Pastors' Forum


Small Groups

As a pastor, I’m looking to help facilitate small group fellowship among our people. What are other churches doing with small groups? What formats and approaches seem to work the best? I’d love to hear what types of guidelines, resources, curriculum, etc. that other pastors have used successfully. What are the pros and cons of small groups?


Pastor Stan Saunders—Chillicothe, MO
We love small groups at Cornerstone Church. We call our small groups “LIFE groups.” LIFE stands for Love In Full Evidence. Cornerstone Church operates like a family. No one should have to go through life alone. We want to do life together with people who love us just the way we are, but exhort us to get better. Everyone should have a place to be him or herself, without having to put on airs. At church, we want every person to find good friends who are a delight and who provide comfort and stability during life’s difficult times. We want to build a church where people laugh freely and often. Only in small group settings are people able to get close enough to make this kind of impact upon one another.

Churches with happy members give individuals much responsibility coupled with appropriate authority to do the job. Our members are doing the real work of ministry. They teach, preach and serve. They organize outreaches. Our small groups perform most of the pastoral care of the church, such as visiting the sick and those in prison. They are an extension of the ministry of Christ. We operate a free-market type small group system.

Any church member may start a small group. They are responsible for setting, subject, frequency, etc. We trust our family to follow their own hearts. My job is to facilitate the success of our LIFE group leaders. I help leaders find curriculum. Periodically, I write curriculum that I want them to use for a short period of time. I answer questions and help them solve problems that may arise within the group dynamics. Two or three times yearly, I conduct training to instruct our leaders in leading small group discussions and in providing pastoral care to their group members.

Our groups could be called affinity groups. Everyone is free to attend any group they desire. We have men’s and women’s groups, mom’s groups, young adult groups, but mostly Bible study groups for whosoever desires to attend. We find that most of our groups are a healthy mixture of younger and older, male and female, married and single people. People generally find affinities based on something more than age or marital status alone.

The only rule we have for our LIFE group leaders is that we ask that they do not speak against the church or our leaders. Only one time in several years of conducting our small groups in this manner have we confronted a leader for speaking against the church. She resigned before we had to remove her. We also ask our groups to avoid controversial subjects and narrowly held doctrinal viewpoints. We try to keep our group more in the middle of the road.

Our LIFE groups are one of our best areas of church. I have written about this subject at length in my book, Permission Granted-Liberation and Motivation for Spectator Churchgoers.

Pastor Michael Steward—Powell, OH
We just recently launched into small groups with great success. We were always hesitant to do small groups because of the horror stories we have heard about gossip, teaching tangents, church splits and endless debate. However, we really saw the need for relationships in our people. Small groups met that need and I believe we have happened upon a system that prevents the pitfalls mentioned.

1.) Format—Each small group discusses the same topic. What is the topic? The message I preached on Sunday. I submit 3-4 discussion questions to our small group leaders from my message, emphasizing points I want driven home. This helps keep the group stay focused. They are open ended questions that will give people a starting block to share from their hearts. Discussion time usually lasts about a 1/2 hour then they fellowship. Sometimes the discussion lasts the whole time.

2.) Leaders—Small group leaders must be approved by the staff and trained on how to handle crazy people and crazy events. As the leader goes, so goes the group. We start out using our Ministry Staff to lead the groups. As they grow, they will recommend other people to head up another group.

3.) Child Care—This will be up to each group to handle. One thing we did was host a summer kids event at the church (i.e. VBS). All the parents dropped their kids off at the church and headed out for their small group. This is not the norm, but people really loved the set up.

4.) Time-frame—We have a start and stop time for the small groups. Right now we are doing 1 month on, 1 month off. This seems to leave the people wanting more, and not exasperating their lives.

Pastor Thom Fields—Kennewick, WA
Oh goodie! We get to talk about small groups!

Obviously, small groups possess the potential to provide wonderful fellowship and opportunity for discipleship. They also possess the power to divide and destroy everything that you’ve worked hard to develop prior to the birthing of small groups!

I’ve recently learned that small groups have the power to make or break a ministry. There are so many variables to take into consideration. My first few pieces of advice: NEVER start small groups unless God is making you do it. NEVER develop a program based solely upon what somebody else is doing. ALWAYS launch small groups based upon MUCH PRAYER.

Our encounter with small groups has been nothing less than an educational experience. We’ve learned that the level of management required by small groups is amazing. Someone who has sold out to the vision of the house and to the pastor (if not the pastor) must be in constant contact with small group leaders. If you’re not watchful and very much aware, small groups are a breeding ground for division and unrest. Division isn’t always “ugly.” More often than not, it’s just movement in more than one direction. If your small group leaders aren’t completely sold out to the vision of the house, for example, they’ll unwittingly lead people in a different direction.

We’ve also learned that it is of the greatest importance that all small group leaders be Champions of the Local Church. They must be trained (and in absolute agreement) that the weekend services are of greater importance than the small group meetings. It’s a fact that in America the average church attender comes to church less than two times per month. If he’s attending a small group meeting, he’s already accomplished his commitment goal to the local church. People leading small groups are the catalyst to change those belief systems IF they’re properly trained and on task. People can and will attend both small groups and weekend services. However, they must be trained to do so.

