What Does Your Church’s Group Name Communicate?

Assimilation is five times more effective if a person is involved in a group versus attending worship only.

Read that first statement carefully. It is huge! Church leaders should be spending significant amounts of time focusing on groups. They are too important to ignore.

But there are so many different names for groups in churches. I am not smart enough to know what the best label is for a church. So I asked many different people, both in church and out of church, what came to mind when I mentioned a group name. Here are the results of my informal survey:

  1. Small groups. This name had the most ambiguous perceptions of those I surveyed. That most common response they had to this label was, “What kind of small group?”
  2. Sunday school. This label is one of the longest standing names of church groups. All respondents had their own clear perceptions about this name. For the majority, the name connotes a traditional on-campus, content-driven group for all ages. For a minority of the respondents, it referred to classes for children only.
  3. Life groups. There was hardly any mention of content connected to life groups. The general perception was these groups are more about developing relationships, sharing feelings, and dealing with life issues. Some of the respondents were surprised when I told them many life groups study the Bible as well.
  4. Community groups. This name evoked two distinct and different responses. One group immediately connected community groups as an outwardly-focused group. In other words, the groups’ purpose was to connect with the community around them. But another group saw community groups as inwardly-focused. Their primary purpose for existence was to build community within the group.
  5. Home groups. I confess that these responses surprised me. Home groups were perceived to be loosely connected to the church, if connected at all. There was a sense that these groups had the lowest level of accountability to the church of which it was a part.
  6. Bible study groups. There were no surprises here. This name meant content-driven groups. Some of the respondents even thought there was no intentionality of community in these groups. Even other respondents perceived these groups to be large, much like a master class.
  7. Fellowship groups. If Bible study groups communicated content, fellowship groups communicated little to no content. This group was perceived to be about bringing people together for conversation and relationship building.

Again, let me remind you that these seven categories represent perceptions of group names, even though the perceptions might not align with reality. The takeaway I got from this exercise is that churches should both name and describe their groups in all of their promotional resources. The danger of misperception is present and real.

What is the name or names of groups in your church? What do you think of these perceptions? Let me hear from you.

Posted on October 7, 2015


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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44 Comments

  • Our Disciplship process is Connect, Grow, Serve, Go so we call our groups Growth Groups. Everyone, no matter the age is in their own Growth Group. It has taken several years for people to adapt the terminology but it’s starting to take hold, although I still hear the occasional Sunday School, or small group words mentioned. Good word to name and describe the purpose in all communication.

  • Great article. It really makes you pause and think.
    We call our groups Growth Groups with the tagline of Growing Closer to God and Others.
    I printed the blog post and am going to ask my group tonight what they think.
    Thanks.

  • Peter Mahoney says on

    The church I pastor is 21 years old (I have been serving for 2 years) and has been a traditional Sunday School from the beginning and opposes shifting to small groups. The problem with our current structure is that the adult classes have grown so large they become small churches in and of themselves, negating the healthy relationships that smaller groups engender. If the staff and I terminated SS in an attempt to transition to small groups, we would likely be labeled as heretics and cast into the outer darkness. Our strategy is to create “Care Groups” within each SS class to create space to facilitate relationship building and accountability. We are also working to change our language, embracing “groups/leaders” and releasing “classes/teachers”. In an effort to streamline our Deacon Ministry to operate with this new framework, making the deacons the Care Group Leaders who will identify others to take on leadership roles which if it works the way we hope, leadership development and discipleship will happen organically rather than “programmed” as we grow and assimilate. We’ve had some push back from some of our older folks, but not a complete revolt… yet. Our younger adult classes have embraced the model fully and it seems to be working well.

    Onward and upward…

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Keep us in touch on your progress, Peter. I am not seeing many churches try the older methodology of large group/care group today. But it could work in your church.

      • Peter Mahoney says on

        Will do. We recognize the approach is not “cutting edge” but if it can be a transitional step that will allow us to platform into something better down the line, we are open to prayerfully trying anything to move the ball down the field.

        Thank you Dr. Thom!

  • Brent Lay says on

    Very interesting topic and survey. I have observed that even more important than the name is the process of connecting with group. Again, it appears that the friend connection still works best regardless of name.

