March 2012



Here’s a scenario most small-group leaders have experienced: You think of a great question as you’re preparing for a group meeting during the week. It’s a real doozy of a discussion starter—deep, poignant, and winsomely phrased. You simply can’t wait to unleash this momentous query the next time your group gets together.

When you actually ask the question, however, the group hits you back with a wall of silence. Nobody says anything. If your group meeting were made into a TV sitcom, there would be cricket noises in the background. (Play the video above to see what I mean.)

As the seconds tick by, you begin to wonder: What went wrong? Why doesn’t anyone say anything? What should I do now?

What They Need to Do
Try this little experiment before we go any further. Find a clock (or use the stop-watch on your fancy phone, if you have a fancy phone) and give yourself 30 seconds of silence. Just sit without doing or saying anything for 30 seconds. Go ahead and try it now.

Thirty seconds is a long time, right? But as small-group leaders, we need to give our group members at least 30 seconds of silence in order to answer our deepest questions. If that seems crazy, consider everything your group members need to do after you ask a discussion question:

  • They need to process your question and make sure they understand what you’re asking.
  • They need to come up with a potential answer to your question.
  • They need to cross-reference that potential answer with their personal experiences.
  • They need to cross-reference that potential answer with the Scripture passage or other reference that sparked the question in the first place.
  • They need to confirm whether their potential answer is in fact a good and helpful response to the question. (And if not, they need to start the process over again.)
  • They need to figure out the best way to phrase their answer in a way that is clear and concise.
  • They need to adjust their answer based on the responses of other group members who may speak before they are ready.

That’s a lot of work. And that’s why your group members need time. They need time to process. They need time to think. And they’re probably going to be silent when they do so.

So get used to it.

What You Need to Do
Back to the scenario from earlier in this post. If you ask a discussion question and receive a wall of silence in response, that’s probably a good thing. That probably means your people are thinking deeply about deep issues.

So the last thing you want to do is interrupt their thought processes by making an awkward attempt to clarify your question or “break the silence.” Actually, the last thing you want to do is answer the question yourself, because then you’ve communicated that your people aren’t smart enough to understand what you’re asking and think of an answer.

Instead, you just need to sit back, relax, and enjoy the silence. If people really don’t understand the question, they’ll tell you. If it’s a bad question, you’ll know when people try to respond.

But give it a chance. Let your group members have the time they need, and you’ll quickly understand why silence is your unexpected friend.

—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (coming in May 2012 from InterVarsity Press) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

There are a lot of good people writing about small groups and small-group ministry these days, which means there’s a lot of great content available for the good and courageous folks who’ve chosen to lead a group. I’m thankful for that.

But one message is mostly missing from the mountains of material: Small groups should be fun. Just like alliteration is fun. (See what I did there?)

I’ll repeat that: I think the presence of fun is a vitally important element of a successful small-group meeting.

Why?
There are two reasons why fun is crucial to a small-group meeting, and everybody understands the first one. Namely, it’s fun to have fun. People like having fun. You, me, your group members, and anyone who might eventually become one of your group members—we all enjoy a good time.

Having fun in a small-group setting creates positive associations. It helps people open up and speeds up the process of building relationships. At the very least, it gives people a concrete reason to come back even if other parts of the group meeting don’t go very well. (Of course, the opposite is true for boring or overly serious group meetings.)

But there’s a second reason why having fun is important for small groups, and that one is a bit more surprising. Namely, fun is a key component of spiritual growth.

If you don’t believe me, check out your Bible. How many feasts does God command the Israelites to celebrate throughout the Old Testament? How many parties did Jesus and his disciples attend? How many times did the members of the Early Church break bread together?

God is a community, after all, and He created us in His image. He wired us to be our best selves when we are part of a network of believers who learn together and work to advance His kingdom together, yes—but He also wired us to enjoy each other (and enjoy Him!) along the way.

How?
That raises an interesting question, though: How does a group leader incorporate fun into the group?

There are a number of things that work for me, but I’d rather open this question to the wisdom of the crowd rather than give any more personal opinions. So, what’s been a fun activity or experience in your group meetings? Or, what would you like to try in order to add a spark of entertainment?

Add your ideas in the Comments section below, and then get out there and have some fun!

