Note: This article is excerpted from Field Guide for Small Group Leaders.
Every small group that gathers together for more than a few months will eventually establish some kind of routine—a rhythm of "doing life together." This is true on a macro-level as group members see each other during meetings, see each other at church, meet together socially, interact online, and so on. This is also true on a micro-level as the group establishes a regular pattern for its group meetings. Telling stories from the past week, discussing the Bible, eating food, sharing prayer requests—all of these are shapes within that pattern.
There's nothing wrong with any of this. It's natural. Your group members learn about one another as a byproduct of these routines, and relationships become more solid. Your group members regularly encounter God's Word in the midst of these routines, and they grow both intellectually and spiritually.
The frustrating thing for us as group leaders is that these advances come slowly. They happen gradually, for the most part, and they happen below the surface. That means we don't always see a lot of fruit in the lives of our group members—we don't get many tangible signs that we are doing a good job leading our people into life-changing encounters with each other and with the Holy Spirit.
There are times, however, when something happens in the group that breaks everyone free from these regular patterns—moments that pull the group away from its routine and into something different. It is in these moments that group members often experience a jump of some kind. Relationships solidify quickly into a deeper bond. Something clicks in a person's mind that enables him or her to truly understand and apply a doctrinal truth. Someone experiences conviction about an area of sin and confesses it openly. I refer to these times as "teachable moments."
Keep Your Eyes Open
It's hard to write authoritatively about teachable moments because they are so difficult to pin down. They are spontaneous, unplanned bursts of insight or a sudden movement of the Holy Spirit. Still, teachable moments do tend to fall into these broader categories:
People are sinful, and when you gather them together enough times, there will eventually be a clash. This will happen in your small group, but it's not something you need to be afraid of. When handled correctly, conflict motivates people to speak truthfully and open up about their feelings and experiences. Indeed, a brief burst of conflict is often the spark that ignites a deep friendship.
Moments of Extraordinary Fun
Conflict is not the only thing that solidifies friendships. When group members have a chance to really enjoy each others' company—a camping trip, a shared hobby, an extended conversation—surprisingly powerful bonds can form.
Conviction of Sin
Another area directed by the Holy Spirit is conviction of sin. Sometimes people feel convicted while discussing a Scripture passage, other times it happens while they verbalize a prayer request, and other times it happens in a completely unexpected situation. But the end result is usually the same for the person experiencing conviction: an impulse to confess their sin and commit to repentance.
Of course, people don't always respond to this kind of conviction. Many people fight it or hold off on taking action until they can speak with someone privately. Others don't respond verbally but show other signs of a deeper moment—things like weeping, becoming unusually withdrawn, or becoming confused.
Bursts of Insight
There are times when group members are struck by a new understanding of a doctrine or biblical truth. All the pieces come together and they "get it." They not only understand what God is saying in his Word but how that truth applies to their lives—and how their lives will need to change because of it. Again, this is usually initiated by the Holy Spirit, and group members often respond by sharing what they have learned with the rest of the group.
Moments of Crisis
Sometimes group members will open up about a crisis they are experiencing—maybe they lost a job, maybe a loved one is seriously ill, maybe they are in financial peril. Sharing something of this magnitude takes extreme courage and vulnerability, which carries the potential for a powerful moment within the group.
As a small-group leader, one of your more important jobs is to keep an eye out for these kinds of teachable moments.
Tips and Tricks
Maybe you're wondering, What am I supposed to do when our group experiences something like that? Good question. I generally have two guidelines when it comes to responding to teachable moments:
1. Call a halt to the routine.
When something powerful happens in your small group, you as the leader must call attention to it. You cannot allow a potentially life-changing moment to be ground down under the wheels of routine.
Say something like, "Susan, I'm so thankful you were willing to share that with us. If you don't mind, I'd like to take a break right now and pray as a group that God will be with you in this situation." Or "I know we have a lot of discussion questions to get through, but that was an amazing insight, Jim. Can we talk about that a little more?" Or even "Okay, I think some of us are feeling a little attacked right now. Let's see if we can all take a deep breath and start again."
2. Be ready to get out of the way.
Once you've called the group's attention to a potential teachable moment, it's important that you don't try to maintain control over that moment. Teachable moments are not facilitated. They occur and grow organically, driven either by the Holy Spirit or the emotions and needs of your group members.
If some of this seems a little vague to you, I understand. Teachable moments are mysterious and profound events, and they defy a lot of step-by-step analysis. But they are real, and they do have the potential to make a significant impact in the growth of your small group—if you are watching and willing to embrace the mystery.
—Excerpted from Field Guide for Small Group Leaders: Setting the Tone, Accommodating Learning Styles and More by Sam O'Neal. Copyright 2012 by Sam O'Neal. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.