Small groups 101: What makes a small group meaningful?

Oct 4, 2018 7:00:00 AM / by David Schoenknecht


This is the first blog post in a series about adult small group leadership from the first-person perspective of a pastor. In this post, we open the conversation with factors that make for healthy, meaningful groups and introduce 5 growth stages of a small group.


It’s great when adult small groups work – when people enjoy one another’s company, when they find the materials engaging, and when you, as their facilitator, feel adept at knitting together the experience – the personalities, the content, the objectives – in ways that are truly edifying for everyone.

But it’s not easy to achieve this kind of interaction. Try to recall one of your favorite small group experiences – what made it so great?

The materials?

The relationships?

The outcomes?


3 Factors that make for healthy, meaningful small groups

Each of the above elements is important, but let’s focus first on three critical factors that add up to make a small group meaningful for all involved:

Factor #1: Authentic community

A healthy small group is one in which members feel comfortable to be themselves and open to one another. This transparency creates intimacy, which is great, but facilitators must work hard to keep their groups within safe boundaries. Confidentiality must be maintained, co-dependence must be avoided, and loving Christian community must be nurtured.

Factor #2: Discipling environment

A healthy small group is challenged both by engaging study materials and by their fellowship with one another to grow in faith. There are high expectation groups and low expectation groups. The ones that have had the most impact on my life are the ones that made faith formation their primary objective. Gauge expectations and set goals early on so that everyone is on the same page. Is this a share-and-care group or a ministry igniter group? Make sure everyone agrees from the get-go.

Factor #3: Healthy leadership

A healthy leader isn’t necessarily an expert, but they do have the emotional intelligence to both understand and live into their role as facilitators. Assessing your personal expectations about what happens in small groups is essential to healthy facilitation. In 1965, Bruce Tuckman came up with a way to look at the stages of group development that still applies today.

Small group lifecycle


Forming: You can expect that early on, during the forming stage that there will be more dependence on a leader for guidance and direction. Leaders must be prepared to answer questions about the group’s purpose and objectives, introduce the materials, talk logistics, and begin to cultivate relationships.

Storming: During their storming stage groups struggle to engage freely and openly communicate. Some group members might even vie for position as they attempt to establish themselves in relation to others and to the leader. The group needs to be focused on its purpose to avoid becoming distracted by relationships and emotional issues.

Norming: With prayer and persistence storming gives way to norming. Community forms among group members. They see how each of them fits together like unique and valued pieces of a larger puzzle. The group starts to click and conversations about topics and study materials become more unguarded and meaningful. Mutual discipling occurs.

Performing: It’s exciting when healthy small groups start to perform. and want to apply what they’ve learned. Group members look after each other. Group activity extends beyond the meetings themselves. Conversations become actions as new ministries and deepened faith practices are formed.

Mourning: As a healthy small group nears the end of their time together, some mourning should be expected. But this is a great time for thinking ahead. What’s next for your group? Will you birth another group? Are new leaders ready to emerge? What other topics will inform your next session?


Interested in learning more about how to make your small group meaningful for adults? Check out our video series featuring five more essential tips!

Topics: Adults Ministry

David Schoenknecht

Written by David Schoenknecht

After two decades of pastoral ministry, David has enjoyed extending his call into Christian publishing and the academy. At one point he was serving both as a professor and head of the Religious Studies Department at Rockford University while simultaneously developing resources for the Book of Faith initiative! However, it was his work on Sparkhouse’s re:form and animate series that really lit his fire for faith formation.


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