Most Small Groups Can Be… Mediocre. (10 Lessons From A Church Whose Groups Are Exploding)

This post was written by Dillon Smith, a Gen-Z team member at CareyNieuwhof.com who lives in Omaha, Nebraska. We’re so grateful to the Citylight team for making the time to share what they’re learning with us.

I’ve always had a hard time with small groups as a church leader.

In my experience, whenever a church launches a new wave of small groups, you’re really hoping to just keep most of the people that show up on week 1 through week 10.

Usually, you launch with groups of 20 and are happy if you have groups of 8 by the end of the semester.

You might have had a similar experience.

As a result of this, I’ve grown a bit cynical about small group ministries. I’ve even had the thought that…

“Maybe small groups are just a bad idea. We could put people in serve groups instead.”

And I almost gave in to that thinking. But there was one problem with my theory:

Citylight Church

To help you understand my struggle with groups, let me share my experience with Citylight. They’re a church here in Omaha that I’ve never regularly attended, but have watched grow from the outside.

Since they launched 9 years ago, they’ve grown from a small group praying in a living room into a family of 13 churches, have thousands of weekly attendees, and are reaching a huge number of young people.

As a Gen-Z outsider who asks a lot of questions, I’ve noticed a constant flow of everyday young Christians telling me how much they love their City Groups, and have heard a lot stories of people I know coming to Jesus in City Groups.

As a result, I’ve had to ask:

In a time where most churches are losing people (especially young adults) to atheism, agnosticism, or just being a “none”, how is Citylight having so much success?

I went in and asked their team some deeper questions.

First, some things they don’t do:

To deter some objections I know I’ll get in the comments about megachurches, I want to start with some things Citylight doesn’t do.

They don’t:

  • Put on a flashy show every weekend

Citylight actually has much more of an acoustic, chill vibe that could be replicated by a church with almost any budget and some high-quality musicians.

  • Water down the Gospel to attract more people

In my experience of talking with various Citylight members and staff over the last 8 years, I’d say they’re MORE intense than most churches on doctrine and theology.

A couple of their volunteers were actually the first people who explained to me what a Calvinist/Arminian or a TULIP was, and I wasn’t even attending.

  • Grow exclusively from transfer growth

As far as I can tell, they have a similar amount of transfer growth as the average growing church here in the City.

And I would add this: A lot of the transfer growth I have seen to Citylight has resulted in those Christians becoming much more engaged and healthy followers of Jesus.

That’s a win in my mind.

Not all transfer growth is bad. Sometimes it’s a good thing when a toxic church loses some of its members to a healthier church.

Not all transfer growth is bad. Sometimes it’s a good thing when a toxic church loses some of its members to a healthier church. Click To Tweet

So, why are they thriving, growing, and actually making disciples?

What’s setting them apart?

2 Words: City Groups

Obviously, they have great preaching, great culture, a rockstar team, real devotion to serving Jesus, and full acknowledgment that God is the one that deserves the glory for their growth.

Those have become the price of admission to being a growing church.

But, the final 20% that sets them apart is how their missional City Groups have been prioritized and organized since they launched.

So what sets the City Group model apart?

After interviewing their team, I see 6 things that make City Groups succeed and grow, when most small group ministries are fighting an uphill battle:

At the end of this post, I outline 4 more non-small-group-related principles that your church can use to reach more people:

1. It’s not just a bible study. Each City Group is driven by their own mission.

When you and I think of a small group, we think of a group of people coming together in community to do a bible study in one of the member’s house or at a local coffee shop.

In this model, we usually stop at community and learning.

City Groups go beyond community and are intentionally creating missional communities that multiply disciples.

When a City Group comes together, they will decide their own mission.

Some examples they shared with me were:

  • If they are near a college, they’ll make it their mission to reach, disciple, and meet the needs of students at that university.
  • If they’re a City Group located in a specific neighborhood or near a school, they’ll be focused on reaching that neighborhood or school.

In a City Group, the group isn’t the mission, their mission field is. And while most small groups focus on knowledge and friendship, City Groups go beyond and focus on mission and discipleship. (Are you starting to notice some similarities with the early church yet?)

