What Is a Small Group?

By Michael C. Mack

The question keeps popping up. At conferences, in Internet discussion groups, whenever small group leaders get together, the question is asked, discussed, and sometimes even argued. You’d think we’d know the answer by now.

06_mack_SG_JNA small group minister asked, “What exactly is a small group? There is a crucial advantage to having groups that are highly intentional about spiritual growth, external ministry, and living missionally—that is, reproducing both disciples and groups. At the same time, many people in the church are not ready to be part of such a group. Some people are just looking to meet a few others and form a connection. So, should a church have a one-size-fits-all small groups ministry where only the discipling-missional groups are considered ‘true’ small groups? Or should we have a diversity of groups and be clear that different groups have different purposes?”

I’ll try to answer those questions first for church leaders and then for small group leaders.


Church Leaders: Deciding on a Strategy for Small Groups

A major role for church leaders—senior ministers, discipleship and group ministers, and elders—is to develop a strategy for groups in the church. Of course, this strategy is borne out of a church’s vision and mission, values, philosophy of ministry, and goals. Assuming those are in place, leaders must decide what role groups will play in the church. Here are some important questions to consider:

• Are small groups one of many options or the way we will disciple people?

• If we were forced to choose, would we rather people miss Sunday morning services or their small group? (That’s a tough one! We know the New Testament church met both in homes and in larger venues, so we shouldn’t have to choose, but this question will help you consider priorities.)

• Is the way we do church more the result of tradition or biblical precedent?

• Is the main purpose of small groups to get people connected, reach the lost, grow disciples, serve the community, or a combination of these? (The last choice is what some people call “holistic” small groups.)

• What will we do (and not do) to develop our philosophy and strategy for groups ministry? What resources will we provide or reallocate? Who are the key people involved?

The most important consideration is that your definitions, viewpoints, and strategies must come out of biblical convictions. So as you seek to minister according to the New Testament church blueprint, what patterns still need to be restored in your church?

Once you have good answers to these questions, you can decide what types of groups are needed. I believe in a both-and approach. You can have a wide diversity of group types, but with a high preference for—and movement toward—a purer form of holistic groups. These holistic, disciple-making, missional groups are the church, so when you define what this kind of group looks like, you must first define what church (ecclesia) is.

A both-and strategy includes connection-focused gatherings that incorporate short-term groups, activity-based groups, middle-sized groups, groups that come out of church campaigns, and so forth. You will also have holistic groups that focus on being the church in action. They are missional in nature, living out Christ’s commission in the kind of radical community the New Testament church experienced, where the members are highly committed to one another and to living out God’s mission together.

Your strategy to get people into these holistic, life-changing groups will necessitate helping them move out of their comfort zones and consumer-driven form of Christianity into the kind of cost-counting lifestyle Jesus often spoke about with his disciples. This, of course, will take strong, consistent pulpit teaching, leadership development (especially at the heart level), encouragement for people to reevaluate their priorities, and more. It also will involve developing the systems, processes, and structures to connect people where they are ready to be connected and then to strategically integrate them into missional communities.

At Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, we developed a variety of strategies to help new people get involved in short-term and other types of groups, called “connection groups.” These are easy on-ramps into the life of the church, but leadership doesn’t want people to stay in these groups forever, so the church provides a variety of ways to help these groups become “growth groups,” the more holistic, missional types of groups. Leaders of connection groups are trained to guide their people into growth groups. While I don’t have the space here to discuss every part of this strategy, you can get an idea of the process and systems necessary to make this happen.


Small Group Leader:  Why Does the Group You Lead Exist?

I recently left the small group I was leading. Over time, the group grew into a strong, committed group for more mature men in our church. We’ve met weekly for a couple of years, studying and applying God’s Word, praying for one another, and caring for each other. The group is serving a good purpose—but not the purpose I am called to pursue. So I met with the guys and we discussed how I would leave it in their capable hands. Because I had shared leadership with them all along, this was an easy transition.

Now a friend from the original group and I are starting another group specifically for “ordinary men who don’t have this Christian life figured out yet to explore what following Jesus is all about.” This will be a group purposely positioned at the crowd’s edge to reach men most other groups are not reaching.

Group leader, do you have clarity about what God is calling you to do, whom God is directing you to reach, and how he is leading you to carry out the vision he has given you? Clarity comes as you commune regularly with God, listening to him. God has a mission for his church and your group, and he calls leaders like you to carry out that mission. He starts with the mission and then finds leaders to carry it out. If you don’t have a mission, be like Moses and other biblical leaders: wait for God to speak, and then serve him by leading.

Like the leaders of your church, you as a small group leader need a strategy borne out of God’s personal calling on you as well as your church’s philosophy of ministry, vision, mission, values, and goals. Find that, and God will use you to change lives.


Michael Mack is the author of 14 small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? (Standard Publishing, www.standardpub.com). He also leads church training events and consults with churches that have small group questions through his ministry, Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com).

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1 Comment

  1. Allene Geary
    January 10, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    I like the small group concept that you have described. I am in several small groups which are primarily spiritual, but each one has a different function and allows me to be an active participant.

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