Some churches’ small group ministries thrive and grow, while other churches—that try just as hard—have group ministries that struggle and stagnate. Why?
Jim Egli and Dwight Marable set out to answer that question. They wanted to help churches across the country and around the world grow vibrant small groups that continually multiply leadership and reach an expanding number of people for Christ. Their quest turned into a massive research project involving over 3000 small groups in more than 200 churches.
Proven principles for small group growth
Some of Jim and Dwight’s discoveries were predictable, others were surprising. All of them were extremely simple and practical.
Their research focused on two primary levels—the small group leader level and the church level. On the first level, they asked and discovered answers to the question: Why do some small groups grow while others—in the same church and similar settings—don’t? On the church level, they sought the answer to the question: Why do some churches have vibrant growing group ministries, while other churches’ groups fall flat?
They discovered four key small group leadership principles and three pivotal church factors. Their research results are revealed in their book Small Groups, Big Impact available from ChurchSmart Resources.
You can read a sample portion of the book here.
My wife Vicki and I had fun launching a new small group last night. The first meeting went great. I wanted to tell you how we did it.
Preparation. We did the usual stuff—praying, inviting people, finding a host, choosing the best night and time for this group (Wednesdays at 6:30pm). Then we prayed some more.
Late afternoon before the meeting Vicki and I took some time to talk things over and map out who would do what. When we launch a new group with new people we do pretty much everything ourselves the first couple of weeks because we want to set the patterns.
Starting the Meeting. We got to our host home about 6:15 and talked a bit with our new host. She’s an awesome host—warm atmosphere, nicely arranged room, great snacks. Two couples arrived on time and there were seven of us there at 6:30. A lot of people were yet to arrive but I started a few minutes past 6:30 with three of the Quaker Questions which are super for a new group. I explained that anyone could answer first and that we would always go in a circle. Everyone answered the first question: “Tell us your name and what school you attended for first grade.” Then we did question two: “Who were you closest to when you were ten years old?” By this time another five people had drifted in so I ask people to state their name again, when answering the final question: “When did God become more than a word to you?”
The Quaker questions always work well. They progressively move people to deeper heart issues.
Explaining. This group is what small group experts call a turbo group. A turbo group is a group that you load with emerging leaders so that you can rapidly multiply several new small group out it. Because I was talking to people who know that they will soon be leading their own group, I did a lot of explaining as we went along, things like, “I did three icebreaker questions tonight because this is a new group and we need to connect to each other. In Ephesians 4 Paul says that when we are ‘joined and held together’ as members of one body that we can grow together into Christ’s likeness. We want to deeply connect with each other so that Jesus’ life and ministry can flow freely in and through this group.”
Clarifying the Purpose. The Quaker questions took half the meeting last night so instead of a Bible discussion I just read Acts 2:42-47, which is small group enthusiasts’ favorite Bible passage, then Vicki and I explained the purpose of the group. We said something like this….
Small groups are not a new fad. The earliest church met in both large groups and small groups (verse 46). Today, as in the early church, people need to experience God in two different ways. In a large group they experience God’s greatness and feel like they are part of a movement. In a small group they experience God’s closeness and feel like they are part of a family. Like the early church we want to see God work in powerful ways. We want to see miracles. We want to share deeply with each other in practical ways. We want to encourage and support and challenge each other and see others drawn to him. Our purposes our fourfold:
1. Reaching Upward to God – Experiencing his power, love and gifts.
2. Reaching Inward to One Other – Experiencing deep, authentic community.
3. Reaching Outward to Bring Others to Christ – When asked “When did God become more than a word to you?” our host shared how she came to Christ through loving neighbors who reached out to her at a time of deep need and brought her to their small group. I emphasized that we wanted our group to make Jesus real to people that need him just as that small group had reached our host.
4. Reaching Forward to Multiply Leadership – We intend for three or four groups to emerge from this group several months from now.
Vicki then explained our schedule. We are meeting every week for the next fourteen weeks. The first meeting of each month will a party or some fun activity. We’ll also do one service project sometime this fall.
We answered people’s questions.
Worship. Vicki led three worship songs using her baby Martin guitar. She had made a song sheet with the words of about ten songs on it, five on each side. We’ll use these throughout the fall. She pointed out that having printed words is important. The worship was directed to God and sweet. I was refreshed by God’s presence.
