I’ve written about the powerful benefits of a thriving small group ministry and the five easily overlooked secrets to building a thriving small group ministry.  But it turns out I’ve never written a how to guide.

What follows is my best shot at a step-by-step guide to building a thriving small group ministry. And this is very important, this is not a quick fix to your small group ministry woes! Following these steps will help you build a thriving small group ministry, but it will take time and energy and focus. If you apply yourself, you can do it!


Begin with the end in mind.  The first step is an ambitious one. But it's one you must take at the very beginning if you want to arrive most efficiently at the right destination. If you think about it, who really wants to get miles down the road and then realize you are on the wrong road heading to the wrong destination?

How do you ensure that you are headed toward the right destination? I call this the preferred future conversation. If you follow my blog you've read this term many times. I come back to this conversation over and over because it's like the Cheshire Cat said to Alice in Wonderland, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there."

cone_slide8If we were sitting together at a Starbucks I'd pull out my notebook and pen and begin to draw out this simple diagram I have drawn several thousand times in countless conversations.

I'd start by drawing the "present" and explaining how important it is to diagnose where you truly are (in the sense of the current state of your small group ministry). That is really the second step (and we'll talk about that in a moment).

Next, I'd draw the "probable" future and the "possible" future. These are important...but not what we need to talk about today.

Finally, I'd draw the "preferred" future (which is what we need to talk about today).

Okay, so what is the preferred future? In the sense of building a thriving small group ministry, describing the preferred future means beginning to think about and write down the things that must be true about your ideal small group ministry in the future. That is, when you think about your small group ministry 10 years from now (or 20 years from now), what will it look like?

Let me give you a few examples from my own preferred future for our small group ministry:


Diagnose the present with uncompromising honesty.  Like the first step, the second step is an ambitious one. But it's one you must take early on if you want to arrive most efficiently at the right destination.

You Are Here

Think of this step in the way you do locating the "you are here" mark on the directions map at an unfamiliar mall or attraction. It's the moment when you think, "Okay...there's Macy's and there's Sears. Alrighty then! I am here!"

Determining where you are at the mall is important because it helps you figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to go (i.e. "I'm standing in front of Starbucks. I need to walk toward Macy's on the second level and the pet store should be on the left.").

Trying to figure out how to get to the pet store is one thing. If you get turned around, it's not the end of the world. You just come back to the directions map and try again. order to get to the preferred future you've identified you must have a clear understanding of where you actually are (i.e., "This is what is true about our present situation.").

How to Begin Diagnosing Your Present

When you're beginning to think about your present (the present state of your small group ministry), I always start by gathering some important facts. For example:

  • Figure out your percentage connected. Determine the number of adults who are active members of a small group. Determine the average adult weekend worship attendance at your church. Divide your active group membership by your average adult weekend worship attendance.
  • For extra credit, figure out your true percentage connected by doing the above calculation using your Easter or Christmas Eve adult attendance instead of your average adult attendance).
  • Figure out how many of your group leaders have an authentic mentoring relationship with a coach (and by contrast, how many of your leaders do not have a mentoring relationship with a coach).
  • Spend some time thinking about the small group leaders in your ministry. Are they doing the right things TO and FOR their members? Or are they really just going through the motions? Do they simply convene their group on a regular basis and lead an engaging discussion? Or are they truly caring for their members?
  • What is happening in the lives of the members of your groups? Are they becoming better disciples? Or are they simply becoming better acquainted?

Add More Detail to Your Diagnosis

There are, of course, many other things that will contribute to your understanding of where you are right now. For example, when you think about the present you must think about the complexity of your church's menu. Do you only offer off-campus small groups? Or are there 3 or 4 (or 15!) other options? The bottom-line question is, "How difficult is it for an unconnected adult to figure out their next step?"

Now give some thought to communication in your church. Is it easy to find information? Or difficult? When I look at your website, can I see clearly how to join a small group? Can I determine what is most important? What about your bulletin? How about the way announcements are handled? And how often are small groups mentioned in your pastor's weekend message?

In reality, these are just the basic elements that must be examined. There are actually many more rocks that could be turned over (i.e., your budget and staffing for small group ministry, your senior pastor's support and buy-in, the buy-in of key ministry leaders and staff, etc.).


Think steps, not programs.  When you’re building a thriving small group ministry, one of the most important things to do is design easy, obvious and strategic steps that lead to the preferred future and only to the preferred future. I picked up this practice from The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry by Andy Stanley and Reggie Joiner (a book that everyone ought to read).

