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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  • I would have to say that I am not a believer in the concept that small groups are essential to a healthy church. 98% of the groups that form become cliques and remain that way. Something I have personally found is small groups are anti-family. Many say”adults only”, thus leave parents either dropping church all together or just end up attending services with no involvement.

    I would go back to a Sunday school model. One the family is already at church on Sundays and Wednesdays. It is one less thing to schedule.

    Frankly speaking, the tend to fail because it is yet another thing to add to an already busy calendar.

    For those of us that do not live is church utopia, the small groups in reality just don’t fit in a modern family.

  • Susana Roberts says on

    A church is where people go to be taught the Holy Scriptures. The door can never be closed on any one. Pastors give to people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. The corona virus caused people to show their true colors. What happened to ” love your neighbor as you love yourself” ? People ran to the stores and left their fellow human beings without what they also needed. Did the Pastors say anything to their church members about this, by any chance? Some how I doubt it. Hopefully the Pastors didn’t do the same thing as the church members did. I could keep going. I don’t think it would do me any good, but thanks for letting me get a couple of things off my chest.

  • Jimmie Baugh says on

    Like the prayer leader, great ideal . Thanks

  • All the examples of problems listed in the article that SS classes/Small groups experience are spot on. A couple more:
    1. Telling is not teaching. Listening is not learning. We have to train our teachers how to engage all the group members in the learning process. As a “consultant”, I visit about 40 SS classes every year (the small group we lead every week is on a weeknight) and 90% of the time, the only tool the teacher uses is lecture. Many times, the teacher reads the lesson word for word off the page of the lesson book. As church leaders, we have to do a better job training our teachers so they understand the different tools and strategies that are available to help people learn.

    2. Developing New Leaders/Teachers. Some classes have a substitute teacher that fills in 1 or 2 times a year. Our teachers must coach new leaders and let them practice more often than that so that they can become the leaders for a new class or leaders of the next generation. Even if a person never becomes a teacher of a class or group, helping them become a growing leader will affect many areas of their life.

    • Greg Ross says on

      I can’t begin to describe the anti-intellectualism, the lack of creativity in most churches – liberal/conservative.
      Regurgitation of material over and over and over. No one cares – students or teachers.
      God made the world so big and interesting. I’m not sayin’ I am an intellectual – well, those folks don’t go to church of course, perhaps for this very reason.
      But I can say I am so bored…dumbed down music, dumbed down preaching, dumbed down teaching. Where is the challenge to actually learn something new?
      Sir – you should be more humble! Study what the reformers said about their leaders! All the big names are selling books, cd’s, etc that are so far removed from international award material. Is there no one to cater to folks that have been taught to think critically? Goodness! Dark ages for sure.

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