“We are committed to becoming a church of small groups.”
“Life-change happens best in small groups.”
“Everyone needs authentic community.”

These statements, and others like them, are heard often in churches around the country. Small groups have become a big deal.

Churches desiring to help members connect relationally and to grow in discipleship have turned to the small group (5 to15 people meeting regularly in a home) paradigm. They have hired small group directors, highlighted groups in sermons, and promoted groups in their ministry strategy.

In spite of all this effort, the stark reality is that more of America’s church members stay away from home groups than attend them. Joseph Meyers writes that in the vast majority of churches no more than 35 percent of the congregation participates in a home-based small group.[1] If small groups are where community and life-change happen best, that is an alarming statistic!

Small group ministry sounds good. It seems like it should work. After all, true community is a basic human need. And it isn’t hard to make the case that small groups are a biblical concept.

So why don’t more people respond?

Small groups can and do work for some people. That is why church leaders can find enough anecdotal evidence of community and life-change to keep the dream alive. And a few churches are experiencing widespread participation. But that does not change the fact that most church members are not seeking “true community” and life-change in home groups.

Hitting on all five

The main reason most small group ministry is not fulfilling expectations is that the group experience is not holistic enough to attract and retain a high percentage of people. To be most effective, small groups need to fulfill all of the church’s purposes.

Rick Warren has proposed that the five purposes of the church are worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and evangelism. Using those categories, most small groups fulfill only two of the church’s purposes: fellowship and discipleship.

This becomes evident when listening to the group recruitment announcements, which usually say something like: ’If you have been worshiping with us for a while and you are ready to take the next step of going deeper and finding true community with a few other believers, then sign up for a small group!’

Not everyone who hears that announcement is yearning for more relationship. Some people want to get involved in serving. Others want a way to reach others for Christ. If the small group is fulfilling all five purposes, those who are not excited about community will find meaning in the group’s evangelistic outreach. Another who is not wild about worship in the group will be excited about the chance to serve.

Some churches decide to optimize each purpose by creating specialized groups. Instead of living out all the purposes in each group, they offer a variety of small groups, each one emphasizing a different purpose. For example, some groups form around serving a particular ministry function, others around fellowship, others around discipleship, and so on.

But reducing the band-width of the Christian life can stunt spiritual growth. A task group can over-develop an action-oriented person’s ministry muscles, while leaving them weak in discipleship. Other groups may be geared for discipleship, but then the excitement of evangelistic mission fades. Can we grow truly mature without worshiping, serving, reaching out, and loving?

There is a symbiotic relationship to the purposes of the church. The best fellowship is often a by-product of people pursuing a common mission. Reaching out in evangelism will sharpen our discipleship. Growing in discipleship will heighten our sense of worship.

When home groups segment the Christian life (intentionally or not) by focusing only on community or spiritual growth, they lose their spiritual synergy. When small groups accomplish all five purposes in each group, they can appeal to the broad range of believers, because they are no longer an optional part of the church program. They are the basic expression of the church.

These holistic groups are often called “cell groups”. Churches which center their ministry on these holistic cells are referred to as “cell churches”. (Most of the world’s largest churches are cell-based churches.) Those interested in learning more about this ministry philosophy can review the cell church literature, including books by Joel Comiskey and my new book, The Church in Many Houses.

Churches seeking to reinvigorate their small group ministry can start by looking for ways to help each group fulfill all five purposes of the church. That is not an easy task, nor will it be without challenge. Growing healthy, fully-devoted disciples of Jesus is never easy, but it is worth it!

[1] Joseph Myers, The Search to Belong (Grand Rapids, MI; emergentYS) 2003