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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189 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.

  19. I think the author makes some not only valid but important points, and that we should be willing to question and examine our methods in the church. I am, however, a supporter of small groups in the context of building relationships within the body of Christ, but the fact is many churches consider it as a mechanism for discipleship and my guess is that the great majority of time it is not an effective mechanism for discipleship. Kudos to the author for being willing to challenge the common contemporary thinking of most churches.

  20. In my experience, small groups have become a way to divide a church by socioeconomic groups (neighborhoods/similar interests/careers are lumped together) and parcel out the work of the eldership (i.e.- one elder in each group can manage their own “group”s problems. It divides up a church and reinforces already present barriers within our culture (young, old, married, single, etc.). Of course there are positives to the deeper relationships that develop, but these could develop naturally if the church body gathered as a whole (without running the church as a business and dividing people for administrative benefit). Just my baggage. I thought that I’d share.

  21. Didn’t Jesus begin as a small group? Acts 4.13 even says the first disciples were “uneducated men.” So the way the Church started shouldn’t be the way it continues? I’ve been involved with and lead small groups for 20 plus years now and have seen more individual growth from those than sitting in a pew listening to one man tell us what God wants for our lives. One-on-one discipleship is the best method, i.e. Jesus and Peter/ Paul and Timothy, but small groups are a good second, i.e. Jesus and the three, Paul and his small entourage. Sounds like Pastor Jones doesn’t like people hearing the Word from anyone but him in his church.

  22. In part I have to agree with portions of the article, particularly when investigating evidence of fruitfulness. However, I do not think small groups carry the blame for that. I cannot see how a small group of people meeting together for the purpose of study, prayer, and encouragement could be a source of the ineffectiveness. As a matter of fact I would say that is highly biblical.

    What further bothers me is the 40 year span that is put on small group structure. To say small groups do not work would be a pie in the face to Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians who had a very successful small group structure that, in my opinion, helped bring forth the spiritual awakening during his time. As a matter of fact it is through that structure that Wesley also grabbed the idea and used it as a central point of disciple making during that time. We certainly cannot say that the Lord was not moving during that time!

    So yes, let us investigate the fruitfulness of ALL of our ministries- and let us have the courage to prune what is necessary and fertilize what still has life- but not let us throw the whole thing out without knowing more about where the problem really exists.

  23. Love the article, but you may want to reconsider the headline especially for folks who are not Christians… kind of sounds like the church should euthanize small groups of people…. :D

  24. We just joined a church that has small groups. We were told that the small groups are in charge of visiting the sick. I have been very sick for nearly 4 years now. Everyone in our church knew I was very sick. I tried to attend small groups but was too ill to attend. I was in the hospital in June of 2014. I did not get one call or visit from my pastor of anyone in the small group we signed up for. It seems like a click to me. We would attend church as much as possible , when my health allowed it. We often times were ignored cause we were not in a small group. I feel that the connection with each other is loss in these groups cause they seem to be a click, a group of already established friendships that are not open to new people. I broke down and cried in the hospital when the chaplin came to visit me cause I had not heard from my church. The pastor new I was in the hospital cause he ” texted ” my husband to see how I was doing. He told my husband he hated hospitals. I don’t think anyone loves them. This is just my opinion. Breaks my heart to be at this point in my life and we are looking for another church already.

  25. Wow! Its pretty surprising to see an article that is three years old still getting responses. Kudos to the author for that! After first reading the article, I was humored, informed, and certainly challenged to rethink the purpose and evaluate the fruit of small groups ministry. Then after reading some of the comments, I gained a counter perspective from folks who still believe small groups to be a pivotal part of a healthy church. I generally agree–in light of my experiences–that small groups do not make disciples. I believe the author is correct with the Acts 2 teaching that many small group champions use as a billboard ad for what your small group can be, but honestly it just doesn’t seem like modern American culture is set up to mirror what happened in Acts 2. We are just too far removed from that, circumstantially and culturally. In the author’s defense, I want to also point out that he has not “thrown out the baby with the bathwater”. He does offer that some small groups do work, as many have testified in the comment section. All in all, I believe he is casting light on the low-lit corner of church growth gimmickry. The true Church grows when disciples are being made. Anything else, for all intents and purposes, is just a crowd. A vibrant small groups ministry can give the illusion of healthy church, but in actuality the only indicator of a healthy church is the level of commitment and submission of the congregants to Jesus Christ. I guess in the end only God can measure that.

