How People Learn in Small Groups

September 10, 2017 — Leave a comment

I am privileged to serve as the Assistant Pastor of Small Groups at Rocky Hill Community Church. Last month I spent some time with some of our small group leaders talking about how people “learn” in small groups. Here’s some tips you can use to help people learn in the small groups you lead. 

I. ACCORD: THE “UNIFYING QUESTION” FROM THE PAST WEEKEND MESSAGE 1

A. Reinforce the Message

1. Why the Message Needs Reinforcement

While my wife Jen and I were living in Texas we attended the Dave Ramsey course at church that was located just across the freeway from our apartment. In this format for the class there was about 150 people there and you were placed at a specific table each week with the same people. So, over the course of time you get to know those people. Jen and I were one of the few people who were attending the class that were not members of the church that it was being held at.

The church was a very charismatic and pentecostal type of church. So, while sitting there with the church members at our table I would sometimes make small talk. One week I was asking them about their church and how they liked it there. They responded saying that they loved hearing the Word taught there and that their pastor really brings the Word hard and delivers it well. And, when you leave that church you can’t help but be pumped up and rejuvenated for the work. I responded saying that that was great and that I was glad they had found a church where the pastor preached in a way that fed them. I then proceeded to ask them what the pastor had taught on that last weekend end.

As soon as I asked them the three people began looking at each other with a confused look. Not one of them could remember what the pastor had taught on that last weekend. And, this was “Wednesday” so they had just heard the message three days earlier. I really felt bad about that situation and told my wife that evening that I wished I would not have asked that question because you could tell that they were embarrassed that they loved what they were taught but that they could not remember what they were taught. So, I’m using that as an example that the “Unifying Question” (which I will define a little later) is a way to help people wrestle with what was said in the message and to help them find ways to apply it to their lives.

2. Good Questions to Ask

  • What stood out to you from this past weekend’s message?
  • What did you hear that you hadn’t heard before?
  • What have you done as a result of what the pastor taught?
  • How are you going to change how you do things based on what was said?

B. Encourage People to Attend

1. Small Groups Are a Part of our Church

LIFEGroups are the discipleship element of Rocky Hill Community Church. With that said, we want to make sure that everyone in a small group worships God in the context of the church as well. Most of the people who are in our groups are going to be from our church, but if you have some people that are in your group that do not attend our church, that’s okay too. But, they should be plugged into a Christian church somewhere because a small group is not a substitute for church.

2. What Is Church?

Additionally, someone might say, “But hey, the Bible says ‘where two are gathered in Jesus’ name, I am with you.’ The context of that passage has nothing to do with what a church is or what a church does. In Matt 18:19-20 the context is correcting another believer and prayer, not at all about church. With that said, let’s look at what the church actually is.

  • First, the church is commanded to go into all nations and make disciples (Matt 28:18-20).
  • Second, baptism is another thing that the church does for believer who want to provided external evidence of an internal change (Acts 2:38; 9:18-19; Rom 6:1-11).
  • Third, the church should regularly practice the Lord Supper as a tangible reminder of what the Lord Jesus Christ did for us through his bodily death and resurrection (1 Cor 11:17-34).
  • Fourth, the church should be hearing the Word of God, wrestling with it, and seeking to obey what it teaches (1 Tim 4:13; 1 Peter 3:15-16).
  • Fifth, there needs to be some uniformity about what constitutes the Bible and the core teachings of it. For example, believers in the New Testament affirmed the Old Testament (Matt 22:29-32, 43-45; John 10:35) and now we accept the New Testament as part of the God’s Word too (Heb 1:1-3; 2 Peter 3:15-16; Rev 22:16-19). Furthermore, we accept Jesus as the Son of God—fully God and fully human—as our Savior, we believe Jesus is coming back, and we believe in a Triune God. These are all part of the “basic agreements” that constitutes a church.
  • Sixth, songs and hymns seem to be included in what believers should participate in (Eph 5:19; cf. Phil 2:5-11; Col 1:15-20).
  • Seventh, one of the elements of a church—the body of Christ—is that it is made of up believers that exercise their gifts. The passages that describe the body of Christ as having different elements are different members as being part of a church are in Rom 12; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4; 1 Peter 4. I think we can all agree that these spiritual gifts are something that the body of Christ—the church—has and should employ. However, if we have small groups that have six people in them, there is no way for everyone to exercise their spiritual gifts. If you have the gift of hospitality then the person who hosts the group at their home is going to exercise their gift, or if your gift is teaching then the person that facilitates the discussion somewhat gets to use his or her gifts.

