Building Leaders and a Church - One Group at a Time

Last Updated Saturday, June 6, 2015
By Rev. Nathan Stanton

The early Methodist movement was a movement of small groups. John Wesley would not spend time on people if they would not meet in the class meeting:

May 26, 1759...”I found the little society which I had joined here two years since had soon split in pieces. In the afternoon I met several of the members of the praying societies: and showed them what Christian fellowship was, and what need they had of it. About forty of them met me on Sunday the 27th, in Mr. Gillies’s Kirk, immediately after Evening Service. I left them determined to meet Mr. Gillies weekly, at the same time and place. If this be done, I shall try to see Glasgow again: If not, I can employ my time better.” – Wesley’s Works Vol. 2, pg. 482.
The New Testament talks about small groups in the life of the church:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. – Acts 2:42
When we planted The Water’s Edge UMC, we embraced the biblical and Wesleyan vision to be a church of small groups. We regularly teach that the weekly small group gathering is just as important as the weekly worship experiences. All our staff and leadership team are required to lead or be in a small group. We currently have about 45 small groups who gather weekly to connect, pray, learn, grow, and experience God. The small groups are the biggest strength of The Water’s Edge and where much of the life change and community happens.

A growing, vital small group ministry provides many blessings for a church and its participants.

Benefits of Being a Church of Small Groups

  1. Not everybody experiences God in the same way. Worship is the best venue for many people. Serving is the best environment for others. Small group participation is the most effective environment for some people to experience God.
  2. Not everybody learns in the same way. Small group participation supplements and compliments the worship experience and gives an additional learning opportunity.
  3. Small groups are a solid assimilation/integration plan. Friendships are difficult to form in worship and even before and after worship. Friendships are natural and easy to form in small groups.
  4. Leaders are developed in small groups and small group participants demonstrate a high level of ownership in the church.
  5. Some of the best care happens in small groups.
  6. Small groups provide excellent opportunities for service and mission both within the church and in the community.
  7. People experience prayer and learn how to pray in small groups.
  8. Small groups are an incredible opportunity for people to invite their friends and co-workers. They give the church an additional growth engine.
  9. Small groups are a great way to communicate with the congregation.
  10. Small groups help churches live out the Biblical and Wesleyan vision for the church.

 Things To Know Before Becoming a Church of Small Groups

  1. The pastor has to be active in a small group and the primary supporter, advocate and champion of a small group movement.
  2. Somebody (preferably a team of people) other than the pastor has to coordinate and organize the small groups, coach the small group leaders, and be the primary resource for the small groups.
  3. You can only have as many healthy small groups as you have effective small group leaders.
  4. Small group ministry will always need to be a primary emphasis of the church. Small groups always need attention. They can’t be ignored.
  5. People are going to join small groups at defined times. We do September and January as the two times we emphasize joining a small group.
  6. Small groups work exceptionally well when the entire church studies the same curriculum together and is supported by Sunday morning worship.
  7. Not everybody is going to join a small group for various reasons and that’s fine. But most people who end up trying a small group love it and continue.
  8. The small group doesn’t have to meet all year. Most of our groups meet weekly from September to May with breaks over the holidays.
  9. You won’t have a group for everybody right away. We started with one group. Today we have 45 groups and still aren’t meeting all the needs.
  10. Meeting in people’s homes is inviting, a witness to the community and provides good flexibility for child care.

 Learnings We Have Discovered – The Great, The Good and The Ugly

  1. Small groups create community quickly and with great depth. Even though we are a new congregation and a fairly large congregation — most of our people have very close friends and a good social network in the church.
  2. The small group movement grows and flourishes when we promote it in worship through videos, interviews, testimonies and sermon illustrations. When we have been passive and relaxed in promoting small groups we have received very little response.
  3. Some of our best stories in the first five years of The Water’s Edge have happened in and because of small groups.
  4. It is difficult, but not impossible, to assimilate new people into existing small groups. Starting new small groups is the best way to include new people.
  5. Elevate the role of small group leader within the life of the church. Let people know this is one of the most important roles in the church.
  6. Don’t split-up small groups. Ask for new leaders out of existing groups to serve as entrepreneurs and create their own groups —maybe with another person or couple.
  7. Don’t try to grow too fast, too soon. Set up small group leaders and small groups for success.
  8. Define expectations among participants early and often.
  9. No small group is led by a single person and no small group leader should serve alone.
  10. Train and provide coaching for small group leaders.

 An Example of Living Out the Gospel in a Small Group

  1. The group has good discussions. The group listens to each other and learns from each other. The facilitator asks good questions and is inclusive.
  2. The group prays for and with each other. During the gathering and during the week. People learn how to pray in the small group and are inspired to pray because of the small group.
  3. Somebody in the group follows up with those who miss a week or two – making sure the person/couple are doing well, receiving prayer requests, and praying together.
  4. The group provides care for people in the group going through a difficult time.
  5. The group invites new people to join their group if the group still has room for growth. If the group is full, the group prays about and plants a new small group with one or two people/couples serving as apostles.
  6. The group serves together in the church or in the community (preferably both!) at least two times per year. Hopefully more.
  7. The group plays together at least two times per year. Hopefully more.
  8. If the people in the group have children, the group helps each other raise each others' kids.
  9. Groups will do what they can do to help the church grow into its vision.
  10. Groups will provide leaders to serve the church.
You can see the potential and power of being a church of small groups. If you are interested in learning more about how we recruit and train leaders, our training and coaching materials, and the resources we use, email

The Rev. Nathan Stanton is coordinator of New Church Development for the Great Plains Conference. Contact him at

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