  26. Brian,

    My name is Carol Giles, and I have been attending the same church since 1975. My church nurtured, taught, and loved me when I was cultural Christian, until I finally surrendered to God’s call. Since 1975, over a period of 25+ years, my participation in a small group enhanced my relationship with the One in whom I find guidance, mercy, grace, and unconditional love.

    Your description of your “accidental small group” is what every Christian would like to say his or her small group is like. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, this does not seem to be the case in this post-Christian (it pains me to say these words), postmodern world. However, it is the reality, and we must deal with the realities of the world and attempt to place Jesus into the fray in ways that non-believers, as well as cultural believers, will take up the cross, listen, and obey.

    On the other hand, there are certain points in your essay that seem a bit harsh, in terms of phrases such as, “… superficial churchwide small group sign-up initiative the senior pastor dreamed up to jack up small group attendance” (emphasis added). Your statement is bold, gets the reader’s attention, and causes one to think seriously about “church analysts [who] say you should always maintain a certain ratio of worship attendees to small group participants.”

    I was in church leadership (most recently, Director of Lay Ministries), and have experienced what happens when we try to “organize, measure, and control.” It does not work. The key is to focus on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; not ourselves, which is a fundamental theological concept found in the Acts 2 church; “That I will pour forth my Spirit on all Mankind” (Acts 2:17 NASB) as prophesied by Joel, and “Because You will not abandon me to Hades” (Acts 2:27 NASB). In other words, church is not about us, it is about the Triune God.

    Correct me if I’m wrong when I say that the “flawed starting point” you are referring to is flawed because it is “Church-initiated.” I agree with you, and if I am correct, I want to add a small detail to your assessment, which is that some small group flawed started points come not from church leadership but from the men and women in the small group. Case in point — when I first became involved in a small group, I was ready to ask a friend to join our group until I was told that the group had to approve of any new participants. It never occurred to me that I would need to get permission to ask another believer into our group, and your description, “Soon that group grew to 10 to 12 friends,” shows an organic building of a small group, which certainly defies the purported “wisdom” that calls for group approval for new members.

    “What appeared to be an accident” in all of your small groups was a natural, spontaneous, organic action orchestrated by the work of the Holy Spirit. I now belong to a small group, though not formed spontaneously, grows spiritually in a spontaneous way; we are, in my humble opinion, one of the exceptions. We grow through each other’s tears and triumphs, foibles and faithfulness, all the while searching God’s Word for answers. Regimentation is not something we strive for, nor do we rely on the little half-baked small group studies out there.

    Remember when Abraham poised the Sodom and Gomorrah question to God, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23 NASB). I must ask this question, do we have to “euthanize all of our small groups”? I think not. It seems to me that Abraham had a point when he questioned God. Accordingly, should not we let the healthy small groups continue to thrive? I know… I know; who is the one to say a small group is thriving? Instead of trying to figure that out, perhaps we should let the small group issue go.

    It seems to me that your idea of teaching “… the value of discipleship and community, and then simply let the Holy Spirit do his work” is on point; and when grasped by church leadership is a large part of the foundation and vision of every church. Unfortunately, reality tells me that are some churches that exist as a cultural, exclusionary community from which others on the outside look in, but are never encouraged to come in.

    I completely agree with your stance on the absurdity of small group leadership, your point about disobedience, and the lack of challenging studies that can change and grow Christians into true followers of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, from the pulpit, we should make clear the ideas that our life today is a dress rehearsal for our life in the presence of Jesus Christ, and that we are to live our lives in a manner that is worthy of our calling. It is conceivable that those who listen will respond to a natural, spontaneous, organic action orchestrated by the work of the Holy Spirit, and another small group will thrive.

    What would happen if we went from the “Americanized” format to the “Jesus Transformational” small group format? Then we could rely on, “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Therefore, follow my example, meeting in homes, serving your community, welcoming those on the outside, looking in, learning and teaching about my ways; baptizing them in the name of Jesus, the transformer of culture, observing and following the leading of the Holy Spirit, while remembering God’s desire for purpose and unity within the Body of Christ; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20, JTSGF).

