Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups

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By Brian Jones

A few years ago I brought in a nationally recognized pastor to do some consulting for our church. One of the things I remember most about my time with him was a side conversation we had about small groups.

“I haven’t really figured out the small group thing,” I confessed to him.

“Well, Brian, that’s because they don’t work. Small groups are things that trick us into believing we’re serious about making disciples. The problem is 90 percent of small groups never produce one single disciple. Ever. They help Christians make shallow friendships, for sure. They’re great at helping Christians feel a tenuous connection to their local church, and they do a bang-up job of teaching Christians how to act like other Christians in the Evangelical Christian subculture. But when it comes to creating the kind of holistic disciples Jesus envisioned, the jury’s decision came back a long time ago—small groups just aren’t working.”

“Finally,” I said, “I’ve met someone who’s got the guts to euthanize this small group sacred cow.”

I have been leading, participating in, championing, and applauding the efforts of small groups for the last 20 years of my ministry.

But now I’m done. In my opinion, they just don’t work. Let me share why.

A Flawed Starting Point

Church-initiated “small groups” begin from a flawed starting point.

For reasons that still escape me, soon after becoming a Christian at age 18, Deron Brickey, Dave Polonia, Jeff Snyder, and I started hanging out with one another.

Soon that group grew to 10 to 12 friends. We laughed together, prayed together, studied the Bible together, ate together, evangelized together, and served the poor together. Even though we had no leader, no real set meeting time, no agenda, and no plan or focus, it was through these friends that I made incredible strides toward becoming a holistic disciple of Jesus.

And it all happened by accident.

In fact, looking back on my 25 years of following Christ, here’s what I’ve noticed: Every small group I’ve ever been in that helped me grow as a disciple started by what appeared to be an accident.

I wasn’t looking for it. I wasn’t interested in joining a small group in the least. And in many respects, I didn’t even feel a need to grow spiritually.

Most of all, I wasn’t participating in some superficial churchwide small group sign-up initiative the senior pastor dreamed up to jack up small group attendance because he heard church analysts say you should always maintain a certain ratio of worship attendees to small group participants.

It just happened, naturally and spontaneously.

Those experiences couldn’t have been planned, even if I tried. And for the most part, that’s exactly how it’s been happening in the Christian community for, say, I don’t know, the last 1,960 years. That is until we westerners, particularly Americans, started messing it up.

Well-intentioned Christians, armed with the latest insights in organizational theory, let their pragmatic and utilitarian hearts delude them into thinking they could organize, measure, and control the mystical working of the Holy Spirit in community in order to consistently reproduce disciples in other contexts.

Then these people started writing books and hosting seminars. And then church leaders like you and me bought into what they were saying because we didn’t recognize that the same faulty worldview that produced a mechanized approach to Christian community fostered a ready-made market in our hearts to consume their quick-fix solutions.

So we came home, armed with our “101 Sure-Fire Discussion Starter” books and binders full of slick recruitment techniques, and started small group ministries at our churches.

We preached powerful sermons. We cast vision. We contorted Acts 2 into saying what we needed it to say. We blathered on and on about all the “one anothers” in the Bible and about how, if we met one time a week for 1.5 hours and followed a well-conceived discussion regime, we could experience Acts 2 in all of its splendor and glory.

And what happened? You know what happened. They failed. Like big-time.

And meanwhile, while our people were constrained by their obligation to the church and their sense of loyalty to us as leaders, their hearts searched for real community and an opportunity to grow as disciples.

What would happen if we euthanized all of our small groups, taught the value of discipleship and community, and then simply let the Holy Spirit do his work?

Achilles’ Heel

When I attended my very first church growth conference in 1992, a nationally known small group “expert” stood up and said, “The way we say it at our church is, ‘If you can read, you can lead.’ If a Christian can read the questions in our study guide, he can lead a small group at our church.”

That’s easy, I thought. Too easy, in fact. And ridiculous.

“If you can read, you can lead” is a great slogan for people who organize a rugby team from your church, or your knitting circle, or the Saturday morning llama-riding group. But not for someone recognized by the community of faith as a mentor of new disciples.

The Achilles’ heel of the modern-day small group movement is simple: Small groups don’t create disciples; disciples create disciples. And modern-day small groups are led, for the most part, by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves.

American churches have lowered the bar of small group leadership to an absurd level. In fact, it’s so ridiculous most churches would be better off not even having small groups than to offer them with leaders who aren’t disciples.

The common argument against small groups is flawed. The problem with small groups isn’t that they pool the group’s collective ignorance; it’s that they pool the group’s collective disobedience. And it’s not the small group leader’s fault.

It’s the fault of the people who installed the leader and convinced him he could lead their group to a place where they themselves have not gone.

Jesus in Your Group?

