You can’t force the spark of romance. Just look at movies, psychologists, and most of the guys I ever talked to in middle school. I worked. I focused. I sent many Secret Santa gifts to many football players. But instead of finding a linebacker to love, I found an abnormal percentage of my school’s athletes pretending they never received the bags of Skittles I taped to the cards I taped to the balloons I taped to their lockers. Real relationships can’t be coerced, even when you help someone taste the rainbow.
This lesson isn’t just for young girls hoping to go steady, but also for small groups looking to build community.
John 13:35 says that the world will know that we belong to Jesus by observing our love for one another. This love can and should shine most brightly within small groups. But in the same way you can’t force the spark of romance, if you try to force people to be BFFs, things can get very awkward very quickly, leaving you with few people and even fewer friendships.
Here are three ways to foster friendships in your small group, without getting weird.
Pursue Obvious Opportunities For Care
Remember the time you signed up for Old Navy deals, and then they showed up in your inbox every single day talking about their joggers and bermuda shorts? It was too much, too soon. Similarly, your group members might start out interested in the community of the group, but if you “care” about everything in their life every day of their life, right up front, it’s possible that instead of feeling loved, they’ll feel creeped out. Care is one step away from scare.
A healthier way to love your group is to stay alert for the obvious opportunities to care for each other. In the early going, look for the moments when caring for one another seems most natural, like moves, or birthdays, or health problems.
As groups walk together a while, it becomes normal for the relational engagement to reach a near-daily level. But if you try to start there, don’t be surprised if you end up with plenty of time to check your spam box.
Schedule Regular Hangouts
Many small groups function in a very programmed way. They watch a video, they answer questions, they share prayer requests, and they’re on their way. Ice breakers help but don’t always allow much opportunity for relational growth, especially if you’ve got a babysitter upstairs counting the minutes until she can jump ship.
A great way to help relationships in your group grow is to build in routine hangouts. This might look like meeting at a restaurant (and getting babysitters to stay home with your kids!) once a month in place of your scheduled Bible study time. It might look like having a barbeque or going to a movie together. Just make sure to do it, and do it often (but not too often—see point one).
Provide Optional Opportunities For Intimacy
As the leader, you want to set your people up for success. You want to give them the chance to go deeper, but you don’t want to put anyone on the spot. Try to provide optional opportunities for intimacy each time you meet up. The key word there is OPTIONAL. Nothing will destroy a group quicker than an environment of unwanted intensity and pressure.
You don’t want people to feel obligated to be in the group, and you don’t want the nature of your group to be so intense that no one can crack a joke or a smile. So, to help with the balance, work in questions that give members an opportunity to share a sin struggle or a story from their past that reveals God’s redemptive power and work in their lives. If you hear crickets, move on to the next question, but give others a chance to answer if they want to.
“Does anyone else want to share? (2 second pause) Okay, moving on!”
Having strong friendships in your group doesn’t just make for a pleasant hour each week—it’s biblical! It’s also great for newcomers to walk into a living room full of people who genuinely like being together and truly care for each other. Non-weird friendships draw others in and paint a picture of the bride of Christ for everyone who gets to see it.
Scarlet Hiltibidal is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. Scarlet has a degree in biblical counseling and worked as a Christian schoolteacher before she started writing. She has written for and managed various online publications. Currently, she writes small group curriculum for children and articles on motherhood for Smart Mom. Scarlet is wife to Brandon, who is part of the Groups Ministry Team at Lifeway, and Mommy to her daughters, Ever Grace and Brooklyn Hope. Visit her blog at scarlethiltibidal.com and follow her on Twitter @ScarletEH.