In the years I have served a small group facilitator and small groups pastor, these are some of the most common questions I’ve received about how to facilitate and lead a healthy small group. Hopefully they help you as you seek to facilitate a small group and help people grow in their relationship with God.
Photo Credit: Milos Milosevic
HOW DO I FIND PEOPLE FOR MY SMALL GROUP?
First, pray that God would lead you to people who need to be part of your small group. Second, think through these five categories of people in your life that might benefit from your small group: family (immediate or extended); friends (neighbors, kids, sports, school); factory/firm (work, professional areas), fun (gym, hobbies/hangouts); fellowship (church relationships).[ref]Steve Gladen, Planning Small Groups with Purpose (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018), 183.[/ref] The best way to grow your small group is for you and your small group to invite people that you know.
WHAT IS THE UNIFYING QUESTION AND WHY DO I HAVE TO DO IT?
The Unifying Question is something we encourage our church to do (based on the guides of my lead pastor, David W. Miller) is when you start your group by asking, “What did you take away from the message at church over the weekend?” or you ask, “What did you learn from the message at church over the weekend?” We do this question for two reasons. First, we want the small groups ministry at our church to compliment people attending church, not replace someone attending church. We never want someone to decide that they love their small group but don’t need to attend church on the weekend. Second, we want people to be applying to their life during the week what they are learning at church over the weekend. Asking people to share what they learned reminds them of what they learned and what they should be applying to their lives everyday.
WHY DO I NEED TO HAVE A COLEADER, ASSISTANT, OR APPRENTICE?
You need to have a coleader, assistant, or apprentice for two reasons. First, it’s biblical (Phil 1:5; 2 Thess 2:15). If you read the book of Acts you see that Paul had several traveling companions that he did ministry with. Just a few were Barnabas, John Mark, Luke, and Timothy. If you read Romans 16 you will see that Paul names 27 different people he all knew and did ministry alongside. Paul also had ministry “assistants” that were Timothy and Erastus (Acts 19:21-22), Timothy and Epaphroditus (Phil 2:19-30), Onesiphorus (2 Tim 1:18), and a fellow coworker (Phil 4:3). Second, it’s practical. There are a lot of details and a lot of work goes into leading a small group. There are prayer requests to send out, roster updates, group communication, selection of curriculum, Covenant of Love form, and snack coordination. All of those things (and many others) can easily be delegated to a capable assistant or coleader.
WHAT IS THE “EMPTY CHAIR?”
Every person in every small group should have at least one person that he is praying for to get saved. This should be someone that he regularly sees and interacts with (not a distant cousin in another state that he never sees or talks to). This could be the waiter at your favorite restaurant, a neighbor, or family member. In your small group place an “empty chair” in the room each week as a reminder to your group that they are supposed to be praying for the unsaved person. While small groups are designed to help the people of our church be discipled and grow in their faith in Christ, they should also be regularly praying for the lost and seeking to bring unsaved people into a relationship with Jesus Christ.
WHAT SHOULD WE STUDY?
As the facilitator of your group your job is to lead the decisions on what to study. Every small group should do a study on the books of Galatians, Ephesians, James, Nehemiah, John, Ruth/Esther, Hebrews, and Romans. (I require our church small groups to use the Wiersbe Bible study guides.) Additionally, each group should do the topical DVD studies by Chip Ingram of “Why I Believe,” “The Real God,” and “True Spirituality.” As the leader of your group your job is to gauge the needs of your group and then decide on what the groups need to study next.
CAN ME AND MY GROUP MEMBERS INVITE OUR FRIENDS WHO ARE NOT CHRISTIANS TO OUR GROUP?
The short answer is “YES!” However, if a non-Christian comes to your group it will change the dynamics of your group. So just be ready to explain Christian “lingo” and be extra sensitive to the non-Christians’ thoughts and feelings.
CAN ME AND MY GROUP MEMBERS INVITE OUR FRIENDS WHO ATTEND ANOTHER CHURCH TO OUR GROUP?
