12 Big Ideas about Small Groups

Book Review

Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups



Rethinking Small Group Methodology


Big Idea #1Think from the Inside Out not from the Outside In


Small groups that focus on serving their own members rather than reaching out to others quickly become inwardly focused and stagnant.


Key thought:

-The most powerful potential for your small group ministry lies in the ability to move people from the Crowd to the Congregation. (Warren’s funnel: community – crowd – congregation – committed – core).  Most churches get caught up in the congregation level for small groups.  Big mistake!


Big Number vs. Little Number

-Little number is the avg. weekend attendance over the past 3 months.  The little number is your ‘congregation’.  Big Number is the number of individual people who have attended your church over the same 3 month period.  The Big number is your ‘crowd’.  A healthy small group system targets the big number.  By targeting your big number you can consistently have more than 100% of your average Sunday attendance in groups.


The small group system should be designed for those not yet assimilated.  Find out what their needs are.  Set up the system so it focuses on getting new people to sign up.  Keep your thinking in the outer 2 circles.



Big Idea #2 Think Larger … Not Smaller


-Groups with 7 or fewer members are difficult to lead and more likely to fail….groups of 12-15 are more effective at fostering both healthy relationships and spiritual growth.


-Most people: feel more comfortable in a larger group, more likely to sign up for larger group, stay plugged into larger groups longer, form deeper connections and grow spiritually in larger groups.


-Allow 15-20 people to sign up for each group…..not everyone shows up.


-Fewer people means more work for leader…more of a teacher than facilitator.


-Larger groups minimize the ‘weirdo’ factor


-Consider groups with less than 8 people to be in the danger zone.



Big Idea #3Think Friends ….. Not Intimacy


-Small groups are a place where new friendships are formed.


-Stop promising that groups will be places where people will find deep, meaningful, intimate relationships.


-Small groups are more social spaces of belonging…..not personal or intimate spaces (Myers – 4 spaces of belonging).  Social spaces are still very important and necessary in everyone’s life…our culture lacks social space…the church lacks social space….it is within social space where people find a few relationships that become ‘personal’ and even ‘intimate’.  The lack of social space leads people to look to unsafe places to find personal and intimate relationships.


-We have undersold the value and importance of basic friendships and social relationships to overall spiritual health and we have oversold the importance of personal and intimate relationships and have tried to force our small group members into such relationships.


-People do not get personal or intimate in groups of 8-15 people….we socialize in groups of 8-15 people.  Social relationships form best in groups.


-In a group larger than five, it is impossible for every person to become intimate or even personal, even if you try to force the group to stay together for years.


-Groups help us form personal and intimate relationships by providing a safe space within the group where we make friends who could then become more intimate friends outside of the group.


-Groups should be a safe, comfortable, stress-free place where individuals have the opportunity to meet new people, make new friends, learn something new and grow spiritually within a social context.



                -Have specific beginning and end dates for groups

-Let your group leaders know what a group ‘win’ is….not supposed to make everyone best friends….if the Bible is being applied to the lives of the group and people are praying together then the group is winning.

                -promote groups as social space



 Rethinking Small Group Structure



Big Idea #4Think Short-Term …. Not Long-Term


-The ideal length for a small group is 10-12 weeks!


-When you realize the goal of the group is not to catalyze intimate relationships, you find the freedom to structure them more effectively.


-Follow our culture’s learning style….we are defined by our education….we grow most effectively in a semester based system.


-Putting time boundaries on groups will facilitate more sign-ups…..committing to something that has no end in sight is intimidating, unnatural, and unrealistic….most men won’t do this.

-focus your efforts on how to get a man to sign-up…..if you get the man you will more than likely get the woman.


-People grow best over short periods of time (stress)….then they need to rest (release)…after the period of rest they can grow again (stress) and the growth cycle continues.  Use semester based systems of learning!


-Other advantages to semester based system: allows for frequent entry points, more group options, matches academic calendar year, clear end dates, easier for people to commit.


-Long term groups lead to leader burnout and group stagnation.  People don’t grow if they are not stepping out of their comfort zone and exposing themselves to new people and new ideas.


-Groups can stay together from semester to semester as long as they open themselves up at the end of each semester and allow for exit and entry.  People are more willing to try other groups in a semester format because they can always return to the previous group.  Having an exit allows people to try other groups with interesting topics and then return later.



Big Idea #5Think Promotion Months Not Ongoing Sign-Ups


-A shorter, focused sign up period increases small group participation and excitement.


-New people never have to wait long to get in a group with a semester format.  New people are more willing to try something that is just starting than to jump into something that is already in motion.


