In my early years of serving as a small groups pastor I often would talk to a person interested in joining a small group, refer him to the small group facilitator, then would find out that no one showed up for the group. Thus, I developed these ten tips because several of our groups had ten people sign up to be part of a group, then when the group was ready to start only two people showed up the first night.
REMIND THEM THEY CAN JOIN AT ANY TIME
While at our church we say that groups “start in February” and “start in September,” as you talk to people interested in joining your group, remind them that they can join at any time.
Different Church Philosophies
In small groups ministries there are often two different philosophies on how people join small groups.
Upfront Long-term (High Commitment)
This approach has been popularized by North Point Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In their small groups ministry they ask people to pick a small group, and when they join to stick with that same group for an eighteen-month commitment. The argument behind this approach is that when a group of people start a small group together, stay together for a year and a half, and don’t allow anyone new to join, there is a bond created that cannot be replicated. You can read about this strategy in the book, Creating Community.
Invite Your Friends and Neighbors At Anytime Even If They Aren’t Christians (Low Commitment)
This approach has been popularized by Saddleback Church in Lake Forrest, California. In their small groups ministry they encourage people to start small groups by “grabbing a few friends or neighbors, regardless if those people attend Saddleback Church, any church at all, and it doesn’t matter if the person is a Christian.” There is no commitment to the study, just show up. The argument behind this approach is the goal of getting church members to engage people in their lives to either get to know Jesus Christ or grow in their relationship with him. Additionally, this approach helps to “fill groups” by putting the emphasis on small group leaders to fill their own groups with members instead of relying on the church to place people into small groups (a strategy that is difficult). You can read about this strategy in the book, Small Groups with Purpose.
Our Church Philosophy
The church I serve at, Rocky Hill Community Church, is a blend of each of these approaches. The “I” in our LIFE acrostic stands for “Including: Assimilating New People.” We want to welcome and accept new people that are new to our church or new to becoming a Christian into our small groups. We also encourage groups to always have an “Empty Chair” which the group uses as a reminder to pray for unsaved people and to use to welcome and accept those new people into their groups. Like I shared above, we often promote the small groups at church during the months of August (saying the groups start in September) and January (saying the groups start in February), and on Easter Sunday, but the reality is that people can join at any time.
Some people might come from the North Point Community Church philosophy where they are told that once a group has started no new people are allowed to join. Be sure to let people know that if they miss a week or two they can still join the group. One of the reasons I have our small groups use the Living on the Edge DVD-based topical studies is that there is a video code on the inside of each study guide where people can go online and watch the videos they might have missed. So if the study is an eight-week study, and the person missed the first two weeks, he can easily go online, watch the two sessions he missed, and get caught up. Furthermore, if someone joins your group in week six of an eight-week study, I suggest you give the person the study guide and don’t ask for the usual $10 fee. Just offer it as a gift to the person as a way to welcome him to the group.
Why Follow This Philosophy?
As a church we encourage people to join small groups at any point because it is biblical. As you think about it, is there only a certain time that you can become a Christian? Is there a time limit or period of “open enrollment” where you can become a Christian? Of course not!
You can accept Jesus Christ as your savior and dedicate your life when you are ten years old, forty years old, or ninety years old. You can make that commitment at anytime in your life and at any location (at church, in your bedroom, at a Billy Graham event, or a hospital room).
As you read the Bible there are numerous examples of people accepting Jesus at various moments in their lives and in different locations and with different backgrounds.
- Ruth was a Moabite widow (Ruth 1:16).
- There were the gentile sailors with Jonah who called out to God during the middle of an amazing and scary storm (Jonah 1:5-6, 9, 14, 16).
- The Ethiopian Eunuch was learning about Jesus Christ and when he saw a puddle[ref]The Greek text simply says ὕδωρ which is the Greek word for “water.” Whether this was a lake, pond, or water, the text is not clear.[/ref] on the side of the road he wanted to get baptized (Acts 8:26-38).
- Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians and do them harm when God appeared to him and saved him (Acts 9:3-18; cf. Phil 3:4-6, 9-11).
- Lydia was an affluent business woman who was meeting with others in prayer when Paul shared the Gospel with her and she was saved (Acts 16:11-15, 40). Lastly, the thief on the cross next to Jesus was saved at the last moments of his life (Luke 23:39-43).
Our mission at Rocky Hill Community Church is to “love God; love others.” And one of the best ways that we can do that is to welcome new people into our small groups.
Why Our Church Is So Specific on Curriculum
One of the reasons that our church is so specific on which curriculum our small groups use is because-as I showed you earlier-not all churches encourage people to join a small group at any time. Because of this we have to be very careful to select studies that encourage people in the group to invite people to join the group at any time. I do not want our groups to have a “we four, no more, close the door” attitude.
As a result, I encourage our groups to use the Wiersbe Bible study guides for verse-by-verse studies of the books of the Bible and the Chip Ingram DVD-based material for topical studies. Both of these sets of curriculum encourage the group to invite others into their small group at any time. Furthermore, one of the reasons our church has adopted the GriefShare and DivorceCare groups so strongly into our church is because both of these groups are “open” groups. They encourage people to join at any point in the 13-week study.
What to Tell People
Some people have been part of churches where they encourage high-commitment “closed” small groups where people join at the beginning and no new people are allowed to join for a while. Because of this, you need to tell people about our church philosophy that people can join at any time of the study. This is especially important after someone might have missed a week. Reach out to the person and say, “Hey, sorry we missed you. Hope you are okay. You are welcome to join us.” Encourage them to be part of the group as much as they are able and remind them that they can join at any time.