Ministry Time. I ended the worship time be asking the Holy Spirit to speak to us. I told people that God might give them a word for themselves or a word for the group. Then we were just quiet and listened for about 90 seconds.
I asked people to share words or pictures that they received. After people shared, I ask who the words spoke to. We broke into three groups in different rooms to pray for those who responded to the words and others that had needs.
I was trying to end the meeting by 8:00 but we were bumping up against that when we broke for ministry. About 8:10 I told each of the ministry groups that they had five minutes left to pray for one another.
Snacks and Sharing. At 8:15 people drifted back to the living room where the snacks were—popcorn, cookies, M&M’s, and Twizzlers. We passed a clip board around for people to sign up for responsibilities like hosting, leading worship, bringing snack and leading the Bible discussion beyond the first two weeks. People were having a great time and continued to talk about some of the icebreaker questions, asking those that came late what their answers were.
At 8:35 I suggested we leave and the place cleared out. It’s important to end at a good time. One reason it’s nice to have someone else host is so that you as the leader can say “it’s time to leave” and then lead the way out.
Follow Up. Three people who intended to be at the group were unable to come. Vicki dropped them an email when we got home, telling them that we missed them, who was there, and giving them details on the next meeting.
Your Ideas or Questions? That’s how we did it, what questions, ideas or suggestions, do you have about leading the first meeting of a new group?
Last night my small group spent the bulk of our meeting just sharing testimonies from the church’s 21-day fast which ended on Sunday. It was a rich time, people really opened up and shared deeply with each other. Almost every adult in the group participated in the fast. There was a lot of variation in what people actually did. A few did the Daniel fast but others cut out sweets or meat or coffee or some combination of those.
People were surprised at how much they enjoyed the fast and how God worked in deeper ways. Most people were making changes in their diet following the fast based on their experiences and their improved health. One guy who typically has several headaches a week, only had one during the entire 3 weeks.
Some people saw significant breakthroughs, but I think the most moving testimony was from a couple who were praying for three specific things. They saw breakthroughs in none of them but they truly feasted on God in new ways during the fast and finished with an assurance that God was in control and would eventually come through in all three circumstances. The husband was especially elated because he felt like for the first time in many years he was hearing God’s voice. And the wife was thrilled that she now has a husband who is listening to and hearing God. This made a big difference in a health crisis that occurred unexpectedly in their family in the middle of the fast.
Everyone was agreed that the church should continue to do corporate fasts and some people were strongly suggesting that we do them more than once a year.
Of course, we don’t have to wait for a church fast to fast and pray together as a small group. I remember the first time I fasted with a small group. We were in a small group in our previous church in Texas. We weren’t the leaders of the group, we were just members, and the leaders of the group left to help plant a new church. Everyone wanted to continue the small group but no one wanted to lead the group. At that time, my full-time job was being a small group trainer and consultant. So, of course, everyone wanted to know if I would lead the group. But besides having a full-time job and four growing children I was in the middle of a Ph.D. program. I felt like I simply couldn’t take this on on my own. So I told the group that if someone would fast and pray for the group each day of the week for a month, I would lead. No one in the group besides my wife Vicki and I had ever fasted but seven people stepped forward. (We only had eight adults in the group!)
God responded to this group fast and people’s seriousness in seeking him. That group which almost ended multiplied five times in the next two years!
What has been your experience with our church fast or a small group fast? What insights or testimonies would you like to share?
We’ve seen God do lots of cool stuff in our small group lately. Someone’s severely damaged knee went from extreme pain to pain free, another person’s leg was lengthened 1 1/2 inches when they went forward for prayer on Sunday, a friend on our group’s blessing list has come to Christ and is actively involved in the church.
Jesus said simply, “Ask and you will receive.” Praying is one of the most important jobs of a small group leader. How do you cultivate prayer in your life and in your group?
Here are some small things we do to keep connecting with Jesus’ presence and power.
- Vicki and I have written the names of all of our small group members on 3×5 cards that we often pray through together in the mornings before I leave for work. We pray for five or six cards each time and have specific things written down that we are asking God for.
- I have a list of the guys on a note on my iPhone that I use to pray through once a week or so.
- We get to bed on time so that we can get up early and take daily time with Jesus at the start of the day.
