Is the Cohort the New Small Group?

cohort or small group?
What's the difference between a small group and a cohort? And should we replace one with the other?

Growing up in a Christian home, the church “small group” is a concept I’m very familiar with. Whether you call them small groups or life groups or journey groups, at their core, these groups are a way to come together to study God’s Word, pray for each other, and do life together.

Eight years ago, I wrote about why small groups are worth it, and admitted:

During my single years I attended and even led my share of small groups. Some were good. Others were OK. And still others were not-so-good. Despite good intentions, for various reasons a lot of these groups just fell flat. I didn’t see the impact in my own life or on the lives of others that I had anticipated.

Through the years, I’ve discovered there are a number of things that can cause small groups not to “work.” A lack of strong leadership is one of them. If you don’t have a passionate, committed leader or leaders, your small group won’t make it.

When I wrote that post, I wasn’t actively attending a small group, but joined one soon after. Being in a healthy small group was a deeply encouraging experience. For the past five years, I’ve been part of an “Impact Group” through my church. (“Impact” denotes that we serve together once a month to impact our community.) I have grown in my faith, received encouragement, and enjoyed camaraderie with others who love the Lord.

Rise of the cohort

Over the past few months, I’ve been flooded with communication about joining a cohort. Cohorts seem to be the latest and greatest thing in Christian culture. Churches, seminaries and Christian organizations are jumping in on offering cohorts. But what is a cohort?

From looking at several organizations and personal blogs, I discovered that a cohort is a group of like-minded people who gather for brainstorming, coaching and fellowship, and seem to blend Christian mentorship with professional development.

Many of the cohorts I encountered centered around monthly Zoom meetings, allowing people to access the group from anywhere. The cohort may be centered around a particular topic such as leadership development or church ministry. It may also be an affinity group composed of people with similar passions such as artists, musicians or pastors.

For a short time, I was part of a cohort — which we called a “Mastermind Group” — for writers, where we discussed current projects and offered accountability to pursue our goals. A devotional book I had been considering writing actually materialized through that experience.

According to the organization Healthy Growing Churches: “Cohorts are a powerful method of turning information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom. When like-minded people get together with a common goal, a high level of commitment, and a desire to advance the kingdom of Christ, we expect to see marvelous results!”

Cohorts vs. small groups

From an initial look at cohorts, their benefits include learning from others (at times a diverse group not in your immediate community), receiving accountability for goals, gaining new ideas, and growing in a specific area of life or discipline.

But a cohort is distinctive from a church small group, which connects you to your local body of believers. When I think about small groups, I always think of 1 Thessalonians 2:8, where Paul says: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”

That kind of life-on-life community can’t happen through a once-a-month get-together. You need those people you can call at a moment’s notice when you’re facing temptation or hardship. The person who can bring you a meal, pray with you, or encourage you with Scripture. That is the kind of fellowship you are designed for.

A cohort can serve a different purpose. It may be very effective in the process of “iron sharpening iron.” The concept of a group of similar learners coming together seems like a recipe for growth. One caution, though: Be mindful of who you group up with. You should always be seeking wise people who love God and stand in truth. Proverbs 13:20 says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

Is a cohort for you? Maybe it is. Such a group can provide fresh perspective, new ideas, specialized coaching, and support and personal growth. But don’t ditch your small group. The community you do life with — where you are known — is irreplaceable.

Copyright 2021 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Suzanne Gosselin
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin

Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, who is a family pastor, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.

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