6 Problems in Small Groups

By Chuck Lawless 

Small groups are essential to the health of a church. In a small group, we can experience all six purposes of the church: worship, evangelism, discipleship, ministry, prayer, and fellowship.

On the other hand, our church consulting teams have also experienced numerous problems when attending church small groups. Here are six to consider, followed briefly by suggestions for correction.

  1. Unclear purpose. Some groups are designed for outreach, with members inviting others to join. Others are more closed, with members living life-on-life and drilling deeply into each other’s walk with God. Many groups, though, do not know their primary purpose. Members struggle, not knowing if they should bare their soul to others, invite the unchurched, or both. 

CORRECTION: Determine the group’s purpose, and make sure the leaders and members

know it. Continually keep that purpose in front of the group.   

  1. Bad leading and/or teaching.  We have seen this problem so often that we’re no longer surprised when we see it – though it should surprise us that churches allow poor teachers and facilitators to lead a group. Frankly, this problem is almost inexcusable. 

CORRECTION: Enlist teachers based on faithfulness, willingness, and giftedness. Provide training. Evaluate teaching, and move poor teachers to a better place of service if necessary. 

  1. Little or no Scripture. Here, I’m speaking primarily about small group meetings intended for Bible study. Our consultants have too often attended hour-long Bible studies that included no more than 15-20 minutes of actual Bible study.

 CORRECTION: Enlist the best teachers, and make sure they know the expectations. They are responsible for making sure the Bible is taught. Leaders who cannot lead a group to maintain this standard should not be leading.  

  1. Unfriendly members. I know a lot of groups who say they’re friendly. I also know we’ve sent our consulting “spies” to some of these groups, and they found them to be less than friendly. Typically, groups that see themselves as friendly are friendly only to people they know.

CORRECTION: Consider enlisting an unknown guest to visit your group and give you a report. Train members to reach out to people they don’t know. You might even enlist one sociable group member who is first responsible for greeting guests. 

  1. Not expecting guests. Assuming the intent of the group is to be outwardly focused (like most Sunday school groups, e.g.), here are some signs of this problem: No available seats. No extra curriculum materials. No one ready to get contact information. No one providing or wearing nametags. No one helping guests know where to go after the class. Simply put: a guest who feels like an intrusion will not return. 

CORRECTION: Make sure the leader is outwardly focused. Remind the group weekly of their responsibility to invite others. Schedule other activities to which the unchurched might come. Get everything ready for guests who might attend the regular small group meeting. Expect God to bless your preparations. 

  1. Gossip sessions. You know the scenario our consulting team has faced at times. The group gathers, and in the name of “prayer requests,” somebody shares information that should likely be kept in smaller circles. The request then becomes a launching pad for talking about somebody else’s problems. 

CORRECTION: Enlist a group prayer leader who gently controls the prayer request times. Provide other opportunities to share concerns without gossiping about others. 

What other issues have you seen in small groups? What corrections would you offer? 

Posted on May 13, 2020

Dr. Chuck Lawless is a leading expert in spiritual consultation, discipleship and mentoring. As a former pastor, he understands the challenges ministry presents and works with Church Answers to provide advice and counsel for church leaders.
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  • For more than 20 years, I have led small groups, trained small group leaders and been Small Group Pastor on staff in both a SoCal mega church and in churches of less than a hundred and in the 300-500 size range. I have seen very few healthy small groups. They have all exhibited the short comings described in this post.

    I would submit that at the core of the issue, is the fact that small groups, as generally practiced, are simply ‘bolt on’ features that are optional extras to the Sunday experience. Putting disparate groups of people together somewhat arbitrarily based on age, marital status, day of the week availability, or study material is not effective.

    The reality is that people are already in multiple small groups. Co-workers, their own family group(s), neighbors, etc. Adding one more because they ‘should’ simply doesn’t work well.

    We are all priests in the family of God. It’s time the organized church trained and equipped them to function as such.

    Understanding one’s spiritual gifting is critical. Small groups need folks with the gift of shepherding for starters. Folks who understand this, who accept and embrace their calling, will be highly motivated to excel at and improve their skills in this area. This alone, will clear up much of the issues outlined in this post.

    Small groups are the hands on expression and experience of the Body moving rhythmically and easily together as Paul says (via the Msg). They are the heart and core of the Church. When small groups come together for mutual edification, knowledge and support, they form the local church. Failure to start from the ground up with the small group means it is almost impossible to go from the local church to effective small groups within that church.

