I’ve led quite a few community groups, Sunday school classes, and other kinds of small group environments. And I’ve found that most people can find something to say – except when they need to find something to say. Even though sitting in a small group environment isn’t quite as paralyzing as delivering a speech before an audience, it can still be intimidating. Part of a healthy Bible study small group is conversation. There should be give and take between the leader and those in the group so that people don’t just listen to the truth of the Word — they interact with it.
This gives them the opportunity to process God’s Word in a personal way, sharing what the implications are in their own lives. A small group leader might have a vision in his or her mind of a group sharing hearts and bearing burdens freely with each other, but they will likely, at some point, face that dreaded awkward silence.
You ask a question and everyone looks down. You seek feedback and only hear crickets. You know that people in the group are intelligent, thoughtful, and almost certainly struggling with something, yet you feel like you couldn’t pry a word out with a crowbar.
So what can a small group leader do about a group where no one talks?
1. Set the expectation early.
Whether we know it or not, we are constantly creating a culture of expectations. We do it in our homes, workplaces, and small groups. If a leader spends the entire first group meeting talking, dispensing information about how the group will work, they shouldn’t be surprised when they come to week two and no one has anything to say. In their attempt to get all the information out on the table, they’ve unknowingly set the expectation that this group is about sitting and listening. But if from the beginning, questions require answers and a level of personal disclosure is expected, then that sharing will naturally grow over time.
2. Let people tell a story.
Everybody has at least one good story — the experiences that brought him or her to your small group. And in that story, there’s likely a combination of joy, pain, and excitement. Just about everyone has at least one great experience they want to tell someone about. Maybe it’s a bad date, a great vacation, a favorite birthday, a terrible apartment, or a funny story from the office. Why not give people a chance to tell their stories in your Bible study group?
You might do this by setting aside a few minutes at the beginning of each group and asking a volunteer to share a little about his or her life. Or a leader could weave the stories into the discussion. If you sense that your group is having trouble responding to questions, change the form of the question to reflect a more story-oriented approach. For example, if you’re talking about Jesus’ teachings on money, you could throw in a question that leads to a piece of someone’s story — maybe something like: “At what time in your life were you the most financially burdened?” Then gently probe the person to share more about that time in his or her life. That brief amount of sharing will likely open up more doors in the future for greater, deeper discussion.
3. Don’t be afraid of the silence.
It’s not as awkward as a leader typically thinks it is. Don’t rush to answer the question; sometimes it’s OK for a question to hang in the air for a little bit. When we rush too quickly past that silence, we may prevent a great conversation from taking place. When we are willing to live with the silence, at least for a little while, we give people the space to think and process. Eventually, something will almost certainly come out.
4. Choose group material that encourages discussion.
A church leader can do a lot to help their leaders in this respect. If a church wants there to be a level of self-disclosure in its groups, a church leader must equip their small group leaders with Bible study material that sets them up to make that happen.
For example, smallgroup.com provides studies that have been writer with the assumption that there will be give and take, question and answer, sharing and listening in a Bible study group. By signing up for a two-week free trial, you can view examples of these discussion-oriented studies that can be customized to align to a sermon series or a specific focus for your small group.
As group leaders and church leaders who lead group leaders, you can help people create environments where a combination of sharing and listening is the rule, not the exception. Let’s do all we can to make sure our leaders have all they need to help them facilitate these kinds of genuine, relational, life-changing groups.