Have you ever been a part of a small group when one person was allowed to dominate the conversation? It can make you want to make excuses for not attending each week. And even though you’re mainly frustrated with that long-winded person, you can’t help but get a little annoyed with the leader as well. The group came to get to know one another. Not to get to know a single person.
Small groups are designed to be a relationship building experience—a relational context where people will go deeper with one another and deeper with God. No one dreams of being a part of a shallow small group; rather, she hopes the leader will have the skill to take the group into the deeper water. Considering this, here are some tips we’ve learned along the way in drawing out the best conversations.
1. Model transparency. People will only rise to the level of the leader’s vulnerability. This principle trumps all that follows. If you want people to share deep things, you must be willing to take the risk and share the real pains of life first. Honesty creates trust.
Recently, we were at the lake with my family, and all the kids were cliff jumping. We could tell there was some trepidation once they all got to the top and peered over the edge. I wondered if one of them would chicken out and turn around. Once the first kid jumped, however, the rest could see that he survived. Soon after, they were all in the water. The same is true in small groups. If you won’t go out of your comfort zone, other people won’t either. You have to take the plunge.
2. Honor people’s time. Start and stop on time. People will be hesitant to open up if they feel like it’s going to open a can of worms that will take another thirty minutes to unpack. This is especially true if the person has kids at home with a babysitter. Set the “program,” be clear about the time restraints, and stop when you promised you would. If people want to linger afterward, great! The people who do need to slip out will do so without feeling awkward in the middle of prayer requests. This may require you to shorten the chitchatting at the start and move a little faster into the group discussion.
Not long ago, our family visited a church that utilized a printed sermon outline in the bulletin. I always appreciate the work that goes into such things. However, after fifteen minutes, I could not help but notice that we were still on point number one and had four more to go. It made me feel anxious and became a distraction. The same is true in small groups. The attendees will appreciate a leader who keeps the discussion on pace and honors the time restraints.
3. Get comfortable with silence. After you pose a good question, avoid the temptation to fill the awkward void with your own voice. Let it linger. Different personalities require various amounts of time to process a question and gather thoughts. They are not ignoring you—they are forming an intelligent response.
4. Continue to set expectations. It is OK every few weeks (especially in the beginning) to review the rules of engagement for the group. Remind them that the session is designed to be interactive. While they may not be comfortable sharing, dialogue will prove to be far more helpful than monologue.
A practical way to do this is to simply go around the room and ask for prayer requests each week. Gently encourage everyone to share something they are presently wrestling with. Reinforce how much you appreciate this when people get vulnerable. Send follow-up messages to express your appreciation for acts of courage.
5. Share your stories. C. S. Lewis said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one person says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one by myself …”1 Ask a person or couple to share their story each week. Make it a part of the rhythm to get people narrating their own journey. Here are some sample questions if you aren’t sure what to ask:
Where did you grow up?
Where did you go to school?
Describe a few key moments in your life.
Describe a difficult situation you’ve gone through.
Discuss any unexpected turns/detours you’ve experienced in your life.
6. Create experiences outside the designated time slot. Relationship depth is created through shared experiences. A stronger bond is formed when you can look back and say, “Remember when …”
This means there must be some photographic history. Create moments where you can take pictures and look back with fondness on those field trips. Here are some easy ideas:
- Have a bonfire and roast marshmallows.
- Host a chili cook-off.
- Make gingerbread houses together at Christmas.
- Go for walks/hikes.
- Serve together. Doing good together creates a common mission and depth.
- Create a group text thread. I prefer a separate thread for the men and women because the women like to text when they find a cute shirt on sale at Target, and most men send out alerts for college football upsets. 🙂
As I said at the start, people are looking for genuine friendship and need help finding it. Small groups provide an incredible place to go deeper with brothers and sisters experiencing similar challenges in life. James 5:16 says, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
As your group grows in trust, the group members will experience healing that comes through community. While it takes time, it is worth the wait and worth the work. My prayer is that some of the suggestions above will help you create comfort at a little faster pace!
1. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), 78.
Lynley Mandrell is the wife of Ben Mandrell, the new president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources. Before coming to Lifeway, Ben and Lynley spent five years in Denver, CO, planting a church designed to reach the unchurched. She is a mother of four and a fan of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Dr. Pepper®, and silence.