Should We Shake Up Small Groups?

I was recently asked this question via email from a church leader in Canada:

There has been some question in the past at our church about how long a group should be together. A thought had been to “shake” things up or break up groups on purpose and in doing so that it would help. My opinion is that it hurts. The leaders are wondering what is best. What are your thoughts?

My first thought is to take a 30,000-perspective on the question. If I were consulting face-to-face with this church, I’d ask,

  • What’s the mission of your church?
  • What would you say is the main purpose of groups at the church?
  • What would your senior leader say is the purpose of groups?
  • What would your group leaders and members say is the purpose?
  • How would you describe your definition of and philosophy for small groups in the church?
  • How did these groups form in the first place? Naturally, organically, and relationally? Or through a programmed approach such as sign-up sheets, assignment/placement in groups (i.e., by last name, ages, neighborhoods, etc.), or a campaign?

I ask those questions to understand the context but also because the answers to those kinds of questions usually help the leader to respond to the more specific how-to questions.

In regard to definition and philosophy, I personally think of small groups as one of the most basic units of the body of Christ. The position the leaders in this church are espousing would be like taking organs out of one body and transplanting them into others. I can’t see how that helps.

If those organs (people) are unhealthy spiritually, that makes the whole situation even worse. Shuffling unhealthy people around in groups won’t help the situation. First deal with the unhealthiness within the groups. To do that you’ll need to assess your groups and your people. (My free group assessment is here:  I believe the best prescription for spiritual unhealthiness is discipleship. Spiritually immature people are often the most spiritually unhealthy.

My other favorite illustration of healthy small groups is a good football team that huddles to call the next play, instruct, encourage, and confess (“my bad; I dropped the ball”); and then breaks the huddle to run the play in order to carry out the team’s mission. No game was ever won in the huddle. Cohesive teams may make some offseason “trades,” but the best ones have been together for a while. They know one another, care about each other, and are a “team.”

If you’re purpose is to build disciples in healthy community, the big question is what’s best for doing that?

I don’t fully know this church’s situation, but in many cases like this one there’s something else going on behind these leaders’ desire to “shake things up.” It would take time for the small group director to meet together with people, invest into them, and do some evaluating to discover what that something is. Are people afraid of intimacy? Do they simply not like the people they are presently meeting with? Are they too inwardly focused (a holy huddle that’s not carrying out the mission)?

This is where the question about how they formed into their present groups comes in. If they were assigned or placed in groups by the church, or if they connected through a sign-up sheet or something like that, I can see why they might want to shake up that nonrelational program. However, I’d carefully, prayerfully put together a plan first for how the new groups will form. Because I believe in a more relational, rather than programmed approach to groups, I’d find a way for people to gather in groups through the relationships they already have—not as consumers, though, but as friends who desire to live in community to carry out God’s mission.

By the way, I suggest three books for anyone wrestling with this question:

My Small Group Vital Signs. It provides seven indicators of health that keep groups flourishing (so that members want to work together, grow together, bear fruit together, and then naturally multiply into new healthy groups).

Scott Boren’s MissioRelate (click for more info or to buy now), for small group directors, pastors, and other church leaders. Out of the hundreds of books I own on small group ministry, it’s the best and clearest on how to build a healthy small group ministry.

Scott Boren’s Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus (click for more info or to buy now), for small group leaders, core team members, and the rest of the group. I’m reading this book now, and it’s fantastic! Scott shows groups how to move from good meetings to having great small group experiences that transform lives and make a kingdom impact.

Are Small Groups Deceiving Themselves?

What are the purposes of vision and mission statements? Are they important? Should a small group have vision and mission statements?

I’ll answer those questions in a moment. But first I’d like to share a series of mission-related tweets I posted a couple days ago:


Maybe I was in a sarcastic mood, but I think this is important. Jesus and his early followers often spoke in big-vision, missional terms, but they didn’t leave those statements on the table. They actually lived out the vision and mission daily. So should we.

The problem isn’t that we’ve forgotten our mission as the church or as small groups. It’s that we simply choose lesser missions. We choose comfort. We choose to study the mission rather than doing the mission. We choose us over them.

The problem isn't that we've forgotten our mission. It's that we choose lesser missions. Click To Tweet

We spend more time and energy on reshuffling the already committed than we do on seeking the lost. We spend lots of energy on connecting Christians into groups that are ignorant about or ignoring the mission to which we have been called.

