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How to Build a Healthy Small Group Ministry

Not everyone in your church is in a small group.

It’s possible for 100 percent of your church to be in a small group.

But this isn’t necessarily a good goal to shoot for.

Think about it.

If 100 percent of your church is in a small group, then that indicates your church isn't experiencing new growth. If you consistently welcome first-time guests and new members, then everyone in your church will not be in a small group. But this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be.

In general, in the life of your church, you'll observe these patterns:

  1. New people visit your church
  2. New people commit to your church as members
  3. New people commit to small groups
  4. Current small group participants stop attending

Since your church will experience these patterns, you should expect to see increases and decreases in your small group attendance.

But here’s the million dollar question:

How many people in your church should be in a small group?

There’s no hard rule to this answer.

Many different church leaders suggest different metrics.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s ideal to aim for 75 percent of your church to be in a small group.

If you have this many people currently in small groups, this doesn’t mean your work is done.

Far from it.

If your church prioritizes small groups, you will need to consistently promote them to your church. Remember, new people will visit your church and people currently in your small groups will stop attending at some point. So, if you don’t promote your small groups, then you can expect attendance to decline.   

Regardless if you’re just getting started or if your small group participation has plateaued or declined, you need to have a plan in place to encourage more people to get involved.

In this post, I want to help you create a plan for your church to increase your small group attendance.

We’re going to take a look at two big topics:

  • 6 reasons why people don’t join small groups
  • 6 surefire ways to increase your small group participation

Let’s dig in!

6 reasons why people don’t join small groups

Small groups don’t always work.

Before you promote your small groups, you need to know why people usually don’t join one.

When you’re aware of the challenges, you’ll be better able to address them and lead people to sign up. Besides, not every

Here’s what you should expect to be up against.

#1 – People aren't aware of your small groups

Does everyone in your church know about small groups?

Don’t expect people to participate if they don’t know what’s going on.

From first-time guests to new, regular attenders, there’s a variety of people who may not be aware of your small group ministry.

What is more, people are attending worship services less often. Since churchgoers are attending worship services less frequently, this means you will have to talk about your small group more than a couple of times a year.

#2 – They don't think they're important

Do people in your church value small groups?

Have they captured a vision for biblical community?

Is biblical community a value embraced by your church’s leadership and staff?

When you struggle to lead people to sign up for small groups, your problem may not necessarily be a lack of promotion. The culture of your church may not be ready to support a small group ministry.

Never assume everyone in your church has the same beliefs and values. Everyone striving to live and love like Jesus is at a different place in their journey, and they may not yet grasp how important Christian community is to their spiritual well-being.

#3 – Lack of time

Families in your church and community are busy.

Their schedules are crowded with work, school activities, and simply, parenting. In a recent survey, it was found that parents spend an average of 27 hours per week on basic family stuff, like cooking, cleaning, and commuting.

Practically speaking, people in your church don’t have a lot of free time.

It’s a big mistake to assume parents or guardians will drop everything, right this moment, when you promote small groups. There are a variety of reasons why families in your church are too busy to do anything. Find out what’s causing their schedules to be jam-packed, and speak directly into that instead of thinking they just don’t care.

Speaking of a lack of time, your church may be unintentionally leading people to stumble and fall before they even commit to joining a small group, which brings me to my next point.

#4 – Too many programs

How many programs, events, and ministries do you offer adults in your church?

If you offer more than one program, you could be at fault for not growing your small group ministry.

Here’s the deal:

Every program in your church competes for the time of your church members.

Everyone in your church faces the same limitation with time: 24/7/365.

Once they (or you) spend your time doing anything, that time is gone. So, if your church members are tied up with other programs and ministries in your church, then they won’t have the time to join a small group.

I’ll hit on this more below, but there’s a chance you’ll need to simplify your church’s calendar by reducing some ministries in order to build other ministries.

#5 – They’re afraid

A small percentage of people in your church will avoid small groups like the plague.

According to one study, 17 percent of adults in Western cultures fear intimacy and avoid close relationships. Don’t be surprised if some people in your church possess a similar fear.

The reasons why people fear relationships will differ.

Fight the temptation to address everyone’s fear the same. It’s a good idea to address common fears in your sermons or at other times. But strive to counsel people one-on-one to help them overcome their fears.

#6 – They’re not sure what to do with their children

One big hurdle you have to help parents cross is what they’ll do with their children.

Will they need to provide their own childcare?

Will the small group provide childcare?

Will their children be in the same room during discussions?

