SMALL GROUPS & Should They Be Homogeneous or Heterogeneous?

by Bob Whitesel, April 7, 2009.

The following are questions tendered by a previous student and my responses.  They reflect some of innovative ways we can expand our small group systems today.

  • The student said: “You mentioned when a group gets over 15 or 16 people that it may be getting too big.  Is there a size that is too small to function well?”

Usually a group can be as small as two or three. Wesley called these “band meetings” and they usually had 4-7 people, while the class meetings had 8-16.  The smaller group is really more of an accountability group, and it was here that Wesley suggested they ask some very personal questions, such as “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?” (see Henderson, M. [1997] John Wesley’s class meetings: A model for making disciples. Springfield, MO: Evangel Publishing House, pp. 118-119)

  • The student said, “Is there a way to decide when a new group should be birthed?  Is it based on size or other factors – Spirit leading, change of interests, etc. “

The Holy Spirit’s leading is always critical, but size can confirm this.  Usually, people will start feeling the dynamics of the group have changed due to size and they just sort of “sense” it is time to birth another group.  To me it seems the Holy Spirit is leading this.

  • Student commented further: “What about diversity in a small group – often I heard people talk of how having a bunch of different unique individuals and different levels of Christian maturity are good for a group, but seems I’ve also heard that the group should be assembled based on similar ‘culture’?”

First, let us define two terms.  A small group of several cultures would be called a “heterogeneous.”  While a small group made up of multiple cultures would be called “homogenous.”  Churches too can be either heterogeneous or homogeneous. Using these terms, let me explain how I answered the student’s question.

Small groups create more intimacy if they are comprised of people who have much in common. Therefore, small groups develop more intimacy and accountability if they are homogenous (people of the same culture who have a lot in common and thus create more intimacy).

However, since I believe strongly that the church should be multi-cultural (or in other words heterogeneous) then a church should create many opportunities to bring together dissimilar groups.  These unity activities can happen by “linking” or “partnering” groups of different cultures to do common activities together, such as service to the needy.

But, there is a caveat here.  While intimacy and accountability are created within homogenous groups, prejudice can also inadvertently arise unless all groups “purposely and regularly” fellowship with different cultural groups.  This is why I am a big advocate of having a church made up of many different cultural sub-congregations.  It forces these different cultural sub-congregations to work together in running the church, learning how to forge partnerships, compromise as well as about the different cultures.  If you push out different cultures (e.g. youth cultures, Latino/Latina cultures, etc.) to go down the street and start their own church, there is going to be very little interacting between the cultures.  But, if you stay together with both cultures remaining in the same church building and running one non-profit organization together, you foster a lot of inter-cultural sharing, compromise and learning.

I call this the “alliance model” of a church, for it is an “alliance” of multiple sub-congregations who work together to run a church and by doing so break down cultural walls.  I devote a whole chapter to this model (and other models) of multicultural churches in The Healthy Church (2013, pp. 55-79).  I have a diagram in that chapter that shows why the “alliance model” is the best way for a church to get healthy and grow.

Plus, I can’t emphasize the reconciliation power of this “alliance model” enough.  Church leaders often think they have a healthy small group network because they have an expansive and robust small group ministry. But you must ALSO (not shouting, just for emphasis) have an expansive and robust “unity strategy” between your small groups.

This is because in our increasingly divided world we need more intercultural interaction to break down cultural walls.  Remember, for all of a small group’s power to create intimacy and discipleship, if you don’t have a strong unity strategy you will just have a hodge-podge of disconnected groups.  One of my mottoes is: “no small groups without regular partnerships between dissimilar groups!”