Traditionally, most churches have always had some form of discipleship in a smaller context than corporate worship time with an adjacent sermon. What you call your small groups may differ depending on the culture, age, and context of your church, but it’s likely you call them Sunday School classes or Small Groups. Many newer churches play off of “Small Groups” and call them “Life Groups,” “Connect Groups,” or something of the like. It’s definitely important for you to have some form of one-to-many groups setting where a leader other than the pastor can aid in the spiritual maturation and disciple-making process of those in the church. But for the last several years, we’ve seen a surge in closed groups.
Closed groups are just what they sound like—they’re closed for a season to allow members of the group to study God’s word together. Oftentimes, it is very difficult for individuals or couples to join a closed group, most likely due to the nature or context of the curriculum that group is studying. For example, Lifeway has a discipleship curriculum called The Journey. The study was designed to be progressive in nature, meaning that what a group studies in week seven builds on what they studied in week six, and so on. That makes it difficult for new members of your church to grasp what was taught early on in that group. So for this reason, churches will usually close groups one or two weeks into a new study and remain closed until the study concludes. This usually works best for groups that meet in homes each week who are studying very specific topics, or areas of Scripture that are progressive in nature.
In contrast, open groups are groups that likely meet on campus on Sunday mornings before or after the worship service. Oftentimes, open groups meet to further discuss what the pastor preached on just a few short minutes before. Another example would be a study through the Gospels, identifying similarities and subtle nuances between them. But this way of studying Scripture is much different than that of closed groups.
So which one is right for you?
If you have Sunday School on Sunday mornings where you have visitors who regularly attend your church and are looking to get plugged into a class, open is usually the way to go. Try to have at least one open group for each age group. You don’t want to sacrifice any sense of community to potential members.
On the other hand, if your groups meet during the week in homes, I would advise a closed group strategy. If you’re doing 6-week short-term studies, a break between each study is an ideal time to invite new folks from your church to attend the next study.
Regardless of how or where you land on the spectrum, make sure you make guests feel welcome. Encourage your group members to reach out to newcomers. Consider having some appetizers, muffins, or danishes, and some juice or coffee. Once a quarter or so, try to get together outside of the context of church and have fun with each other. It will help with the sense of community.
Matt Morris is a Brand Manager at Lifeway Christian Resources in Nashville, Tennessee. He has served in ministry for over 11 years. Matt is married to Carmen and they have twins, Hudson and Harper. Matt and his family are members of First Baptist Church Mount Juliet, where he serves as a deacon.