Training Small Groups to Reach Out

An interview with small-groups author and pastor Jeff Arnold

Note: This article has been excerpted from the training tool called Small Groups and Evangelism.

Mark 2:13–17

What has been your experience with using small groups as an evangelistic tool?

One of the most significant ways that small groups can contribute to evangelism is in a backdoor way. They get you conversing in an articulate way about your faith. And when you do that, you tend to be more open to sharing Christ with others. Plus, if you can get somebody who needs Christ into a group that's authentic—where people are talking about life experiences, intersecting with God and each other, and loving each other—then that person is more likely to talk about what Jesus Christ is doing, or what Jesus Christ means.

You've been writing about small groups for a long time. Have any movements or models struck you as being particularly effective in helping churches move their groups toward evangelism?

I think you're talking about the Achilles heel of the small-group movement, there. People are always tinkering with different ways to get groups out of their living rooms and connecting with the broader world. But I'm not aware of a proven method for creating small groups that are primarily focused on evangelism. In fact, I've found that those kinds of groups tend to be a small minority on the landscape, and I can't name very many pastors or leaders who pull that off on a church-wide basis.

So is it better for churches to focus on creating small groups that are healthy—and hope that those groups grow into evangelism—instead of intentionally trying to create "evangelistic small groups"?

I'm not sure that it's necessarily "better," but it's definitely more common. Evangelistic small groups are just really hard to pull off, and so you don't see a lot of them working well.

Having said that, I think one exception is the short-term mission teams that churches send out. Those aren't traditionally associated with the small-group movement, but I think they very well could be. The churches that send those teams are training people to do mission, to do evangelism, and to share faith. They spend months with those teams in small-group settings, preparing them to go out and come back as missionaries with a different mentality.

So churches might see more results from evangelism training if they viewed their small groups as mission teams to their own community.

That's right. And that's how we do it at our church.

What prevents a lot of churches from intentionally training their groups in evangelism?

There are a couple of things. First of all, it's hard to train people in evangelism, and it's hard to train groups for multiplication. There's not a lot of glory in those practices, at least on the surface. And there's usually a cost. Americans hate cost. We like things to be easy. Many churches are designed to make it easy for people to get in, so why would we expect those people to do something hard once they get in?

Second, in most church traditions there is a general lack of submission. In a Pentecostal tradition, for example, if your pastor as spiritual leader says you group needs to multiply every two years (or whatever the target is), you're more prone to follow it than if you're in a church that's independent, Presbyterian, Methodist, or any other tradition where personal autonomy is seen as a gift.

Let's focus on individual small groups for a moment. How can one leader inject an excitement for outreach into his or her group?

I think one of the problems in America is that we're so model-driven that we don't build around people's passions. It seems like people today are completely fixated on that word—model. What model are you using? How does that principle fit into our model?

I'm more interested in people's passions. I try not to limit evangelism, but instead pry open the lid and say, "What kind of passion do you have in your group? Where are people interested?" For example, we have a man in one of our small groups who is Chinese, and we found out that he was getting in touch with his homeland—he had even gone back and visited the village where his family was from. So we're building on that. He's going to take some people over to China, and they will become a small group. When they get back, they're passion for evangelism might kind of have a Chinese flare. They might go down to Pittsburgh and bring meals to Chinese national students, for example.

How does your church approach the connection between small groups and evangelism as a whole?

We start off by defining and building open groups. All of our groups are inviting; all of our groups grow; and all of our groups are multiplying. A lot of churches don't like the idea of multiplying groups—it feels more like division to them, I think—but we've found a gentler way of multiplying that has really worked for us. First, we wait for the summer. And then, when a group gets to be a certain size, we approach the members in a non-confrontational way and pull the apprentice leader out to start something new.

Second, every group is strongly encouraged to participate in regular service projects. Personally, I love servant evangelism.

How do you approach evangelism as a leader in your own small group?

Well, I've always thought the best way to grow a group is through the biblical oikos principle—who do you know? I've done the routine many times where our group identifies potential new members and then prays for them each week, although I do add a little twist. I make a rule that our members are not allowed to say anything to those potential members about God while we're praying for them. That way, they can see that it's clearly God who's doing the work.

And it's important that all of your church's groups are open to new members all of the time?

Well, that is the best way for groups to grow. But I think there are times—and it really does make people feel good when you acknowledge this—there are times when we encourage groups to close themselves in for a season. If they're in the middle of a study, for example, and people want to get deeply engaged. A group can build on that time together without any added pressure to evangelize. And then on the other side, when there's a bit of a lull, we encourage the group to open things up again.

What are some of the biggest obstacles that get in the way of evangelism, both for individuals and for groups?

The old saying is true: an object at rest tends to stay at rest; an object in motion tends to stay in motion. So getting that outreach push started in the very first place is really hard. Also, in the analysis of today's small-group movement done by Robert Wood and Alice Dennis, they astutely point out that Americans today are incredibly self-centered. We walk into churches as consumers—or in the latest words, we walk in as pro-sumers. We want to shape that which is going to fulfill us.

So people who walk into our churches today—more and more pastors are discovering this, I think—are coming in with increasing upfront demands. They want control. They're used to having it on their computer. They're used to having it in the world. And this individual self-centeredness creates self-centered small groups. It's just easier to become ingrown and self-sustaining than it is to grow and multiply and do the painful steps of loss.

Is there anything else that you think small-group leaders and pastors need to know when it comes to evangelism within the context of community?

I think we all need to understand that the distance between Christian and non-Christian—between churched and unchurched—has grown to the point where it takes even more patience and less institution in order to connect. There is a lot of spiritual hunger in the world today, but there are a lot of presuppositions as well that are hard to overcome. I'm afraid that the days of Billy Graham crusades and radio evangelism are coming to a close, and we're going to need to train and prepare for something more long term.


  1. In what ways have our small groups been successful at evangelism? In what areas do they need improvement?
  2. How would our evangelism training change if we viewed our small groups as missions teams centered in our local community?
  3. What steps can we take to identify and support the evangelistic passions of individual group members?

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