So often we become enamored with new strategies for reaching people that we forget the old. One of those old strategies is the empty chair. I’m referring to the time-tested method of placing an empty chair in the middle of the group and then praying for the next visitor (non-Christian or unchurched) who will occupy that chair. The empty chair approach helps the group remember that its mission is to reach others.
I was reminded of the empty chair last Thursday night during the American Society for Church Growth’s banquet at BIOLA University. Charles Arns was the speaker, and he presented the life and ministry of his father, Win Arns. Win Arns, who is now deceased, worked closely with Donald McGavran in developing the church growth movement. Charles Arns presented a film that his father had made about church growth way back in the 1970s. Donald McGavran, the father of the church growth movement, appeared frequently in the film and at one point extolled the importance of small groups in the growth of Christ’s church. McGavran said that small groups must focus on evangelism and outreach-in addition to personal care–if church growth is going to occur. McGavran mentioned that one of the ways that some groups reach out is to use the empty chair to remind believers to reach out to non-believers.
I greeted George Hunter III, author of Celtic Evangelism and many other books, after the banquet. He gave me the paper that he was going to present to the conference and asked me to critique it. As I read his paper entitled What Kind of Local Church Reaches Pre-Christian People? I noticed the importance he places on small groups to reach pre-Christian people. Hunter writes, “In small groups, people gain experience in lay ministry, and are more likely to minister to people outside the group, and outside the church. In small groups with an “empty chair” that they fill with a seeker every six months, small groups reach people; in many churches, the groups are the initial port of entry for far more seekers tham the worship service.”
The empty chair anology stuck in my mind. When I was planning the WITNESS time for last Sunday night’s cell group, I placed an empty chair before the group and asked various members to pray for the next person to fill it. I believe it helped us all to remember that small groups are not just for the SAINTS–they’re also for those who AIN’T.