I think the old way of thinking made total sense to consumer Christianity, but as Carey has repeatedly pointed out, consumer Christianity is dying.

So is the “let’s have a fun bible study” model of small groups.

Consumer Christianity is dying. So is the “let’s have a fun bible study” model of small groups. Click To Tweet

2. The Standard for Being a Group Leader is Extremely High

So many churches and student ministries struggle with finding enough leaders for small groups. I’ve been there.

I was shocked to hear just how selective Citylight is when they are selecting group leaders.

As far as I can tell it isn’t any easier than a job interview you’d have anywhere else.

They interview you, learn about your family, and hunt down references in the searching process.

As a result of this, they don’t have a very high turnover rate for leaders, and are even able to tell what kind of people would be best to send to which group.

So here’s a thought:

If you wouldn’t hire them onto your staff, don’t let them lead a small group.

If you wouldn’t hire them onto your staff, don’t let them lead a small group. Click To Tweet

3. They Train Their City Group Leadership Teams Extremely Well

In our interview, the Citylight team told me about their 10-week-long Citygroup launch training that they take every City Group leader through.

No, that’s not a typo. 10 weeks.

In those 10 weeks, they resource their leaders with everything they will need to lead a missional community that multiplies disciples.

I couldn’t possibly outline everything that they cover in this post, but you can download their City Group Leadership Guide here to get a better idea.

They also have a City Group Resources page on their website that those leaders can return to again and again to stay sharp on things like:

  • The 12 month City Group pathway (I’ll talk about this more in point 5)
  • A clear guide on how to lead someone to Christ, share their testimony, and use the SOAP method.
  • A guide outlining the difference between a huddle (2-3 people focused on discipleship) and a city group (15-40 people who are living out the gospel where they live, work, and play.

This page is outstanding. If you get nothing else from this blog post, please check out this page (especially the discipleship resources.)

4. Distributed Leadership And Ownership

Another remarkable thing about City Groups is that they don’t want any group to have just one leader.

Their goal is that every City Group has a leadership team of individuals who share different portions of leadership.

Those different roles are: Up Leaders, In Leaders, and Out Leaders.

Here’s a screenshot from page 8 of the City Groups manual that outlines what those positions are:

An incompetent or toxic leader can kill a small group if they’re the only leader. This framework ensures that doesn’t happen.

An incompetent or toxic leader can kill a small group if they’re the only leader. This framework ensures that doesn’t happen. Click To Tweet

5. Develop (and Disciple) People Really Well

On that same City Group Resources page is something called the “City Group Pathway”

According to their site;

The Pathway is a one year plan to establish discipleship rhythms for a City Group to know, love, and worship Jesus in the context of spiritual formation, community, and mission.

This pathway gives every City Group a development path to follow to grow into a healthy, missional community that is multiplying disciples.

No small group accidentally gets more effective at reaching people over time. It takes a clear path to follow, and intentionality from the entire group.

No small group accidentally gets more effective at reaching people over time. It takes a clear path to follow, and intentionality from the entire group. Click To Tweet

6. Groups Have Been Just As Important As Sunday Services Since Launch Day

This might be the single biggest reason that City Groups are working so well.

When Citylight launched, they put just as much importance on being in a City Group as attending Sunday morning services.

City Groups weren’t an afterthought, they were a primary focus of the church since day one.

This is the opposite of what I’m seeing from most churches. Usually, small groups are secondary to Sunday morning.

But if you treat small groups as secondary, your people will do the same.

When it comes to small groups, you need to be ALL IN or ALL OUT.

If you don’t disciple people well in groups, focus on doing discipleship another way.

If you treat small groups as secondary, your people will do the same. You need to be ALL IN or ALL OUT. Click To Tweet

A Few More Principles From Growing Churches:

While I have you, there are a few non-City Group related things that a lot of growing churches (Including Citylight) do that I’m really impressed with:

1. The Dual Lead Pastor Model is Worth Considering

I agree with what Kayle Stoecklein (whose husband Andrew died by suicide as a lead pastor) argued in her interview on Carey’s podcast, the job is just too big for one person to handle flawlessly.

