How to Make Your Church Feel Smaller Than It Is…and Why You Should

How to Make Your Church Feel Smaller Than It Is…and Why You Should

Today’s post is a guest post adapted from my good friend Rich Birch’s brand new book, Unreasonable Churches: 10 Churches Who Zagged When Others Zigged and Saw More Impact Because of It, for which I had the privilege of writing the forward. 

Paul Lawrence worked on the assembly line at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama. As he watched a YouTube video on his phone about basic tennis lessons during one of his breaks, another worker, Jamal Henry, overheard the video and sat down across from him.

“Sounds like you’re a tennis player,” Jamal said with a smile. Paul looked up from his phone with a grunt. “Well, I don’t know that I would say that. But tennis is my thing. I’m trying to be more active, you know.” The two men introduced themselves and Jamal invited his coworker to come check out the group he played tennis with every Tuesday night.

Paul was soon playing every week with Jamal’s tennis group, and he also accepted Jamal’s invitation to come with him to church.

What began in a factory break room would be completed in the last place Paul ever expected to go—an “unreasonable church”—a massive church of 38,000 and growing, yes, but also a church that knows how to bring people together through small groups of all shapes and interests.

Many churches have small groups, but they are typically pre-set types initiated by the leadership, and while these groups can reach many…they don’t reach all.

What if we’ve been managing small groups in our congregations completely wrong? What if there was another way that was even more effective?

Whatever your church size is at the moment, here are three reasons why you might want to try a new approach to small groups in your own congregation.

1. People Learn Best When They Work and Play Together

Most small groups meet in churches on Sunday mornings, or on weeknights in a home, focused on Bible study. There’s no doubt studying God’s Word is extremely important, but something special occurs when we combine our desire for pursuing a closer relationship with God with our desire for a relationship with others.

Though it may seem like a pretty hands-off way to train new leaders, this way of learning within the context of playing and working together is not new. Jesus practiced this leadership method often.

Think about the original 12 disciples Jesus chose; despite lacking the background, education and vocational aptitude for the huge enterprise they would undertake, Jesus devoted himself to them. He spent time with that small motley group of men, young and uneducated, on a daily basis. Then, after His death and resurrection, He left them with a commission to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

These “group leaders” received only a mere three years of training before they began leading their own “groups,” and most of it occurred over meals and while traveling. But these very first small groups were catalysts that changed the world, with the Holy Spirit as their “coach” along the way.

The very day after Jesus was baptized, John the Baptizer saw Jesus and said to His disciples, “Look, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35, NIV). When two of John’s disciples heard this, they followed Jesus, who invited them to “come…and you will see” (John 1:39).

This is what Jamal did with Paul Lawrence; he invited him to “come and see.”

When Paul first attended the “Drop Shots Tennis Group,” he connected with people who put God first in their lives—not tennis—and his life changed forever.

2. People Want to Feel Connected to People

In 2001, Chris Hodges planted Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama. Since then, the church has experienced stunning growth with 38,000 people attending weekly services online and at 14 campuses.

The need for people to feel connected to others runs deep and universal. One study revealed that even being ignored by a group a person wants nothing to do with has the potential to make them feel left out! How much more, then, will someone feel left out when they’re not connected to the people they worship with at church?

So how does a church like Church of the Highlands keep track of 38,000 individuals, when it’s comparable in size to that of a small city? Even spread out over 14 locations, organized small groups are essential to keep the people of Highlands connected to each other. But just the training and organizing alone of so many groups requires an army of logistical leaders. Small churches know the challenge of recruiting and training small group leaders; in larger churches, it can require multiple staff positions to organize church members into groups and ensure group leaders are trained and equipped.

So when you’re dealing with tens of thousands of people, how do you find enough niches to fit each individual?

3. People Are the Most Passionate When They’re the Most Interested.

Pastor Chris and Church of the Highlands developed the concept of Free Market Small Groups to deal with the challenges inherent in small group formation, which emphasizes trust in God’s working, mentorship and empowerment of their members.

In the Free Market system of small groups, the members who host small groups choose the topic of study, when and where to meet, and what their group does. The church doesn’t dictate what the small groups will look like and doesn’t create a complicated structure and meeting agenda for these groups.

The Free Market small group idea works because the group members are more passionate about their group and what their group is doing. The group leaders are interested and experienced in the focus of the group, and they’re enthusiastic about inviting others to join their group. The group members and leaders may naturally have more contacts in the areas of their interest and have more success in asking new people to come. When members are interested and engaged in the group, they are also less likely to become burned out.

Perhaps the best measurement of the Free Market small group model is the high rate of small group attendance. Church of the Highlands respects the gifts the members bring to the church, and they recognize that true community comes from meeting and working with like-minded people. They also trust in the work of the Holy Spirit to continue to work in their members’ lives within the context of the church’s weekly biblical instruction. By providing a coach, the leaders aren’t left hanging, but neither are the leaders overwhelmed with hours of pre-training.

The result? Small group leaders who feel appreciated, empowered, enthusiastic and equipped. Just as “one size fits all” doesn’t always fit everyone, one type of small group doesn’t always fit, either.

What do you think about the idea of a “Free Market” small group? Do you do something similar in your own church? Would you consider it? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Adapted from Unreasonable Churches by Rich Birch. Rich has served for more than 20 years in ministry including one of the first multisite churches in North America. He blogs and podcasts weekly at

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Rich Birch
Rich serves as Operations Pastor at Liquid Church in the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. He blogs at and is a sought after speaker and consultant on multisite, pastoral productivity and communications.