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Leading Small Groups Out of a Rut, Part 3

Leading Small Groups Out of a Rut, Part 3

The most challenging small group is the stuck-in-a-rut group. It is not
growing, and it is not dying. You can feel it at the meetings, observe
it in the relationships and sense it in the leader. There’s some Bible
reading and discussion, some sharing and socializing. But one week leads
to another and nothing changes. There are no emotional highs and few
depressing lows. It feels flat.

Though things are not going poorly, there is nothing really great
happening either. The group is stuck. But why? What are the potential

There could be many factors involved, but we
will take a look at some of the most common. So far, we asked
how lack of cohesion, drift, complacency and fatigue impact a group. Now, we conclude the series by exploring how transition and legalism contribute to a small group rut.


In the 1980s, our group life at Willow Creek Community Church was organized to fulfill a specific mission: leadership reproduction and discipleship. Willow had grown dramatically, and new believers needed to develop into maturing followers and capable leaders. The mission was clear: Take members through a two-year, curriculum-driven process to develop biblical knowledge, spiritual disciplines and leadership skills. This served us for a season, but many members needed different experiences beyond this “one-size-fits-all” approach.

In the 1990s, we met the desire for deeper connection and disciple-making by organizing groups around affinity: discover what people have in common and build groups around it. Age-based, stage-of-life-based, need-based, interest-based and task-based groups abounded. This served us well for a while, helping us connect many strays while building committed followers.

Then, about seven years ago we added a third—geography. By focusing our relational energies in communities surrounding Willow, we formed a web of group experiences that combine the servant hearts of our people with their evangelistic passion—and that keep them close to home, meeting with their neighbors. Within any geographic area you can create affinity groups around common themes or life stages (young couples, men) and mission-oriented groups (serving teams, seeker groups).

All three kinds of groups have great value and biblical precedent. I think of the house church led by Priscilla and Aquila, the serving group in Acts 6 ensuring the equitable distribution of food and Jesus’ high-affinity men’s group. Each functioned within a larger community but was organized differently. Yet there is the possibility for movement as well—as groups grow and evolve, they can begin to incorporate all three expressions.

For example, Jesus and the 12 had high affinity (young, Jewish males), a geographical center (Capernaum in Galilee) and ultimately a missional focus. Likewise, our groups can begin to integrate all three aspects, using geography as our primary organizing principle.

Moving from one model or approach to another brings freshness and new life. But here is the challenge—the land between is a wilderness. Transitions are hard and groups can get stuck right in the middle of them.

In order to work through this transitional phase, leaders must name reality. Breakdowns in group process or violations of ground rules cannot be ignored. Someone might have to say: “We agreed to encourage each other to grow here, but we seem unwilling to name the obstacles to such growth in our personal lives. Does anyone else observe that, and what should we do about it?” If a group decides to face the awkward reality of their own fallen, broken humanity, the result is increased growth and safety.

At the ministry level you must champion the new, honor the old and model the change. Regardless of the approach, be clear. Are you leading with mission? Affinity? Geography? Whatever you choose, consider how you might integrate the other two aspects as well. If you connect people in neighborhoods, allow gifted people to gather around a specific mission. If you organize by mission or task, identify ways geography can play a role in team-building.


“It was my first time attending the group meeting, but I have to admit, it felt more like a job interview. I was thinking: ‘Do these people like me? Do I like them? If they really knew me, would they want me to return? Would I trust my secrets to them—and would they be authentic and tell me their stories?’ It was awkward, and I felt judged. I want to be accepted, not analyzed; loved, not labeled.”

Sadly, this is the experience of many people who try to connect to group life. It feels like there are hidden rules and expectations. Or it appears the leader is a control freak. This kind of environment kills creativity and freedom. This is legalism and, in my opinion, remains as great a threat to groups and churches today as it posed in Jesus’ time.

When grace is the guiding motif in a community, and is accompanied by authentic truth, you have a powerful combination. Remember how John described Jesus in John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (NIV).

Are we willing to become people of “the Way” as the early followers were called in the book of Acts? They were full of grace and truth, and their lifestyle became a compassionate and compelling alternative to the legalism of the Pharisees. Each group must ask, “Will unconnected believers and inquisitive seekers find a safe, authentic home in our little community?”

I remember asking the guys in my group why they remain part of the group and why the group matters to them. One non-Christian said, “I am here because even though I do not believe what you all believe, you make me feel like I belong.”

Jean Vanier reminds us: “A loving community is attractive, and a community which is attractive is by definition welcoming. Life brings new life.” The law kills; the Spirit gives life. A group that is more interested in following the program, keeping the rules, performing for God or controlling the members will find itself trapped in a rut.

In legalistic groups, people go through the motions of group life but experience little movement. Members become more interested in being right than righteous, preoccupied with sin management instead of sacrificial service. No one takes risks when legalism reigns.

But grace speaks and receives truth without judgment. Grace brings resources to sinful and broken people, offering help and support. Grace creates safety that prompts healthy confession. Grace shouts, “I am broken, but I am loved!” When grace is in place, members of the group are “for” one another. New members feel welcomed and existing members willingly put personal agendas aside to accommodate the needs of others. But such grace takes effort, and that sounds counterintuitive. Dallas Willard famously said, “Grace is not opposed to effort—it is opposed to earning.”

Leading with grace is more art than science. It takes courage and discernment. Guard the messy moments when a heart opens up, when a confidence is shared, when a sin is confessed, when a dream is expressed or when a wound is exposed. Do not be intimidated. Enter the sanctity of those moments with a holy fear and wondrous awe. Don’t run—God is in the middle of that burning bush.

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