Why do Some Small Groups Die? An Autopsy of My Failed Group

My wife and I were once a part of a small group made up almost entirely of married couples. It was one of the most life-giving groups I have ever been a part of. We grew some great friendships in that group, many of whom we still keep in contact with today.

Sadly, like many small group experiences, ours eventually unraveled. We didn’t have any major conflicts or heated moments. It just sort of… faded.

Why? Well, there are perhaps a whole slew of reasons that our group didn’t last. But the biggest reason was one that I didn’t see until it was too late.

One night as our group was gathering at our friend’s home, one of the couples expressed that they felt our group had gotten big enough and they wanted to declare our group closed. “I just like our group the way it is,” one of our friends said. “If we let our group get any bigger, we’ll lose our sense of community.”

With that comment, I realized something detrimental had occurred in our little band of Christ followers. We had become internally focused.

Where had I gone wrong? I wondered. Was there anything I could have done to prevent this?

Over the following months we stopped seeing new people in our group gatherings. I wasn’t sure where we had lost our edge, but we definitely stopped being the sort of open group that we once were. We never did end up calling ourselves closed, but we might as well have.

The funny thing about this is that if you asked anybody in our group if we were welcoming, they would have said yes. For sure! Without-a-doubt.

But I began to hear people describe our group as a clique and I didn’t know why. Something changed in our group that made us inaccessible to people who didn’t already have a relational “in.” It became difficult for outsiders to become insiders.

We thought we were friendly, accepting, and inviting, but it wasn’t the case. Our problem was not about what happened when we were together. It was about what happened “out there.” It was found between the lines in our conversations. It was found in our silence when we could have invited people to join us in our Tuesday night group, but didn’t. It was in our assumption that those were “church people” and didn’t need our group. And it was in our desire to protect our group’s chemistry at the expense of people who would have loved to be a part of our journey.

The reality is that, at the heart of our group’s inwardness was something sadly broken. We were selfish. We were experiencing something sweet and beautiful, but instead of sharing the experience with others and inviting them along for the journey, we protected our group. And what’s so unfortunate about it is that it was never our group to begin with. It was God’s. We missed a crucial opportunity to be Good News in the lives of others, all so that we could keep our group to ourselves. Inwardness in a small group can feel great in the moment, but it is a guaranteed death sentence. There is no way around it. If your group loses its mission, it will not last.

What happened to us? Could we have stopped this?

Absolutely.

The truth is that the answer to our group’s eventual demise was actually quite simple: We lacked mission.

Think about it. What would have happened if we prayed for those outside our group when we met together. What if we held each other accountable to inviting new people? What would have happened if we intentionally put ourselves in the lives of disconnected people? And what would have happened if we had refused–unapologetically–to let our group become closed off, internally focused, and lax.

One lesson I have learned in the wake of that group is that keeping a group outward-focused doesn’t happen by accident. No group drifts towards its mission. You have to be intentional. You have to be tenacious and downright protective of your mission. And your mission must be clear.

Your mission could be to serve the poor in your area, or to adopt a school and tutor the kids each day. It could be to make musician burnouts feel like rock stars or to reach every person in your neighborhood for the sake of the Good News of Jesus. Whatever it is, your mission must be clear, focused, and specific. But most of all, your mission must be outward.

You may be reading this and wondering, But isn’t the whole point of small groups to have community? Well, yes, but not really. The point of groups is not community. The point of groups is God’s mission to bring restoration to the world. Community is a byproduct of mission, not the other way around.

So the next time your group gathers together, ask yourself if you are outward focused. Ask yourself if your group is aware of the threat of inwardness. And ask yourself if there is anything you must do to ensure that your group finds its mission and sticks to it.

How does your group stay on mission?

About the Author Brian Drinkwine

I am a husband, speaker, church planter, and coach. I help people and pastors with big dreams learn how to awaken God’s dream for their lives so they can have a lasting and meaningful impact on the world.

follow me on:
  • http://Www.KathrynLeonardministries.com Kathryn

    This was a word from the Lord for me today! I have had an open Bible study in my home where many people flowed in and out as they were able to be present. Many people invited others and it was alive and vital. I have been considering starting the study again but was wondering if I needed to make it smaller, more intimate, and more contained. Thank you Brian for once again speaking life and truth into the body of Christ! I will be having an open door policy!

    • http://www.briandrinkwine.com Brian Drinkwine

      Thanks for sharing Kathryn! It’s a huge affirmation to see that this blog post may have affected things. I wish I could have written about doing it “right,” but sometimes God allows us to walk through those experiences so we can share them with others and see God work. I’m looking forward to hearing how your open door Bible study goes!

  • Jennifer

    Hi Brian,

    Great article. I have seen this happen in families also. Not wanting the gatherings to change as new people marry into the family. It seems that when the main person passes away (usually the mother) the group falls apart because the family was not allowed to shift to make the group inclusive. I’m sure that closely relates to the clique feel. I think maybe a mission/purpose that new people can get behind and carry forward to the next generation or group of newcomers would allow the group to change and be inclusive while still allowing the driving force to remain intact. We see this problem in business also……like Sears that did not change fast enough to include the younger generation that weren’t as gung-ho about tools as the older generation.

    • http://www.briandrinkwine.com Brian Drinkwine

      Great observations Jennifer. I totally agree. When my dad died, my family struggled to regain our footing. It has taken us several years to learn how to be a family like we were before his passing. God has used that time to show us a lot about ourselves, but we are better for it today.

      PS: Give a hug to Noah for me!