- We use a “Blessing List” in our small group each week to pray for our friends that need God. Right now our group has two blessing lists that we use weekly. The men have a list and the women have a list. (See the early blog entry “Pray Weekly, Eat Monthly” if you want to learn more about using a blessing list.)
- We try to keep our study and worship time relatively short so that we have ample time for ministry time (and snacks!).
That’s it. Nothing profound. But we’ve found we need to keep asking if we are going to keep receiving. What are you doing to keep bringing your small group, its members and friends to Jesus in prayer?
Vicki and I like to mix up how we do small group meetings, especially in the summer. Most weeks we follow our standard format, the 5 W’s—Welcome (an Icebreaker or Opening Question), Worship, Witness (briefly praying for friends that need God), Word (Bible study), Wind (prayer & amp; ministry), and of course snacks. (I know most of our Vineyard small groups do worship between the bible study and ministry times, but our group does worship upfront to include the children in our group before they are dismissed.) Besides the standard meeting format, we often do a party or fun night like a cookout, potluck, pool party or game night.
This month we are taking several weeks just to do ministry nights. Ministry nights are cool. Here’s how they work. After the usual upfront stuff—the icebreaker, worship and prayer for our friends that need God—we simply ask the question, “Who’s birthday is next?”
Then we put that person in a chair in the center of the room and tell them just to relax and enjoy being blessed and encouraged. (If the person is married, we also put their spouse in the middle.) I then encourage the other group members to get up and stand around that person, to listen to the Holy Spirit, to share any words, pictures or scriptures that are coming to their mind, or just to pray or bless that person with what is on their heart.
It’s fun and very encouraging and refreshing for the person or couple in the middle. After we have prayed for them and shared encouraging words with them for ten or fifteen minutes we ask them if there is one special thing they want pray for. Then we pray for that thing and invite the Holy Spirit to fill them anew with his joy and presence.
Then we say, “Who has the next birthday?” And we minister to that person or couple.
You can do a few people a night. Last night we prayed for two couples and one individual. Depending on how large your small group is, praying for everyone will take two or three meetings. If you have visitors, you simply let them choose whether they want to be included or not. I remember a first time guest saying on a ministry night, “I’m coming back next week, my birthday’s next!”
Last week just before we started this month’s ministry nights, I was a little nervous. I thought, if God doesn’t show up, this is going to be a flop! It seemed risky and scary. He did show up. It was wonderful. I have never had the Holy Spirit not show up for a ministry night. He seems to like these opportunities!
This is just one way to allow more time for ministry. What ideas or experiences do you want to share about doing extended ministry in small groups?
Our small group’s outreach is going exceptionally well right now and I thought I’d share with you what seems to be working. It’s pretty simple, really. We pray weekly for our friends that need God and we do a cookout or potluck each month.
Pray weekly: This is really very simple and doesn’t take long in our weekly small group meeting. Right before our Bible discussion, I hold up a laminated 11×17 inch piece of card stock that says “Blessing List” at the top. (Click on the words “Blessing List” if you’d like to download a PDF of the list.) We have asked each person to add one friend’s name to it—someone who needs Christ and who lives near by. After I pull the list out, we talk about it briefly and I briefly pray over the list and the people on it. Another alternative is to move people into pairs and have them briefly pray for the persons that those two people have put on the list.
You might ask, “Isn’t the list awkward when you have guests?” Good question. That’s why it’s laminated. So as to not make someone feel put on the spot, we can easily erase someone’s name before pulling it out. Having it laminated also allows us move someone’s name up and down on it’s openness scale.
Several weeks ago a small group member brought an unsaved friend who’s name was not yet on the list. When my wife pulled out the list that evening, the person asked that we add her name to it and begin praying for her. Who doesn’t want blessing prayed over their life? I don’t know exactly where this guest is in her journey, she told the group, I believe in God but I haven’t been baptized. You could add my name to the list.” We put it near the top on the scale.
The other thing you discover when you use a blessing list or do some form of weekly prayer is that your members really do care about their unreached friends and family members and appreciate the chance to pray and work together to reach them.
Eat monthly: Everyone likes to eat and it’s very non-threatening for someone to come to a cookout. Last night we had a cookout and our host had invited a non-Christian friend. That person asked if she could bring some of her friends. She came and brought four other non-Christians with her! We perhaps set a record last night. There were 12 adult guests (plus a few of their children), most of them non-Christians.
