Add To Favorites

How small groups help a church survive

| by Bob Whitesel

“You can tell we hate to leave,” began Margaret. “It’s just that this sanctuary is such a comfortable place.” 

“It wasn’t always like this,” interjected Mark. “Dark, dank … smelly. The sanctuary had the smell of death about it.”  

As I looked around I marveled at how different the sanctuary of Armstrong Chapel Church looked today. Dark red padded pews, newly restored stained-glass windows, and polished woodwork. To this generation, most in their 70s, the beauty and care of the sanctuary represented a desire to honor God. And while younger generations might disagree, who was I to say that God was not honored by their loving care of their house of worship?

“Come this way,” beckoned Gerry. “Some still like to go out the back, but I prefer the side doors into the fellowship hall.  It reminds me what God can do through a small Sunday school class.” As I passed through the double doors, I was greeted by a large and bright atrium with a glass roof. Here were milling about over 700 people, some lounging on comfortable sofas and others chatting cheerfully on lounge chairs scattered across the room. Still others laughed across café tables while sipping coffee from the church’s café.

“The two other services got out a bit earlier than us today,” continued Gerry. “But that is okay. There is still plenty of time to fellowship. Get a cup of coffee and I’ll find my daughter and grandkids.  I want you to meet them.” And with that Gerry disappeared into the a crowd of laughter, merriment and smiles.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” came Margaret’s voice from behind. “To think, we were a church barely alive. Just over 15 of us in a Sunday school class and most of us serving on church committees too. Only about 30 total in church on Sundays.” 

“This is a testimony to your church,” I began. 

“Not quite,” interrupted Margaret. “It was the bonds of that Sunday School class that lead to this growth. We banded together and worked hard through the series of pastors the district sent us. We relied on each other in that Sunday School, and slowly the church began to grow. It has been 11 years and now we have three sanctuaries, almost all full. 

“But, I still prefer our old sanctuary,” added Gerry, returning with two grandkids in tow. “We kept the old sanctuary just the way it was. But I’m glad we offer other worship options too. They connect with a lot of different ages.” 

“How did you come up with your strategy: books, programs or what other churches used?” I asked. 

“Partly,” came Margaret’s reply. “Our growth plan really came out of the environment of our Sunday School. It was a weekly place for us leaders to fellowship, dream, pray and plan. I can honestly say that our weekly Sunday school meetings were the place where we supported each other to grow this church. Oops, its almost time for Sunday school. Couldn’t miss it, for I still need it.”

More than a small group: A leadership laboratory

The story above illustrates how a group can bond so remarkably and deeply that they can survive deadly attacks upon a church’s heart. But not all small groups attain this inter-reliance and perseverance. 

I learned from members of that Sunday school class, that their small group had bonded after many tough years where a succession of inexperienced pastors had almost killed the congregation. “Our Sunday school was the place we worked out what to do next,” remembered Margaret. “And it was the place where we sought God, insight from His word and advice from one another,” added Gerry. 

For them, this was not just a Sunday School class but also a place for them to mull over the week’s challenges, seek biblical insights and learn from one another. In many ways, this Sunday school was their leadership laboratory.

This was a remarkable type of small group and one which more churches would benefit from utilizing.

Small groups customarily include less than 20 people, meet on a semi-regular basis and have participants who:

• Recognize their group as a sub-group within a larger organization.

• Have an informal or formal structure, such as a regular meeting time or place, a schedule, etc.

• Share a sense of inter-reliance and mutual dependence

• Communicate more intimately than they would in a larger group.

• Dream, plan and innovate in a supportive environment.

• Influence one another and stick together.

• Feel that their most intimate needs can be met through the group’s help.

What is a heart-to-heart group?

A “heart-to-heart group” is a good way to describe groups that meet some or most of the above seven criteria. Participants are sharing at a deep emotional and heart level. And, this intimacy and inter-reliance makes them the idea venue for spiritual questioning, maturity and creativity.

As we saw in the story, heart-to-heart groups play an important role in helping people stay connected to a church and plan for its future even when the church is undergoing conflict, challenges and discord. Here are some of the benefits of small groups:

Benefits of heart-to-heart groups

1. It was in small intimate group settings that Jesus:

  • Answered His disciples’ questions about theology, history and the future (Matthew 24:1-3). 
  • Modeled for them healing and how to pray for those in need (Matthew 10:5-10). 
  • Rebuked the disciples’ willful attitudes and ideas (Luke 16:13). 

2. Researchers have found that in healthy churches:

  • 77 percent of church attendees say their small group participation is very important for them (Stetzer and Rainer). 
  • 64 percent say new members are immediately taught about the importance of small groups (Stetzer and Rainer). 
  • “A member is almost guaranteed to leave the church or become inactive in the church if he or she does not get involved in an ongoing small group” (Rainer). 

3. Secular researchers have found that in healthy organizations:

  • “The small group is the unit of transformation” (P. Block Katzenbach and Smith).
  • “(Small groups) will remain the basic unit of both performance and change because of their proven capacity to accomplish what other units cannot” (P. Block Katzenbach and Smith). 
  • “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” (M. Mead). 

Because small groups are so effective in helping people support one another and develop closer relationships, they have been a reoccurring theme in church history. In actuality, any small group of people that meets together on a semi-regular basis is a candidate for becoming a heart-to-heart group— Bible groups, prayer groups, Sunday school classes, Bible studies, worship teams, sports teams, administrative committees, etc. Consider how you may implement these types of group in the settings where you lead. 

Excerpted fromThe Healthy Church: Practical Ways to Strengthen a Church’s Heart, by Bob Whitesel (Wesleyan Publishing 2013)

Photo source: istock 


Bob Whitesel

Bob Whitesel (D.Min., Ph.D.) is a sought after speaker, church health consultant and award-winning writer of 13 books on missional leadership, church change and church growth. He is founding professor and former professor of missional leadership of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. He also holds two earned doctorates (D.Min. and Ph.D.) from Fuller Theological Seminary where he was awarded “The Donald McGavran Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Church Growth.” His website is ChurchHealth.net.



Learn More »


Don't miss any of this great content! Sign up for our twice-weekly emails:

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:13 (ESV)
Greg Leith

Greg's life mission statement focuses on his life passion, which is “to strengthen the great ...

Kent Evans

Kent Evans is the Executive Director and co-founder of Manhood Journey, a nonprofit ministry
that ...