Are Small Groups a Must for Church Growth?

A picture of a group of young men worshipping God in the wild
A picture of a group of young men worshipping God in the wild
By Kristina RanFebruary 16th, 2024

In 1994, Banciao Gospel Church of the Taiwan Lutheran Church began using the cell-group model, and in just nine years, the church membership had tripled. So, is the small-group model necessary for a church's development? Is the small-group model the most effective for discipleship training and evangelism in the church?

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, churches, along with society as a whole, faced the effects of an aging population and the inability to move forward because of the loss of the younger generation. As this was happening, the small-group model, which had been widely adopted overseas, caught the attention of many pastors. As a result, conventional single-assembly churches like Banciao Gospel Church tried to restructure themselves into small-group churches, and the result was indeed encouraging.

From my visits and interviews, I have concluded that there are mainly five reasons for a church to change to a small-group model: first, the lack of newcomers; second, the church consists only of consumer Christians and lacks vitality; third, the church members are distant from each other and lack commitment to the church; fourth, the difficulty in raising up new co-workers; and fifth, the continuing shrinkage of the younger generation.

In my opinion, these causes can be traced back to two core issues: the lack of connection among members and the lack of committed disciples.

Y church has attracted many young believers from outside the area, and about nine years ago, the church started small groups under its regular youth fellowship. In a recent Bible study I attended, the preacher spoke on the fellowship's annual theme, "Go the Extra Mile," based on Matthew 5. He encouraged the young people to go the extra mile in the coming year by being more forgiving, patient, humble, and merciful to others. After his sharing, the youth were divided into groups of ten to talk about how they would put the theme into practice.

I joined a group that usually has nine people. Two of them are seekers, so the others in the group pay much more attention to these two young men. The first half of their conversation revolved around what the two young men shared. In my opinion, the group serves the following purposes: it builds up the believers spiritually, as well as the relationships between the group members, and bears witness to the non-believers and draws them to the Lord; at the same time, it raises up more people to serve, as both the current and future group leaders receive leadership training in these short weekly meetings. Each group includes members of different levels of faith, and those who are more mature will care for the non-believers and seekers. Also, the pastor of the church told me that since the small groups have been established, the group members will take the initiative to seek out unchurched Christians in the community and share the gospel with their friends and family.

Is it then impossible to build a loving community and conduct discipleship training without using the small-group model? Of course not. But in my observation, there are two major shortcomings in other church models compared to healthy small-group ministries: First, only a limited number of people can be reached. One church in a southeastern coastal city has insisted on offering Bible study classes for more than ten years, but no more than ten percent of their members have attended. Second, conventional discipleship training focuses only on what is "in the books." A pastor of a successful small-group church in Wenzhou once shared that one cannot understand their church's small-group model simply by attending classes in a classroom; pastors who really want to learn must become involved in the church system by spending three months in a small group themselves. Because small groups have no more than twelve people each, they have undeniable benefits for members to get to know each other, build relationships, and express care.

A healthy small-group ministry may also answer the question above. First, a healthy small-group model does not consist of randomly formed groups, nor does it mean just meeting in small groups. It is an organic system, and small-group activities are only one part of it and must be combined with other small-group training.

Second, a healthy small-group ministry is part of a church's overall strategy and an extension of the church's overall vision. The church compiles and finalizes the teaching materials used by Y Church's small groups, and the weekly group activities revolve around specific themes. On the other hand, the leadership training system is supported by a term limit and election system; small group leaders cannot serve indefinitely, or they will lose the bind of their authority.

- Translated by Joyce Leung

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