These are controversial times. You probably don’t have to think too hard about controversial issues that could pop up in small groups. In fact, some of the issues probably already have. What’s the best way to handle them? Should you just avoid controversy in groups? Is there a way for groups to navigate controversy in a positive or meaningful way?

When you consider the conversations between Jesus’ disciples, they had their fair share of controversy. From James and John’s mother asking about seating her sons of Jesus’ right and left in Heaven (Matthew 20:20-22) to Jesus calling one of his group members “Satan” (Matthew 16) to a group member betraying Jesus, which lead to his death (Matthew 26). The controversies in your small groups probably don’t seem so big. But, that doesn’t keep them from being troublesome. Here are some ways to handle controversy in small groups.

Nip It in the Bud

In the words of the great theologian Barnie Fife, “Just nip it. Nip it in the bud!” When group members start in on topics that have nothing to do with the group lesson and threaten the harmony in the group, the leader can simply stop the conversation. Remind the group that its purpose is to apply God’s Word, the Bible, to their lives in a practical way, and that the controversial topic is not part of the discussion. Once the controversy is diverted, then the group can return to the Bible study.

Revisit Your Group Agreement

What is the purpose of the group? Hopefully your groups have a group agreement. If you’d like to form a group agreement, the process is a free download from my study, Community: Six Weeks to a Healthy Group. The group agreement helps to define and manage expectations in small groups. Every group member has a say in what the group values and what the group is going to be about. Barring the purpose of the group being to air controversial issues, by simply reminding the group members of the agreed upon purpose of the group, the group can move forward and avoid the controversy. But, avoidance isn’t always the best method.

Hear Them Out

If a particular issue has a group stirred up, it might be good to give everyone a fair hearing. The meeting should be structured so that everyone gets to have their say without judgment or condemnation. The leader could set a time limit for each “side” to convey their point of view. This would be a good opportunity to invite the group’s coach to join the group meeting as an impartial observer. The group could even invite an expert on the topic to come and share his or her perspective on the subject.

You should limit this discussion to one meeting. Everyone can have their say. They may agree to disagree. Once this discussion has happened, then the group moves forward.

The most important thing is that each group member feels valued and heard. For any issue that is not immoral or illegal, the group members should be gracious to each other and their points of view. Any attitude that will force the choice between who’s right and who’s wrong will cause the group to either end or divide and will possibly make enemies of friends. There is no point in allowing things to go that far. It’s important for group members to understand those they disagree with. After all, every believer at one point was regarded as “God’s enemy” (James 4:4). Considering God’s patience with each believer, this would be a good exercise in patience with each other.

Think About This

If groups are ever going to do more than just scratch the surface, then controversy or disagreements will come up from time to time. If controversy never surfaces in a group, then you would need to wonder how shallow the group really is.

Of course, these thoughts are not license to stir up every possible issue. This is also not reason to turn group meetings into a circus. But, if an issue is important to a group member, then it’s important to discover the reason why. Sometimes the group’s “curriculum” doesn’t come from the pages of a book. It comes from life.

Why Do We Need a Group Agreement?

How Do I Deal with Group Members Who Gossip?

Leading Healthy Groups: A Guide for Small Group Leaders

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