It has become an accepted premise in small-group ministry that it's easier (and perhaps more desirable) to form a new group from unconnected people than to add them to established groups. A key reason for this proposition is that in a new group, everyone starts on the same page relationally and are more likely to connect and stick together. A fresh group is motivated to start new friendships, invest and collaborate on the group's purpose, define roles, and build shared experiences.
In contrast, an existing group already has established friendships, shared history, common language, group dynamics, set roles, and inside jokes. To successfully match new people into existing groups requires the church to keep accurate data about the current groups and their cultures, a difficult task. Also, the longer a group has been together, the more challenging it can be for new people to feel like they belong and to get them to keep coming back.
However, these hurdles can be overcome with planning, intentionality, and hospitality. And there's benefit to the existing group as well. Newcomers can bring fresh perspective and momentum to an existing group and help the group move past a complacent status quo. Accommodating someone new often requires an infusion of God's grace and compels the group to clarify its missional purpose and grow in love.
There are several reasons you might add new people into existing groups. Here are a few to consider.
Not Enough New Leaders
As is often the case, the supply of leaders does not match the demand of people who want to be connected into groups. So when you lack the sufficient number of qualified leaders to form new groups, you may have to add new people to existing groups. Of course there are other methods and strategies for forming new groups to avoid this alternative. The reality, though, is that most churches need to do a hybrid connection strategy that consists of both starting new groups and adding people to existing groups.
It's exciting when group members invite unconnected people into the group (e.g., neighbors, friends, church acquaintances, or co-workers). Spiritually healthy groups extend themselves and invite people within their spheres of influence. If the group has been praying for someone and that person joins the group, there is already a relational connection with someone in the group. It only makes sense to add the person to the group where they have connections. These personal, relational invitations are the best way to add people into existing groups.
Rebuilding a Small Group
Some groups have become too small to be effective because people have transitioned out, moved away, left the church, or started new groups. So the church may promote the group online or in the bulletin to add new folks to the group. Be wary, however, of groups that seem to have a pattern of dwindling attendance. If the church keeps sending new people to the group, but the group seems unable to retain them, there may be issues within the group or with the leader. You do not want to keep sacrificing new people into a group with an unhealthy history, ineffective leadership, or problematic group dynamic. When you see this type of dwindling attendance, it is a good opportunity to have a coaching conversation with the leader or to visit the group to identify problems and pursue solutions.
Catalyst for Growth
Assimilating newcomers, especially those from different spiritual backgrounds, socioeconomic status, age, race, or stage of life, forces group members to stretch themselves past their comfort zone. Jesus' twelve disciples were a motley crew of diverse backgrounds, political persuasions, and personalities. Yet one of the incredible markers of the early church was its radical inclusivity of all types of people from all walks of life. When our groups reflect the diversity within the communities where we live, we learn to become more inclusive, others-focused, and compassionate toward those different from us. Diversity is so spiritually formative that when we see groups that are in danger of becoming insular, complacent, and self-focused, we sometimes ask them to allow new people to join. The natural disruption that newcomers bring can expose unhealthy dynamics and lead to greater openness, grace, and growth.
Once you've decided to add new people into existing groups, it's critical that you train your leaders on how to best welcome visitors and integrate them into the life of the group. Simple tips like greeting them at the door, cluing them in to inside jokes, and explaining the purpose and expectations of the group can go a long way in making newcomers feel welcome.
—Carolyn Taketa is Small Groups Director at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California; copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.