The Problem with American Small Groups

A sobering look at small groups in our own backyards

Note: This article has been excerpted from The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry, by Randall Neighbour.

I oversee a ministry that was founded to help churches implement holistic small groups with consulting, training, and printed resources. Today, Touch Outreach has ministry partners in South Korea, Brazil, Hong Kong, South Africa, Australia, and Eastern Europe.

In each of these areas of the world, my counterparts report that small-group-based churches are growing rapidly with new believers and new leaders, validating my own observations about a global shift away from buildings and programs.

The members of these churches are very active believers who—in small group families—pray fervently, serve sacrificially, and worship boldly. These small groups grow and multiply regularly through mentoring new Christians and new leaders, causing all sorts of wonderful challenges for the pastoral staff, especially in the areas of discipleship and leadership training.

Here in America, reports from pastors with whom I visit are in stark contrast to the rest of the world. While many American churches are growing numerically when counting noses on Sunday morning, I consistently hear comments such as, "No one wants to lead a group because they're too busy" or "We can't seem to get our cell groups to focus on reaching unchurched people for Christ" or "Our small group ministry just isn't growing like other churches we read about."

One might think this malady is only found in smaller, struggling churches. Not so! America's largest churches are not seeing their small groups multiply naturally through relationships. Most increase the number of groups with hastily formed collections of interested strangers.

As a nation of church leaders desiring true biblical community, we've got a big problem with small groups.

The relational counterculture

The typical American pastor struggles to make small groups work. Each small gain made in small group life is a hard-fought battle. The traditional church culture still holds back many lay leaders who are heavily invested in antiquated programs. There is simply no room to belong to or lead a small group into Christ's presence, power, and purposes for their lives.

Those who have broken out of the traditional church roles to lead small groups remain so busy with career and family that they do not have time to devote to relationships with group members between meetings. Moreover, small group members, who are fully capable of leading a group, have no desire to lead because of greater priorities. Little League baseball games and working a high-stress job to serve a growing debt load are far more important than living and ministering to others in biblical community.

The two conflicting cultures in which we live—found inside and outside the walls of church buildings—work against the formation of a third relational counterculture, where Christ's presence births personal transformation in the midst of a small group family. Attempting to move one's congregation out of one unresolved cultural clash into a strange new way of life is no easy task. The road to outward-focused biblical community will no doubt be awash with the blood, sweat, and tears of many hard-working pastors.

We're not good at doing small groups, but we value small groups.

Aside from the stark global comparison and cultural concerns mentioned, I remain confident that a sizeable percentage of American church leaders would say they value small groups. Each is sacrificially working to make small groups thrive in the western world.

A few have given up, but most pastors keep trying, and for good reason: "doing church" in small groups is biblical. Small groups can easily achieve both the Great Commandment (Mark 12:30) and Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Small groups and weekend services also mirror the balance we find in the early church, as described in Acts 2 where the early Christians met from house to house (the small group) and in the temple courts (the weekend service). The quest to pastor a church of healthy, Christ-centered,mission-driven small groups is indeed a holy pursuit.

I grew up in a small-group-based church. My father pioneered "cell groups" here in America in the early 1970s when I was in grade school. I cut my teeth on leadership when I became a cell group leader as a teen. The first year I led a group, seven of my buddies came to Christ, four led groups the next year, and one went on to seminary after college. I value small groups so much that I've devoted my life to helping churches launch and transition to small-group-based expressions of the body of Christ.

In the last ten years, I have read everything I can get my hands on that is related to small groups or small group ministry. If a book can teach me one new thing or give me a single "aha!" moment about doing church through biblical community, it is worth buying and reading. I also fly around the country to attend conferences when the focus is on small-group-based ministry. While this is time-consuming and often expensive, I value small groups enough to pursue answers to my hard questions. Why are American Christians so weak at living and serving in biblical community? And more importantly, what should be done to change it?

If you are as militant as I in this quest, we are kindred spirits.Together, we must clearly see the problems, fix what's broken, and retire what no longer works. At the end of the day, we may have to simply scrap everything and start over with new small groups that grow and expand naturally. I don't relish the idea of starting over, but we've got to get this right.

—Randall Neighbour, excerpted from The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry (TOUCH, 2009); used with permission.

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