Small Groups Are Hard—and So Worth It

by Jeremy Linneman May 25, 2023

I’ve been on a long journey with community groups and have arrived at a strong conviction:

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

I have spent fifteen years leading and hosting community groups, including seven years of serving as a community pastor at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky and now five-plus years as the lead pastor of Trinity Community Church in Columbia, Missouri. I’ve been to numerous small group conferences, listened to podcasts and interviews, and at one point, gathered a few interns to read and summarize every single book on small groups ever written. (Don’t be impressed: It’s only about 40 books.) After all this, I am more convinced than ever of this truth:

There is simply no substitute for people to grow in Christ-likeness together than the trenches of a local church’s small groups.

But consider your own experience: Perhaps my statement rings a bit hollow for you. How many community groups have you been a part of that were truly life-giving? How many times have you left thinking, “I am so blessed to have these people in my life”? Many of us have been in different forms of small groups and Bible studies throughout life, and if we’re honest, we have walked away more acquainted with their challenges than their life-changing power.

Why are Community Groups So Hard?

Community groups are hard. Let me count the ways:

1. COMPLEXITY: People are complex, of course, so it’s not surprising that organizing and leading a small group of people could pose some difficulty.

2. PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS: Most believers have participated in some type of small group—whether in the church, at school, or in the marketplace—and bring some preconceived notions of how the group should operate.

3. HIGH STAKES: The stakes are even higher for new church plants. If groups are going well, the church is almost sure to succeed; if your groups are struggling, then the church will likely fail to thrive.

4. CATCH-ALL MENTALITY: In most young churches, community groups expand to become a “catch all” for everything the church wants to do—discipleship, leader development, counseling, theological growth, and local mission. Doing just one is hard enough! Doing them all is a prescription for overwhelmed leaders.

5. BURN-OUT: When leaders are also hosting the group in their homes, the commitment also includes hospitality and possibly meal preparation. Thus, the burnout rate of leaders is understandably higher than other volunteer ministries.

6. MULTIPLICATION: Even when a group is successful and grows to the capacity of the host home, a new challenge emerges: How do we multiply this group without damaging the types of relationships we’ve spent months encouraging, stewarding, and loving?

7. NEW RESPONSIBILITIES: Similarly, when a church grows to about five to eight community groups, the lead pastor can no longer adequately provide oversight of each group, so another layer of leadership must be introduced, typically pulling some of the best group leaders out of their role into a new responsibility—leading leaders.

8. LACK OF TRAINING: Pastors are typically ill-equipped in small group ministry. Despite the high prevalence of groups across American churches, pastors can spend years in seminary and not hear a single lecture—let alone a whole course—on small groups.

Finally, with the blessings of growth come a new set of questions:

  • Should we pay for childcare so parents can attend?
  • Should we do sermon discussion or develop content?
  • How do we integrate mercy and local mission into our groups?
  • How much should groups provide for benevolence needs in their midst?
  • How do we respond to chronically absent members?
  • When do we hire “a groups guy”?
  • What do we do with teenagers?

This list isn’t exhaustive, but we have enough complications to make the point: Community is messy.

Are Community Groups Worth It?

The challenges raise a logical question: Are community groups still worth it today? Discouragement around community groups is common.

Although I can’t authenticate the original use, Tim Keller has reportedly said: “Small groups don’t work at all, and we’re totally committed to them!”

That’s exactly how I feel. Despite the challenges, I believe, now more than ever, that the thesis that I wrote several years ago in Life-Giving Groups: How to Grow Healthy, Multiplying Community Groups.

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

Over a series of articles, I want to call you to a biblical view of community and to refresh your vision for discipleship in groups. I want to plead with pastors, leaders, and ordinary believers: Pour your hearts and souls into your community groups.

If you are a pastor: You will not regret a minute spent in prayer, reflection, or planning for your groups. If you can cultivate healthy, multiplying groups in your congregation, you will reap decades of spiritual transformation and church health.

If you are a small group leader: You’re doing hard but incredible work! Continue to prayerfully, intentionally shepherd your group toward maturity in Christ. I hope these articles are encouraging and helpful.

If you are an ordinary church member and group participant: I want to compel you to see your group as an essential (not optional add-on) part of your life, calling, and spiritual growth. No, being part of a group isn’t easy. But with the right perspective and a whole lot of stick-to-it-iveness, it can be a conduit of God’s amazing grace in your life—not to mention the source of lifelong friendships and community.

Let me say it again: Your investment in community groups will pay off exponentially in the souls of your people and the culture of your church. Community groups cannot be an afterthought.

Over these articles, I want to help cultivate (or, perhaps, restore) your hope for biblical community and your heart for local church small groups ministry.

Dear friends, community groups are hard. But they are also so, so worth it!

*This article is Part 1 of an eight-part series on community groups and their importance that will run this summer.