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.

Why?

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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171 Comments

  1. Where do I start? If two or more are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them. Stop criticizing one another and get on with what God has given you to do; if that isn’t a small group, great! I am so offended by “Post-Christian” labeling. Really. Christianity has not become obsolete or irrelevant. We need to start supporting and loving one another. This bickering, hyper-critical way of evaluating each other is a real turn-off for unbelievers. “By this will men know that you are my disciples…that you love one another”. When we start and believer for thinking that we’ve arrived and that our way is best, is when we are in real trouble. Alicia Bell Pastor’s wife

  2. A small group praying together and meditating the Word together is far better than an article with no reference to scripture (not sure what “Matthew 28:18-20″ at the end has anything to do with this article). This is just another person’s opinion to create confusion!

    Small Group or Mega Church… if it is not Spirit led, then it is just a support system.

  3. I agree with many of the writer’s points regarding making disciples. However, I do not believe that the vast majority of small groups are about making disciples. They are about making connections, building relationships, and loving one another.

    So often we as Christians and the church focus on the “Great Commission” rather than the “Great Commandment.” You do not have to be a strong leader or a bible scholar to open your home to discuss and Gods word, encourage, and love one another.

    God is more concerned about our hearts being filled with love than our brains being filled with memory verses.

  4. Maybe not all churches have small groups that are effective, but you can’t condemn the entire concept that easily. My small group is my family, and I go to a big enough church that I would get lost without those relationships. I’ll admit that we’re not perfect, but we strive to reach out to the community (as does our entire church) and not just get stuck within our bubble. I absolutely agree with you that we need to be reaching the lost and making disciples. But I don’t think that’s the only responsibility we have as Christians. We are also called to love one another. Small groups, if done correctly, create a gospel community of people who are going to love us, encourage us, sharpen us, pray for us, call us out on sin, and point us towards Christ. If we are not having other, more spiritually advanced, Christians pour into us, we are not going to be able to effectively minister to the lost. Christ did spend time teaching his disciples, and we need to spend time teaching and mentoring younger believers.

  5. I think small groups are actually very good, and I totally disagree with the original article in these aspects.
    1 The author turned the small group approach into a model, as if by preaching and ministering in this method the church can grow. This is more like Pharisees, trying to turn a vivid life into a formula.
    2 The starting point was actually great for those guys in the article. It is no accident, but God working behind to put people together. However, the author was diappointed because the small group approach didn’t give him a huge church movement. And he also used formula books, he used words and thoughts and no actions. In fact you can get nothing out of these methods no matter what you do, because these are all Pharisees’ approach.
    3 The author also worried about leadership in small group. I would worry about leadership of his big church, is Jesus in his big church? As a matter of fact, I don’t think there is a question of whether Jesus would “join” a group, but all group should be “collected” by Jesus. And those things the author said small group are producing (near the end of the article), they don’t reflect the reality that I saw. I would also think that real change can be gradual, it doesn’t matter how intensely people are challenged, but how people are changed by God.
    4 The author didn’t give any solution to replace small group, nor can he give any scripture to say small group is the incorrect approach. I guess if we kill small groups, we would have to go back to the Catholic era.

  6. The early church was all small groups accept for when they met together in Solomon’s porch at the temple. Their life was organic, empowered from within by the Holy Spirit instead of from the top-down by people and programs. They met in homes from house to house or wherever in order to devote themselves to the word, fellowship, communion and prayer (Acts 2:42). Most small groups as part of a larger church do not work because they are ruled from the top by a program and the people are not really involved in open-ended participatory fellowship led by the Holy Spirit. God’s people must be encouraged and taught that they have a viable part in ministry that builds up the church. The church is not built up by preachers preaching or top-down programs but by each believer participating in serving one another through the part God has assigned to them in the body of Christ. The church is an organism, growing by the life within, not a program controlled by men.

