Help! My Small Groups Aren't Growing

Here is what to do when your small groups aren't growing.
Here is what to do when your small groups aren't growing. (Lightstock)

If you have managed to connect 30 percent of your adults in small groups, congratulations are in order! You are among the top half of 1 percent of all churches in America. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back. You deserve it.

Now that you've been congratulated, let's get to work. Quite a few things could contribute to your state of "stuckness." Here are the biggest factors in small groups getting stuck and what you can do to move ahead:

1. Stop handpicking leaders.

If you are still personally recruiting every leader, you have completely maxed out this method of starting groups. When our groups got stuck at New Life in Northern California, we had 30 percent in groups. I had handpicked each leader over the course of seven years. I had asked the same question for seven years: "Would you like to become a small-group leader?" For seven years, many people turned me down.

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Now, if I had 100 years to catch up with the connection needs of our growing congregation, I would have been in good shape. The problem is that well before we reached the 100-year mark, I would be dead along with most of the people who needed to be connected into groups. While I thank God for the groups I had, the recruitment strategy had to change in order to recruit more leaders more quickly. We changed it and doubled our groups in one day.

2. Consider an alignment series.

One of the fastest ways to propel your groups forward is an alignment series in which the senior pastor's weekend messages are aligned with the small-group study. You can either purchase a curriculum or create your own. Either will work. The key is to tie what's happening in the small groups with the weekend message and particularly to tie the small-group study to the senior pastor.

The first time my senior pastor stood up in a weekend service and invited our people to host groups, we doubled our groups in one day. After seven years, we had 30 percent in groups. After one weekend, we jumped to 60 percent in groups.

Other than Jesus, the reason unconnected people attend your church is because of your senior pastor. They like his personality. They laugh at his jokes. They enjoy his teaching. (Don't mention this to your worship pastor. It will break his heart.)

When the senior pastor offers curriculum based on his teaching, you are giving your people more of what they already like—your pastor's teaching. Then, when the pastor invites the people to host a group, they will follow his leadership. Once my pastor started recruiting from the platform, I never handpicked another group leader.

3. Start your coaching structure.

Many churches have given up on small-group coaches. Even very large churches that are well-known for their small-group ministries have abandoned coaching or use paid staff to coach. This is a mistake. First, most churches could never afford to hire all the staff they need. Second, if you are not personally caring for your leaders, your leaders will eventually stop leading. I was able to coach my leaders up to about 30 percent connected into groups, but to be honest, I didn't do it very well.

When we doubled our groups in a day, I was in a coaching crisis. Then it dawned on me—since we doubled, that meant half of the small-group leaders didn't know what they were doing, but the other half did. I matched them up like the buddy system, then I built the rest of the coaching structure on that.

4. Leave established groups alone.

Here is what I didn't do: I didn't invite my established small-group leaders to do the new series. I didn't ask my established small-group leaders to change anything. In fact, I didn't even tell them. Why? I already had them. They didn't need to change. They just needed to continue. Many of the established small groups did participate in the alignment series, but I never asked them to. They asked me!

If you only have 30 percent of your adults in groups, it's time to make a change. Change the strategies of how you recruit small-group leaders and make huge progress right where you are.  

Allen White has been a pastor for the last 25 years. White consults and speaks in the areas of small-group strategy, staffing structure, volunteer mobilization and spiritual formation. He blogs at

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