    Carol Giles in a recent graduate of Colorado Christian University with a BA in Biblical Studies. She is the author of Call of the Potter, a memoir.
    http://www.carolsclaytalk.wordpress.com

  27. I have seen small groups work well and bring non-Christians into church for the first time, then leading them to be a great Christian family, raising their children and grandchildren to be good Christians … but I have also seen those same people drive others out of the church because of the acts of favortism or being in a clique that others didn’t belong. There are many references to this in the Bible, including James 2:1, 8, 9. It is very easy to see who is in these cliques, even if you are new in a church…. Just watch what happens after a service and see who hovers together. Most of the time the same people who hover together in church after service are the ones who meet during the week for in-home Bible study together. The study groups would be wonderful if it wasn’t so evident that these are their best friends in church and very, very rarely communicate to other members or visiting souls. I have seen it in several churches before finding the one God had waiting on me…. I pray that the ones who are doing the Bible studies really look into doing a study on themselves as a group first to not get caught up in a ‘cliquey’ situation.

  28. Well written….as I read this, I wondered…is it the idea of small groups that are the problem or the idea of what some small groups (maybe even most) do. That is, it seems, alienate. Being part of small groups, leading them, guiding them, even training leaders, I’ve found that many do become “self-consumed”. A good test for this is to suggest that a small group divide and form two new small groups to promote growth. Usually this leads to some hard feelings and even resentment. They’ve become too attached to each other and not enough on reaching out (inward rather than outward).

    My opinion, small groups are neither good nor bad. They are ambiguous. Like worship style. Contemporary or Traditional…neither are good nor bad. Just different. We have to be careful that we generalize this part of a ministry because it has some flaws. Do all small groups alienate? Of course not, I would challenge the idea of whether or not Jesus would be part of a small group. It appears He was…a small group of 12 other men and a few women that He had conversations and teachings with that others were not privy. Was this alienating? Of course not, it appears to be intentional, focused mentoring.

    Do small groups actually create discipleship? Usually not. It can. It can promote this as well as accountability, unified prayer, deeper discussions in the Word. Therefore, if a small group isn’t creating discipleship, and this is the intended purpose, then maybe that small group needs to refocus and make some changes to do so.

    In truth, small groups do not create community, discipleship, “oneness”, and so on. Personal relationships do that. It may be found in small groups, but small groups cannot be the answer to a church’s problems.

    To close, let me describe one situation I’ve experienced. We have “potluck” dinners at our church. The result of these dinners are as follows:
    Better sense of community, fellowship opportunities, a chance to talk with members of the church you may not have spoken to before (or very little), and don’t forget great food.
    It also produces feelings of alienation (why won’t this person sit with me), feelings of animosity (they knew I was making a peach pie, why did they try to show me up), feelings of superiority (I’ve done the dishes the past two times and I’m not doing it again).

    My point….we don’t stop having potluck dinners. Why? Because the good outweighs the bad. People are people and they will get upset no matter how much we try to avoid it. These feelings exist. Granted, the negatives are VASTLY in a small percentage of the people, but you can’t please everyone. Sometimes you have to let God do that. Small groups, the same way. Are all small groups great and keep an open door to let others in? Of course not. Are all small groups alienating people? Of course not.

    So, is it the small group that is the problem or is it a clear lack of leadership guidance in those small groups that is the problem.

    Just some thoughts from a hick country preacher.

    Mike Folsom is the Senior Pastor of Paola Christian Church in Paola, KS.

  29. I agree with a lot of points in this article. Mainly because of my most recent experience with a small group. I made the mistake of thinking that my small group was a safe place.
    The experience has hurt me so badly that I fear being in a small group. I thought it was safe because it was the church.

  30. “The problem is 90 percent of small groups never produce one single disciple. Ever.”

    The real problem is 90 percent of this article is your opinion of the terrible experience you had or witnessed.
    Get some research done before you start piping off emotive words to stir up the masses.

