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Do Small Groups Work?

Dan Edelen has a provocative post up over at Cerulean Sanctum about small groups in the church. He notes that we’ve had Christian small groups for going on fifty years now and they don’t seem to have delivered on the promise to turn North American pew potatoes into genuine disiciples. By and large, we’re not more prayerful or mission-minded than we were before the advent of small groups.

Dan thinks a major reason for this is we approach small groups from the wrong perspective:

Part of the reason I believe that small groups have resoundingly failed to deliver on their promise is that no one seems to look at them from the right perspective. We never view small groups as aiding the church as a collective body. Our model is more based on the idea that we’re helping individuals plug-in on a more granular level.

But that’s the typical Evangelical obsession with the individual. Meet the individual’s need on a very intimate level and you’ll build a wildly effective church from that core. Forty years later, that failed mentality still prevails.

We’ve got to stop viewing the world through the lens of the individual and start thinking more about the corporate Body of Christ. If small groups are not translating into a better church filled with better people, then perhaps we need to start thinking about making our entire church a small group, the whole assembled mass of people. Rather than fragmenting our assembled community into small groups, perhaps we can find ways to translate what small groups do well to an entire church.

He notes (thank you!!) that sometimes things that worked perfectly in the first century won’t work today because the culture has shifted so dramatically. For example, down in the comments he suggests that the first century Christians spent time together pretty much on a daily basis?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùsomething modern life makes nearly impossible. What if that were a key factor in the success of the early Christian house churches? What sort of success would house churches and small groups have without it?

I used to be a big advocate for small groups, and in some ways I guess I still am. Historically, small groups have almost always been a part of that kind of church life (just think of the early monastic communities, the medieval B?ɬ©guines and Brethren of the Common Life, English Separatist conventiclers, Wesleyan class meetings, etc.). Even so, mostly these days I’m an advocate for churches doing well the kinds of things the first Christians did?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùsharing a common life, bearing one anothers’ burdens, confessing their faults to one another, giving themselves over to one another in service.

The ideal, which I think would be much closer to the New Testament model anyway, would be to aim for churches that are small enough to do well what small groups are supposed to do?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand then plant new churches when they get too big. Most churches in North America are already at about that size (say 100 or so active members) but are probably clueless about how to be intentional about fostering Christian community because they’re either stuck in survival mode, crippled by dysfunctional relational systems, spinning their wheels with extraneous programming, or chasing the latest ecclesiastical fad hoping to grow bigger than they need to be.

Where have you found vital Christian community? How did you know when you found it?

(H/T: ThinkChristian)

technorati tags: cell groups, church, small groups



  1. Terri says:

    Darrel – THANK YOU for your prayers. I just got off the phone with the transportation coordinator and it went so smoothly that I still feel woozy. I was all geared up to be calm and assertive and firm and … I didn’t have to do anything more strenuous that state my name and the reason for my call and he said, “okay”. It was a true sit-com moment and I could HEAR God laughing.



  2. Kyle says:

    My dear Doctor Platypus,

    I think I’ve found it in my own community, as well as the group of Christians I spent time with in Oxford. To me the most important things are 1) a refusal to chase after the new – something that’s going to make Christianity work for me this time, and make discipleship easier, and 2) thoughtful practices that work on the assumption that we’re a group of people dedicated to sharing life with one another for the long haul. Nobody matures in Christ by themselves.



  3. Craig says:

    I don’t think small groups are a boondoggle, but I do think we tend to approach them from the wrong perspective, as you suggest. I think they can and do play a vital role in the life of believers, but when they solely exist to serve the people of the Class rather than aiding the people of the Class to server the wider church, then the problems that Dan suggests manifest themselves. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that small groups can and often do perform vital functions for the church — teaching, fellowship, ministry, and plugging the people of the Class into the life of the wider Church.


  4. D. P. says:

    Kyle: The little that I know about your community is very appealing to me. You’re right about refusing to settle for quick fixes. Practices of spirituality are also obviously key.

    Craig: I definitely agree there is a place for small groups. It’s just that when small groups becomes a “program” or (worse) a panacea for all that’s ailing the church, it looses its effectiveness. I’d rather focus on the functions–teaching, fellowship, etc., as you suggest–than the form.

    Terri: Good to hear things are working out! Thanks for letting me share a wee bit of Christian community with you and your family 🙂


  5. DLE says:


    Thanks for the link to my post and for expanding on this topic.

    I think small groups are good for a few things: relationship, prayer, and worship. They’re usually poor when it comes to Bible study, which is what most people use them for. If you follow the link at the end of my post, you’ll see why.

    I’ve been in dozens of small groups in my life. Of those, I would say that only about three or four have fulfilled their promise. That’s not a great track record. Only one of those was truly good in Bible study.

    Small groups have their place, but they all are woefully inadequate for building real community because they’re too affected by societal forces. I suspect if we fixed those societal forces, we’d have better groups.


  6. D. P. says:

    Welcome, Dan! I’m largely in agreement with you, although perhaps I’ve had a slightly better track record with small groups than you have. Still, the idea that a church can cure all that ails it by adding small groups is patently absurd.

    Good small groups?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùlike good Christian discipleship?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùrequire embracing a completely different set of assumptions and expectations than the ones we usually bring, and that is just plain hard for the average Christian. It may be worth the effort, but nobody should have any illusions going into it.


  7. John Glumb says:

    Having been involved in leading small groups in the 5000 size church. I still feel they are a very necessary part, especially in churches who have a seeker focus.
    The reasons are partially societal and partially structural. Societally we have very few opportunities to truly get to know people at a deep level and to try to share their burdens and lift them up. It is very difficult to do this with your next door neighbor anymore let alone at the congregational level in your church. In the seeker focused community that same seeker focus can sometimes leave the believers in the congregation lacking for close fellowship.
    I do agree though that formulaic or curriculum driven approaches are not really the ideal except for getting people who are new to the concept of groups or teaching basics to new Christians.


  8. D. P. says:

    Welcome, John!! Good to hear from you. I think you’re absolutely right about the social factors, and I don’t think I or any of the other commenters deny that small groups (or something like them) are a vital part of the church’s function of socialization, fellowship, or whatever you prefer to call it.

    Small groups can be good for teaching if you’ve got a good teacher to lead it! Otherwise, I’m afraid Dan Edelen’s observations are pretty close to the mark in my experience. I’m sure you know the conventional wisdom in small group leadership that it is much easier to train/produce leaders than it is teachers. Small group advocates need to remember that.


  9. JohnG says:

    It is a little too easy to just take Sunday School and move it to your living room. There is an essence of caring for one one another and vulnerability that occurs in a properly functioning small group that is difficult to replicate in any other context.


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