Guiding group discussion is more of a dance than a military march. You’re not commanding attention and straining toward a precise outcome. A life-giving kingdom-conversation will nudge you gently to both participate and learn from others. The nutrients for spiritual growth are found more in the group synergy than the group study.
But how do you get there? Most people can visualize the power of healthy dialogue among a circle of engaged Christ-followers, but it can be much harder to experience that reality on a consistent basis unless you know how to manage the mood.
Prepping for a small group like a teacher prepares for a sermon does not ensure success. Arming yourself with knowledge, information, pages of notes, and rehearsed lines yields small returns in the relational setting of a small group. Rather, bringing a group discussion to life requires a subtle framework, the right pace, smooth guidance, and an interested host.
1. Scratch the surface before you go deeper.
One of the aims of group discussion should be to get beneath the surface of peoples’ lives. The problem is, you have to be disciplined not to go there too early. People need time to warm up. Their mind and heart are shifting gears from their day and their week to what the Lord wants to speak to them during your time together. They’re not always ready at the outset to start mining the tectonic plates of their soul. This is why an effective small-group outline has a progressive sequence of open-ended questions that gradually lead a group to open up and be transparent.
A simple progression I follow in discussions is:
- Connection Questions—Intro and Icebreakers
- Dissection Questions—Observation and interpretation questions about the Scripture passage
- Reflection Questions—Questions that relate to our experiences and help us apply Scripture to our daily lives
- Inspection Questions—Application questions that focus on self-awareness and personal transformation
I never begin a group meeting without an icebreaker question. In theory, it may seem gimmicky, but it makes it easy for people to begin sharing. I recently had a new apprentice lead our group. Even though I went over the importance of icebreakers, he made a rookie mistake and jumped right into the study. The conversation never really took off. Icebreakers help prevent this by getting everyone involved right from the beginning.
I also make sure that by the end of the study there are some questions that push people out of their comfort zone and invite them to be vulnerable. You can’t hope for people to be real in your group if you don’t ask any penetrating questions. When leaders first hear this tip, they often get excited—until I tell them they have to model transparency by answering these tough questions as well. This is the best way, though, to get the rest of the group members to open up.
2. Stop speeding.
Inexperienced group hosts often get anxious after asking a question. Quiet pauses feel like a vacuum that must be filled. In reality, those pauses are essential for quality interaction.
I remember one evening when a new group host I was apprenticing couldn’t seem to wait more than two seconds after asking a question before he would give his own answer. When he moved onto the next questions, he did it again. No one was given the chance to think through a response—let alone share it.
New facilitators need to slow down. There’s nothing wrong with throwing a question out to the group and pausing silently to let people think about it. Many times, I’ll ask a question and literally say, “Take 15–20 seconds to think about that before you answer.” Then, I will stare at my toe so that my body language communicates that I am perfectly comfortable waiting for them to share their thoughts.