As long as you start your group with the Unifying Question, you can invite anyone to your group regardless of the church that they attend. Obviously, if the church your friend attends has small groups, they might benefit more from a group organized by their own church.
WHAT IF HALF OF THE GROUP CAN’T MAKE IT? SHOULD WE STILL MEET?
Yes, but don’t be discouraged by low attendance. Furthermore, some of your best fellowship will occur when there is less people.
SOMETIMES OUR GROUP DOES NOT WANT TO “STUDY” BUT JUST WANTS TO ENJOY SOME TIME TOGETHER, IS THAT OKAY?
Yes! We encourage you and your group to just have a fun and relaxing meeting every trimester. Organize a potluck, go out to dinner, or watch a movie together.
WHAT IF SOMEONE ASKS A BIBLE OR THEOLOGY QUESTION AND I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER?
The appropriate response is, “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer, but I will bring some answers next week.” Then, you can look up the answer in your Swindoll Study Bible, Basic Theology by Charles Ryrie, the Weirsbe commentary provided to you on the book you are studying, etc. or ask your small groups pastor. Another great way to respond when someone asks a question you are not sure of the answer to is to respond, “That’s a great question. I’m sure others have had it too. Would you like to do some research this week on that question and come by to group next week and share what you learned?” Suggest Bible.org as the place to start looking or to visit a local Christian bookstore to see if there is a good pamphlet or book on the topic.
WHAT DO I DO IF SOMEONE IN MY GROUP IS TALKING BADLY ABOUT OUR CHURCH? WHAT DO I DO?
The best way to respond is, “I don’t think anyone who is part of our small group is capable of fixing your problem or issue. I recommend you call one of the pastors directly.” If the person attempts to continue complaining cut off the person and again remind him or her to no longer discuss the issue but to instead contact a pastor directly. If the person brings up the issue again in the following weeks at your group reply, “Last time you brought this up I had asked you to contact a pastor from church directly. What did the pastor say?” If they have not called a pastor ask the person to no longer mention the complaint until calling a pastor.
HOW DO I PREPARE FOR MY GROUP MEETINGS EACH WEEK?
How you prepare for your small group depends on whether you are doing a verse-by-verse Bible study (like a Wiersbe Bible study guide) or a topical study using a DVD curriculum (like a study from Chip Ingram).
Verse-by-verse Bible study. If you are doing a verse-by-verse Bible study there are five steps you want to follow to prepare for each week’s meeting. First, Pray for your group members and for what they are going to study. Second, read through the passage a few times quickly. Third, work through the questions in the Wiersbe study guide. Fourth, read the commentary supplied by Wiersbe. Fifth, go back through your answers to the questions and see if you’d like to add or change anything.
Topical DVD study. About a month before the group starts the study you need to do five things. First, test each DVD to make sure they work. Second, make sure you have enough study guides. Third, make sure you have the correct study guides. Fourth, adjust the zoom so that the text shows up on the bottom. Fifth, make sure you read the “Small Group Leader Resources” in the back of the study guide. Each week before your meeting you will want to do six things to prepare for your group. First, watch the DVD. Second, look through the notes in the back of the study guide for helpful leader notes for that session (if available). Third, briefly answer the questions in the discussion session. Fourth, if there are passages referenced in the questions or that you are supposed to read, look up those passages in a good study Bible and look for any good relevant study notes. Fifth, review your answers and see if there’s anything you should change. Sixth, watch the coaching videos for that session (if available on the DVD or online).
WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT SUMMER TIME? SHOULD WE STILL MEET OR TAKE THE SUMMER OFF?
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not something you only do in the fall and spring. It’s a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week lifestyle. So taking the summer off is okay, but ensure your group still continues to grow in their walk with Jesus Christ. While most people travel over the summer, most only travel for a couple of weeks. So, our recommendation as a church is to continue meeting. Do a special study over the summer. If your group primarily does verse-by-verse Bible studies try a topical study by the Navigators or a DVD study from Chip Ingram. Or if your group regularly does DVD studies by Chip Ingram, do a verse-by-verse Bible study through a short book of the Bible. You might find that while your group size is smaller over the summer you can enjoy more fellowship time and dive deeper into your study because there are less people attending group each week.