I don’t think a Citylight church has ever been planted with only 1 Lead Pastor. They always have 2 lead pastors sharing the role.

I absolutely LOVE this model.

You can hear a bit more about this in this ChurchPulse Weekly episode.

2. Simplicity is Key

They exist to gather (on Sunday) and scatter (in Citygroups). Nothing else.

They outline this pretty well on their home page here.

There is also a great podcast with one of their lead pastors here.

3. Here Are 2 Unexpected Ways to Build A Thriving Online Presence

Citylight doesn’t have any massive online presence like Elevation or Life.Church, but, there are 2 things that I see working really well for them online:

1. By prioritizing the development and discipleship of their people, they have created an army of individual Christians that are living out their Christian lives online.

So, rather than one big church online presence, they have thousands of individuals who are leveraging their online presence for the kingdom every day.

2. They have an outstanding website that does a fantastic job of enabling their City Groups to grow and develop.

I’ve talked about this a lot already, but the more I dig into their website, the more impressed I am.

What if your website was a place for equipping, and not just attracting people?

What if your website was a place for equipping, and not just attracting people? Click To Tweet

4. Don’t Miss Deadlines

Carey and I have both talked about this a lot (here, here, and here, for example.)

If you want to lead anything successful:

  • Deadlines aren’t optional.
  • Being on time isn’t optional.
  • And you need to ALWAYS do what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it.

Life.Church, Connexus, Citylight, and Elevation are all examples of what happens when a church gets this right.

If you want to lead anything successful; Deadlines aren’t optional, and neither is being on time. Click To Tweet

How are your small groups? 

What can your team apply from this list? I’d love to have a conversation about it below:

Most Small Groups Can Be… Mediocre. (10 Lessons From A Church Whose Groups Are Exploding)

31 Comments

  1. Charles Giddens on February 11, 2021 at 2:16 pm

    Dillion, great stuff! I was curious, I didn’t see anything about what happens after 12 months. Do the members transition out, go to another group, stay in the same group?

  2. Justin Broome on February 11, 2021 at 11:46 am

    I’d love to know what percentage of their church is involved in these groups.

    • Dillon Smith on February 11, 2021 at 12:32 pm

      Hey Justin,

      I wish I had an answer for ya, but here are 3 reasons I don’t know if it’d be possible to have a great answer:

      1. Since they are a family of 13 completely independent churches, I would have to go to each of the 13 leadership teams and ask for these numbers. I just didn’t see that as necessary.

      2. In the last 8 years, Citylight Omaha (the first Citylight) has planted 7 churches out of itself and encouraged as many of their people as possible to go with those church plants, so their weekend attendance is always fluctuating. So, if I gave you a snapshot of today, that number would probably be completely different than 6 months from now. It would just be a hard number to know with how much they are always changing. I can tell you that one of their churches last year was planted directly out of a small group that had grown to 50+ people, so when they “planted” they were likely close to 100%. (That’s just my guess though.)

      3. As an outsider, I didn’t feel like directly asking about their total weekend attendance was appropriate. Especially since they don’t post it publicly online. I just didn’t want to be rude.🤷🏻‍♂️

      Maybe you can find more by poking around their website?

      If I had to guess, I would say that the number is likely high.

  3. Allen White on February 10, 2021 at 8:05 pm

    How many people are in City Groups? What percentage of their weekend attendance?

    How long has Citylight used this model?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    • Sarah on February 10, 2021 at 9:45 pm

      I cannot tell you how much I love this. Thank you for sharing. This isn’t another “model” to copy. This is the result of people authentically becoming emotionally healthy and spiritually healthy. You cannot belong where you are not understood. We cannot understand others, if we don’t know ourselves. The gospel is lived and is spread shoulder to shoulder. People are done with batch catch and release salvations.

    • Dillon Smith on February 11, 2021 at 12:28 pm

      Hey Allen,

      Citylight has been using parts of and slowly improving this model ever since they planted 9 years ago. I talk about this in Point 6.

