Affective Training Leads to Effective Group Leaders

How the secret of how people learn can affect your small-group ministry

My dad taught me a bunch of things growing up, most of which I didn't realize at the time because I didn't have a use for it. One of those things was an understanding how people learn new ideas and apply them to their lives.

Educators have discovered three ways people gain knowledge about something, which we will discuss in a moment. But the application of that knowledge is quite different. It's like knowing you should eat your vegetables versus skipping the deep-fried potatoes and eating steamed broccoli. Yum!

You may not think this has anything to do with the way you train your new small-group leaders. However, designing your training around what I'm about to share will make the difference between leaders who are passionately pursuing their ministry and those who do silly things (or nothing at all)—which only serves to hurt the group ministry and the group members, not to mention making you look foolish.

Do I have your attention? Good! Take a big sip of coffee and put on your thinking cap for this next bit. Here's a very brief overview of the three domains of learning:

Cognitive Domain

The cognitive domain is knowledge or mind based. A vast majority of the training I have received in church life has been cognitive. Someone stands up and talks and I am supposed to listen intently, take notes, and apply the truths they are sharing. In fact, we all hear a cognitive-based sermon each Sunday.

Taking in new information cognitively isn't fun, but it's safe. For example, it's much better to warn a child that the stove is hot and it will hurt him instead of watching the toddler learn by being burned—learning about heat the hard and painful way. So, cognitive learning does have its place in the learning experience.

Psychomotor Domain

The psychomotor domain is skill-based. This is where a person participates in the new activity to gain confidence and competence. Facilitating the ministry time in the meeting, praying with a pastor for an hour, or making a visit to a member's home with their group leader are all psychomotor activities that help a person fully understand the cognitive information supplied to them.

But don't be fooled—just because someone has tried it and even done it successfully does not mean they will do it again in the future! That's a deeper level that you must help them move into.

Affective Domain

The affective domain is based upon behavioral aspects and may be labeled as a core value or a belief. When leaders call members of their group to check up on them without being asked or pray alone for an hour at a time because they want a breakthrough in their group, the knowledge they gained in the cognitive domain has been applied in the psychomotor domain and is now a core value that has been fully integrated into their lifestyle. They don't think, "I have to do X or Y because I'm a small-group leader." They just do it because they want to—it's who they have become.

In other words, those kinds of group leaders have practiced what they learned until they were changed at the core of their being. That is the affective domain of learning and behavior.

Think About It

So here's the question: Does your group-leadership training process successfully move members into leadership by moving them through all three domains?

Most small-group pastors train by utilizing the cognitive domain alone because they don't have the time to follow up with people after giving them homework assignments. They don't make an effort to move their group leaders deeper into psychomotor activity. Sometimes they assume that group leaders and potential group leaders are hanging on their every word, and that they leave each training session anxious to apply everything they heard.

When Christ walked this earth in human form, he worked with a handful of faithful, able, and teachable men and moved them through all three domains of learning. The proof is not in the expansion of the New Testament church. It's in the fact that the disciples died as martyrs of the faith. When it came down to it, they were more than willing to die a cruel death for the sake of Christ.

That is where we must find ourselves and lead others to be. If your training stops with a lecture, give your group leaders a homework assignment to apply. Then follow up with each and every person to see they've completed it.

But don't stop there. Your group leaders must repetitively practice what they learn until it becomes natural and they just do it without thinking about it (i.e., developing a taste for broccoli and craving it when you see it on a menu or on the dinner table). Reading a book or hearing a lecture alone is nearly worthless if that's all one provides a small-group leader.

Ponder this: How much of what you learned in high school was retained to pass a test and then forgotten? Did the cognitively-delivered information in Driver's Ed keep you from exceeding the speed limit? How about maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles on the freeway? And do you replace your tires before they're worn out or park your car if you can't afford new tires because they're bald?

You don't have to answer that. Lord knows I'm not gonna confess my driving sins online! Knowing and doing are two very different things, aren't they?

It's time to rethink the way we train leaders. It's time to create a transformational learning process for our leaders. Because to be truly effective, we must remain affective.

—Randall Neighbour is author of The Naked Truth About Small Group Ministry (TOUCH, 2009). Article excerpted with permission from

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