WHAT DO I DO ABOUT PRAYER IN MY SMALL GROUP?
- Never call on people to pray aloud in front of the group unless you know that person is okay praying in front of other people. It can be intimidating and scary to pray aloud.
- Ensure that your group prays each week and be consistent about when the prayer occurs within the structure of your group (at the beginning, end, etc.).
- Don’t rush prayer time. If your group prays at the end of the meeting, make sure you leave enough time to allow everyone to share their prayer requests.
- Assign a person in your group to be in charge of prayers. If someone in your group needs a regular weekly task, ask her if she would lead the prayer time.
- Keep an ongoing prayer list. Ask the person that coordinates prayer requests in your group to keep a list of ongoing prayers that your group has shared. This should include the unsaved people your group is praying for as well as prayer requests people have shared in the past. Each week the person that coordinates prayer requests should ask for updates on those prayer requests to see how God is answering the prayers of your small group members.
PEOPLE SEEM TO TREAT ME LIKE I AM THE “EXPERT” IN THE GROUP, BUT I AM NOT. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
If people regularly bring up difficult questions and direct them to you as the “expert” of the group, then you should redirect some of the questions back to the group. Someone might ask, “Who was Paul writing to in this letter?” You can then respond, “Well, what does everyone think? What have you been told about who Paul was writing to?” Redirect some of the simple and basic questions back to the group and let the group answer them. Or if you are asked a question you don’t know the answer to, perhaps someone else in the group has an answer to that question.
THERE’S A PERSON IN MY GROUP THAT NEVER STOPS TALKING. HE ANSWERS EVERY QUESTION AND HIS ANSWERS ARE WAY TOO LONG. HOW DO I HANDLE THIS PERSON?
Most people that talk a lot are not intentionally trying to dominate the discussion. Often they are passionate and excited about what they are learning and how they are growing. However, you as a facilitator need to help them to realize that in small groups we want everyone to share and talk. Talk to the person privately saying, “I have noticed that some people in our group are talking very little or not at all. Our group needs to be a place where we all share in the discussion equally.” Then, ask for that person’s assistance to create a healthy discussion-based atmosphere. “So, do you think you could help me to get everyone in the group talking? Perhaps you can share answers to three of the questions each week? Just pick three and decide you want to talk during those questions, then let others in the group share their answers to the other questions.” You might need to have this conversation a couple of times, but most people over time will make the adjustment. Again, a small group is a place where people are learning and growing. And learning to talk less so that others can talk more and grow is the sign of a mature disciple that focuses on others more than himself.
THERE IS A PERSON THAT REGULARLY ARRIVES LATE TO OUR GROUP AND DISRUPTS THE GROUP. WHAT DO I DO?
When someone regularly arrives late to your small group it communicates to the rest of the people in your group that the group is not important. You do not want this. If someone arrives late three times to your small group in a semester, then check in with that person privately. Ask if there is a reason she has been arriving late and ask if things are going okay in her life. Then, remind her of the start time of the group and ask her if she can arrive to group on time since the others members arrive on time as well.
WHAT IS THE “COVENANT OF LOVE” AND WHY DO I NEED TO HAVE MY GROUP COMPLETE IT EACH FALL?
The Covenant of Love is the group “agreement” that we ask everyone in a group at our church to sign each fall. The Covenant of Love is an agreement that everyone in your group makes with each other and for each other. There are several reasons we ask each small group member to complete the Covenant of Love each fall semester.
- It helps ensure the church has updated contact information for members of your group.
- It gives you the names and phone numbers for everyone in your group so that you can provide that to your entire group. Part of developing a healthy small group is allowing the members to communicate directly with each other outside of the group meeting. Completing the Covenant of Love gets you the contact information that you need to do this.
- The Covenant of Love contains seven fantastic and essential governing principles that will keep your group healthy and strong.
