By Mark Ingmire
It’s been said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that’s true with small groups. We can’t underestimate the importance of the first meeting for setting the group on track. Here are a few tips that have served me well when I’ve launched new small groups.
Before Anyone Steps Inside
It’s easy to focus on what to do once everyone arrives, but there are plenty of necessary tasks to accomplish beforehand. These tasks will help people feel welcome.
Group members bring many fears with them to small group—whether or not they’ve been in a small group before. The more you can alleviate these fears, the better. They may be asking:
- Where is the house?
- Do I ring the doorbell or just walk in?
- Will I be liked? Will I be underdressed?
- Will I have to pray out loud?
- Will there be weird people in the group?
- Will I be the weird one?
To alleviate these initial fears, I generally send an e-mail to all group members several days before the meeting. I include the full address of the home, basic directions to get there, instructions on parking, information on the dress code, what to bring, and a simplified version of our schedule for the evening. Additionally, I tell them to look for a sign at the home. The night of the meeting, I create a sign that says “Small Group,” placing it near the driveway or entrance. I also like to attach balloons to it for added visibility.
Prepare the Agenda
A great first meeting probably won’t happen if you decide just to “wing it.” Instead, spend time planning what you’ll do. Most group meetings can be divided into three parts: study, prayer, and sharing. For your first meeting you may not plan any time for study. If you do, it may only take up a small portion of the meeting. The majority of your time should be spent on fellowship—giving group members time to get to know one another. Doing this builds trust that will inspire group members to share more openly with one another as your group progresses. Whatever you do that first night, remember to keep it simple. Don’t try to pack it with more than you have time for.
Pay Attention to Logistics
Make sure that you give as much attention to the meeting environment as you have to the agenda. Be sure any part of the home being used is clean. Don’t overlook the guest bathroom. Turn on plenty of lights—especially in the meeting room. It’s also wise to turn on the bathroom light so group members know where it’s located. Prepare the room you’ll be meeting in by placing chairs in a circle. If you’ll be using supplies for an activity, make sure there are enough for everyone. Minimize distractions by putting away pets and turning down phone ringers.
When Group Members Arrive
These tips are helpful as people arrive, putting them at ease and setting the tone.
Whether it’s you, the host, or a particularly warm group member, choose someone who will focus on greeting others at the door. This will communicate to group members that they were expected and welcome. It will also allow others to chat together without constantly having to run to the front door.
Focus on Others
When you greet others, you either say “Here I am!” or “There you are!” Choose to recognize the other person. Let me explain. When you greet someone in a light-hearted, funny way—like saying “Howdy, stranger!” or “Have we met?”—you keep the focus on yourself. You’re trying to be funny. You’re the witty person trying to lighten the mood.
To many people, though, this will come across as self-centered, fake, or at least misplaced. Think about it: your group members are starting on a serious (yet fun!) journey together. If someone has had a difficult week and wants to share later in the meeting, your silly greeting may set the wrong tone, making them reconsider.
Instead of focusing on you, commit to focusing on others. Tell group members it’s good to see them and that you’re glad they came. Ask them how they are, and make them feel welcome.
One thing you can do to help people feel at ease is provide name tags. Conversations are more numerous and go much better when you know someone’s first name. It’s hard to build a relationship with someone when they call you, “Hey, you, there.” By wearing name tags, no one will feel awkward when they forget someone’s name. Plus, name tags aren’t just for the first meeting. Consider using them for every meeting, or every meeting for the first month or two.
During the First Meeting
Once it is time for the first meeting to start, bring out the written agenda and launch into it. As you do, here are a few important reminders.
Start and End on Time
A good group leader always tries to start and end the group meeting on time. This lets group members know that you value their time. They also feel more at ease when they know that they won’t be “held hostage” by a meeting that appears to be going on forever.
Have Fun Getting to Know One Another
Icebreakers are the easiest way to have fun and get to know one another. There are plenty of icebreakers you can do with your small group. Just make sure that everyone can participate. Don’t underestimate the importance of spending time having fun and getting to know one another. As I mentioned earlier, group members bring their fears and past experiences with them. By starting out with a fun activity, you’ll set a great tone for the rest of your meetings.
I believe icebreakers are great at all meetings, but you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of time on them at this first meeting. As you get to know one another, you’ll build trust and relationships.
Here are two icebreaker activities that don’t take any preparation:
- Whatcha Got? Group members find three things in their billfold or purse which tell a little bit about themselves. Take turns allowing group members to share their items and how the items describe them. You can increase or decrease the number of items depending on the number of people present.
- Two Truths and a Lie. Group members must create three statements about themselves to share with the group, making two true and one a lie. As group members share their three statements, the rest of the group members should guess which statement is a lie.
Introduce Your Covenant
Every small group in our ministry is required to have a covenant. We give every group leader a sample covenant, and they tailor it to their group. You and your group can use an existing covenant or build a covenant from scratch. Either way, it’s a good idea to introduce your covenant in the first meeting. Covenants make expectations clear instead of depending on assumed expectations. This sets up your small group for health and success.
A great way to introduce a covenant or to help build a covenant is simply to ask your group two questions:
- What is one thing you hope to gain by being part of this small group?
- What is one fear you have about being a part of this small group?
What they share will help answer important parts of the covenant such as how they will interact and treat one another. Their answers will also give you an indication of what they will value more in your group such as study, fellowship, or serving.
Keep the Meeting on Track
This is important for all meetings: Keep the agenda on track. Don’t let anyone hijack the meeting unless you feel it’s necessary. There is nothing more draining that someone who has taken the group hostage with a pet project or a pet peeve. When you keep the meeting on track, you’ll find that you are able to accomplish everything on your agenda and keep your group members happy.
After the Meeting
After the meeting is over, a good group leader will try to sustain the growth and intimacy built between group members during the first meeting. You can do this by staying in touch with your group members during the week. It could be a phone call, an e-mail, or a Facebook message. This small touch communicates to group members that they are important. When they feel valued, their trust in you and the group will grow rather than diminish between meetings.
Mark Ingmire is the Small Groups and Adult Education Pastor at Savannah Christian Church in Savannah, Georgia; copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.