The Power and the Pitfalls of Different Small Group Models
by Jim Egli, Ph.D.
Help I’m Confused! The 21st century church is confronted with a plethora of different small group models. Some of the most popular models at the moment fundamentally contradict each other.
Very few pastors and church leaders have the time to understand and compare the divergent models. They typically have the time to read one or two small group books and possibly attend a small group conference. Most books and conferences, however, present only one model—yet they do it in a very convincing way. When you are listening to or reading Ted Haggard, Andy Stanley, Randy Frazee or Cesar Castellanos, they all sound like they have come up with the model. But their models have few similarities to one another. They ask different questions and give very different answers.
How can you tell which model best fits your own church, leadership style and community? What are the key biblical principles and practical insights that you need to create a growing small group system? How can you learn from others experience and still be responsive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and your own unique situation.
The purpose of this article is to give you a quick overview of the key models and then articulate the pivotal questions that you need to answer to shape a model that works for you.
An Unusual Beginning
The contemporary small group movement began in a most unlikely way. It was a warm summer evening in 1964 in Seoul, Korea. A young senior pastor named Yonggi Cho was translating for a guest speaker at his growing church. In the middle of the service, Cho collapsed on stage. His associate, American missionary John Hurston, rushed to his side, only to hear him whisper, “John, I’m dying.” (Cho, p.11)
Thank God, Cho did not die. But his health was broken. His doctors recommended that he find another line of work that was less stressful and demanding. Cho did not feel God’s release from ministry, however. And he still wanted to pastor his church until it became the largest church in all of Korea. From his sick bed he cried out to God for healing. As he sought God over a period of months several profound messages came to him. He was told by God that he would be healed, but that his healing would take 10 years. Perplexed at how he could pastor a large, growing church—at that time the church numbered 2400 people—he searched the Bible and was struck by how Moses divided the millions that he cared for into groups of 100’s, 50’s and 10’s (Exodus 18:13-26). He also noticed how the young church in the book of Acts was able to enfold thousands of new converts by using home group meetings (Acts 2:46). Cho also sensed God saying, “I am destroying your ministry and giving it to others.”
Feeling he had clear direction from God, Cho preceded to implement a system of home groups for the purpose of study, pastoral care and evangelism. He faced incredible obstacles. His deacons resisted the plan and offered to replace him as pastor. They refused to get involved in leading groups themselves. When the male leaders of the church resisted Cho’s new plan, the women offered to help. It ran against the church’s theology and the Korean culture to use women as leaders but they were the ones willing to move ahead with what Cho felt God was calling them to. The first groups didn’t go too well, but Cho persisted and continually refined their methodology. In time the number of groups grew from dozens to hundreds to thousands. Today Yoido Full Gospel Church has over 20,000 home groups and it is actively planting churches throughout Korea and around the world.
There are several important things to understand about Cho’s small group model:
- Small Groups exist for the dual purposes of edification and evangelism. Cho emphasizes that groups can fulfill and must fulfill these two objectives simultaneously.
- Groups meetings include Bible Study but are more than just Bible Study groups. In fact, Lydia Swain, Cho’s longtime personal secretary, told a friend of mine, that the group meetings were initially 2/3 rd’s Bible Study and 1/3 rd prayer and that they did not work very well. When the reversed the format to be 1/3 rd Bible Study and 2/3 rd’s prayer, the group ministry’s growth took off.
- There is an emphasis on relational evangelism, serving the needs of unbelievers in practical ways. The church tells its members to show Jesus’ love to those around them by saying, “find a need and fill it.”
- The church established what has come to be known as the 5×5 oversight model. Every five groups or so are overseen by a “section leader.” Over every five or so section leaders are pastors. This pattern of oversight is apportioned according to geographic areas.
Cho also teaches us the importance of persistence. If at first you don’t succeed with small groups, try, try again. Cho says that you should plan to fail twice. Expect initial failure. It’s like riding a bike or learning to ice skate. You are mastering new skills and new ways of doing things.
For many years, Cho’s church and its methods were unknown to the broader church, until it was discovered by Donald McGavran—the founder of the modern church growth movement. Encouraged by McGavran, in 1976 Cho launched Church Growth International to share his principles and insights with churches around the world through conferences and publications. In 1981 Cho released his book Successful Home Cell Groups. One leader deeply influenced by Cho was Ralph Neighbour, Jr.
