Trying to spark group discussion can be quite difficult. Small groups are the backbone of spiritual movement in most ministries. Whether your groups are video-based, discussion-based, verse-by-verse, topical, or something else, having open and honest dialogue is crucial to making a small group happen successfully. But sometimes getting the members of your group to talk can be difficult, especially if you haven’t had much time to foster deep relationships. Take some time to read through these tips and hopefully they’ll help you create a dynamic environment where spiritual movement is simply unstoppable:
Pray before your group time that God will open up hearts and opportunities to talk openly. Then open your time by praying with your group. Especially when you haven’t had much time with your group members, prayer can open big doors of conversation. Simply asking people to share will get some of them talking. Not only will it give them a chance to talk without an agenda or “right answers,” but it will show them that your group cares about them for who they are.
#2: Bring food.
It’s amazing how much drinks, snacks, and other foods can break down walls and encourage conversation among your group members. If your group is at a home, have the host prepare food beforehand. If your group is a breakout after a ministry gathering, pick up some snacks on the way and break them out when discussion begins.
#3: Establish safety.
Your group members need to know that they won’t be criticized for their imperfections. Having a no-perfect-people-allowed culture makes it easier to talk about problems and take off masks. Because of today’s issues of self-injury and harm to others, I am not a fan of telling group members, “What’s said in the group stays in the group,” but I still believe it’s important that they feel as if they can share. So instead, just let them know that they can share anything and they can always trust that you will have their best interest at heart and won’t judge them for anything they’ve done.
#4: Don’t teach. Facilitate.
There’s a huge difference between facilitating discussion and teaching your group. In a teacher-to-student model, the teacher is the focal point, but in a facilitator model, the student is the focus and their dialogue dominates the time, not the group leader. Avoid spending much time telling about your life experiences or making points. Instead, allow your students to wrestle with issues openly, knowing that they hold the floor.
#5: Get comfortable with silence.
I encourage group leaders to use the 10-second-rule when leading group discussions: Whenever you pose a question, count to ten before you interrupt or ask another question. The first time you do this, it may seem a little awkward, but after a while it will establish an understanding that you’re okay with silence and you’re willing to wait while students try to figure out what they want to say.
#6: Hang out outside your group time.
Grab coffee with a student one-on-one, put together a group outing, or show up at an event that one of your members is involved in. With every hour you spend with your group outside your small group time, your discussion will become more and more dynamic.
#7: Create a “no wrong answers” culture.
A simple rule of thumb in any environment is to always “praise in public, critique in private.” When a group member challenges your opinion, even a biblical one, it’s important not to spend time correcting them, especially in front of the group. This doesn’t mean that you don’t help guide the group toward a biblical understanding. You must! But do so in a way that doesn’t single someone out. This will help them see that their opinion matters to you even when it’s not your own.
#8: Contain the dominator.
There’s always that one person in the group who avoids talking, either because they’re shy or because they’re afraid of rejection. Whatever the case, do your best to give many opportunities to talk. At the same time, you may be battling with a person who likes to dominate conversation. It’s important not to publicly shame this person while making it clear that you want to hear others talk. A simple, “You know what, I’d love to hear from [name of other student],” will do fine. If you need to take it a small step forward, you can same something like, “We’ve heard a lot from you, let’s hear from someone else.” You likely won’t need to worry about hurting their feelings, either. Most dominators aren’t even aware that they’re doing it.
#9: Create the right environment.
Another way to encourage open dialogue is the create an environment that minimizes distractions and maximizes the experience. Avoid rows of chairs where people feel like they’re at a lecture. Instead, get people sitting in a circle where they all see each other. Think of exercises that people can do that will help them talk around the topic. Object lessons are great as well. I can remember some amazing conversations where groups anonymously wrote sins on index cards and I read them so they could talk openly without anyone being singled out.
#10: Use the Bible.
In many ministries, the groups begins with a message and has groups discuss around the topic after they’ve outlined some biblical content, but since the conversation doesn’t start with biblical references, it can be easy to never return to the Bible as a basis for conversation. Look for opportunities to bring your group members to the Scriptures. It will establish that the Bible is the ultimate authority in all matters of conversation while giving them another basis for conversation.
While some of these practices might not always be practical for your group time, they can all assist you as you seek to create a dynamic experience for your small group. Feel free to experiment with each of these ideas and stay encouraged. They won’t always work. In fact, I’ve flat-out failed at times, but with each attempt, I’ve gotten better and better and eventually I’ve become pretty good at making them all happen. So, try them all out and may lives be changed in the process.