By Allen White
When we hear a question like this the fear is that the answer will lie at one of two extremes. Either the group would be a bunch of Bible eggheads who care for God’s Word, but don’t really care much for each other or the group meeting would become a freewheeling discussion that is no more than a pooling of ignorance. There is a balance, but it’s not the same for every group.
1. Why did your group get together in the first place?
People join small groups for various reasons. They want to get to know other believers. They want a better understanding of God’s Word. They want to feel that they belong. They need acceptance. They want encouragement and accountability. The pastor told them it was a good idea. There are many reasons.
While most small groups involve a Bible study, the group is not a class gathered to learn lessons. There are other settings for that. It’s always a good idea to talk to the group about the expectations. How many studies would the group like to do in the course of a year? How many meetings out of the month should focus on a study? How many meetings should focus on fellowship, serving, worship, outreach or something else? The group may be on the same page, but you don’t know until you’ve had the conversation and decided things together.
2. What are your group members’ personalities?
Are your group members task-oriented or relationship-oriented? What are you? When you lead the discussion are you attempting to cover all of the questions or are you interested in what everyone has to say? If you tend to be more task-oriented, then your goal is to complete the lesson. If you’re more relationship-oriented, then you might be tempted to throw the book out of the window.
Rather than resorting to an extreme, reach in the opposite direction. Task-oriented folks should train themselves to encourage personal sharing in the group. Maybe even have a night where folks share their spiritual journey and dispense with the lesson all together. When relationship-oriented folks lead a lesson, they should make sure good progress is made in the lesson, otherwise, they might frustrate some of the group members.
3. Is the curriculum too ambitious?
Some small group studies have as many as 30 questions. This is far too much to attempt to cover in a 45-60 minute group discussion. The group leader should prioritize the questions according to their significance to the group and to the discussion. If the group is 10-12 people who actively participate, you might not need more than five or six good questions for the entire discussion. The goal is to engage your group members, not just to complete a lesson.
4. Be aware of your group environment.
Often God does His best work in the unplanned moments of group life. The leader needs to take the cues from the group members as well as the Holy Spirit to determine when to pause the curriculum and allow a group member to share.
If a group member becomes a little teary, it’s good to pause and take notice: “Dave, I see that things are a little tender right now. Would you like to talk about it?” He may or may not want to unpack what he’s dealing with right then, but he will appreciate your sensitivity. To just continue the lesson without acknowledging what’s going on is essentially telling Dave, “I’m not sure what your problem is, but we’ve got a lesson to finish.”
I was leading a group discussion a few years ago. We were several questions into the study and one of the group members began telling a story. Her story had nothing to do with the question that I had just asked. It had nothing to do with the lesson. We all gave her our attention and listened carefully.
I quietly prayed and asked God for direction, “Lord, should I let her continue or do we need to move on.” The rest of the group seemed to be attentive to her story. I didn’t feel any gut check about redirecting the discussion. She finished. The group responded. Then, we continued with the discussion.
Later, while the group was sharing dessert, the lady’s husband pulled me aside. He said, “I can’t believe she told that story tonight. She hasn’t talked about that for 30 years.” Even though her story was off-topic, after 30 years, she was ready to share. The time was right for her. The rest of the group made the timing right for us as well. Can you imagine the damage that might have been done if we had moved on?
Building relationships and doing Bible study is a balance in any small group. If you’re going to err one way or the other, then err toward building relationships. Don’t dispense with Bible study, but remember that small groups are life on life. It’s not life on curriculum.
By Allen White
By Allen White
Group members, like everybody else, are busy people. “But, if they’re really committed, they would do their homework,” you might object. What if they’re really committed and show up to the group most weeks? The question of homework raises several issues about expectations and gifts in your group.
1. What is your goal concerning homework?
What is the homework preparation for? If the center of the group is sharing life together, then the preparation comes from our life experiences of the previous week. If the group is centered on a lesson, then by doing homework, each group member is prepared for the discussion. Statistically, half of the group members will do homework and the other half won’t. As the group leader, it’s important to include everybody in the discussion. Group members who prepared will be quick with their answers. Group members who didn’t prepare will need a little more time to respond.
2. What expectations have been set by the group?
Has the group agreed to homework? Did the group choose the study together and go into it with eyes wide open? Did they understand how much homework would be involved? Or did the group leader spring the study on them?
Group expectations are best decided together as a group. Everyone should agree to what study the group will be discussing as well as any expectations for homework, rotating leadership, bringing refreshments, etc. If the group leader chooses to assign homework without the group’s consent, then don’t be surprised by a lack of participation or a possible mutiny.
3. What benefit is there to doing homework?
If the group has prepared in advance, then we understand that the lesson will be easier to lead. But, what’s in it for the group? Other than avoiding the group leader’s wrath, what do they get out of it?
Group members who spend time studying the topic in God’s Word will definitely benefit from spending time in God’s Word. The principles more than likely will stick with them longer. These are all great things if the entire group agrees to it. Be clear about what is expected: self-study, daily reading, reviewing the discussion questions, attending the Sunday service.
