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.

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I’ve always been close to the guys I grew up with in a small Western Kentucky town. I realize that more of us develop their most cherished relationships with people they met in college as opposed to high school. But that’s not the case with me. Maybe it was the rural, agrarian lifestyle that makes my hometown friends and I so kindred. Maybe it’s the fact that, typical of a small town, the lack of new additions made us more like brothers than friends. That is, we were stuck with each other and had to learn how to love one another because of our flaws, not despite them.

Just last week the mother of one of these “brothers” passed away. She had struggled with cancer for the better part of a year. She refused all but the most basic treatments; instead choosing to pass this life on her own terms. It’s no surprise that as gracefully as she died, she also lived. For my own part, I just remember how welcome she made me feel any time my life took me through their living room—a welcome respite for a child of divorce. There was an overwhelming sense of warmth associated with the home she built as well as the family that lived in it.

So another friend and I drove to the service from Nashville. It was nice. We sang hymns and listened to several people pay tribute to her. When the service was over we filed out into a receiving line to meet the family. I knew the step-father but that was about it. My friend was one of the last people in line—a wait that must have taken more than an hour.

When my part of the line finally got to him, although I had prepared in my mind what I thought were wonderful words about his mother’s legacy and what she meant to me and how sorry I was to see her go, I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t muster a word. Which is ridiculous since words are pretty much my business. But in that moment I realized that, really, I had nothing but my presence to offer; that whatever words I might conjure would diminish the sentiment I wished to impart; that ultimately I actually contributed more to the moment through the things left un-said.

There will be times during our small-group meetings and in the lives of our small groups when silence happens. Speaking from experience, there is the strong inclination to fill those moments with … something. Anything. Like I said, words are my business. And sometimes that’s appropriate. But there are also times of silence when the silence speaks more plainly and with more weight than any and all of our words. Of course we won’t always know which is which. But I think the point here is that when true redemptive community is at work, the perceived need for words should come under greatest scrutiny. And it’s more than OK to let the moment speak for itself.