How can you prevent your small groups from becoming inwardly focused and impenetrable to newcomers? Doug Powe and Ann Michel of the Lewis Center staff outline four strategies to help groups maintain an outward focus and an invitational posture.
Small groups are essential venues of personal and spiritual development for many in our faith communities. The intimacy of smaller gatherings deepens relational bonds, nurtures trust, and provides a safe space for spiritual exploration, learning, and growth.
But it is all too easy for small groups to become cliquish and inwardly focused. And this tendency becomes more pronounced the longer the group stays together. Think of the adult Sunday School class that’s been together for 40 years but hasn’t seen a new person join in the last 20 years. Or the women’s or men’s groups that cannot figure out why none of the younger folk are interested in joining.
How can a small group expand its reach and stay outwardly focused while also honoring its identity and purpose? These four strategies can help.
1. Remain invitational.
Small groups often form around shared interests or affinities, for example, a sewing circle or a Bible study for retired men who live in a particular neighborhood. But often, after the group is formed, the members become comfortable with one another and stop inviting others. But what if the sewing circle reached out to others by offering weekly or monthly classes to anyone interested in learning handicrafts? Or what if the men’s Bible study gathered in the local coffee shop as a way of connecting with other retired men who live in their neighborhood? In both cases, this maintains the integrity of the group’s identity and purpose, while keeping a focus on reaching others.
2. Create a more welcoming narrative.
If you’ve ever been a guest at someone else’s homecoming or family reunion, you probably know how it feels to be the outsider listening in on conversations and stories about people and events that are totally unfamiliar to you. The same dynamic often occurs in long-standing church groups. While it can be helpful for a newcomer to learn some of the group’s history, it’s off-putting when all the stories exclude someone new to the group.
It’s important for a group to not only share memories but to create new stories that include new people. One way of doing this is to learn what’s important to the newcomer and make that the focus of the conversation. For instance, if the newcomer enjoys gardening, turning the discussion toward that subject brings them into the conversation and gives them a way of interacting with the group. Invite newcomers to suggest future discussion topics, agenda items, or activities. Providing these types of conversational on-ramps allows a new person to feel they are contributing to the group, rather than just listening in on something they’re not part of.
3. Try new things.
Sometimes small groups fall into a rut. Week after week, month after month, they follow the same routine. In a Bible study, for example, someone reads the scripture for the week. Everyone takes a turn sharing what it means to them. And then the group closes in prayer. It doesn’t take a newcomer long to figure out the pattern never changes.
Consistency is helpful, but sometimes it helps to mix things up. It may be as simple as the weekly Bible study group experimenting with Lectio Divina in place of the “read, respond, and pray” approach. Trying new things will help prevent falling into a rhythm that is too predictable. More importantly, announcing that you’re doing something new or different provides a natural opening for someone new and levels the playing field by allowing them to participate on the same basis as a longtime member.
4. Adopt a missional focus.
Another way a small group can maintain an outward and invitational posture is to devote time regularly to a missional cause or outreach activity that fits the group’s identity and purpose. Your prayer shawl ministry might knit baby blankets and visit a children’s hospital a couple of times a year to deliver them personally. Your women’s book club might volunteer at the local library or read to children at the local elementary school. Your choir might plan a monthly sing-along at the local senior center. Your men’s group might organize a cleanup day at a nearby park twice a year and invite other neighbors to help.
This should be more than just taking up a collection or donating items. Small groups should be challenged to get out of their meeting rooms and into the community in ways that make their interests and activities visible and connect them with neighbors and community members. If your church has lots of different groups, teams, or classes, you might motivate them by designating a particular time of year for a congregation-wide focus on outreach by groups and then highlighting the efforts of each.