So, that’s my simple advice. Pray weekly for your unbelieving friends and do something fun involving food each month.
What are your thoughts, questions and advice on small group outreach?
No two small groups are the same. We multiplied our small group last month leaving our hosts and intern to lead a group in the nearby town of Mahomet while we launched a new group in our home in Champaign. Our new group is a lot different than the group we left.
We started the Mahomet group 1 1/2 years ago with three core couples. Several other individuals joined us and we had a nice sized group. But then one of the core couples moved to Italy and a several other people left the group. For a looooong time we had five people, if everyone showed up! The group grew very slowly. What do you do when you have a great group but it’s stuck or growing very slowly? For the answer to that question read my earlier blog entry “Pray, Invite, Eat, Repeat.” I mentioned in that blog entry that we invited 20 different people to a small group potluck one week, literally everyone we could think of. Only one came. The one person that came, however, came back and became our intern in time and is doing a great job of leading the growing group that we left in Mahomet.
Our experience with the new group has been very different. In contrast to our last group, it has grown very rapidly. It’s only met for a few times and already it’s larger than our last group was when it multiplied. We’ve hardly invited anyone but the group is still taking off. This week there were 15 adults, 2 teens and 9 children, even though a few families didn’t make it!
What do you do when your small group seems to be growing too fast? Two things are pivotal. First, you get everyone involved helping. Almost immediately we passed out the helpful Small Group Involvement Sign-Up Sheet. Almost everyone signed up to help in some way. (Hint: Collect them immediately after passing them out and having people fill them out. Do not let people take them home.) Now we are focusing more on how to involve people than on doing things ourselves. This takes more thought and advance planning but it quickly makes things easier.
Second, you start investing in future leaders. We could multiply the group now if we had a prepared intern but we don’t so I’m taking more time with key people and involving them increasingly in trying out different leadership responsibilities.
It feels a little crazy, overwhelming and exciting all at once when you experience rapid growth. It’s also puzzling because for the most part we are the same leaders doing the same things as when our last group seemed stuck. But there are always other dynamics and outside factors that impact our groups that are outside our control.
Whether it’s slow growth or fast growth our goals are the same—to see a growing number of people connect to God, one another, and Jesus’ mission for their lives.
How is your group doing right now? What is the next step for you to take your group to a new level? What questions or thoughts do you have about what to do when growth is slow or when growth is fast?
For the last 15 years my wife Vicki and I have been in or led a kid-friendly small group. I love groups that include children. When a group involves them, the children are blessed and are a blessing. Right now, for example, we have a 9-year old in our group that comes up with a new icebreaker every week. She puts more thought into it and is better at coming up with great questions than I am! If you use our church’s small group helps, you’ve probably been using some of her questions yourself because I end up putting them in our helps.
Why don’t most groups include children? Because it’s more work. You also need the right type of host home. And it takes thought as the group grows and the number, ages and mix of children changes. It takes effort, but it’s definitely worth it.
Our group and the number of children in the group has been growing. We include the children for the icebreaker and worship and then let the younger children go to the basement where they play, while the teens either stay in the meeting or go talk or do homework. A few weeks ago it got kind of bonkers in the basement.
What do you do when it seems like things are getting bonkers? (Besides sending some immediate supervision.) We have found the most helpful thing is to sit down with the kids and talk about what the guidelines should be and how to improve things. We let them come up with most of them. They’re actually very good at coming up with what the rules should be and if you involve them they own and understand the rules. We did that the following week.
Here’s some ideas they came up with.
* No playing with Nerf guns (I think this was a large part of the problem the week before!)
* Setting up different play stations so kids have various options (like a lego play station, for example)
* No going back to the basement after the kids have come up to have snacks with the parents
* No video games (a parent came up with that one)
We’re also at the point where we are involving the parents in supervising. Previously with the number and mix of kids, the teens’ presence was adequate to help the children.
I wanted to let you know that I think it’s possible to have too many children. Ten preteen children is the max. We are at that point now so we are actually having to tell people with kids that they can come to our group but their kids can’t. 🙁
So we hope to multiply our group soon.
