Small Group Training Guide


The future of the local church will largely depend on the successful development of a small group ministry, especially since small groups are vital to both growth and discipleship, on the part of the believer, and the church as a whole. According to Rod Dempsey, “Churches that are not functioning in this manner run the risk of becoming inward in their focus”[1] and inward-focused groups die. Additionally, as Phil Zambaro explains, “Loneliness is the most devastating illness of our day [and] I know of no more potent killer than isolation. There is [also] no more destructive influence on the physical and mental health than isolation… [Because,] our hunger for relationships is an identifying mark of our humanity.”[2] This need for relationships and connectivity makes the role of small groups a fundamental part of any successful church. As a result, this Small Group Training Manual will first define small groups, by illustrating their biblical foundation and by providing the necessary motivations for developing them. Once a clear understanding of a small group’s influence, vision, and mission are formulated, this manual will then address how to grow and multiply small groups, how to develop group leaders, and lastly how to transition from a “with,” model to a “of,” or “is” model using the “S.M.A.L.L. G.R.O.U.P.S.” acrostic.


Dempsey explains, “The church has a head; the head of the church is Jesus. The church also has members that need to be connected to the head and connected to each other.”[3] Small groups provide the conduit to satisfy all these needs and they also allow for the opportunity of spending time with one another because there is a huge commitment needed to growing and sacrificing as a disciple of Christ. Jesus, Himself said, “Take up your cross,”(Matthew 16:24) illustrating the necessity of commitment and doing life together in small groups. Additionally, the relational aspect of following Christ means followers should join together as brothers and sisters in an attitude of love for one another. This was the identifying mark Jesus said would reveal His true disciples; by the love he or she showed the world (Matthew 22:36-40). Dempsey also points out, “The process must be intentional, individual, and missional in focus, as small groups have the potential to provide and create a perfect environment and context to develop people for God’s kingdom and for God’s glory.”[4]

One’s primary reason for wanting to develop small group ministry must be rooted in love and a desire to fulfill the commandments of the Lord. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ. Dempsey and Earley further explain the importance of, “Loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor [because these] are universal principles. They will work anywhere, at any time, and in any political situation. The key to your success is to begin practicing the principles behind the commands Jesus gave us. Live your life purposefully for God and lead by example.”[5] Another important reason for developing small groups is found in the principle of multiplication. Dempsey and Earley illustrate the strongest churches in the world have tens of thousands of members in thousands of small groups. As humans, and with finite minds, it can oftentimes be hard to fathom the omnipotence of God and His marvelous plan of salvation and redemption. As a result, when most churches are planning areas of ministry, the addition of believers is used as the primary litmus test for success; however, God, as Dempsey and Earley convey, “Has given us an exponential plan to reach the world. The question is… are you following an addition or a multiplication plan? Why should you lead a group? That is easy: to follow His command to make disciples of all the nations.”[6] A final reason for forming small groups lies in the desire for community. As Jeffrey Arnold explains, “Jesus Christ is our first and greatest model for how small groups can stimulate faith and growth in others… [Ultimately,] disciples are made intentionally, disciples are made to be like Christ, and disciples are made in relationships”[7] and there is no better place for these to occur than in a community made up of small groups.


At the heart of the Great Commission is the commandment to make disciples and this instruction is why Bill Hull emphasizes, “The small group is the most strategic training environment used by Christ to make the kind of disciples that glorify God.”[8] Small groups are vital to the future success of the local church and as a small group leader, he or she is essentially engaging in the same ministry Christ Himself was committed to. Small groups have the potential to change lives and there are multiple breakthroughs that will happen in small groups, that rarely happen within the four walls of the church, as Chuck Swindoll illuminates, “[In small groups,] fences come down, masks come off, welcome signs are hung outside the door, keys to the doors of our lives are duplicated and distributed, and joys and sorrows are shared.”[9]

