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?



Are they Hole-Fillers or Disciple-Makers? Training your volunteers to be Disciple-Making machines.

Now that you have a team of volunteers, what should you do with them? Obviously you want to train them, but how? And what do you train them to do? Most coaches would die for a Peyton Manning to transfer to their team, but that’s not likely going to happen to you. You probably feel like you’ve got a whole bunch of project players instead of the all stars you were hoping for. That’s alright. Because great volunteers are made, not born, but it’s not going to happen by accident. You are the coach. It’s up to you to train and develop them to be successful on the youth ministry playing field.

Here is a short list of the things you should cover in your training times with your volunteers.

#1. Policies & Procedures – this is the boring legal stuff, but your volunteers are acting as an extension of you and your ministry. You can be held liable in a court of law for the actions of your volunteers. If one of them does something wrong, it’s seen as almost the same as if a member of your church staff did it in the eyes of the public and at times the law. Make sure your volunteers both understand and abide by your guidelines.

#2. Hard Knowledge – whatever role you are asking your volunteer to fill has a skill set attached to it. Whether they are driving the van, running sound or leading a small group, there are functional skills that you will want your volunteer to know. Make sure they have both the training they need, and the supplies necessary, to do what you are asking them to do.

#3. Contact Work – Believe it or not most adults are not comfortable around teenagers, and in some cases are out and out intimidated and afraid of them. You should train every leader how to connect with teenagers. Some of this they will learn through trial and error, but every youth worker should be skilled in how to relate to teenagers in engaging and appropriate ways.

Lastly and most importantly:

#4.  Disciple Making – Are your volunteers making disciples or are they just doing a job for you?

Most people have never been discipled and do not know how to disciple anyone else. And yet if there was only one thing that we really want our volunteers to do, this is it. The best way to teach discipleship is to model it. And I don’t mean having your volunteers watch you disciple teenagers, although that can work. I mean YOU should disciple your volunteers, and in turn they will learn how to disciple teenagers. Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho does this better than any church I know. I can’t speak for their youth ministry any longer since I am not involved, but this is the model they use to make disciples throughout the entire congregation.  I remember a specific weekend while I was on staff, when we cheered as a congregation because even though we were running 5,000 in attendance each weekend, and we had more people in small groups that week than we did in our weekend services. Suffice it to say, they take discipleship seriously in that congregation. And that is the purpose of each small group.  At Real Life we used to say, “We create relational environments for the purpose of discipleship.”

You can make disciples in any relational environment. A small group created for the purpose of discipleship can have anything as a hook. Dance, drama, coffee, …. you name it, can be used as a tool around which a volunteer can make disciples. Why should the sound guy only teach the 3 teens on his tech team how to change the slides? Instead have the sound guy create a small group with those 3 kids, start giving them pastoral care and praying together; now he’s making disciples. Why should the kids on worship team also have another group that they have to meet with at another time to get discipled? Instead have the worship leader go deeper relationally with the team and watch what happens to your entire worship culture. Instead of having 2 kids show up with a volunteer to just set up chairs, what if they showed up 30 min earlier and had a small group together?  Of course you can divide up by schools or by area as well; but the purpose isn’t to force teens to go to whatever group their supposed to go to, it’s to put them in a relationship of trust with a caring adult who can invest in their spiritual life. As a leader, I don’t care what they connect around, I just care that they connect.

Even when our security guys would have to remove someone, I’d encourage them to try to not just be a cop but instead to look at it as a ministry opportunity… “So, what’s going on in your world right now that you can’t seem to focus in there?” It very well may be the best ministry that happens in that kid’s world all year.

Challenge those on your youth staff to do more than fill a hole in your leadership flowchart. We are all called and empowered to make disciples one person at a time.  Your volunteers did not volunteer for Boys and Girls Club, or 4-H. They are volunteering at a church, not a secular organization. We need to be much more than a Big Brother or Big Sister to students. It is completely appropriate that our volunteers make the turn to spiritual things in their relationships with students. Train them to make disciples. The Great Commission is not just for you as the youth pastor, it’s for all your volunteers as well, and they all need to be disciple-makers. And it’s your job as the leader to both train and release them to do just that.

You are not the New York Yankees of churches. You cannot just go out and buy a championship team of volunteers. But you can compete and win. But you have to build the team from within your organization. Stop making excuses. Stop waiting for a the big free agent church transfer. If you don’t know how to develop your leaders, go find help. For some reason God has appointed many us to lead beyond our comfort zone… but make no doubt about it, if you are the leader, God has placed you there. Now Lead.


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