Neighbour further refined and promoted Cho’s principles. Particularly in the 1990’s the flame of the worldwide cell movement was fanned by Neighbour’s books, conferences and his Cell Church magazine. (I worked for Dr. Neighbour myself from 1994-2000.) He accelerated the cause of the small group movement by providing application in many places where Cho had offered mostly inspiration. Helpful emphases of Neighbour have been:
- The centrality of evangelism to cell life and growth.
- The necessity of a clear discipleship path to enable continual leadership and group multiplication.
- The centrality of home groups to New Testament Christianity.
What’s Wrong with the Cell Model?
Tens of thousands of churches were influenced by Cho and Neighbour. At the same time in the last half of the 1990’s a variety of leaders began to rethink how small groups are done. In effect, they were asking, “What’s wrong with the cell model?” Their questions and answers diverged in interesting ways.
The Groups of 12 Model
In 1982 Cesar Castellanos quit as a pastor. He was disillusioned with what he was experiencing in his ministry and in the life of his church in Colombia, South America. During this time of disillusionment he sought God in a concerted way. Castellanos told me in a 1998 interview with him in his home, that during his time of seeking God in 1982, he experienced a vision from God, in which he heard God say, “ Dream of a very large church, because dreams are the language of my Spirit. Because the people in the church that you will pastor will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sands of the sea, the multitude will not be able to be counted.” In response to that vision in February of 1983, International Charismatic Mission (ICM) was birthed in Bogota, Colombia. The church had a young, contemporary feel and, inspired by Cho, used a home group strategy.
After seven years, however, Castellanos was frustrated because the church had plateaued at 3000 members. Part of his frustration was how long it took to produce small group leaders. Few people completed the two-year process that they were using and those that did had few non-Christian friends left to win once they became leaders. Castellanos sought God for a breakthrough to release unlimited growth. He recounted to me:
But the moment came in my life when I said, “Lord, I need something that will help me accelerate the purpose.” And in my times of spiritual retreat God ministered greatly to my heart. In one of those moments he said. “I’m going to give you the ability to train people quickly.” And then he removed the veil and showed me the model of 12.
The “Groups of 12” or “G12” model is a combination of principles and methods that enabled ICM to become the fastest growing church in the world. What are the characteristics of the G12 model?
- A “consolidation” process to disciple new believers that immediately sends them on a weekend “Encounter” retreat to help them be set free from spiritual bondage and be filled with the Holy Spirit, then into a “School of Leaders.” This discipleship system equips every member to start their own evangelistic small group within the first year of coming to Christ.
- An emphasis on the external multiplication of homogeneous groups targeting specific populations such as businessmen, women, students, couples, etc. External multiplication means that instead of splitting existing small groups, new groups are formed by individuals by gathering new people from their own circle of influence.
- A system of oversight that has group leaders in “Groups of 12” where they are discipled on a weekly basis. Leaders of the Groups of 12 are also members in another Group of 12 led by someone else. The central point in the system is the pastor and his own Group of 12.
The G12—short for “Groups of 12” or “Government of 12”—model is intense. In time, a leader is involved in three weekly meetings—the small group that they lead, the G12 group where they are discipled by their leader, and a G12 group where they are encouraging and equipping the leaders under themselves. Joel Comiskey, in his helpful book From 12 to 3, has suggested ways to apply G12 principles in a North American setting in an intentional but less intense way.
The model is impacting churches around the world but few are experiencing the same outstanding results as ICM. There is also debate about exactly what makes ICM’s small group structure so successful. Although many people are intrigued by its G12 oversight system, some people feel that it is actually the church’s assimilation and discipleship system is the key to their growth.
The small group system that I oversee has not “gone G12” but we have gleaned very important lessons from this model. It has been tremendously helpful for us to initiate Encounter weekends at our church using the Encounter God material available from Touch Publications (www.cellgrouppeople.com). We have also begun to use external multiplication as one valuable option for launching new groups. In fact, based on our church’s experience, I have concluded that in most cases external multiplication works better than internal multiplications of groups. (Realize that there are about five ways to multiply groups and that the best method varies from situation to situation. But that is the topic of another article!)
Free Market Model
In the late 1990’s the church that Ted Haggard pastors—New Life in Colorado Springs, CO—experienced a turning point. It was a large church of 4800 people but its growth rate had declined to four percent. At that time, the church had 80 home groups that were organized geographically and that met to discuss that week’s sermon.
