Have you ever driven to a store hoping they were still open? When you drove into the parking lot the lights were on, there were cars there and as you got closer you could see people moving around inside. So you park your car and head for the door only to discover the door is locked.
Without thinking, a church can send mixed messages about their groups. The announcements say, “Sign up for a group today, everyone is welcome!” On the list you spot a “Building Strong Marriages” group that sounds perfect. You and your wife decide to go for it. When you get to the group the leader eagerly greets you and says, “We would love to have you, but we are halfway through an eight-week study. You will have to wait until the group is offered again.” Suddenly, you discover the group, just like the store, has limitations on when it is open. If the group was repeated often, in reality it would just be open a few days a year.
What kind of group do you have? Is it open or closed? What difference does it make anyway?
David Francis and Rick Howerton, in Countdown: Launching & Leading Transformational Groups on pages 11 and 12, explore both of these options. Here are some thoughts. Let’s start with closed groups.
- New participants are not accepted after the first couple of sessions.
- Participants need to meet a requirement to join, such as completing a previous study or being a church member.
- The group specifies participant expectation with a covenant or agreement, such as confidentiality or a commitment to a schedule.
- The number of participants is limited by the seating capacity or space.
- As you can see from this list, closed groups often have many conditions that apply to those who can participate. Without thinking, churches establish groups with conditions that greatly limit participation. The greatest of these limitations is the ability of closed groups to keep guests, regular attenders and members from joining a group when God begins to penetrate their heart.
Don’t get me wrong, churches need closed groups. Many of the topics and ministries a church does require closed groups. The challenge is what to do for those who what to join a group today!
To address this challenge, churches need open groups. Notice the difference in the characteristics of an open group.
- New people are welcome anytime.
- You can invite people before they believe or unite with the church.
- New groups are started when space is limited, to continue to keep them open.
- Open groups have an intentional outward focus. To meet this challenge, open groups have limited curriculum content. Each session must be designed for a first time guest. Since there is a possibility of the first time guest being an unbeliever the content needs to be usable and understandable for this person. Open groups are intentionally planned to include unbelievers. As a result open groups have the power to change our world.
Tom Belew, Small Groups & Childhood Specialist, California Southern Baptist Convention