    Space does not allow me to elaborate further but suffice to see there is, from my perspective, a fundamental problem where we’ve gotten the cart before the horse and wonder why the horse does such a poor job pushing the cart.

  • Thank you – good down-to-earth points with realistic suggestions for improvement.
    So sorry to read about the issues mentioned in some of the other comments. Too much self-serving politics and too little Jesus. Glad I’m with a small mission church working with
    disadvantaged folks who don’t have the time or energy to form cliques to plot against our pastors, who can’t be judgmental because chances are they’ve done it or worse, and who can hardly believe that Jesus would die for even them. God is good!

  • Small groups are failing for many reasons. First, people do not want something else to add to their already busy schedule. This is why many churches are going back to a Sunday School model. On Sunday, families are already at church. When you have work, school, sports, civic obligations, etc., people are tired. Additionally, I would throw in the early morning men’s meetings, too. In short, the world has changed and the church needs to learn to adapt.

    Another big issues is that small groups are not family friendly. Many small groups do not want you to bring your children. So, now you have to pay for a babysitter every week to attend small group. When you throw in the cost and then the “social club” environment, let’s just call it getting together.

    Honestly, small groups are just another “idea bunny” that churches are chasing. While some say the numbers show it is working, 99.9% of churches do not understand how analytics really work. Just like technology, churches today need to think outside of the box and focus.

    Lastly, I would add that the weekly sermon is dying, too. This is where churches could learn from academia. In education, we have moved to something called active learning. Active learning engages the student, making them a part of the learning process. The days of “sage on the stage” is a dead methodology and has the lowest return on learning. Church Pastors should take notice and think in this way, as well. Active Church would be leveraging a teaching team and braking up the congregations into small units. If you went with a semester approach, you would keep your member and keep them engaged. Let me know if you would like to talk more on this approach.

    • Your conclusions are anecdotal and not supported by any credible data. Smalls groups are more biblical than the Sunday service. If people don’t implement them correctly, that doesn’t mean the small group ministry model is failing. Time would fail me to share testimony of the transformed lives happening in our groups ministry, including the small group that meets in my home.
      Lastly, your critique of the Weekend service is the exact benefit a small group offers which is an interactive learning environment that complements the weekend teaching.

  • One of the problems I’m personally struggling with is that of politics in small groups. There seems at times that all in my group assume, think or agree to what is happening in politics to day. One party agaimst another. Occasionally. Info is sent out leaning towards and our influencing a certain parties agenda. This small group (in my opinion) shoud not be a place to discuss politics or support of a certain.party. Even if you think it’s spiritually connected. Thats up to each person and their hearts convictions, led by prayer and the spirit’s guidance.

  • These points were excellent six months ago, they are merely good in our COVID-19 world.

  • There are false teachers and preachers. When i went to a pastor about what i was gone through in my life. His answer was you are to hard on your self. No it was called sin. Today the modern churches preach alot of fluff and pick and choose the scriptures. No preaching on sin or Hell or the only way to the Father is through the only begotten son of God. Not the son. The son sounds like God had more sons. No The Bible said the only Begotten son. There is also preachers who think it is okay to love eveything Harry Potter. The church is not shepherding the sheep. The mega churches the Pastor making his kingdom here on earth. The church isn”t a box and a steeple. We are to go out sent two by two ,like the early church. We are to start new churches. not build your own kingdom. Most preachers are in it for me. Greed Power and pride. Most pastors get pridefull. I been modern churches who use occultic signs over the people while they preach there new age and candy coated messages. This is a big problem in the modern chures. Yes they are changing with the culture when it comes to preaching, the preaching has no conviction ,oh you can be saved ask jesus into your heart. That is not saving Grace. that is grace to sin. To many false preachers and teachers . we are to have a church like in the book of acts. The word never changes it is man who changes the word. To many man written Bibles yes man wrote and rewrote . KJV. Is still the true word not watered down or chopping off verses or leaving out the son and the blood of Jesus. Fake Biles Fake preaches and teachers. The falling away has stared. Many eyes have to be open today. It is mans religon. We must be born again.

