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.