—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (coming in May 2012 from InterVarsity Press) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

I recently came across this fascinating video about a World War II propaganda poster from Great Britain. The poster features a burnt-orange background and an outline of the royal crown, along with the words “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Designed for distribution during times of attack or invasion, the poster was never actually circulated to the public. In fact, nobody would even remember it existed if not for the owners of a store called Barter Books in northeast England. They liked the poster, had it framed, and hung it on one of the walls of their store.

In the years since, the poster has become one of the iconic images from the 20th century.

“Keep Calm and Carry On.” I think that would’ve been a great slogan for a war-torn world more than 70 years ago.

And I think it’s a great slogan for small-group leaders today.

Bad Stuff Will Happen

If you happen to lead a small group, or if you’re thinking about leading one in the future, there’s at least one thing I can promise you: Bad things are going to happen.

Not terrible things. You won’t need to contend with murderous Nazis or anything like that. But bad things will happen for sure.

People in your group will experience conflict, for example. Or you’ll spend a lot of money buying a curriculum series that bombs. Or someone you really like will leave the group because they’re “not being fed.” Or your church will decide that your group has become too large and needs to be split.

Or all of the above.

When those things happen, you’ll be tempted to throw your hands up and walk away. Maybe you’ve experienced that temptation in the past. Maybe you’re experiencing it now.

You don’t have to be pushed around by those negative circumstances, though. You have the ability and the capacity to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Because the success or failure of your small group is not dependent on your abilities as a small-group leader.

It’s Not Up to You

That’s worth repeating: The success or failure of your small group is not dependent on your abilities as a small-group leader. In fact, if it were up to us to produce healthy and growing small groups, we would always fail.

Think about it: You are not able to transform ten people from spiritual infants to spiritual giants by meeting with them once a week. You are not equipped to change peoples’ lives by cooking up some nachos and writing a few discussion questions. Billy Graham is not equipped to do that.

Rather, any spiritual growth that occurs in a small group has its source in God. It’s the Holy Spirit that transforms people and conforms them to the image of Christ. Not you. Not your ability to purchase the perfect Bible study.

In other words, any success that your small group experiences can be credited to God. It’s not up to you.

So, when those bad things happen, you don’t have to worry that they will prevent people from growing spiritually. You don’t have to worry that your failures will somehow damage the people you care about.

You are free to “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

—Sam O’Neal is author of The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders (coming in May 2012 from InterVarsity Press) and an editor for LifeWay Christian Resources.

Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck. Releases May 1.

Springtime is here! Unofficially of course since we have a couple of weeks before the equinox announces the official beginning of this time of year. LifeWay Small Groups has been very busy over the last few months producing some of the most dynamic and transformational resources we’ve released. Gospel Revolution, Stolen, Group Insights, and Rooms are all small-group Bible studies we that we encourage you to check out.

We’ve also been working to deliver an entire new strategy for men’s ministry for your church. It’s no secret that where men’s ministry is concerned, we’ve been in crisis mode for some time. In May we are releasing Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck. This “men’s ministry in a box” provides everything a church needs to launch a men’s ministry or provide a greater, more effective, context for what you are already doing. We’ll post more on this later, but this is the first men’s ministry model that puts men on an intentional spiritual path that culminates with an “activated” man on mission for God and your church’s vision. Kenny’s model is not only church-tested over the last decade, but works for any size church. Nor does this approach require you to add staff or even additional ministry layers. The intent here is to wake the sleeping giant in your church. For more information click here.

And I’m pleased to announce that former editor of smallgroups.com and current LifeWay editor Sam O’Neal will be posting as a guest blogger every Thursday until the release of his new book The Field Guide for Small Group Leaders. Sam plans to dive into various principles of small group leadership with greater detail, but the book addresses several key for leading transformational group experiences, including:

•    How learning styles impact both group leaders and group members
•    How to craft discussion questions that actually spark discussion
•    The art of leading a group discussion
•    What to do when things don’t go as planned

Be sure to look for Sam’s posts beginning March 8. I have had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with him over the last few months and can say with certainty that you’re  not going to want to miss what he has to say. (Unless you’ve got some time on your hands, just stay away from topics like the Chicago Bears or NFC North.) And stay tuned for more on Sleeping Giant by Kenny Luck as well. We need to rally the men of our culture with a fresh new message for greater godliness and more effective disciples.

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