1. Set a Clear Agenda:
For a small group to flourish it has to have purpose. No one wants to be committed to something that isn’t going anywhere. Socialization is a great and healthy thing, but if the end goal of your small group or bible study is just to sit around and talk about the latest movie out in theaters, you may as well just find a time to hang with friends and call it something else. A group needs to know what its purpose is if there is going to be forward movement. So what are you meeting for? To study God’s Word? To provide accountability? To prepare each other to better serve the local church? To edify one another toward Christlike maturity? Or perhaps a combination of all those things. Whatever it may be, write it down as a group, have a leader develop specific steps and measurable goals, then have the group commit to it together. This will keep your group on target and from fading into meaninglessness. Groups without direction eventually begin to lose traction and give up.
2. Have the Right Amount of Intentionality:
A small group time isn’t a classroom lecture. It has to have the freedom to adjust to the trials and seasons of life. But it also must have intentionality. What do you want to accomplish at each meeting? Is there a topic to discuss together? Is there a passage to go over? Will prayer be an essential part of your time? Don’t just make it up as you go or people will feel lost and confused. Use your agenda and goals for the group to develop a weekly structure. Always plan for socializing – its important for getting people to open up and get to know each other. But have a structure in place that you can move through without the meeting getting lost.
3. Do Some Pre-Meeting Prep:
Unless group members have prepared for the meeting in at least some small way, the meeting will feel lost, or the leader will feel like he/she has to shoulder the discussion time alone. Without preparation, discussion can feel flat, shallow, and pointless. Or worse, it can meander off into personal interpretations and speculations about the biblical text without any guiding element to guard against misinterpretations.
But people lead busy lives and prep can be difficult. Set small goals. Is there a short section of scripture or a lesson guide that everyone can commit to reading to beforehand? Have the group leader/facilitator prepare discussion questions to go along with the material that people can review before the next meeting. Answers prepared before hand do not have to be long essays. Short one or two sentence responses can get group members thinking through the material before a meeting. Having done just a small amount of thinking through the material and its application before a meeting can greatly enliven a small group discussion time. A leader can send home summaries of the previous meeting, reading content for the next meeting, and a few discussion questions that can be answered at home before the next session.
4. Have a Leader/Facilitator:
If everyone is in charge, no one is in charge, and chaos will reign. A leader who is committed to caring for, praying for, and leading the group should be designated. As leader, he/she is responsible for making sure the details of each meeting are prepared for and that the long term goals are being reached. A leader needs to act not as an instructor during studies, but as a facilitator: guiding the content of the discussion in the direction it needs to go but without dominating the discussion. A good facilitator will know how to ask open ended questions that get people to go deep (avoid “yes/no” response questions and questions that lead to an answer you want to hear). The point is to lead and give direction, but to help the other group members also open up and share themselves.
5. Have Fun Together:
Small groups can be a great place to make friends and grow deeper together. But getting into the more serious sides of life can be awkward and uncomfortable with people you haven’t bonded with. So seek to develop some group identity from the start and continue to do so throughout. Have a cookout. Go to a movie. Have fun together. Bonding will cement your group identity together and make people feel more at home with one another. Suddenly your group won’t just be a bunch of acquaintances from church, but dear friends whom you love spending time with.
6. Pray Together:
Praying together should always be an essential part of any small group/bible study group. It allows us to bear each others burdens and come closer together as we seek the Lord. Any group that wants to have a successful time together should greatly value prayer as the life blood of their group.
7. Ease in New Members:
Too often new members are expected to do things that they aren’t comfortable with. Asking someone who has never prayed out loud to join in the out-loud-prayer-circle or even to lead the entire group in prayer can be a wrong move. Don’t ask new members to do anything. Let them ease in. While you may just assume they can turn you down, usually people feel pressured when asked to pray aloud, read aloud, or answer a discussion question. If you don’t have an established group or you have new members, allow time for people to volunteer and ease their way in. Ask questions to the group in general. Perhaps toss easy ones to new comers. Ask for volunteers at prayer time. Break up into smaller prayer groups and have each group select its own volunteer. People will open up in time.
8. Go Deep, but Not Too Quickly:
Depth is important in small group ministry. But sharing one’s struggles requires trust. Establish a clear agreement about confidentiality when your group starts. Have anyone who joins sign that agreement. A small group must be a safe place if people are to share their struggles. Establish from the beginning that the group is not there to judge or go after people because of their past or their ongoing struggles. Learn what the word “empathy” means and make sure to instill empathy as a guiding value of your group. Establish ground rules for responding to people who share struggles: never tell the person what will fix their problem, focus on empathy and being there for that person, pray for them. When someone opens up, it isn’t time to tell them how to fix themselves or to share your far worse struggle. Let the moment be and be Christ to that person. Be quick to listen, slow to speak.
It is also important to get to things like past traumas or sin struggles in the appropriate time. A group should be able to get to know each other’s identities, stories, and passions before they see the dirty laundry. If those loving, friendly, caring relationships aren’t firmly established before people start revealing the darker parts of their hearts, all kinds of messiness can happen. Take time so as to avoid anger, judgmentalism, and callousness. A small group should be a place of healing, not burnings at the stake. So prepare your group. Build up to deeper intimacy. Appropriately take into consideration the possibility of needing to split into gender specific groups of three or four on some topics. Make sure the group knows explicitly that the goals of sharing are empathy, openness, healing, and caring, and that we all have a lot of growing to do in this process of sanctification.
9. Pick up a Copy of Small Group Ministry in the 21st Century:
This “encyclopedia of practical ideas” can be an incredibly helpful resource to a group leader/facilitator. It contains 250 pages of advice and ideas that will help you face challenges and grow your group ministry. Check it out! http://a.co/5ksBDHu
What have your small group and bible study group experiences been like? Feel free to share below!