The Trade-Off Discussion: On-Campus and Off-Campus Groups

Michael Porter is a well-known expert on strategy. Porter has articulated “strategy is about making choices, trade-offs.” An effective strategist thus understands the landscape and deliberately chooses a path with awareness and understanding of the trade-offs. A leadership team that is strategic is able to say, “Here are the potential benefits and the potential pitfalls of this direction, and with those in mind, we have made the strategic choice to move in this direction.”

Church leaders frequently ask me about the directional choice between “off-campus” small groups and “on campus” groups, often called Sunday School.

I have never really involved myself in the discussion that pins one against the other. Not because it is a fruitless discussion but because I believe both are an approach to helping people enjoy and benefit from Christian community. In other words, I am much more passionate about community that is rooted in Jesus than I am about the nomenclature used to describe a church’s strategy for helping people live in Christian community. Through His death, Jesus created a new community of Christians, and He matures us in community. I am for churches being passionate about that—whatever nomenclature a church uses.

So when I have used “groups” in books or articles, I have used it as the overarching term, the generic term for the strategy churches use.

Some churches challenge their people to be in a group (or whatever language they use), and they offer groups that meet on the church campus and groups that meet in homes during the week. Others, because of space limitations or other reasons, are put in a position where they are confronted with a trade-off choice between focusing primarily on “on-campus” groups or primarily on “off-campus” groups.

While I want to emphasize that theologically and philosophically I see little distinction, practically there are some trade-off implications to the decision. When making directional decisions, wise leaders understand the trade-offs before those decisions are made, and then they work to minimize the inherent downside of the direction they chose.

Four practical benefits of “on-campus” groups

1. Greater and easier assimilation: It is much easier to move people to a group that meets on the church campus because the people are used to coming to the church campus, and they may already be there when the group meets. If you are one of those church leaders who bash “traditional approaches,” drink these data points in for a moment and rethink your position that everyone else but you and your crew just doesn’t get it:

  • Churches that focus exclusively on groups that meet on the church campus every week typically have 80+ percent of their adult attendance in a group each week.
  • On average, churches that meet in homes or other locations, and not as frequently, typically have 30-40 percent of their adults enrolled in a group (emphasis on enrolled, not attendance). Notice I wrote “on average.” There are some churches who utilize off-campus groups that experience high percentages of their people in groups because they have so effectively infused group life into their culture.

2. Easier coaching: On-campus groups enable a “groups coach” or staff member to more easily check in on groups and group leaders as many of the groups are meeting at the same time and at the same place.

3. Built-in programming for the kids: One of the biggest challenges of groups that meet in homes is what to do with the kids.

4. A clear start/stop time: You can accuse the host of being un-relational, but not every small group host loves having 3.5 hour group meetings followed by further conversations with a few laggards who don’t pick up on the social cues that the dishes have been washed and the husband has put on his pajamas.

So if you are a church leader who has space available on Sunday mornings for your people to meet (and the parking spots to go with it), you should consider using it. I would use every nook possible to get people into biblical community.

Tomorrow I will give practical benefits of groups that don’t meet on the church campus. Again, my goal is not to advocate one over the other—I don’t—but to help leaders understand there are some practical trade-off decisions that are being made. And if a church leadership team can recognize the embedded trade-offs, they can work to minimize the downsides of their approach.

For resources on groups, whether they meet on-campus or off-campus, check out



  1. says

    We find ourselves struggling somewhat on the same issue between on/off campus groups.

    Our off-campus concern revolves around our children’s programs. Part of that that are parents not arriving in a timely fashion after their group concludes to pick up their kids from the evenings activities. Another has to do preschool aged children being dropped off to our preschool program by parents who may/maynot be involved in one of our small groups. Here, the disadvantage of an off-campus group is accountability of attendance whereas if the groups were on-campus, it would be more obvious who is utilizing our preschool program as “free babysitting.”

    Our on-campus concerns deal with the lack of available space. With our children and preschool programs, it’s not a very conducive environment to have any intimate group experience. But, we do have a few groups that meet because we have a couple of “large” rooms. We’ve had at least one group that grew to where meeting in a home setting was not feasible, but the group leader was not open to creating off-spring groups that would be more suitable for meeting in a home.

    I tend to favor off-campus groups meeting in homes under the guise that the environment is more conducive to guests and intimacy. But then I waffle and wonder, if space was not an issue, about the increase in attendance by keeping groups on campus.

  2. Matt says

    Our greatest energy is with on campus groups for the reasons you mention. And beyond traditional Sunday school, we see success with onsite groups throughout the week. For us, church attenders come from a wide geographical area, and the church is a great centralized meeting point. Additionally, no one feels the pressure to get home from work, clean up the house, and then have to clean up after everyone leaves. Furthermore, the church is a non-threatening place for open groups to invite newcomers.
    It makes me wish our church would have thought of more attractive meeting spaces in past building plans to accommodate groups throughout the week.

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