We’ve learned that small group leaders need to operate in pastoral giftings. Not everybody is a good small group leader. The people attending a small group need to be pastored and they’re counting on their leader to provide them with some pastoral guidance. We can’t afford to make the mistake of treating small group leaders as a “host.” The people coming to the group meetings aren’t looking at them in that way at all. They must be exemplary in their life as a God Follower.

One last thing that we’ve come to observe is that effective small groups operate best when directed or “coached.” We’ve begun developing a pastoral team to coach ALL small group leaders. Our plan is to develop a team consisting of 10 coaches. These 10 coaches are trained to actively pastor the small group leaders. They will then divide the small group leaders amongst themselves and weekly provide pastoral oversight to all small group leaders. They’re not small group leaders—they’re literally pastors to the small group leaders. They insure that the “issues” of small groups are dealt with in a manner that displays the heart and values of the local church. They guide, encourage and direct the small group leaders on a one-on-one basis, keeping the small group leaders tied in and connected to the vision of the house while watching for any signs of areas that will need to be addressed.

Regarding curriculum, we’ve made what we call a “Menu” that small groups may select from of teachings that have been approved by the leadership staff. We require small groups to have a beginning date and an ending date (as well as a starting and ending time). Groups that are allowed to get together at 5pm and run till midnight have ALWAYS been the groups that seem to produce the most headaches and nightmares. People may choose to attend the same leaders group as often as they like, but an ending date leaves the door open for people who wish to exit a particular group gracefully, with no questions asked.

Finally, PRAY! We have found that the real successes of our ministry have never come out of “what we’re doing.” They’ve come out of “what we’re NOT doing.” Staying focused upon the mandate that our churches carry is vital to accomplishing our God-given destinies. Small groups are wonderful, when they’re led by the Spirit. They can also become a side-show distraction that robs the momentum from your entire congregation. Much prayer and agreement is required to pull them off successfully. We’ve been called to make disciples. Small groups assist in the spiritual formation of believers…when they’re not being used by satan to destroy the local church!

Pastor Sam Smucker—Lancaster, PA
Small groups have been a vital part of our ministry for many years. We have entry-level groups that are formed around a 6 to 8 week sermon series, 3 times a year. After the sermon series is finished, we encourage those groups to consider becoming what we call long-term groups. We also have various support groups and specialty groups.

Each leader goes through Small Group Leader’s training. Each leader has a small group leader’s coach. Each coach has 4 to 6 groups they oversee and helps them be a successful group.

For us, small groups have helped us have a small church feel in a large church, of course, especially to those that are involved in a small group. About 50 to 60 percent of our congregation is involved in a small group. Our aim is to see that percentage increase.

We have seen those that are in a small group receive better pastoral care because we have found that people take an interest in each other’s lives more when they are in a small group. At the beginning of our church, I soon realized as a pastor I was not able to personally care for everyone in the church. If we wanted a church that would continue to grow, we would need to have the members care for one another.

We learned small group principles from Dr. Cho in Korea and from Pastor Tommy Reid in Buffalo, NY, and also more recently, from Willow Creek in Chicago. It has been—and is—a very important part of our church.

Pastor John Lowe—Warsaw, IN
Small groups are dependent on the vision of the ministry and the people who lead them. We have used them in the past and they worked, but they also caused splits. I do not pursue them unless the Holy Ghost leads.

We facilitate the sense of small groups by organizing departments and outreach as small groups.

Pastor Phil Edwards—Ennice, NC
First, I think you have to decide if you want to be a church of small groups or a church with small groups. Or, you can start as a church with small groups and work toward a church of small groups.

Next, you need to meet with your board, advisory board, or significant group and discuss your core values and what values you want in your small groups. Then, find someone in your church who is excited about small groups. Along with that person, begin to interview potential leaders. Once your group leaders have been selected, start a training curriculum. I like Bill Hybels. Leadership training may take as long as 90 to 180 days. In these meetings it is imperative to discuss your core values and how you are going to communicate them to new people coming into your groups. At first, core values are pretty much standard among groups because most of the people will be your regular church people. It’s when you start bringing new people in that they become more important to have established.

After leadership training, have your leaders pick someone to be an apprentice (someone to take over their group or take over a new group). When our groups exceed 10 people they break off and begin a new group.

I started with Brother Hagin’s mini-books like, “In Him,” “Words,” etc. Currently we are using a book by John Piper called, “Seeing and Savoring Jesus.”

Pastor Brad Allen—San Mateo, CA
In most of our Sunday messages, we include a bulletin insert with a message outline and discussion questions at the end. We use this as the basis of our discussions in mid- week small groups. They run 90 minutes with worship (optional), discussion of the Sunday message and questions, and prayer.

If we have someone who can lead worship, we’ll sing a couple of songs, but we’ll skip it if there isn’t someone who can lead well.

The discussion leader tries not to answer all of the questions. Their job is to make sure that the group gets the right answer, while looking for other mature believers in the group to step out and work with the questions that come up. The leader guides the discussion, keeps them on track, and makes sure they end within 90 minutes.

