Group discussions can be the most intimidating part of any meeting, even for the most seasoned leader. Put a dozen people in a room, each with their own passions, opinions, interpretations, and points of view, throw a Bible verse into the mix, and just about anything can happen. It takes a skilled leader to guide the process, ask compelling questions, follow the movement of the Spirit, and steer clear of some deadly discussion killers. How do great leaders initiate and navigate transformational discussions?
Use Discussion Starters
Personal stories, lifestyle anecdotes, current issues, fun icebreakers, and simple reflection exercises can loosen up a group or focus the conversation on the heart of the discussion. The easiest way to get everyone talking is tapping into personal experiences. We’re all experts in our own past, opinions, and points of view, so ask group members about themselves:
Sarah, you mentioned a way you experienced God this week. I wonder if we could all check in in a similar fashion. Feel free to be a brief as you’d like, and complete this thought: “In view of the week I’ve had—or am having—I am so glad God is ______________.” Here is a short list of God’s actions and attributes to help if you need it: holy, forgiving, kind, creative, just, a friend, teacher, my guide, or protector.
A quick anecdote by you as leader can set the tone, especially for newcomers who might be wondering, “How deep am I expected to share?” You can get the conversation going and set the level of vulnerability or disclosure that you know is easy for everyone to mirror as they jump in.
Navigate the “Truth-Life” Tension
Group discussions tend to move along the “truth-life” continuum. This is often reflective of the kind of group and the leader’s personal style. Content-focused discussion groups lean more heavily toward the “truth” end of the spectrum, striving for meaning of the text, one’s understanding of God, or unpacking the issue or theme on the table.
On the “life” end of the continuum, the conversation focuses on me, my situation, my prayer needs, and my personal spiritual condition. Prayer and share groups, topical discussion groups, and practical groups (like groups on parenting, men’s issues, or women in the marketplace) tend to lean this way.
The challenge of the small-group leader is to avoid too much of a good thing. Too much life focus can take our eyes off God’s perspective. Too much truth focus can leave people with a range of principles to ponder but little understanding of how these truths get infused into their 24/7 life full of relationships, work, and spiritual progress.
It’s okay to lean one way or the other for a season, but a good leader will nudge the conversation so that both truth and life are held together. This is where growth is maximized.
The goal is not to stay in perfect balance between the two ends, but rather to be aware of movement along the continuum. Take time to examine whether a series of meetings or discussions is camping out too long on one end. We want truth to move toward life practice, and life stories and needs to be shaped by truth.
Parker Palmer, in his book To Know as We are Known, captures this tension in his definition of teaching: “To teach is to create a space where obedience to truth can be practiced.” Sounds very much like Jesus’ injunction to “teach them to obey all that I commanded…” in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). He did not say, “Tell them to obey” nor “teach them all I have commanded” but rather “teach them to obey” which calls for the practice of the truth, not simply the discussion of truth.