The biggest challenge parents face will be childcare. There are three ideal small group childcare options. Regardless of how your church’s small groups takes care of children, be sure to share this with parents to help them prepare.

Your church may not face every one of these challenges.

Take the time to pray through what roadblocks your church will face in promoting your small group ministry. As you work on addressing these hurdles, you’ll also be ready to promote your small groups, which leads me to the next point.

6 surefire ways to increase your small group participation

I have some good news and bad news to share with you about building your small group ministry. Since I want to end on a positive note, let’s get the bad news out of the way first.

Here it is:

You cannot rely on promotional tactics alone to build your small group ministry.

If you only talk about small groups, you won’t be able to build a life-giving small group ministry. To do this, you need to have a supportive church culture that embraces and values biblical community.

What’s the good news?

It’s never too late to create a church culture that supports biblical community and small groups.

To help you get started, I’d like to share two points below (prayer and culture) that will help you build a church culture that embraces biblical community. Afterward, I’m going to share four promotional tactics you can use to increase small group participation.

#1 – Lead with prayer

Small groups in your church are so much more than just another program.

Small groups can be a catalyst of change in people’s lives. They can help people live out their faith in Christian community and build relationships with other church members. Small groups can also serve as a safe place for individuals to share their struggles.

The building blocks of anything your church sets out to accomplish is prayer. Prayer is the engine that runs your church. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, prayer is “… the powerhouse of [the] church.”

You can put together an efficient small group ministry.

You can launch a compelling campaign to encourage more people to sign up.

But if you don’t pray for the spiritual growth and well-being of your people, then don’t be surprised if your efforts only provide short-term results and don’t lead to lasting change.

God is at work in your church.

He's changing people into the image and likeness of Jesus.

He's the only one who can truly help your church members prioritize their spiritual growth.

As you promote your small groups, pray for God to work in the lives of your church members and build a life-giving Christian community.

Here are some prayers from the Bible for your church:

Ephesians 4:1–3 (ESV):

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Philippians 1:9–11 (ESV):

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

#2 – Create a culture of community

There’s one key component to leading people to participate in your small groups:

Building a church culture that values Christian community.

Regardless if your church is just getting ready to promote small groups or if you’re looking for ways to boost your small group participation, you have to focus on your church’s culture while you focus on promoting small groups.

Here’s the deal:

It will take more than a program or a flashy marketing campaign to grow your small groups.

You need to build a church culture that values biblical community and encourages church members to make it a priority to participate in small groups. Said another way, you want your church to value small groups as an essential part of their life—not just as another program.

You’re probably thinking:

Does this mean I can’t promote small groups until the church culture is ready?

The answer to this question is both yes and no.

Changing the culture of your church takes time.

As you teach your church about the importance of biblical community, know that it can take months or years to see significant changes take place.

During this time, yes, you want to continue to promote your small groups. As you do so, you also want to focus on building a church culture that readily embraces community.

Here are three ways you can turn the tide in your church:

#1 – Make it a priority

Prioritize small groups in your church by simplifying your church’s ministries.

Remember, every program, ministry, and event in your church competes with each other and for the time of your church members. To prioritize small groups, you need to take an honest look at your church’s calendar to see if you can eliminate any activity to create more margin in the life of your church to participate in small groups.

#2 – Preach and teach about biblical community

Do you know how you can change the heart of your church?

You don’t.

That’s God’s work.

How does God change people?

One of the big ways God shapes and molds you and your church is through the Bible.

Make it a priority to preach or teach about biblical community.

Here are a couple of related themes from the Bible you can teach:

Biblical community

In the Bible, the church is often referred to as a body (1 Cor. 12).

In a real, spiritual sense, everyone who places his or her faith in Jesus Christ is connected with each other like the individual parts of a body are joined together.

As you preach about biblical community, show your church how small groups help build relationships and this sense of interdependence.

It’s important for everyone to gather together for worship. But it’s equally as important for your church members to live life together throughout the rest of the week.

The Trinity

You are made in the image of God.

A big part about being made in God’s image is community.

You see, God is one God who exists as three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in perfect, eternal community. Since we are created in God’s image, we are created to be in community with each other—not to live a life of isolation.

With your community groups, strive to create a safe, healthy, and meaningful way for people to connect with other Christians.

Alright, with these two foundational pillars in place, let’s turn our attention to promotional tactics.

#3 – Lead by example

Are you involved with a small group?

Do your staff members, elders or deacons, or key leaders participate in a small group?

It can be difficult for you and your church’s staff to join a small group. But leading by example is essential to encouraging your church to participate in small groups.

