Small group discussion time can be a great way for staff and volunteers to build strong relationships with students and the perfect place to foster accountability and mentor-type relationships. Not only that, it is the perfect place for students to be heard, to interact with and learn from those going through similar struggles or situations and grapple with Biblical principles.
Despite the positive side effects, leading small group time can be quite difficult. Here are a few keys that help make leading a small group discussion a little less challenging.
1: Be Prepared
If you are coming up with the lesson for your small group on your own, make sure you have it ready ahead of time. If you are leading a lesson that has been prepared for you, make sure you read through it ahead of time. Have all of the supplies you need ready and make sure you are super familiar with the topic you will be teaching about.
2: Break the Ice
Simple icebreakers and games can get things moving and encourage interaction and participation. They can help provide positive momentum for small group study and discussion by helping the students feel more comfortable with one another, setting the tone for listening to one another and group participation, and, well…. breaking the ice. It’s important to plan icebreakers that encourage everyone in the group to talk or share non-threatening information about themselves.
Another way to break the ice is to have a hands on activity that relates to the lesson. I find that the more hands on and interactive the discussion, the better. This is especially helpful for younger junior high students. The hands on activities could be art related, or even science experiments related to the lesson. Anything that gives them a visual to go along with what you are trying to teach them is fantastic.
3: Use the Right Questions.
Be creative in how you phrase your questions, and try to make sure they are open ended. Yes or no questions do not foster discussion and will simply shut down the conversation. Don’t just say “What do you think?” or “How do you feel about this?” or even “How can we apply this to our lives?”
Ask questions like: What is one thing you want to see change in your life as a result of this study? What new promise can you take with you into the week? You get the picture. There are so many good questions you can ask on any given topic. Few of them will come to you on the spot without any preparation. Try to avoid asking questions that will lead to typical “Sunday school” type answers, but rather plan questions that are more thought provoking.
Avoid answering your own questions! If necessary, rephrase them until they are clearly understood. Nothing will quiet a group more quickly and kill a discussion faster than the leader answering their own questions.
5: Empower Students
Look for opportunities to encourage the students to speak up during the discussion. This doesn’t have to only be answering questions. If there are scriptures to be read, divide them up among the students.
Also, remember, older students can lead! The small group leader does not always have to be an adult volunteer or staff person. Some of my best small group leaders are our older high school students. This gives them a learning opportunity and a way to step up as a leader.
6: Include Everyone and Be Positive.
Include every student in the discussion whenever possible. Don’t allow one person to control the conversation. Don’t settle for only one answer to a question. Ask what others in the group think, until several people have had an opportunity to share their answers.
Make sure you acknowledge the input and answers of everyone who contributes. Do not put any student down for their answers or input and give positive reinforcement as often as possible. At the same time, it is important to let students have the right to pass on answering a question. Forcing a student to share or speak will just make them feel awkward and uncomfortable.
7: Include Personal Reflection Time.
Be intentional about giving students quiet, reflective, alone time with God. We do that in our student ministry with journaling time. Our students love it, and get annoyed when we leave it out. There are countless other ways to do this. Find what works for your students. You won’t regret giving them this small amount of time with God. It is something they rarely get in their day to day lives.
Bonus: Make Prayer a Priority
Impactful prayer times take planning. If you desire something more than a quick opening or closing prayer, you have to be intentional about making it happen. Decide ahead of time what you want that prayer time to look like, and add it to the small group plan.
In our groups, we take prayer concerns every week and each group prays in the way that is most comfortable for them. Some do popcorn prayer, some have one person pray for the whole group and some go around the table and have everyone pray. Sometimes, we also add a hands on, interactive prayer response as part of the lesson. For example, students may be encouraged to come up and nail a slip of paper with things they need to let go of written on it during a lesson about repentance.
Whatever your small group times look like, I hope these keys will be helpful in making them run more smoothly and be more effective. There are so many brilliant tips for having meaningful and impactful small group discussions, and I encourage you to take the time to seek out tools and ideas that will help your discussion times effectively meet the needs of your students.