Would Jesus join a small group in your church?

Think about that for a moment. Forget about your goals. Forget about your motivations for offering them. Forget about all the supposed benefits of participating in one. Do you honestly think Jesus would join, lead, or start a small group within the existing structure of your small group’s ministry at your church?

Of course not. Not a chance. Not in a million years.


Because while your people are stuck in the “hairball” of your church’s ministry (to steal Gordon MacKenzie’s great line), Jesus would be out rubbing shoulders with people in your community, helping them find their way back to God, and teaching them to obey his teachings.

Jesus would actually be doing what small groups say they want/should/need to be doing, but they can’t, because they’re too busy being a “small group” inside the confines of your small group’s ministry infrastructure.

It’s like a jogging class where the instructor, instead of taking his class jogging and commenting on technique while class members actually are jogging, stuffs everyone into a classroom and lectures to them three days a week and then gives them a final exam.

Disciples are created “out there.” Small groups, if not by their definition, definitely by their practice, all occur “in here.”

With few exceptions, modern-day small groups are great at producing:

• Christians who sit in circles and talk to one another inside a building

• people who read and comment on the Bible

• people who rant about how they long to “get out there” and do something that matters

• people who awkwardly end their time by praying for “prayer requests”

• people who go home unchallenged and unchanged.

You would think there’s a Small Groups Revised Version of the New Testament somewhere. And I quote: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore stay where you are and make Christians of the people you already know, baptizing them in the name of American consumer Christianity, and teaching them to sit in rooms with one another, read the Bible, and pray for one another. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20, SGRV).

If the Small Groups Revised Version of Matthew 28:18-20 were the stated purpose, then most American small groups would be nailing it.

In my humble opinion, the Americanized small group is a remnant of an impotent religious institution that can’t transition effectively into a post-Christian, postmodern world.

Thank God small groups worked in some instances, and in some contexts!

But for every story of success about a small group creating an authentic disciple, my hunch is there are three times as many failures (and that just takes into account the 10 to 30 percent of church attendees who actually participate in them).

If we had time to waste, this wouldn’t be an urgent problem.

But we don’t.

Brian Jones is founding pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Royersford, Pennsylvania. He’s the author of Second Guessing God and Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive. See www.brianjones.com.


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  1. I have to agree with the premise behind the author’s words. While great in intent, in practice the small groups that I have been part of have typically focused on the group itself and the group’s own needs. If anyone mentioned the idea of possibly going out into the community, the idea was suppressed rather quickly. New members were typically not welcomed with open arms, after all, the group was….well, the group. Cozy, comfy, no risk or suggestion of venturing out of comfort zones beyond the programmed agenda.

    We have had greater success by not “defining” static small groups, but keeping a dynamic model of setting small teams to work together as needed to go into the community or to work internally to build relationships with and disciple new members.

  2. You ask would Jesus join a group…I think He would start them, that’s why He sent them out two by two so we could be stronger in faith. We had a group, and yes, it worked very well. But we moved. But they are still having it and serving God and going out to the projects and witnessing. The members of the small group would feed off each other, just like my favorite verse, Proverbs 27:17, iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another. You could say the disciples were a small group; they would teach, pray, serve each other and other people. I’m not saying that all small groups work or not, but larger groups tend not to. In this day and time, with the falling away from Christ, we as Christians really need each other to be able to stand against the principalities of the world. If we do not, it will eat us alive. That’s why I think Jesus would form small groups so we could strengthen ourselves to not be alone. If you are a saved Christian we do have a leader. Jesus said he would send a teacher. . . . The Holy Spirit will guide us; we can do nothing without the Holy Spirit. When we go out to war against the enemy, we pray to God to be a light and a path to guide our feet as He did for Moses. So my answer to this is yes, they work. The one I’ve been in with my wife works; we just haven’t found one were we are now. But we still witness, and I contribute that to that one cell group.

  3. I won’t go in to all the reasons I disagree with this article, but I would like to make a quick point about why I support small church communities, and that has to do with my own personal, spiritual growth I have gotten from my current group.

    I was a Sunday recluse for many years. One day, the pastor of our church told me about the small church community groups they had going and asked if I would like to join. Being a recluse, my first impulse was to say “no thank you,” but here the pastor was inviting me to be a part of the community. I took it as a sign and agreed. It’s been over a year now, and I’ve gotten involved in numerous other ministries, thanks in no small part to the support and encouragement from the members in my small church community.

    Are these groups for everyone? No, there’s not a one-size-fits-all ministry that brings everyone equally closer to God. But I believe there are many people who do benefit from these groups–as in my case, it has been a starting point to getting involved in other ways.

