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What causes groups to thrive?

In 1990 my wife and I moved to South America to serve as missionaries to Ecuador. As a part of our preparation, we lived in  Costa Rica for one year to learn the Spanish language. A new Costa Rican friend, Martin, invited me to explore one of the vast Costa Rican rain forests. We hopped on a long-distance bus, rode miles into the dense rain forest, passed through a long tunnel, and then Martin asked the driver to let us off. We then began to climb over the tunnel to the other side.

I felt overwhelmed as I was surrounded by giant trees, plants, grasses, and the virgin mountainside. It was a world of lush vegetation, streams, and insects. We even had to flee a hive of angry hornets while sliding down a waterfall. Finally, we made it to the other side, wet, dirty, and exhausted.

This experience opened my eyes to life that thrives. This pristine and secluded rain forest is a wild, wet, and perfect environment for green life to thrive. This book is about thriving and flourishing. It’s about creating an environment where life has a chance to spread and organically and naturally extend itself in every direction. Just like green foliage needs the right mixture of sun, soil, and water, thriving groups require a healthy atmosphere.  Sadly, many small groups today do not thrive. They limp along year after year and eventually close, stopping short of the life that God has for them.

Just like that Costa Rican rain forest, groups that thrive don’t happen by chance nor simply because people want their groups to flourish. Thriving communities require a supernatural mix of prayer and Spirit-led anointing that makes a way for everyone to participate, for the healing presence of God, and for vibrant life that blesses others. This book explores how your group can thrive.

Life-giving groups begin by imagining the kind of group that you want.

Living the Dream in a Thriving Group

Imagine that you are a part of a thriving small group. What we imagine or dream about regarding the kind of group we hope for will shape the way we form our groups. If you want to create a life-giving garden, it begins by imagining the kind of garden that you want.

In a thriving group, people feel loved, accepted, and embraced. No one hides behind religious platitudes or feels the need to perform in order to measure up. Group members laugh, cry, and listen deeply to each other.

The meeting is like a gathering of good friends with the presence of

The leader does not force his or her way or control the group meetings in order to try to make the group thrive. Instead, he or she creates a safe place for everyone to share. Instead of long monologues of Bible study facts, the effective leader is a facilitator who asks questions so that everyone can get involved. Even more, there is time and freedom for people to use their spiritual gifts so that people can be encouraged and built up as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14.

The meeting is like a gathering of good friends with the presence of Jesus in their midst. Sometimes there are difficult conversations, but the group members are committed to working through any issue.

I pray that your group is experiencing this vision. Where it falls short, know that God can bring forth life. Your group need not continue as it is now. New paths can be charted that will bring new life and new hope. 

In Search of Paths of Thriving

The task of describing a thriving small group motivated Jim Egli and me to study the difference between a so-so, run-of-the-mill meeting and a life-giving group that is more than a religious meeting.  We surveyed 1,800 small group members and leaders from around the world. This data was added to Jim’s previous investigation of over 3,000 small group leaders. The details of the research design and data are included in the appendix for those who are interested in such matters.

Even though Jim and I together have been working with small groups for over five decades, we were surprised by what we found. Some of the  conclusions seemed to go against logic and challenge common understanding about what makes a group work well. We simply followed the evidence and now share what we discovered.

The best way to multiply a group is to develop each member’s potential.

Most books on small groups are written for group leaders or pastors. While this book has much to say to leaders, we also want it to encourage group members. After all, each member is a potential facilitator, and, in fact, the best groups allow each person to lead parts of the group meetings. Someone does need to take responsibility, but the best leaders are team players and see each member as an active participant and potential facilitator. The best way to multiply a group is to develop each member’s potential.

Surprising Paths

As a kid growing up in Long Beach, California, I loved Fridays. When I came home from Emerson Elementary School, I knew my mom would surprise me by hiding a candy bar, Twinkie, or another treat under my pillow. This book is about surprises. They are surprising discoveries that go against common assumptions about what makes groups grow and thrive. These surprises include:

  • Who owns a thriving group—chapter 1.
  • How group evangelism works—chapter 2.
  • What makes a great group leader—chapter 3.
  • How community influences evangelism—chapter 4.
  • How evangelism influences transparency—chapter 5.
  • Why worship is central to a group—chapter 6.
  • Why it is crucial for a leader to pray—chapter 7.
  • How persistence, or lack of it, influences group life—chapter 8.

What surprise(s) got your attention? Feel free to skip around and let your curiosity shape your learning.

What Do You Need to Strengthen?

As you read this book, you will notice  places where your small group is not thriving. No group is perfect, but you can make an adjustment, immerse yourself in prayer, and stay the course. God is at work in your group whether or not you see it now.

At the end of each chapter, there are review questions. Take the time to go over these questions individually or with your group to determine what particular areas you need to improve on.

God is at work in your group whether or not you see it now.

We also encourage you to visit our website ( that features a free evaluation tool that will help you determine the health of your group. [1] After completing the survey, you’ll find a graph that highlights the strong and weak areas of your group, as measured by:

  • Prayer/worship
  • Outreach and evangelism
  • Care for one another
  • Empowering new leaders

Jim Egli has spent twenty years perfecting the research and practical applications you’ll find on  The good news is that it’s free and will help point out areas you need to work on.

Our prayer is that this book will give you practical and encouraging insights. May your group thrive as you move more and more deeply into all that Christ has for you!


[1] Our research in this book was based on an extended list of questions from We started with 110 questions in our survey. After analyzing the data from the 110-question survey, we were able to reduce the core questions to 35.