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Small Group Models

Learn more about common small group models


Open small groups have space available for visitors and new members. Most of these groups generally remain "open" all the time, meaning there is no limit to the amount of new people who can join. Some will begin a birthing process for a new group once a specific number of regular attenders is reached. Other models "close" their groups once they reach a certain size—often between 8 and 12 regular members.

Open groups often symbolize their desire for visitors and new members by keeping an "empty chair" present in the gathering, and then praying for the person who will soon occupy that chair.


Strength 1: Open groups are outreach friendly and a proven tool for multiplication.
Strength 2: They help group members stay focused on evangelism and encourage regular prayer for unbelievers.
Strength 3: They allow for greater flexibility within a small-groups ministry.

Weakness 1: Some feel that open groups limit the potential for deeper intimacy, accountability, and trust.
Weakness 2: If not controlled, open groups can grow to a size that damages the community feel of a small-group experience.
Weakness 3: Open groups often do not inspire a high level of commitment.

Closed small groups limit the number of participants in order to focus on building trust, intimacy, and accountability between group members. Once a group starts, new members and visitors are generally discouraged from attending meetings. Closed groups usually convene for a specific period of time before "opening" back up to welcome new members. This time period can last anywhere from a semester of study to several years.


Strength 1:The members of a closed small group generally have a high expectation for discipleship and spiritual growth.
Strength 2:Closed groups provide an opportunity for deeper levels of trust and accountability.
Strength 3:Closed groups require a high level of commitment from their members.

Weakness 1:Closed groups can hinder the practice of relational evangelism, as "seeking" friends and family are prohibited from joining.
Weakness 2:Some believe that closed groups have a tendency to become inward-focused, which can eventually lead to cliques, gossip, bitterness, and so on.
Weakness 3:Closed groups do not provide much flexibility for the overall small-groups ministry.

The Cell Group models views small groups as the basic unit of a church congregation, much like an organic cell is the basic unit of a human body. Thus, small groups are not treated as "one program among many," but are necessary. Four key items make up the DNA of a cell group: worship, edification, relational evangelism, and discipleship. And if operating properly, each cell group will grow and multiply on its own, transferring this DNA from group to group.

Cell groups usually have between 5 and 15 members; they prefer to meet weekly in addition to "doing life together" between gatherings.


Strength 1:Cell groups are intentional about creating full-bodied disciples of Christ.
Strength 2:Cell groups are a practical and effective way to build a culture of discipleship within a local church.
Strength 3:Cell groups focus on relational evangelism and are a proven way to grow the kingdom of God.

Weakness 1:Elevating the importance of small groups beyond other ministries sometimes causes cell groups to withdraw from the rest of the church and become isolated.
Weakness 2:The cell structure lacks flexibility and can be rigid within an overall small-groups ministry.
Weakness 3:The emphasis on evangelism and numerical growth can potentially limit the level of trust and intimacy within a group.

Groups form around specific interests, topics, or affinities. The goal is to transform an interest group into a spiritual community through relationships and spiritual practices. Groups may be large or small, and topics are developed by the leader.

A key assumption behind this model is that people don't want to be told what to do. They want choices. Another assumption is that, like businesses in a free-market economy, healthy groups will flourish while unhealthy groups will die. As a result, churches should encourage a diversity of small groups and allow things to thrive or whither naturally.


Strength 1:Starting a group is easy, and groups are ideally formatted for fellowship and relational development.
Strength 2:Effective for evangelism because the groups are organized around hobbies or common interests.
Strength 3:Leaders form the vision for their groups based on their own individual passions and skills, rather than adapting to the church's vision.

Weakness 1:A broad definition of small groups can over-inflate the number of people actually participating in meaningful discipleship.
Weakness 2:Groups may not be focused on spiritual formation and growth.
Weakness 3:Groups are often transitory, which can be a detriment to any genuine intimacy and connection between members.

This model is centered on the belief that community happens more deeply and naturally when people "do life together" on a regular basis. Thus, small groups are assembled based on geography, with people of different ages and social affinities forming groups within their neighborhoods. A church's coaching/shepherding structure is also based on geography, with each coach supervising a specific region (often based on elementary school districts).


Strength 1:Geographical proximity provides more chances for group members to spontaneously interact and develop intimacy.
Strength 2:Geographical proximity also removes the "commuter" mentality from a small-group ministry, which can save a lot of time for group members.
Strength 3:This model can help group members connect with an early-church view of community, such as the one described in Acts 2.Cell groups focus on relational evangelism and are a proven way to grow the kingdom of God.

Weakness 1:A church's rigid application of this model can produce negative consequences for groups that are strongly influenced by affinity, such as young adults.
Weakness 2:This model severely limits choices for small-group members.
Weakness 3:A return to an early-church mindset can be jarring for people who are thoroughly entrenched in a 21st-century mindset.

The Purpose-Driven Small Groups model evolved from Rick Warren's experiences at Saddleback Church, which are detailed in his book The Purpose-Driven Church. This model seeks to intentionally deepen five areas in each small group: fellowship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism, and worship.

