Note: This article is excerpted from our Training Tool Develop Real Relationships.
When we talk about the key parts of a small group, we usually talk about the Bible study, sharing, prayer, group mission, or outreach. Because we see these as the most important elements, our leader training focuses on doing those things well. However, there's one part of group life which we don't pay as much attention to, yet has huge importance: relationships. Though we may spend little time training how to build, deepen, and maintain friendships within the group, we can't ignore them if we want groups to be healthy. And we can't assume they'll naturally develop.
Consider for a moment a small group without deep relationships. This group will be made up of simple acquaintances who don't do much to support one another. They'll hold in hurt and disagreements rather than seek to forgive wrongs committed against each other because they're not invested in the relationships. They won't respond to needs that are expressed, assuming someone else will take care of it. And they won't experience much life change together because depth and accountability simply aren't present.
Without a strong emphasis on relationships, the best thing a small group can do is impart head knowledge. That same knowledge, when discussed in an environment that promotes relationships, has the power to move from the head to the heart. Group members allow that knowledge to impact them, and they seek to apply it. That's when life change happens. So let's look at how we can model and emphasize healthy and life-changing relationships within small groups.
Make the Group Safe
You can establish a few guidelines during the group's discussion that will help foster relationships. Introduce these guidelines before you jump into your study time to help you model how a healthy, life-changing group functions.
One of my greatest frustrations is group members who respond to questions with superficial answers. To help with this, you'll need to model transparent sharing, talking about your real needs, struggles, and frustrations. Your group can tell if you're being transparent or superficial, and they'll follow your lead. You may find that it isn't easy being transparent, but it's important to try. The more you practice, the easier it will be. Your transparency will give your group members permission to be transparent, sharing their true selves with the group. This is part of tilling the soil of relationships.
When people share an experience which has deeply impacted them, it's our tendency to try to make them feel better about the situation or about themselves. This is especially true if a group member gets emotional. I have heard people say, "God will use that situation," or "It will be okay." Although both of these sentiments may be true, they quickly shut down further sharing. Rather than responding with these sentiments, allow time to pause and reflect, thank them for sharing, and perhaps respond by saying "I'm so sorry," or "That sounds like a really tough situation."
This is especially important when group members have difficulty expressing themselves. Perhaps they're stuttering or searching for the words to express what they're thinking. Rather than allow them the space to sort it out and say what they're thinking and feeling, we try to rush in and rescue them by putting words into their mouths. We must recognize that this is because we feel uncomfortable, not because it's helpful to the people sharing. Rather than rush in to try to finish their thoughts for them, be patient and allow them to express themselves. After they've shared, you can always ask questions to clarify what they meant.