Assessing Small-Group Success

A new set of questions can tell us whether our groups are on the right track.
  • How many groups does your church have?
  • How many people are in groups?
  • What percentage of your church is in groups?
  • How many groups have multiplied in the last year?
  • How many new groups have formed in the last year?

These are common questions in small-group literature and common measurements for determining small-group success. When I first started working with a small-group consulting firm in the early 1990s, these were common questions we would ask people to determine the status of their groups. And in coaching and pastoring groups since then, these are the statistics that I have tracked to see if I have been doing my job.

The questions we ask will determine where we put our efforts, because those questions shape our imaginations. Unfortunately, the questions listed above have limited our imaginations and hindered us from seeing what God wants to do through group life in our time.

For that reason, we need to learn to ask a different set of questions—questions that go way beyond the data that fits nicely on a spreadsheet and allows us to justify the value of small groups to decision makers. We need questions that will reshape the way we live in our culture and possibly how we do church.

Where the Old Questions Lead Us

I am not against success. I am not against numbers, growth, group multiplication, or having a large percentage of the church in groups. However, if these are our primary measurements of group life, then these questions can mislead us.

Simply put, there are many ways to get lots of groups started around topics that have nothing to do with God's kingdom. If the goal is to get all the people who attend the church on Sunday into a group during the week, then all I need to do is determine the interests of those people and establish groups around those interests. Then we poll the people and determine that individuals have enough time to attend a group twice a month, and then we make the groups bi-weekly. New people come to the church. They look at the options, find an interest, and sign up.

On paper, this looks great. New groups are starting. The numbers rise. A large percentage of people attend. People even like the groups! But the reality is that most of these people are just attending the meetings. They show up after a long day and try to get to know the eight other people in the room with whom they have had no time to share life outside of the meeting.

Is this the point? Is getting people into small groups so that they can go to another meeting really the point? I feel like sometimes the small-group discussion at conferences and in the books is like going to the airport to walk up and down the terminals. We feel like we are going somewhere, but no one gets on a plane. If we are only asking questions about group membership and attendance, we are not assessing whether people actually get on the plane.

Meeting attendance does not make a group distinctively Christian. Even talking about the Bible—I know that I am taking a risk by saying this—does not mean that we are involved in a distinctively Christian activity. Meeting attendance and Bible discussion had better lead to something else if we are going to be about what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Up until the last few years, I assumed that the magic was found in the small-group venue. I thought that if we just got into small groups, talked about God and our lives, and ministered to one another, we would actually soar into God's kingdom and growth would be automatic. The reality is that because we have focused so much on getting people into groups, we have actually hindered people's potential and even closed the door to their "getting on the plane." As a result, people just walk around the terminal, switching small groups or staying in the same one year after year. Enough good stuff happens that people remain faithful to group life—being in such groups is better than not being in them. But we miss out on the kind of success that we believe God wants for us.

New Questions for Group Life

Recently, I consulted with a small church in Pennsylvania that embarked upon the small-group journey about 10 years ago. They were promised growth, evangelism, and success. However, to this day they remain a congregation of fewer than 50. They brought me in to assess why they were not growing. As we talked, I found a few things they could do differently to get bigger, but more than anything I found that they were doing a lot right. There was so much good going on in the church, but it was all hidden beneath the discouragement that has resulted from their asking the common questions about small groups.

I asked a different set of questions. I learned that they were actually sharing life together. They were counting the cost of being in relationships that mattered. They were investing in people who did not know Jesus and seeing them drawn to the Lord. They were involved in their communities and sharing life with the poor. They were practicing simplicity and mutual sharing. When I entered this group, I sensed the small seeds of something awesome, but they were not seeing the quick growth promised in all the small-group literature.

This church is practicing an alternative way of being the church—a way that stands in stark contrast to our culture and to the "easy believism" found in many churches in their area that are seeing groups grow. What they have developed over the last 10 years is beautiful, but it does not fit what most people expect and want from a church.

We do not need more small groups that just assimilate nominal Christians into another form of Churchianity called "small groups." We need a mustard seed movement of something different. We need a remnant who, like these pioneers in Pennsylvania, will ask different questions and form a grass root movement of group life that moves beyond small group structures and numbers.

Like this little church, most of us have been trained in the discipline of asking questions about numbers. While these questions are not totally irrelevant, we need a new set of questions that will shape our imaginations regarding what it means to live as a society that is distinctively Christian and which would, therefore, stand in contrast to the patterns of the surrounding culture.

In the monastic tradition, this imagination was shaped by what they call a "rule." For example, Saint Benedict created a rule of life for all those who were to enter into a Benedictine community. While I am not advocating that small groups become monastic or that they adopt the specific rules of a certain monastic tradition, we should learn from Benedict's specificity. We need to develop questions that identify specific patterns for living as God's people during this time and that, therefore, cause us to stand in contrast to the surrounding culture.

I believe that every church should establish its own set of "rule" questions that would shape the imagination of the people for a specific context. I do not have the space to address this issue here, but what works in one context and with one congregation should not be something that universally fits all contexts.

However, I would like to offer some basic questions to help move the conversation forward:

  • To what degree are our groups experiencing God's presence when they gather together?
  • How are groups being led to minister outside of predetermined expectations and meet needs spontaneously?
  • How are groups working through conflict and difficult relational situations?
  • How frequently are people within groups sharing meals together outside of official meetings?
  • What specific actions are individuals taking to simplify their lives so that they will have time to share in community life with others?
  • How are people using their money in unique ways to invest in redemption?
  • How are groups and individuals investing in relationships in their neighborhoods?
  • How are groups and individuals embracing the poor and seeking to bring redemption to the social outcasts?
  • What kinds of sacrifices are people making to be shaped by God for leadership?

When I started asking questions like this, the numbers questions by themselves became dissatisfying. I still ask them, but the purpose for them is different. I ask numbers questions to understand how people are moving into the vision of asking these "rule of life" questions. The answers to both sets of questions might reveal that most people want only a form of normal small-group life where they only attend meetings. There is a clarion call to something distinctively different, something that Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and this second set of questions gives us a practical way to determine how we are doing with this Kingdom life.

Scott Boren is author of The Relational Way: From Small-Group Structures to Holistic Life Connections.

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