Note: This article is excerpted from Field Guide for Small Group Leaders.
Many small-group leaders feel the need to teach their group members by providing a lot of information, principles, and theories instead of leading an actual discussion. In case there is any ambiguity, let me be clear: this is a bad idea. It's called lecturing, and it should be reserved for professors behind their lecterns (and to some extent pastors behind their pulpits).
But that doesn't mean small-group leaders should have nothing to say. We should. In fact, I believe it's important that group leaders spend a little bit of time explaining the context of a Bible passage or topic before the group digs into a discussion. I also believe that group leaders need to address context on two levels: textual and personal.
The textual context of a passage in the Bible is the frame that surrounds that passage and gives it meaning. This frame is made up of several elements:
- The verses that come immediately before and immediately after the Scripture passage under discussion.
- The book of the Bible that contains the passage under discussion.
- All passages of Scripture that were written by the author of the passage under discussion.
- The Bible as a whole.
- The cultural and historical setting experienced by the author as he wrote the passage under discussion.
The first two elements are often referred to as the "immediate context." They operate like the white lines on both sides of the road—they show us where the text has come from and where it is going, and they provide a boundary that keeps us from wandering away from the text's proper meaning. The final three elements are often referred to as the "broad concept." They operate like a map, showing us the country surrounding that particular road on all sides.
Here's my point: One of your jobs as a small-group leader is to provide a brief overview of the textual context for the verses your group will interact with during a discussion. And you want to provide that overview before the discussion gets started.
You don't want to get carried away, of course. You don't have to dig through a myriad of commentaries and hit your group members with every piece of relevant information you uncover. That would be lecturing, and lecturing is bad.
No, your goal is simply to highlight a few facts and ideas that would not be considered "common knowledge," and that you believe will be helpful to your group members during the discussion. Hopefully that kind of information will be included in the curriculum your group is using. If not (or if you wrote your own material), you should be able to compile some useful information during the process of identifying a "big idea," writing discussion questions, and so on.
Personal context refers to the experiences and attitudes of your small-group members that frame their interaction with each passage of Scripture. In other words, just as the verses before and after a passage of Scripture have an impact on its meaning, the personal stories of your group members will impact how they interact with that passage of Scripture and its meaning. This includes their stories as individuals as well as the collective story of the group as a whole.
To continue the analogy I started earlier, if the broad context of a Scripture passage is like a map, and the immediate context is a single road on that map, then the personal context is the condition of the person attempting to follow that road on that map.