Do Good Groups Really Practice the Open Chair?

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One of the best known ideas of small group ministry is the open chair.  And one of the best known axioms of group life is that good groups practice the open chair, implying that they are open and everyone is welcome.  Is that true?  Is there any truth to the idea?  Or do closed groups make more sense?  After all, how can you really build intimacy in a group that is continually adding new faces?

First, a little bit about the open chair.  Used as a prop to symbolize the idea that a group is actively looking for new members, for who else might need to be part of a group, the chair is a physical element that reminds of a stated value.  The earliest place I ever saw this practice taught was in Serendipity’s materials in the late 80s or early 90s.  No doubt Lyman Coleman dreamed this exercise up as a way to make tangible an intangible idea.  The idea?  Be on the lookout for people who need what you have.  A very biblical concept.

The questions today are, should groups really practice the open chair?  Should they always practice it?  Maybe not physically pull an empty chair into the circle…but at least symbolically talk about filling it?  And are there any times when it might be best to be closed?  Let’s take a shot at each of these questions.

  • Whether a group is actively looking for new members might depend on the age of the group.  When a group is new, whether you’re using a curriculum that actually mentions the practice or not, it is a great idea to insert a question at the end of the first several meetings: “Who else do you know who would have really enjoyed being here tonight?”  New groups have not yet formed the impermeable membrane that makes it tough for people to break through later.  In the early stages it is a great idea to make it a weekly practice.
  • When a group is preparing to start a new study is another very good time to begin talking about the open chair or who to invite.  This ought to happen the first three or four times a newer group finishes a study and prepares to start a new one.
  • There are seasons when it makes sense for a group to be closed to new members.  When the group chooses a study that covers a very personal topic can be a good time to take the group off the web site and close to new members.  When a particular group member is struggling and the group wants to rally around them for support is another good time to close the group temporarily to new members.
  • There is at least one popular system that espouses the idea that members of a new group sign a 12 or 18 month covenant and that the group is closed once they do that.  Upside?  The group has a lengthy period of time to grow closer, work on building long-term relationships and grow trust without the strain of new personalities.  Downside?  The best opportunities for members to leverage outside connections and invite friends and neighbors are early.  As the year or 18 months passes, those outside connections weaken.

The practice of the open chair is really about the values that drive the small group culture and system of every church.  While there are times when a group should be closed to new members, the notion that “we are closed” often sends the wrong message to unconnected people.  Choose carefully…and with the certainty that this is no problem-free solution.

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  1. Josh on October 8, 2009 at 8:18 am

    Don’t you agree that on the whole most groups are too closed for no good reason?

  2. Mark Howell on October 8, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Josh, I do think many groups that are theoretically “open” are really closed, because they’re no longer able to add another connection. Allen White (and others) have said that we’re like Lego blocks. We only have so many bumps and slots that can receive a connection. Once they’re full…


  3. Joe Donaldson on October 8, 2009 at 9:49 am

    Mark, appreciate the insight here. We are trying small group ‘semesters’ this year where groups will meet for 10-12 week sessions and then take a break. At the start of each semester we have open sign-ups where new people can join a group. Some groups are brand new while others pre-exist. The core of those pre-existent groups are more likely to meet over the break. Our goal is more for people to connect on a friendship level than for the entire group to develop a deep bond with each member. We do encourage and facilitate 1-1 accountability. I agree that the ‘open chair’ concept does not work well once a group gets deep into a series. That’s one reason we use the semester approach – it gives us 3x each year to heavily recruit people to join a small group.

  4. Mark Howell on October 8, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Joe! Thanks for jumping in! The semester idea does some nice things, as you mention. I’m starting a series next week on the upsides and downsides of the main small group strategies. The semester idea is one that I’ll be covering. Watch for that.