Should Groups Remain Open?

by Phil Sommerville

If you are unfamiliar with the terms, an open group is simply a group that is open to having new members join them, and a closed group is one that is closed to new members.  Should a group always stay open?  No!  Now let me explain why.

There is such a thing as too big
There’s a tipping point for groups where size starts to work against it.  There’s no magic number for the ideal group size.  For some it’s three people, for others it’s 20.  But there are factors for determining when a group is too big. 
     1. The size of the room where it meets – when it’s too full, people are uncomfortable.
     2. The comfort level of the group leader – at what point does the leader no longer feel comfortable?  That’s the point their leadership will go down.
     3. The ability for everyone in the group to have the opportunity to share and contribute in the time allotted – when there’s not enough time to allow for everyone to share, the group’s too big.  It’s no longer a group, it’s a class.
When a group discovers its ideal size, let them close. You’ll be glad you did.  Here’s why:

Trust and vulnerability are necessary for growth
The goal of a small group is to provide a place where their lives can be transformed by God.  Transformation requires more than just studying Scripture.  People must engage with Scripture.  This means they need to feel comfortable enough to open up their lives and be real, admit flaws, and ask for help.  When people open up, God can work in their lives.  When people stay closed up, they keep God locked out from doing anything significant in them.  Small groups are a perfect environment for people to open up, but not if new people are constantly coming in.  When that happens, the group will stay in the safe, polite and shallow stage and really never grow deep.  It is far better to let the group close so they can start forming deeper friendships that will allow God to do great things.

You’ll start losing groups
Keeping groups open is often seen as a way of growing the ministry.  Seldom does this really work.  After awhile, people will get disillusioned with the surface level of the group and quit, and the group will fizzle out.  Or, the group will continue, but they won’t let you know about it.  They will go into “stealth mode” so that they can close their group.

Splitting groups doesn’t work either
This looks good on paper.  In this model, when the group grows to a certain size they split and then there are two groups, each with room for new people.  It would be a perfect growth model except that people don’t work that way.  There is a reason why the group is doing so well.  The people like being with each other and are attached to the leader.  They don’t want to split up.  Why in the world would you take a group that is everything you would want a group to be and shoot it in the foot by forcing it to split?  You won’t get two healthy groups; you’ll get two struggling, disillusioned groups.

Then how do I make room for more people to join groups?
You start new groups.  You’ll get far more people into groups if you have new groups for them to join than if you try to get them to join existing groups where they’re the only “newbies.”  Some people will be comfortable joining existing groups, but far more will be willing to try a group where everyone is new.

Who decides whether a group should be open or closed?
My motto is: “Let the small group leader lead.”  Small group leaders are the ones to know what works best for their groups.  Some will never want to close.  Great, let them stay open.  Some will want to close at 4, 10 or 20.  Fine, let them decide what works best for their group.  They’ll appreciate the respect and authority you give them, and you’ll benefit from having healthy, life-transforming groups.

Bottom line
Let groups have the freedom to close if they want.  Yes, occasionally a closed group will get stagnant or cliquish because they are closed.  But in the end you will have far more groups that experience greater spiritual growth because they were able to close and build deeper relationships.  It is definitely worth it.

Phil Sommerville is co-founder of Faith Alive 365 and a former Small Groups Pastor who has trained hundreds of small group leaders from churches of all sizes.

Read more articles in Small Group Leadership Tips |

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