While the Great Commission is a wonderful representation of what God calls every believer to do as followers of Christ, the sad reality is many so-called followers of Christ have reduced the Great Commission to nothing more than the great suggestion. However, this command from God points to the small groups as being the perfect environment to develop and train disciples. The early church is a prime example of doing life together. In Acts, chapters one and two, specifically (Acts 2:41-47,) the reader becomes aware of the DNA of early small group ministry. These home churches met together, studied the apostles’ teaching, shared meals together, met each other’s needs, prayed together, had favor with the local people, and went everywhere proclaiming the good news of the gospel. These early churches understood the importance of every person having a role to play in the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23; 1 Corinthians 12:21) and the necessity of serving one another. The final passage that illustrates the role of small groups is (Ephesians 4:16.) Here, Paul explains how some followers of Christ are: apostles, prophets, shepherds, teachers, or evangelists, but how each of their primary duties is to train and equip God’s people for the work of the church. The ultimate goal is for believers to grow into the fullness of Christ, as each member of the body contributes to this growth, but it is small groups, which provide the optimal context and environment for this process to take place.

In the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), Dempsey demonstrates, “Jesus took 619 rabbinical laws and pharisaical practices and reduced them down to two simple principles: Love God and love your neighbor.”[10] Jesus Himself was a small group leader, so Dempsey and Earley raise a very relevant question: “If Jesus, the Son of God, chose to strategically minister to a small group, how much more should you and I?”[11] Jeff Tunnell then illustrates, “By sorting out one’s biblical values, [this] will lead to principles and conducts that glorify God and His ways, which ultimately make the gospel irresistible to some and repulsive to others.”[12] By using the Bible as authority, prayer as a means, dependency upon God as one’s posture, and love as the primary motive, Tunnell reveals multiple principles that are consistent with the truth of the gospel. As a result of embodying and devoting oneself to this truth, Tunnell shows followers were devoted to: “following the apostles’ teaching, fostering unity, sharing meals, practicing prayer, corporate worship, celebrating communion, living in community, and sharing generously, [resulting in,] salvations and favor with all the people.”[13]

Hospitality was one of the major things Jesus was known for; in fact, He set the standard. Jesus is repeatedly seen dining and visiting with outcasts. Joel Comiskey explains, “Most of the ancient world regarded hospitality as a moral practice… [And,] eating together in the household was one of the primary ways to share life together as well as to welcome strangers and those outside the household. Most would agree that sharing a meal is the second most intimate encounter one can engage in outside of the bedroom, which is why sharing meals together is such an important principle for small groups. When Jesus chose to send His disciples out in pairs, this approach showed He knew it was not good to be alone, especially in ministry. Comiskey explains when the disciples entered a home, “They were supposed to convert the members of that particular household, and reach the other homes from a base location – rather than witnessing from house-to-house (Luke 10:7). Remaining in a house only makes sense if, beyond the initial proclamation of the kingdom message, the messengers stayed on to further nurture and establish a faith community.”[14] This strategy led to entire households and villages being converted to Christ and new home churches being formed and by modeling this same strategy, small groups meeting in homes are having great success today.


Dempsey and Earley use the acrostic S.M.A.L.L. G.R.O.U.P.S. to demonstrate the necessary components small groups must possess. Seek God’s vision and direction from His Word,[15] (Acts 1:8; 2:32-47; Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28) which allows the group’s foundation to be set on solid ground. Make sure the lead pastor is in the lead position.[16] Without the senior pastor’s full backing, it will be very difficult for small groups to reach their full potential. Adopt a model that fits who and where you are, as long you are emphasizing: winning people to Christ, helping them grow in Christ, and then sending them out for Christ.[17] Leadership training and recruitment[18] because as Jerry Falwell asserts, “Everything rises and falls on leadership,” so this component is vital to the future success of any small group. “Launch the new groups, [while also] providing the leaders with additional training to stay focused and to improve the quality of discipleship.”[19] After careful prayer, planning, and training it is time to launch new groups and according to Dempsey, the best time to do this is after Labor Day, when children are back in school and people are settling into their new schedules and routines.[20]

Two G.R.O.U.P.(S.) acrostics are presented in forming and maintaining small groups. Guided by a leader is the first objective, since, “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.”[21] 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.”[22] 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.”[23] 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.”[24] 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.

