The difference between huddles and small groups … and why many churches use both

By Mike Breen

​More and more people have heard about the discipling vehicle of Huddle, either through word-of-mouth or reading the book Building a Discipling Culture that we put out two years ago (which, by the way, is on it's 5th printing and will be available soon. It's become so popular we can't keep them on the shelves). These are two of the more common questions or possible confusion points people hit about Huddles: 

  1. What's the difference between Huddle and a traditional small group? 
  2. Am I suggesting that Huddles replace small groups? 

First, let's talk about the differences. The easiest way to highlight this is through describing exactly what a Huddle is. 

A Huddle is: 

  • A place for leaders to receive investment, training, imitation and accountability (in other words…discipleship!). Here’s the big thing to note on this one: It is for current and/or future leaders. The people accepting an invitation into a Huddle should know they are expected to lead something (and maybe they already are, but if they aren’t, the expectation that they will start leading something). This is the principle at work: If you disciple leaders in how to disciple people, everyone in your community will be discipled. Why? Because you’re instilling in your leaders the Great Commission principle that “every disciple disciples others.”
  • By invitation only. A Huddle is an invitation for 6-12 leaders to regularly receive intentional investment by a discipling leader. But it is more than that. It's also an invitation in that person's life, not just a 90-minute-perweek gathering point. You have access to the life of the discipling leader outside of just the Huddle time. As we know, the principles of discipleship at work are often better caught than taught. 
  • Something that is reproduced. Rather than adding people to a Huddle, we multiply the discipling culture that is created with the expectation that every leader start their own Huddle at some point. But this isn't something we spring on them. They should know that by accepting the invitation that this is the expectation. So rather than growing your Huddle to have 10 people instead of the 8 that it started with, we ask that the 8 people you started with all start Huddles of their own. It's growth by multiplication that eventually leads to exponential growth. 
  • A place for invitation and challenge. The discipling leader, as they invest in the lives of the people in their Huddle, will invite them into their life, their rhythms and have access to their Spiritual capital. But they will also, from time to time, be challenged (gracefully) to live more fully into the Kingdom when their way of life is different or out-of-step with the things we read about in scripture and the Kingdom. 
  • High commitment. For all the reasons stated above.

And while I realize every church does small groups differently, here are some differences from the way most churches use small groups: 

  • Small groups are usually much lower commitment. 
  • They are usually looking to grow by adding new members. 
  • Anyone can be part of it. 
  • Challenge is not a regular fixture in most small groups because the emphasis is much more on sharing, contributing and creating as warm an environment as possible so that newcomers feel welcome. 
  • Small groups are usually led by facilitators who are looking to create space for everyone to share and contribute. 
  • Small groups multiply when they are too large, and usually it's through splitting them (every Small Group Pastor in the world just cringed that I used the word "split"). It's growth by addition. 
  • Small groups tend to lean towards the lowest common denominator in terms of spiritual content so that anyone can step into it (again, we're not saying all small groups do. But in general, many do). 

So those are some key differences between them. 

Notice, however, that I didn't point to any negatives in small groups. I just defined what they are in juxtaposition to a Huddle and said what they can do and can't do. 

Here's the thing I hope people understand who are trying to implement Huddles into their existing church structure (or even a church plant): For people who already have small groups, there's a good chance you're still going to need small groups. So don't go killing them off because you think you've found something that really works with the vehicle of a Huddle. Understand what a Huddle is great at and what it does, and what a small group does well and does in your spiritual formation process. 

Huddle focuses 100% on leaders. It's got to be leaders. If you Huddle a leader and disciple them, invest in them, give them an easily transferrable and portable discipling language, teach them how to disciple others, teach them how to calibrate Invitation and Challenge in discipling both individuals and groups…they can do this in any sort of spiritual formation vehicle. You can use small groups, triads, one-on-one mentoring, sunday school, etc. The essential question is do you have a leader who has been trained to disciple people and can they import that into any setting? Investing in a leader through Huddle does that for you. Simply by putting in a leader who knows how to disciple people like Jesus did, it almost instantly makes any discipleship vehicle more effective in discipling people. Are some vehicles better than others? Of course. But every church community is different and utilizes different vehicles. You must evaluate those vehicles in your church and city context. Every church truly is different. So let's say the current discipleship vehicle you're using in your church is small groups. 