Don’t expect your church members to do something you’re not doing yourself.

#4 – Hold a small group event

Depending on your church’s calendar, hold a small group event 1 to 2 times per year.

Here are two common names for these types of events:

  • Small Group Fair
  • Connection Event

Regardless of what you call it, your goal is to host an event to focus on promoting your small groups and to encourage people to sign up on the spot.

When you host such an event, here are the three things you’ll need to do:

  • Preach an abbreviated sermon
  • Have small group leaders available
  • Provide a way for people to sign up

During a connection event, consider preaching an abbreviated sermon on biblical community. Talk about the benefits of living in community with other Christians. Share stories of life-transformation in your church. Let people know how important small groups are to the well-being of your church.

At the end of your worship service, be sure to have small group leaders available. During these events, you’re encouraging people who are not in a small group to join one. Don’t treat this as a hard sale where someone has to “join now.” Rather, encourage your small group leaders to ask questions, listen, and strike up a casual conversation.

Finally, make sure you provide a way for people to sign up. You can get away with a clipboard and paper or you can position tablets in your foyer for people to access your church’s website online to sign up. Either way, make it easy for people to provide their information.

There’s one more facet to connection events I want to address next.

#5 – Short-term small group campaigns

One big concern people have is committing to a long-term group.

Remember, the people you want in small groups have a jam-packed schedule. They don’t have much wiggle room or emotional bandwidth to simply get involved with a small group.

To help people overcome this challenge, many churches have had success with short-term small group campaigns.

The concept is pretty self-explanatory.

But here’s the big idea:

At key times during the year, promote short-term small groups people can join for 3–6 weeks.

This timeframe isn’t a hard rule, and we don’t have data saying whether it’s best to go with 3 weeks or 6 weeks or more. The main thing you want to focus on is making it super easy for people new to small groups to commit, which is why I lean toward having groups that meet for 3–4 weeks.

The topic you cover doesn’t really matter. What matters is giving new people a taste of community, an opportunity to meet new people, and a chance to learn more about your church.

When promoting these groups, consider these two key times:

  • Fall
  • Winter

Many people in your church and community build their schedule around  their kids’ school schedules. By launching small groups in the fall (September) or winter (January), you can align with the time at which  parents or guardians are getting back into a rhythm with school and extracurricular activities.

#6 – Equip your small group leaders

You need more than a warm body to serve as a small group leader.

You need someone who desires to lead and has an ability to facilitate conversations.

Whoever leads your small groups, you’ll need to equip him or her for success.

Here are three ways you can equip your small group leaders:

  1. Training
  2. Resources
  3. Outreach

Don’t assume your small group leaders know what you know or believe what your church believes. I’m not saying you have to be on the lookout for wolves in your midst. But I am suggesting that everyone is probably not on the same page, and that’s okay and to be expected.

As a church leader, your job is to provide training.

When it comes to training your small group leaders, you can:

  • Provide one-day training
  • Offer online classes
  • Purchase books
  • Offer one-on-one coaching or group sessions

There’s more than one way you can train your leaders. Think through what they need to know, and make sure you’re providing them with the training they need to succeed in their position.

What is more, remember that your small group leaders are volunteers and that their time is limited. Make it easy for your leaders by providing them with the resources they need to lead their groups well.

For example, if your church provides sermon-based small groups, be sure to provide the questions your small group leaders need ahead of time.

With the questions you provide, consider including a few suggested answers or responses. By supplying this information, you’ll set up your leaders to focus on facilitating a conversation—not spending a few hours in a Bible study getting ready.

Finally, help your small group leaders with outreach.

I’m not talking about asking them to go door-to-door in their neighborhood to pass out tracts. There’s nothing wrong with this. But that’s not what I have in mind.

Help your small group leaders to identify new people in your church, such as first-time guests, and to strike up a conversation with them. They  can then invite someone new to their group or encourage them to join a different group if it’s a better fit.

What is more, following up with individual small group participants is huge, and this is something that’s usually overlooked. By following up with casual members, your small group leaders can encourage more people to participate and experience the benefits of community.

Provide your small group leaders with the resources they need to keep track of their small group members, and to follow up with them during the week. In many ways, your small group leaders can serve like mini-pastors under your care and direction.

Ready to build your small group ministry?

There’s a lot to digest in this post.

Take the time to prayerfully think through the challenges you’ll face, build a church culture that values biblical community, and make sure everyone in your church hears about your small groups more than once.

And while reading these three points doesn’t take too much time, be prepared to roll up your sleeves, pray, and get to work.