  4. I write this comment with disbelief and great sadness for a number of reasons.
    -about the writer’s lack of compassion and love for his flock which Jesus called him as a shepherd to disciple,
    -about his mean spirited sour attitude regarding small groups despite the fact that Jesus himself led a small group, and even casual observers would say that ‘worked’ pretty well!

    I’m shocked this article was accepted by your publication; it is so full of negativity and lack of vision that it serves only to show how difficult a time the author is having in his own spiritual walk. I pray that Godly men led by the Holy Spirit will come into his life and he will humble himself to recognize the error of his thinking.

    May we all humbly seek for the Lord to constantly renew our minds throughout each day, recognizing that it will not happen incidentally but must be cultivated intentionally- just as Jesus did with his small group of 12.

    See the book “Church is a Team Sport” by Jim Putman as a starting point to see how valuable small groups can be when they are based upon care for others in action. Then come to RealLife Ministries in the Post Falls area to have your mind blown- you will see how 800 vibrant home groups have been the foundation to build multiple church plants in the region!

  5. I seldom leave comments – but after reading this article, I feel like I should. I certainly don’t know Brian, but I’m saddened that his experiences have been so negative and even more saddened that he assumes his bad experiences are the norm. While there are plenty of ineffective groups around the country, however, there are many who are absolutely “Killing It!” Like big time?!?

    I have had many amazing experiences. Our groups have allowed people to grow in their connection to God and to grow connected to each other – and build life-long friendships. They have also proven the easiest vehicle to help people engage in serving within the walls of our church and outside the walls into our community and beyond. We have traveled to foreign countries together. We have done significant outreach locally. We are a family of families.

    I have experienced more Acts 2 reality in groups than anything else I have encountered. To watch people follow Christ together, care for one another, and live beyond themselves is about a Jesus-like as it gets. So Brian – with all respect due – I agree with your opening premise. “You really haven’t figured out the small group thing.”


  6. Sad, that is what this article makes me feel. I don’t know what small groups you have been in but I think the real problem is not the group but YOU. You said you didn’t need to grow spiritually at the time, well everyone needs to grow and at all times. When you think you have arrived then you are far from where Christ wants you to be. The small groups I have been involved in have helped me grow, helped me to reach out for help and to then reach out to others. If you don’t want to be in a small group then don’t go, but don’t put and article out that might push others away. A new believer would get so much from a small group. You sir are not led by the Holy Spirit otherwise you would not write such discouraging words.

  7. So small groups aren’t good because they some/most fail at making disciples?

    Where does that leave the corporate church?

    I actually took a lot away from this article because I believe you are correct on a lot of fronts. The problem is you want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you have placed people in leadership roles when they clearly did not have the ability, knowledge or qualifications to be in a position of leadership, then that sir is your fault. Do not blame BIBLICAL small groups because you didn’t see the fruit they are supposed to create, when you didn’t bother following guidelines set forth by the Bible.

    And for all your negativity . . . you never once gave an alternate by which we can produce disciples.

  8. My husband and I serve as facilitators for our Couples Small Group at our church. We have been together for more than two years and are still going strong. We meet monthly, and as a result we have seen marriages strengthen within our group. We also come together for Operation Christmas Child shoebox ministry. Just like any other project or activity that involves people, there will be successes and failures alike. Jesus would enjoy our group because he liked to talk and eat and so do we. However, while the church is His bride, He did not have a spouse.

    We attend a large church with a diverse congregation. Without the small groups, members could get lost in the crowd if they are not assertive enough to become actively involved. I congratulate our pastor for his vision and leadership. From the looks of your article, the problem is not with small groups, but the leadership and encouragement you are not giving as the shepherd of your church. Sheep follow their shepherd. If they see that you are not committed to small groups, they have no incentive to be committed either. They can be content to be Sunday morning pew sitters and never know the beauty of fellowship, involvement, and intimate study of God’s Word.

  9. This is a very honest article. I am a Christian in burnout mode right now. I love JESUS, I pray, I read the Bible, help the poor and homeless, and for now, I left my church and am watching a church online while I get ready for a new church . . . quite frankly, it may not be for a while. I used to do the group meetings, midweek service, and Sundays — getting up early (too early on Sundays for me) — plus go-to groups. . . . Quite honestly, it often controlled my day where I had to be ready to go there and started to drive me nuts. Also went to midweek service. And yes, it burned me out after years of doing it and it became more chore than pleasure. It bored me and I felt exhausted after a while or said things like “Again?” I just went into a sort of cruise-control mentality where I would enjoy moments, while other moments I said to myself, “Gonna be late by the time I get home.” Stuff like that.

