Small Group Killers: 5 Problems That Plague Small Group Ministries

Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 99

Have you ever felt frustrated that the same small percentage of your congregation is driving the majority of the engagement? Many in the congregation aren’t involved in any groups, but some members attend two or three classes or Bible studies. What’s happening? Why is it so difficult–especially for new families–to get plugged into the fellowship?

Moving people from the worship service into a deeper community is a challenge for many churches. Sadly, there is no silver bullet for connecting people into small groups. 

However, there are several common mistakes churches make in small group ministries. These mistakes are “small group killers.” In this article, we’ll explore the five problems that plague small group ministries in churches, and how you can avoid them.

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The Choice Problem

Very few restaurants are able to pull off an elaborate menu. In fact, only one chain is able to do this with any degree of success: The Cheesecake Factory. Everyone else applies some sort of limiting principle that makes the menu navigable for patrons. 

Churches fall into the trap of thinking they need every type of group for every type of person: a college group, a young marrieds group, seniors group, singles group, knitting group, golfing group, etc. The choice problem is this: if you have built your ministry around content, age, or affinity, you have to have a category for everyone, and that’s impossible. 

Consider this scenario: a man and woman in their late 30’s starts attending your church. They have three kids ranging from age three to nine. They look at your church bulletin and it lists five groups: the college group, the young married group, the empty-nester’s, the senior saints, and something called Bridgebuilders. Where does this family fit in? At 39, they hardly qualify as “young married”–they’ve been married for 17 years! They aren’t empty-nester’s or a senior saint. What’s a Bridgebuilder? Which box do they fit in?

No matter how you create your boxes: age, geography, content, hobby, etc., they will always create friction. This is the paradox of choice. You can never create something for everyone, so it’s better to make something for anyone.

I encourage you to streamline your language, placing a higher emphasis on relationally-driven groups. Develop on-ramps that facilitate relationship formation, and remove barriers so that any clustering of relationships can develop a group. We’ll explore more aspects of this within the other problems. For now, the principle to remember is that more choices is not likely to drive more engagement.

The Communication Problem

How do you talk about groups? How often? In what setting? Churches have a communication problem. As mentioned in the previous problem, even the labels that we put on our groups can function as barriers to communication and participation. Groups with cute names might seem fun, but if they are confusing then they are killing your small groups.

How deep into your website do I have to go to find information about groups? Is it easy or difficult to register? Who will contact me about the group, or will I just show up? When am I being invited to join a group, and who is doing the inviting? All of these are fundamentally questions about communication. But at a deeper level, they are questions about relationship-building. 

A common mistake in the modern church is thinking about communication solely as “marketing.” While church marketing generally is a helpful thing, it’s only helpful if the aim is relational, not corporate. It’s about the person. It’s about improving and connecting with the individual–not about building up the institution. Far too often, church marketing goes awry because it loses sight of the main goal: making and maturing disciples. 

So, if we start with this premise: we have dozens (or hundreds) of individuals who need a 3 am friend… how can we connect them with an opportunity to build those relationships? We’ll do a much better job at communicating than if we start with the shallow premise of “how can we get higher small group attendance?”

The Priority Problem

Shallow metrics drive shallow ministry, and shallow ministry is fueled by spiritual junk food. Spiritual junk food is a term I use to describe programs, ministries, and events that are successful in getting people in the door but fail at producing discipleship fruit. 

The conventional logic for decades was ripped straight from Field of Dreams, “if you build it they will come.” The thought process was well-intentioned. If people come for picnics, fall festivals, concerts, and carnivals, they’ll stay for worship, fellowship, prayer, and evangelism. But the practical implementation is that many people sustain a church diet of occasional worship services and attendance at spiritual junk food events. 

Compounding the problem is the fact that these events require special marketing in worship services and social media, so they have an appearance of priority. No pastor I know would say that the Fall Festival is more important than getting connected with a small group. But what’s given the most attention online and in-person? 