The paradigm shift that changed the direction of the church’s small group ministry occurred at a meeting of the church’s executive team. As they discussed the need to better connect people in the church, the small groups pastor, Russ Walker, asked Haggard, “Pastor Ted, do you attend a small group?” In response, Haggard gave several reasons why he was not in one the small groups that he was encouraging his own members to be involved in. He said, “I do not want to meet with people I don’t enjoy.” (p. 34) Since the groups were organized geographically Haggard confessed getting in a group would mean spending time with people he wouldn’t normally choose to relate to. He also didn’t want to be a group that discussed the sermon. He did not want to get stuck in a group with no way out. And, he did not want anyone messing with a group he was in by telling it that it had to multiply.
Haggard honest answers to his small groups pastor’s question, proved to be the foundation for New Life’s revamped small group system. They designed a system with these characteristics:
- Groups are organized around common interests, not geographical proximity, to draw both church members and unchurched into relationships—hence the title of Haggard’s book, Dog Training, Fly Fishing, & Sharing Christ in the 21 st Century.
- Groups have a clear start and stop with three small group semesters or cycles a year, so that people can easily join and leave groups.
- Discipleship is “by choice”—meaning that people will join groups or take classes that they need when they need them.
The key assumption behind New Life’s small group and discipleship philosophy is that people in the 21 st century don’t want to be told what to do. They want choices. Another assumption is that like businesses in a free market economy, healthy groups will flourish while unhealthy groups will die. So we should encourage a diversity of different types of groups and allow things to naturally thrive or whither.
In some ways, Haggard’s model is similar to the “Meta” model popularized in the 90’s by Carl George in his book, Prepare Your Church for the Future. Basically, under the Free Market and the Meta models, almost anything can be considered a small group whether it is a group of home schoolers, a bowling group, a prayer group or a Bible study. Churches following these models sometimes claim to have a high number of small groups and an amazing percentage of their people involved in groups. But to a large extent this is simply because their definition of small groups is so broad. For example, last year our church carefully counted how many adults were involved in our worship services and compared it to how many adults where involved in our small groups. Our worship services had an average adult attendance of just over 1,000 people and our home groups had an average attendance of just over 600—so about 60 percent of our people are involved in what our church calls “small groups.” But if we also had counted the couple hundred people involved in the short-term groups that we call specialty groups such as ALPHA, marriage classes, recovery groups and other support groups—all very important groups!—the number of people involved in “small groups” would look much larger. Under a Free Market or Meta model, however, we could count these groups as well as our many sports teams, home school groups, several dozen ministry teams and the many accountability “mini-groups” that our church encourages. If we were to switch to a Free Market system, the number of people involved in “small groups” would immediately dramatically increase—simply because we would be counting things differently. I am not expressing this to say that they are counting wrong and we are counting right, I simply want to point out that when a church states how many of their people or what percentage of their members are involved in “small groups,” you need to look carefully at how they define “small groups” especially if you are comparing them to a different church—like your own! The contrast in numbers between two churches might simply be due to a difference in definitions.
To be honest I am biased against Haggard’s model because I see small groups experiencing basic Christian community as foundational to both the first century church and the church of today. Interest groups are valuable and can be an important part of a church’s overall discipleship and outreach strategy, but in my view they are not the same as basic Christian community—where people are committed to each other over time to love and serve each other and to together reach their friends. Also, as Haggard himself mentions in his book, the Free Market system actually is considerably more work administratively. This is because there is such a variety of different types of groups to oversee and because the system requires three major launches each year.
Some churches have found significant help from the Free Market model, however. And I think one of Haggard most valuable insights is that for a small group system to succeed it must follow a model that fits the senior pastor’s personality and that he or she is excited about.
The Connecting Church Model
The story that Randy Frazee tells near the beginning of his book The Connecting Church sounds remarkably like Haggard’s opening story—but the two books’ conclusions and models are a study in contrasts.
Like Haggard, Frazee recounts that the development of their new small group model emerged from a brutally honest discussion among their pastors. At a planning retreat of Frazee’s congregation, Pantego Bible Church, one of the pastors mentioned that he didn’t like his small group. Then all the pastors confessed that they found their small group disappointing. This set in motion in analysis of what the problems were. They arrived at several pivotal conclusion.
Their conclusion that their groups primary problem was a lack of community set in motion a passionate study on Frazee’s part on the ingredients of true community and how his church and other churches could cultivate and experience it.
