Like everyone involved in Bible Study/growth group/small group ministry, I find it incredibly discouraging when members don’t show up. I care about them, and I want them to get the most out of their relationship with God and his people. I know people have good reasons for missing a week, but it’s also not uncommon for them to just not want to be there. This is sad and feels so wrong when cast next to the picture of fellowship God presents to us in the Bible (Ps 133:1; Rom 12:4-5; Heb 10:24-25).
Of course, the first thing to recognise here is that member attendance isn’t all on us leaders; members have the ability to prioritise their lives however they choose. That being said, we have a responsibility to be doing what we can to ensure it’s worth it for our members to attend each week. So as far as it’s within our ability, how do we get them excited about coming to their small group? The tips in this article are my attempt to lay out some of the often-overlooked skills and tools involved in small group leading that might help address the problem of disillusioned members.
Before we dive in, though, it bears mentioning that not all small groups are the same: some groups focus more on the social side, keeping Bible discussion or devotions brief. Some have a strong emphasis on teaching—to the point where members are almost hearing a mid-week sermon. Some are more in-between, using their time in the Bible together to foster meaningful relationships and encourage Christ-like growth. Whatever your philosophy, this article assumes your group engages in at least some Bible discussion, and the tips presented below are aimed at bolstering and improving group dynamics around that.
“What’s the point?”
A common complaint I’ve heard from people who have felt disheartened by their small groups is that they feel like they didn’t get anything out of it. One way to address this is to make sure your discussion each week has a purpose or a point—something to learn more about together and highlight. Maybe it’s a particular aspect of God’s character; maybe it’s some specific application for your group; or maybe it’s as simple as the point the biblical author is making. Whatever you decide, that’s what you want your members to walk away knowing.
When you have a destination in mind, it becomes easier to facilitate discussion and know which questions are worth pursuing and when to encourage elaboration. If your group uses pre-written material, it’s worth thinking about what it says is the main point. Do you agree with it? If not, what would you add? If you don’t have pre-written material, make sure you decide what the point is. Your members will be able to tell when the discussion isn’t working towards something, and if there was no point this week, why should they come back next week?
“Does anyone know the answer?”
Another common discouragement for small group members is feeling like no one in the room is confident of what the Bible passage says. Everyone seems to be wading in uncertainty, throwing up suggestions with no firm confirmation or correction. You’d expect this for most of the group, but certainly not for the leader.
If you want your small group members to answer the questions, you should have a go at answering them first. Take the time beforehand to work through the questions and consider your own answers. It will help counter this negative experience. When the discussion stalls or no one is quite sure what you’re asking, presenting your own answer as an example can kickstart the conversation.
Furthermore, as you prepare your answers, it’s also a good idea to note any questions that might be a bit confusing and try re-wording them. Not only will this help you get your head around what’s being asked, but you’ll also be ready to help your group if they do get stuck.
Note that having prepared answers doesn’t mean that you share them at each question. Just have them on hand to help the group along if needed. Going through the questions beforehand shows your members that you’re invested in hearing what God has to tell us, and it will give them confidence that you’ve put some thought into it. If they sense your enthusiasm, they’ll be more likely to reciprocate with their own.
“How is this relevant?”
One of the most common ways of losing control of your small group discussion is embarking on tangents. Although tangents are tricky, it’s worth bearing in mind that they have the potential to either frustrate your group members or add an extra spark to the discussion.
A significant part of managing tangents lies in discerning the tangent’s usefulness. Although they can often be fun for some members, if a tangent is entirely unrelated to the discussion, it will leave others feeling like their time is being wasted. Repeated derailing may cause members to feel unvalued, and members who feel unvalued are less likely to continue coming.
That said, useful tangents liven up conversation. Members who have introduced the tangent are often more enthusiastic about discussing it, and the ensuing discussion can often be directed so that it’s more in line with the point you’re working towards—which means that enthusiasm will spread to the rest of the group as they start to see things coming together. In addition, members who feel they can bring up tangential questions and have them considered seriously are more likely to be excited about exploring the Bible, which is a real blessing to the rest of the group.
Ah: long, awkward silences—the kind where everyone knows the leader is waiting for someone to say something, but nobody is quite sure what that something might be. Awkward silences are a sure-fire way to make any small group an unpleasant place to be.