  • Allen Calkins says on

    If they meet on Sunday Mornings in the church building before or after the worship service they are Bible study groups or Sunday School classes…to call them anything else seems to me to be a misrepresentation of the purpose of the class. Sunday school is supposed to be about ‘reaching people for Christ through Bible Study’. It is not supposed to be primarily about relationships, expressing feelings or even in depth Bible study. All of those tasks are for other small groups, Bible study groups or ministry groups. OUrs are Bible Study groups and the children’s area we still refer to as Sunday SChool.

    • Craig Giddens says on

      Sunday School is whatever you want it to be whether it is for for outreach, relationship building, or in-depth bible study. Different churches have different needs and may be at different levels in their growth. I remember hearing in the past that the Sunday morning sermon should be evangelistic and the Sunday evening sermon should for the church members. Those are man made rules which may or may not be right for your church. The important thing is for your church to be focused on systematic Bible preaching and teaching.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        I agree. I get different responses every time I ask a leader about the purpose of the Sunday school in a particular church.

      • Bobby Creel says on

        I like that word: purpose! I think many have lost sight of it. I think it is healthy for leadership to evaluate and understand the purpose for every meeting or activity. What is the purpose of Sunday School? Good question: until we have a specific answer, we will not know if we are being effective! How about this one: What is the purpose of our church service? (i.e.: Sunday Morning vs. Sunday Evening/ Wednesday, etc.) Again, our success is defined by our purpose.

        Specifying the purpose will determine the approach and increase your chances of being effective in ministry. Out with mundane ministry and in with effective ministry! 🙂

        So, when/how do we, as a church, pray? Disciple? Fellowship? Evangelize? etc. Identify the purpose and shape the activity= effective ministry!

        All the best, as you engage your community…

  • You can call them whatever you want to. If they become cliques, it’s all over. I have seen this happen. The powerful people in a church will have their own. The “in crowd” will have their own and the “ordinary” people may be allowed to attend one for their type of people (married with kids, etc.) but will never be accepted in any of the others. The “third class” people (single, liberal, etc.) can have one for themselves but will always be reminded that they are of lesser rank.

    • I love what Todd Engstrom at Austin Stone Community Church says…”When you aim for community, you only get it half the time. But when you aim for mission, you get it and it’s natural by-product…community.” Cliques happen when groups are not given a strong vision, clear expectations and trained to stay focused on others.

  • We used to call our home groups ‘cell groups’
    We had no Wed or Sunday p.m. services and the home groups met by zip codes to; further explore the previous sermon notes, share life issue’s and offer direct ministries to the community.

    After 9/11 we dropped ‘cell’ and changed to ‘life’ group

  • I went to a church that tried to replace the term Sunday School with Adult Bible Fellowship, but since that was a mouthful, shortened all references to ABF. Visitors and even longtime members were often confused when asked to get more info from ‘your ABF leader’. (My what?)

  • We are using three different names, for different settings/purposes. We have Sunday School, which is as you said: traditional, divided up by age groups, and we meet on Sunday mornings. We also have small groups that meet on Wednesday nights. These groups are centered around a specific topic (missions, discipleship, stewardship, how to better study, etc.) and they usually last 8 weeks or so. And then a new one will begin. Our college students and young adults have a couple of home groups that meet during the week. The general idea is that we talk about the sermon from Sunday, and memorize scripture.

  • We are in the process of changing our terminology to GROW Groups to align with our Mission Statement to Glorify, Grow, Go. We talk about the three G’s all the time.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      The question I would have is: Will outsiders understand what you are trying to communicate with that name?

      • That’s the question I’m most interested in, in every circumstance, Thom.

        I’d like to know the perceptions of those group names by unchurched people.

      • David Cozart says on

        That is an excellent question for us to consider. What does a “GROW Group” do? Thank you for the insight.

  • We call ours “Bible Fellowship Groups” which is sort of a combination of the last two. It also relates to the name of our church which has “Bible Fellowship” in the name. I guess we hope it communicates both content (Bible) and relationship building (Fellowship).

  • We call ours Fellowship Groups – because of what the Bible teaches us what fellowship really is:
    Sharing a common relationship with Jesus
    Individuals in a common group
    with a common purpose to…
    Study the Bible
    Learn together
    Pray together
    Suffer together
    Serve together
    Enjoy time and meals together
    Share the love of Jesus together

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