Who knew silence could be so loud?
I’ll tell you who: small group leaders.
You ask a question. A good question. A simple one, even.
And the response?
Someone’s stomach growls. A guy gets up to use the bathroom. A girl fake coughs in an effort to break the awkward silence. You begin to wonder if you have a piece of cilantro in your teeth, considering that no one dares look at your face.
Who thought small groups were a good idea anyway?
Leading a small group is a bizarre, inconsistent, often bewildering experience. Thankfully, over the years, I’ve picked up two approaches that have helped me immensely in prompting productive group discussions. Each tool is incredibly simple. No specialized degrees necessary.
Give these a try this week, and let me know how it goes.
1. Silent work time during your small group.
Many years ago, I stopped asking people to prepare in advance for Bible Studies and Small Groups.
Why? Three reasons.
First, very few people ever actually prepared in advance anyway. It was infuriating. I tried everything to fix it. Bribery. Guilt. The teacher look.
Nothing worked. Preparing for a Bible Study just isn’t at the top of people’s priority list. In some rare cases, with the right mix of people or the right content, you might get people to buy in and prepare. I salute you. No, I bow before you. You are not me, and your people are actually martians. Or terrified Fundamentalist Baptists who haven’t yet learned that you won’t hit them with a stick when they fail to do their reading.
Second, even if people do prepare, they often don’t understand what they are reading or supposed to be learning. Which, in turn, ruins the point of it in the first place. If you are giving people challenging content, it makes sense they may need help wading through it. Asking them to do that on their own is counterproductive.
Third, even if people did prepare, they didn’t prepare just beforehand, so their memory of the content is fuzzy at best.
In light of all these factors, I ditched preparing in advance. Instead, I moved silent work time into the schedule of our weekly gatherings. In making this move, I was shocked at how it transformed our group discussions. While some might fear there isn’t enough time to make this happen, the enormous benefit it provides to discussion makes it win out in my mind every time. In fact, I now prioritize silent, contemplative time in nearly every group gathering I facilitate.
This time proves to be powerful beyond what you’d think. It is restorative to people’s souls. It provides built in accountability for a difficult practice they struggle to implement themselves. And, upon turning to discussion, the content is fresh in their minds. Finally, it allows introverts to put some thoughts together before having to utilize their larynx for the first time all week.
I recommend between five and fifteen minutes of silent work time. Adjust accordingly for your context.
2. Turn and Talk
Every trained teacher reading this blog is nodding their heads right now. For teachers, this is old hat. For small group leaders, not so much.
Articulating your thoughts on the fly before a whole group of people is intimidating. In addition, there are odd social dynamics at play when trying to decide who should speak up at any given moment.
You can skirt both of these issues through a turn and talk. When you ask a question, give a couple moments of silence. Then, ask them to turn to their neighbor and discuss just the two of them for a few moments. Brace yourself for an instantaneous roar of comfortable dialogue. People talk one-on-one all the time. They get this. It’s less intimidating, and its easier socially to go back and forth.
Then, reel them back in (good luck!). Ask them to share some of their thoughts with the whole group. Once again, you’ll be surprised to hear how much more confidently and comfortably people share now that they’ve been able to test their ideas on an individual first.
I hope these ideas are doable and helpful. They certainly have been for me.
If you try one out, let me know how it goes.