Here is what we've noticed with small groups and Huddles: 

Huddles need to be high challenge and very high commitment. Out of the gate that excludes a lot of people in your community who may not be ready for that kind of commitment. Do we want them to be ready? OF COURSE. But we have to live in the reality that people are in different places in their spiritual journey. If you try to simply replace small groups with Huddles, I can almost guarantee a few things will happen: 

  1. You will dilute your Huddles. They will become a mixture of leaders and non-leaders; people up for actively spreading the Kingdom, and people who aren't willing to take that step. When this happens, Huddles become frustrating and/or VERY VERY BORING. Why? Because Huddle is for leaders who are seeking training, investment, discipleship and accountability for the Kingdom work they are leading people into. If it's just information transfer, the potency is lost. They have to be out there doing something. It usually only takes about 6 months for "boring" to kick in if you've diluted your Huddle. 
  2. A good chunk of the people in your community will become displaced. They aren't ready for the commitment of Huddle, but now their small group has been removed. Suddenly, outside of organic relationships, their principle tie to "church" is the Sunday morning service. Well, that's the exact opposite direction we want things to go, isn't?! I'm not saying we coddle and pacify lazy consumers, but I'm saying we don't have to see mass carnage in the transitions we're making either. I'm saying we need to have an simple and effective spiritual formation pathway for people, regardless of where they are at. 

Most of the churches we have seen be very successful at discipling people well and who are missional sending centers for Missional Communities and other missional vehicles tend to have small groups (and/or other discipling vehicles). 


Because they see them as a kind of developmental fishing pond. If every small group is led by someone in a Huddle with all the skills and know-how of discipling people like Jesus, there's a good chance that, over time, person by person, the people in those small groups will be formed, shaped and see massive breakthrough that would get them to the place where they are starting to live in the Kingdom differently. In other words, they might be open to Kingdom leadership. Then, people in Huddles looking to disciple future leaders by starting a Huddle of their own have a place to look to. Suddenly, instead of being a "spiritual holding tank", small groups become a key place in our spiritual formation paths for future leaders development. Small group leaders (all of whom are in a Huddle) are some of the most important leaders in your church; they are spiritually investing in and preparing the leaders of the future. 

You could argue that it could be one of the most important places that spiritual formation happens in preparation for mission. However, the other important thing to note is that small groups don't typically need to meet as often with the churches we are working with because, 1) People are functioning well within Missional Communities, and 2), Many MC's have small groups meeting within the group itself. 

But it depends 100% on the leader of that group. If they are in a Huddle, that's what can happen. 

Using huddles to disciple people other than leaders  

What many people do is take EVERYTHING they might do in a Huddle and start a group with people who are on the fringe; unchurched, de-churched, apathetic, cynical, etc. This works AMAZINGLY well in discipling people AND in seeing people come to faith (in effect with these types of groups, many times you're discipling someone in the ways of Jesus before they've even become Christians yet). This is outstanding. JUST DON'T CALL IT A HUDDLE. Call it anything you want. Call it a small group, LTG group, call it a water bottle…just don't call it a Huddle. 

The reason for this is the language quickly becomes very confusing for people because you've said Huddles are for leaders and suddenly there are groups happening with the same name, doing some of the same things, but some of them don't even have Christians in it and the dynamics and expectations are very different. Trust me on this one. You'll see amazing fruit in using all the same principles with people who aren't leaders when discipling them, just use a different name and change expectations accordingly (because they aren't expected to lead things from the get-go). You want the language of Huddle and the expectations of what it is to be in one crystal clear for people. Make it as clear as possible by not muddying the waters with groups with the same name doing sightly different variations of similar things. (Hopefully that makes sense.) 

To close, here's a helpful diagram we often use to help explain this visually. For churches that have all of the 4 sociological spaces at work (Public worship service, Missional Communities and Small Groups), it can often look like this:





​As a speaker, author, and entrepreneur, Mike Breen has been working throughout Europe and the US for the past 25 years. His passion is to continue to invest in the next generation of leaders.




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