      It would be difficult to get an answer to your first 2 questions for a few reasons:
      1. Since they are a family of 13 completely independent churches, I would have to go to each of the 13 leadership teams and ask for these numbers. I just didn’t see that as necessary.
      2. In the last 8 years, Citylight Omaha (the first Citylight) has planted 7 churches out of itself and encouraged as many of their people as possible to go with those church plants, so their weekend attendance is always fluctuating. So, if I gave you a snapshot of today, that number would probably be completely different than 6 months from now. It would just be a hard number to know with how much they are always changing. I can tell you that one of their churches last year was planted directly out of a small group that had grown to 50+ people.
      3. As an outsider, I didn’t feel like directly asking about their total weekend attendance. Especially since they don’t post it publicly online. I just didn’t want to be rude.🤷🏻‍♂️

      So, all that to say, I’m sorry but I don’t really have a good answer for ya. Maybe you can find more by poking around their website?

      If I had to guess, I would say that the number is likely high.

      • Allen White on February 11, 2021 at 12:35 pm

        Dillon,

        Thanks for getting back to me. Most of the churches using missional communities that I’m acquianted with have about 50% of their people in groups. Then they have to resort to using other small group models to connect the rest of their people into groups.

        Sometimes a discussion like this gets into a quality versus quantity debate. The bottom line is that if you don’t have quantity, then quality doesn’t matter.

        I like the idea of less Christian consumerism, but as Mike Breen told me once, “Separating consumerism from the church is like separating a fish from water.”

        Thanks for writing an encouraging article on small groups. I especially like the part about the Senior Pastor promoting groups and only groups and dispensing with other ministries.

        I appreciate you and what you do!

        Allen

        • Dillon Smith on February 11, 2021 at 1:05 pm

          For sure, that makes sense!

          And absolutely! I’m glad to help churches in any way I can.

          Grateful,

  4. Ryan on February 10, 2021 at 4:46 pm

    This was so good! I love the balance of Bible Study/Relationship/Mentoring/Outreach. The concept of small group leadership as a team is refreshing! We are reworking our discipleship process and this couldn’t have come at a more perfect time! Thanks Dillon for the thoughtful insights and observations.

    • Dillon Smith on February 11, 2021 at 9:50 am

      So glad to hear this!

      Would love to hear how your team ends up applying these principles.

  5. Ryan White on February 10, 2021 at 2:48 pm

    Really helpful, very encouraging. Will be talking with our team about this article and what next steps we can take as a body so that we can be healthier in Christ: equipping our people more effectively and reaching people in our community!

    Excellent article! Thank you!

    • Sarah on February 10, 2021 at 9:48 pm

      Check out Pete Scazzero and his emotionally healthy discipleship!! It goes hand in hand with this article 🙂

    • Dillon Smith on February 11, 2021 at 9:52 am

      So glad to help Ryan!

      I’d so appreciate if you let me know how the conversation goes, and what really resonates with your team!

  6. Cyndy Warnier on February 10, 2021 at 12:01 pm

    This was encouraging to me as a small group leader, along with my husband and others in our group who also will lead with different topics, etc. We also don’t meet in the same home all the time, so everyone pitches in and it makes for great “flavor changes” in surroundings, sharing, etc. Right now we are zooming due to the pandemic, but surprisingly everyone is on the Zoom, and I think it is the cohesiveness of the group and if we cannot be together physically virtually is still OK because of the bonds that we have and the deep prayer we practice. We always get new people, some come and go or are snowbirds–we’re in Arizona–but the friendship remains even long distance. Our group is going on 7 years and the core remains with new ones coming in and new ones we have encouraged to start their own group. I think that’s how we do it, and I firmly believe leadership is meant to raise up others to lead. thanks for sharing a wonderful directive with such encouragement and good ideas. We need this so much.

    • Dillon Smith on February 11, 2021 at 9:52 am

      I love that! Keep it up!

  7. Matt on February 10, 2021 at 11:39 am

    I couldn’t have read this article at a better time. So thankful for your diligence and research with City Light. I’ve worked in and with small groups for years and Im encouraged to hear of churches that are growing and making disciples. This article is going to be helpful lens to examine out small group ministry. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Dillon Smith on February 11, 2021 at 9:56 am

      That’s so encouraging to hear!