The small groups at their seeker-targeted church had previously been primarily affinity groups, but because they concluded that community happens more deeply and naturally when people live closer each other they shifted to a geographically based model—with small groups based geographically and congregational units within the church made up of all the small groups in a given area. The conclusion about the importance of geography was not something that Frazee concluded based on personal convictions or simple common sense. He has done extensive reading on community as it occurs in a wide diversity of settings—kibbutzes, gangs, monestaries, work teams, fraternities, etc. He argues that close geographic proximity is essential for community because it allows people to be more available to one another and to interact frequently and more spontaneously.
I hope you are beginning to see the contrasts in these three recent small group models:
The contrast between Haggard’s model and philosophy and those of Frazee are particularly intriguing. Haggard contends that geographically based groups do not work well in North America because relationship is formed best around common interests. In his book he goes into extensive philosophical discussion of this. Basically, Haggard is arguing that we need a model that fits 21 st century North America culture. He reads and speaks as if he is doing a master’s thesis on this.
Frazee on the other hand contends that the problem with our groups is that they are a reflection of our culture and that what people need to experience is Biblical community—something that will stand in contrast to our culture and meet the deep needs of people to experience genuine relationships. Like Haggard, Frazee goes into philosophy and theology and gives you the impression that he might be working on a doctoral degree on community.
I am oversimplifying their perspectives somewhat but I think I essentially understand them. Here is Jim Egli’s totally biased opinion on all of this. I tend to side more with Frazee, but he does overstate the importance of geography. For example, a couple years ago I interacted extensively with a church that had been thoroughly influenced by Randy Frazee. At one point a couple of the small group pastors of this church visited our church to see how we do certain aspects of our small group support ministry. We tend to emphasize relationship more than affinity or geography and as a result we have a lot of geographically based groups as well as a lot of young adult groups and a few women’s and men’s groups. These pastors were struck by how vibrant our young adult groups are. They told me that they had mistakenly disbanded their own young adult groups because they did not fit the geographic model that they had wholeheartedly embraced. Looking back they concluded that they made a significant mistake, and have now shifted to a more blended model.
We need to listen to what Frazee says about how geography impacts small groups, but he overemphasized it. I myself like geographic groups—I rode my bike three blocks to go to small group last night! Interestingly the last small group I led, however, began as a neighborhood small group but, much to my surprise, it morphed into a group made up largely of international students and scholars—mostly Chinese. We need to stay flexible.
Frazee’s most helpful insights, I believe, relate to his emphasis on teaching people to slow down. His more recent book is appropriately titled, Making Room for Life: Turning Chaotic Lifestyles into Connected Relationships. Frazee declares something that a lot of secular researchers are also now stating, that Americans lives are so busy that they are out of control! Basically, he is saying that Christians today won’t experience real relationship with God or others if they don’t learn how to balance their lives and create space for genuine community. In his book, he offers some profound insights and practical suggestions.
In past centuries, it is interesting to see how when people came to Christ, they often needed very elemental instruction on life issues. In the first century Paul told thieves to quit stealing. In the 18 th century John Wesley encouraged employees to show up to work every day. Today, Christians need basic teaching on how to make time for family, God and friendship.
The North Point Model
One of most recent voices to champion small groups is Andy Stanley, senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Like Haggard and Frazee, his model was born out of frustration. In 1993 he was the youth pastor at his father’s—Charles Stanley’s—large Baptist church, a church with no small group ministry. Even though Andy was in ministry, had good friends and was surrounded by Christians, he and his wife Sandra felt disconnected and wanted meaningful relationships. Together with four other couples they formed a small group to share life together. Their experience was so rich and meaningful that he made small groups the foundation of North Point, the church he launched in November of 1995.
His strategy is helpfully outlined in the book he co-authored with Bill Willits, Creating Community: 5 Keys to Building a Small Group Culture. North Point has a clear strategy for guiding visitors who come to their worship services into belonging in their small groups. They liken it to moving a guest from the foyer to the living room to the kitchen table.
In the foyer—their worship services—their goal is to change peoples’ minds about church. In the living room—affinity groups for marrieds and for singles—they aim to change peoples’ minds about community. And at the kitchen table—their small groups—they aim to change people’s minds about priorities.
One unique aspect of North Point’s strategy is how they methodicaly guide people into groups. Four times a year the church hosts “GroupLink” meetings where people are invited to meet with other people in their geographic area who are also in the same phase of life. The 2-hour meet is carefully orchestrated to introduce people to the church’s small group ministry and what it offers them, then people are introduced to people who are launching new small groups near them. Two weeks later “Starter Groups” are launched which last eight weeks and allow people to try out group life. If these groups go well, they are continued and people are invited to join them by signing a group covenant.
