May 28, 2018


Avoiding Holy Huddles

Cole Penick shares three tips to help your small groups be open to newcomers instead of becoming holy huddles.

We want the Missional Communities we launch on our campus to be open and inviting. That sounds great on paper or when we’re training our student leaders, and yet highly elusive. Like much of life, the details make all of the difference. Some of those decisions have to be made months before students arrive on campus. Others have to be made in the moment by students who understand not only the core purpose of their group but why each little detail is necessary for the success of the whole.

As you’re shaping your small group strategy for the fall semester, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Think like the unengaged

As much as we like to think that we are set up for new or non-believers to join our groups, we all too often forget what it’s like to come to a small group Bible study for the first time. Christian small groups have their own ethos and to the uninitiated they can be confusing at best and off putting at worst. Instead of assuming that everyone who comes knows how the night will unfold, explain it. Every college class comes with a syllabus to clarify the path the course will take. New students need a syllabus for your small group as well. The biggest difference is that in Biology 101, they only directly discuss the syllabus on Day 1 whereas with your small group, you need to pass out the syllabus every week. The vast majority of non-Christians don’t know what Bible books, chapters, or verses are. They don’t have a Bible App on their phone let alone a familiarity with David Platt’s newest book. They’ve never shared prayer requests with other people. That doesn’t mean that we should stop reading the Bible or praying together. (It might mean you don’t discuss a book together though. Sorry, Dr. Platt.) It does mean that you should explain these things every week, which is easily forgotten. That’s why you need a good script.

2. Trust the Script

The best scripts still exist. Well written scripts don’t put people in a bind, they allow them to bloom. The best actors and directors in the world want to take a crack at Hamlet. And none of them complain that the Bard is “limiting their creativity and initiative” or “betraying a lack of trust in their skills as an actor.” If Shakespeare doesn’t have to put up with that, then neither should you when a student complains that this year you won’t let them lead an inductive study of Daniel or work through Piper’s latest classic. Instead, remind them that a well written plan makes your small group leaders into disciple-making all-stars. It helps them to remember to keep the new or non-believer in focus. It creates the cadence necessary to build a fruitful and reproducible group. It instills the norms that make guests feel welcome and engaged. Nothing is more embarrassing to many first-timers than hearing “Well, since Susan is new this week, let’s go around and introduce ourselves.” Susan doesn’t want you to do something out of the ordinary on her account. Instead, include introductions in the script every week so that it feels normal to the whole room, including the guests (who can sniff out abnormalities in the routine even if they’ve never been before). As a side note, as someone who struggles to learn names quickly, I’m a firm believer that nametags and introductions are necessary every week, no matter who’s there. As another added bonus, explaining everything every week might prompt a regular attender to ask, “Why do we do this every week when we all already know each other?” For your student leader to nail this answer, they need to know the why behind everything in the script.

3. Explain The Why

Every part of your script needs to have a purpose. Filler always finds its way in and when it does it wants to muscle out anything that might seem useless. So, make sure that in your training and even your script, you’re clear as to why you do everything you do. We introduce ourselves every week so that new people are known, names are learned by repetition, and we have a built-in reminder that there should always be new people each week. We focus on Bible narratives instead of Epistles because stories are sticky, they are easier to understand and discuss for first-timers, and they can be used to share the Gospel effectively no matter the audience. We read the story from Scripture at least two times and then have someone retell it from memory so that even first timers can catch up on the story and discuss it, so that everyone can catch details that only show up after multiple hearings, and so that the story can be more easily retold to others outside of small group. While those all might be unique elements to our missional communities, my leaders know they can’t jettison them when they start to feel redundant. They know there’s a reason we do it all.

Don’t leave anything to chance. All college small groups inherently drift toward Holy Huddles. They eventually settle for great community instead of remembering that they are meant to create good community to then give it away to others who need it as much as they do. To fight that tide write a meaningful script that purposefully focuses on the uninitiated. And whether it is to be or not to be perfectly executed, it sets your students up for a lifetime of effectively reaching others through small groups.

about the author

Cole Penick

Cole is the Campus Minister for the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at the University of Arkansas. He and his wife, Caroline, live with their four adorable children right in the middle of campus, their mission field. They enjoy family walks on campus, watching and playing sports, making and eating good food, and oh so many books.