Fix My Small Groups!

It was a great small group. 


Members shared from the heart, learned from the Word and genuinely cared for each other.


When they showed up, that is.


One couple in particular seemed to find any reason to miss a meeting, offering excuses about being too tired or needing to run errands. When the couple did show up, the leaders noticed a change in the group dynamic—some people became more cautious and reserved about sharing, leaving the other members feeling disengaged and frustrated.


“When group members consistently don’t show, it can really drain a leader and the group,” says Bill Donahue, author of Leading Life-Changing Small Groups (Zondervan), who oversaw this particular group during his time at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. (


If your church has a small groups ministry, chances are you’ve faced this same problem of commitment, as well as a host of other common small group issues such as poor structure and untrained leadership. In fact, most churches struggle to keep their small groups healthy, but with the right strategies and the right values, you can strengthen your group and your church’s ability to reach more people in a meaningful way.


Outreach recently presented the most prevalent small group dilemmas to several trusted leaders in small-group innovation. Read on to gain their meaningful insights and sensible solutions to these six common problems your small groups might be facing.


Problem One: Our small groups lack authentic fellowship.


Solution: Several years ago, Scott Christenson, small groups pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Palatine, Ill. (; PPLC), joined a small group and immediately clicked with nine of the ten group members. The tenth, however, challenged Christenson’s ability to love his fellow small group members.


“He ruined an otherwise perfect group for me,” he admits. Later, Christenson realized he wasn’t alone in his sentiments. One night while sitting across the circle from the difficult small group member, Christenson saw that others were clearly frustrated as well.


“As he droned on with one of his typically annoying responses, I noticed that the girl sitting next to him was rolling her eyes and mocking him,” recalls Christenson. “That was a Holy Spirit moment for me, because I realized that I had probably done the same thing before.” Convicted and rebuked, Christenson began learning the true meaning of authentic fellowship.


“I learned how to love someone I didn’t particularly like,” he says. “It wasn’t fun, but I think I grew more in Christ-likeness than in any other small group since, and it was all because of this one difficult member.”


Indeed, small groups can become the medium through which churches teach the hard lesson of loving one another by encouraging people of various backgrounds and personalities to spend several hours together, week after week. Donahue recommends challenging your groups to ask themselves, “Are we being the Church to each other?”


“People sometimes try to develop a small group system in a non-relational culture, but that doesn’t work,” Donahue says. “You must teach people what it means to be the body of Christ, to love and serve each other.”


Bottom Line: Remind leaders and participants that a small group is not just an easy social gathering, but an opportunity for members to learn to love others as Christ would—even through difficult relationships. 


Problem Two: Our small groups lack structure.


Solution: Creating an effective small group ministry structure was a daunting task for North Coast Church in Vista, Calif. (, with some 6,500 attendees scattered throughout five satellite locations and a sprawling main campus. Yet today, nearly 82% of its 4,000 adult members are enrolled in small groups. Dave Enns, pastor of Growth Groups at North Coast, attributes the ministry’s success in part to the implementation of a small group structure that suits the congregation’s needs.


“People [here] live in one place, work in another, and everyone wants to find someone like themselves,” Enns explains. To best accommodate the logistical and social needs of its Growth Group members, North Coast decided to separate members based upon their age group (20-somethings, 30-somethings) or family background (single, married, divorced).


Other churches find that organizing groups geographically makes sense for the needs of their congregations. Recently, Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich. (, created Neighborhood Networks, enabling their church members to establish a presence in their communities, and Willow Creek has also launched new groups with geography in mind.


“When group members live close to each other, the opportunity for greater connection increases,” says Donahue. “If the person you see at the grocery store or the Little League game is the same person you were studying scripture with two days ago, you’re going to develop authentic fellowship.”


Bottom Line: Choose a structure that fits the unique needs of your community and your members. Connect people on common ground, whether it’s affinity, season of life or geography.

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Keri Wyatt Kent is the author of six books and a co-author or contributor to several others, and is currently working on another book. When sheÂ’s not busy traveling around the country to speak and lead retreats, sheÂ’s writing. SheÂ’s a regular contributor to several magazines, including TodayÂ’s Christian Woman, MomSense and Outreach magazine, as well as several websites and blogs. SheÂ’s a member of Willow Creek Community Church, where she has taught, led groups, and volunteered in a variety of ministries over the last 21 years.