7 Questions for Starting (or Restarting) a Small Group Ministry

7 Questions for Starting (or Restarting) a Small Group Ministry

Starting or restarting a small group ministry requires more than just copying another church’s small group model wholesale. Every church is unique – geographically, doctrinally, denominationally, ethnically, and historically. While there are many exceptional small group models, none of them is a custom fit to your church’s needs. One size simply doesn’t fit all. The following questions will guide you in focusing your small groups to meet the needs of those you serve.

Image by Eak K. from Pixabay

#1 What purpose will your groups fulfill?

“Well, our groups will do everything for everybody,” said no one who’s ever led a successful small group ministry. Very few enterprises can successfully cater to everybody. The least common denominator might be Walmart. I shop at Walmart a lot. I enjoy the discounts. But, Walmart is not a store for everybody. Not every customer is Walmart’s target audience (See what I did there?)

No single model of small groups is for everybody. What do you want small groups to achieve in your church? Are the groups for fellowship, Bible study, Bible application, sermon application, serving, missions, evangelism, care, support, or a variety of other purposes? If your answer is “Yes! All of the above!” I’ll break it to you: no they’re not. A group with multiple purposes will devolve to being a group focused on the purpose the members understand and are the most passionate about.

But, does that mean that groups can only do one thing? Certainly not. But, what is the main thing? By stating the purpose of your small groups, you are also stating what your groups are not. For example, “Our small groups focus on Bible application.” This means that while the application of God’s Word will involve serving, care, and evangelism, the groups are not support groups for life-controlling problems. And, that’s okay. You can have other groups for recovery.

What purpose do you want your small groups to fulfill?

#2 What groups do you already have?

Whether your church has intentionally started small groups or not, your church already has groups. Think about your current Bible studies, fellowship groups, Sunday school classes, serving teams, missions teams, or any other group of people who gathers on a regular basis. Do they fulfill the stated purpose for small groups in your church? If they meet most of the requirements, then keep them. If they only meet a few of the objectives, then phase the missing objectives into the group. If the groups are resistant to change, then phase them out over time. You don’t need to do anything immediately (unless you have the gift of martyrdom).

When we think about existing groups in a church, we typically go to the formal groups described in the previous paragraph. But, there are many informal groups – families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others. As I wrote on the first page of Exponential Groups, “Everyone is already in a group.” How can you invite your people to gather the groups they are already in and do something intentional about their spiritual growth? After all, groups of friends tend to last longer than groups of strangers.

#3 Why do your people want groups? (I didn’t ask why you think they should join a group).

Let’s move beyond your job description of taking over the world with small groups. Why do your people want to join a group? What do they need – connection, friendship, study, accountability, spiritual growth, adult conversations, support, encouragement? Are they motivated by improving their lives, becoming more like Christ, or seeking to alleviate their pain? What’s in it for them other than giving up a Tuesday night when they could be staying at home?

You will notice that I’ve asked more questions than given answers for this one. I don’t have the answer for you. You need to ask your people. If they have been reluctant or resistant to the idea of groups, why do they feel that way? Are you offering what they need? Or do you just have a “product” looking for a “customer”? What story are you telling your congregation about small groups? How does that story intersect with their stories? Ask them. Survey them. Meet with them.

#4 What will you require for someone to start a group?

Notice I said “start” a group and not “lead” a group. “Leader” is a loaded word. Maybe you don’t need a “leader” to start a group. But, beyond semantics, what is a risk you are willing to take? And, what seems too risky?

Some churches have high qualifications for leadership, as they should. But, is having that type of leader the only way to start a group? What if people gathered their friends? What if you didn’t advertise those groups? Do they need to be saved and baptized? Should they be a church member? How much training and experience do they need? Is a Master of Divinity required?

When you think about the requirements for leaders, you also need to consider why someone would want to lead. Most of your people are avowed non-leaders, so how do you get them to lead? Here are some thoughts.

What is required to start (not lead) a group at your church?

#5 How will you support the leaders?

The key to a successful and ever-expanding small group ministry rests in your ability to multiply yourself. If you cannot multiply yourself, then you will get stuck and stay stuck. The groups at my first church got stuck at 30%. That’s a very common place to get stuck. I also figured out how to get unstuck.

The best way to support leaders is through coaching. Coaching is customizable to the needs of each leader. Coaching delivers just-in-time training when the leader has a question. Coaching helps leaders determine their next steps. Coaching is hard work to get started.

