Definition and Focus of Small Groups


Small groups are playing a major role in the advancement of the gospel and the spiritual formation of believers. Relationships are key in this process and are extremely difficult to form during weekly services, making small groups the ideal venue for discipleship and ministry efforts. Groups can vary in size, they can be open or closed, and they can meet at the church or off campus. The beauty of small groups is the fluidity of each group’s dynamics. Ideal groups will stay under forty people; otherwise, the group members will not be able to fully express his or her views and each member’s spiritual gifts cannot be utilized when the group gets too large. The overreaching goal of small groups is to function as the body of Christ, essentially becoming His hands and feet in various forms of ministry, by serving both the community and each other.


According to Jeffrey Arnold, “A small group is intent on participating with Christ in building His ever-expanding kingdom in the hearts of individuals, in the life of the group, and through believers, into the world.”[1] Conversely, cliques are characterized by the inward, unfocused, and random nature of undisciplined groups, which are scattered throughout the church, with no emphasis on the Bible or biblical living. Arnold then stresses the importance of small groups saying, “If we do not focus on returning to our biblical roots by building intentional community, we will miss the greatest lessons that our faith offers. As we observed with Jesus, disciples are best made in community. Unlike cliques, these communities are intentionally small, outward in focus, and intent on participating with Christ in the building of His kingdom.”[2] Over time, if small groups do not stay focused on kingdom living and godly principles, they will crystallize, making it difficult for anyone new to join the group, which ultimately turns what used to be a small group into a clique. These cliques are like cancerous cells within the church and can wreak havoc if not brought under the umbrella of God’s grace and realigned to fulfill the Great Commission by enacting the Great Commandment.


Dempsey and Earley use the acrostic G.R.O.U.P. to demonstrate the necessary components small groups must possess. Guided by a leader is the first objective as, “Everything rises and falls on leadership…[And] in order for a group to be successful, the leader of the group needs to view their role as drawing out the new creation God has in mind for every individual in the group.”[3] Regular meeting times are vital to the success of small groups and Dempsey believes, “Meeting weekly is best, so people can gather to serve and share God’s love and gifts with one another and with the world.”[4] Opening God’s Word is mandatory in small groups due to the Bible’s power to change people’s lives from the inside out (Hebrews 4:12; Romans 12:2). Dempsey illustrates, “Studying and applying the Word of God has the power to change us from what we are into what God has in mind for us.”[5] United in service is rooted in the Great Commandment (John 13:34-35). Dempsey explains, “Spiritual gifts are designed to strengthen the body of Christ and to serve the world… [And] every believer has at least one spiritual gift to build up the body of Christ and to minister and serve others.”[6] Prayer for one another is what separates a Christ-centered group from a civic club. As Jerry Falwell so brilliantly put it, “Nothing of eternal significance ever happens apart from prayer,” making this a necessary component to any successful small group ministry. In addition, as Joel Comiskey emphasizes:

To continue to lead a group, multiply that group, and care for the new leaders as a coach, you need Christ’s light and easy yoke. Avoid the common cell leader sins that will damage or even kill your ministry. Make feasible goals; use your team; discover where God’s working, and persist until you see breakthroughs. With this kind of ministry, you will be able to avoid burnout and continue a fruitful cell ministry throughout your life.[7]


Are we introducing Christian disciplines into our small groupings? This is an area many small groups fail to fully utilize because Christian disciplines are more caught than taught and small groups present the best opportunity to learn these disciplines because the members of the group typically spend more time together. If Christian disciplines are not being introduced in small group settings, this is huge missed opportunity to instill key traits in the lives of the other members. Behavior is often emulated, so there must an intentional focus on mentoring and training members of a small group in biblical disciplines.

Are our small groupings building the kingdom or hindering the kingdom? This should be the question one must answer in every form of ministry the church is involved with. If an event or ministry does not line up with the vision and mission of the church, it should not be done. With this mindset, small groups only hinder the kingdom when they crystallize and are merely cliques or when the small groups do not receive full endorsement from the lead pastor. A church of small groups or a church that is small groups will be much more impactful than a church with small groups. Small groups are essentially a mini-version of the larger body of Christ, so the vision and mission of the larger body should be portrayed in the small group DNA as well. However, as Comiskey illustrates, “Small groups and cells have become commodities in today’s church. When someone mentions a cell, what registers is a Bible study, a social gathering, a Sunday school class or anything else (small and a group). And many cell models are even adding to this thinking by liberally sprinkling the word cell over all groups in their church.”[8] This paradigm must change for biblical small groups to have the most impact in advancing the gospel.

Are we training leaders who bring Christian disciplines into small groupings? The sad reality to this question is no. Unfortunately, there are a great many opportunities being missed by not training the younger generations up and mentoring them, so they then too can mentor those who will become leaders one day in the future. Age segregated ministries is detrimental to this process, as many generations have little to no interaction. However, in the small group environment, there is an opportunity to become multi-generational and intentional in training future leaders.

