One of the Most Critical Debates in Small Group Ministry Today

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Open groups? Closed groups? Which approach is better?

Where do you stand on the open vs. closed group debate? I’ve written about this in the past (Open or Closed Groups, Do Good Groups Really Practice the Open Chair, and my spoof Top 10 Reasons I’m a Fan of Open Groups). It’s an important conversation. In fact, it’s probably more important than many realize.

Believe me, both camps make a good case. We all have our arguments down. But at its very heart, I believe the open vs. closed group debate is really about whose needs get prioritized.

Open vs. closed group philosophy surfaced again in the discussion around Belonging or Believing … Which Comes First? Although the surface issue in that article is about the wisdom (or morality) of requiring church membership before allowing people to join a small group … deep down, it’s really a question of whose needs get prioritized. After all, it is a zero sum game. If I let you in, it takes something away from me. Right?

In the classic closed group argument, proponents claim closed groups allow members to focus on growing in intimacy without the distractions a new member brings. I like to ask what I think are two important questions:

How does this line up with Philippians 2:3-4? “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” The biblical line of thinking has almost nothing to do with the airline prescription to “put on your own oxygen mask first.”

What will the passage of time (12 to 18 months) do to your group members’ external relationships? Will their relationships with outsiders ever be as vibrant and strong as they are right now? This, for me, is the clincher. It’s the reason I say the x-factor is near the edge! All you have to do is interview church members who are truly connected. When you ask who their 10 closest connections are, they’ll almost always tell you that eight, nine or even all 10 are insiders.

Titanic, Lifeboat 14 and Kathy Bates

There’s a great scene in Titanic. The ship has gone down. The lifeboats have all been launched and are safely away. Kathy Bates, playing the part of real-life survivor Molly Brown, is one of the passengers on Lifeboat 14, captained by the real-life 5th Officer Harold Lowe.

In the distance, the passengers on the lifeboat can hear the screams and pleadings of those in the 28-degree water. Molly Brown, unable to sit idly by and do nothing, says, “We have to go back!” Another of the passengers tells her if she doesn’t shut up, he’ll make her shut up.

Only one of the 20 lifeboats went back to pick up the people in the water. Lifeboat 14. The only reason we know the name of 5th Officer Harold Lowe is he gave the order to go back. Every other lifeboat, all 19 of them, rowed safely away … looking out for their own interests.

It is 2012. We are living in a post-Christian era. It is absolutely time to wake up and smell the coffee. If you want to hear “well done,” you will not be controlling who can be in a small group.

How would you describe the groups in your system? Open? Closed? Specialized? Or a little bit of all three?

People who embrace the notion of closed groups often say there are times when circumstances makes it preferable to be closed to new members. For example, when a group, normally open to new members, takes time to wrestle through an internal issue (such as a struggling marriage or a challenging illness).

In other instances, the group’s membership is made up of a select group of participants. For example, an elder board is a closed small group. Sometimes, closed-group proponents often say Jesus’ small group was closed (I disagree with this notion, but that’s another post altogether).

There are definitely certain specialized types of groups that are more productive when they’re not open to drop-in participants. Therapy groups would be an example of this kind of specialized form of group life.

These three instances (a normally open group temporarily not accepting new members due to internal issues, groups being discipled or hand-chosen for leadership development, or gathered for group therapy) are probably present in all of our small group ministries. And none of them really fit the circumstances I have attempted to describe.

It is my conviction too many groups drift into the comfortable, developing an impermeable membrane around the usual suspects, and never really take into consideration “the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).

Too many groups close themselves off to the needs of unconnected people without being enabled by systems or small group pastors.

I’ve always loved the Bill Hybels message exploring the actions of the four lepers found in 2 Kings 6-7. Finding themselves locked out of their own city while it’s under siege, they wander over to the enemy camp. Discovering it abandoned and everything they need to survive in abundance, they are morally compelled to share what they’ve found with the starving people still within the walls (God’s Heart for Unconnected People—Part 2 is my overview of the message).

Are there times where it makes sense to restrict membership to a certain few? Absolutely. Is it far more common for groups to be closed to new members simply to look out for their own interests? Without question.

Friends, God really does have a heart for the needs of unconnected people. In fact, Matthew’s record of Jesus’ compassion for the crowd, “Harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd” ought to always be front of mind (Matthew 9:36).  

Mark Howell Mark Howell serves as Pastor of Communities at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas, NV. He founded SmallGroupResources.net, offering consulting and coaching services to help churches across North America launch, build and sustain healthy small group ministries. He spent four years on the consulting staff at Lifetogether and often contributes to ministry periodicals such as the Pastor's Ministry Toolbox and ChurchCentral.com.

More from Mark Howell or visit Mark at http://www.MarkHowellLive.com

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