Small Group Advice from Big Church Pastors

Most people have a cursory knowledge of seven deadly sins: sins which could derail a person’s life. In their book, The Seven Deadly Sins of Small Group Ministry, pastors Russ Robinson and Bill Donahue also argue that there are seven deadly sins. But these sins have to do with mistakes churches make concerning small groups, which can derail a small group ministry.

The seven “sins” are…

1) Not knowing where small groups fit into the life of church (Chapter 1)

2) Not having the right person oversee the small group ministry (Chapter 3)

3) Not supporting group leaders with coaching (Chapter 5)

4) Not having ongoing leadership development (Chapter 7)

5) Not having groups interested in adding new members (Chapter 9)

6) Not having groups be broad enough to include lots of different people/situations (Chapter 11)

7) Not following up with and assimilating visitors into the groups (Chapter 13)

Seven Sins…One Reason to Buy the Book

The first chapter is worth the price of the book. The first chapter covers the first “sin”: not knowing where small groups fits into the life of the church. Many churches desire to have small groups, and even believe that small groups are important. But do churches know exactly where the ministry fits in with everything else. Is it one option among many? Or is it the primary ministry of the church?

To help churches figure out the priority they want to place on groups, Robinson and Donahue classify the three main models of small group ministry.

1) Churches with Small Groups

2) Churches of Small Groups

3) The Church is small groups


Churches with small groups present groups as one option among many. For example, a visitor has the option of getting involved with a Bible study, an evangelistic program, or small groups. No opportunity is better than any other. The goal is to get someone involved somewhere.

Churches of small groups see small groups as an extension of the larger community of the church. These churches often see groups as the primary ministry of the church. The goal is to get most of the church involved in a small group.

Those who advocate that the church is small groups invert the general pattern: rather than seeing small groups as a microcosm of the larger community, the large community gathering is a coming together of the primary expression of the church, small groups. The goal is to get everyone involved in a small group, because the small group functions like a mini-church.

Pick a Model, Any Model

Robinson and Donahue’s don’t argue for any one model (They do state that they operate in a church of small groups, but their insights could be appropriated by any of the three models). The purpose of the first chapter is to provide a path forward for discussions among church leadership.

Can’t Get Around Context

If a weakness exists in the book, it is that the authors cannot separate themselves from their context. At the time of writing of the book, both authors had extensive history working at Willowcreek Community Church, a mega-church in Chicago with 20,000+ attendees. So they are writing the book from the perspective of mega-church pastors. That isn’t necessarily a weakness in its own right, but if statistics hold true, most churches are around 75-200 members. Thus, the book will probably be read mostly by pastors who won’t (and will never) share their unique congregation size (20,000+). In light of that fact, some of their suggestions seem completely unrealistic for the “average” church.

For example, they argue that churches should not have a “narrow” definition of small groups. Small groups should not be a “one size fits all” type of ministry, whereby each group does roughly the same thing: hang-out, pray, and study the Bible. Rather, churches should integrate small groups into every aspect of the church’s life, and base groups around different affinities.  I counted 116 affinity groups that Willowcreek offered (pp. 169-182)! Group opportunities ranged from hairdressing to sports.

Too much. Way too much. No “average” church would ever be able to offer anything close to that amount of affinity groups. In addition, if everything could be made into a small group, then nothing is a small group. If the definition of a small group becomes too broad, it is hard to see what is distinctive about small group ministry.

Unity in Christ, Not Common Interest

I’m also not sold on creating small groups around affinity (common interest). Is it easy to hang out with people who are like myself? Yes. But where is the gospel unity in that? I have the sinful tendency to want to spend time only with those people I like, or find “easy.” Real ministry, however, means reaching out to all people, even the difficult ones!

It is a beautiful thing when a diverse group of people can come together and build relationships around Christ. Many youth pastors are seeing the detriment of creating ministry “silos” for children in the church. In other words, children spend all their time together in church, never mixing with people who are older or different than them. Why would a church want to continue promoting “silos” within the whole body?


Despite those criticisms, it is still a valuable book for beginning the discussion on where groups fit into the life of a congregation. I don’t think a typical church member would have interest or use in reading the book, but it is valuable for church leaders, especially those who oversee small groups.



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