Should Our Small Groups Be Open or Closed?

Should Our Small Groups Be Open or Closed?

The arguments for both sides of this common debate.

When our daughter, Maegan, was born in the late fall of 1998, my wife and I learned new depths of love. Sure, she took our sleep and our independence, but she deepened our capacity to sacrifice with happy hearts. So it wasn’t a hard decision two years later to plan for another little one to join our nest. And a few years after that, our third child arrived. But at some point we made a decision: we are content with the number of children that populate our home. And for Karyn and me, that happy number was three. Three kids round out our team.

We have some friends who have very, very large families (like the kind that might get their own TV show). We also have some friends who have made the choice not to have children. But every now and again I feel a sting of guilt for the choice we have made—especially when we are with friends who are foster or adoptive parents. Is it the responsibility of every follower of Christ to open their home to more children? That question isn’t just something families wrestle with. It’s very similar to the question small groups wrestle with: “What is our responsibility to the unconnected person?”

It’s one of the most controversial questions leaders of small-group ministries argue about. It inspires, frustrates, and confuses. Should a small group be open or should it be closed? Some say there should always be an “empty chair”—another way of saying there should always be a place for a new person. Others say the empty chair is a perfectly fine idea—for another group—and they decide to stay closed to new members.

It’s About Health Not Philosophy

The core of the issue is a much bigger question than small group philosophy. The real question centers on what makes a group healthy. So we should stop asking if a group should be open or closed. Instead, we should ask whether healthy groups are open or closed.

“Healthy things grow.” It’s been nearly a decade since I heard Rick Warren share that pearl of wisdom. It’s obvious, right? Something healthy—a person, a plant, or a pension—sees signs of growth. A plant blooms, a person matures, and, with the right investment, you get more out of your pension than you put in. And the same principle applies to small groups. But does that mean that a healthy group has to keep growing in size? Or could it mean that a healthy group grows not in size but in relational depth?

If you lead the charge for small groups, there’s little doubt you’ve had that phone call with a leader or two. You ask the simple question, “I know a couple that is looking for a small group. Do you think they could join yours?” The dead air on the other end of the phone is all the answer you need. You know in an instant you’ll be trying to connect the couple in a different group.

So what’s the answer? Are healthy groups open or closed?

The answer is yes. A healthy group is both open and closed. The reason this debate persists is because both sides can appeal to theology, the Bible, and practical examples. So let’s examine both sides of this coin.

Why Every Healthy Group Should Be Open

The Theological Argument

God invites in all who are lost. The big theme throughout the Bible is that God is always on the lookout for lost people who are willing to respond to him. And so it makes sense that God’s people should be equally as inviting and welcoming. Just as God finds a place for Ruth, an outsider from a different tribe, in the lineage of King David (and therefore, the lineage of Christ), we, too, should welcome into our community those in need of family.

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