Am I suggesting that your church never host events that are geared towards outsiders and reaching the community? Absolutely not. But these events must have their proper place and function within a clear Discipleship Pathway. Propping up your numbers with well-attended but meaningless events is not what Jesus meant when He commanded us to make and mature disciples. Unfortunately, many churches are addicted to spiritual junk food and their congregations are suffering from spiritual malnutrition.

When determining why people aren’t connecting into deeper fellowship at your church, examine how you’re leveraging your time, resources, and attention to reveal where you’re placing priority.

The Stranger Problem

Plugging into a small group with relative strangers is a daunting proposition for newcomers. This is one the most bare-bones, practical problems that churches must overcome. Society is geared towards having a higher number of lower-depth relationships. Everyone you’re connected to on Facebook is labeled your “friend,” but often these relationships strain the meaning of the word “acquaintance.” According to Pew Research, 23% of Americans under 30 don’t know any of their neighbors. The majority (54%) only know a few. 

There was a time in American culture where churches were the hub of community relationships. That day is gone. While I often joke that church is the only place where people expect us to make friends for them, many people don’t know how to make friends anymore. 

Have you oriented your entry points around this problem? In their book Boomerang: the Power of Effective Guest Follow-up, Tyler Smith & Alison Hofmeyer mention that most people visit a church for the first time “for one of five reasons… Divorce, Death in the family, Displacement (a move), Disaster, or Development (for self, children, marriage, etc.).” The best time to connect people into community is when they are nearest to one of these external pressure points.

If you believe, as I do, that the church has the answer to all of these “5 D’s,” then your church must begin meeting people in them. Exploring these 5 D’s is difficult for the large group gathering, but perfect for the mid- and small-group environments. While the sustained groups ministry can be more conventional, the on-ramps for long-term groups could be connected to one or more of these 5 D’s. By forming relationships in short-term groups or classes that meet people in the middle of their problems, dovetailing into a long-term group becomes less scary. The church, then, isn’t filled with strangers I don’t know but by people who love me and care about me.

The Purpose Problem

I have hinted at this primary problem throughout the article multiple times. Perhaps you’ve already caught on! But the Purpose Problem is the biggest problem, and the root of all the other problems. 

Why is your church doing small groups (or Sunday School) in the first place? Do you just want to have more/better-attended programs? Did you read in a book that they’re necessary? Is it simply what you’ve always done? 

If you don’t know why your church has a groups strategy in the first place, it’s unlikely to be successful. The vast majority of the churches I work with don’t have a clear set of discipleship outcomes tied to their discipleship ministries. They will say that they have “good fellowship” and people like each other. But they often can’t vouch for the quality of the Bible study, and these church members still rely on the Senior Pastor for the majority of the pastoral care and visitation.

This isn’t to say that no good things are happening in these churches’ small groups and Sunday school ministry. But I am saying that most of the good stuff is incidental, not intentional. They can’t explain why new people should connect in a group, because they don’t fully understand why older people faithfully attend. Moreover, most of these churches aren’t convinced that these ministries are bearing much discipleship fruit, despite their attendance. Of the hundreds of church members we’ve surveyed in 2021, more than a third of people report that their church is failing at true fellowship despite having ample programs.

At the end of the day, your church has to have a clearly desired and designed outcome for discipleship. Your small group ministry has a role to play in that. If all you want is better numbers, you’re going to continue to struggle. But if we orient our focus–and our metrics–around discipleship outcomes and spiritual fruit, it will have a sizeable result on how we communicate, prioritize, and connect with people. If we get the purpose right, much of the strategic shifts will flow naturally.

These problems are common, but they are manageable. 

Facilitating deeper spiritual relationships through small groups is no easy task. The “right” strategy will vary from context to context. But the end goal is universal: making and maturing disciples.

Jesus wants your church to be a spiritual home where anyone can experience the grace, mercy, and encouragement that can only come from Christ-filled community. We need only to orient ourselves around God’s purpose and relentlessly pursue that mission in all that we do. This intentionality can transform your church, and help it become a lighthouse for hope in a dark world.

BONUS: Get a free Team Discussion Guide in the video description on YouTube.

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

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