 Is our entire congregation working to develop a disciplined small group mentality? If there is not congregational buy-in, especially as it pertains to developing a disciplined small group mentality, any model will ultimately fail. Churches of small groups and church who are small groups stand a better chance to develop this healthy mentality because it is a major indicator of the church’s health as well. A strong case can be made that churches with an emphasis on small groups stand a much better chance of developing a disciplined small group mentality.


Arnold presents one of the best models this writer has come across when looking at the role and dynamics of small groups, especially when one takes into consideration the 80/20 principle he highlights. In many churches, it is probably closer to 85/15, where fifteen percent of the members are doing eighty-five percent of the work, and this generally translates to giving as well. The interesting principle Arnold illustrates is, “As members of the body, we are reliant on one another and on Christ, and mutually responsible to use whatever contribution we make to grow the body into maturity.”[9] If a part of the human body is dead, it is surgically removed, but in the church, the eighty to eighty-five percent of people who sit idly by taking up passive roles are not treated like a dead or diseased appendage would be. This illustration is profound and to ultimately engage those who are not currently serving or active in the church, small groups are the answer, as long as the groups are healthy, by reaching inward, outward, and upward.

When a group reaches inward, the focus is on group care. Arnold demonstrates how, “Groups provide love and care for their members in many ways [and] a loving community offers members a positive body life experience by engaging people in the discovery of their spiritual gifts, developing the lay leadership of the church, and caring for its members.”[10] There is something so empowering about finding one’s gifting and then engaging in ministry fulfilling the role God has called the person to. However, without an environment to first define and second to refine the areas of spiritual gifting(s), many people never reach his or her full potential. In addition to equipping individuals with various giftings, the spiritual maturity of the individual is also a byproduct, which further refines his or her discipline and produces great future leaders. For large churches especially, this inward focus is vital because congregational care, unknown, and unmet needs are a daily occurrence. With a focus on small groups, this is an amazing step in making people truly feel cared for and also provides an area of ministry for other members with the gift(s) of prayer, comfort, love, and compassion.

As groups focus on reaching upward, this cultivates an attitude of nurture and worship. Nurturing allows members to not only get to know one another better, but it lays the foundation and vision for the group to help people get connected to God. Doing life together is an amazing experience and this sense of community is hardwired into humanity. God created His children with this desire to love and be loved by. As small groups develop times of fellowship and walk through trials and circumstances, opportunities to pray and grow their faith are presented. As a result of answered prayers and faith in God’s plans, thanksgiving and praise are the appropriate response. Arnold demonstrates, “When enough people in a congregation start experiencing these worship moments, the entire church begins to change. Spiritual renewal that begins in groups can begin to create revival in the larger body of Christ.”[11] However, neglecting the power of worship is one of the main reasons Dempsey and Earley cite for groups failing to reach their full potential, stressing, “Worship is a moral obligation and a natural response to the absolute worth of God. Worship completes us, is transforming, puts life back into perspective, and intensifies the presence and therefore the activity of God.”[12] Dempsey and Earley could not be more correct on the power of prayer, as they illustrate, “God often manifests His presence in proportion to our expressed recognition of our need and love for Him.”[13]

When groups begin to reach outward through acts of service and evangelism, they reach their full potential. As Arnold explains, “One of the inherent weaknesses in any small grouping of people is the natural tendency to maintain an inward focus (care), ignoring the outward focus (service and evangelism)… [making] the outward focus the most difficult group discipline to cultivate.”[14] Arnold clarifies how evangelism then leads to both spiritual and numerical growth as healthy groups work to attach people deeply to their God and show them how to minister to the world. Ultimately, as Arnold explains, “Biblical evangelism is not a program but a person-to-person process of sharing the good news about forgiveness of sin and new life in Jesus. Because small groups are likely to be the most personal setting offered by a church, they are natural places for this kind of evangelism to take place.”[15]


Leading healthy small groups is the key to building the church. Much can be learned from the early church model, as people regularly met together in each other’s homes, sharing meals together, providing the apostles and early church teachers the perfect environment to fulfill the Great Commission, by encouraging one another to live their lives with love for one another, and faith and obedience to God. The process of making disciples largely rests on making relationships a priority and this means putting the needs of others ahead of our own. This outward focus is the ultimate goal every individual and small group should be working towards in their walk with Christ.


Arnold, Jeffrey. The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Comiskey, Joel. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church. Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016.

_______. “What is a Cell Church?” (accessed June 2, 2017).

________. “What is a Cell Group?” (accessed June 2, 2017).

Earley, Dave and Rod Dempsey. Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups. Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016.

Dempsey, Rod. “What is a Group?” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. (accessed June 2, 2017).

House, Brad. Community: Taking Your Small Group Off Life Support. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2011.

[1] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dave Earley and Rod Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 31-32.

[4] Rod Dempsey, “What is a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Three Video Presentation, 7:08. (accessed June 2, 2017).

[5] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 32.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Joel Comiskey, “What is a Cell Church?” (accessed June 2, 2017).

[8] Joel Comiskey, “What is a Cell Group?” (accessed June 2, 2017).

[9] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 31.

[10] Ibid., 34.

[11] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 37.

[12] Earley and Dempsey, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 45-46.

[13] Ibid., 46.

[14] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 38.

[15] Ibid., 39.


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