Most healthy churches have both open and closed groups. Open groups use an ongoing curriculum that allows guests to enter the study at any point; emphasize evangelism, with the goal of becoming an entry point for guests; and strive to grow enough to multiply at least annually. Closed groups use a set curriculum that limits entrance once a study has started; typically meet for a set number of weeks; and emphasize discipleship, with the goal of strengthening a believer’s walk.
The problem in most churches is this: open groups become closed groups when steps are not taken to avoid this direction. Because evangelism is difficult, many open groups see few unbelievers attending their group. The evangelistic focus thus quietly disappears as the group slowly becomes closed. How does a church make sure that open groups remain evangelistic?
1. WATCH FOR INDICATORS.
• Failure to reproduce another group at least every two years.
• A leader who neglects to raise up an apprentice to lead another group.
• A steady decline in the number of guests who attend the small group.
• Group members who complain that “the curriculum is not deep enough for us”—thus showing they believe the group is more for them than for others.
• No new group members within the last six months.
• No planned fellowship and outreach events within the last six months.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT SMALL GROUP LEADERS.
A strong small group leader will teach anywhere, reach out to anybody and make any curriculum work. Likewise, the right small group leader will help the group keep its focus on evangelism. Seek these characteristics in leaders:
• Good teaching skills so that believers and nonbelievers alike will want to attend and learn.
• A stated willingness to reproduce the class—that is, to reach people, train them and send the strongest out to begin another class.
• A lifestyle of personal evangelism.
3. CONTINUALLY CHALLENGE SMALL GROUP MEMBERS TO THINK ABOUT NONBELIEVERS.
• Ask group members to share names of nonbelievers for whom they are praying.
• Hold members accountable for intentionally developing relationships with nonbelievers. Model evangelism by telling stories of persons for whom they are praying.
• Lead the small group to plan fellowship activities that nonbelievers might attend.
4. CELEBRATE WHEN GROUP MEMBERS BECOME BELIEVERS.
What better way to rejoice than to throw a party when a nonbeliever chooses to follow Christ? The small group that has prayed for that person, reached out to her, invited her to fellowship and welcomed her into the group surely is ready to celebrate when God changes her heart. Bake a cake, buy some ice cream and give some presents!
—Chuck Lawless, ThomRainer.com