  7. Wow! Amazing how he molests a Scripture spoken by Jesus in the context of His own small group in order to pontificate against small groups. (Brian Jones’ arguments could be made about many churches in America as well.) He criticizes the typical American small group paradigm for putting into place inexperienced leaders while at the same time singing the praises of “organic” small groups that may likely have no leader. I agree that organic small groups often work best at mentoring disciples. It is also true that the best disciple makers are very often growing Christians from all walks of life, not seasoned ministry professionals. But as a matter of fact, small groups led by carefully selected leaders who lead by example and instill commitment to disciple-making and ministry outside the walls of the church as core values in their group members do indeed work. The keys to success in making disciples are genuine Christianity and connection with others. Small groups provide participants with opportunity for growth through biblical teaching and community, both of which are vital for continued spiritual health and well-being. In addition, small groups should equip participants for making disciples and encourage disciple-making relationships; there is certainly nothing inherent in the small groups model that discourages or inhibits it. There is a vast difference between small groups and cliques; I believe Mr. Jones may have confused the two.
    Roger Phelps, Minister of Discipleship
    Woodland Hills Christian Church
    Abingdon, VA

  8. Keep searching. The rabbit hole is very deep. You have breached the surface by this discovery through small groups.

    It will get harder before it gets better. Glad you’re searching!

    May you find Him and may He reveal himself to you!

  9. If you read through the pages of the Bible during New Covenant times especially..the Apostle Paul normally hung with two to three people. To say His small groups were not profitable would be a big slap in the face. It’s always been for the most part small groups that grew with The Lord..the KEY if the Spirit s involved..lead, guiding the whosoever..from 1 to 100 to 1000. We need to quit trying to figure out what makes a unit..or how many..the Spirit s the unifier ..if He’s involved it will be ALL good in the end..my advice..go where He leads you..not someone that thinks they found ANOTHER answer to Christianity’s problem

  10. Thank you for this well-written piece that should make us all just stop and think about what it says. If we’re all honest, we will all admit the Church is paralyzed today. The Church is for the most part, in ruins, because of a watered down, easy-to-digest Gospel that Jesus never preached. I’ve been in small groups for the last 30+ years of my life. And no, discipleship wasn’t happening. What was happening was a lot of praying for each other, and a lot of good deeds for each other as we cared for each other, but discipleship? No.

    In fact, to be honest, in all those adult small groups, never did I have a teacher who taught the Word, using only the Word of God. There always had to be a book that was used to help us understand the Word. How sad is that, that in the older adult classes, we never learned that the Bible was enough. (I learned, but it wasn’t because of the small groups; it was out of desperation to know that I was walking in the truth!)

    Again, thank you. Only those on the narrow road will hear the truth in what you wrote, because of our narrow-mindedness!

  11. What is fallacious is judging a tool because of the lethargy of the American church as a whole. If small groups “don’t work” because they aren’t producing disciples, then neither does preaching, Sunday school, worship music singing, youth group..etc. The American church’s paralysis is the problem that makes ministries that ought to work look ineffective. I assure you the growth of our church, here in France, is due to and continues to be primarily IN small groups. Now we manage them by not artificially placing just anyone in the position of leadership, they are trained alongside a leader as an apprentice. We allow people to be billboards in their lfe and to naturally draw their unchurched colleagues. neighbors and friends into authentic relationship, then into small group. Groups are geographic as well. So that people have intersection in their lives outside of small groups.
    This article just throws the baby out with the bath water and , since it didn’t use any scripture, manages to avoid any mention of how the church grew and was persecuted…house to house by Saul-who became Paul. GAW! Maturity is constructive criticism, the recognition of weaknesses AND strengths. Immaturity is assuming because you can’t make it work that it’s broken for everyone.
    Missionary to France,
    Churchplanter in SC before that.

  12. Where are the rules and by-laws for how Small Groups are to serve? Why must everything be regulated to death? and that is what we do. I have been a member of at least 5 small groups in the past 10 years which have functioned without rules and regulations. We meet, and yes we eat, we pray, we study but one of the most important things we do is share. We have gotten beyond the “Hello, how are you, I’m fine. and good to see you today.” We rejoice with each other and we cry with each other. We even have lively discussions.

    We have even entertained angels unaware by inviting visitors to meet with us.

    Our source of study is the Bible and nothing else. We have a designated lesson and for the most part we are all prepared to discuss.

    Our Small Group has not led a person to Christ because we meet; but we have grown Christians that are going on Mission; going out into the community to serve and teach; serving the congregation; and exhibiting Christ in our every day lives.

    Before you throw the baby out with the bath water take inventory of what is going on and what can happen.

  13. What’s the solution then for large groups to help people make connections with each other? Not everyone makes friendships or connections by accident. A Sunday morning service certainly doesn’t help that to happen. In order for it to happen, the entire idea of large groups meeting in an artificial building for a specified time needs to be abandoned. The ONLY church I have ever been a part of where I made friends by accident was a house church. They will never make disciples as long as the larger church promotes an easy, make space for others when convenient approach. Abandoning small groups will certainly not change this. I don’t think they are the best solution, but I have yet to hear of anything better.

