In summary, small groups should be closed because:
- God lives in a closed community.
- Jesus modeled it.
- It takes time and consistency to build relational trust.
- Group leaders won’t do what we tell them to do anyhow.
How to be an Open-Closed Groups Ministry
If neither being fully open or fully closed sounds like the right option for you groups ministry, the answer may be found in a hybrid of the two. Here’s how:
Celebrate what God is doing in your groups.
If the group loves being together and insists new people will mess that up, then let’s all celebrate that a group of former strangers have become a tight-knit family. Don’t we want groups to develop a deep love for one another? So let’s thank God for what’s happening in the group. And if the group is willing to open the doors to an unconnected person let’s give God credit for the missional heart-beat He’s given the group. Either way, let’s praise God for groups that live out kingdom values.
Recognize the natural rhythms of small groups.
Every group has times where adding new members is natural, and every group has seasons when it’s best not to invite others. At the beginning of a new study or after a break, there’s usually an obvious on-ramp for joining a group. In many groups, the beginning of the year and the fall are good times for change. But there are also key times not to bring in new participants, like when a group member is experiencing crisis or when the group has recently reached a breakthrough in vulnerability. When group members are becoming more open, honest, and vulnerable, it’s best to simply enjoy that experience for a little while. If a new person enters, some will feel uncomfortable sharing at the same depth in front of the new person.
Incorporate prayer for the unconnected.
This might seem a bit too easy, but by asking group leaders to pray for the unconnected, seeds of compassion for the unconnected are sown. Jesus told his followers to pray that the Father would send workers into the field and one paragraph later Jesus sent them! Prayer should always precede action.
Challenge every member of the group to serve.
Some of the healthiest small groups I know are closed to new members. Every member of the group, however, is deeply engaged in service inside and outside the church. The group becomes a respite and a recharger so they can keep serving. The gaze of the group is outward and the group provides a place for shared prayer and mutual encouragement.
Welcome people to re-up (and exit) periodically.
Change is inevitable. Every group I’ve been part of I’ve eventually left or it has ended. Sometimes a group runs its course. Other times a geographical move necessitates an exit. Some groups invite members to re-up in the beginning of year or in the fall. Some groups re-up whenever they start a new study. By inviting this commitment, it reminds each group member what is expected of them while simultaneously letting them off the hook if they’re ready for a change.
Small groups aren’t a fad. Since the 40-year camping trip before they entered the Promised Land, God’s people have been assembling in small groups. But a healthy small group doesn’t just happen, either. It takes effort and intentionality. Helping groups wrestle with whether they’ll be open or closed will help them establish and retain health.
—Bill Search is a leading voice in the small groups movement and the author of Simple Small Groups.