Five Trends in Small Groups Coming Out of COVID

Small groups are struggling, but small groups are really important.

That’s the summary statement from our Church Answers’ team as we hear from thousands of church leaders. Most of the attention has been focused on the regathering of in-person worship services, but small groups are regathering as well.

We have been clear that small groups are vital to the health of a church. They go by various names: small groups, home groups, community groups, Sunday school classes, life groups, and others. But they serve the very important purpose of connecting people to a more personal community.

Those in groups are more likely to stick to a church, will give more, will invite more, and will be more involved in ministry. A church without an intentional small group ministry is a church in bad health or headed toward bad health.

As our team at Church Answers continues to listen to thousands of church leaders, we are hearing five major and discernible trends. These trends, if they continue, will shape our group ministries for years or decades to come. 

  1. Regaining momentum in small groups is tough. The pandemic caused most groups to go virtual and, even worse, to cease altogether. Most church leaders know how important groups are to the life of the church. And most leaders are challenged to get the momentum back for small groups.
  1. The ongoing small group is disappearing. We define “ongoing” as a group that continues every week with no plans of ending or taking a break. Small groups are now more likely to meet for defined periods and then take a break. The Sunday school movement began the ongoing movement in the late 1800s. That movement is slowing considerably. The decline has been accelerated and exacerbated by the pandemic.
  1. Hybrid groups are rare. A hybrid group meets in-person with a digital option. Few churches have groups taking this approach. But those groups that do take that approach may have a healthier future.
  1. Multiple groups with different purposes are declining. It has not been unusual for churches to have two different kinds of groups. For example, one type of group may be defined as primarily a fellowship group while another type of group serves the purpose of deeper discipleship. Church leaders are telling us it is really complex to have two systems of groups. One system of groups can thus serve multiple purposes.
  1. Churches that place a priority on small groups tend to be healthier. Of course, the inverse is true as well. Churches that don’t place a priority on small groups tend to be less healthy.

We really don’t need to miss the unfolding trends of small groups. While the regathering of in-person worship services rightly has our attention, we must also focus on small groups in churches.

In many ways, the health of congregations lies in the balance.

Posted on March 5, 2021

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Jesse suguipit says on

    Dear brother thom,
    Through the faithfulness of Jesus our savior,I Am Jesse Suguipit, I’m pastoring a church in the Philippines,anyway I started my ministry as a missionary,but praise God for he saved his people and stablished his church.while to be a missionary is not easy,but I thank God for allowing me to knew your ministry and your articles help me a lot,as a philipino ptr It’s hard for me to buy and find reasources for my ministry,but I’m so thankful that your writings and articles help me in my ministry,I’m one of your follower ,always praying that I can apply good things from you in my ministry also.praying your ministry
    In Christ
    Jesse suguipit

  • I find this article very interesting.
    Can you define what a small group is and do they exists within a larger group or church?

  • Hi Thom,

    Thanks for the helpful insights. Are there any positive trends in small groups right now? We really want to help our small groups thrive.

  • Wally Smith says on

    I am old and I struggle with the term “small group”? In your experience, has the term “Sunday School” been replaced by the term “Small Group”. In your view are they synonymous or different? I attended Sunday School week at Ridgecrest twice, the first time, Gene Mims was the worship leader and the second time, Dr. Jimmie Draper was the worship leader. I remember being taught in classes there that the purpose of Sunday School was, “To reach people for Christ and then to build them into on-mission Christians.” I also remember from those classes that the definition of Sunday School was…”Sunday School is an intentional mix of the lost and the saved, all in the same class, with the primary purpose being to lead the lost to Christ.” Are those defining statements gone by the wayside? From what I can gather about small groups, it seems that fellowship and in-depth Bible study for believers are the main focuses.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Wally –

      I’m an old Sunday school guy too. That term was used by four major denominations for years, but the term was not used by the majority of churches in America. By definition, Sunday school is one type of small group. The reference you make to Ridgecrest and Drs. Draper and Mims is a reflection of the high priority the Southern Baptist Convention placed on Sunday school. I see that emphasis waning even in SBC churches.

  • Jim Whaley says on

    Dr. Rainer, would you please provide a bit more clarity with this statement: “A hybrid group meets in-person with a digital option”? I can see this in a couple of different ways! Thanks for your time!


    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jim –

      I am referring to those groups that meet in person, but also have a digital connection for those who prefer not to meet in person yet. Yesterday, I was actually in such a group where the teacher was teaching from his home via Zoom, and the rest of us where in the church facility in person.