Finally, all small groups spend the last part of the meeting in small prayer groups of 2-4 people—never larger. In these prayer groups, people pray out important burdens and we’ve seen tremendous answers to prayer. Larger prayer groups tend to talk too much and pray too little or not pray for each person. The prayer groups need to be limited to 2-4 people, but the overall mid-week meeting doesn’t have to be limited to 12 people. We’ve found that most people prefer a larger group and feel more comfortable in that setting. Setting a good atmosphere is more important than limiting the group size.

We like this type of format because it can be duplicated and doesn’t put excess pressure to study on a lay leader.

Pastor Alan Clayton—Conroe, TX
We tried the standard small groups that met in homes—and never could generate much success. The conventional thinking of that day, 10+ years ago, was that if you did not have small groups you could not have an effective church.

Since that time, many people have begun to rethink the small group concept. I believe small groups are very useful for helping people make connections and they can generate a certain level of accountability, especially for younger believers. However, small groups in our church does not mean meeting in homes or off-campus.

For the last 3 years, we have been utilizing our classrooms on Sunday mornings,
Wednesday nights, and Tuesday nights to create a smaller environment. The classes are taught by a teacher or facilitated with a video teacher. Many of these classes then break up into table discussions or small group discussions with predetermined leaders. This process has allowed us to monitor what is being taught and helps to solve the time, childcare and home intrusion issues we dealt with in the home groups. The classes cover a broad spectrum including marriage, parenting, singles, finances, help for addictions and in-depth bible studies.

I am not saying it’s THE model but it has been much more effective for our church culture. In all fairness, my early spiritual formation involved similar class connections (I attended Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas). So the small home group was not a part of my spiritual DNA. The class connection concept we are using now is something I can really put my weight behind and that has helped us move forward.

Pastor Tim Kutz—Bartlesville, OK
I believe that small groups, in the day we are living, are vital but must be overseen well.

As a reader of this forum, you probably know that there are many “conferences” that you can attend that tell you how it is done with success. Please allow me to give you the following points to ponder as you consider small group:

1.) Is that something that the Lord is leading your church to do? The leading of the Holy Spirit is vital in all that we do! If you don’t have peace about this, do not proceed at this moment. Wait until the “time is right.”

2.) Do you have the trained leadership to launch small groups? If not, let that be your first step. You don’t want people leading your people who don’t have your heart and who have their own agenda. Without this step, you may have temporary success but the long term negatives may be something that you are not pleased with. Absolutely, and first and foremost, hold an “In Search Of Timothy” study course with your leaders.

3.) Two by two was a principle that Jesus used to send people out in ministry. Do not start a small group without having two in that group that have your heart and are passionate about “teaching others also.”

4.) Free-market small groups seem to have worked the best for me, but once again, be led. This gives your leaders the chance to develop their gifts, and displays your confidence in them. Consider groups with a teaching emphasis: example John Bevere’s curriculum. Also consider small groups with a fellowship emphasis: example golf, scrapbooking, motorcycles, etc.

5.) Bring your small group leaders (two from each group) together and pray. Do this separate from teaching them leadership. People who will not commit to praying with you will not lead a small group with your heart.

6.) Include a married couples group(s) and keep those leaders close to you. That is the strength of your church.

As I’ve said before in this forum, Faith Goals by Dave Williams is a great resource for all small groups to do. It will have a lasting impact and serve to “bring people up” in their motivation to further the call of God on their lives. Also, for the married couples group, have a time set aside to inventory the book Love And Respect. Small group resources can be found at

Pastor John Pfeffer, Jr.—Seekonk, MA
Our church has an average attendance of around 900. For about 20 years we had small groups that met monthly. Attendance was mandatory for anyone in any form of ministry and people were assigned to their group by geographic location. Although this program lasted for years, it became cumbersome, and we had to push people constantly to attend. Several years ago we stopped this program and replaced it with “Life Groups,” which were based on common interests (e.g. exercise, golf, etc.). These did not work well because the leaders were not selected by the staff, so they had to go through careful screening and required cumbersome procedures. Also, there was no continuity as these groups only ran for limited periods of time.

This year we launched a new program we named “Connect Groups.” They are designed to develop meaningful and close relationships as well as to pray for each other. We modeled this program after Dr. Cho’s cell groups, based on his classic book “Successful Home Cell Groups.” The key elements are: 1) that we are willing to adjust and make changes as needed, and 2) the teaching is a 15 minute DVD done by me, the senior pastor. This standardized the teaching and makes the groups feel as if I were there with them. According to Dr. Cho’s book, this program has to be central to the pastor’s vision or it will not work.

Our groups meet once a month, on the first Friday of the month. We felt that a standard date and time was necessary to start. However, as they develop, we are willing to adjust the meeting times individually as needed.

We have been running these groups for 6 months, and we already have almost as many groups as the old program. We don’t have to push anyone to go. Some of our groups have waiting lists. We have received many testimonies of answered prayers and people’s lives touched in these groups. I believe that they are vital to what God wants to do through us.