This model does not stress multiplication as a way to grow the ministry, but relies instead on regular church-wide campaigns. Within these campaigns, new leaders are initially recruited as hosts and then trained as spiritual leaders over time.


Strength 1:A focus on five purposes carries the potential for more full-bodied disciples of Jesus Christ.
Strength 2:Initiating new leaders as hosts lowers the threshold of expectations, making more potential leaders available.
Strength 3:Growth through campaigns allows individual groups to deepen trust and intimacy without worrying about an eventual split.

Weakness 1:The use of regular campaigns requires a more involved administration effort for churches and ministry directors.
Weakness 2:The use of campaigns creates a high amount of turnover, which large numbers of new groups both forming and disbanding.
Weakness 3:Lowering the threshold for new leaders can create problems if those who respond aren't ready for the responsibility—or aren't even disciples of Christ themselves.

This model links a church's small-groups ministry with the weekly sermon and worship service. Group members study the same topic or passage of Scripture that was covered in the sermon, often delving deeper into areas not covered in detail by the preacher. The sermon-based curriculum is often created by a church staff-member using the pastor's sermon notes, but group leaders are often given authority to adapt the material to their group.


Strength 1: Combining the weekend sermon with a small-group Bible study provides repeated exposure to the material covered, which can help it "stick" with group members.
Strength 2: Group leaders are freed from the burden of hunting down new curriculum ideas (or writing their own).
Strength 3: Having all small groups study the same material creates a wider sense of unity and common direction.

Weakness 1: The pastor must finalize his sermon material at least six weeks in advance in order to properly develop the curriculum resources.
Weakness 2: Some group leaders may chafe at having curriculum "assigned" to them.
Weakness 3: The potential exists for small groups to turn the Bible study into a critique of the pastor's sermon.

In many ways, organic small groups are a reaction against highly programmed and structured models of community. They seek to move away from such structure in favor of a more natural method of building community. Thus, instead of forcing community to happen through small groups, organic leaders try to set up an environment where community can naturally emerge on its own—much like plants and animals will naturally develop and grow in the proper environment.


Strength 1: Organic groups provide an alternative where "traditional" small groups have not worked—especially in communities with more postmodern members.
Strength 2: Allows church and group leaders to minister and connect in ways that best match their gifts and passions.
Strength 3: Success is not dependent on getting a certain percentage of a church's congregation into small groups.

Weakness 1: This model may seem chaotic and confusing to those who have been satisfied in a "traditional" small-groups ministry.
Weakness 2: The model's lack of programming and control can sometimes turn into a lack of accountability.
Weakness 3: In reacting heavily against programming and control, organic groups can sometimes lose sight of many benefits from "traditional" small groups.

Similar to the Cell Group model, house churches view small groups as the basic unit of a congregation. Taken to the next logical step, small groups then become churches in and of themselves. This does not mean that members of a house church automatically abandon corporate worship with other groups and believers—although sometimes that is the case. But it does mean that the primary burden of ministry falls on the house-church leader and members—not on paid church staff members.

House churches often operate independently when it comes to discipleship, accountability, and other areas of traditional church ministry. Often they form networks or collections in order to worship corporately or finance larger events.


Strength 1: House churches represent a return to Early Church ideals of community and "doing life together."
Strength 2: They provide a successful platform for intergenerational ministry and learning.
Strength 3: They produce high levels of intimacy, accountability, and trust.

Weakness 1: House churches can be vulnerable to poor teaching and heresy when not connected and accountable to an "established" body.
Weakness 2: House churches are often disconnected from the financial resources of larger churches, which can limit opportunities for ministry.
Weakness 3: House church leaders often lack established coaches who can assist with the sometimes volatile nature of group dynamics (e.g., handling a difficult group member).

Small-group leaders are recruited as "hosts," meaning they do not carry the responsibility for the spiritual development of group members. Instead, hosts carry the responsibility of running a group meeting—including providing a location for the group to meet, managing a pre-packed curriculum (often in the form of a video or DVD), and providing snacks. Hosts are often recruited in conjunction with a church-wide campaign.

Most churches using a host strategy will intentionally train and support small-group hosts once they are recruited. The end goal is usually to transform a host into a full-fledged small-group leader who does accept the mantle of spiritual leader for the group.


Strength 1: Because the threshold for becoming a host is low, many new small groups can be formed quickly.
Strength 2: This model provides a way for potential leaders to "ease in" to the responsibilities of a small group.
Strength 3: If the pre-packaged curriculum is of a high quality, the teaching time can be as good as or better than a traditional small-group Bible study.

Weakness 1: Because the threshold for becoming a host is low, the potential exists for churches to recruit eventual leaders who are not ready for the responsibility.
Weakness 2: Host groups are often dependent on the quality of the pre-packaged curriculum, which may not turn out well.
Weakness 3: Host groups are often up-and-down, sometimes losing as many groups as they gain in the course of a campaign.