“The Seven Deadly Sins of a Small Group” by Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson is about teaching churches and small group leaders how to have a successful small group ministry. The book is based on the experiences of the Willow Creek Association of Churches and specifically Willow Creek Church in Chicago. The authors both work for Willow Creek Church and have a passion to reach other churches with their knowledge and experience in small group leadership.

The information found in the book is neither new nor inventive, however, it is concise and to the point. The authors use everyday examples to help the reader understand the points and grasp their importance. The book is not deep in theology or spiritual principles and is far from being “power packed.” Therefore, it sometimes was very boring to read and not very “cutting edge.” On the other hand it does a good job of presenting the seven mistakes common to small groups and teaches how to avoid them.

The Seven Deadly Sins

Here are the “deadly” seven sins of a small group: 

(1) Unclear Ministry Objectives: not having a clear vision for small groups and their multiplication 

(2) Lack of Point Leadership: unable to place the right person over a small group

(3) Poor Coaching Skills: lacking in training of new small group leaders

(4) Neglect of Ongoing Leadership Development: not continuing the process of growth in the leader’s life

(5) Closed Group Mind-Set: not open to new people

(6) Narrow Definition of a Small Group: making all the small groups the same

(7) Neglect of the Assimilation Process: dropping the ball in connecting new visitors to the group.

The Seven Deadly Sins Remedies

After each “sin” that is listed the authors take the time to give helpful instruction to avoid the pitfalls mentioned. The instructions are clear and tested, thus they serve as good “cures” for the above “sins.” Here is a brief summary of the cures:

(1) Unclear Ministry Objectives: decide how your church will use small groups, make a plan to multiply, and remain faithful

(2) Lack of Point Leadership: spend the majority of the time choosing the right people and then train them effectively

(3) Poor Coaching Skills: develop relationships with the small group leaders

(4) Neglect of Ongoing Leadership Development: continue to give the small group leaders materials, retreats, and conferences

(5) Closed Group Mind-Set: teach the small group to “fill the empty chair” every week

(6) Narrow Definition of a Small Group: develop small groups according to people’s spiritual and real-life needs

(7) Neglect of the Assimilation Process: have a simple and clear process to follow with every visitor so they can easily get connected with a small group.

How it Made Me Feel

While reading this book I was reminded of my beginnings with small groups in my first pastorate. I was still a student in Bible College and was co-leading an inner city ministry in New Orleans called, “When Warriors Dream.” We were instructed on the importance of small groups and were even given examples of the type of materials we were to make. The ministry was very effective at getting the young urban youths to attend the outreaches, but we could not get them to gather during the week.

I then began to develop a strategy to get the youths to come, “free food!” This solved our problem with numbers, but made many more problems in its place. First, we suffered from “unclear ministry objectives” because we did not have a plan; we were just going with the “flow.” We simply had another “large group” on a different day.

Secondly, we suffered from “lack of point leadership.” When we finally enough leaders to make the break out groups smaller we soon realized they were unqualified to manage their group effectively. And lastly, we had no “assimilation process” in place, we just were happy if at the end of the day everyone was safe and still alive! We had no way of keep track of the new people.

In contrast, when I started the church I know pastor here in Chicago with a small group I did things much differently. I made sure I had a clear goal to the small group, which was the vision of the church. My wife and I were the leaders so we made sure everything we did was well planned. And lastly, we had a “follow-up” process from the start that involved phone calls, letters, emails, and coffee talks.

As a result, the outcome was a successful church plant. Today we have seven adult small groups and three youth small groups. My wife and I also lead an elders small group once a month and our discipleship process is based on small group principles. Therefore, I believe this book can keep our church on track and help us not make the same mistakes I once made.

Personal Reflection

I liked this book for its main points and applications, but I disliked it because of its lack of passion and anointing. I pray that more people like the authors will realize that the church is just not a business. I know they believe this in “theory,” but how they “practice it” is very lacking. For example, the author makes mention of a time at a leadership retreat when guest singer Alvin Slaughter came and God moved in a special way. He noted to Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek, that this never happens in Willow Creek services. I was shocked to hear this! Why not?

How can we as Christian leaders really desire to follow pastors that do not have a strong presence of God in their services? How is this acceptable? I believe if the services are weak, how much “weaker” are the small groups. I know people will say, “We get ‘deeper’ in the smaller meetings.” But what is the point if you cannot express it in the larger meetings? How can a church really grow disciples if they have to adjust to two different types of services? This is not true to the Bible; Jesus was Jesus wherever He was. Jesus always loved being with the Father, both in small and large groups. I sincerely hope that more people get tired of just having “clubs” and start getting closer to God by the Holy Spirit!

Personal Application

Here are some of the things I learned from this book that can be applied to Metro Praise Church in Chicago:

(1) Become a small group church, not just a church with small groups
(2) Promote small groups from the pulpit and at every announcements in both adult and youth services
(3) Make small attendance a must for all leadership positions
(4) Take time in choosing the right leaders and do not rush the process of appoint leadership
(5) Develop simple yet powerful training materials for leaders and apprentices
(6) Activate the same follow up process in all small groups
(7) Coach small group leaders, keep them accountable, and have continued leadership training
(8) Set a goal for every small group to multiply every six months!