Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from Leading a Great Small-Group Bible Study .
Imagine a mom spoon-feeding an adult child, pureed green beans dribbling down his chin. When we see that, we probably assume that the child is severely handicapped. Our heart goes out to both the parent and child. So, why don't we feel the same when we see small-group leaders spoon-feeding their group members week after week, expecting nothing from them but an open mouth?
Sadly, this practice seems to dot the small-group landscape. In response, publishers continue to produce shorter studies that require less of both students and leaders. And leaders, trying to be accommodating, spoon-feed their members and don't require much. But I'm a rebel. I still believe in homework.
This starts with my assumption that the purpose of a small group is to help bring each member to maturity. A part of this transformation process involves doing Bible study that draws a good connection between truth and life. Even if our group goal is evangelism, we are being irresponsible as leaders if we expect members to remain newborns forever. Paul reminded us in Ephesians 4:13–15 that God expects us to "become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ."
So what does this have to do with homework? In order to bring people to maturity in Christ, we must teach them to study the Word of God. They need to become familiar with it, learn their way around it, and eventually gain skill in applying it to their lives. That simply won't happen if we continue to spoon-feed them. It's a lot like raising kids. When a child is very young, we feed them. But soon, with strained peaches dribbling down their chins, they grab for the spoon to do it themselves. If we never give them the spoon, if we insist on continuing to feed them, they will get discouraged or rebellious. Depending on their personality, they will either get lazy and succumb to our feeding them, or they will rebel and simply refuse to eat. Neither of these results in a strong, healthy, independent child, even though it may be easier and neater in the short-run. No, despite the mess, a good parent will hand the child the spoon and rejoice as he smears the food all over his face in his first futile attempts to find his mouth. We as leaders must do the same thing.
Five Benefits to Teaching Group Members to Feed Themselves
Pave the Path to Maturity
Like a child who never learns to use the spoon, a group member who doesn't learn his way around Scripture has no hope of becoming a mature Christian. Like the parent, the leader won't always be there to give answers and keep the member from being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. It's only by the experience of regular, personal Bible study that our group members will learn to feed themselves—and thus grow to maturity. Baby Christians can be given a spoon—simple questions to answer during the week and discuss during the meeting. As they mature, give them a knife and fork and let them gain proficiency in more difficult exegesis and the use of study helps.
Build Faithfulness to the Word
Even if I am only assigning a small amount of homework, I encourage members to do a little bit every day rather than postponing it until the night before. Why? Because my main goal is to get members used to spending time in the Word daily. Just as good parents will make sure their child eats every day rather than once a week, I want to make sure that my group members are building a habit of daily time in the Word, even if it's only 10 minutes. I pray that, as God's Word comes alive for them, they will crave more than a daily snack.
Avoid Junk Food
Have you ever been in a study where a group member begins with, "Well, I think Paul is saying . . ." That's almost always a warning that junk food is coming. Chances are, that person didn't study the passage and therefore can only lean on his own understanding—which is often pretty shallow. Homework gives a common starting place for discussion. Just as a good parent ensures his or her child isn't eating a steady diet of junk food, a good leader will also require members to have a well-balanced meal that requires some preparation.
Foster Ownership in the Group
There are many ways to build group ownership, and homework is one of them. I believe it's important for the leader to be a facilitator rather than a teacher because people always remember what they say a lot better than they remember what you say. When members build some sweat equity by studying and contributing what they have learned, they take more ownership and that strengthens the group as a whole. This is not unlike a family where everyone can feed themselves solid food, and therefore mealtime becomes a true time of sharing.
Share the Load
Finally, homework is important as a means of sharing the load. Just as it's difficult for parents to be totally responsible for spoon-feeding several children, it's difficult for a leader to be totally responsible for feeding an entire group. What a delight when a member comes in and excitedly shares what he or she has learned by studying during the week. Even if it's a bit messy at first, the encouragement of contributing will lead to more skill—and relieve you of having to come up with every good point.
So do your group a favor. Assign homework and teach them to feed themselves—even if it's messy at first.
—Pat J. Sikora is a popular author and conference speaker, with several books and hundreds of articles to her credit; copyright 2001 by Christianity Today.
Are you tempted to spoon-feed your group members? Why or why not?
How does assigning homework—even if only a little—help teach group members to feed themselves?
What are some questions you could assign as homework for your next small-group meeting?