4. What if the group can’t live up to the agreement?
One summer my group decided to study a great Christian book. Our assignment was to read and discuss one chapter per week. We all agreed. Then, reality set in. While everyone attended the group each week, most of us, including the leader, had trouble getting to the chapter every week. Yet, we were committed to completing the study.
Our solution was simple: at least one group member would read the assigned chapter each week, give the group a summary, and lead the discussion. This was great for many reasons. Our guilt was relieved. Everyone led at least twice that Summer, so they read at least two chapters. The group didn’t fall apart. Then, of course, we agreed to never attempt another book study again.
5. Asking for homework reveals a teaching gift.
Carl George has wisely said that if the group leader is assigning homework, then more than likely, the group leader has a teaching gift. Teachers make homework assignments. His suggestion is not to use the teaching gift to assign homework. Instead, the group leader should use his gift to do the homework themselves, and then teach the group along with the group discussion. While you don’t want to turn the small group into a class, the group leader’s teaching gift can certainly enhance the discussion. Of course, the other alternative would be for the group leader to teach a Sunday School class or a Bible Institute type class rather than leading a group.
Expectations can run awry unless they are clear, reasonable and accountable. The key is buy-in from the group. Adult learners are motivated by what interests them. Imposing something on them is highly demotivating. Taking the time to agree together as a group will greatly reduce frustration all of the way around.
Small Groups can meet some of our basic emotional needs. Everyone needs to feel that they belong. This is a high value among Small Groups. The Bible teaches us, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4-5). We all want to be included by others. Our Small Group is the place where we’re always included. We belong.
We also need to feel accepted. Regardless of where we’ve come from or what we’ve done, Small Group is a place where we can come as we are to learn, to connect and to encourage each other. That doesn’t mean that our group will allow us to stay where we are. If there are things going on in our lives that are harmful or damaging to our well-being and our spiritual growth, then it’s the group’s place to address these things in our lives. Sometimes we are blind to things about ourselves that are very obvious to others. The group should never approach anyone with a judgmental or self-righteous attitude. The rest of the group has their issues too.
Our couples’ Small Group in California was a diverse group. We had a broad age range. Some couples had small children. Others had teenagers. One couple had grown children. One member enforced the law, while another member gave us the impression that he might be running from the law. It was a mixed bag of folks.
Two of our guys would always end the evening by going out in front of our house for a smoke. The rest of the guys were a little jealous of the fellowship they enjoyed out there. For a brief time, we even considered taking up the habit. Word got out to other Small Groups that we had a couple of smokers. In fact, a member of another group approached me at church one day, “It must be embarrassing that you as a pastor have small group members that smoke in front of your house. What do your neighbors think?”
I said, “I know it’s terrible. But, what’s even worse is that I’ve heard that some of our groups are full of gossips.” Okay, I didn’t actually say that. But, if I had, wouldn’t that be awesome?
We have to accept people where they’re at. Think about it. Where else are we going to accept them? I suppose we could put some prerequisites for being accepted into our group. But, why make it harder to be accepted in our group than it is to be accepted by Jesus Himself?
While Small Groups can meet some important emotional needs for our members, groups can’t meet all of their emotional needs. And, I’ll go ahead and say it, they shouldn’t try to meet all of their emotional needs either. While the Bible does tell us to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), it also tells us that each one should carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). John Townsend and Henry Cloud do a great job of explaining this in their book, Boundaries.
As a group, we can help people process what’s going on in their lives. We can care for them. We can pray for them. We can follow up with them. But, we can’t allow the needs of one member to dominate the group. If we begin to see this happen, we need to gently recommend other resources to address their issues. At Brookwood Church, we have a wonderful Care and Support Ministry that offers support groups and counselors to help people work through their issues. If someone is struggling in a relationship or with a life controlling problem, the group can certainly support them in his progress, but the group cannot become his “support group.”
Now, I didn’t say kick them out of your group. I didn’t say that. In fact, the leader should let them know that they are welcome to stay for Bible study and that the group will gladly support them in their journey. But, the work that needs to be done has to happen in another setting.
It’s important to know what we can and cannot do in a Small Group. We can offer teaching from God’s Word. We can offer fellowship. We can offer prayer. We can offer acceptance and belonging. We can’t offer anything that caters solely to one group member and excludes the others. We can’t take on all their problems. We can’t meet all of their emotional needs. We can’t do for them what only God can. But, we can keep pointing them back to God.
A member of my group was struggling with how to help a friend who had a financial need. He wasn’t sure about how much more involved he should be. He had already paid some of this person’s bills. I asked him what he felt led to do. He gave one of the most honest answers I’ve ever heard. He said, “I’m codependent. I feel led to solve all of the problems. That’s why I need the group’s insights.” We helped him figure out where to draw the line.
What is your group carrying for your members? Where might your group be trying to carry the member’s whole load as well? How do you know when it’s time to ask for help? I would encourage you to check in with your coach and determine what help is truly helpful.
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