Debunking GroupLife Mythology

By Mark Howell

AcropolisEver heard these truths?

  • You have to be a member of a group before you can lead a group.
  • Only closed small groups can develop genuine intimacy.
  • Coaching helps small group leaders develop better technique.
  • Healthy groups grow and birth.
  • Apprenticing is the best way to produce new leaders.

What do you think?  Believe they’re true?  Or could they be small group ministry old wives’ tales?

Like a lot of mythology, they have the appearance of truth.  They seem reasonable.  In some cases, they seem obvious.  But are they true?

I think they’re only partly true at best.  In fact, a couple of them are only barely connected with the truth.  Here’s what I mean:

  • Do you have to be a member of a group before you can lead a group?  No.  This is an incorrect assumption and a very damaging one.  Think about it.  If 25% of your adult worship attendees (using the Easter number makes an even stronger case) are members of a group, what’s the likelihood that the best potential leaders are all already in a group?  Slim.  So for starters, if you have to be a member first, you’re starting with weaker genetic stock.  In addition, there’s nothing to leading that can’t be developed on the fly.  Especially if you’re using a curriculum that guides the discussion.  Add in the feature of preferring that the leader fill their own group…and it’s nearly a slam dunk.  This myth is busted.
  • Is there any truth to the idea that closed groups develop a deeper intimacy?  None.  In fact, studies have shown that open groups can be even more deeply connected.
  • Is coaching primarily about technique?  No.  In fact, coaching has very little to do with technique once a group has been together longer than about three to six months.  This is the main reason that retroactively assigning coaches to existing groups has such a low success rate.  So, if coaching isn’t about technique, what’s it about?  It’s about care!
  • Do healthy groups really grow and birth?  It sure sounds good on paper…but is it true?  Think about your own efforts in this practice.  What percentage of your groups have actually grown and successfully birthed a new group?  In my experience, the most successful small group ministries are only able to identify a 30 to 40% success rate over the previous 2 years.  Does that mean the other 60 to 70% of their groups are unhealthy?  Maybe.  But it’s more likely that growing and birthing is an indicator of something other than health.
  • Is apprenticing really the best way to launch new groups?  Much like my previous answer, apprenticing is primarily a leadership development strategy (as opposed to a group multiplication strategy).  When you evaluate your system, it’s very helpful to consider this great Andy Stanley line: “Your ministry is perfectly designed to produce the results you’re currently experiencing.”  That said, it seems fair to ask, “If apprenticing is really the best way to launch groups, how’s it working?  Are you multiplying fast enough to actually absorb the demand?

I’ve written on many of these topics in the past (my article Top 10 Axiomatic Beliefs of Group Life wrestles with many of these same ideas).

Mark Howell

Mark Howell is the founder of, committed to helping churches launch, build, and sustain healthy small group ministries. He's also the Pastor of Discipleship Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church.  Having served as small group pastor at Woodlands Church and Lake Avenue Church, Mark is a seasoned veteran with experience in both the contemporary and the traditional church. In addition, he served as a consultant with Lifetogether and as a host for the Purpose Driven Campaign Coaching programs. You can read Mark's blog at or follow him on twitter.