How will you support your leaders? Training and meetings will get you partway there. But, sitting people in rows and lecturing them doesn’t accomplish very much. Are they paying attention? Are they committed to what you’re teaching them? Will they remember what they were taught? Training has its part, but coaching is a superior means of training.

When you look at your current leaders and other mature people in your church, who cares enough to walk alongside leaders? Oh, and here’s a great resource: Becoming Barnabas: The Ministry of Coming Alongside by Robert E. Logan and Tara Miller.

#6 What will the groups study?

The great thing about small groups is that they can offer variety to your people and pursue topics that interest the group. If you have 100 small groups and they are studying 100 different things – well, that’s just about perfect.

Some churches prefer to have their groups follow a weekly sermon discussion guide. There’s a certain genius in this approach. Some churches offer seasonal church-wide campaigns. This is a great first step in a leadership development process. But, in all of these efforts, as Brett Eastman says, “Let the exceptions be the exceptions.” Not every group needs to do the discussion guide or join the church-wide campaign…and that’s okay.

New groups, however, don’t really have much of an opinion of what they should study. Give them something. In fact, for the first two or three studies, the new groups will follow your recommendation. After that, they will want a little more variety.

What will your groups study? I’m old school – I think small groups should study the Bible.

#7 What is your church leadership’s goal for groups?

We probably should have started with this question, or made it #2 after “Why do your people want groups?” What does your leadership wish to accomplish with groups? If they’ve stated a goal of being a church OF small groups, then how do they plan to get there? (I’ll give you a hint: a single small group model will not connect 100% of your people into groups in most cases. But, you’re not limited to using just one model.)

What is your church’s leadership passionate about? Align small groups to follow those passions. After all people in groups will serve more, give more, attend more, reach more, and grow more than people who are not in groups. These findings are research-based: Sharing the Journey by Robert Wuthnow, Transformational Groups by Ed Stetzer and Eric Geiger, the 2020 Megachurch Report by Dr. Warren Bird and Dr. Scott Thumma. (One study is 30 years old and another is a year old — all three validate each other).

Wherever your leadership is headed, small groups will get you there.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re starting a new small group ministry or restarting small groups that stalled out, mull these questions over. Talk to your leadership. Talk to your people. As Andy Stanley says, “Your direction, not your intention, determines your destination.” Where do you, your pastors, and your people want to go?

Looking to start or restart your small group ministry, let me guide you step by step. The Small Group Reset is a free, on-demand video resource. Get started now!

