How to Start Small Groups in a Church   

By Spence Shelton

Small groups ministries aren't just thoughtlessly launched. So, here are four steps for cultivating groups at your church, from prayer to trial runs to the launch of this new discipleship opportunity.

4 Steps for Your Small Groups Roll-Out

This is a practical guide to getting small groups up and running in your local church. I was a small groups pastor for 10 years before becoming a lead pastor. And for 20 years, with a few breaks along the way, I’ve been a small group leader.  I had the joy of launching a groups ministry in the church I served in, and I got to see that ministry grow from one to several hundred before being sent out to plant a church. I’ve seen groups ministry at about every stage, and there is nothing quite like those early days of dreaming in planning mode. Whether you are a new church trying to establish a discipleship plan or you are tasked with re-engineering discipleship for an established church, I hope these few ideas from a practitioner can help you out. True to a practical guide, I’m going to lay this out in steps.

One definition might be helpful before we get started. For our sake, let’s think of a small group as a group of less than 20 people who belong to your church who are committed to growing as disciples of Jesus together for some identified period of time. (We’ll unpack that and offer more specifics as we work through our steps.)

Step 1: Clarify the why

Why do we want to start small groups in our church? The classic misstep we often make is putting energy and effort into the “what” of a new effort before clearly answering the “why.” You need to be able to put in one sentence a clear reason why you are about to undertake this effort. To help you figure this out, you may need to answer two questions:

What problem are we trying to solve through small groups?

Here’s an example: We live in a post-Christian, Bible-belt context where discipleship requires a mix of untangling Christianity from culture and introducing people to the Spirit-led life.

What will the outcome be if everything goes according to plan?

Here’s another example: Small groups will help our church make biblically formed, Spirit-led disciples in a post-Christian context.

Use these starters to help you get to your clear and compelling “why.” Until you get this, you are not ready to go any further. And let’s be clear: “This has worked in other churches” is a lazy reason—not a compelling one. Do the work of answering these questions for the people God has entrusted to you. This is your vision statement. You will need to hang onto it as you begin to build this ministry and as ideas start to come in from those involved.

Because small groups have a way of becoming the “junk drawer” for everyone else’s pet ministry ideas, be as specific as you can about what you want your groups to accomplish. For example: Are your groups more focused on equipping, spiritual discipline, care, or evangelism? If you say yes to all these ideas, then you will struggle to build a clear, compelling vision for your groups.

Step 2: Decide the form and function

With the “why” established, now it’s time to answer the “how.” This is the strategy step. How will groups accomplish the vision you have articulated? At this point, you’ll want to keep your “how” simple and clear because you won’t be able to build buy-in from others if they struggle to understand your plan. (Buy-in is Step 3). So, with your answer to the two questions in Step 1, start working to answer the following question:

Small groups will help us ______ [short form of your answers to the questions above] by ________ [actions your groups will take to get there].

Consider this example: Small groups will help us make biblically formed, Spirit-led disciples in a post-Christian context by gathering weekly in homes to study and apply Scripture. Our church will provide ongoing coaching to group leaders at a 1:3 coach to leader ratio, and we will also equip leaders through training, discipleship curriculum, and a spiritual growth plan for each year.

By filling in those blanks, you are building the bridge from vision to reality. You are helping yourself and others see how your vision will become a reality. You will no doubt have a lot of ideas at this point, so do everything you can to keep this simple. As the old leadership adage goes: Dream big, start small. The fruit of Steps 1 and 2 should be a one-page explainer you will use to build support for starting small groups in your setting.

Step 3: Build support through a trial run

Now that you have a basic plan for small group ministry, it’s time to recruit support. Take your one-pager and have conversations with the key leaders in your church, beginning with your lead pastor. If you are the lead pastor, then start with those in your church whom you know will be key in taking the next step forward.

What you’re looking for from those who may not be as bought in as you is the freedom to try a new ministry idea on a small scale. You aren’t trying to change everything in the church at this point. You are simply giving small groups a test run. Identify a handful of people most likely to get excited about groups and start your trial run with them. This may mean one group or even a handful (depending on the size of your church), and it can take anywhere from six months to a year. Too often, I see eager groups ministers try to overhaul everything at once without any proof of concept and too few people on board with the idea. Use your trial run to work the kinks out and make any changes to how groups will function best. Also, use this time to capture stories that will help prove the value of groups to those in your church who may be  more hesitant than those early adopters you started out with.

Lastly, be sure to do a lot of listening during your trial run. If someone was willing to test this out with you, ask for their input! If they feel like they’ve helped shape the ministry from the ground up, they will be far more likely to participate—and even endorse it!—when you get to the full roll out phase.

Step 4: Introduce your small group ministry to the church

Once you have some experience you can build on, it’s time to roll groups out to the church. You will need four things for a successful roll out:

Lead Pastor Support

When your proof of concept is secured, it’s time to call in whatever support you can muster from your lead pastor. Ideally, you will schedule a weekend where the pastor’s sermon touts the power of community and the application step centers on involvement in community groups. You may not get all of this, but even a short word at the start of the sermon or from the pulpit will help validate the launch of this new ministry.

Success Stories

Be ready to share, either through in-person testimony or a story captured by video, the success stories from your trial run. If people in your church see familiar faces sharing how God has used this ministry in their lives, they will be far more likely to take a next step.

Well-Trained Leaders

These may be folks from your trial run or others you’ve recruited along the way. Training leaders needs a separate article than this one, but you must train well. Quality of training matters more than quantity of leaders. For what it’s worth, good training sets expectations for leaders that are both clear and achievable.

Relational On-Ramps

How you connect people to groups matters. So, if you are going to roll out your groups ministry with a launch day and sign-ups for groups, make sure your leaders are present and ready to recruit people to their groups. Encourage your leaders to “shoulder tap” folks they know in the church and personally invite them to join them for their community group. The big idea here is that since you are inviting people into relationships, you should make the invite relational.

A word of caution: A successful groups roll-out doesn’t necessarily mean ending old programs that were trying to serve the same purpose. For example, you don’t need to end adult Sunday School in order to roll out groups. You can, but you don’t need to. A roll-out simply means you are making groups accessible to anyone who wants to jump in.

As God Leads

I hope these four steps help you get started. Once started, you’ll want to provide ongoing support to your leaders and create natural times of assessment at least once a year so that you can cultivate the ministry you put so much effort into launching. Lastly, let me say this article is more tactical in nature, but I must exhort you to cover this entire effort in prayer. Before you ever begin Step 1, take this desire to the Lord and ask His blessing on it or His caution against it. Let the Holy Spirit guide you and do not try to outrun Him.

Unless the Lord builds a house, its builders labor over it in vain. — Psalms 127:1

Published October 11, 2023

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Spence Shelton

Spence Shelton is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and earned his Masters in Divinity in Biblical Languages and Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He planted Mercy Church in 2015, where he currently serves as Lead Pastor. Spence loves being in the mountains and traveling with his wife Courtney and their four children.