5 of the Biggest Mistakes Traditional Churches Make with Small Groups

Churches planted in the last 10-15 years have it figured out.

The next time you walk into their coffee bar/welcome center/book store, I’ll bet that somewhere beyond the latte steam and fantastic mood lighting, you will most likely see an advertisement or two about: how you can join a small group!

IMG_2228They push small groups every week. And I do mean, every week—from the stage. If you’re not in one—you gotta sign up, if you’re in one—you gotta invite someone, and hey, maybe you should take the next step and actually lead one. They have small groups for young marrieds, old marrieds, singles, young parents, grandparents, three-legged ballerinas, and on and on and on.

To their credit, they have discovered how to leverage the fact that life change doesn’t happen in rows… it happens in circles (thanks Andy Stanley). Cool worship services and Disney-like children’s ministry environments will not, in themselves, transform lives. They can (and often do) serve as a gateway, but transformation requires community.

Ah yes, community—the foundation of the Christian life. Transformation, a.k.a. greater Christ-likeness, is a byproduct of community with fellow Christ-followers. Life in the Holy Spirit can only be done alongside other Christians who submit, test, and affirm the work of the Spirit together. Even the Trinity is a community unto which we are invited! Okay, let’s move on.

If you’re in a historic church (planted over 50 years ago) and/or a denominational church, you may have purchased hundreds of dollars of resources at Christian conferences that featured the non-denominational model. And, with high hopes you brought those beautifully packaged plans home only to see them… fall flat.

 Where’s the buy-in? Where’s the commitment? Where’s the desire to grow? How do I get my money back?

Don’t lose heart! Traditional churches can have a wonderful small group culture! BUT it takes a different (and creative) approach. It takes great creativity and intentionality. You can (I often do) buy those small group packages, but you’ll have to re-package them for your context.

One of the reasons why is because traditional churches are much more generationally diverse—which means you must speak the language of Builders, Boomers, Xers, Millennials, and whatever they call the teenage generation. They all speak very different languages and have very different ideas about small groups.

But you are smart. If you’re ordained, you had to pass biblical Greek and Hebrew—you’re really smart! You are also a leader. You know your people. The key is to start with where you’re people are and move them forward just a little at a time. To help you on your way, here are some things to avoid. I’ve had to learn almost all of these the hard way—so here’s to hoping it saves you the agony!




 Most of the pre-packaged programs you will see are quite literally, one program. Life groups, cell groups (old school), home groups—whatever they’re called, lead you to believe that you must have a small groups model that everyone should fit in to. Sometimes this is intentional… sometimes it’s just our perception.

For example: Ben, Sarah, and their three young daughters, Giselle, Gretchen, and Jordyn (obviously Millennial parents) have been attending since Christmas. They are approached about joining a life group that meets once a week in someone’s home… Jane, a 50-year-old divorcee has been struggling since her divorce and is looking for connection. She is approached about joining a life group that meets once a week in someone’s home… Pick a person—everyone knows what to invite them to.

 The advantage to this model is on the invitation end. Everyone knows where to invite people. This idea can definitely work IF you have a fairly homogenous congregation (especially generationally), IF your congregation (from the beginning) has lifted up this brand of small group participation, and/or IF you have enough diversity in your groups to invite them to cultural-specific groups (i.e., 20-something life groups, 30-something single life groups, etc.).

But most of our traditional churches are not this way. You will do better to start with targeted demographics to launch a particular model—and let the demographics select the model.

In my church we have: Presbyterian Women’s Circles (once a month), Men’s Breakfast Bible Studies (once a week), a Men’s Life Group (30-40-year-olds, twice a month in the evening), Women’s Starting Point[1] Groups (once a week in the afternoon), Mixed Starting Point Groups (twice a month in the evening), Community Groups (young couples, college, mixed—meeting at various times in homes), and more.

We aren’t there yet, but we are really moving once we let go of the one-size-fits-all approach.


 Listen, even the big non-denominational churches don’t have 100% participation. In fact they usually have way less than 50% and they have a rockin’ small group culture. Don’t see this as an all or nothing endeavor in order for it to be successful.

First of all, redefine your idea of small groups to make sure you include the groups that already exist—and they are out there. Those long-time bible studies, circles, or prayer groups all count. Try and estimate how many of your people are engaged in some kind of small group and work toward increasing that number by offering a couple new opportunities a year.

This is the important part. You must have new opportunities on a regular basis. There’s a reason some of your folks haven’t been coming to the existing groups—one of those reasons is because they are afraid of being too far behind, or afraid of being the only new people. Have you ever been to someone else’s family reunion? You are a complete outsider who doesn’t know the inside jokes, the family history, stories, etc. A new group makes them feel like they aren’t the only newbies. Offer new groups as often as you can!

Take a broad view of success. Ask yourself, are we further along in developing a small group culture here at this church than we were last month or last year? Boom—success.


 Offering new groups without getting people to feel the need for new groups is kind of like convincing people to wear napkin-bibs before they’ve ordered lunch. They won’t put that thing on unless they know they’re eating barbecue… and even then, maybe.

Okay, weird example, but the point is the same: until they feel the need in their lives, they most likely will not participate. Use the need for small groups as sermon application points. Talk about it with leaders, staff, anyone who will listen. Start a new group with your staff (because they’re already paid to be there) and share stories with the congregation about how powerful the experience has been. Better yet, get congregation members who were skeptical about groups to get up and share a couple minutes on the life transformation that happened once they participated.

Sell the vision. Vision doesn’t happen by itself. It must be communicated, and then communicated again. You can’t over-communicate vision.

Here’s the thing, nobody needs extra meetings or time commitments. Your people want to feel that taking a risk and joining a small group is worth it. Show them it is, and you will grow your groups.


 This probably should be #1 because it’s so important. I’m even going to all-cap this next sentence. IF YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT KIND OF LEADER(S) DO NOT LAUNCH A SMALL GROUP.

Finding leaders is tough. You will be tempted to just be the default leader. And, at first, you might have to be. But, we both know the only way to grow small groups is to recruit and train leaders. This will require you to be more selective than you want to be.

Don’t put an ad in the bulletin soliciting leaders. Then, you’re stuck with whoever shows up. You must proactively find those people who you think would be great and make the ask. The worst thing is to have the wrong leader. They could be wrong because of personality, theology, skill-set, heart, agenda—lot’s of reasons. Trust me, it’s better to wait to launch than to launch without good leadership. It may destroy the perception of everything you’re trying to build.


I’m a big fan of honest evaluation. It’s the only way to truly know if you are on the right track. It’s like those restaurant renovation shows. Have you seen these? Basically, the restaurant guru will start with an honest evaluation of the business. My favorite part is when they take a camera into the kitchen and show how disgustingly dirty it is, how gross the food looks (and tastes), and how the fryer oil hasn’t been changed in a month. Usually the restaurant owners either cry or get angry or both.

But this is a necessary step to getting on the right track. You have to know what’s broken if you are going to fix it.

Or, the flip-side could be true: your small groups might be wildly popular but you have no idea why because you didn’t evaluate. Now you can only pray you can repeat the magic with new groups you launch but you probably won’t because you don’t know why it worked to begin with.

Sit down with a few leaders and check-in regularly—this will keep you moving in the right direction.

Remember, God is with you! Nobody wants your congregation to experience growth in Christian community more than God does. Get your people from rows to circles and watch the Spirit transform lives! You’ll be glad you didn’t give up.

Question for follow up: What small group strategies have worked for you?

[1] Starting Point