Dempsey’s second G.R.O.U.P.S. acrostic entails:

Grow the groups in quantity and quality, paying special attention to new groups. Retrain the leaders to retrain the leaders, through personal mentoring and coaching and reward the right behavior. Over communicate, to make sure the small group leaders are getting enough information from the leaders in ministry. Utilize and develop a coaching structure, (Exodus 18) so the groups stay on target with the vision and mission of the church. Pray, because as Comiskey discovered, prayer was the common denominator in multiplying groups where leaders of the groups prayed at least one hour a day. See God’s blessing as new disciples are being made and remember small groups provide the best place to make disciples, because Christianity is more caught than taught.[25]


According to Dempsey, “Leaders are grown in small groups, most successful churches have an emphasis on small groups, and small groups are a true representation of the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23).”[26] Dempsey and Earley provide eight habits, which will enhance the effectiveness of small group leaders and will, “Create a path that leads to fruitfulness, and multiplication, helping leaders, and those under them, experience greater fulfillment in ministry.”[27] They are as follows:

(1) Dream of leading a healthy, growing, multiplying group. (2) Pray for your group members daily. (3) Invite new people to visit your group weekly. (4) Contact your group members regularly. (5) Prepare for your group meetings. (6) Mentor an apprentice leader. (7) Plan group fellowship activities. (8) Be committed to your own personal growth.

In developing leaders, there is much that can be learned from the early church model and several strategies can be implemented today. For example, by using Rod Dempsey 4 M’s model: “Model it, by being the paradigm; Mentor it and never do anything alone in ministry; Motivate it by personally giving encouragement to people; and Multiply your ministry by handing it off to others so they can have ownership and run with it.”[28] Leaders must realize Satan works in isolation, but God works in community, so find a Paul who can be a mentor; find a Timothy, someone to disciple; and find a Barnabas someone to be an encourager.


As Dempsey asserts, “Anyone who knows Christ can be a leader, since being a leader is all about influence.”[29] Within the framework of small groups, Dempsey and Dave Earley identify three key leadership positions. The first is the small group leader who, “Understands their job is to serve and empower [the attendees] to ‘be all they can be’ for Christ. The small group leader [also] selects the curriculum, finds a good location to meet, and chooses an apprentice who will be trained to start a new group.”[30] The second leadership position in a small group is the apprentice who is basically a small group leader in training, with the goal of leading his or her own small group within several months. The apprentice is involved with all areas of planning and leadership, to provide the best chance for success when facilitating his or her own small group. The third leadership position in a small group is the host, who are primarily responsible for making attendees feel welcome. Dempsey and Earley illustrate hosts are, “Vital to making the small group experience a good one for everyone who comes to their home and [when these three positions are] involved in the planning, preparation, and execution of small groups, the groups have a much better chance for healthy growth and multiplication.”[31]

Leadership was paramount in the house church and much can be learned in the way Jesus first trained His disciples, who would become the first small group leaders. Comiskey illustrates, “Because of the growth of the early church, the need for leadership expanded rapidly… and the early apostles provided the overarching leadership, but depended on the house church leaders to shepherd and care for the rest of God’s church. As in the case of Acts 6, leaders who had proven themselves were chosen to care for the needs of the Grecian Jewish widows, and oversee the distribution of food. In many cases, the individual who opened up their home would assume the leadership role and Comiskey attributes Paul’s use of the oikos structure as the perfect environment to develop leaders naturally.[32] In all small groups, Paul taught on the importance of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and develop leadership. Comiskey agrees and explains how, “The early church believed that the Spirit was given to all believers and was actively working through each member.”[33] Interestingly, it would be in the early church that women found themselves on equal footing with men and on numerous occasions presented in the New Testament, women were actually presented as being significant leaders.[34]

Leadership roles in the early church differ from today, in the sense that in the New Testament, there were no bishops-pastor-elder hierarchy and Comiskey explains these terms were actually interchangeable for the same role. Over the years, one of the unfortunate errors is how elders have been transliterated as overseers, instead of being translated as workers of the church. While the early church met primarily in homes, sometimes those individual entities would gather together for larger meetings. Throughout the New Testament, ecclesia was used to refer to the house church gatherings, the larger gatherings, and the universal church, Ultimately, as Comiskey illustrates, “Churches must determine if they are going to view the cell group as the church and the primary care structure for members, or just another program to keep people coming back to the Sunday gathering. If the church chooses to prioritize cell ministry, those cells and cell leaders need to be equipped, coached, and cared for in a cell structure that includes training, coaching, and celebrating together.”[35]

