Why Small Groups Don’t Work

why small groups

A pastor confesses that he can’t figure out how to make groups work. A popular author grabs a confession and says “See, small groups don’t work. You need to do it my way instead.” Another labels groups as a fad of the last decade. Another leader claims that small groups are small enough to care but not large enough to do anything. Then one of the most prominent churches that promoted small groups and developed an extensive network of churches for small group training is no longer doing groups. It seems like many people are jumping into the blog world to announce that their experience reveals why small groups don’t work in America. They proclaim the demise of groups as if their point of view is the gospel truth. And the sad thing is that we embrace their limited point of view on small groups don’t work as if it is as valid as any other. Welcome to the post-modern world of flat information dissemination. Everyone is an expert. Or so it seems.

But we need to have something that helps us discern the elements of truth that these small group obituaries contain and try to understand why small groups don’t work in these specific situations.

Why Small Groups Don’t Work

The truth is that groups DON’T often work in America. But that does not mean that they CAN’T work. We have to do the hard work of trying to figure out small groups don’t work.  Please understand that reasons I will state are not so much about strategies as much as they are about how we approach our strategies. Here’s the first:

Reason #1 that Groups Don’t Work: Fad Hopping

The leadership of the church moves on to other emphases. When groups were the hot fad and big churches were promoting them and writing new books on why we should develop groups, it was easy to embrace them as central to church life. But when the excitement wanes, leadership moves on to something else that claims to be able to turn a church around. I recently learned that one of the flagship small group churches in North America, one that hosted annual conference on groups and even started an organization to help other churches develop groups, no longer emphasize home cell groups.

I have seen many churches in America fail at groups because they saw them as a fad and then moved on to other things that promised greater results. Sadly, in the 1990s and early 2000s, many were promoting groups as the best way to grow the church, including yours truly. And many jumped on this bandwagon because they thought that they could enter into the land of success. And when that did not pan out like they expected, they jumped on the next one that passed by.

Groups work! And they can be done, even in America, in a way that brings growth. But they work and grow because we invest in them over the long haul. They are not a magic formula for church growth and health. They are not a fad. Far from it. For the last 50-60 years, the American church has seen about four or five waves of interest in groups.

Reason #2: Boredom with the Mundane

Church leaders are not usually that good at embracing the mundane. We want results and we want them yesterday. We want something that makes for good testimonies, something that has what they call “sizzle” in the marketing world. After all we are accustomed to building churches on sizzle. In the old days, we had revival meetings, then meetings, and sing-alongs. Then we created seeker-services with all the excellence we could muster. Now we have multi-site with annual growth numbers that are staggering.

Long-term small group success lacks this sizzle that we so eagerly long for. It has little fan fare. Small groups work when leaders operate like shepherds. They do the under-ground, consistent, steady work of caring for the sheep. That is hard to promote and measure. It’s different from developing programs in the church which can be seen and measured as we build buildings, develop budget-dependent programs and attract more and more people to a centralized venue. Small group ministry happens without such clear sizzle.

Such long term success cannot be promoted, inspired or programmed. It’s a little like my farm experience as a kid. My father did not go out and inspire the cattle, sheep, chickens, rabbits, etc. to eat, grow, have babies, and do what they were supposed to do. He did not promote, strategize, develop mission statements, motivate, etc. He did not do all the things that we are told that we must do to be good leaders in the church.

Instead he was an environment creator. He focused his work the factors that contributed to a setting where the animals could naturally flourish. And to be honest, it is boring, mundane, repetitive, inconvenient, sacrificial, long, hard work. There are no short cuts to environment creation and maintenance. But when farmers do create the right environments, the animals do what they are supposed to do.

The reason why small groups flourish is when there are leaders who know how to do the mundane work of establishing and supporting environments for growth. May the Lord teach us what this looks like.