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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Three Questions Every Small Group Ministry Must Answer

Most churches have some kind of small group ministry, whether a traditional Sunday School format or small groups meeting on various days and times throughout the community.

Regardless of the type of small group ministry you may have, there are three foundational questions that must be settled for maximum effectiveness and clear focus – yet seldom are. And they are foundational questions because they speak to the heart of your philosophy of ministry.

Here they are:

1.  Will we be a church of small groups, or a church with small groups?

If you are a church of small groups, then you are intentionally trying to have every single person in a small group unit. If you are a church with small groups, then you have a small group ministry available to any and all interested parties.

There was a season a few years back when some who espoused the “of” philosophy did so with a bit of spiritual arrogance. Groups, and being in one, was seen as a test of orthodoxy. The truth is that however much you might believe in the efficacy of being part of a small group, it is not a biblical directive. There is no “Thou shalt be grouped” in the Bible. Instead, you have reference to the “one anothers” – a series of directives that are meant to be played out in the church’s community. Small groups are one way of doing it, but only one. Small groups are a methodology; a means to an end. The key is the “one anothers,” not whether you have, or are in, a small group.

I think the reason I hear less of the “of” mantra of late is because while it sounded good, it was not realistic. I do not know of a single church outside of, say, South Korea (where the idea was first popularized to the Western church) where it has been achieved. The “meta model,” as it has often been called, just didn’t translate to American culture.

Further, many leaders have discovered a simple but important truth: Small groups are needed by people who need small groups. In other words, they aren’t for everyone. Those who like them and are served by them, swear by them. 

Those that aren’t swear at them. 

Many leaders are finding that what does reach the vast majority of attenders are serving teams. These are groups built around volunteer ministries that take time to connect with each other, and serve each other, as part of the serving experience. So a group of individuals preparing to serve on a Guest Services team would have a “huddle” on the front end, share prayer requests, introduce new members or celebrate new births.

At Mecklenburg Community Church (Meck), we’ve made the decision to be a church with small groups. We find that there are many who find them immensely beneficial. Many more are served by a short-term, 6-week small group experience that equips them with friendships. Others are most comfortable with a serving team. But regardless, all are challenged to practice the “one anothers” in the context of community.

2.  Will our small groups be primarily for discipleship or community?

At first, you might disagree with the question, seeing it as a false dichotomy. But after many years in ministry, I am more convinced than ever that it is very difficult for a small group to optimally pursue both. They are simply two very different animals. And as I’ve talked with other seasoned leaders, most would agree.

If a group is primarily about discipleship, it is very curriculum driven. It is all about the study, the material, the depth. If the group is primarily about community, it is about relationships, spans of care and assimilation. The curriculum, while usually present, is more of a means to that end.

At Meck, while there is a discipleship component to all of our small groups, we view them primarily as community groups – a way for people to make friends, practice the “one anothers,” give and receive support, and give and receive spiritual encouragement.

And for those who ask, “So where/when do you do focused discipleship?”, that’s through our Meck Institute, which offers a wide range of classes, seminars and experiences completely designed for optimal growth in life and knowledge, from learning how to pray or read the Bible, all the way up to seminary-level courses on systematic theology.

3.  Will our small groups be “closed” or “open”?

A “closed” small group is just that – closed. No new members are allowed. The idea is for that small group to stay as that group, go long and deep, build trust and share intimately. And there can be little doubt that there is a comfort level in that, and no doubt some good.

An “open” group is one that has the philosophy of always welcoming someone new. Sometimes called the “empty chair” philosophy, there is always a spot for someone to come for the first time. As the group inevitably grows, it develops new leaders and launches new groups. The key is that small groups become integral to the assimilation of new attenders to the church, and the multiplication of new groups to accommodate ongoing growth.

Meck is an “open” group church. If we sense a resistance within a small group to add new members or, even if they want to stay together, if there is an unwillingness to develop new leaders from a group in order to launch new groups, we will have pastoral conversations with the small group leader(s) to ensure that every group holds to this philosophy. “Open” groups keep the mission in focus and can lead to healthier growth within the small groups ministry.

So there are your three questions. And in case you haven’t noticed, there is a thread that connects all three questions. If your groups are about discipleship, you will probably lean toward having them be closed. And if that’s the basket where you are putting your discipleship apples, you will probably want to lean as much as possible to the “of” instead of the “with” approach.

Likewise, if you have a multi-faceted approach to discipleship, or have it concentrated in another area, then you will seize the power of small groups and serving teams for assimilation and community, which is in many ways a small group’s sweet spot. This will make you a “with” small group church and, obviously, an open one.

The point is not to embrace Meck’s philosophy on these three questions – it is to have a philosophy that you have thoughtfully and intentionally embraced. Without such a settled philosophy, your small groups will blow with the wind, and each one will take it upon itself to constitute its identity and intent. 

That is not good leadership and will blunt the full potential of groups in your church.

James Emery White


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His forthcoming book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian Culture, is available for pre-order on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite