Note: This article has been excerpted from Small Group Vital Signs.
A healthy small group is open, inviting, and welcoming to new people. Groups must be intentional about not becoming closed cliques. Talk about this often as a group. The "empty chair" is an old standby to help group members remember that the group is open to new people. Leave a chair empty at every meeting and refer to it every once in a while to remind everyone that you still have spaces open to invite others. The following truth may be hard to swallow, but know that I'm speaking the truth in love: If you are not open and willing to reach people outside your group, you've missed the point of biblical community.
Make Your Small Group Less Scary
Some people believe you can't have authentic community with one another and, at the same time, welcome outsiders. I disagree. But it does take intentionality. Here are a few ideas:
Pay attention to natural rhythms.
When is the best time to invite a friend to your group? If your group is in the middle of multi-week study, it may be awkward for a new person to join you. Instead, wait for the beginning of a new study. If there's "stuff" going on in your group that needs to be worked out, you may want to do so before inviting a new person. For instance, if you're in the midst of a group conflict or if you're working through a tender issue, it may not be a good time to ask someone new to join you.
Ease newcomers into group life.
Be prepared to do something fun and non-threatening when a new person shows up. Your group may be very close and comfortable with each other, but the new person is an acquaintance at best. So do some things that you would do with acquaintances. Don't expect them to jump right into the existing group dynamic. At the very least, be sure to explain things as you do them. Watch out for insider jokes, too. You can share them, but explain the jokes, knowing the person probably won't see the humor in them.
A tension exists between having a plan for when new people show up and being authentic. I've found the best thing to do 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 explains a little about the group and shows Ellen that new people joining the group is normal. Then explain what you've been up to as a group and where you're going. But don't go into a long explanation detailing every aspect of your group. Your guest will figure stuff out as you go. Encourage the members of your group to be themselves.
You're a Christian small group, so it's normal to talk about spiritual things. But it's also normal to talk about sports, work, kids, movies, and so forth. Talk about stuff each of you is passionate about and let guests see what the group members are passionate about.
When a group starts, we usually introduce ourselves and tell our stories. When a new person shows up, it's like a new group to them. The rest of the group may have moved past some of the introductory icebreakers that ask you to share parts of your history, but these are very helpful when a guest joins you. "Where did you grow up?" "Who was your best friend growing up?" These and other such questions can help get everyone on the same page faster.
Explain (almost) everything.
If it was your first time to a small group, what would you like to have explained? Of course, don't overdo this, but take a moment to clarify what you do and why. By the way, what seems normal to you may seem odd or confusing to a non-Christian. Still, don't assume that a guest will or will not read, pray out loud, or engage in conversation. Just ask.
—Excerpted from Small Group Vital Signs. Used with permission from TOUCH Publications.