- The Covenant of Love is a tool to refer back to when there are issues and conflict within your group (and there will be). When someone has been arriving late, talking negatively about church, etc., then the Covenant of Love is your tool to use to gently and kindly correct that person.
SOME PEOPLE DON’T SHOW UP FOR OUR GROUP BUT DON’T TELL ANYONE THAT THEY WON’T BE THERE. WHAT SHOULD I DO?
If someone is not going to make it to the meeting he needs to tell you, the facilitator, that he won’t be there. Never let someone just “not show up” without prior notification. If someone doesn’t show up for the group and no one knows why, call that person later in the week to check in. Let him know that everyone missed him and was praying for him. Ask him to let you know in the future if he won’t be at the meeting so that the group doesn’t worry. Doing this tells the person he is valued and appreciated as part of the group. It also tells him that when he’s gone he is missed and that he is expected to participate in the meeting each week.
MY GROUP TENDS TO GET OFF TOPIC AND CHASE “RABBIT TRAILS.” WHAT SHOULD I DO WHEN THIS HAPPENS?
No group stays completely on topic 100 percent of the time. Part of a healthy small group means the group feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas as well as asking questions that they are interested in. Do your best to keep the group on topic and set an example for the rest of the group by staying on topic. Before you start a new study in your group, review all of the lessons in the study. Know which lessons cover which topics. Then, when someone in your group starts to take the group off track, if you know that that topic will be discussed later in the study, simply reassure the person that that question and topic will be discussed in future weeks. This shows that you are prepared for your group and that they will have ample time to discuss their ideas in the future. If the topic someone brings up does not relate to what you are discussing, try to stop the rabbit trail before it goes too long. The longer it goes, the harder it will be to bring the discussion back. Again, don’t get frustrated when your group gets off topic. Every group does this, but it’s your job as the facilitator to bring them back.
SOMETIMES I ASK THE QUESTIONS IN THE STUDY GUIDE, BUT NO ONE ANSWERS. AM I DOING THIS WRONG? WHAT SHOULD I DO?
Silence is a good thing. And if your group is new then they likely will be very quiet at first. It often takes several months before your group starts opening up and talking regularly. Be assured, there will be future meetings where you won’t be able to get them to stop talking! For now, if you ask a question and no one answers, simply ask the question again. Most likely, people don’t actively respond to the question because they might have misunderstood part of it or were scared of giving the wrong answer.
SOME PEOPLE KEEP LOOKING AT THEIR PHONES ALL THE TIME. IS THAT OKAY?
It is probably a good idea to remind everyone in the group that they might need to silence their cell phones. Model this for the group. Pull out your cell phone, and tell everyone that you are putting your phone on vibrate mode. Some people use their phones for their Bible, so that might cause a distraction. Encourage them to bring their own Bible to group each week. There will be some people that need to keep their phone on because of a sick parent or kids they need to be available too, so exercise grace for these people.
I INVITED A FRIEND TO MY SMALL GROUP, BUT HE SAID THE SMALL GROUPS ARE JUST A NEW “FAD” AND THAT SMALL GROUPS AREN’T BIBLICAL. IS HE CORRECT? Small groups were foundational to the early church. After Jesus ascended into heaven, the first century church met in the temple courts (the church building) as well as from house-to-house (believers’ homes). If someone says that small groups aren’t biblical, have him read Acts 2:42-47.
WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT CHILDCARE?
The number one reason most young parents don’t join a small group is because they are not sure what to do about childcare. Here’s six ideas for childcare for your group.
- Each family can get its own babysitter. This is probably the most expensive but puts the parents in control of who watches their kids.
- Use the homes of two members who live close to each other. Use one house for childcare provided by a babysitter or a rotating member of the small group. Use the other house to host the adults for the small group.
- Dedicate one room of the house for childcare and bring a babysitter. Each family can contribute money to the childcare costs and therefore share the cost of a joint babysitter.
- Rotate two members out of the small group weekly to provide childcare in another room of the house. This requires no cost for the parents in the group. If you are doing a verse-by-verse Bible study, the adults can do the study on their own during the week. Or if you are doing a DVD based study, the church will provide an extra DVD or a way that the parents can watch the teaching online so that they don’t miss out on the study.
