By Reid Smith
The best groups are high in health and impact for God’s Kingdom. For both to be true, a small group leader must be prepared to welcome people into their group’s life regardless of where they are at in their commitment to Christ and His Church. We reflect the beauty and greatness of our God when we accept one another just as Christ accepted us (Romans 15:7).
The more small group leaders know how to welcome and encourage people who are seeking truth and reaching out to God (whether they realize it or not) the more effective they will be with engaging them with the gospel in transformational ways. To that end, here’s ten recommendations for how you can welcome spiritual seekers, build relationships with them, and inspire everyone to grow in their relationship with Jesus!
- Don’t assume. Consider newcomers as seekers until you learn otherwise. Believers who are new to a Christian gathering tend to convey something about their faith/church commitment up front. If they do not, chances are they either do not have a relationship with God or may not have a strong one. It’s important to avoid making assumptions about what your guests believe. Rather, look for ways to affirm the truth God has already started to impart to them as Paul did in Athens (Acts 17:22-23, 28-29).
- Be a connector. Warmly introduce seekers into your small group and connect them with a few people as they come in, helping them to strike up conversations before your study begins. If possible, learn a little about them before they show up to their first meeting as this will help you to introduce them to others in a more personal way. Do your best to remember facts they share about who they are, their family and friends, and how they found your group. Use what you know about them to ignite conversations with other group members. The likelihood of seekers returning increases by at least 50% if they experience a sense of belonging through connection with others.
- Empower them. Find out what subjects your truth-seeking guests have an enthusiasm or expertise in and talk about that! People like to talk about things they know about. Seekers will feel more empowered and comfortable talking about things of interest to them. If you listen with interest, you will show that you are interested in them as people and they won’t feel like a project.
- Introduce your group. Take a minute on the front end to say what your small group is about and invite input from others so that guests can get exposure to some of the other personalities present. In a small group situation, most people prefer to get a good feel of the dynamic before jumping into the discussion. The more free people feel to participate, the more likely it is they will return.
- Include and affirm. Prioritize seekers in your small group time by making it a goal to help them feel safe and a valued part of the gathering. Look for ways to include them socially and affirm any contribution they make to the conversation. One of the simplest ways of helping a newcomer feel ‘at home’ in your small group is to repeatedly call them by their first name. Express appreciation for their input. When seekers say something that does not harmonize with Scripture, don’t be surprised or correct them. Rather, be positive and say something like, “Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!” Discipleship happens through trust-filled relationships that develop over time.
- Break it down. Use relational terms to explain theological concepts in your Bible study. For example, salvation is having a relationship with Christ or being friends with God now and forever. Redemption is Jesus helping us to connect with God and know Him. Do your best to stay away from Christian jargon.
- Don’t over-accommodate. Most newcomers like to be acknowledged but may not like to stand out or be spotlighted in front of a group…so don’t focus on them. If you keep things normal, your small group will feel more natural and comfortable to them. You can be sensitive to your small group’s form without changing its function. Be yourself and allow the group to be itself. Don’t hesitate to pray or worship in your group if seekers are present. Sometimes this is exactly what God uses to gather lost people to Himself (see Acts 2:46-47.) If somebody needs prayer, pray for them. If you are planning to worship, just do it. Don’t attempt to explain it for seekers. They likely want to see things how they really are and would rather not have you disrupt the flow of what you do on their account.
- Talk about being difference makers. Healthy groups have regular conversations about how they can be Jesus’ hands and feet and impact our world with His love and message. Don’t miss the opportunity to demonstrate to seekers in your midst that you genuinely want to show God’s love to people and make a difference in your community. Have that conversation spontaneously or just say you would like to talk about it next time. This allows you to revisit your group’s commitment to evangelism and shows spiritual seekers that your group is…
- Outward-thinking and it’s not all about those in your small group—this actually helps guests feel safer because it makes the communal nature of your group feel less cultic and more caring.
- Serious about making a commitment to share God’s love and grace to a waiting world. People want their lives to make a positive impact on others. This helps them to see that your small group can help toward this goal, making group time a worthwhile investment of their time.
- Have a soft landing and end on a high note. When you have truth-seeking guests, leave plenty of time for people to socialize at the tail end of your group. Newcomers tend to be interested in being more personal toward the end of a group than the beginning. This will give time to connect your small group members to guests further and have fun and relaxed conversations. Also, studies show that when something ends positively the entire experience becomes a good memory for people, and one they are more apt to repeat. In private, let newcomers know how much you appreciated them coming and that you really hope you get to see them again!
- Don’t hesitate to follow-up. Let your guests know you hope to see them again! If a seeker came with somebody, encourage their friend to welcome them back. Sometimes small group leaders hold off from following up in this way because they are afraid of being intrusive or coming across as pushy. Most guests appreciate this act of kindness and it makes your small group more inviting overall. If you do not risk the remote possibility of coming across as intrusive in your follow-up, newcomers may feel like they are intruding. Revisit prayer needs when you follow-up with them by naturally weaving them into your conversation. This shows you were listening and that you care.
You want group members to have more than permission to invite their friends…let them know you WANT them to invite their friends. This attitude is one of the greatest contributing factors to a small group making an evangelistic impact. Small groups can and should always serve to encourage personal outreach.
A small group that has an open home, open hearts, and open hands is a group that is replete with life-giving possibilities. By following the ten recommendations above, you will create an environment where the hospitality of biblical community will receive and reach many spiritual seekers for Jesus Christ!
Reid Smith has been equipping leaders in churches of all sizes and stages of growth for effective disciple-making since 1996. He lives in Wellington, Florida where he serves as a Groups Pastor at Christ Fellowship. You can find more of his helpful resources at www.reidsmith.org.