The first time I attended a small group meeting, I drove around the block several times before finally getting up the nerve to walk up to the door of the host home. This was one of the scariest experiences of my life! I didn’t know what to expect and wondered if I’d fit in.
Over the years, I’ve loosened up, and I’ve also learned how to make groups more inviting and
accepting for new people. Here are 10 ideas.
1. Pay attention to the timing.
When is the best time to invite a friend to your group? If your group is in the middle of a six-week study, will it be awkward for a new person to join you? Perhaps you could wait for the beginning of a new study.
Is there “stuff” going on in your group that needs to be worked out before inviting a new person? For instance, if you’re in the midst of a group conflict, it may not be a good time to ask someone new to join you! Or if you’re working through a tender issue, such as a couple’s serious marriage problems, deal with that first.
2. Make it natural.
People balk at invitations that feel forced or unnatural. Instead, try these steps:
• Pray for your friends you’d like to invite. Ask God to open their hearts and to give you opportunities to grow your friendship.
• Invite your friends into your life before you invite them into your group. Spend time together.
• Introduce them to a couple other people in your group. Find common ground between your friend and another member of your group. Go to a ballgame, movie, or out to lunch together.
• Before you invite them to an official group meeting, extend an invitation to a fun group event. This is a great way to break the relational ice in a more natural social setting.
• Talk about your group, why you like it, and how it’s helped you grow. Share this in the natural rhythms of conversation. Don’t force it!
• When you sense the time is right (see above), simply ask your friend to join you the next time you meet. Your friend may be waiting for an invitation!
• When your friend agrees to come, tell him what to expect. Think about what you would want to know before coming to your first meeting, such as what to wear, what to bring, what you’ll be doing, and how long the meeting will be. If you invite a friend who has kids, be sure to tell him or her what arrangements the group has for them. If the group does not provide child care, perhaps offer to help arrange something with them.
3. Pick them up.
It will reduce their anxiety (and assure they don’t back out) if you offer to drive them and walk into the host home together.
4. Have a plan for when new people show up.
Be prepared to do something fun and nonthreatening when a new person joins you for the first time. Your group may be at a “good friend” or even “family” level in its relationships, but the new person probably is, at best, acquainted only with a few of the members. So plan some entry-level activities. Don’t expect a new person to jump right in to the existing group dynamic. Watch out for things like insider jokes.
5. Be authentic.
A tension exists between having a plan for when new people show up and being authentic. Just walk this tightrope the best you can. I’ve found the best way to break this tension is to talk about it. Say something like, “Ellen, we’re really glad you’ve joined us tonight. This group started two years ago with Bob and Donna and Heidi and me. Jim and Jenny joined us a couple months ago. . . .” (This shows Ellen that new people joining the group is normal.) “We’ve become pretty good friends and, well, we have our idiosyncrasies, too. You know, everybody’s normal till you get to know them!” (Laughter is a great icebreaker.)
Then explain what you’ve been up to as a group and where you’re going. But don’t make a long speech detailing every aspect of your group. Your guest will figure stuff out as you go. Encourage members of your group to be themselves. Your guests will find out soon enough who you really are.
6. Be normal.
You’re a Christian small group, so your guest will expect you to talk about spiritual things. But it’s also fine to talk about sports, work, kids, movies, and so forth. Talk about what each of you is passionate about. If you have been praying for this person, it’s OK to let them know that (without getting overly serious about it).
7. Introduce everyone.
When a group starts, we usually introduce ourselves and tell our stories. When new people show up, it’s like a new group to them. The rest of the group may have moved past history-sharing icebreakers, but these are very helpful when a guest joins you. “Where did you grow up?” “Who was your best friend in high school?” These and other such questions can help get everyone on the same page faster.
8. Explain (almost) everything.
If you had never been to a small group, what would you like to have explained? Of course, don’t overdo this, but take a moment during the meeting to clarify what you are doing and why. By the way, what seems normal to you may seem odd or confusing to a non-Christian. Be careful not to be condescending!
9. Don’t assume.
Don’t assume a guest will or will not read, pray out loud, or engage in conversation. Just ask.
10. Have fun!
Almost everyone likes to be part of something fun, and as Christians we should be known for having a sense of joy. People will come back to a group that is learning from God’s Word, growing together, and is fun, too!
Most institutions exist for the people who are already in them. But not the church, and not your small group! You exist for the people God has put in each of your circles of influence so you can make an impact on their lives. Be like Jesus, who came “to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders” (Matthew 9:13, The Message).
Talk with your group now for how you can make your group less scary and more welcoming, because, as John Wooden said, “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.”
Michael Mack is the author of a dozen small group books and discussion guides. His latest book is Small Group Vital Signs: Seven Indicators of Health that Make Groups Flourish (Touch Publication). E-mail your questions to email@example.com.