by Joel Comiskey
When I led my first small group at my parent’s house in 1975, I made sure I didn’t prepare my message. Why? I felt it was more spiritual to simply open my mouth and allow God to fill it. Preparation, I thought, was too “human oriented” and didn’t “depend on God” enough. God was gracious to me during that time period, but I soon realized that he wanted me to prepare in advance and that plans and preparation were biblical principles. The Bible, in fact, is filled with verses like, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit; as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5).
The best small group leaders prepare and plan as much as possible before the meeting begins. The prepared leader has more confidence and a better chance of successfully leading the small group. Here are few planning tips that might be useful to you, as a small group leader.
Jesus had his core team of three from among the twelve. Jesus would often assign responsibilities to his three and shared more intimate details about his ministry with them. Michael Mack talks a lot about Christ’s team of three in his book, Burn-out Free Small Group Leadership–a book I highly recommend. Like Mack, I believe each small group should develop a team to share the load.
I studied one church who asks all small groups to form a planning team that meets three or four days before the actual small group meeting. Anyone can go to the planning meeting but those who normally attend are the committed nucleus of the small group. At the planning meeting, the team prays, analyzes the previous meeting, and then the leader asks those present to participate in the upcoming meeting. One is asked to call an absentee member, another is assigned the worship, another makes a commitment to reach out to a non-Christian, and another agrees commits to bring refreshments.
I don’t normally recommend a weekly small group planning meeting in the Western world because of time constraints. I do encourage, however, that each group forms a planning team that communicates with one another, whether by telephone, email, or in person.
I even encourage leaders to sometimes delegate the actual lesson to members of the planning team. After all, a key small group purpose is involvement. And wouldn’t it be great if you could eventually work your way out of leading the group, so that you’d be free to start another group or supervise the new leader?
Prepare the lesson
My general rule is that you, the leader, talk 30% of the time and get the small group members to speak 70% of the time. Great leaders excel at facilitating others. To get others to talk, however, requires a lot of preparation and planning.
Preparing what to say
You will need to prepare what you will say during the 30% of time that you are talking. This is where diligent planning and study comes in.
Although the lesson is based on questions, the members must understand the general context of the Bible passage in order to answer the questions.
I recommend that the leader initiate the lesson by explaining the general context and meaning of the Bible passage. The leader might use closed, observation questions to clarify the meaning, but normally it’s very helpful to give a brief explanation of the passage.
If you follow the pastor’s sermon, this means diligently going over the verses, remembering the key points, and even finding new angles to cover. I tell small group leaders, however, not to mention “the pastor’s sermon” but rather to dig into the Bible and remind others that the Bible is the foundation for all we say and do.
If you are following other lesson material, you’ll still have to dig deep into Scripture to know what you believe and how you will cover the biblical material.
Preparing the questions
You might prepare your questions from the Serendipity Bible or Navpress’s Lesson Maker. Or perhaps you receive the questions each week based on the pastor’s sermon or a particular study guide you are using. Regardless of where you get your lesson material, you will need to work diligently to contextualize the questions to meet the needs of your group.
Be ruthless in adapting the application questions to the needs of those present. You probably won’t need to change the observation questions as much because observation questions simply draw out what God’s Word already says. Yet, the application questions are supposed to get people to apply God’s Word to their own lives, and often application questions prepared by others need to be tweaked to meet the needs of your own group members. By all means change them.
As you review the application questions, ask yourself whether they are open-ended enough. Will they get the group members talking? A good test is to repeat the question to yourself. Would you feel stimulated to talk? If not, change the question so that it’s more applicable to the needs of your group. For example, if you are covering John 3:16 and one of the questions says, “Why do people need to know God’s love?” perhaps you could tweak it to say, “Share a time recently when you experienced God’s love” (exhortation question). Or if you know non-Christians will be present, you could say, “Share the first time you experienced God’s love in your life” (this question might allow a non-Christian to reveal that he or she has not yet experienced God’s love).