    The pastor was basically fine. Totally GOD-centered individual who perhaps had a bit of a controlling personality but the WORD was quite good. In the end, it just got too much. When I got home from it all, I just wanted to sleep and not read a Bible as time went on. The first, say, 2 plus years I was totally into it. Then slowly, it was just wearing on me. Then slowly I just drifted out of the whole thing. Stopped going to the meetings, then cut back on church, and then simply stopped. Started watching online services from a church in another state I happened to go to when I was in that state. I started to read the Bible again. Started working with, giving money to the homeless and trying to get these folks into going back to church at least as a concept to them. I feel much better now. I really do. It became too ritual feeling to me after a while having to go to weekly meetings or services all the time. Again, I understand an actual church would be good to go to again and I will. But really, what is better? Getting burnout mode doing what I was doing or doing what I am doing now? To me it is the latter. I do not think you have to be in a group setting all the time, or for sure, maybe meet less often. People are simply exhausted after work or have family. That is reality . . .

  10. Isn’t all this true of the regular church service too?

  11. Sometimes, the truth is hard to swallow. I can’t see where small groups promote biblical unity. Home and family Bible study, yes. Small splinter groups within local churches often result in competition and division.

  12. It seems like this article is against poorly run small groups and not small groups in general. There is nothing in here to argue against the concept of a small group in and of itself.

    By the way, Jesus started a small group. Remember the disciples? Jesus thought that to invest himself most in the life of 12 men (and 3 in the inner group) would be more profitable than only preaching to the masses. Moses also divided Israel into small groups in order to lead the nation more faithfully.

  13. “Brian” I guess is writing his opinion or experience, stoking a fire or looking for feedback. However in his opening premise he says he brought in a nationally recognized Pastor to consult with. No one man or even group of men have experience enough to refute the workings of small groups or large groups that do work or even see or understand how the Spirit of God is moving immediately. Be careful in the bring in “celebrity Christian” genre to improve worship or attendance or any other matter unless it is the same guidance that the Spirit has given local leaders who are seeking Him. I’ve found the same leading He gives national leaders who are genuine will match or coincide with local vision. It’s the same Spirit. Small groups work without a doubt. However you can seldom hit a target without an aim which can be the downfall of any group large or small. Any group must have leadership and be goal oriented or aimed by the Holy Spirit. The apostles were. They specifically talked about to where they were led to carry the Gospel. We have to be aware of the “Ego factor”, “Hero worship”, and “self glorification factor” that lead many groups. The thrust of any group should be the same as the apostles or the Great Commission. Some years ago while serving in the US military I became involved in a Church that had grown into the millions by small cell groups. These groups after gaining 10-12 members split and formed another group duplicating the process. It created a network where someone from every group knew someone else from another group through fellowship or associations. It actually helped meet needs in the Church no matter how wide it was spread. Aimed focused small groups work. Period. Fellowship is vital to Christian growth. That’s why we have to abide in the Vine. Without His Spirit we can’t get it done.

  14. Paul teaches no works required, what do you expect?

  15. Absolutely astounding Brian.

    You criticize small groups just after telling us how small groups helped you grow and mature as a Christian. It just so happened that Jesus’ small group turned the world around and the greatest New Testament missionary went from city to city establishing small groups.

    What you are against are church programs that artificially make cookie cutter small groups with little leadership. They will obviously fail as you have experienced, but not because they are a small groups, or because there was no “mystical working of the Holy Spirit” (a totally nonsensical new age idea) but because of the lack of trained leadership. Leaders learn in two ways, by example and on the job. They must be taught and equipped and let loose to experiment and fail multiple times.

    Exactly what do you propose to replace small group interaction with? Private study at home? (I’m for that but you will get few takers.) Or everyone gather to hear your uniquely wise subjective spirit led mystical counsel? (Sorry but I’m gonna pass on that one. I prefer Bible preachers.)

  16. I think the premise of this is right on. I started reading Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. If we are indeed living out the life God created us to live, disciplined to live as Christ did, then the idea of small groups can and will naturally compound around us.

    I migrated away from my small group for a myriad of reasons and found myself gravitating towards people I can do life with and my kids can do life with. As I grow in my own journey, I share it as a natural spirit led initiative to further God’s kingdom. I find my small group in the morning putting my son on the bus, and as I pick up my kids from school. The moms and dads I get to talk with and the occasional random coffee where fellowship is as deep as the richness of the coffee. I don’t fit in time for a small group…life becomes a small group.

    I am confused at the time and attention taken to placing people into small groups, and completely missing discipleship and discipline. It is perhaps that people would rather talk about being a Christian than bother to actually become one.

    The author does state and I believe it to be true, there are living breathing small groups that work and are growing up believers. In my experience, they happen to be pastors’ small groups, and they are doing life with those around them; doing the work of the church…I could only hope that disciples are made and grown in these groups.

    Great, thought provoking narrative. It gave life to the thoughts and doubts I’ve had around the idea of small groups. Thank you for writing it.


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