“In the past we put all this effort and energy on trying to get people to meet in homes, meet in groups in homes, and for the amount of impact it actually had, oh man, it’s just so much work, and effort, and energy for so little actual fruit” said Jud Wilhite, pastor of Central Christian Church, Las Vegas, in a recent episode (245) of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast). This statement caused my ears to perk up along with many of yours.

I usually don’t write reactionary posts, but a number of you have reached out to me and asked what I thought. I’ve wrestled with a response over the last couple of months since the podcast aired. I have great respect for both Carey and Jud and have followed both of them for years. In fact, Carey’s podcast is one of only four podcasts that I don’t miss an episode.

Why Is Central Abandoning Groups?

Well, they aren’t abandoning groups completely, but they are changing focus to have people join serving teams instead of groups. Jud continued,

“We see people that serve, they are more active in their church attendance, they give more faithfully financially, significantly more than people in groups and in general we see that they’re more engaged in the ministry. So the shift for us under this whole idea of join a team is we’re gonna continue to do groups, we’re gonna continue to offer groups ministry but the shift is we’re creating hundreds of weekend serving teams and these teams are where people will get their sense of community. They may meet a little bit early or stay a little bit late as a group and do things as a group but they’re serving primarily as their way of giving back.”

But, this is not the only issue here. ” Here’s another assumption and this I think will be different in different areas but I feel like this is a fairly generous one for the Las Vegas area particularly, the people will give us two to four live attendance opportunities in a month. Two to four live attendance opportunities in a month. So if they go to a small group that’s one,” Jud adds.

Actually if they go to group once per week, then that’s all four live attendance opportunities per month. What I am hearing is that if people go to a group, they aren’t attending on the weekend worship service. But, if people connect through serve teams that are attached to the weekend service, then attendance will increase. But, ultimately, what goals is the church trying to achieve?

Community is significant. And community can be formed through serve teams. I completely agree. Research has shown, however, that small groups influence the group members’ attendance, giving, serving, spiritual growth, and outreach even more strongly. (See The Senior Pastors Guide to Groups for the complete research.) So, why isn’t Central Christian Church experiencing these healthy results of groups? Do groups just not work in Las Vegas?

A Church Will Follow the Senior Pastor’s Lead

Another church in Las Vegas, Canyon Ridge Christian Church, which is in the same city and in the same Independent Christian Church movement, boasts 70 percent of their 5,000 adults in groups. What’s the difference?

The senior pastor of Canyon Ridge is a big advocate for groups. The church will follow the senior pastor’s lead. If the senior pastor is primarily concerned with attendance on the weekend, then the focus will shift to ministries that support the weekend. If the senior pastor is primarily concerned with spiritual growth and disciple-making, then the focus shifts to small groups. Senior pastors are concerned with both, but their primary concern will drive the direction and mission of the church, whether it’s evangelism, leadership, disciple-making, growth, or whatever else.

Community is Not Disciple-Making

Many churches define discipleship as a course of study or acquiring a body of knowledge that makes someone a disciple of Jesus. Most churches deliver discipleship in some sort of uniform pathway that every person in the church is expected to follow. This would work, except it doesn’t. Both anecdotally and statistically, it’s clear that people who are very knowledgeable about the Bible or regularly attend worship services don’t necessarily reflect what they’ve been taught in their actions and attitudes. Teaching, by itself, does not produce transformation.

Often groups have been relegated to the purpose of connection or assimilation. While groups will help people to stick around longer, connection is the least of what small groups will do. Jesus did not use groups or serve teams to assimilate the 5,000 He fed with five loaves and two fishes. He invested Himself in the lives of 12 men. These were His disciples.

Disciples are not mass produced. They are crafted. Weekend services are a great motivator for further action, but weekend services by themselves do not make disciples. People learn through imitation, not instruction. By de-emphasizing communities where people grow, churches lose the ability to help people practically apply great teaching from the weekend services to their lives. Groups offer the support and accountability necessary to change.

“It Might Not Even Work,”

Jud confesses this in the podcast.

Carey replied, “We haven’t got six months of data on this one.”

This is my biggest beef with this episode. Over 75 percent of this conversation between Jud and Carey was outstanding. In fact, they could have talked all day without going there with groups. I am a huge fan of new ideas. I am a huge fan of innovation. I am not a fan of tossing out unproven ideas. If they had saved these thoughts about groups and serving and talked about it a year from now, I would not be writing this post. Here’s the other thing: I think this new strategy will work at Central to connect people and increase their weekend attendance. But, discipleship loses here.

Going back a few paragraphs, the church will follow the pastor’s lead. Jud seems passionate about connecting people through serving teams and increasing attendance to the weekend services. His people will follow his lead. But, are they making disciples?

Concluding Thoughts

I hesitated to write this post because of my respect for Carey Nieuwhof and Jud Wilhite both. (I like them so much that I can type both of their names without checking the spelling.) I know these guys take a lot of hits, and I don’t want to do a thing to discourage them in any way. They are doing important Kingdom work. But, I needed to raise a flag on this one.

For further thinking on this:

What’s the Right ROI for Your Small Group Ministry by Mark Howell

The Senior Pastors Guide to Groups by Allen White

Listen to or Read the full episode 245 of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast with Jud Wilhite.

What other podcasts do I listen to? The other three are How I Built This with Guy Roz, Akimbo with Seth Godin, and Storybrand with Donald Miller. I dabble in about two dozen other podcasts.

Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Both Carey Nieuwhof and Jud Wilhite received an advance copy of this post and were invited to comment.

Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.