  14. I believe this article is a useful challenge to long standing small groups who do not have a intentional service element included, and I am sorry this author never had a chance to be a part of one. Read Sticky Church and the Externally Focused Church in dialogue with each other. There needs to be an “small group” intentional about reaching the unchurched or at the very least at the very least an accountability question like “How are we reaching out to those who are hurting in the world and the “not-yet” Christian. How is our participating in a small group to nurture our faith tied to “Whatsoever you do to the least of these” expression of our faith?

  15. Our church is dying, and the thought of reaching outside of our small group congregation is intriguing. Our goal is to reach the lost and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, while empowering others to live a life for him simply and faithfully. But if no one is coming in or to our church, the message we have to share with them is irrelevant. Reading this blog has given me mixed feelings, but nevertheless, I can learn from it and hopefully have dialogue with our team, to discuss the various comments given here. I think there is something to the small group if it’s done right. I also feel that we’re missing something. I feel that the small group and the parent church should function as the heart. Like blood flows out of the heart, it must also pump back in. Otherwise the heart bleeds out or vice versa it explodes from too much intake with no output. To give scripture context reference. Peter who in charge of establishing the church, has the responsibility of what I would call pastoring the established church which Christ established. Paul after conversion, struggled with his new identity as did those he desired to have fellowship with, but found them to be too traditional and often closed minded. For example, the disciple James wanted only the Jews to have this gift of the Holy Ghost and then later everyone else. But Paul realizing the opportunity to step outside of the Boat like Peter, did so. Peter understood this decision of Paul because he himself now the appointed bi-vocation leader who is also a husband and father cannot go where the newly redeemed Paul can go. So, together Peter taught the congregations turned desciples who were the small established groups… equipping them to flow outward. And Paul vice versa being on the outside established small groups, churches and movements pumped them back to Peter or had Peter to send leaders he trained or (Paul’s Preferred leader) to shepherd them.
    So to me, both the small group and the large church should be as one heart beat. In high school, my football team’s mantra was simply “One-Heart-Beat” Paul said it best… “We are many members of one body”. Jesus said, “Other sheep I have, them also I must bring, and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” Thus to say, if small groups are bringing people closer to Jesus, is that not valued discipleship nonetheless? It’s got to count for something. It may not be complete discipleship, but it’s a start. I feel that the small group has to not want to be a small group only. There should come a point where those who are members of the small group for lengthy periods of time should be disciple back to the larger church to share with those inside its walls the opportunities to explore what they’ve just experienced outside themselves. That way, no one gets comfortable. And at the same time, life will continue to flow in and out of the church and the world. Yeah, it sounds a bit lofty, but I know no one can ever go wrong with fellowship, worship and unity. Having qualified leadership is vital, but so is the gathering and execution of faith by works and commitment to God, His Kingdom and His People.

    Pray for us, as we continue to seek God on how our small church can grow through what all of you have shared on this post. Because I’ve learned that we always teach and we are always learning, be it for good or ill… we learn and we teach. Thank you for allowing me to learn from your teaching… I pray that I have contributed back likewise.

    Pastor Johnnie Porter
    Senior Pastor of
    New Bethesda Christian Ministries Community Church
    Villa Rica, GA

  16. Brian, well said. Sadly, many of the responses to your article actually prove your point.

  17. Bill….my gut tells me you’re a pastor. Besides that, how can anyone agree that fellowship where relationship grow deeper, based on discussion’s of God and doing his work is NOT a good thing? Strangely, I don’t see Brian jumping in to defend his points.

    My relationship with God has grown immensely through small group interactions that I’ve been involved in over the past three years since coming to faith. I’ve witnesses non believers coming to faith as a direct result of our small group interaction. I’m scared to death thinking what would happen if these non believers were simply introduced and invited to church services. Unfortunately, many services I’ve attended would have little affect in leading an unchurched person to faith. The personal relationships created in the small group atmosphere were the key.

  18. Oops, someone just threw out the baby with the bathwater. Does anyone know if Brian’s church has eliminated small groups entirely? I remember a few years ago the same arguments were made about Bible classes–which most mega church have now eliminated.

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