We have become experts at discussing God’s mission. We have learned how to observe God’s Word, interpret it, and apply it. We know how to facilitate discussion, ask good questions, lead prayer times, and care for one another. Those are good things.

But do we do what the Word of God says? If not, we’re deceiving ourselves (James 1:22). None of that matters if we are not going into the world around us and making disciples, being Jesus’ witnesses, being ministers of reconciliation, preaching the gospel.

How do we do this?

Begin with prayer, asking God to give you the opportunities; but don’t make prayer itself the goal or the new vision. While you wait on God’s answer to your prayers, go and serve and love. God will most likely answer your prayers as you are doing those things he has already called you to do. He’ll put people in front of you who you can tell about him, share the gospel, and administer reconciliation.

Develop vision and mission statements and put them into action plans. Take those why statements and be very specific and tactical about the what, when, where, who (and whom), and how.

Go. That action is often in opposition to gathering, but you can do both. You can huddle together to encourage, learn, pray, support, otherwise minister to one another, and plan. But then you quickly break the huddle to go out and carry out God’s mission.

Change the mindset of your group from gathering to going, from huddling to healing, from sitting to serving, from meeting to ministering.

I’d love to help you carry out this plan. A big part of my vision involves partnering with God and his church to revitalize Christ’s mission in and through radical community. How can I partner with you in that?

Question: What’s keeping you from carrying out the mission God has given your group or church? Please respond to this post by clicking the Comment button below.

7 Biblical Questions to Assess the Level of Your Group’s Community

How is your group doing at restoring biblical community? Use these 7 questions in your group to help you answer that question. Ask your members to assess your group using a 1–5 scale, 1 being “not at all” and 5 being “100 percent.” Then discuss how you can grow as a group in each of these.

  • Are we devoted to one another in brotherly love? Do we honor one another above ourselves (Romans 12:10)?
  • Do we “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way … fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2)?
  • To what degree does our group “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21)?
  • Do we “encourage one another daily” (Hebrews 3:13, emphasis added)?
  • Do we “admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16)?
  • Is our group a place where people can confess their sins to each other and pray for one another so that they can be healed (James 5:16)?
  • Most importantly, are we growing “to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15)?

How well is your group at biblical community? Use these 7 assessment questions. Click To Tweet

Question: What do you think will result when you assess your group with these 7 questions? Leave a comment by clicking the Comment bar at the bottom of the page.

The Secret to Open AND Authentic Groups

I recently read a tweet and blog post that assumes an either-or viewpoint toward small groups. You must choose, the author says, between being an open, outward-focused, welcoming, numerically growing group (or class) and living in authentic, accountable, abiding community. You can’t have it both ways.

This often-repeated reasoning emerges from the idea that if a group desires to grow in radically real community—the kind in which people open up and share their whole stories, confess readily, love sacrificially, and hold each other accountable—it cannot regularly invite and welcome new people. And of course, the opposite is true, they say: If you desire to reach the lost, invite new people, and grow in numbers, you can’t dive into the deep end of community life; instead you must offer a lighter version of community.

This line of reasoning overlooks two vital points, a biblical one and a practical one:

Biblical View

The Bible is abounding in both-and examples. The Godhead, our foundational model of radically real community, is, of course, both authentic/accountable/loving and missional in nature. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are both inward- and outward-focused.

I’ve heard the argument that Jesus’ discipleship group was an intentionally closed small group, and for about three years it certainly appears to have been so. Yet Jesus constantly sent these men in his group outward on mission. While the 12 apostles stayed constant, many other followers traveled in and out of this grouping. The group was a great example of both-and.

Perhaps the clearest example is the early church, as described in the familiar Acts 2:42-47. Look at this passage verse-by-verse. Which of these verses are inward-focused (building authentic, accountable community) and which are outward-focused (reaching out, serving, growing numerically)?

42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. [inward]

43: Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. [outward]

44: All the believers were together and had everything in common. [inward]

45: They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. [outward]

46: Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, [inward]

47: praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.[outward]

This pattern of focusing inward on developing community and then outward on mission is repeated throughout the New Testament. It’s simply who they were. In fact, the addition of new people came out of the overflow of their deep community life with one another.

Practical View

One of the reasons people often believe in the either-or lie is that they mistakenly view small group community only as a meeting. They think in terms of everything, inward- and outward-focused, occurring within an hour-and-a-half gathering once a week. With that mindset, the either-or dilemma makes natural sense. But true small group community is more than a meeting! It’s a way of doing life together. It’s the context, or environment, in which we carry out the mission of making disciples.