Think steps, not programs is simple and at the same time extremely powerful.  Stanley illustrated the concept in a staff meeting at North Point by taking a stack of construction paper and saying something like, “Let’s say you wanted to get from the door of this conference room to the seat at the very back.  If I took this stack of paper and threw it up in the air, allowing the individual sheets to scatter all around the room and then told you that you had to step from one piece of construction paper to another to get from here to there…you might be able to do it, but your steps would take you all around the room.  Some of them would require you to hop pretty far.  You might have to backtrack.  It wouldn’t be a simple process.”

With me so far?  Can you see it? Stanley continued, “But, if I took this stack of construction paper and carefully laid the sheets out so that the path led directly from the doorway to the seat in the back, and if I laid them close enough together to make it easy to step from one to another…you could all do it.”

He went on to say: steps need to be easy (you need to be able to make it from one sheet to the next), obvious (you need to be able to see which one to take next) and strategic (they need to lead right to the goal).

Think Steps, Not Programs

This concept comes into play when we design our small group ministry strategy.  For example, one of the toughest things for anyone to do is go from the familiarity and anonymity of a worship center to the up-close-and-personal living room of a stranger.  But that’s what happens when we say to people, “It’s easy to find a group at our church.  You just go on the small group finder, choose a group, and show up at a stranger’s house!”

Thinking steps, not programs would steer you towards thinking differently.  You’d begin thinking things like, “What if we had an on-campus event designed to help people go from the familiarity and anonymity of the worship center to a mid-size gathering and helped them become part of a group?”  By the way, that’s what a small group connection is designed to do.  That’s what North Point’s group link concept is designed to do.  Take people from a foyer type event (a worship service) into a living room type event (a small group connection) into a kitchen experience (a small group).

Note: This doesn’t mean there won’t be a need for a small group finder or that there’d never be times when the Host strategy makes a lot of sense.  It just means that we all need to think about and design in the steps that will help people move to where they really need to be.


Narrow the focus (to eliminate all but the best steps).  There is no room for turning a blind eye to the inadequacies of yesterday’s solutions.

One of the most important strategic decisions a church can make is to narrow the focus, a concept that is explained very well in the 7 Practices of an Effective Church.  Essentially, to narrow the focus is to concentrate on one thing (or a very few things) in an effort to conceive, develop and promote the opportunity that will have the greatest impact.

Narrowing the focus is an easy concept to understand…and a great challenge for churches to pull off.  What makes it so hard is that one of the Top 10 Fantasies of Churches with Groups is that “it is enough to promote small groups once a year, annually every fall, along with everything else that’s starting up with the new ministry season.” As you can see, there are two parts to this fantasy.  First, that promoting small groups once a year will actually get the job done and second, that you can promote small groups along with everything else that’s starting up for the new ministry year.

I want to concentrate on the second part of the fantasy and suggest that if you want to become a church of groups…you must narrow the focus to only promote the opportunity to host a group (for the weeks that you are recruiting hosts) or join a group (for the weeks that you are encouraging everyone to be in a group.  And to clarify, I’m really only talking about what you’re highlighting.  You might have other opportunities mentioned in the bulletin or on the website…but even there it would be clear what the big thing is.

Only Promote One Thing at a Time

I want you to be sure and catch what I just pointed out.  In fact, go back and read the previous paragraph.  Notice that you start by only promoting the opportunity to host.  You’re not talking about hosting (or leading) OR joining a group.  Once you begin talking about joining, you’ve recruited your last host.  Few, if any, sign up to host a group if you give them the chance to simply be a member.  Now back to the point.

The Real World

I want you to stop there and think about your church.  How likely is it that on the weeks you’re doing those things (recruiting hosts or recruiting members) that those are the only things you’re doing?  That those are the only things you’re promoting?

See the problem?  If you’re launching a church-wide campaign or ramping up for a small group connection, you will have the greatest impact if you are narrowing the focus to only promote those opportunities.  If you are also promoting the Beth Moore Bible study and the Men’s Fraternity along with the season opener of DivorceCare, GriefShare, Celebrate Recovery, Bible Study Fellowship and Community Bible Study…you’re going to have real trouble getting traction in any of those efforts.  Most importantly, you’re not setting up a scenario that leads to a church of groups.  By promoting everything, by promoting a buffet, you’re making it more difficult for your congregation to say “yes” to a group.