  31. I know what you mean, only I feel that way about the whole church not just small groups. American church culture makes it impossible to find and meet real Christians, much less to develop deep relationships with them. They are all the same, run under the same formula and it’s a total failure. I have yet to be in one that doesn’t fall into that category. After many failed attempts to integrate into a “church” and find real discipleship-My husband and tried numerous times to start a bible study where you just study the bible and actually APPLY it to your life (act based on it), no formula or book. People just cannot fathom it, they have no idea what to do.

    I agree with Mark Champion in that “the rabbit hole is deep and this is only the surface”. Also, that you are correct in not responding to the naysayers who just want to defend what church/group they are currently participating in, avoiding change. Just make sure you aren’t doing the same thing. Keep searching! Good to know we’re not alone.

  32. The Body of Christ for the past 20 years have suffered from a vitamin “D” defiencey. That vitamin D is Discipleship . In my opinion it is the key factor why we as Christians are not as effective in the world as we could be. It really isn’t rocket science . Just DO what Jesus did when he made “disciples” . They came together ,made a COMMITMENT to be ACCOUNTABLE to each other to uphold the VISION of becoming like Chirst and to live out that life as an EXAMPLE to the world. Discipleship is a process…not a sermon, not a meeting, not a bible study, but a relationship between two or more indiviuals to be like Christ and love each other through the process. The Great Commission and the Great Commandment go hand in hand together when Christians are willing to be vulnerable to each other for the sake of Christ. The 12 disciples that followed Christ grew together through their weaknesses, strengths , failures and successes. Small Groups, big Groups, medium size Groups…..groups is not the issue but whether we are truly growing and going out to make Disciples…Discipleship was the initial question this conversation started …right?

  33. “Finally,” I said, “I’ve met someone who’s got the guts to euthanize this small group sacred cow.” Who talks like that??

    Anyway, I don’t think small groups are just about discipleship at all. They are about getting to know the people in your own congregation that you normally just see with Sunday smiles on, meeting them on a weeknight, yes reading the Scriptures, yes praying about prayer requests, but also learning to be real with someone else, being Jesus with skin on to someone else and building relationships.

    We live in such a harsh time. People barely look up from their devices to acknowledge other humans. Small groups are a chance to build community.

  34. I see what he is saying, but he’s still missing the point. Frankly I think it’s not the small group is the problem, it is the timing.

    It is hard to have a small group work, when it is not doing what it was meant to do: Worship Jesus. Small groups are fashioned more like a club, and though I like clubs, church is better. Imagine a small group that got together to learn the Apostles Doctrine, Break Bread, have Fellowship and Prayer? Now that would be a small group! Problem is though, we can’t get anyone to get rid of the professional service!

    I am soooo tired of talking about Music, Power-points, and if the Preacher is funny. This setting in pews to hear professionals speak is sooooooo removed from the NT church!

    Watch about 95% of the “church” disappear if the professional music and sophistry is removed. When the Sunday service begins to look more like a small group then we may begin to have something.

    No, I am not referring to small congregations of older people trying to hire somebody to bring back the “glory days.” What I am talking about is a small group of people comfortable enough in their own skin, that they don’t envy big churches. People who don’t want to waste money on building enhancements, like kitchens, offices, and basketball courts that stand empty 20 years later.

    When a small group that doesn’t need to be entertained starts meeting together, the Spirit will move and I think Jesus will be there in the midst of them.

  35. This article has challenged me more to open my home to a small group, to humble myself and become a real disciple, and to be more open to my neighborhood. May God bless us all and use us all to fulfill His purpose.

  36. To write an article or an opinion these days must be hard. It pains me to see the bantor amongst Christians. I know in my church small groups have become weekly hangouts in which people do gather, and pray, and learn. It’s effectiveness as a discipleship program is questionable. I help to implement Rick Warrens 30 days of community in each and every small group to help the discipleship program move forward. Rick Warren is very big on the small group model. I think if we are all willing to hear each other out, and be humble as we read such articles it can be helpful in making our small groups more successful, and in helping the author to see that small groups intentionally working towards a goal of discipleship can also be effective. In humbleness we all have something to learn. I think we can agree that we can all do better at bringing the word to the lost, but we must be humble, and not prideful. So many people are attacked for daring to challenge the body. Well I challenge us all.

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