The church uses a strategy that has “closed groups that multiply.” When people join a group, they are committing to be together for one and half to two years. People can’t invite their friends to their small group but they are encouraged to invite their friends to the worship services of the church. The groups are expected to multiply into several groups at the end of their life cycle.
The reason why they want their groups to be closed is so that people can experience more intimacy. North Point appears to have a vibrant, growing small group ministry, so I hesitate to criticize them, but I do feel like it is very important to point out one thing. They are wrong about how to best achieve group intimacy! Dwight Marable, the director of Missions International, and I have done extensive statistical research involving thousands of small groups in hundreds of churches. Our findings show conclusively that closed groups do not experience more relational intimacy than open groups. In fact, the opposite is true. Open groups experience significantly more intimacy than closed groups.
The bottom line is that North Point has an awesome small group ministry with a compelling vision and a clear strategy. But their groups could be experiencing even more intimacy and they could have a second outreach engine besides their magnetic weekend services—if they fully harnessed the outreach potential of their small groups.
Shaping Your Own Small Group Model
Small group models are a lot like diets, I’ve concluded. Everyone is looking for the magic diet that will help them lose weight, feel great, and stay healthy for the rest of their life. Almost any diet will work in the short term but seldom does a diet bring the long-term results that you seek. To be healthy and trim takes discipline and discovering what works for you. Most likely you can’t find an easy diet solution. You are going to have to exercise, eat healthy foods and avoid lots of calories in a consistent way over a long period of time! There are no quick solutions that bring lasting results. Like the person that jumps from one diet plan to another elusively looking for the one that really works, many churches jump from one small group model to another often disappointed. If only it were as simple as reading the right book or going to a 3-day conference.
Here are my observations and cautions about any small group model:
- All models look like the ultimate model when you are reading a book or attending a conference and listening to the person that designed it!
- Understand that following innovators can be a little risky. Realize that many books outlining small group models are written very soon after the model is first envisioned. Very seldom do the books outline a model that has stood the test of time. In fact, it is common for the books to propose things that are not yet tested but are only theory at the time the book is written. (This is amazing but very true!) By the time you pick up a book and start implementing its concepts the model church may have already abandoned certain parts of the model.
- Any model will work for about 10-18 months.
- Some things that work great in the short run, actually work against long-term success. For example, there is currently a very popular trend to lower the qualifications for small group leaders in order to increase the number of groups. So churches, for example, instead of looking for called “leaders,” recruit hosts that know how to work a VCR or DVD player. This might give you a lot of bang this month, but long-term growth in small groups requires committed leaders, and a thoughtful leadership development strategy with an integrated support system.
- As helpful as small group books and conferences are, too often the fail to clearly tell you the things beyond the basics that are essential to long-term success, which are dynamic leadership meetings, quality training and proactive coaching.
What model is best for you? Or, perhaps better put, what models can your church learn the most from? Here are the questions that you might find helpful in answering that question.
- What is your ecclesiology or theology of the church? If you think “church” is a Sunday morning service and small groups are a recent strategy to improve assimilation, that will lead you to a different answer than if you think that small groups of believers meeting in homes was central to New Testament Christianity in the 1 st and 21 st centuries. What is “church”? What do you really believe?
- What is the purpose of a small group? Is it a once week meeting? Or, is it a group of believers whose share life together throughout the week?
- What happens when a small group meets? Is it a Sunday School class moved into a home? How does Christ’s life and the Holy Spirit’s direction intersect with people when they gather in Jesus’ name?
- How does your pastor or pastors relate to the small groups? Is leadership mobilization, training, and relational equipping central to the pastor’s calling, or is a pastor more of a chaplain who preaches, marries and buries.
- What about specialty groups? How do they fit into your outreach strategy and leadership support system?
What am I trying to say? Just like there is no wonder diet plan for your body, there is no quick-fix small group model for your church. You are actually going to have to think and pray!
There is a lot you can learn from other churches. But long-term success is going to take diligence, humility and seeking God. Learn from others as well as from your own mistakes. If God has put a clear vision for a thriving small group ministry in your heart, you can see it come to fruition as you persist and continue to invite his Spirit to enliven your church and penetrate your community through life-giving small groups. Realize that God wants your church to have a vibrant, growing small group system. His Spirit is available to teach and direct you and your church.