of a lot of people from healthy small groups. (This may indeed break down at a certain size, certainly at the megachurch level. Still, the one semi-megachurch I tried unsuccesfully to connect with – 12,000 members – had a very detached feel and not much in the way of small groups either.)

        To answer your question, “If we can’t commit to a small group, then what can we commit to?”, we can commit the the relationships formed in the group, regardless of what eventually happens to the group as a structured activity. There are seasons for everything, and I don’t believe that the prime directive of a group should be the maintenance of the group per se, it should be the forming of relationships. If God calls members of a group to something different after a few years, but the relationships are still strong and lasting, how is that a failure? And who’s to say they won’t do something (relationally) bigger and better somewhere down the road? There may be a bit of my own “programmaphobia” in this, but I believe we should let God be God, and not assume that every group we form can only be a success if it stays in that form permanently.

  10. bob pinto

    Just a few randoms thoughts and experiences.

    TV is a major interference for any community setting. Did sheer boredom and the escape from the humdrum of homelife drive us to visit neighbors, relatives, civic groups or church groups in times past?

    I try to fight my own inward introverted mindset. Being shy to begin with is bad enough, but my father spent all his time on the couch or out into town associating with his various friends and clubs. I didn’t learn social skills.

    I attended a mega church 25+ miles from my house because it was close to where my step-grandkids lived and I wanted to get them involved. I took them to youth night while at the same time attended a small men’s group.
    That fell into what a previous commenter said about one extrovert demanding all the attention. I’d introduced myself to people and the next time we’d meet they’d ignore me again and associate with their established friends. I left after a year and nobody noticed or knew my name.

    My wife falls into a category that’s not too uncommon with women. They, for whatever reason, became so involved with child rearing that they did not know how to talk with an adult. Their husband is perpetually out or absent.

    In your various small groups are kids allowed?

    And what if your income is less than everyone else’s and that is evidenced every time you meet?

    My present economic condition means harder work for less money and at best I can muster dragging myself to special choir practices for holidays. And another factory closure means the only job left is truck driving. With that I can kiss goodbye any hope of community involvement.

    I don’t enjoy being a lone wolf. There seem to be hindrances of all kinds to small groups, be it our own making or from others’.

  11. Fred


    It strikes me that the discussion of small groups is unavoidably intertwined with the passages in Acts that you have cited regarding the prosperity gospel. That is, small groups are unnecessary provided that we are living the way it appears that God intends the church to live (i.e., communally). It is apparent that we are guided much more by our culture than we are by our faith. Of course, that begs the question, if you could live communally in a faith community, would you? Anything less strikes me as well, less.

    • Early Christians sold excess goods to support each other, but I do not believe all of them lived together. Some certainly invited others to live with them, but I would not advocate communal living as a rule. The potential for abuse is too great. You sell all that you have and move into the commune. The leadership turns away from God (as Paul warned the Ephesians). You object. They kick you out. You have nowhere to live now. Some people go along to get along in a situation like that. How many Christians have stomached sin in the church because they do not want to forsake the church building they have attended for years?

      I have not moved into an intentional community because I suspect a leader would kick me out of bed at 4 AM for prayers, give my bowl of organic breakfast gruel to an able-bodied homeless man so I can learn the value of fasting, work me from morning till night in various side businesses as they pen sermons and books in air-conditioned offices, and when I, exhausted, penniless, and unsure what spiritual benefit I am getting out of it, object to my leader, he tells me: “I intended to do that.”

  12. Small groups?

    I run the other way.

    Dan, it seems to me that in most in most churches, the church members orbit around a professionalized pastor (albeit one who might have an attractive charisma and personality…I was in a megachurch like that for a long time).

    Anyhow, at least around this neck of the woods, “small groups” turned out to be just another vehicle whereby the pastor maintained tight control over things.

    My 2¢ worth

    • Oengus,

      I have truly never experienced that “small group as proxy for pastoral control” thing. In fact, quite the opposite. The pastoral staff usually had no idea what was going on in the small groups.

  13. Oengus:

    I can very easily see that happening. A very good friend of mine was in a church where small groups were used in the method you mentioned. The small group leaders (he was one) had to fill out attendance reports and reports on what was discussed, prayed for, and forward them to the small groups pastor and to mention ‘dissenting opinions’ and who started it.. Plus, the small group was really a ‘re-hashing’ of the Sunday Sermon as to how did you apply it in your life that week.

    Even though I never experienced this in the many small groups I mentioned in my previous post, I had heard stories of small groups in that church (through some of my friends) where the leaders were known to fall head-over-heels with the ‘cutting edge anointings’, the ‘next level spirituality’ and the ‘new teachings divinely revealed to them by God’ that the small groups became places where small group leaders not properly held accountable brought these teachings into the small group settings and caused some bad teachings and practices to take place and come forth and a giant mess to clean up and correct.

  14. A few years ago, 80% of my church was in a small group. Over time, the groups have lost steam for various reasons and now we have only one active group, comprised of people age 60+. We have discussed moving away from the small group model in favor of missional communities. My concern is whether we will be discussing the ineffectiveness of missional communities the same way we discuss the shortcomings of small groups a few years from now.

    You wrote this piece almost 8 years ago. What do you think a good concept is for today? I’m leaning toward the MC’s of Verge Network with caution not to be overly invested in the model:

    An interesting take on Small Groups. Money quote: Small groups don’t make disciples. Disciples make disciples:

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