Starting-and Starting Over-with Small Groups

February 1st, 2017

Imagine starting a church and knowing deep down in your heart that Sunday morning isn’t enough and that the traditional weekly Bible study led by the pastor or key layperson won’t achieve the goal of “Doing Church Differently.” Imagine a light bulb going off during a coaching conversation when you are asked a simple question: “Do you want to grow by addition or multiplication?” Of course the answer is simple: “We want to grow by multiplication.” When that light bulb went off, the small-group model was born for a new church I founded called Impact Church in Atlanta. Over the past ten years, our small groups have helped reach hundreds of people and connect them more deeply to Christ, each other, and the broader community.

The process of launching the small groups was key, and the most important parts of the initial launch were

  1. finding the right leader;
  2. developing and designing Impact’s unique design for small groups; and
  3. constantly testing and improving the model.

Impact’s small groups were successful because of a fearless leader named Anika Jones, who is an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church and one of the most gifted people I have ever met. She did a phenomenal job of organizing a team of small-group leaders we named facilitators and developing and designing the small groups around a curriculum resource that allowed us to build community beyond Sunday morning. Once the groups were launched, we immediately went into the testing and improving mode to adjust the areas that weren’t working and affirm the areas that were working well. In a new church format, or whenever an existing congregation launches a new model like small groups, there is a tendency for the veteran church goers, or those who have special interests, to drive the process faster than necessary or away from the original scope. Whenever this occurs, leaders have to be strong enough to say no and to remind others that in the initial launch phase, testing and improving on the model is very important. During the early days, think “small passenger plane” model and not “giant jet airliner” dreams.

Although we constantly worked to improve on our model, we noticed as we crossed the five-year mark that more detailed infrastructure and design adjustments to our small groups were needed. Initially we tried to revamp and overhaul the airplane while in flight, but we were never quite able to adjust and manipulate the core of our small-group process. Our commitment to overhaul our small groups wasn’t because they suffered from some chronic organizational or spiritual malfunction or sickness, but we were committed to “Doing Church Differently,” and we wanted our small groups to operate at the highest level.

As the lead pastor of the church, I had to make a difficult and painful decision to take our small groups completely offline for one year so that our team could fully engage in the overhaul process without the day-to-day responsibilities of operating the small groups.

As you dream of having small groups, or already have successful small groups, you will arrive at a point when the small groups are working and operating well but deep down you know they can work better and reach more people. In most cases, you will be able to overhaul the small-group plane in the air, but in some cases you will have to announce to the crew and passengers that you are returning to the airport for a necessary repair. I hope and pray for your courage as a leader to have the boldness to self-ground your small-group plane if that is what’s necessary in order to offer something even more dynamic in the future to reach more people for Jesus Christ. There are always new opportunities for growth and change.

Over the past year, our team has worked to improve our small-groups process while our planes are grounded. This has not been easy because many people who connected to our church through our small groups have been disappointed due to the absence of the groups. Here are a few lessons we offer that we have learned over the past year as we work to overhaul and relaunch our small groups:

  1. If you take your small-group planes out of the air for repair, clearly explain the why to leaders and small group participants.
  2. Develop a project management timeline for your small-group overhaul, and stick to the timeline and communicate progress frequently to leaders and small-group participants.
  3. Engage the help of key leaders in the overhaul process and people who are connected to the ministry with specialized skills and wisdom to add value to the overhaul process.
  4. Pay attention to how the core small-groups overhaul team is working together, and check in often to gauge progress, challenges, and needs.
  5. Pray, pray, pray, pray.

I wish I could write that the small-group opportunity is very easy, but in most cases, change and adjustment can be painful and difficult. Remember, the goal is to always get better and improve your ministries to reach more people for Jesus Christ. We have had bumps along the road, but I am confident that when we relaunch our groups, we will reach more people for Jesus Christ and help connect them more deeply to the church and community. Have courage and keep the faith. 


Olu Brown is the founding pastor of Impact Church Atlanta (founded in 2007), the fourth-fastest growing UM church in the country, with 85 percent growth over five years. He is a frequent speaker at events, especially among young clergy, and the author of Leadership Directions from Moses: On the Way to a Promised Land (coming April 2017 from Abingdon Press).

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