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Small group leaders oftentimes ask which path is better to focus on: inward depth, or outward growth. Or in other words, they ask “Should my small group be open to new members or closed?” It’s an essential question that’s tough to answer. Steve Gladen, Global Small Groups Pastor of Saddleback explains in his book Planning Small Groups with Purpose that what works in one church might not work for another. Instead, he encourages us to understand our own church and ministry culture to identify the system that works best for us. Similarly, deciding if your group should be open or closed may be best discussed within the context of your own community. Which of the benefits and challenges associated with these paths speak more to the needs of your group and your church culture?
Choosing Inward Depth
When a small group cultivates relationships with the same individuals over a span of multiple years, it can become an excellent example of the close-knit community that Jesus prays for us to have in John 17:22. A small group that focuses on inward depth can be a safe haven where great friends can come together and be themselves after a stressful week. The laughs are many and the absences are few. There’s no pressure to impress anyone and each member of the group knows what to expect. Individuals feel safe to be vulnerable and they feel comfortable enough to trust their fellow group members with privileged information. However, placing too much of an emphasis on small group intimacy can have its drawbacks. In this scenario, the small group may forget what it means to reach out, and it can enter into a state of evangelistic stagnation. In other words, the group is great at exhibiting the call to relationships that is seen in John 17:22, but it tends to pass over the very next verse, 17:23, where we are called to engage the world.
Choosing Outward Growth
When a small group opens their doors and welcomes new members to their group, it becomes a marvelous example of the inclusivity that we experience as new believers in the body of Christ. A small group that focuses on outward growth is comfortable at making friends quickly, and a sense of anticipation permeates the group as everyone is eager to experience something new the next week. While an outward-focused group may look a bit messy on the outside, the energy is high and the genuineness is refreshing. Much like the excitement portrayed in Acts 2:41, there is a movement of the Lord that is undeniable and irresistible. However, focusing too strongly on an evangelistic approach may cause challenges. In this scenario, a steady stream of new faces interrupts the formation and gelling of relationships, a process that takes time. In other words, while the group is great at creating a growing environment that is similar to what is seen in Acts 2:41, it tends to pass over the very next verse, 2:42, where the apostles had slowed things down enough to allow teaching, discipleship, and ministering to occur within the community.
The Great Commission AND The Great Commandment
Like many other biblical principles that we reflect upon, the answer to our question may lie somewhere in the middle. When we look to the Scriptures, we are challenged by Jesus to embody both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Although we may be tempted to think that each one functions independently from the other, it is evident that we are called to make disciples of all nations and love our neighbors as ourselves.
There are inward-focused groups within our churches where rising leaders are ready to be launched into new ministries or to even create entirely new open small groups. Also, there are opportunities for relationships to develop within outward-focused groups. After identifying potential leaders in your group, sharing some of your group’s responsibilities with an apprentice may help prepare them for the time when the Lord calls them to lead in a ministry or start a small group of their own. With the holidays coming up, there are wonderful ideas available that can give your group the chance to catch up and allow relationships to develop inwardly. When we open ourselves up to having a balanced viewpoint of both inward depth and outward growth, then the church will grow healthily through an engaging small group ministry.
Related Article: Small Groups: Start with People