The problem is that if you consistently get more than ten kids, you lose your host home! And if you lose your kid-friendly host home, you can no longer include kids at all! So we recommend that you limit the number of kids to ten or so. (When we lived in Texas and the children could play go outside all year round, this number was higher.)
Children are great, but in our experience it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. So let’s keep multiplying kid-friendly groups so that we have plenty for everyone who wants to be involved in this type of small group!
What are your questions, ideas and suggestions for having great kid-friendly small groups?
Last night was our first small group meeting of the new year. My wife Vicki and I wanted several things to happen as we began the new year. First, we wanted to make any adjustments that we needed to to the group. Second, we wanted small group members to step up to the plate and more actively serve in small group roles. And, finally, we wanted people to leave behind sin and resentment as they started the new year. So here’s how we did the meeting. Perhaps you’ll want to use one or several of these ideas yourself in one of your first meetings of the new year.
The icebreaker: “What was a high point of the past year for you?” Very interesting and helpful to hear people’s answers. One child reported that the low point of the past year was listening to their parents’ arguments. 🙁 Children are so transparent sometimes! :-)(The parents are working on things. Their marriage is making progress but has a ways to go.)
Evaluation: I ask for suggestions from the group for the months ahead. What do people like about our group? What do we need to change? The discussion wasn’t that long but was helpful. People appreciate that our group includes the teens and kids. We talked about the need to multiply our group so that we have more kid-friendly groups in our church. Everyone wants to keep the group on Thursday evenings. We’ll also keep serving as a group in the SeniorCare nursing home ministry.
Small Group Involvement Worksheet: We passed out copies of the SG Involvement Worksheet [click on the preceding words if you want to see the worksheet] and invited people to sign up for roles or tasks that they want to try. We gave people time to fill them out and collected them right then. Every adult and teen signed up to help with at least one role or task in the group! Wow! We have new people to serve as worship leader, reporter, prayer coordinator, and kid’s ministry coordinator. Others signed up to help teach, host and bring snacks.
Forgiven and Forgiving: I explained that Communion is a wonderful thing to experience as we head into the new year because it invites us to receive God’s forgiveness anew and to forgive anyone that we are holding a grudge against. We took time in silence to let the Holy Spirit search our hearts and to bring sin and resentment to God in prayer. We took communion together and shared things that God was speaking to us. One of the teens encouraged all of us to stay open to God’s voice throughout the year not just as we start it. Then we had worship and ministry time. (The children and teens choose to stay in the meeting until ministry time. Then they headed to the basement to study and play with the Wii Fit.)
Somewhat to my surprise, based on people’s response and sharing, it appeared that the most significant part of the meeting was the emphasis on forgiving others as we enter the new year. Several people had significant hurts to release and were thankful that they could give these to God as they entered new year.
What are you doing in your group to start the new year strong? What thoughts, questions, or suggestions do you have?
The icebreaker or “opening question” is very important to your small group meeting. When your group members gather each week their minds are all over the place. Maybe they just had an argument with their boss or their spouse. Maybe they are worried about a looming deadline. Maybe they are wondering if the Cubs are going to blow the post-season AGAIN. An icebreaker question enables them to shift gears and engage with the group and its members.
Icebreakers are also particularly important if you have introverts in your group (which you do!) so that they have a safe place to step into the meeting. They also let you progressively learn more about others in your group (such as your spouse!).
Your icebreaker should be something that can be quickly and easily answered. I think of icebreakers as falling into three categories, which are: “Tell me about…”:
1. Your past. (Ex. What was your favorite television program when you were a kid?)
2. Your present. (Describe your current week in terms of the weather. Was it stormy, sunny, foggy, etc.?)
3. Your future. (What do you want to be when you grow up?)
I consider one icebreaker question the all time best question because it can be used over and over again. I have known some groups to use it every week. I personally use it every month or two with our small group. I use it almost weekly with my guys mini-group and every month at my west zone coaches meeting. It is: “What has been a recent high point and low point in your life?” Sometimes this is called a “High-Low” icebreaker or a “Pow-Wow” icebreaker, because people are sharing a “Pow” (a low point) and a “Wow” (a high point).
Have you tried this question in your group? What is one of your favorite icebreaker questions?
For a sortable list of all of my favorite small group icebreakers, click on the “Icebreakers” tab above or click on this link.