In addition to the three leadership positions, Dempsey and Earley cite three components/streams that when employed combine to form one powerful, moving force. The first is the biblical stream, made up of the qualities found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, which relate to the leader’s values and being blameless. This “Means that he [or she] does not have any major spiritual area that could come into question or attack from the enemy.”[36] The second component is the spiritual stream, which is rooted in an understanding and execution of the first stream. This stream is composed of: prayer, spiritual gifts, fruit of the Spirit, armor of God, and Spirit of God. Dempsey and Earley explain, “Many leaders are one the front lines of the battle, but they may not be aware of the [spiritual] weapons and armor that they have as soldiers of the King. Another challenge is that many leaders may be aware of the tools they have at their disposal, but they may not be skilled in using the spiritual arsenal.”[37] The third component is the practical stream, which as Dempsey and Earley demonstrate allows, “The small group leader to receive a vision from God and communicate it clearly to the people entrusted to his or her care.” This stream is made up of: planning, organizing, communicating, training, mentoring, multiplying and vision casting.


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. Arnold illustrates, “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.”[38] 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.”[39] 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.”[40] 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.”[41] 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.”[42]


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.”[43] 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.”[44]


Dempsey provides eleven suggestions for churches trying to develop or transition to being a church “of” or that “is” small groups: First, the leaders must search the Scriptures and come up with a group philosophy rooted in the Great Commission and Great Commandment to make disciples, to gather together and study the Word, and to meet each others needs and the needs of others. The group must also focus on equipping the saints and growing up to be like Christ. Second, the group must make sure the senior pastor and leadership team share the same vision as the group. This is vital because if the group is not contributing to the vision and mission of the church, they are not truly a part of the church. Third, the group must adopt a model that fits who they are and this is done by engaging the culture, while also maintaining the principles of loving God, one another, and neighbors. Fourth, there must be continual leader training and each person in the group should be mentoring someone else how to do their job, so when the time comes for the group to split, there will people ready to assume leadership roles. Fifth, the group is ready to launch, so times, places, and curriculum must all be in place. Sixth, is growing the group by praying, inviting people and having good quality, which will ultimately lead to quantity. Seventh, is rewarding the right behavior by exhorting and pointing out when people are doing the right thing or go above and beyond expectations. Eighth, is over communicating because as Rick Warren says, “People are down on what they are not up on,” so small groups must continually communicate the why, the how, and the next steps. Ninth, is utilizing coaching structures and a great model to use is the 5X5 model, which spreads the load out amongst directors, overseers, and groups. Trying to do everything alone will always lead to burnout or moral failure, so making sure you have a strong team is vital to the success of small groups because groups are only as strong as their weakest link. Tenth, is pray before, during, and after all small groups because the enemy does not want small groups to thrive because individuals are most vulnerable when they are in isolation. Eleventh, is to see God’s glory. The Great Commission’s command is to make disciples and the one promise we find is when we are in the business of making disciples in small groups, Jesus promises to be there with us.[45]


This small group-training manual has shown the need for relationships and connectivity in the disciple making process, which makes the role of small groups a fundamental part of any successful church. By illustrating small group’s biblical foundation and by providing the necessary motivations for developing them, this manual can be utilized to become a church “of” small groups or a church that “is” small groups. With a clear understanding of a small group’s influence, vision, and mission being formulated, this manual has shown how to grow and multiply small groups and also how to recruit and develop group leaders.


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.

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

Dempsey, Rod. “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. (accessed June 5, 2017).

________. “How to Transition to a Small Group System.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 8:17. (accessed June 29, 2017).

________. “Small Group Outreach/Mission.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six Video Presentation, 6:36. (accessed June 22, 2017).