-New people will never have to wait more than 6 weeks to get in a group with a semester format…sign up periods will kick in a month before the next semester starts and entry points will remain available 2-3 weeks into the start of each semester.


-The average unchurched guy is never thinking “I need to get into a small group.”  They only know what you tell them…..create an eagerness and anticipation in new people for the next semester to come.



Big Idea #6Think Church of Small Groups not with Small Groups


-Small groups are exponentially more effective when they stand alone rather than having to compete with other church programs.


-Only your most dedicated members will even try to fit in more than one activity outside of the Sunday service.


-When there are other things competing with small groups, people will typically choose the path of least resistance and say no to groups.  What do you want to value?


-Too many options spreads out involvement causing your momentum to decrease in any one area.


-Is there anything we are doing to prevent us from getting 100% group participation?


 Rethinking Small Group Strategy

Big Idea #7Think Easy … Not Hard


-One-step signups will greatly increase the number of people who decide to join a group.


-Easy makes us happy.


-Easy in / easy out


-Create a catalog…sign up on card, online, or at table but all 3 require one step.


-Use the power of positive peer pressure….have everyone that has signed up for a group raise their hand a few weeks out….those that have not signed up want to be a part of the majority, good commitment exercise for those who have signed up.



Big Idea #8Think Ahead ….not Behind


-Group life needs to be planned 3-4 months ahead of time for them to be successful.  You need a system.



Big Idea #9Think Full Staff Participation…..not a Staff Specialist


Every person on staff needs to have a part in small groups especially the lead pastor.


-What the lead pastor and staff values, the church body will value.


-Every staff person should keep their ‘group radar’ sharp making a habit of connecting people into groups and constantly encouraging new people to sign up for a group.


-Use the power of story frequently on weekend services


-A groups pastor shoulders the bulk of the work but every staff member needs to commit 10-20% of their time to group life.


 Rethinking Small Group Leadership



Big Idea #10Think Apprentice….. Not Expert


-Serving as an apprentice in a group will prepare potential leaders to lead a small group on their own, regardless of how long they have been a Christian or what their level of training or expertise.


-We need to loosen the reigns a little bit and trust people to lead.  Paul’s example to plant churches and leave them in the hands of new believers can be an example for us.


-The best way to raise new leaders is through organic apprenticeship not with heavy training or leadership development programs.  Jesus and Paul both taught us to follow their examples….we are to teach apprentices to follow their leaders examples.

                -I do and you watch.

                -I do and you help.

                -You do and I help.

                -You do and I applaud.


-Tips: let leaders know that groups are discussion based, not lecture based; approve solid curriculum; it’s ok to not know the answers; not an expert just a facilitator.



Big Idea #11Think Decentralization … not Staff Control


-Groups multiply faster and healthier when God with your volunteer leaders and trust your volunteer leaders with your people.


-Believe in Matt. 18:20…where 2 or more are gathered I am  there…..give up control.


-Tips: let leaders choose curriculum, they will be more inspired; greater diversity of topics leads to more people signing up; people grow more when they are studying something they are interested in; get more men to sign up when there is more diversity.


-Do a churchwide campaign 1 semester and leave groups on their own for other 2 semesters.



Big Idea #12Think Leader Multiplication….Not Group Multiplication


-Through the semester based system and the practice of apprenticing, you can multiply groups naturally by multiplying leaders.


-Semesters allow you to multiply leaders on a regular schedule and it makes people comfortable joining and changing groups.


-Instead of forcing group multiplication in the name of growth, each semester runs its course and new leaders are identified for the next round from the existing naturally ending groups.  You will automatically have groups growing out of each other because you are identifying new leaders in every group every semester.


-In a semester format with a clear start and end date, people do not feel like the rug is being pulled out from under them when it is time for the group to stop.  They are excited for the next semester when they can sign up for another group that interests them, fits their schedule, or has a leader they would like to study with.



  1. […] Approach to Small Groups’ by Nelson Searcy.  Here is a link to my notes on the book’s Big Ideas…..in many ways this book was putting into words many of my thoughts and experiences that have […]

  2. My Pastor referred me to this material because I am over the small group leaders in our church. This is excellent material and easy to understand. I hope that we as a church will be able to implement these ideas this fall. Thank you for sharing

  3. These ideas are so very practical and user friendly. The structural ideas really challenge traditional church structure but in a very xonstructive way (church of small groups vs church with small groups). It is also wise to to use cultural norms to our advantage rather than work against them. Thanks for sharing these great ideas. We will try to implement them in our church.

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