Small Groups in the Established Church

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Sam Rainer

November 5, 2014

Today’s post was written by Ben Reed. His new book, Starting Small, is a great resource for anyone wanting to know more about small groups. Check out his blog as well.

When you think about starting small groups, you may think that groups are for church plants. Or for new churches. Or for churches that aren’t established. Or for churches that don’t have Sunday school. And if that’s what you think, you’d be among a growing number of people that tend to put small groups and Sunday school up against one another.

And you’d be among a growing number of people that’s just flat-out wrong. Small groups aren’t just for churches that only do small groups. They’re not just for church plants. They’re not even just for churches trying to reach into the next generation. They’re for every church.

There are many theological reasons why your church should start small groups. Wrestle deeply with the Scriptures, with people, and with your local church’s cultural and historical distinctives. Don’t short-circuit that process. After you’ve done that, here are some practical reasons why your church needs small groups.

  1. For some people, on-campus groups aren’t ideal. Maybe they can’t block off all Sunday morning. Maybe they know that their kids will go bonkers if they’re inside a church building for several hours at a time. Maybe they work Sunday afternoons, and they don’t want to be tied up all day. Maybe they just don’t learn and grow best in a classroom-type environment. For whatever reason, though, on-campus isn’t ideal for them.

To reach people you arent yet reaching, you need to do things you arent yet doing.


  1. Small groups offer the potential for unlimited growth. If your local church continues to grow, you will run out of discipleship space on-campus. But off-campus small groups give the opportunity for unlimited growth. Groups can meet in homes, at coffee shops, or at work. The meeting spaces are only limited by a group’s creativity.


  1. Small groups help free parking spots. Asking people to attend for one hour on Sundays frees up your parking lot. When someone attends worship and Sunday school, they tie up a spot for 2+ hours. Asking them to pursue discipleship and community off peak worship hours is a sacrifice that serves newcomers well.


  1. Small groups push your church out into the community. Small groups that meet off-site help your church become more visible and active in your community. When “outsiders” see us congregating together in groups outside of our own buildings, they inevitably ask the question, “What are they doing?” Community is one of the most attractive aspects of the church.

Small groups remind your people that “church” isnt a building.

If you’re going to launch small groups in a church that has an existing Sunday school structure, here are four suggestions:


  1. Don’t create competing discipleship systems. Define your target (What is a healthy group? What does it do?), and relentlessly pursue it. Let your target drive your training, leader recruitment, and individual group experience.


  1. Utilize on-campus space to launch groups. Help new people form relationships on-campus for a predetermined set of time, then send them out. For example, you could give them a room on-campus for six weeks, during which time they select their leader, begin investing in each other’s lives, find a host home, and pick a curriculum.


  1. Don’t ask people to be involved in both. Make your “ask” simple by reminding people that the end goal of both Sunday school and small groups is the same. Asking them to do both will either exhaust people…or make them feel doubly guilty.


  1. Create clear, intentional on-ramps. If either system is going to grow, then it must be done intentionally. People don’t stumble into spiritual growth, and they don’t stumble into small groups. Script out their steps, and help make it easy for them to join a group. The role of a local church in this is to absorb the difficulty so that the process is easy for the congregation.

Group life is difficult enough. Don’t make it difficult and confusing for people to jump in.

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2 comments on “Small Groups in the Established Church”

  1. Mike Kean says:

    What does it say about a pastor that comes into a church and kills small groups?

  2. Sam Rainer says:

    Mike – Great question. Generally, I would not recommend doing away with a small group ministry in most cases, especially if people are getting connected. A group setting (SS, small group, bible studies, etc.) is the best way to assimilate people into the body.

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