To combat them, always be ready to respond whenever a member says something. If they answer a question, acknowledge it. Perhaps rephrase their answer to show you’ve understood. If they ask a question, answer it or defer it to the rest of the group. Remaining silent after a member has contributed sends an unclear signal. If your members are unsure whether their input is appreciated, that’s another factor that could cause them not to come back.
But what if I told you that silence can be an excellent tool for encouraging deep thought? When used appropriately, silence can aid your group quite significantly to take God’s word seriously. After you ask a question, expect some silence. Let your members have some time to think. But if it’s clear the silence has gone on too long—if group members are wearing confused expressions or their eyes have glazed over—then it might be time to reword the question or offer one of your prepared answers as an example.
But how do you know when to allow silence? A simple rule is only to allow silence after you have spoken. This allows the group time to grapple with the question and ensures that every contribution is acknowledged.
“Is this the right answer?”
A member offers an answer that isn’t what the leader is looking for. The leader intones, “No, that’s not it …” and invites other members to guess and guess until finally, someone gets it.
One of the saddest reasons a member becomes disillusioned with their group is when the leader shuts them down repeatedly. No leader sets out to do this intentionally, but it can happen regardless. The most common cause is when a leader has a specific answer in mind and isn’t particularly open to other possible responses. While this may stem from good intentions—for example, wanting to be accurate with God’s word—it does stifle discussion and leaves the member feeling either dumb or annoyed.
Unless it’s a comprehension question, the likelihood of someone coming up with exactly the same answer as you is very low. In order to ensure that members feel like their contributions are valued, you should encourage your members when they suggest answers. If they make a more-or-less accurate observation, acknowledge and affirm their contribution. If it’s a little off-track, repeat it in your own words to show you’ve understood, and then add something of your own to bring it more in line with the question. Doing this encourages your group, signals to them that what they say has value, and results in more engaged members.
Every small group contains a mix of quiet thinkers and eager contributors. An essential skill in leading your group is facilitation: bringing everyone into the conversation. While louder people may be happy to do all the talking and quieter people none of it, bringing everyone into the discussion will produce a richer experience and greater investment in the group all around.
Depending on your rapport with your group, this can be done quite directly: you could tell the member who has to share their opinion on everything that you’re not asking them this next question, and you could tell that other member who hardly says a word that this next one is just for them.
However, often a more subtle approach is better. One technique you could employ is to break your group up into pairs to answer the question, then report back together. This ensures that everyone has a chance to speak. Another option is to ask a question to a specific side of the room with more quiet thinkers. The aim is to get all your members contributing, which helps foster a group whose members are excited to share what they’re learning.
“Who are we here for?”
Prayer is a crucial element to running your small group. Praying on your own before group time ensures you exercise humility as a leader and reverence to the God who has entrusted his people to you. Praying together before the discussion brings God into focus and draws attention to your shared reason for being there. Praying after the discussion solidifies what you have learned and expresses gratitude to God for the gift of his word. Praying for each other fosters real relationships laced with genuine love and concern, and helps us to bear with and share one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2).
However, too many groups spend so long discussing or socialising that often prayer is cut short. Our heavenly Father invites us to talk with him; this is not a privilege we should neglect. Dedicating time to pray also tells your members that your group takes God seriously, and helps mature their own godliness.
So give glory to God in your prayers. Praise him for who he is and what he has done. Thank him for the gifts he’s given you and your group, and for his overflowing grace in the gospel. Confess your sins to God and to each other, asking for his forgiveness and his help to become more like Christ.
As small group leaders, we care for our members. It’s incredibly humbling to consider the role God has entrusted us with—the responsibility we have for the spiritual lives of our group members. So it is equally discouraging when they appear so disinterested, they don’t even show up.
While there’s only so much we can do to remedy this, we have the responsibility to do what we can. Ensuring that your small group is a place where the discussion has a purpose and is well facilitated, the leader is prepared, the tangents are managed, the silence is utilised well, the members are encouraged to contribute, and everything is steeped in prayer will help to prevent members becoming disenchanted by their small groups. If we want to encourage our members to draw closer to God, let’s make sure we’re doing what we can to not get in the way.
Michael Parker has completed his first year at Moore Theological College.
If you enjoyed this article, check out others like it in the CCL annual.