Ten Ways to Break (or Make) Your Small Group

Our Top Suggestions to Poison Your Crew

Ten Ways to Break (or Make) Your Small Group

by | Jan 30, 2024 | Articles

CS Lewis’ famed novel, The Screwtape Letters, is cast as a conversation between two demons. The first demon, Screwtape, is a more experienced tempter in Hell’s Army. He writes a total of 31 letters to his nephew, a younger demon named Wormwood. In the letters, Screwtape offers Wormwood advice on how to lure souls to spiritual ruin. The book is a masterpiece. It illuminates the subtle and not-so-subtle tactics Satan uses to destroy people’s lives. In one such letter, Uncle Screwtape writes, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” I think this piece of advice might be accurately amended to say, “The safest road to hell is the isolated one. If you want to kill a Christian, make sure he never finds Christian community.” Authentic Christian community has saved many a soul, and the devil knows it. Thus, in the spirit of Screwtape, I would like to offer you 10 ways to destroy your small group. Each suggestion is followed by an opposing positive recommendation. The first will break your small groups. The second will make them.

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#1: Dominate the Conversation

Want to sow frustration in your small group? Fall in love with the sound of your own voice. Talk all the time. Dominate the airwaves. Or, better yet, allow one of your group members to ramble incessantly. If you’re looking for a more subtle but just as effective way to poison the community – check your phone. For maximum effect, wait until one of your group members makes a vulnerable point, then respond to a text message.

Positive Recommendation: Remember Dale Carnegie’s line, “Interesting people are interested.” The best small-group participants are not those who say a lot, but rather those who cultivate an atmosphere for conversation. Of course, small group leaders should indeed speak, share insights, and offer expertise. Just remember the purpose of a small group is primarily fellowship, not education. Education can happen, but it’s usually not why people attend. Think about it. In the age of the internet, your guys can find a better, more knowledgeable person on YouTube. There is very little that you have to say that has not been said better online. What cannot be found online is fellowship. Your responsibility is to create community, so put your phone down, look people in the eye, post thoughtful questions, and learn to listen attentively to the answers.

#2: Pontificate Your Opinions

Crassly offer your political opinions and assume that everyone agrees with you. If someone does offer a contrary opinion, make sure to get defensive, raise the tension, and derail the conversation. If you really want to grind people’s gears, I recommend treating your own obscure political opinions as essential tenets of scripture or tradition. You might, for example, cite your favorite news source or the tenets of your political party as if they were required doctrine. To disagree is heresy!

Positive Recommendation: Christian small groups can be a great place to discuss our sacred responsibility to participate in the political process. Thus, they can and should be a place in which people can discuss politics. Nevertheless, charged political conversation is often a distraction. For example, it is much easier to talk about a Church controversy than it is to talk about your prayer life. Again, I’m not saying you should always avoid such topics. In fact, sometimes you should discuss them! Nevertheless, watch out if your group’s conversation frequently circles back to any of the following topics: (1) Church leadership, (2) conspiracy theories, (3) liturgical debates, (4) gender theory, (5) taxes, or (6) anything that your favorite political commentator has to say.

#3: Avoid Commitment

There is perhaps no better method of assuring that a small group will never get off the ground than to be vague and indecisive about time and place. Beware the man who says something like, “Folks, we will meet at Jim’s Coffee at 7AM on Thursday mornings.” This tactic is particularly effective for millennials and Gen-Z. They hate planning and commitment, always wishing for the spontaneous and organic, or hoping that something better might come along.

Positive Recommendation: Be clear on time, place, and frequency. Also, it is supremely helpful to stick to a certain amount of time. If, for example, you tell your group that you plan to meet for 1 hour each week at 7AM, but then routinely let the conversation drift 15 minutes over, people will come to distrust the group. That’s not to say that you need to be rigid, but maybe make a remark like, “Folks, we just hit an hour. I’m going to say a quick prayer to wrap things up and people should feel free to go. No pressure though – stay as long as you like.” Here it’s also helpful to note that the real fruit of most small groups does not come until several months in. Intimacy takes time – especially for men. So, don’t ride a high: commit. When you’re most tempted to blow off your small group – that’s probably when you most need to go!  

#4: Be Vague on the Why

Small groups fizzle without a sense of purpose. Thus, it’s helpful to keep people guessing, “Are we just a group of friends that gets together occasionally to shoot the breeze, talk politics, and trade sports statistics?”

Positive Recommendation: Scripture says that “Without a vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). No need to be overly formal, but it is important to say something about why you’re getting together. You might start the first small group by saying, “Gents, I’m here because I’m convinced that iron sharpens iron. I think men become better when they meet regularly with other men. I would like to meet to get to know one another, grow as men, and become better as husbands and fathers. I think you men can help me build my family. We’ll start by doing this course from the FORGE website, then go from there with other articles, books, courses, or wherever the spirit takes us. I respect you guys, and I’m looking for a space where I can share some personal things, and that those things will remain here. That’s what I’m looking for in this small group. Is that what you guys are looking for?” It can be as simple as that, but it’s helpful if the purpose is stated.    