If you want to build a thriving small group ministry, you’ll need to narrow the focus (at least when you’re in launch mode) and really highlight grouplife opportunities.  Once the launch is secure you can begin to promote other opportunities.

See also, Small Group Roadblock #2: A Bloated Belong and Become Menu.


Clarify what you will call a win.  According to Peter Drucker, very few things are as important as determining what you will call success.

How do you know you’re succeeding at what you do?  If we were baseball players…it’d be easy.  At the end of the game we’d see who had the most runs on the scoreboard.  Would hits matter?  Yes.  Would RBIs matter?  Yes.  What about our pitcher’s ERA?  Yes.  But would they themselves be a win?  No.  At the end of the game only one thing really matters.  Do you have more runs than the other team.

How does that relate to group life? Well…unless you’ve declared what a win is, you might be measuring (or celebrating) the wrong things.  Need a for instance?  What if you’re calling a certain percentage of your weekend adult attendance a win?  For example, you’ve got 300 adults in your average weekend worship and you’ve got 200 adults in a group of some kind.  Does that feel like a win?  Is that a win?  Might be…but also might be an instance of a high LOB (Left On Base) percentage.  What makes the difference?  What you’re going to call a win.

Here’s what I mean.  If you’re only looking for a certain percentage of adults in groups (which might be where you start), then it could be that you call this a win.  At the same time, you may get to the point where a win is not the number of groups or the percentage of adults in them but is actually something a little tougher to measure.  For example, a win might become a certain percentage of groups that are finding a way to serve together in their group.  Here are some other possibilities:

  • In the last 6 months 50 different people took a turn facilitating your 20 groups.
  • 40% of our group members are neighbors and friends.
  • 25% of our groups members are having lunch on a weekly basis with non-christian friends.
  • 30% of our groups are planning to take a six-week vacation during our upcoming church-wide study and instead of meeting host new groups.
  • 80% of our groups have taken the Purpose Driven Health Assessment and chosen a curriculum that will help them take a next growth step based on what they discovered.

The key to determining whether you’re winning or losing is to do the hard work of figuring out what really matters.  You may be at the place where you will be thrilled by connecting a higher percentage of your adults in groups.  That’s okay.  You may be at a place where you really want to begin looking for more, all in the interest of exposing your congregation to the activities and practices that are most likely to build authentic Christ followers.  Wherever you land the hard work is worth it.  Don’t miss that.  And don’t settle for high on-base percentages when scoring runs is the point.

Need more on the idea?  The 7 Practices of Effective Ministry by Andy Stanley and Reggie Joiner is fabulous on this concept.  I highly recommend this book.


Choose an appropriate small group system, model or strategy.  This is a critical decision.  An honest diagnosis of the current state of your church, coupled with clarity about what you hope to produce in the lives of group members, should inform your decision about the small group system that will get you where you want to go.  The most common cause of small group ministry failure to thrive is choosing an inadequate model.

When you choose a small group model, system or strategy there are several things you ought to know. Need to know, really. The model you choose should be based on an informed choice. One of the worst things you can do is flip abruptly or frequently between models.

Here are 5 Things You Need to Know:

  1. There is no problem-free small group model. Every model comes with a set of problems. Wise leaders simply choose the set of problems they would rather have.
  2. The to-do list that come with the model you choose. In addition to a set of problems, every model comes with a list of activities that must be accomplished in order for the model to work effectively. For example, most Semester models necessitate confirming the availability of every leader and the study they will be doing for the upcoming semester. Sermon-Based models require a quality study to be written every week and distributed to group leaders.
  3. What your model will make simple and ordinary. One advantage of a model is that it makes complex things simple. Another advantage is that the right model makes extraordinary things ordinary.
  4. What your model will make more difficult. A slightly different issue, every model makes a small set of things more difficult (when compared to another model). For example, the Free Market model can make finding new leaders more difficult (when compared to other models). The Meta Church model rarely births new groups fast enough to absorb unconnected people in a growing church.
  5. What your model won’t do. Don’t miss this. Every small group model has limitations (i.e., things it won’t do). For example, apprenticing new leaders takes time and the Cell Church model won’t reproduce leaders faster when the need is greater.


Allocate resources sufficient to the task.  Choosing a preferred future is one thing.  Allocating finite resources to get to the preferred future is what demonstrates conviction.  In order to build a thriving small group ministry you must allocate resources sufficient to the task.

