The Basics of Facilitating

The Basics of Facilitating

What every small-group leader needs to know

One of your key roles as a small-group leader is facilitating discussion at your meetings. For some, this opportunity is exciting and thrilling. For others, the task feels daunting. First of all, know that you will improve with time—this is something any veteran leader will tell you. Second, there are several tips that will help you improve as a facilitator, including types of questions to use and keys to keep the discussion moving.

Types of Questions

The goal of the facilitator is to help group members engage in meaningful dialogue with one another. This allows them to discover biblical truths for themselves. In fact, a mentor once told me that my goal as a small-group leader was to never tell when I could ask. In other words, instead of telling the group that Galatians was written by Paul to the church in Galatia, I should ask the group, "Who is the author of Galatians? And who was it written to?" This gets everyone involved, and sets the tone for discussion instead of lecture.

Use a variety of questions to spark discussion and help group members connect with the topic. As a rule of thumb, you'll want to follow the order of these questions when leading discussion. They work from more general to very specific and help group members discover God's truth. In this order, you'll finish your discussion by actually applying it to your lives. A common mistake of small-group leaders is jumping to application questions before using the other types of questions to dig into the text. Instead, use the following types of questions in this order and end your meetings at a climactic point in discussion.

Launching Questions

These questions are intended to get discussion started, focusing the group members' attention on a certain topic. They should be open-ended and engaging. The best icebreaker questions fall into this category: they allow all group members to share from personal experience, and they connect their answers to the topic being discussed.

What role did the Bible have in your childhood home?
When have you experienced forgiveness? What was it like?

Observation Questions

These are the only true closed questions you'll use. They seek to clarify what the text says. They ask group members simply to look to the text for the answer. These don't often generate a lot of discussion, so some leaders will want to skip over them. Realize, though, that these questions allow group members and guests alike to answer—because the answer is right in the text. Plus, they challenge us to look more closely at the content and remind us of the details of a passage, especially if we have read the passage before.

In these verses, what does Paul say is necessary for salvation?
What Old Testament characters are mentioned in this passage from Hebrews?

Interpretation Questions

These questions ask "How?", "Why?", or "What do you think?" Theyrequire group members to consider the meaning of the text, using their own experiences and perspectives. These are often mixed up with application questions (which I'll cover later). The key difference is that interpretation questions simply seek to make meaning of the text, not to apply the text to our lives.

Why do you think Jesus said that to Peter?
What does it mean to "bear with one another"?

Reflection Questions

These questions seek to make the transition between our understanding of what the text says and its implications for our lives—they transition from interpretation questions to application questions. They seek to put our lives into the context of the biblical account and discover how we should feel, think, and act within that context. They ask the question, "What does this have to do with us?" or "Why was this included in the Bible?"

Why do you think we so rarely talk in church about sex?
What might it look like to care for orphans and widows today?
If Jesus talked so much about money, why do we talk about it so infrequently in church?

Application Questions

These questions help group members take what they've learned and apply it on a personal level. Having discovered the life-changing principles in the text, group members consider what their response will be. True application requires group members to identify a specific response or action they will take within a specific time frame.

What changes will you make this week as a result of our discussion on the creation story?
What one spiritual discipline will you commit to this month? When will you practice this discipline?

Guiding Questions

Even though I've placed these last, use these questions throughout the discussion to keep the discussion moving and to draw out the main ideas shared. These questions seek to summarize and clarify in order to keep the discussion focused. They also make sure that group members are validated in their sharing and understood by other group members. You can also use these questions to refocus the group when the discussion has gone off on a tangent.

Are we saying that … ?
What did you mean when you said … ?

Leading Discussion

Good questions are the key to facilitating well, but you'll also need to keep a few things in mind in order to successful string these questions together into a lively, life-giving discussion. Here are 10 important reminders for facilitating well.

  • You are a leader, not a teacher. Empower others to discover the truth of Scripture for themselves by asking great questions. Don't turn your discussion time into a lecture.
  • Allow the Holy Spirit to speak to group members through the study materials, helping them to understand and apply the text. While it's great for you to share your own experiences, stories, and opinions, let the text be the main focus.
  • Small groups are about community and spiritual growth. As you discuss the Bible, you may be drawn into theological debates. Remember this isn't the purpose. You'll need to discuss the text in order to apply the principles faithfully, but remember the goal is life change, not simply gaining knowledge.
  • Create a safe environment for group members to share. Don't put down group members' comments or questions. Affirm people when they share.
  • Ask open-ended questions that can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." If you must ask a "yes or no" question, be sure to follow it with "Why?"
  • To encourage non-talkers to participate in your discussion, call on them by name. At the same time, never force participation, which would create an unsafe environment. This tactic also works to facilitate discussion when there are overly-talkative group members by making it clear who should be speaking.
  • Stimulate further discussion by responding to members' contributions. You can simply acknowledge their response (Thanks for sharing, Helen.), or you can ask guiding questions to clarify general or vague responses (What do you mean that you feel selfish? Can you flesh that out for us?). Be sure to respond to nonverbal communication (a groan, deep sigh, or laughter) as well—some say up to 90 percent of communication is non-verbal.
  • When someone answers incorrectly, respond carefully. Instead of telling group members they're incorrect, turn it over to the group. Ask, "What do others think?" or "Does everyone agree?" You can also ask, "Do you find that in Scripture?" Be gentle in your response. It may be better to confront the issue one-on-one outside of the meeting, especially if the group member is passionate about his or her answer.
  • When your discussion goes off on a tangent, acknowledge the new topic's importance, and suggest that you table the topic until later—either after the current discussion or after the meeting. Having people participate—even if their comments are off-topic—is a good thing. Just keep steering the conversation back to the main topic. On the other hand, sometimes tangents lead to excellent discussions. Use discernment to determine if this tangent is something that your group members need.
  • Don't forget to apply what you've learned! Ask group members how they will live life differently because of your discussion. You can also ask group members to identify next steps they need to take.

The 30 Second Rule

I'll leave you with one final tip that has proven incredibly helpful in leading groups. Too often, leaders ask a question, wait three to five seconds, and then jump in to answer it themselves. This is not helpful—your group members aren't participating, and they won't be discovering God's Word for themselves. Additionally, they'll learn that you'll always give the answers, which will discourage future participation. Instead, always wait 30 seconds after asking a question.

In order to train yourself in this, ask a question and then glance at your watch. Wait the full 30 seconds. You might also practice at home by sitting in silence for 30 seconds. I will warn you that at first it will feel like an eternity! But here's what I've learned: someone will most likely speak up with an answer before 30 seconds are up. And if no one has an answer, someone will speak up and ask, "What was the question?" This can be a clue to you that the question may not have been clear. You can reword your question to make it clear and concise. Why 30 seconds? It takes at least 20 seconds for many people to process questions, especially questions that synthesize information like reflection and application questions. Allow group members the time they need so everyone can participate in the conversation.

Your role as small-group leader is very important. You have the privilege of working alongside the Spirit to help people grow. Never underestimate this. As you spend time leading a group, you'll find that these facilitation skills will become more and more second-nature to you. In the meantime, be intentional about leading your meetings and offer yourself grace when you make mistakes. The truth is that God will use this leadership role to further develop you, so enjoy the journey.

—Amy Jackson is the Managing Editor of; copyright 2012 by Christianity Today.

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