- Make your group a family group where kids are allowed to play in the same room that the group meets. This is best for kids that are very small and won’t catch what is being said. If the kids are elementary or older, they can listen and learn with the group. You will need to limit talk about “adult issues” as well as limit “adult humor.”
- Trade childcare with another group. If your group meets on Tuesdays and there’s another group that meets on Wednesdays, offer to trade childcare for each other. This requires no cost for the parents.[ref]Steve Gladen, Leading Small Groups with Purpose (pp. 78-79).[/ref]
WHAT SHOULD I DO TO HELP NEW PEOPLE FEEL WELCOMED AND ACCEPTED INTO MY GROUP?
There are various things that you as the facilitator and your group can do to welcome new people into your group. Here’s a list to get you started.
- Greet them at the door. This is a great way to help them feel welcome. When someone is coming to a home for the first time they walk up to the door and they don’t even know if they are at the correct house. Welcome them and invite them in.
- Explain the purpose and expectations of the group. Each group is slightly different. Tell them why your group exists, what the expectations of the group members are, and the expectations the group has of the facilitator.
- Explain the format of the group. Each group has a format that they follow each week consisting of the Unifying Question, prayer, snacks, the study, etc. Your group will have its own format, so take some time to explain it to the person who is visiting on the first night.
- Clue them into inside language and humor. Any group that has met for a while has learned some language and uses it in a unique way. Additionally, there are specific jokes or humor that the group knows about that no one else knows about. Take some time to clue them in when that happens and explain the words being used or the joke referenced.
- Give them a gift. Nothing says “we are glad to have you here” like a gift. Simple and cheesy is okay. If you need some gifts ask Christopher or Valerie and they will get you some stuff.
- Give them the curriculum for free. A new person might be a little nervous and is not sure if they want to continue with the group. So give them the study guide for free. Tell them that the first time guest doesn’t pay for the book. It’s a gift to help them feel welcomed and let them know they are valuable.
- Ask them to share a little about themselves. Don’t make it awkward or weird. Just ask them to share how they found out about the group, where they are from, who they might know in the group, etc.
- Add some fellowship time. If you have the fellowship time at the beginning of your group you might want to start your study a little late. If you have your fellowship time at the end, try to end the study a little early. Don’t tell people what you are doing or why. Just do it.
- Let them be quiet. Their first night or two they are going to be quiet. They are observing and learning about the group. They are seeing if this is something they might want to be part of. Allow them to just listen if they want.
- Leave the door open, the blinds up, and lights on. If possible, leave your door open when people will be arriving. If you can, leave the blinds open so that the visitor can see inside the house and know that he or she is at the correct home. Lastly, no one likes approaching a dark home. Try to keep plenty of outside lights on if you know that you are having a visitor.
- Follow up and invite them back. Before your group meets again call your visitors and let them know you enjoyed having them there and invite them back to the next meeting.
A MEMBER OF MY GROUP CAME TO ME AND COMPLAINED ABOUT ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE GROUP. I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY OR DO?
If someone from your group approaches you and begins to talk negatively about someone else in your group there should be one response you always have. Interrupt the person and ask, “Have you shared this with ______ yet?” Most often, the person will say, “Well no, I wanted to talk to you about it.” Your response then should be, “If you have an issue or concern with _____, then I recommend you go directly to him/her and talk directly to him or her about it.”
MY GROUP SAID WE SHOULD DO COMMUNION TOGETHER IN OUR SMALL GROUP. IS THAT OKAY?
No. Participation in the Lord’s Supper is an experience that should be done with the church together as a body. In the past, small groups that decided they wanted to do communion together eventually decided “we are our own church and we don’t need to attend church anymore.” This caused division within the church and was an unhealthy situation. Again, our goal is for small groups to compliment the weekend worship church service, not to replace it. So we do not allow small groups to participate in communion together in their small group.
