Set the Stage for Your Small Group

Making the most of your first half hour

In this three-part series we explore the components of creating an effective small group. Each stage is important: getting started, facilitating group time, and finishing well. Try implementing these tips and insights for optimal Scripture engagement.

Small groups drive Bible engagement. For many church leaders, that’s a no-brainer. If you have people sitting in your church services week after week, but never glancing at the Scriptures otherwise, try to get them into a small group Bible study. They will get support, information, and guidance for their own reading, and the experience may stir up some passion for the Bible . . . especially if the group is well led.

With this post, we start a series on small-group leadership. This may serve as a refresher for some group-leading veterans, but there may also be a few new ideas here for you to deploy.

Mind the Logistics

Everything matters. As your group gets together to focus on Scripture, any little thing might sabotage that experience, so make sure you think through the event in advance.

  • Is there convenient parking?
  • Will people know where to enter?
  • Should refreshments be served, or not? (Could be helpful for folks coming straight from work, but could be a distraction—or a temptation. Maybe you don’t want to serve the double-chocolate donuts the night you’re studying self-control.)
  • Is the room temperature right?
  • Are there enough comfortable chairs?
  • Are the chairs set up so that everyone can see everyone else?
  • Will everyone be able to hear the leader (and others, but especially the leader)?
  • Are there Bibles available? Or Wi-fi? Or a good phone signal? Pens and paper? Booklets?
  • If video is being used, is it set up so everyone can see and hear? (Also, pre-check the connections. Things go wrong, especially tech stuff.)

Because of the importance of these details, it’s wise for a group leader to have an assistant to manage them. Or perhaps the host of a home Bible study could attend to these matters. Just don’t neglect them.

Communicate the Details

Where and when is the meeting? Have you gotten word to everyone in the group? Do they need to prepare in any way?

This basic communication is especially important if you have an open group that seeks new members. You might meet someone new after church and say, “Come to our Bible study!” But do they have enough information to feel comfortable doing so? It takes a lot of nerve to knock on the door of an unfamiliar house and enter a room of strangers. Do all you can to lessen the strangeness.

Also, be sure to maintain communication after a person’s first visit. Often groups are chummy and everyone casually passes the word around that they’re meeting on the 20 th rather than the 27th—but the newcomer might not get that information.

Allow Gathering Time

Some leaders run a tight ship. If the meeting is slated for 7:30, they start on the dot. But I recommend allowing about ten minutes at the start for informal gathering. Let them greet one another and chat freely. Let newcomers connect casually with the group.

If this meeting was all about delivering information, perfect punctuality would make sense. But a small group creates a mini-community in which people can explore the Bible together. Strengthening that community is a valuable component of the meeting. You’re not wasting time, you’re tilling the soil in which God’s Word will take root.

You might want to set a specific time for the “hard start” of the meeting—say, ten minutes in—or you might just wait for a lull in the conversation. Don’t underestimate your role in providing the group with discipline and structure.

Break the Ice Meaningfully

Icebreakers have held a place in church curriculum for many years. It’s often assumed that young people need to play silly games before they dig into the depths of Scripture. Study guides for adults tend to have less silliness, but there’s usually a light-hearted discussion question to start things off.

I think this is a good idea, but I would add an important qualification: Make sure the icebreaker connects with a key point in the Scripture you’ll be studying. It can still be light-hearted—it can even be a game—but plan it so you can refer back to it later, during the study.

For instance, in Matthew 16 when Jesus asked his disciples what people were saying about him, they seemed to be on a retreat of some kind—far north, at Caesarea Philippi, in the shadow of Mount Hermon. This is all helpful background you can share in your study time, but you could start by asking, “Have you ever had a vacation or retreat where you could get away and think about your life? Where did you go? What was it like?”

This gets them all talking about something pleasant, but it also puts them in the Bible story. In their own sense-memory, they understand something about where this Bible story happened.

When in doubt, craft a question that harks back to childhood. (This is a tip I cribbed from Lyman Coleman of Serendipity.) People often like to share their childhood stories—they’re less threatening—but the journey back to childhood also has a subtle effect of opening people up to new learning. Jesus invited people to become like children to enter the kingdom. In a small way, we can help make that happen.

Pay Attention

During the informal gathering and especially during the icebreaker, pay attention to what people are saying. Listen closely. You’re not prying, but connecting. It’s always tempting to use that time to review your notes for the “important” Bible discussion that comes later. But this opening time will help you connect the Scripture to people’s lives.

If you listen now, perhaps later you’ll be able to say, “Marcy, you were saying earlier how people at work have different ideas of who you are, and they don’t know the real you. Well, Jesus had sort of the same problem. We read about it here in Matthew 16.”

A connection like that will draw people into Scripture, and it might help them keep connecting for the rest of their lives.

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is a free-lance writer and former Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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