#5: Invite Everyone

Once a small group gets off the ground, the biggest threat to its existence is that it gets too big. So, what can you do to kill a successful small group? Shoot for 15 members! Once you get your group above 9-10 members, you no longer have a small group. You have subtly killed your small group and created a classroom. Also, if you really want to cause division quickly, go ahead and invite new members without consulting anyone. Guys hate that. It’s a great way to produce factions and/or motivate committed members to leave.

Positive Recommendation: Shoot for 5-10 members in your small group (maybe 12 tops). If you have a new man considering joining the group, suggest it to the other guys in the group before you extend an invitation and/or respond to a request. You do not do anyone a service by allowing your small group to get too big. In fact, unrestrained growth is a sure way to destroy intimacy. Also, realize that while men’s groups are great things, you should not have an expectation that all your closest friends will be part of your group. A little bit of variety in your relationships might be a good thing!

#6: Disrespect Confidentiality

Loose lips sink ships! Want to kill your group? Do your best to lure men into vulnerable conversation. Then, after the small group concludes, spill the beans. Of course, it’s best to do so in a veiled manner, “You know I shouldn’t tell you this, but Tim has an issue with…” Gossip, gossip, gossip!

Positive Recommendation: Confidentiality is an essential component of any good small group. This is especially the case for men who are hardwired to be protectors. Protect confidentiality and conversion will thrive.

#7: Make Everything a Joke

It’s a lot easier to dwell on the surface than to delve deep. Keep the conversation on sports, the news, or, here is the most enticing…other people. And of course, make sure all your comments are sarcastic. This conversation style will ensure that your guys won’t make any real progress in virtue and will eventually lose interest in the group. There is nothing like fluffy jokes and professional sports to avoid meaningful conversation and kill a small group!

Positive Recommendation: Talk about the actual joys and struggles of your life. Ask yourself a question: “What are the real problems of my life right now?” Here you’re looking for the problems affecting you now – the ones that you have not yet solved. Bring those things to the conversation. If your small group is not a place where you can talk about those things, then the group is probably a waste of time. Look for another group or work to improve the one that you’re in! All this being said, don’t force people to discuss things they are not comfortable discussing. Sometimes a small group is not the right place, and some people take longer to share than others.  

#8: Keep Spouses in the Dark

If you’re looking to kill a small group, spouses have a lot to offer! For example, if you can convince a wife that her husband is just screwing around with the boys, then she will very likely put the kybosh on things. This one is a little bit more subtle, but one of the best things you can do to kill a small group is to neglect to explain the rationale for the group to spouses. Why kill a small group yourself when you could have someone else do it for you!?

Positive Recommendation: Make sure spouses are as committed as group members! Imagine if your wife was kicking you out of bed in the morning to get you to your small group. Need a little help convincing her, check out this article, “Why a Men’s Group?” One practical idea to produce buy-in; you might share some of your small group resolutions with your wife. A lot of small groups will end with a resolution from each participant. What do you want to work on between small groups? Tell your wife and invite her into your growth process.

#9: Set Unreasonably High (or Low) Expectations

On the one hand, you can kill a small group through over-enthusiasm. Let’s say you’re fresh off a retreat, and you have a group of guys who are really excited to start a men’s group. Go ahead, ride the enthusiasm, and set your meeting time for Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday mornings at 5AM. It won’t take long; you’ll burn out your guys in 2 weeks for sure! On the other hand, if you’re working with a group of miserly, overcommitted, or sluggish men, take the opposite approach. Go ahead and suggest a bi-annual breakfast meeting. Your members will forget each other’s names between meetings and the group will never start!

Positive Recommendation: Good small groups should meet 1-4 times per month. More than once per week is impossible. Less than once a month lacks meaning. Two other notes on this front. First, most guys instinctively schedule men’s groups for the evening, but that might not work. Instead, we encourage you to consider mornings. You can always supplement with the occasional evening bash, but many men find mornings an easier routine commitment. And that leads to the second point, invest in your men’s group outside of men’s group. Take the time to grab drinks with other guys in your group, have their families over for dinner, etc. The regular meeting should not be the only time you see each other!

#10: Neglect Your Prayer

The first Christian small group in history was the 12 apostles. The relationships between the apostles were strong because they were each individually rooted in their own relationship with Christ. Want to help your group fall apart? Neglect your own prayer life and encourage your guys to do the same! 

Positive Recommendation: Pray and talk about your prayer. It might seem a cliché question, but a small group ought to be a place where someone can ask the question, “What is the Lord doing in your life? What has been going on in prayer lately?” The conversation in any small group will advance in lockstep with the interior lives of the people involved in the small group. When participants in a group have made prayer a part of their daily lives, there will always be meaningful things to talk about! 

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John Bishop

John Bishop

Dr. John Bishop serves as Founder and Executive Director at FORGE. He spends his time building the organization, writing curriculum, and drinking Gin and Tonics. Prior to FORGE, John spent 9 years leading various initiatives at FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. John lives in Des Moines, Iowa with his wife, Katelyn, and their three children.