Another common problem is having too many questions. I think five to seven questions are sufficient. And even then, if the group starts going deeper into one or two, don’t feel like you have to finish all the questions. Allow the people to leave with a hunger for more, rather than a commitment to never return because of the meeting’s longevity. I also think it’s important to leave time for prayer after the lesson, so it’s best to reach a crescendo of sharing that naturally leads to deep praying.
Prepare the atmosphere
Many small groups meet in the home of the leader. Others designate a host who is not the small group leader. Still others choose to rotate among group members, so that more people can serve as hosts. Regardless of where you are meeting, it’s important to prepare the atmosphere to make sure quality exists in the meeting place. If the meeting is in someone else’s home, this might mean that you, the small group leader, will need to talk with the host in advance.
Arrange the seating so each person can see every other person in the group. A circle is the best choice. As the leader, place your chair so it’s on the same level as the rest of those in the group—neither at the focal point nor in the background.
If your house is spacious, it’s best to move the chairs into a close circle, thus occupying only a portion of the room. Just remember that large rooms may be excellent for large groups, but they kill discussion in small groups. When people are spread far apart (as is the case in large houses), it’s harder to openly share thoughts and feelings.
Some people feel intimidated about opening their homes because they’re not as large or luxurious as those of other church members. Don’t listen to this argument. Actually, a small apartment or home generates warmth and closeness and reminds the group that eventually they will need to multiply.
Do you know who will bring the refreshments? Refreshment time isn’t something tacked on to small group ministry. It’s a vital part of it. The refreshment time is often the best moment to ask personal questions, enter deeper communion, or even to reap the harvest.
If the host home is always providing the refreshments, ask the host if it’s becoming a burden and whether it would be good to find someone else to provide refreshments. Or better yet, you could assign someone on your planning team to take care of “refreshment duty.”
Turn off telephone ringers and mute the volume on your answering machine. Put pets in another room or outside. Turn off TV sets, radios and computers during a meeting. Yes, our lives are busy all the time, but during the one and one-half hour meeting, make sure that people can concentrate on one another.
Time to Start and Close
If someone else is hosting the group, be sure to arrive at the house ten minutes early to make sure everything is ready to start. If a small group leader begins on time regardless of latecomers, she’s sending the signal that every part of the meeting is important.
Plan to close on time. I don’t believe a small group meeting should last longer than one and one-half hours (I’m referring here to the meeting itself; not the refreshment time). Members have a lot of responsibilities, which include going to work, spending time with family, and numerous chores. A cell member might think twice about attending the next week, if the meeting is too long.
- Guest bathroom. Make sure to clean the guest bathroom before the group begins. Is there toilet paper, soap, a towel?
- Temperature. The temperature in the home increases as more people are packed into a room. Members can become agitated and uncomfortable for the lack of fresh, cool air. The main thing is that you’re sensitive to the needs of those in the room. Common sense is probably a better temperature gauge.
- Lighting. The lighting should be bright enough for everyone to read, but low enough to feel cozy. If it’s too dark, people will have a harder time following the worship sheets and other handouts. You may feel this is unimportant, but details do matter. It’s the little things that often make the difference.
Cease all preparation before the meeting begins. Take the time to prepare your heart before God, asking him to fill you with the Spirit. So many unexpected things happen in the course of a normal small group. You will need to hear God’s voice and follow his direction. You’ll need the Spirit’s wisdom, which comes through his prior filling.
Christ made decisions after communing with the Father. As we read in Luke 5:16, He made it a priority to spend time alone with His Father: “… Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” If Jesus Christ, our model prioritized His time with the Father, shouldn’t we?
As you are filled with the Spirit and guided by him, you will increase your effectiveness as a small group leader, and others will be impacted by Christ’s life in you. They will leave the group transformed, ready to practice what they’ve learned during the week, and even excited about coming back to the group the next week.