  • Thank you for a well-written and timely article. We’ve been trying to continue to foster small group community using Zoom’s Breakout Rooms and while the dynamic is different from a live classroom or living room, I felt that you provided helpful information to common problems. Two thoughts to share in the interest of giving back: 1) Sometimes that false dichotomy of “evangelism or discipleship” impacts the way we view those six purpose of the church–“devotion to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer, giving to the needs of others and praising God” (Ac2:42-47)–and whether or not they are more appropriate to just the gatherings of the whole (local) assembly or smaller gatherings of that assembly. As you point out, if we’re loving God and one another, our witness will result in at least a few curious people that we need to be ready for. 2) While the need of leadership within the small groups can dilute the influence (command and control) of the senior or lead pastor, if we take the command to go and make disciples of all the nations seriously, we need to allow God to raise up more laborers and leaders for the harvest. The challenge to lead, love, and let go is just complicated by our own need for the Savior.

  • D a vi d Tr o u ble f ie l d , PhD , D M in says on

    Here’s how we Ministers of Education (or equivalent title) used to talk regularly about the same topic, with the small group/Sunday School folk we led as pastoral staffers; God seemed to bless (sort of served as a report card for the groups, large and small):

    1. Reach people for Bible study
    2. Teach people the Bible
    3. Witness to people about Christ, and lead people to church membership
    4. Minister to people in need
    5. Lead people to worship
    6. Support and undergird the work of the church and denomination.

    I don’t know if there are any more Ministers of Education today . . .

    • There are M of Es these days. I am one, though my title is Education and Administration Pastor.

      I would identify another issue — groups that stay together too long become, very unintentionally, closed and more inward-focused. I inherited a couple of those (30+ years together).

  • Richard Babcock says on

    An idea – begin a “musical chairs” approach whereby one or more members from each group periodically rotates to another group. This could instill a more welcoming environment, breakdown the walls of exclusivity, and make “secret shoppers” not as obviously spotted and treated as a “spy.”

  • Other Problems:
    1. More committed to the small group than to the Church.
    2. A breading ground for disgruntled people to form power structures.
    3. Often not missional.

  • Joe Pastor says on

    I agree with everything you’ve said in this article. I especially appreciate the suggestions for correction. Well done. However, while the small group setting certainly is a venue in which these things can happen, I don’t see this as a “small group problem.” I see this as a “people problem.” The same things you listed could also happen in a Sunday School class. . .or to some degree, in any setting in the church in which people gather in “smaller” groups. Foundationally, I think what you’re describing are heart problems–which certainly will show themselves in any setting in which they are given an opportunity.

    • CHuck Lawless says on

      Fair point, Joe. Thanks for the additional input.

    • This article has much utility for groups pastors and the feedback in the form of bad experiences adds a lot of value. I also think these are “people” problems not small group problems.
      The little or no scripture is an important one to consider and think about it. I personally think a small group without scripture is a social club and/or book of the month club. However, I believe a biblical small group is balanced according to the pattern of Acts 2:42. There should be time for Bible study, but also time for fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer/worship.
      Thanks again for this article Chuck. The work of sending out “secret shoppers” , reporting the findings and offering strategic solutions is no small task. I will share a link to this article on my website’s forum for others to find. God bless!

  • They can be where concerted, but not based on fact, efforts to fire the pastor or remove someone from leadership can originate. However, this effort can be legitimate if the pastor needs correcting or someone in leadership is promoting factions, divisions, or ignoring a group of people or actively sold them out.

    They can also be a clique that is impenetrable. While I understand that new parents will have a lot in common and can help each other, and couples with adult children will be at the same stage of life, the people not like them are too often ostracized. Those who are single, divorced, with(out) kids are not and should not be regarded as a plague and are generally not trying to take your spouse or interfere in your marriage. Yet, that is how we are typically treated, and so we quietly disappear from the small group, the congregation, and maybe even the faith. Perhaps the actual clergy or highest lay leaders should put aside his/her desire for a clique too and lead a small group of those not wanted/welcome in any other small group. It might meet over dinner one night and not look like the other groups, but it would do quite a bit toward removing the “unwanted” label placed on so many people.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thanks, Mark, for these helpful thoughts.

    • Great thoughts and comments. I am aware if a church in my community where a small group became the beginnings of a movement to dismiss the pastor because they didn’t care for his leadership style. The pastor learned of this and tried meeting with the group about it to openly listen to them and hear their concerns. The final outcome was the pastor eventually resigned and went to another church. It’s a shame because the church was growing and thriving. He is a good man and his present ministry in another state is being blessed.

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