We’re sometimes afraid of systems in the world because we feel community is supposed to happen organically, not through an organized scheme.
But at its core, a system is simply a way to help people know what to do next and how to do it. If groups are our primary path to multiplying disciples, then our people need a good system to know what they are and how to do them.
We have a lot of group structures to choose from, but there is not one system that fits all. Every church has to do the work of discovering who her people are and what her vision and mission is and then choosing and tweaking a system that works best within that ethos.
There is also no perfect system. Each one will have pros and cons that need to be weighed. Here are six of the most popular groups systems and pros and cons for each one.
1. OPEN GROUPS
An open groups system will primarily offer groups that are open to adding new people throughout the life of the groups. This structure works especially well for on-campus groups in a more traditional Sunday School-type model.
Pros: Open groups give the opportunity for group members to be missional in their circles of influence. They are encouraged to invite friends and neighbors to join their groups at any time. Open groups also give new church attendees a place to connect immediately. Their first visit on a Sunday can include a small group Bible study experience.
Cons: It can be more difficult for groups to achieve accountability and vulnerability if new members are constantly being added. Also, it can be hard for new members to feel comfortable in an existing group if they don’t already have relationships there.
2. CLOSED GROUPS
A closed groups system will primarily offer groups that, after an initial sign-up period, are closed throughout the life of the groups. This structure works especially well in off-campus home groups.
Pros: Closed groups can achieve community and accountability faster than open groups. Without the possibility of new people coming in, group members can be more open with their lives.
Cons: If closed groups stay together longer than two years without multiplying or adding new people, they can become stale and possibly toxic. They will start having the same conversations around the same subjects, and spiritual growth may be stunted as a result.
3. MISSIONAL GROUPS
A missional groups system will encourage church members to gather their group from the community in which they live.
Pros: Missional groups are naturally evangelistic in form. Instead of relying on the church to fill their groups with attenders, leaders are trained to see their community as a mission field.
Some missional group leaders will move to a location specifically to form a group there.
Cons: It can be much harder to launch and maintain a missional group. The bar for leadership has to be higher because the group is truly a microcosm of the church. Also, it’s more difficult to help new attenders join a missional group unless they already live in a community with an existing one.
4. DISCIPLESHIP-INTENSIVE GROUPS
A discipleship-intensive groups system primarily offers smaller gatherings of three or four same-sex groups for deeper discipleship, conversations and accountability. These groups are sometimes referred to as “D-Groups.”
Pros: Larger small groups of eight to twelve people are perfect for community but are not always the best for accountability and discipleship conversations, especially if they are mixed gender. We all need this level of community with a few others to help us go deeper in our walk with God.
Cons: Not everyone in the church is ready for this type of group. If you are reaching outsiders on the weekend, they need somewhere less intrusive to test the community waters before they dive into an intensive discipleship group.
5. FREE MARKET GROUPS
A free market groups system offers attenders the opportunity to form groups around something they are passionate about or are already doing with a group of people. For example, a group of men who already get together to ride bikes on the weekends can be a free market group.
Pros: Groups are much easier to form. People who are already doing life together can add some “God time” to help members grow spiritually through relationships. Also, invites to join a group are more natural than asking someone to go to a home for a Bible study.
Cons: While community is easily achieved in a free market group, discipleship may not be.
6. ONLINE GROUPS
Before the current COVID-19 crisis, few churches offered the opportunity to attend small groups exclusively online. Now, most churches have some type of online group experience.
Pros: Joining and attending an online group is a much lower bar to reach. An invitation to an online group is as simple as sending a Zoom invite. Most churches have reported higher group attendance rates since going online.
Cons: As easy as it is to join an online group, it’s also just as easy to disappear from one. Accountability is more difficult to achieve in a virtual-only format. A consistent Bible study will not in and of itself disciple someone, but it will help group members look to the Bible for answers to life’s questions instead of just each other.
Those are six of the most popular groups systems available, but your system may eventually offer groups from different categories. It’s most important to know why you offer the types of groups that you do so you can cast a consistent vision for why people should lead and join them.
Chris Surratt (@ChrisSurratt) is the discipleship and small groups specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources, a ministry consultant and coach with more than twenty years of experience, and the author of Leading Small Groups: How to Gather, Launch, Lead, and Multiply Your Small Group.