II. ACCURACY: CAREFUL INTERPRETATION AND A GUIDED OPEN DISCUSSION

A. Careful Interpretation

1. Leader Box

I always include several things in the leaders’ supply boxes every time they start a new study. One of the things that I always put in there is our church’s doctrinal statement. I often include a commentary or notes on some of the passages that might be more difficult to interpret or have the people apply to their lives. I try to give you tools to do that, which is why I really like Warren Wiersbe’s books because he has study guides small groups use, but he also has commentaries.

2. Pastoral Help 

One of our Men’s LIFEGroups decided they wanted to study the book of Hebrews just before I began working here last summer. Hebrews has some difficult parts so I was glad to know that they were tackling a long and difficult New Testament letter. So, I would check in with them every couple weeks say, “How’s it going, where are you guys?” And they’d replied, “Oh we are great. We are in chapter two.” Then a few weeks later I’d check in and say, “How far along are you in Hebrews? How is it going?” And they would reply, “We love Hebrews! We are in chapter four!” Then, about a month later I get a frantic email message saying, “Hey, we were in chapter 6 and thoroughly are confused! We need help!” And to that I said, “There it is. I was waiting for it.” I share that story because part of my role as the Assistant Pastor of Small Groups is to help you and your group when you get stuck. Sometimes there are parts of Scripture that are a little more fuzzy and you might need some assistance, and that is what my job is for.

3. Facilitator Preparation

And, you don’t have to wait till the group meets and gets stuck. As the facilitator you should always be spending a little bit of time in preparation. If you have a DVD for your group take some time and watch the DVD lessons and fill in the blanks so you know what is going to be taught and how you might need to guide that discussion. If you are using curriculum that is going verse-by-verse through the Bible make sure you read the passage a few times, take time to complete the questions, and think about you might like to facilitate the discussion.

B. A Guided Open Discussion

You, as leaders of LIFEGroups are facilitators, not teachers. You should be doing 25 percent of the talking. They are about the spiritual growth of people. And, that’s one of the reasons that people join a group: to get to interact with others.

III. APPLICATION: PERSONAL RELEVANCE FOR MEANINGFUL LIFE CHANGE

A. An Example

If it’s okay for me to share transparently here, this is something I struggle with. One of the great things about attending Seminary is that you become well educated and learn a lot of great in-depth material about the Bible, theology, and Greek/Hebrew. However, the byproduct is that you learn about a lot of stuff that isn’t really relevant to the everyday Christian and that does not have a lot of personal application for the believer. For example, when I preached on Phil 1:12-18 recently there was a section I wanted to share about the “chiasm” that is in vv. 15-17 where Paul mentions the good guys, the bad guys, the bad guys again, and then the good guys. I wanted to show how this was a literary device that Paul used that many other New Testament authors used. I also wanted to talk about the background to that text and how they are a couple of different manuscripts of that letter that have the ordered changed and that’s not a big deal. So I practiced my sermon with Jen and she said, “what’s the point of this? it doesn’t add to your message.”

B. Personal Relevance

So, with that said we want to make sure that each time your LIFEGroup meets that there is personal relevance for meaningful life change. This means that you draw the topic in and get the people to apply it. Now, if you’re using a set curriculum there are going to be set questions to get the people to apply it.

For example, in the LifeGuide Bible Study in John (written by Douglas Connelly) that Bob Ally ends one section by saying, “Thank Jesus for coming to explain God fully to us. Use some of the titles and descriptions from this chapter to express your work and praise to him” (p. 11). This gives an application for the person on her own to apply the chapter by praising God using the titles of the chapter questions. In the group you can have people do it there or you can encourage them to do it on their own. The most important element of this is that you have to follow up.

Just because they hear about something that they should do does not mean that they are going to follow through. Your job as the leader is to follow up with people on this. The next week when you meet, ask the people how they’ve applied what they learned. Never single out a person directly and embarrass them, but instead simply say, “Last week we talked about this. How is it going?” Real life change happens when we follow up on the applications that people say they want to make. Use basic questions such as, “What did we talk about last week that changed what you did or how you thought this week?” “What did you do differently this week based on our study last week?” “What personal application did you decide to make last week in our study and how did it go?”

Under the “Now or Later” section of the LifeGuide Study it says, “Consider some ways that you (as an individual or as a group) can be a witness for Jesus in your community. Plan to take one specific action this week to demonstrate Jesus’ love to others who don’t yet know him.” This is a great way to end your meeting and suggest to people that do they this. Then, when you meet the next week, start here! Follow up with them and ask, “Based on the application from last week, what specific action did you take to show people Jesus’s love?”

Question: Do you have any other ideas for how people can “learn” in small groups?

Notes:

  1. The three elements of “accord,” “accuracy” and “application” are copyrighted material of my senior pastor, Dr. David Ward Miller

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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