Why isn’t my small group working?

Everyone has small groups these days, but how many of them are actually working? Not that I’m a small groups guru, but I probably do have more experience than most. When I was a youth pastor at Real Life Ministries, I had 80 active small groups meeting weekly with 125 volunteer leaders in our MS/HS/Young Adult ministries. Real Life is a small groups church with over 5,000 people meeting weekly in 700 small groups. Pastor Jim Putman’s latest book  does a great job of explaining the why and the how of RLM small groups if you’re interested.

This diagnostic is not exhaustive, but if your small group is struggling, I’m guessing you have one or more of these things going on:

  1. Your group is too big. – A small group should not be 15-20 people, it should be 6-8 people. If your group is too big, it becomes just another class or small service. People should not be able to hide in a small group, it defeats the purpose.
  2. Your group’s purpose and your group’s parameters are not congruent – Speaking of purpose, what is the purpose of your small group? What are you trying to accomplish with it? If you are trying to make disciples, having a group breakout during service with visitors coming and going each week will not work, it undermines the intimacy you need for discipleship to take place. Either you need to be realistic about what you are actually trying to accomplish with the group, or you need to change one or more of your parameters: location, time, who, gender, frequency etc…
  3. You see yourself as a teacher instead of a facilitator. This is a problem with many groups. The leader spends way too much time prepping for the talk. This guarantees too much speaking from the leader and not enough group participation.  As the leader, you should not see yourself as the expert or the teacher, but rather as a facilitator. Your goal is not to give this awesome lesson with all this detail and insight, but to get participation from EVERYONE in the group. “Jon, I notice that you have been pretty quiet tonight, what do you think about this question?”
  4. You are not giving enough pastoral care outside your group time.  I think the purpose of most small groups is wrong. It’s not about creating a better delivery system for your material to be taught and for your people to learn the right stuff. That can be done in the main service and in elective classes. The purpose of most small groups should be to “create a relational environment for the purpose of discipleship.” (Putman) And if that’s the purpose, as the leader of that small group, it is your responsibility to be the primary pastoral care giver for the members of your group. You don’t have to take each one out for coffee every week, but there should be a phone call or text message, some point of connection outside the group each week. You can tell a leader who is doing it right by who the members of their group call during a crisis. If they call their small group leader instead of their pastor or youth pastor, give them an attaboy. That leader has become a shepherd and not just a teacher. They are making disciples.
  5. Small groups are not a big enough deal. Pastors come to visit Real Life to look for the secret to their success. How does a church grow from 1 small group to a church of 8000 in 10 years in a rural community? Is it their material? Is it their leaders?  There are several reasons small groups work there but one of the big ones is that it is pushed at every service, and in every department of the church. Small groups for many churches and youth groups is an appendage, an add on, a way to close the back door so that people who come get connected relationally so they don’t leave. This would almost be considered an anathema to RLM, where small groups are THE way to make disciples. I’ve heard it said from Putman dozens of times from the platform, that if RLM had to cancel the weekend service or small groups; they would cancel the weekend services hands down. In fact, they are convinced that if the economy crashed completely and they lost everything and all the pastors had to go get regular jobs; that they could continue to fulfill the mandate to go and make disciples without having weekend services. Whether you agree with that or not is a mute point, the point is that Small Groups are a Big Deal there, and if yours is just an add on, an elective, don’t be surprised if your people opt out.
  6. Lastly. If your pastor or your youth pastor is not in a small group himself and talking about his personal experiences in his messages, small groups will never become part of the culture in your congregation or youth group. Ethos leaks from the top down. If it is not a personal value to your top organizational leader, it will never become inculcated as part of your organizational culture.

I hope this helps. If you are having challenges with your small groups, keep fighting. You are fighting the right fight. DO NOT SETTLE for anything but success when it comes to discipleship.  Everything else is a waste of time, if we can’t succeed at disciple-making in the church.

What other barriers have you come across that you think would be helpful for those struggling to make small groups work?



About markmoder

2 Responses to Why isn’t my small group working?

  1. DNichols says:

    Favorite word of the article…. Ethos.

    Good Article, guess I should find a small group.


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