________. “Transitioning to Small Groups.” DSMN 630, Course Content, Lecture Notes, Week Six: 1-3.

________. “Why Lead a Group.” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

Donahue, Bill and Russ Robinson. Building a Church of Small Groups. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

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

Hull, Bill. Jesus Christ Disciple Maker. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984.

Reeves, Josh. “10 Simple Ways to be Missional in Your City.” May 26, 2017. (accessed June 22, 2017).

_________. “25 Simple Ways to be Missional in Your Neighborhood.” May 26, 2017. (accessed June 20, 2017).

Swindoll, Chuck. Dropping Your Guard. Waco, TX: Word Incorporated, 1983.

Tunnell, Jeff. “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles.” Joel Comiskey Group Website, (accessed May 22, 2017).

[1] Rod Dempsey and Dave Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2016), 2.

[2] Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson, Building a Church of Small Groups (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 24.

[3] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 2.

[4] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

[5] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[6] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 10.

[7] Jeffrey Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups. Rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 18, 23-24.

[8] Bill Hull, Jesus Christ Disciple Maker (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1984), 235.

[9] Chuck Swindoll, Dropping Your Guard (Waco, TX: Word Incorporated, 1983), 22.

[10] Rod Dempsey, “Biblical Foundations,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Two Video Presentation, 7:58. (accessed May 22, 2017).

[11] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 26.

[12] Jeff Tunnell, “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles,” Joel Comiskey Group Website, (accessed May 22, 2017).

[13] Tunnell, “Biblical Values and Time-tested Principles.”

[14] Joel Comiskey. Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church: New Testament Insights for the 21st Century Church (Moreno Valley, CA: CCS Publishing, 2016), 82.

[15] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 1.

[16] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 182.

[17] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2.

[18] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 183.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2.

[21] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 31-32.

[22] 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).

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

[24] Ibid., 33.

[25] Rod Dempsey, “Transitioning to Small Groups,” DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Six: 2-3.

[26] Rod Dempsey, “Why Lead a Group,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week One Video Presentation, 9:33. (accessed May 15, 2017).

[27] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 115.

[28] Rod Dempsey, “Group Multiplication,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Seven Video Presentation, 5:57. (accessed June 25, 2017).

[29] Rod Dempsey, “How to Develop Leaders,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Four Video Presentation, 6:35. (accessed June 5, 2017).

[30] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 66.

[31] Ibid., 67.

[32] Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, 121.

[33] Ibid., 126.

[34] Priscilla Romans 16:3; Mary 16:6; Junias 16:12; Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis 16:12; Julia 16:15

[35] Comiskey, Biblical Foundations for the Cell-Based Church, 185.

[36] Dempsey and Earley, Leading Healthy Growing Multiplying Small Groups, 69.

[37] Ibid., 70.

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

[39] Ibid., 34.

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

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

[42] Ibid., 46.

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

[44] Arnold, The Big Book on Small Groups, 39.

[45] Rod Dempsey, “How to Transition to a Small Group System,” Filmed [2013], Liberty University Website, DSMN 630, Course Content, Week Eight Video Presentation, 8:17. (accessed June 29, 2017).


Case Study for Growing Churches in America


Measuring growth and success in churches is not something new, but given the major shift currently taking place in Christianity’s center, moving from America to nations like: Africa, South America, and parts of Asia, there has been a special emphasis on what is working and what is not working in churches in the United States. Additionally, as Joe Carter illustrates, “Mainliners may try to comfort themselves by claiming that every denomination is in decline, but it is simply not true. While conservative churches are not growing as quickly as they once were, mainline churches are on a path toward extinction. The mainline churches are finding that as they move further away from biblical Christianity, the closer they get to their inevitable demise.”[1] Growth and success can be misleading words, so a proper definition must be established for both. In many cases, growth is assigned to the numerical attendance, while success points more towards community impact, spiritual formation/development, and reproducing disciples. For the purposes of this case study, three of the top five churches, when looking at numerical growth will be evaluated, compared, and contrasted.[2] By looking at the vision and mission of each church, core doctrines, and values, special areas of ministry will be highlighted and gauged to see if one’s numerical growth is representative of their success.


