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.