This post first appeared on Facts And Trends, an online magazine for church leaders. It was one of around 10 writing assignments I’ve had with this excellent organization.
People vote with their feet. When I’m in an unfamiliar place because of travel and it’s time to eat, I look for a restaurant that is crowded, not empty. A full parking lot tells me that people have “voted with their feet” and appreciate the food quality, the service, and the atmosphere in a particular dining establishment. Crowds indicate that something good is taking place. The lack of a crowd communicates just the opposite. When word gets out that a restaurant has a lackluster menu, poor service, and a wait staff that just doesn’t care about the customer, the parking lot will be a ghost town. Those are the places I avoid.
The same is true of Bible study groups. Most groups are commonly known as “open” groups. Open groups are designed to reach new people. In fact, open groups expect there to be new people each time the group gathers for Bible study. Sunday School groups are an example of “open” groups – they expect new people and are open to them being in the group. Many small groups are also “open” groups, but not all groups are excited about growing, and some accidentally do things that drive off new members. If you want to make sure that new members never come back, lead your group to do these things below – your new members will vote with their feet, for sure:
- Don’t Wear Name Tags– Over the years, I’ve seen how important those inexpensive stick-on name tags are when guests come to my group’s study. Those name tags are also very important for the new members in groups. New members are desperate to learn the names of group members, but they don’t want to put themselves in an awkward position and ask people their name each week, so they opt to say nothing. This makes attending the group an awkward experience for the new member! My Bible study group continues to reach new people. Giving everyone in the group a name tag to fill out and wear is a part of my group’s strategy for assimilating people into our group – both guests and newer members. The quicker they can learn people’s names, the more likely they are to come back. If you want to drive out new members, make it hard on them to learn people’s names.
- Deliver a Monologue – This is going to come as a shock, but you love the sound of your voice more than others do. Too many group leaders talk, talk, then talk some more. Monopolizing the group time by “over speaking” encourages new members not to return. If you want new members to really feel like they are important, they must be allowed to respond to very open-ended questions. They have life experiences, backgrounds, stories, and theological understandings that can richly contribute to the group’s experience. But if all they are allowed to do is sit and listen to the group leader, it signals that they are not that important to the group’s overall Bible study experience. As a rule of thumb, I encourage group members to talk at least as much as I do during the Bible study. This says, “We need you” to every group member, especially the newer ones who are trying to figure out if you are genuinely glad they’ve found your group.
- Sit in Rows– If your meeting place is arranged in rows of chairs, consider sitting in a large circle. People are more likely to speak up and participate if they can see each other’s faces. Rows silently communicate that the attention is on the group leader at the front; a circle says “We’re all equal – we want to hear from everyone.” Circles communicate that you’re there to have a conversation. Rows communicate that you’re there to learn content. Don’t misunderstand – content is important! But there must be a balance between content and conversation; there must be the creation of community while you learn the biblical content.
- Don’t Introduce New Members to Long-time Members– Take the initiative and introduce guests to people in your Bible study group. Some folks are pretty shy (guests, new group members, and long-time group members), and they need a little push to start talking to one another. When people are standing around before the Bible study begins, it’s really easy to say to a long-time member, “Hey John, have you met Bill and Lisa? They are new to our group. Bill loves to play golf like you do. Visit with each other for a few minutes before we get started.” If you want to do something even better, have a designated greeter (or greeters) in your group whose job it is to reach out to your guests and new members for the purpose of introducing them to others so they get connected relationally.
- Run out of Chairs– There’s nothing like not having plenty of seating for people. A lack of seating communicates that the group really doesn’t value every person. If a new member arrives and finds the room full, group members need to be trained to stand up quickly, offer them their seats, and wait for extra chairs to be brought in.
- Don’t Invite New Members to Engage Socially– There was a time when my wife and I were new members in a group, and we often found ourselves left out of conversations and were not invited to lunch after church, or to a movie outing, or something else that would have been fun socially. It’s possible to be a member of a group, but not be fully assimilated into the life of the group. If you want to run off new members, leave them out of your group’s fun social activities.
- Don’t have Extra Copies of your Bible Study Materials – Most groups use some kind of ongoing study materials purchased from a Christian publisher. Those materials help group members know what is being studied and discussed each week. New members must feel like they are on equal footing with long-time group members, and if you want to run off newer members, tell them you ran out of study materials and that they’ll just have to listen in. As a group leader, I want one personal study guide for every member of my group, and then I insist on an extra 20% to cover every guest and new member who shows up at my group’s Bible study.
It is true that healthy things grow, and that growing things change. If a Bible study group isn’t growing, and if the newer members ride off into the sunset, never to be seen again, it’s time to ask, “Is our group doing anything to somehow drive the new members out?” No group would ever knowingly do things to make coming to the group uncomfortable for new members, but sometimes things are done accidentally. If left uncorrected, these things will surely make new members vote with their feet. After leading successful groups ministries at three churches, and from my role as a volunteer group leader at my church today, avoiding these seven things will go a long way in making sure that newer members stick around for the long haul.
I manage the teams that create LifeWay’s adult ongoing Bible studies. My new book, Breathing Life Into Sunday School, is available at lifeway.com starting April 15. You can follow this blog for free by signing up on my home page. Look for the signup button in the right side bar menu.