  • That almost always means you are going to need to make changes to the budget.
  • It probably means you’re going to need to REallocate your existing budget.  After all, most of us are not in a position to add significantly to the existing budget without subtracting from some other budget.
  • You’re going to need to reallocate sufficient high-capacity volunteers. While every ministry needs high-capacity volunteers, some may actually be in the wrong seat on the right bus (for example, the right person to serve as a coach may be too busy because they are already serving as a greeter or even leading the greeter team).
  • You’re going to need to reallocate the events and ministries that are promoted in the weekend service.
  • You’re going to need to reallocate the space on your website.

I like what Carl George said about this very topic.  “Leaders allocate the finite resources of the organization to the critical growth path.”  See also, Budgeting for the Preferred Future.


Keep one eye on the preferred future. Building a thriving small group ministry is not a sprint. It is a marathon. It is not something you do in 12 months. It is something you do in 12 years.

Staying the course; becoming better and better at building next steps that are easy, obvious and strategic; learning the very best way to connect unconnected people into groups that make disciples is an epic adventure. It is a journey worth taking.

Maintaining focus on the end in mind, using preferred future language to cast vision for the promised land is a non-negotiable. It will be tempting all along the way to settle for something less than a thriving small group ministry. Only by rehearsing again and again what it will be like will the steadfast pursuit continue.

  • Make a poster out of the description of your preferred future (see Step One for ideas).
  • Change your email signature to reflect your preferred future.
  • Create a systematic way of evaluating your ETA at your preferred future (for example, take a snapshot on November 1st and May 1st).

See also, Wash, Rinse, Repeat and the Long Run.


Keep the other eye on the very next milestone. Milestones that are clearly visible in the near future enable your team to stay focused and encouraged. The near future is usually 6 to 12 months away. If your next milestone is further away than 12 months, it may be that there is a closer milestone that could be a step in the right direction.

Milestones can be quantitative (a number of groups or a percentage connected statistic). Milestones can also be qualitative with a little effort (capturing life-change stories or monitoring feedback cards). The objectives that must be accomplished to reach the next milestone are the kind of things that keep teams focused.

"What gets measured gets done" is a well worn true truth of business and life. If you are not tracking progress on a regular basis you can hardly expect to stay on course and stay the course.

  • Everyone on the team should know what the next milestone is and it should be on the tip of their tongue (i.e., "We're sustaining 7 out of every 10 new groups we form in September into their second study together").
  • Review progress on a regular basis. There are almost always signposts along the way that indicate you are still moving in the right direction (for example, if your next milestone is to distribute 35 host kits to people who want to do the study with a couple friends by September 18th, monitoring weekly progress in August and September would be appropriate).

See also, Are We There Yet? Milestones that Lead to the Preferred Future.


Celebration is expected. A culture of celebration is a must have. You're working hard. Your team is working hard. Arriving at any preferred future worth the journey is never something that happens in a single effort. It always happens over multiple years. Staying the course over multiple years requires celebration along the way. All along the way.

What will you celebrate? Celebrate milestones reached and wins experienced. The path from present to preferred future should be paved with periodic milestones. Arriving at every milestone should lead to an appropriate celebration. Some milestones will be celebrated by you and your team. Other milestones will call for a celebration that includes all of your coaches or all of your leaders.

How should you celebrate? The celebrations you plan should fit the sweat and strain that produced the win. Make sure that what you plan feels like it actually honors the effort and commitment that led to attaining the milestone. And by the way, you may need to add celebration to your budget!

A few details to remember:

  1. Use celebration to reinforce shared values. Constantly ask yourself, "What values do we hold dear, what visions do we aspire to realize, and what behaviors do we want to reinforce."
  2. Build community into every celebration. Whatever you do, whatever milestone you are celebrating, don't forget to build community into what you are doing.
  3. Make it memorable. There should be nothing humdrum about a celebration. It shouldn't be hokey but it doesn't need to cost a lot of money. What makes a memory? Experiences that will one day be told as story. Stories will be remembered.
  4. Let it come from your heart. Whether you're planning a celebration or having a celebration, words of recognition must come from the heart of a credible person. The more your team knows your passion for the shared values, visions, and behaviors you want to reinforce, the more they will appreciate the celebration.

Ready to get started?  I’ve included enough right here to get you moving in the right direction.  Need more help?  Take a look at Design, Build and Sustain a Thriving Small Group Ministry (my four session short course).  It may be just the thing to help you on your way to building a thriving small group ministry.

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