Gateway Fellowship Church, in San Antonio, Texas is the fastest numerical growing church in the United States with an average attendance of 2,332 people, up 187% over the previous year. Virtually doubling in size over the course of a year is not the norm, but Gateway’s senior pastor; John Van Pay attributes this growth to their passion for discipleship. Van Pay says, “We follow a simple process of discipleship, in which friends are encouraged to belong to a small group so they can grow and be sent to start new small groups where disciples are made.”[3] Small group ministry appears to be the primary focus of Gateway Fellowship Church because small groups present the best environment to form friendships, spiritual formation, and reproducing disciples. At the core of Gateway’s vision is love because, “Love finds a need and meets it.” Other areas to serve center around meeting the needs of: single parents, first responders, the poor and elderly, inner-city ministries, and orphan/foster care programs.

Gateway’s website is very well organized, especially for the first time visitor. In addition to stating their doctrine of faith, their core values center on being: “Spiritually Engaged by Walking With Jesus, Having Passionate Purpose, Through the Making of Disciples, and Being Relationally Connected by Resolving Conflict Biblically.”[4] Getting people plugged into ministry, meeting the needs of others, and serving are the driving forces of their marketing efforts and this is likely one of the primary reasons for their tremendous growth.

Red Rocks Church, in Littleton, Colorado ranks fourth in terms of numerical growth. Current attendance is 9,624, up 26% over last year. Founded in 2005, senior pastor Shawn Johnson credits the church’s growth to, “Pursuing God, Making Him Known, Living in Gospel-Centered Community, Serving with Purpose, and Multiplying Disciples.”[5] What makes this church stand out from any other was their choice to use a run-down theme park to plant the church. Pastor Johnson gives God the complete glory for, “Turning this remote and awkward location into a place where people are able to pray, sacrifice, serve, give, and go for the sake of making heaven more crowded.”

Red Rocks Church, “Exists to make Heaven more crowded.”[6] Getting people plugged in and involved in ministry seems to be the primary focus and intent of the website. Their motto is: “One church, with four ways to get involved: Group Life, Sports, Care, and Serving. Pastor Johnson says, ‘Authenticity and transparency are vital for forming relationships and making the Word of God come alive.’”[7] This mindset is not the norm in many churches or pulpits, but this writer believes it is vital for the congregation to know they are not alone in their struggles, trials, and temptations.

Church of the Highlands, in Birmingham, Alabama is the fifth fastest growing church in America, with attendance of 38,346, up 24% over last year, making them the second largest church in America. Pastor Chris Hodges explains, “Our story begins with the dream of planting a church with a simple goal: ‘help people connect with God in a church without letting structure and programs get in the way.’”[8] The main focus of Church of the Highlands is: “Relevant teaching, heartfelt worship, honest friendships, constant prayer, and compassionate care for others. These focuses help Church of the Highlands line up every ministry with the vision and mission, to make sure all efforts maximize people in becoming fully devoted followers of Christ.

Church of the Highland’s website is easy to navigate and despite the large size of the church and multiple campuses, it was not overwhelming finding a growth track or area of ministry/fellowship to get plugged into. Pastor Hodges, “Co-founded ARC (Association of Related Churches) in 2001, which has launched hundreds of churches all across the USA. He also founded a coaching network called GROW, which trains and resources pastors to help them break barriers and reach their growth potential. Hodges is also the founder and President of the Highlands College, a ministry training school that trains and launches students into full-time ministry careers.”[9] These endeavors, coupled with the Highland’s Growth Track, “Guides you to discover your redemptive purpose and live the life God created for you. The Growth Track is made up of four steps that equip you to 1) connect to the church, 2) discover the strengths of your purposeful design, 3) develop your personal leadership, and 4) use your God-given gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.”[10] In addition to the great growth track, Highland’s Small Groups have one, simple purpose: “To bring people together. We believe God created us to live in relationship with others and only then can we live the full life He intends for us. Sharing life through community is part of our design, but meaningful relationships are not always easy to find. That is why small groups exist—to make these life-changing relationships relevant and accessible to you.”[11] Training, equipping, and empowering their members to do the work of the church is one of the primary reasons for this church’s numerical growth and spiritual health and vitality. The one area that really stood out, when looking through the website was not only their commitment to those who called Highlands their home church, but also to pastors and leaders in other churches, who are looking for resources and/or training.[12] In a climate of church versus church or denomination versus denomination, it was truly refreshing to see a body of believers committed to fulfilling the Great Commission, in partnership with other churches.


