The Right Way to Do Small Groups
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The Right Way to Do Small Groups

What I've learned from years of small group consulting

Somewhere along the line, small-group pastors formed camps. There's the "Host Model" camp and the "Sunday School" camp. Others are in the "Neighborhood" or "House Church" or "Cell" camps. Small-group pastors proudly proclaim where they reside and who they follow. In our search for the best model for small-group ministry, we've drawn lines in the sand and decided which model is the right way to do small groups.

Instead of rallying around the common goal of life transformation, these camps have divided us. Rather than celebrate the discipleship that's happening through small groups, we're busy pointing out the differences in our ministries.

Some Models Don't Work

Clearly, though, some models work and others don't. Any small-group pastor can tell you that. It's the reason I've been a small-group consultant since 2006. When I meet with church leaders, I've noticed a similar set of questions:

  • What curriculum do you suggest?
  • When and how should I split groups?
  • What new small-group strategies do you see that are working well?
  • How should I find, recruit, and train leaders?

But these are the wrong questions.

The questions small-group pastors should start with are far less intuitive, but far more fundamental. Before asking procedural and strategic questions, small-group ministry leaders must have a clear understanding of their church's small-group fundamentals. They need to know:

  • God's calling for their church's small groups
  • the current and past models and the history of groups at the church (the DNA of small groups at their church)
  • the preferred small-group model and methods of the senior pastor (his or her small group DNA)
  • the expectations and hopes of the senior pastor for small groups
  • what defines success in their church's small group ministry

This is the key to finding the right small-group model—at least the right one for your context.

Understand Your Context

I can tell right away whether small-group pastors know their group ministry fundamentals by the questions they ask. If they ask broad procedural questions first, they don't yet know the small-group pulse of their church. They ask broad questions because they're hoping to throw a bunch of ideas against a wall and see what sticks. This is messy, and it seldom leads to success.

On the other hand, small-group pastors who know their church's small-group fundamentals approach me seeking much more specific information. They already have the tools to identify strategies or models that could work, and they have an idea of which models definitely won't work. This is because they know the heartbeat and DNA of their unique context.

In order to understand your church's small-group fundamentals, you need to answer the following questions.

  • What is God's desire for our small-group ministry?
  • What does a successful small-group ministry at our church look like in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years?
  • What is our senior pastor's level of commitment to groups on a scale of 1-10?
  • What do I think will work in our cultural context?
  • What do I think won't work in our cultural context?
  • Does our church need or want a small-group ministry that grows quickly with less control or one that grows steadily with more control?
  • Is our church more open to a group ministry with well-defined and controlled outcomes or one with more freedom but less predictability?
  • Does my senior pastor understand these questions and the implications of them?
  • Is my senior pastor willing to give the necessary time and attention to helping me answer these questions?

There are no right answers to these questions, and you're the only person who can answer them.

You may think it's strange that a consultant would offer questions that he can't answer. But I've learned that the best service I provide ministry clients is not the answers I give, but the questions I pose.

Give plenty of time and attention to answering these questions. Dedicate some serious time to thoroughly answering them in the near future. If you don't answer these questions and understand the answers, your small-group ministry will flounder. You'll experiment with different strategies and models, but you'll have little success.

When Small Groups Aren't Working

And that's why some small-group models seem to work—and others don't. Too often, small-group ministry leaders looking for a shortcut to successful small groups, and they simply copy and paste another church's model for ministry. The problem is that they don't take into account their own church's unique fundamentals.

I talk to these ministry leaders all the time. They're frustrated because small-group ministry just doesn't seem to be working at their church. They tell me about all the great models and strategies they've tried from other churches, but nothing has worked. They assume, like many church leaders, that the problem is rooted in a model, system, or strategy. But the problem is actually a fundamental problem. The reason groups aren't working in their church is because their approach to small groups doesn't match the heartbeat of the church's senior decision-makers.

For example, Community Christian Church, a multi-site church in and around Chicago, has a great system for apprenticing leaders and creating groups that multiply. I had an opportunity to ask COMMUNITY's Lead Pastor, Dave Ferguson, why this model works so well at their church and yet doesn't seem to work in many other churches. His answer: "Because this church started as a small group in a dorm room with me and an apprentice leader." His answer had nothing do to with the model. Instead, it had everything to do with their church's small-group fundamentals. Their model works because it reflects the core nature of the church.

During the years I led the small-group ministries at, I learned that two things were very important to my senior pastor, Craig Groeschel: friendships and further exploration of the weekend message. At the time, the church was running over 20,000 in weekly attendance. Craig was the founding pastor of the church, so the church shared his heartbeat. As a result, we built our small-group ministry at to revolve around getting as many people as possible into small groups where they could discover new spiritual friendships and use discussion materials that helped them explore and apply the weekend's teaching. Why? Because those things aligned with our church and our pastor in a fundamental way.

When you look at successful small-group ministries across the country, you'll find that each of them is unique. They have similarities, but each church's model has been custom built to fit their church's fundamentals. One of the greatest temptations of small-group ministry leaders is simply to take another church's model for small-group ministry and insert it into their own context. It's imperative to resist this temptation and instead spend time listening to your church's leadership team and discovering your fundamentals for small groups.

Small groups can and will work in your context, but only if you truly understand your context. If you honestly answer my questions above, you'll have immediate insight into every small-group strategy that you encounter. You'll know in an instant if a model will fit your church.

So why do some small-group models work in your church and others don't? The simple answer is that every church is different. And that's okay. Let's celebrate that different churches are doing different things that reach different people.

There are tons of different approaches and models for small-group ministry, and as a consultant I've noticed something funny: small-group pastors can be somewhat "clannish" regarding their preferred models.

Whether you find yourself in the "Missional" or "Sermon-Based" or "Free Market" camp—or something else entirely—we can get more than a little opinionated about the "right" way to do ministry. But the people who created these models never intended to create what are essentially small-group denominations. They were simply trying to make disciples in a way that fit their context.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter which model or approach your church uses—as long as you're making disciples in a way that is true to the fundamentals of your church. Every model has its problems and its advantages. No model is perfect. Regardless of the model (or models!) your church winds up using, let's not forget that we're all on the same team with the shared goal of making disciples. Rather than be divided by our methods, let's celebrate the diverse and creative ways that disciples are being made through small groups—around the country, and around the world.

—Alan Danielson is the Senior Pastor of New Life Bible Church in Norman, Oklahoma, and a small-group consultant.

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