good-questions-have-groups-talkingThe beginning sets the tone for the whole. Like Scott Peck’s classic beginning line of The Road Less Traveled, “Life is Difficult.” We wanted to believe it was easy, or you could make it easy, or easier in three easy steps.

Or, Rick Warren’s beginning line of The Purpose Driven Life, “It is not about you.” That gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it?

Or how about this beginning line: The beginning sets the tone for the whole.

Well, I don’t suspect this book will become a classic on par with The Road Less Traveled or The Purpose Driven Life. I just want to make the point that the beginning sets the tone for the whole.

The first five minutes of your group time sets the tone for the whole. People tend to make up their mind about how they are going to feel about class in the first five minutes and then spend the rest of the hour trying to defend why that idea is right.

“The first five minutes” can be taken two ways and we will deal with each one separately:

  • The first five minutes when people walk into group, and
  • The first five minutes when the actual group time begins

Both of these times are extremely important. The first we will deal with in this chapter, the second will have a chapter of its own.

The first five minutes when people walk into the group

When was the last time you walked into a group as a stranger? Do you remember how it feels? Do you remember how it feels to not know where to sit, what to do, where to go, who is in charge, what is going on?

If it has been a long time, or maybe you cannot remember, I recommend you visit another church. If you want to be really brave, visit a church that is not part of your denomination, a church that is very different from yours. Walk in and get in touch with what it feels like to be a stranger.

You might think this issue is not important enough to warrant going to all this fuss about. Jesus counted the issue of strangers and how they are treated as very important. It is one of the things that separate the sheep from the goats. Circle the word “stranger” every time it occurs in this passage:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:34-46 [NIV]

Imagine Jesus visited your group. How would you treat Him? Jesus taught us to treat every visitor that way, because how we treat them is how we are treating Him.

The writer of Hebrews taught us that by being careful of the way we treat strangers, we are, at times, entertaining angels:

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2 [NIV]

How we greet one another is elevated in the Bible to the position of a command. Four times in the New Testament we are commanded to greet one another properly:

  • Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. Romans 16:16 [NIV]
  • All the brothers here send you greetings. Greet one another with a holy kiss. 1 Cor. 16:20 [NIV]
  • Greet one another with a holy kiss. 2 Cor. 13:12 [NIV]
  • Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ. 1 Peter 5:14 [NIV]

It is easy to miss the import of these commands because we get hung up on the cultural style of what is appropriate. Our mind gets distracted by the visual imagery of kissing each other at the door and the political correctness of that in a world like ours and what would happen if, and. . . we miss the whole point. The point is that God counted it so important that we greet each other appropriately that he elevated it to the level of a command and repeated it four times.

I have had more than a few people irritated at me over the years. I remember talking to a friend once about someone else who was irritated at me. (Probably a better idea to talk with the person who was irritated.) Anyway, I asked my friend what their beef was. “Well,” my friend hesitated. “They said you didn’t say ‘Hi!’ to them when you walked down the hall. You didn’t greet them. You just ignored them. They knew you would never do this to one of your friends, but to them, you didn’t say a word. It made them feel small. It made them feel like they were not important to you.”

“I am spacey,” I protested. But, as much as I have tried to defend my spacey-ness and this is a trivial matter and as much as I have tried to convince myself that they are just too sensitive, I have to admit that the Bible is on their side. The Bible commands that we take seriously how we greet one another. Back in the day, that meant a warm kiss. Maybe it means something else in our day. Whatever else it means, it means that the greeting in the first minute when people show up is very important.

The way we treat strangers is important to God and it is important to people. How we treat strangers–visitors to our group–may have more to do with whether or not they come back and the growth of the group than anything else. It may be more important than the quality of the teaching or how hard you work at your outreach program.

Here are three things you can do to insure that your visitors are treated as you would treat Jesus if he visited your class.

Make someone in charge

Everyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility. In order to insure that every visitor is treated well, make it someone’s job. Have someone stationed by the door prepared to greet everyone who walks in and especially to welcome strangers. Wal-Mart does it. You should too. It could be the teacher, but it is probably preferable that it be someone else. Get the friendliest, happiest, most welcoming person in the room to be in charge of greeting people.


People don’t know what to do when they first come in, and they are uncomfortable doing nothing. Give them something to do–eat. Give them something to eat. Eating relaxes people and puts them at ease. It gives them something to do and relieves the awkwardness.

Providing refreshments each week is easy enough to do. First, someone needs to be in charge. Not in charge of making refreshments every week, but in charge of seeing that it is taken care of. About every two months, they can pass around a sign up list with dates for people to volunteer. If it is a large class, you may need several to volunteer each week. A friendly e-mail reminder to the people who have signed up each week would go along way toward insuring that it is done.

Introductions and chit-chat

After a visitor is greeted at the door and shown the refreshments, the next step is introductions. It is not necessary to introduce them to everyone in the group; just a few people. Sit them next to someone and say, “Bob and Cheryl, this is Tom and Betty. Make them feel welcome, will you?” It is important at this point that Bob and Cheryl make them feel welcome.

How do they do that? Ask lots of questions–questions about Tom and Betty. Questions that are of interest, but not too personal. Good questions are the key to good group life. Questions like:

  • Is this your first time be with us?
  • How did you hear about our church (or group)?
  • What kind of work are you in?
  • How long have you lived here?
  • Do you have family in the area?
  • Do you have kids?

If the Bob and Cheryl in your group are not naturally good at this, you might coach them to have a list of questions in their mind. It will serve them well, not only in this situation, but in a million situations where they met new people. Better yet, if the Bob and Cheryls of your group are not naturally good at this, you might sit Tom and Betty next to someone else. Let’s put our best foot forward. First impressions matter.

This chit-chat ought to continue right up until when the group itself starts, or, when Bob and Cheryl sense that Tom or Betty have had enough chit-chat. There is a fine line between friendliness and nosiness.

From time to time–maybe about once a quarter, you might do a group evaluation of this process. Make sure you have a greeter and refreshments, and then ask. Openly, publically ask members how they felt the first week they were greeted. Hopefully, they will report that they felt great and the group was welcoming and inviting. A report like that will go a long way toward encouraging the group to keep up the good work.

You might think that all this is automatic and trivial and happens all the time and does not warrant writing about. If you had visited as many classes as I have, you wouldn’t feel that way. Visitors are often routinely ignored.

Treat your visitors well. The first five minutes set the tone for the rest of the class.

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