      I really enjoyed the research for this piece. So grateful to the Citylight team for making the time.

  8. Tim on February 10, 2021 at 11:20 am

    In a church I formerly attended each year we would go through a mandatory small group leader training. It was the same information every year. Ho hum. Each small group leader had a coach that was supposed to check in regularly with small groups leaders under their care. I typically heard from my coach once each year and that was by phone. He had no idea what I looked like and when I introduced myself to him I felt like I had exposed him for being a coach. Discouraging. I’m in an online group and the leader is not employed. He talks too much. He doesn’t challenge us and he doesn’t listen. Being mediocre would be a bonus. As I read this blog it’s time for me to up my game, manage up and maybe even asking some more challenging questions. All that to say, most small groups are ineffective and a waste of time. I hear about good ones every so often and I feel jealous that my experience has been contrary. So with renewed passion I am off to see if I can raise the bar in my situation.

  9. Janet Durrwachter on February 10, 2021 at 11:20 am

    This blog post is GOLD! Thanks for the ways you “mentor up,” Dillon!

    • Dillon Smith on February 11, 2021 at 9:57 am

      Absolutely! Thank you!

  10. Jake P on February 10, 2021 at 11:01 am

    This is good! Train up your people well, moving slow to establish leaders who know their roles and their mission and then sending them out! I work at a church of 200-300, and we’ve seen our young adult ministry thrive because our Citygroups have established vision, and leaders who know what they bring to the table.

    Vision, Roles and Development are all key! Thanks Dillon!

  11. AP_Office on February 10, 2021 at 10:06 am

    Thank you for this post. I have been LP for 3 years and have discovered firsthand the truth that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I heard that somewhere from someone once 🙂

    I’m a big believer in not trying to re-invent the wheel but make modifications where necessary. This resource and guideline is just what I was looking for in building the bones for launching small groups. Our mission is “Love, Love, GO!” It’s the simplicity of the Gospel to love God, love people, and go make disciples. This will definitely help us increase our impact/emphasis on the “GO” part.

    Thank you again. Great work!

    • Dillon Smith on February 10, 2021 at 10:34 am

      This is so great to hear!

      I’d love to hear what progress you make as you implement these things. Really hoping this is a win for the kingdom.

  12. Trace Howard on February 10, 2021 at 9:57 am

    Be interested to see where this leadership model is in 5-10 years. Perhaps it will continue to thrive because it is a part of the church’s culture. The key is point 6 – small groups were part of the fabric of the church at the outset. Also, how big is the church? These intricate strategies (despite the claim of simplicity) are great on paper and can work pretty effectively in a church of 5,000. More difficult in a church of 200.

  13. Anna Fillgrove on February 10, 2021 at 9:14 am

    Thank you, Dillon. Great info. I especially loved the IN, OUT, UP idea from CityLIghts. So, simplistic, yet deep, all at the same time.

    • Dillon Smith on February 10, 2021 at 10:36 am

      Totally agree!

      Their framework is genius, and God has really used them to change our city.

      • Grace on February 10, 2021 at 3:43 pm

        The key to using small groups as a discipleship strategy is in the training of leaders. Prior to retiring, I served a very large church, where initially there was a high focus on recruitment of leaders, but more importantly, 12 weeks of training. And weekly care time for those leaders. Somewhere the wheels fell off, as it was determined that all that training wasn’t important. Results, loss of group participation, and the loss of mission and vision for each group. Training is basic.

  14. Jake A. on February 10, 2021 at 8:38 am

    Wow. As an associate pastor of a small church this post gets me geared up! We are already working in and towards these ideals and these notes and resources help a lot. Wonderful content.

    • Dillon Smith on February 10, 2021 at 10:36 am

      Cheering for you Jake!

  15. Paul Spittka on February 10, 2021 at 8:16 am

    Thank you Dillon for this amazing info and links to helpful resources! A BIG shout out to CityLights Church for allowing us to glean from their experiences and leadership!

    • Dillon Smith on February 10, 2021 at 10:36 am

      So grateful!

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