When Big Goes Small: How Large Churches Are Learning From Those With Less

When Big Goes Small: How Large Churches Are Learning From Those With Less

I was recently interviewed by Aaron Earls on the trend toward launching multisite campuses through microsites. As I have blogged previously, microsites start in homes for the purpose of gathering people for a weekend service. Microsites are not a small groups, but can certainly create small groups very readily. Below is the article that appeared in Lifeway’s Facts and Trends magazine.
By Aaron Earls big-goes-small
The popular image of an American megachurch as a sprawling campus surrounding a massive worship center drawing thousands of attendees every Sunday needs some updating.
Even as most continue to draw in more worshipers, the typical megachurch sanctuary is shrinking. And some of the largest churches from California to South Carolina are planting their new campuses in the smallest of sites—homes. This comes as church leaders realize sustained growth of their congregation and spiritual growth of their people will come from going small.
Multisite and Microsites
In the last five years, the typical megachurch’s main sanctuary decreased in size from 1,500 seats to a median of 1,200, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report from Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
The move to smaller sanctuaries is an outgrowth of the burgeoning multisite church movement. Instead of building a large church and asking people to come to one place, megachurches are building smaller spaces in more places.
Since 2000, churches with multiple campuses have grown steadily from 23 percent to more than 60 percent of all megachurches, according to the 2015 Megachurch Report. “Megachurches have shifted their philosophy from building bigger and bigger,” says Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, “to spreading further and further.”
In the midst of this, a new trend is emerging. Larger churches are now launching microsite campuses. “Microsite is a much smaller version of a multisite campus that meets in a home or another small space,” says Allen White, a pastor and church consultant in South Carolina. The Rock Church in San Diego, California, and NewSpring Church in South Carolina are two megachurches that have added microsites to their multisite approach, according to White.
Instead of securing a larger temporary location such as a school or movie theater, for a microsite, a church identifies an area of the city or community it wants to reach and often begins meeting in the home of a member there. “A microsite can pop up as quickly as a sandwich shop,” says White. “All that’s needed are local leaders, resources to train them, and video for the services.”
White says these microsites allow larger churches to experiment. “If it blows up, that’s how experiments go,” he says.
Megachurches may need that infusion of experimentation. A study shows that megachurches—once hailed as a new way to experience church—may be getting stuck in their ways.
In 2010, more than half (54 percent) of megachurches strongly agreed they were willing to change to meet new realities. In 2015, according to the Megachurch Report, that number plummeted to 37 percent.
As churches grow larger and older, they can lose flexibility. Adding microsites or other innovations allows churches to regain some of what was lost. Those microsites are one of the ways in which larger churches are trying to recapture the essence of being small.
Why Megachurches Go Small
Larger churches often recognize what small churches might miss—there are advantages to being little. Through small groups, multisite campuses, and now microsites, those megachurches are attempting to continue their growth while retaining small-church benefits.
“Churches are taking advantage of Dunbar’s number,” says Bob Whitesel, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan University and church growth expert. Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, found humans can comfortably maintain only around 150 stable relationships. Beyond that, says Whitesel, “relationships don’t seem to have much depth.”
This is why he believes many churches stall around this plateau. “Once it gets bigger than that, people stop inviting others because they no longer know everyone else at church,” he says.
It’s incumbent on large church leaders to capitalize on smaller groups that organically emerge in the church. Whitesel calls these “sub-congregations,” and they mirror other numbers Dunbar found in his research. Groups of 50 can unite around a task, such as the music ministry or preschool volunteers. Small group gatherings of 15 have the feel of an extended family, and groups of five are intimate connections.
These numbers have been seen not only in sociological research but also in church history, Whitesel says. “In the Wesleyan revivals, every leader had to be involved in what they called ‘Band Meetings’ of five individuals. Larger groups of 15 were called ‘Class Meetings.’”
With this sociological and historical support, church consulting experts identify at least four areas that can be more easily developed in smaller churches.
Accountability — With larger churches, anonymity is easier. Attendees can sneak in late, sit in the back of an enormous sanctuary, and leave without interacting with anyone. But this leaves individuals prone to slipping away from the church as quickly as they slipped in.
Whitesel says smaller numbers allow people to “connect with a group that brings accountability and interdependency.” If the church goes through changes, being connected to a smaller group—be it a campus or a small group—serves as glue to hold people in place.
Community — The main benefit larger churches can gain from going small, according to Allen White, is connection and community. “Everyone desires the experience of being known and accepted,” he says.
Microsite campuses allow much larger churches to “meld together the feel of a small group with the production of a large church,” White says.
Leadership growth — As with accountability, attendees at a megachurch may be tempted to avoid leadership. They may feel intimidated by the size of the church or a lack of education and training. Going small forces new people into leadership roles.
“Once a church is able to train and deploy staff or volunteers to lead a microsite campus, then the number of campuses is limited only to available space and willing leaders,” says White. The opportunities for involvement and leadership are endless, and in smaller settings many may feel more comfortable taking the reins of a ministry.
Reproducibility — Thousand-seat arenas aren’t on every corner to start a new megachurch, but that’s not a problem for microsites or small churches. The ease at which microsites can begin makes it possible for them to go viral, according to White.
This type of planting churches and starting new sites is not exclusive to megachurches. LifeWay Research’s analysis of more than 800 church plants found more than 1 in 5 were launched from a church with an average attendance below 100. The clear majority (60 percent) were started by churches of fewer than 500.
As churches quickly reproduce, mistakes will be made, and they’ll learn what not to do. But White says this means the church is trying to fulfill her mission. “The church as a whole has spent too many years perfecting ministry, but not producing disciples,” he says.
Going small allows larger churches to produce faithful disciples in new contexts outside the gigantic arena.


AARON EARLS (Aaron.Earls@LifeWay.com) is online editor of FactsAndTrends.net.
UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, NewSpring Church has moved all of their microsite campuses to larger portable locations. They outgrew all of the houses!
DISCLAIMER: Before you launch microsites in your church, check with local zoning regulations as well as HOA policies and fire regulations. If microsites become too large, they can cause parking problems as well as other potential headaches for neighbors. It might be wise to rotate microsites between different homes to alleviate any neighborhood issues.

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