nine tips for running an effective Christian small group discussion
Let's start by defining some of the terms.
1.) "Effective" depends on your goals. My goal is to make disciples and disciple-makers-- disciples who can make disciples. So, what are your goals and how can a small group discussion be most effective in promoting these goals?
2.) Likewise, "Christian small group" implies something beyond merely social, but it also includes a significant social element. A "Christian small group" also implies a significant study piece-- whether book or video, whether a book of the Bible or a book by a Christian author (or a secular book studied from a Christian perspective).
3.) "Small group" is anything between, say, 2-100 people, but more likely in the 5-60 range. The first of two huge barriers to effective discipleship is getting people to move from a large group format (e.g., worship service) to a small group format.
4.) There's far more to an effective small group than simply the discussion! In terms of making disciples and disciple-makers, it is crucial to reach both head and heart, to convey knowledge and to model behavior, to love and serve people within the group in addition to teaching and exhorting them, and so on.
One quick exhortation here: Learn people's names within the first meeting-- or before you meet them if possible. Take pictures, study their names, pray over your group members. In a group of modest size, there is NO excuse for not knowing their names after you've met them once.
So, in a word, my comments are aimed at the discussion piece of a small group that intends to build up disciples and disciple-makers.
1.) Encourage them to do something more than just show up. The second (and most over-looked) barrier to effective discipleship is "moving past passivity", especially passivity outside the group meeting. In lighter groups, "homework" should be encouraged. (For example, if you're covering John 9, encourage them to read it multiple times that week and to journal about it.) In heavier groups, homework should be required. (This link offers some meatier short-term studies; this link describes DC: Thoroughly Equipped-- our "capstone course" for "higher-end" discipleship and lay-leadership development.) You simply can't progress quickly if you don't put time/energy into your own discipleship. Just showing up to hear a bunch of sermons or even an excellent small group teacher is far from sufficient for even modest growth.
2.) Less of you / more of them. Get group members to talk as much as possible. It's less boring and they'll take greater ownership in their faith and the process of discipleship.
3.) Get comfortable with silence. Wait for them to answer; be patient. Take a breath-- and then re-word the question if necessary. If you wait, they'll (almost always) say something useful.
4.) Aim for balanced talking among group members. In more elementary groups, this should be a goal. In more advanced groups, insist on it. Encourage quiet people to speak-- and then encourage them when they have spoken. Privately or publicly, encourage more talkative people to take it easy and pick their spots. This allows more room for the quieter folks. And it allows the talkers to work on skills they need to develop: listening, patience and empathy. In a word, I'd rather have a mediocre nugget from a quiet person than one more strong comment from a big talker.
5.) Ask lots of (good) questions. Emulate Jesus, who asked 301 recorded questions in the Gospels. (I taught a series on this if you'd like the notes.) Avoid yes/no questions. Avoid questions with obvious answers or regurgitations of what they've just read. As useful, write out questions beforehand.
6.) Be careful with the length and type of your replies to their responses. Use non-verbals as much as possible; you don't need to say something every time. Use verbal replies that vary from quick affirmation to lengthy engagement. It is common for leaders/facilitators to talk too much after too many comments from group members. Avoid this temptation. Remember: every minute you talk, you're not allowing them to talk and "find their voice".
7.) Avoid tangents. You have more important things to cover, right? Limit their tangents tactfully. (Have a public or private discussion about this if useful.) And you should rarely if ever create tangents. Don't cause trouble you're trying to prevent-- and don't be in the business of modeling the creation of tangents!
8.) Organize your notes effectively. Experiment until you find a system that works well-- and then continue to tweak it. It's common for people to have too much stuff in their notes. The good news: it's all in there; the bad news: you can't find it easily. Try a basic outline format with indents for sub-points. Try single words, phrases and clauses, instead of sentences. Only use sentences for things that you need to word carefully or when you're using a quote.
9.) Make a schedule. First, publicly commit to a start time and at least an approximate end time. Have a rough timeline for what you hope to cover in a given time frame (e.g., Eph 1:3 from 7:15-7:30). Generally stick to the schedule, but be flexible as you learn how to do this well-- and after that, as the Spirit leads you to adjust.