Small Groups are not the answer

Small Groups are not the answer

(but they can help).


The search for the elusive “silver bullet” that will transform our parish is very real. We tend to have a list of things we circle around over and over:

  • New Website!
  • Social Media!
  • Evangelization Committee!
  • Hospitality Ministers!

One thing that is always at the top of our silver bullet list is…SMALL GROUPS!!!!

Small groups sound like the perfect solution for evangelization in a parish. People gather on a regular basis to build community and share faith. In a very real way, small groups seem to fit the vision of Pope Francis who calls for the parish to be “a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach.” (Evangelii Gaudium #28)

But is this the reality? The very next line in Evangelli Gaudium points out a harsh truth. “We must admit, though, that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented” (#28)

Why have our small groups failed to help our parish become a “community of communities?” Usually one of two things happens when a parish launches a small group ministry.

  1. They take off like wildfire. The parish recruits many volunteers, hands them excellent resources, and invites the entire parish to join a small group, often during Lent. These groups flare up very quickly but also die off very quickly. They often do not last long enough for the type of friendship, community, and spiritual transformation that we are hoping for.


  1. They last forever. Many times small groups will form that have lasting power. These groups last for 10, 20, even 30 years. These people become very good friends and that is very good. They also tend to become very insular. Participants are very reluctant to change the dynamics of the group by inviting new people.

It turns out; small groups are not the answer. If they were we could have packed up and gone home years ago.


(But they can help)

Here is the thing, though; small groups can actually be very helpful for evangelization when done right. When approached in the right way small groups can be a very natural way to build a trusting community of friends in which people can encounter Jesus Christ and be transformed.

While proper facilitation techniques and the right content are very important to make a small group truly evangelizing, perhaps the most important ingredient to an evangelizing small group is the Facilitator.

A Spiritual Leader Not a Volunteer

No publisher knows each individual in your group. In order to reach people in a small group the Facilitator has to be a Spiritual Leader, not just a volunteer. A Small Group Facilitator who sees herself as a Spiritual Leader will work to be a catalyst for the spiritual transformation and growth of each person in her group. She will take personal responsibility for creating a trusting atmosphere in which people feel comfortable being vulnerable. She will take seriously her own relationship with Jesus through the Church knowing that she cannot give what she does not have. She will bring the faces and names of the people in her group to prayer each and every day. She will mentor people one on one when the opportunity arises. She will model evangelization by continually inviting new people into the group.

It really is not that complicated. Small Groups live and die based two essential ingredients – the Holy Spirit and You!



  1. I have been involved in a small group for 15 years.
    There are two keys to success A good facilitator and commitment from each member of the group to contribute.
    However, the small group needs to be ‘fed’ in the beginning by an event or series of events that provide a common core set of beliefs.
    Christmas Renews, Cursillo, a retreat or a mission are just a few that come can provide this common core.

    • Joe, in your experience do you find that your small group is evangelizing in the sense that it regularly welcomes new people?

  2. Like Joe I have been in a small group for 24 years. Six women meet twice a month and follow the Cursillo method. I can’t imagine my life without my friends with whom I share my life of piety, and apostolic action. We welcome new people and help them get into small groups. We definitely influence environments in our families, work, parishes and anywhere God places us.

  3. The traditional definition of evangelization is outward effort to bring other to Christ, but after an evangelistic invitation, there must be growth in the spiritual journey. Through faith sharing, group study, group prayer, and friendship in Small Christian Communities, the ultimate goal of evangelism continues.
    I agree that groups need to continue to invite, but there is a limit, otherwise, the small group will not be small. The answer is for the parish to encourage additional groups and give them support to be all they can be.
    Additionally, many small groups reach out to help others in service and that is very evangelistic.

  4. Sean,

    Very worthwhile commentary. You are spot on regarding leadership – That is half of the equation – Mary hit the nail on the head with the second key – apostolic action. In my experience these groups too often become navel gazing cliques. But we must not give up. When done well, I believe they are essential. The key to having engaged Catholics in future generations is to solidify the family as a faith-based community. Engaging adults in these groups will be key to that. So too is re-energizing and re-imagining parishes. As a lifer in youth ministry I contend that youth ministry will not succeed in a substantial way without addressing those two elements – family and faith community. That is not to suggest that we shouldn’t be engaged in youth ministry – rather that we need to stop looking at it in isolation.

    • A closed working group (in terms of group dynamics/process) allows a freedom to grow that is not available to groups in an initial stage where they have not navigated the dynamics of conflict and the vulnerability and trust required to really become a ‘working group’. Referring to these groups as ‘navel gazing cliques’ may be denying the reality of group stages—they may indeed be a working group focused on great growth and development and by nature this stage is a closed group. We need both short term and long term group models for a wide variety of folks/needs.

  5. Looking at the dynamics of group process, it becomes clear that without good facilitation, a group will not move beyond initial stage through transition stage—thus the reason why so many programs are desiged for 8-12 sessions which avoids this stage. Training facilitators to navigate the conflict stage takes commitment and experience. Navigating transition stage into ‘working’stage, the group becomes a very closed group and adding new folks becomes problematic. How we train folks to offer both and recognize the gifts in each is our challenge. Expecting one to fulfill the other does a disservice to both.

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