Small Groups and Church Planting

by Jeremy Linneman July 13, 2023

In church planting contexts, community groups can be the best way to reach the unchurched, build strong community, and identify future leaders.

Over the past fifteen years, I have had the privilege of leading community groups in four new congregations, including the one I now serve as lead pastor (Trinity Community Church in Columbia, MO). As a result, I recommend a general process for planting healthy groups in a new church environment. If you are planting groups from the beginning—which I encourage—then your community groups will each serve as a microcosm of the church as a whole for the first few years.

Starting your first few community groups with strength will enable a healthy trajectory for your new congregation, while neglecting these groups can be costly to the whole church. While every context is different, I encourage some broad principles and practices.

Launching the Pilot Group

Since the first community group will be a microcosm of the church plant, it’s typically best for the lead pastor and his wife to lead the pilot group. Whether it’s located in their own home or another member’s, this is a great foundation for future groups. This pilot group can turn into a core group or launch team, and your future leaders may come from this group as well.

The lead pastor typically sets the tone and culture of the church from this early community group. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the lead pastor’s vision for the pilot group. Most church planting statistics show that people who join a new church do so for the community. Whereas a church of 200-400 will grow largely through visitors being attracted to the preaching and worship, churches under 200 tend to grow by fostering deep community through engaging small groups.1

Thus the pilot community group should get a large amount of the church planter’s best energy. This will be difficult for some. Whereas most church planters have been trained in biblical studies, preaching, leadership, and mission, few have received significant training in community groups. As a result, the typical church planter overestimates the need to teach and cast vision and underestimates the need to build relationships and deploy members for mission.

The most effective church planters I’ve witnessed typically do a few things well. They often:

  • Gather in another member’s home and train the hosts as future leaders
  • Share a meal together with the group (approximately 30-45 minutes of group time)
  • Lead a short Bible study or devotional that blends prepared teaching with well-planned questions and times of discussion (30-45 minutes)
  • Offer childcare for families with young children, perhaps using a children’s ministry curriculum
  • Prepare the group for regular growth and multiplication
  • Gather the group outside of regular meeting times for increased fellowship
  • Allow significant time for prayer weekly (15-30 minutes)


Consider meeting on Sunday evenings prior to launching your first Sunday gatherings. This will give you the opportunity to launch Sunday evening services if needed, or the community could remain a Sunday evening group if morning services are chosen. You may also want to have a musician lead a few worship songs at the beginning of the gathering time, although you’ll need to subtract this time from discussion, sharing, and prayer. In total, two hours seems to be a good maximum gathering time.

The First Multiplication

Hopefully, this pilot community group will reach new people and grow to be multiplication ready. As described in chapter three, the leader must lay out a vision for multiplication from the first gathering to increase the likelihood of a healthy new group.

Ideally, the next community group leaders after the planter’s family will have some experience leading a small group. Being the first non-pastor community group leader is a big responsibility, and many people may not want to step into this role. While you certainly want a high-character person in this role, you also want to trust God with the people he has given you.

In my opinion, the two non-negotiable things to look for in a group leader at this stage are character and relational skills. While some leadership background and theological knowledge will be helpful, those can be provided through training over time.

While the need for a character-qualified leader or couple should be obvious, we can often forget to look for strong relational skills in our leaders. Remember, your church of 20 to 40 adults will grow primarily from life-giving relationships, not vision and doctrine. Although God can anyone to build his church, it is typically wise not to entrust this particular role to individuals who lack social awareness or who aren’t relationally oriented.

As for the process of multiplication, following chapter three should help ensure a healthy new group. You don’t want to rush this first multiplication; think of it as the DNA for future multiplications and prayerfully seek to make it as healthy as possible.

Shepherding Growth in Small Groups Ministries

In leading groups and coaching numerous other pastors and leaders, I’ve noticed some common growth barriers for groups ministries. You may be familiar with growth barriers for church attendance; there are similar barriers to group ministries. I would expect to see occasional slowing of multiplication at the following points:

5-6 groups: At this stage, the lead pastor will be unable to adequately oversee each community group; it’s ideal to identify another elder or leader who can come alongside him and coach groups toward health.

10-12 groups: Here, the lead pastor will want to consider focusing his time on equipping group coaches and training leaders as a whole; at this stage, you want to consider having three to four coaches overseeing 3-4 groups each. Monthly gatherings of all the leaders together will help with vision and equipping.

25-30 groups: While not all churches will reach this number of groups, for many this will be another difficult barrier. In fact, I have talked to multiple churches over 1000 in attendance that can’t get past this number of groups despite consistent Sunday growth. At this stage, the lead pastor is typically unable to oversee the number of coaches needed, and even then, a second layer of coaches is recommended. In other words, to grow beyond 30 groups, a church will typically need a full-time groups pastor or leader, plus three or four lay elders or head coaches overseeing three or four coaches each. Here, monthly group leader gatherings are essential and a quarterly or annual new group leader training should be considered.

In general, you will want to have a coach for every three or four community groups and an elder for every 10-12 groups. Just like with multiplying, these are conversations to have long before the need is urgent.


In bringing this series to a close, I want to summarize a bit. I believe, after a decade of overseeing community groups ministries, that the thesis of my e-book is reality:

Community groups are the best place for us—as relational beings—to become mature disciples of Christ.

As I did in the first article, I’ll do again here. I want to compel you: Pour your hearts and souls into your community groups.

As a pastor or church leader, you will not regret a minute spent in prayer, reflection, or planning for your groups. If you can cultivate healthy, multiplying groups in the first five years of your church plant, you will reap decades of spiritual transformation and church health.

Let me say it again: Your investment in small groups will pay off exponentially in the souls of your people and the culture of your church.

1. For church size and growth dynamics, see Tim Keller “Leadership and Church Size Dynamics” See also Bill Easum and Bill Tenny-Trittian, Effective Staffing for Vital Churches.

*This article is Part 8 of an eight-part series on community groups and their importance that will run this summer. Read the full series here.

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