4 characteristics of healthy small groups

Most pastors believe small groups are vital to the life of the church. But it is also one of the most difficult areas to build into a thriving ministry. There are many variables to consider and they are constantly changing.

  • Small group leaders are all different with a variety of leadership styles (some good and some…...)
  • A group that is too small doesn’t fully accomplish its mission of Christian community. But a group that gets too big loses the critical intimacy that makes small groups so effective in discipleship.
  • It can be difficult to control and monitor every small group. Giving groups autonomy is good but pastors don’t want cults starting under their watch (OK, that’s a bit hyperbolic).

The list of reasons goes on and on. There is no right way to do small group ministry. Every church has a different culture (geographically, socioeconomically, racially, etc.) and different styles will work better in different cultures. Leadership teams need to do some research and be in prayer to understand what best fits their congregation. But regardless of what format a church uses, there are universal characteristics that should exist in successful groups.

Here are 4 characteristics of a healthy small group ministry.

Relationships are real

God created His people to live in community. The need for relationships is core to humanity’s DNA. A small group where its members have real and authentic relationships becomes a haven and castle. Acts 2:42-47 is lived out and it’s beautiful. Believers with this type of group rarely fall away because the body of Christ regularly strengthens them and picks them up when they are weak.

Discipleship is deep

Community and real relationships can’t be the only hallmark of small group ministry. For believers it must center around Jesus. If it doesn’t and members aren’t being discipled, it’s not much different than humanist/secular churches, which is a real thing by the way (Sunday Assembly looks like a hip modern church...minus God). For believers, there needs to be a deeper purpose in gathering together. It must be deep, transformative discipleship (Proverbs 27:17).

Structure is sustainable

It’s sad to see a small group of believers, who are devoted to each other and to the Lord, grow to a place where they lose the ability to maintain strong relationships and discipleship. This happens when:

  • There isn’t a plan to train and raise up more small group leaders.
  • Groups take the approach of “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” to the problem of growing too large to have intimate relationships and deep discipleship.
  • Small group leaders refuse to split the group and it becomes stagnant.

Ministry leaders must have a plan in place to keep a healthy small group structure sustainable, and they must commit to this plan.

Prayer is prioritized

Prayer is often overlooked in every area of ministry and small groups are no exception. But small groups are ultimately about transformation (through discipleship and relationships) and the power to do this only comes from the Lord. Believers, whether individually or in groups, approach and commune with God through prayer. So if a small group wants to see the Lord move in mighty ways (2 Chronicles 7:14), they must make prayer a priority when they gather.

There are other characteristics of healthy groups but these four are a good place to start when you examine the health of your church’s small group ministry. The vast majority of churches that have small groups struggle to grow and maintain this ministry. If I can serve your church in this area, please contact me.

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
— Matthew 18:20 (NIV)