How many people were involved in your last small group gathering?
To answer that question, did your mind’s eye immediately begin surveying the meeting space to recount the number of bodies occupying the room? Did you add up the number of people in attendance?
Of course, numbers are important. Numbers represent lives. And if our goal is spiritual growth within each individual, then every person matters. But spiritual growth is exactly why we need to think about another number when it comes to involvement, one that is even more important than attendance. This second number is related to attendance but gets at the heart of why groups exist in the first place.
Involvement has two distinct phases: Presence and Participation. Though certainly related, they aren’t the same.
Presence—This is a matter of invitation. How do we get people involved in our groups at this level? We invite them.
Presence is a big deal. It exposes new individuals to the power of the gospel and the joy of community. But this is only the first step. At this phase, people are involved on a surface and technical level. They attend—but are they attuned?
Participation—This is a matter of integration. How do we get people involved in our groups at this more meaningful level? We integrate them.
Participation is a bigger deal. This is the step at which people move beyond being exposed to biblical community to being engaged in biblical community. At this phase, people are involved on a deeper and personal level. They don’t just come to the group; they contribute to the experience.
Jesus said to “make disciples,” not to “invite people to your group.” Making disciples requires more than presence—it requires participation. Discipleship is more than being exposed to the gospel and community—it’s being engaged with the gospel and community.
So, getting back to the original question: How many people were involved in your last small group gathering? The number present is important, but the number participating is arguably more important and may not be identical. Do 100% of the people present actually participate in discussion? Are 100% of the people engaging the biblical text, asking questions, wrestling with personal implications and applications, and being held accountable to convictions, commitments, and commands? Are people simply observing, or are they owning their faith and striving for spiritual growth?
The following points can help you increase participation:
- Greet each person—Welcome people as they arrive, asking questions about their week. This not only strengthens relationships; it engages people immediately.
- Try some icebreakers—Simple questions or activities in which everybody provides a response are another way to get people engaged early.
- Ask discussion questions—Encouraging discussion is different from wanting an answer. Invite people to share their observations or experiences. Only asking for obvious or “right” answers devalues input.
- Affirm what people say—Respond with positive language to acknowledge what was shared with the group, even with a simple: Yes, Thank you, or Great point. If needed for clarity, point out anything insightful or true before moving on.
- Build on responses—Use follow-up questions to create momentum. If the response was personal or related to application, identify with what was shared or ask how others have had similar experiences.
- Call on specific people—Don’t be afraid to ask people to read, answer questions, or pray. Keeping things mixed up values everybody in the group and prevents a mentality of defaulting to someone else.
- Pay attention—Be mindful of people who are either consistently quiet or unusually quiet. Don’t force anything, but look for ways to either encourage participation or to check on that person privately after the group or during the week. Letting people know they are noticed, valued, and loved is vital.
When people are truly involved, everybody wins. Each individual will be encouraged in their spiritual growth and the group will collectively benefit from the wisdom and testimonies gained as you follow Christ together.
How do you encourage participation in your group?
Jeremy Maxfield is a writer and editor for the adult discipleship team in the LifeWay Groups Ministry division. For over 10 years, he has been serving churches through publishing, freelance writing, and pastoral staff positions. Jeremy and his family are actively involved at Fairview Church in Lebanon, TN. Follow him on Twitter: @jrmaxfield.