A small group leader gets a call from church-staff, asking if their group will accept new members. Cringe.
Cringe, because they asked us. Cringe, because we hesitate; “I need to check with my group first." Cringe because, honestly, we know we should enthusiastically respond, “we’d love that!”
As small group participants, we guard our hard-earned intimacy (with some guilt). Are we wrong to be wary of the disruption new members will bring? Yes. And no.
Yes, new members will disrupt your flow. If they’re to be more than disrupters, new small group members will need the group’s investment: explaining inside jokes, engaging them in future plans, encouraging them to have a voice. And when someone in the group responds to the newcomer’s idea with the familiar phrase, “We have always done it this way,” call a time-out and listen. The ideas, the different way of seeing things, may be just what God intended for your group at this time. Your group may have the opportunity to entertain angels by showing hospitality to strangers. (Hebrews 13:2)
That said, there are some small groups that should be closed. New small groups benefit from a season of closure, so members can commit to getting to know one another. Recovery groups need to protect the privacy of the healing process. Bible study groups need an upfront commitment for sequential and progressive traction. Covenant discipleship groups may have seasons of closure to foster trust, transparency, and increased responsibility.
So, no, it’s not wrong to be closed. Think of the disciples. Jesus did not keep adding a few new members every few weeks. He “ … chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles … “ (Luke 6:13). The group was closed. Of course, we’ve witnessed closed groups succumb to self-centeredness. But, at their best, closed small groups can create a synergy that makes daring, life-changing, world-changing impossibilities possible.
Three signs your group is closed (even if you say it’s open). When people ask to join, you say:
- "Not at this time." Members agree that the size, topic, or intimacy of the group depends on not having new folks just dropping in.
- “Yes!” knowing full well that most newcomers are quickly gone; likely due to years of insider memories and the difficulty being on the outside of those brings.
- “Let me ask the group.” In effect meaning, it will upend the trust you’ve created. It’s not a “no,” but a we’ll wait and see if they land somewhere else.
Closed groups are always at risk of becoming closed-off groups (a church clique). Think of the Pharisees, from Jesus’ day, who said, “Yes, God!” but “No way!" to engaging with the world. While closed groups can foster belonging, small groups that are closed-off foster exclusion.
Your group can be closed (limited in number like the disciples), but open and engaged with the community and the world! Jesus’ closed-group was amazingly open to others: they healed the sick, lifted the lame, ate with outcasts, hung out with fisherman, forgave the unforgivable, and loved the unlovable.
- If you’re a closed group – ask your group to stand against becoming closed-off; consider taking a step (below) to become more openly engaged in the world.
- If you’re a bit open and closed – talk about offering an open-series once or twice a year when people can visit and make a commitment to join.
- If you’re a group that’s open all the time – then, conversely, don’t be afraid to be like Jesus and ask people to make a commitment.
Three steps your small group can take to become outward-focused:
- Eat like Jesus. Think of Zacchaeus (Luke 19). As a group, make a plan for the pre/post-worship fellowship time. Instead of sticking with your group, have each person look for their Zacchaeus. Cross the room, sit together for coffee, and make your Zacchaeus feel welcome. Make it your small group’s mission to get out there.
- Party like Jesus. Think of the wedding at Cana (John 2): Jesus was out in the world, mixing it up. Ask your small group about events happening in your community; at which of these could you or your group serve? Get out there. Regularly.
- And serve others. Use your gifts as good stewards of God’s grace. (1 Peter 4) Serve a neighborhood or neighbor in crisis; someone who needs everything your group has got to give. Go big. Because, together you can make the impossible, possible.
Whether your small group is open or closed, if your small group is engaged in your church or broader community and making a tangible difference in our world – how people meet you will be less important than how they see and encounter God through you.
Interested in learning more adult small group tips? Check out our video series!