SOMEONE SAID THAT “MY SMALL GROUP IS MY CHURCH.” THIS DIDN’T SEEM RIGHT. IS A SMALL GROUP A CHURCH?
Someone might say, “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 about prayer, not at all about church. With that said, let’s look at what the church actually is.
- The church is commanded to go into all nations and make disciples (Matt 28:18-20).
- Baptism is another thing that the church does for believers who want to provided external evidence of an internal change (Acts 2:38; 9:18-19; Rom 6:1-11).
- The church should regularly practice the Lord’s Supper as a tangible reminder of what Jesus Christ did for us through his bodily death and resurrection (1 Cor 11:17-34).
- The church should be hearing the Word of God, wrestling with it, and seeking to obey what it teaches (1 Tim 4:13; 2 Peter 3:15-16).
- There needs to be some uniformity about what constitutes the Bible and the core teachings of it.[ref]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.[/ref]
- 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).
- One of the elements of a church—the body of Christ—is that it is made of up believers that exercise their gifts.[ref]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. Unless your small group meets those seven elements of what constitutes a church (and it doesn’t), then a small group is not church.[/ref]
HOW DO I MAKE SURE THE PEOPLE IN MY GROUP ARE APPLYING WHAT THEY ARE LEARNING?
The goal of our LIFEGroups ministry is to help people grow in spiritual maturity. Here’s some good questions you can ask your group regularly to ensure they are growing and applying what they are learning.
- “Last week we talked about ________. How is it going?”
- “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?”
- “Based on the application from last week, what specific action did you take to show people Jesus’s love?”
Ask these questions regularly to encourage your group to keep applying what they are learning.
WHAT DO I DO IF THE GROUP STRUGGLES WITH A SPECIFIC QUESTION OR DOESN’T UNDERSTAND IT?
Don’t push the issue. If the group is struggling to understand how to answer a question, then don’t push it. Slightly altering a question is good when the group gets stuck. Start out by reading the questions to the group, but if they struggle with an aspect of the question or the question just doesn’t work for them, then alter it or change it.
ONLY THREE PEOPLE SHOWED UP TO MY GROUP AND I’M DISCOURAGED. WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME AND MY GROUP?
When it comes to small groups, the smaller the better. (Meaning, it’s better to have ten groups of three people than it is to have one group of thirty people, if that makes sense.) Don’t feel discouraged if you start your group and only three people come for the first month. Three is fantastic! It allows for more sharing and more interaction with the group. Over time word will get out and your group will grow. Three people talking and sharing about their faith and God’s Word is great to have!
MY GROUP DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHY THEY SHOULD WORK THROUGH THE MATERIAL ON THEIR OWN BEFORE COMING TO GROUP?
God works in people’s lives and hearts when they spend time alone working through the material privately before coming to group. Encourage your group to spend some quiet alone time working through the study before coming to group. If someone is not going to spend 30 minutes reading and preparing for group, then they are not going to apply what they are learning while in group. Encourage your group to spend time reading the Bible passage and comes prepared to group.
WHAT DO I DO WHEN PEOPLE START TALKING ABOUT POLITICS IN MY GROUP?
Here’s what you do when people start talking about politics in your group: STOP THEM!!! Politics in a small group will only cause divisions among your group members. Our culture in America has become hostile to anyone who disagrees with our politics. Many people hold their political beliefs so strongly and so dogmatically that they are more passionate about politics than they are about Jesus Christ. In short, avoid allowing politics to be part of your group. There is a time and a place to discuss politics, but in your small group is not one of them.
DO I ALLOW PEOPLE IN MY SMALL GROUP TO PROMOTE OTHER CHURCH EVENTS DURING MY SMALL GROUP? Our church does not allow people to promote other church events at our small groups for several reasons. First, we want to limit the things discussed in your group. Second, we want to protect our people’s time.Third, We want to cultivate a “home-church” loyalty in an age when people like to bounce around to many churches. Fourth, we want to avoid sales and appeals to people in our small groups when our goal is to encourage people to support their local home church with a tithe.