While small groups do have weekly gatherings, much of what makes a small group great happens outside of meeting times, and that takes both intentionality as well as spontaneity as group members do life together. Phone calls, texts, visits, lunches together, serving together, praying for one another, recreating together—all these occur between meetings in a healthy, life-changing group.

Small Group Overtime

One secret to making this happen is what I call “Small Group Overtime” or “the Meeting After the Meeting.” Every group meeting is open to new people, and members regularly invite friends and neighbors to come along with them. But let’s say group members want to discuss matters of a deeper, more personal, more confessional or accountable nature. What do they do? After the end of the “official meeting,” several group members can slip into the next room to huddle up and talk and pray for one another while several other members stay with visitors to talk and eat. This can happen naturally and without much fanfare, but sometimes the members who stay in the room can casually mention that the other members want to discuss more personal issues and support one another. That communicates to the new person that this is a safe place as well as a very caring place.

But remember, Small Group Overtime is not the only time group members can or should care for and support each other. Loving one another is a 24-7 value, not a once-a-week program.

What other ideas do you have for transitioning your group’s mindset from a once-a-week meeting to a group of friends who are doing life together 24-7?

MORE on this Topic

Rock ‘n Roll Advice to Get Your Small Group Back Where You Belong

Maybe you’ve never considered this, but Rock n’ Roll has provided small group leaders with quite a bit of wisdom. Over the last week, I’ve been posting #rocknrollwisdom as my Small Group Leadership TIPS of the week on Twitter, my Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and LinkedIn. The genesis of all real wisdom comes from the Creator, who uses all kinds of means to get our attention.

How many R&R titles can you find?

Many groups have forgotten The Heart of the Matter. They Come Together for fellowship and to Read the Book, and that’s Fine as Fine Can Be, yet God is simply a Spirit in the Sky, and Jesus is Just Alright. They may say I’m a Believer, but the Lost? Dream On! Love your neighbor? “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” they ask. When a visitor happens to show up, their attitudes are, “Hey You, Don’t Stand So Close to Me!” Ain’t It a Shame? Yes, It’s a Plain Shame!

God Only Knows what he can do in and through your group, so Don’t Stop Believin’ in him. Say a Little Prayer and tell God, “I’ll lead this group Anyway You Want It.” In fact, instead of leading under your own Authority and Power, lead as if you’re Livin’ on a Prayer.

Small Group Leaders, it’s time to Shake It Up! Yes, continue to Faithfully Shower the People You Love with Love. But Let Your Love Flow to people outside your little group as well. Invite new people to your group. Tell them, “You can Come as You Are, yes Just the Way You Are,” and then Let ‘Em In and welcome them with Open Arms.

Now here’s a little Caution when you tell your group there’s Gonna Be Some Changes Made … Changes in Latitudes (because you’ll need to Get Off your comfy couches to actually do what the Bible says) and mostly Changes in Attitudes. Be the Leader of the Band, the Leader of the Pack, and tell your group members to Walk This Way. It may not be Easy, but Keep on Rollin’ with the Changes and Don’t Look Back. It may Feel Like the First Time you’ve actually lived as a group on God’s mission!

Make Christ’s mission to Go Now and reach lost and Lonely People Urgent for your group. It’s really A Matter of Trust for the people in your group, so Don’t Fear the Reaper. Remind your group that with God, Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. No Way. Ain’t No Stopping Us Now! So until you’re climbing that Stairway to Heaven and Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, Keep the Fire. Yes. Keep the Fire Burnin’ over the Long Run!

As Always, Always and Forever, Love is the Answer. When Times Gettin’ Tougher than Tough, remember, you gotta have Faith. It may be true that You Can’t Always Get What You Want, but if you try sometimes well you might find you get what you need.

Keep on Rockin’!

I’m sure I’ve missed a few pieces of #RocknRollWisdom. Add yours in the comments!

More Posts on Getting on God’s Mission as a Group

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week: December 28, 2015 – January 1, 2016

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the past week as Tweeted, posted on the Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *
Monday, 12/28: Make God, not yourselves, the main character as you study his Word. #BibleStudy
Tuesday, 12/29: Bible study = connecting God’s story to your stories. Don’t settle for either-or. #both-and #BibleStudy

Wednesday, 12/30: Commit with one another to mutual discipleship. Each person takes responsibility for one another.