It was very enlightening looking at the various similarities and differences among some of the fastest growing churches in America. While numerical growth was the determining factor used in the survey, it seems evident the spiritual formation and discipleship for all churches cited are on point with their numerical growth. In recent years, there has been a much-needed shift from focusing on church membership to getting people plugged into ministry and serving. When this occurs, there is a transformation that happens in the life of the believer as he or she taps into their God-given potential. There also seems to be a common thread in all of these churches using small group ministry as the primary place where discipleship, spiritual formation, and relationships are formed. These three areas are vital when assessing the health of a church and also contribute to the spiritual/numerical growth of the church. Each of the churches cited above also offer Española as a ministry and service offered, which is something many new churches have identified as an important outreach. Ultimately, understanding the demographics in one’s area is critical when determining what areas of ministry will be offered. In addition, each of the churches had a clear vision and mission and every area of ministry offered either supported or helped achieve the specific vision or mission. Much of the ministries listed were laity led, which is another trend in many churches and points back to equipping the body of the church to do the work of the church. The sad reality is twenty percent of most church attenders are doing eighty percent of the work, and without a paradigm shift, many leaders and volunteers will burnout because others either refuse or feel ill-equipped to serve. In each of the growing churches, the growth track helped identify the areas of service people were suited for and serving was made a priority for all churches listed. The problem many churches face is how to get the remaining eighty percent of seat warmers to become actively engaged in serving in some form of ministry. For churches that have been around for over five to ten years, this is an ever-increasing dilemma, but one that must be addressed if growth is going to occur. It is all about getting the right people on the bus and in the right seat, and sometimes that means there are people that need to get off the bus because he or she is limiting progress and growth.


As Ed Stetzer demonstrates, “Growing churches are showing a great commitment to multiplying themselves, as we see in the development of multiple campuses, and this commitment to multiplication often creates a need for sacrifice. Sacrifice is inherent to the experience of every growing believer—and every growing church.”[13] Sacrifice is also needed for church growth and kingdom growth and churches that understand this principle are poised for God to do great things in and through their congregation. It is sad to say many congregations have the mindset that everything should be about them, while the exact opposite is true. Every service and every ministry must be geared towards the first time visitor and to the people who are not yet serving. The missing catalyst to growth in many churches is helping people discover and refine their areas of spiritual gifting and then plugging them into ministry where he or she can reach their God-given potential in advancing the kingdom of God. This assignment is something every church leader should research and then determine if the vision and mission of their church lines up with the various forms of ministry and fellowship being offered. For some, it will be a wake-up call, while for others, it will help refine and correctly target where God is leading them.


Carter, Joe. “Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?” March 17, 2015. (accessed June 8, 2015).

Christianity Today Website. “Trends Among Growing Churches.” September 24, 2013 (accessed June 8, 2017).

Church of the Highlands Website. (accessed June 8, 2017).

Gateway Fellowship Church Website. (accessed June 7, 2017).

Outreach Magazine Website. (accessed June 7, 2017).

Red Rocks Church Website. (accessed June 8, 2017).

[1] Joe Carter, “Are All Christian Denominations in Decline?” March 17, 2015. (accessed June 8, 2015).

[2] Outreach Magazine Website, (accessed June 7, 2017).

[3] Outreach Magazine Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[4] Gateway Fellowship Church Website, (accessed June 7, 2017).

[5] Outreach Magazine Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[6] Red Rocks Church Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[7] Red Rocks Church Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[8] Outreach Magazine Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[9] Church of the Highlands Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[10] Church of the Highlands Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[11] Church of the Highlands Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[12] Church of the Highlands Website, (accessed June 8, 2017).

[13] Christianity Today Website, “Trends Among Growing Churches,” September 24, 2013 (accessed June 8, 2017).