How Does a Hospitable Culture Apply to Small Groups? (part one)
We’re in a new series called Hospitable Culture. The big question is this: What if hospitality isn’t something we do, it’s simply who we are? In other words, what if we could bump hospitality beyond the borders of an official team, and work it into every crevice of the church?
Through the years I’ve heard people say things like “We’re not a church with small groups, we’re a church of small groups.” (I’ve said it myself a time or two or a hundred.) And whether that’s simple semantics or sage wisdom, we have to admit that there’s a lot of shepherding, discipleship, member care, and relationships that happens in living room circles more than auditorium rows.
Your model might be weeknight small groups or Sunday morning Sunday School classes (we’ll use “small group” as a blanket term here), but hospitality is often the secret ingredient that will make or break your system.
So how does a hospitable culture apply to small groups? In this post, I’m going to focus solely on the small group experience as it applies to the first-time guest. In a future post, I’ll cover general hospitality tips for the best small group experience.
1. Remember how weird it is.
Keeping this in mind will solve 90% of our small group hospitality problems. Remember that we’re encouraging a complete stranger to enter a living room full of complete strangers. We’re expecting a newcomer to crack the code of established friendships. We’re assuming the existing members will be able to bring the newbie into the fold. We trust that the shorthand of our stories and the history of our inside jokes and the tears during prayer time will all be absorbed and understood and shared and handed over in a strange give-and-take over the course of sixty minutes.
Go back and re-read that previous paragraph. Think about the weirdness of what we’re asking everyone to do. That should build urgency for what must be done.
2. Know (and appoint) your relational players.
Whenever someone asks me my church origin story and how I’ve stuck around at a place for 22 years and counting, there is one name that always gets mentioned: Sally Posey. Sally has never been on our staff or in a leadership role, but she was a part of the Adult Bible Fellowship we wandered into during our first couple of weeks here. She was the first to greet us, quick to introduce us around the room, invited us to take a seat beside her, and invited us back the following week. I believe that God gives churches people like Sally Posey as one of his best gifts, because it’s people like her who cause others to stick.
You know your version of Sally Posey. So make sure they know the unique role they play. Encourage them to keep building bridges between the seasoned vets and the scared newcomers. And for the “non-Sallys” in the group: push, nudge, and challenge them to not just stand across the room and size up the new kid. Use your own relational influence to make sure they are a part of the unofficial welcome team.
3. Know your newcomer’s comfort level.
Whether it’s Sally or the small group leader, please gauge your guest’s extroversion or introversion level before shining a spotlight on them. Before you get started, ask “Would it be okay if I introduced you to a few friends?” and do that in the kitchen or the back porch, outside the confines of a circle. As the gathering officially begins, know whether a quick introduction is enough (“Everyone, this is Jenny and Mark, we’re really glad for them to be with us tonight.”), or if they might be okay with more of a “getting to know you” time. (Hint: it’s almost always going to be the former.)
4. Move them from outsider to insider.
Remember: they’re coming into an established group with established rhythms, norms, and codes. So your Sally needs to park herself beside them, interpreting the culture as appropriate and in a way that doesn’t draw more attention to their outsider status. A few quick examples come to mind:
- Before they show up: I know in a traditional Sunday morning small group, you don’t always know that someone new is showing up. But in those moments you do, let them know what to expect. When do you start and end? What about kids? Is there advanced reading or prep that would help them be a part of the discussion?
- During the hangout time at the beginning: give them a quick overview of what a “normal” night looks like. Do you always eat? Who provides the food? Should they sign up on the food list? Who leads the group? What are the relational dynamics and longevity of others in the room?
- When the Bible study starts: catch them up on what you’re reading or discussing. Give them a thousand foot view of where you’ve been. Pass your Bible or book to them or offer to share.
- During the discussion: don’t prevent them from answering, but for the love of all that’s good don’t put them on the spot or call on them to answer.
- During prayer requests or announcements: whisper simple context for what they’re hearing (“Katie is Jim and Allison’s daughter who lives in Houston. She was diagnosed with lymphoma a few weeks ago and is having more tests run this week.”)
5. Get some one-on-one time the following week.
Whether it’s your “Sally” or you as a small group leader, set up a time for a meal, coffee, or even a phone call just to check in. Let your guest know how grateful you were they came, and how much you want them to come back. Answer any questions they have. Make sure you put your current curriculum in their hands. Find out how you can make them the most comfortable during their first few weeks with you.
If we’re going to be churches of small groups and not just with small groups, we have to make sure our small groups are places of health, friendships, and care. How are you creating that hospitable culture for the newest among you?