It's happened to me, and I'll bet it's happened to you. You walk into a room filled with laughter and conversation. You have a smile on your face, ready to embark on the journey of relationships—except when you try to join in, all you hear is "chirp, chirp, chirp." Yes, the cricket has landed.
When we promote small groups at the Simple Church, we constantly tell potential group members that "there is chair for you." And we tell our small-group leaders that we always want to make room for one more. That's a core element of our small-group ministry: making room for newcomers.
That's why I was surprised one Sunday when a woman approached me and asked if we had any life groups where she could "meet people." I thought to myself: Well, that's what happens in all of our life groups.
I asked her if she had been to one of our groups, and she stated that she had—but no one talked to her. My mind ran through a number of scenarios about how that could happen, but they all tilted toward this woman as the culprit. Maybe she came in late or was shy. Maybe she didn't really engage in the conversations, and that's why she was unable to meet anyone.
Then, a week later, I went to an event early to see if people needed help. I am no stranger to this crowd. But when I walked into the room, only 1 out of about 15 people even acknowledged me with a brief smile. "Chirp, chirp" was what I heard. Everyone was engaged in their own conversations and fun, and I was an afterthought.
I felt like God had given me a real-life illustration on the feelings of that young woman. In that instant, I realized what she meant. All of our mottos didn't matter. There had been room for her in the small group she attended, but there had been no effort made to include her in relationships.
That's an important word: relationships. Small groups are designed to build relationships. We make room for people so we can invest in through relationships. Or at least, we are supposed to.
Oftentimes people come to our groups with broken hearts and lives. They come wanting to receive something: emotional, spiritual, or mental support. In some realm, whether in the church or secular world, they have become disenchanted with the relationships in their lives. When they enter a small group, they are looking for something different—something better.
The question is: will they find it?
As small-group leaders, it's easy for us to become comfortable with the regular members of our group. We essentially form a miniature family. We create room in our home and lives so that we can invest in this family every week, which is good.
Still, we must always be aware of the new person in the room—of the chair now occupied and the life now available to change.
We could take the Dr. Phil route on relationships and who is responsible for what, but ultimately Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30) and "Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me" (Matthew 25:40). It's up to us to welcome and comfort the new people in our small group, regardless of when they arrive.
Here are a few steps to help you ensure that no person is left out of your small group:
Do not forget to see. As people arrive at the group and conversations begin, we tend to become engrossed in our circle of dialogue and forget to monitor who is around us. We can become blind to anyone else who comes through the door because we are so focused within our conversations.
But it is not the responsibility of the newcomer to engage us when they arrive; we need to engage them. If a leader has a larger crowd, he or she can ask veteran members to be greeters at the door so that no one is missed. Otherwise, simply be sensitive to those who have entered and engage them.
It takes more than an acknowledgement. A smile can be a wonderful tool of welcome; however, it's not enough for someone who is new to your group. They need to be engaged in conversation and introduced to other members of the group. These are the building blocks that help form relationships.
Initiation. Remember that a newcomer will not have access to the back-story of the different participants in your group. That means they may not be able to jump into an existing conversation without a bit of help from you. Therefore, initiate them into the questions or ideas that have been important to the group lately, and to the stories of the people involved.
Invitation. If someone has never attended a small group or knows little of small-group life, he or she may not understand how the group meeting will "work." This tension can be relieved by inviting the newcomer to sit with a guide that will be with them throughout the different activities of the group. This guide can be you, or it can be someone that you know will do a good job of welcoming and easing fears for the new attendee.
These steps are simple, and I hope they feel "old hat" to you. But they can also be overlooked as we grow more comfortable with the people in our group. It is important to keep these steps in the forefront of our minds as leaders, and even seasoned members of small groups, so that room is always available for newcomers and new relationships are always possible.
—Peri Gilbert is the Small-Group Coordinator at The Simple Church in Bossier City, LA.