I've never met someone with a perfect small-group history. Even if we have many positive memories of small groups, we inevitably also have some experiences we'd rather not relive. Once in a while, we come across people who have had such negative experiences with small groups that they simply don't want to participate anymore. When I run into someone who sees himself or herself as a permanent small-group dropout there are three things I do to nudge them toward giving small groups another chance.
There are similarities in the stories of small-group dropouts, but every story is unique as well. Engaging people who have had it with small groups starts with listening—really listening. This means you can't listen with your end in mind. People know when you're really hearing them and when you're just letting them have their say so you can give your sales pitch.
My kids have trouble with this at the dinner table. They are both bursting with so many things they want to say that they can hardly contain themselves. We have ingrained into their minds that they can't interrupt, so while one is talking the other sits there, straining to hold back the deluge of words waiting to pour out. Their energy is singularly focused on waiting for the sound of their sibling's babbling to cease, which means they have no energy left to actually listen. We end up having two conversations running side-by-side as they take turns saying what they want to say with no attention to the content of the other.
Unfortunately this is too often the way we listen to people who share their difficult history with small groups. We have all the values of groups and rebuttals to their objections spinning in our heads, which makes it difficult to really hear anything they're saying. But if we don't validate their feelings and experiences, we won't get very far.
There are times when I've been talking to a small-group dropout and I really think their perspective is skewed or problematic. But I've learned over time that the logic of their thoughts doesn't matter much. What matters are the emotions that are tied to their experience. Those emotions hold great power, and when we dismiss them as illogical or unwarranted, we will shut them off to healing from bad past experiences. Their perspective is valid to them and it shapes their perspective and actions.
One of the common things I hear from people who have had negative small-group experiences is that their expectations weren't met. Many times I find that their expectations are unrealistic. Maybe they expect to experience drastic spiritual growth or make lifelong friends. It's fantastic when this happens, but the reality is that this isn't always the case.
Unfortunately, sometimes their unrealistic expectations are our fault. Sometimes our desire for people to engage small groups can lead to us overselling their virtues. We believe in small groups. We want people to get connected so they can form relationships with others and grow in their faith. We know that small groups greatly increase the opportunity for growth compared with only showing up to worship services. There's a popular saying: under promise and over deliver. With small groups, we often do the opposite. In our passion to get people connected, we promise things that small groups aren't always able to deliver.
When I meet with small-group dropouts I work to be radically realistic about what future group experiences can hold for them. I don't promise that it will change their life or that they will meet their new best friend. In fact, I admit that it might be challenging. The first couple of meetings could be awkward as people search for things to talk about. They might find the depth of conversation about faith shallower than what they hope. There is no guarantee that their next small-group experience will be phenomenal. My goal in doing this is not to disparage small groups, but to reframe their expectations.
Return to the Why
When I ask my children to do something, they often ask why they have to do it. I hate to admit it, but there are times when I've answered, "Because I'm your dad, and I asked you to." Sometimes this is because they wouldn't understand the reasons, but there are other times when I just don't have a reason. We do a great disservice to people when we fail to explain why small groups are important—especially when we're asking dropouts to re-engage. We can't tell them they should jump back into a small group "because I'm your pastor, and I asked you to."
Work through why you want people to be involved in small groups. One of the best ways to do this is to keep asking yourself "why" until you get down to the fundamental reasons. Here's how that might look:
Why do I want people to be in a small group?
So they are consistently engaging in relationships with other believers and exploring their faith.
Why do I think those things are important?
Those are two important activities in learning what it means to follow Jesus and living it out.
Why is it important that people learn to follow Jesus and live it out?
Real life is in Jesus and his way. People will experience what they were made for both individually and in community as they learn to live as his disciples.
Hopefully you get the idea. This could be a great exercise for you to do with your staff or leadership team. Then when you talk to people who have dropped out of small groups, you can start with the most important "why" and move back toward the more practical step of encouraging them to try a group again.
Welcoming the Dropout
Some people have been so jaded by small groups that really listening, reframing expectations, and returning to the "why" will not get people to step back into a group. When this is the case, it's important that we welcome these small-group dropouts in whatever capacity they're willing to engage. As they're able to slowly walk into the life of our community, they'll likely feel safer thinking about the step of joining a small group. We just have to be willing to give them the time and space to overcome their fears and bad experiences.
—Trevor Lee is the Lead Pastor of Trailhead Church in Littleton, Colorado; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.