Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Nelson Searcy and Kerrick Thomas's new book, Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups, (Regal Books, 2008).

Are your frustrated with the way your church’s small groups are working out? Maybe the system is too complicated. Perhaps you’re not seeing enough people signing up, or enough lives transformed by participating.

No matter what issues you’ve been dealing with, you can change your ministry to help it change the lives of the maximum number of people coming through your church’s doors.

Here’s how you can build a successful small-group ministry:

Think from the inside out – not from the outside in. Focus on reaching people who are not yet in your small group system rather than just on serving existing members. Keep your small groups outwardly focused by constantly asking yourself how you can help meet the needs of people who are not already in groups, and considering how you can get new people to sign up.

Think larger – not smaller. Contrary to conventional wisdom, larger groups (of 12 to 15 people) allow participants to form deeper connections and grow spiritually more than smaller groups (of less than seven people). People tend to feel more comfortable in larger groups and are more likely to sign up for them and stay plugged into them. Allow up to 20 people to sign up for each of your church’s groups, since that will mean that the number of people who actually show up every week will likely be 12 to 15. If you have any groups that fewer than eight people show up for weekly, evaluate why attendance is low and what changes you can make to encourage more people to come.

Think friends – not intimacy. Most people are hoping to simply form new friendships – not intimate relationships – through small groups. If you promote your small groups as social places where people can make friends casually, you’ll remove the unnecessary pressure of forced familiarity and make them feel more comfortable about participating in the groups. Then, they’ll develop intimacy naturally with the people they relate to best as they get together with them outside the group meetings.

Think short-term – not long-term. Plan a specific starting and ending time for your groups, keeping in mind that the ideal length is 10 to 12 weeks. People grow best over short periods of time, followed by periods of rest, then more growth again. To avoid the stagnation that occurs when people get too comfortable, keep up the growth cycle by offering new groups regularly rather than continuing existing ones indefinitely.

Think promotion months – not ongoing sign-ups.
Schedule your groups in semesters, around the natural flow of the academic year, with regular, focused sign-up periods to increase excitement and participation.

Think of your church as one of small groups – not with small groups. Build your church’s ministry around its small groups, rather than trying to fit small groups in with lots of other types of ministries. Focus your church’s energy on the weekend worship services and small group system, rather than diverting it in too many different directions. Keep in mind that small groups are exponentially more effective when they stand alone, instead of having to compete with other church programs. If you give people too many options for church programs, their involvement will be so spread out that you won’t have their full participating in any one area. But if people aren’t distracted by a plethora of other programs, they’ll be more likely to give their full attention to a small group, where they can grow the most spiritually.