Thursday, 12/31: Move group members from attending to participating to serving to sharing to leading. #discipleship
Friday, 1/1/2016: Set at least 3 God-given, God-sized goals for 2016. Then plan for how you will accomplish them.

All 2015 Small Group Leadership TIPS

Follow Mike and Small Group Leadership on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks by clicking on the icons in the “Connect with Mike” box in the right column.

The Small Group Peloton

7 Principles Your Group Can Learn from Cyclists in the Tour de France

Are you watching the Tour de France? One of the most remarkable elements in the race is the peloton. Cyclists ride in tight packs to save energy by drafting (up to a 40 percent reduction in drag in a well-formed peloton), but there are many more advantages of the peloton, including the encouragement from other riders and the teamwork involved.

I enjoy cycling in a group: riding together, taking turns at the front, talking about life as we roll along, and helping one another when bikes or bodies break down. There is a sense of community on these rides.

Authentic community is an indicator of a healthy small group that I discuss in my book Small Group Vital Signs. Your group cannot be healthy and growing if you are not living in authentic, biblical community.

Here are seven principles for developing authentic community that we can learn from cyclists:

  1. Become a Group. Before you can build teamwork, you need to know one another. A great cycling team, as in any sport, spends time together, getting to know one another personally. It’s really good to know the tendencies of the people I ride with. Same goes with small group members.
  2. Develop Bonds of Trust. In the peloton or even a paceline, you must trust the riders in front of and around you. If a rider in front of you just touches his or her brakes, it can cause many riders to crash. In a small group, you must develop a trust among one another. For one, discuss the vitality of confidentiality. Group members must be able to trust others in the group for authenticity to take hold. To go along with this one, a great cycling team and small group develops a commitment to one another and to their shared goals as a team. Trust and commitment go together like a chain and cogs.
  3. Become a Team. Each cycling team member has his or her own unique strengths and weaknesses. Some are sprinters, some are climbers, and some are “domestiques,” that is, cyclists whose role is to support and work for other riders. It’s important for your group members to know what gifts and talents they bring to the group–for the good of the group. Every single group member should have a role.
  4. Develop the Team. Your work is not finished once you form a team. Cycling teams spend lots of time on the road practicing for all kinds of different situations during events. As your small group works together using your individual gifts and roles, both during group meetings and as you serve others together, your teamwork will become stronger and stronger. But you must get out of your comfort zones to make this happen!
  5. Share Leadership. In a paceline, each rider takes turns up front. This is a way of serving the team, and it is often hard work. But everyone takes a turn, giving the others some time to recover for their next time up front. (A leech is a rider who takes advantage of the draft from other riders but never takes a turn up front. Be sure you don’t have any leeches in your group!) Now here’s the really cool part. In a good paceline, the front rider actually gets a small help from the riders behind him or her. Somehow, and I don’t quite understand the science behind it, the slipstream provides a kind of “push” for the front rider. Sharing leadership with your group may be the best thing for the group you ever do!
  6. Confess and Speak the Truth in Love. Cycling team members must get really good at real, transparent communication with one another. They know that to get better as individuals and as a team, they must be able to say “my fault” or correct other riders. Learn how to care enough to confront sinful behavior in an environment of unconditional love and with God’s grace. If you can’t speak the truth in love (and with the person’s best interest at heart) then you’re not ready to speak. Keep praying.
  7. Have Fun Together! Riding with a finely tuned team is lots of fun. You go faster and can ride farther together. Healthy, genuine community should be exciting and fun! Laughing together builds friendships and can even build trust and set the stage for deeper discussions.

More Posts on Authentic Community

Community Is Not All It Should Be (even in Brazil)
5 Surefire Ways to Screw Up a Small Group
Relearning our New Testament Calling

Jesus’ Small Group Was a Dysfunctional Mess

Art Credit:

Jesus’ small group was a mess. It was often dysfunctional. Except for its leader, this leadership training group seemed to lack any observable spiritual leadership potential.

Within two pages in my Bible, Jesus had to …

  • rebuke his leader-intern (Mark 8:33). Actually, this verse says he looked at all the disciples as he addressed Peter: “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men”
  • deal with Peter missing the bigger vision during their mountaintop experience (9:5-6)
  • stop an argument between some of his group members and the religious leaders (9:14-16)
  • rescue his group members when they could not do what he had told them to do (9:18, 25-28)
  • correct his disciples who were arguing about which of them were the greatest (9:33-34; also see 10:35-45)

The next time you feel like there are tensions and problems in your group, look again at Jesus’ group!

We often talk about what kinds of characteristics to look for in potential leaders: a heart for God, a servant’s heart, and humility, for instance, but from all discernible measures, the guys Jesus selected did not have these qualities. And the worst culprits seem to be the men selected for Jesus’ core team: Peter, John, and James.

Of course, “the Lord does not look at the things man looks at” (1 Samuel 16:7). Even when we as men try to look at the things of the heart rather than just outward appearances, however, we can miss what God sees … which is why we must pray, and ask the Lord of the harvest to send us potential leaders.

Yes, Jesus’ group was a mess and often dysfunctional, but Jesus’ group was healthy. That might seem like an oxymoron, but I don’t believe it is. Jesus understood the principle of process. He did not see only what they were, he saw what they were becoming. And often this process of becoming looks very messy.

If your group is a mess—if your group includes a bunch of dysfunctional, sinful, pride-laden, argumentative men and women—don’t give up! Ask God to help you see the process of what your group members are becoming. At the proper time–God’s time–you will reap a harvest if you do not give up!

The Fool’s Gold of Group Discipleship: 6 Small Group Elements Easily Mistaken for the Real Thing

All that glitters is not discipleship.

Christ-Centered, Holy-Spirit Empowered, Authentic, Missional Small Groups that Share Leadership are the environment where discipleship happens best, but I’ve witnessed far too often that many groups focus on the wrong wins. These are all fools gold:

  1. Good Meetings. If folks leave saying, “Great meeting!” they may have missed the point. A great meeting does not mean people have been discipled. In fact, discipleship happens as much outside of official meeting times as within.
  2. Good Bible Studies. I believe this is the biggest fool’s gold in many groups. More study and more knowledge do not equal being discipled (see 1 Cor. 8:1-3 and James 1:22-25). It is part of the process, yes, but just because you have studied God’s Word as a group does not necessarily mean people are growing up spiritually. By the way, if the only time group members are opening their Bibles is in group meeting, that’s not real discipleship!
  3. Group Longevity. I’ve heard group members suggest that because they have been in a group a long time, they have been discipled. Yet it sometimes appears they are some of the more spiritually immature people I’ve been around. Groups, like individuals, can get into a plateaued state and not even realize it. They can drift along in their lukewarm state for years and years, not growing or producing any real fruit that lasts. This is dangerous: it’s to such people that Jesus said, “I never knew you” (Matt 7:21-23; also see Revelation 3:16).
  4. Group Talk. The apostle Paul said, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” It’s easy to talk a good Christian life in a small group gathering, but talk does not equal real discipleship, counting the cost, making the commitment, and following Christ with everything you’ve got. Discipleship requires taking off the masks, putting away falsehood, being real, transparent, and authentic with one another. That includes stuff like confession, accountability, acceptance, encouragement, admonishment, truth, and love. True discipleship leads to bearing fruit, fruit that will last. Groups that are really doing discipleship will by nature be missional.
  5. Ministry. This may seem antithetical to my last point, but a group that is doing ministry together does not necessarily equal a discipling group. Ministry flows out of a Christ-centered community that is growing in their relationship with Him.
  6. A Super Leader. I’ve said this often, but it is simply impossible for one person to disciple a whole group. Even Jesus didn’t try it. Instead, a Christ-like leader shares leadership with 2-3 others who share the shepherding and discipleship responsibilities. Unfortunately, too many of us are leading solo and not bearing fruit as we should. If this describes you, I encourage you to get a copy of my book, The Pocket Guide to Burnout-Free Small Group Leadership (Digital edition).  
By the way, one of the ways to identify Fool’s Gold is if you find it sitting right on top of the ground. The Real Gold of Discipleship usually takes a lot of digging, searching, and time. And it always includes a cost.
Are there other Fool’s Gold I missed? What do you think? 

The Commitment Conundrum (Commitment and Small Groups Series #14)

This is installment #14, and the last post (for now) in my series on Commitment and Small Groups.

Andrew Mason, founder of, and I recently discussed this question via video: “Why do you think we often do not see commitment from the people in our small groups?” I think it’s a pretty good summary for this series:

By the way, you can also view this video and engage in discussion about this on the Small Group Churches website. Click here! 

See the entire Commitment and Small Groups series here.