During the first undergraduate class I taught at Seattle Pacific University, I was taken aback by the number of students who texted throughout the class. I initially ignored the texting, but it became increasingly frustrating to me as the class continued. I eventually confronted the class, because I realized that the students were communicating disrespect not only for me but for the other students in the class. Now, on the first day of a new class, I ask students not to send text messages during class. And I tell them that if I see them texting, I will count them absent because if they are communicating with someone outside of class, they are not really present in class.
The key point here is that showing up to a group meeting is important, but not sufficient for the best experience. In order for you to have the best experience, and for the rest of the group to benefit from the insights you bring to the group, you need to be physically and mentally present. One of the most important skills for a thriving class meeting is listening. You can’t listen to someone else talk about the ways they have experienced God’s presence in the past week if you are messing with your cell phone. It may sound overly rigid, but I would strongly encourage group members to turn their cell phones off during the time the class is meeting.
Listening is not simply being quiet while someone else is talking. The best listeners are active listeners. They do not merely avoid interrupting; they give cues that show they are listening and interested, such as nodding their heads or smiling when appropriate. As you gain experience and comfort in listening to others talk about their relationships with God, you may find that you ask questions of the person who is sharing because of nonverbal cues you pick up on as often as you ask questions because of things they state explicitly. How someone says something is often as important as what is said!
Interpersonal skills are essential to a life-changing class meeting. Beyond listening carefully to one another, group members should convey respect and care for each other. This means that group members should think about the other people in their group and value their experiences in the group. Attentiveness to the experience of the rest of the group will also help you avoid extremes, such as dominating the conversation or remaining completely detached. In an exceptional class meeting, group members will be self-aware. They will think about how they communicate and how to more effectively and appropriately communicate within the context of the class meeting.
Life-changing groups will have members who honor the promise of confidentiality that is made in each group. Members will recognize that violating the confidence of the group is breaking a commitment that has been made and that people will not feel safe being honest and vulnerable in a group if one member talks to outsiders about what is said in the group. I know I am repeating myself here, but this is a serious enough concern that it is worth repeating. If you cannot respect requests for confidentiality, then you should not be a part of a group like this. Finally, a group that is most likely to be used by God to bring life change will consist of members who cultivate humility and a willingness to be vulnerable with the group. Humility is a powerful trait in a small group, but it is often misunderstood to mean feeling that you have no wisdom or experience to offer the group. Humility is better understood to entail detachment from your own strengths and weaknesses, while possessing a realistic appreciation of them. In other words, a humble person is not someone who acts as if they do not have a gift that they clearly possess. Rather, they offer the gift to others with a sense that it is not something that they own.
C. S. Lewis offered one of my favorite definitions of humility: “[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.” If God has gifted you with the ability to lead a class meeting with wisdom and discernment that benefits the entire group, you should claim that gift and rejoice in what God is doing in the group. Similarly, humble people will not chastise themselves for not having a particular gift, but rejoice that the gifts needed for the entire group to thrive have been given to the group as a whole.
Vulnerability is related to humility. It takes vulnerability to admit your own limitations, particularly if they are related to an area of personal embarrassment or shame. A willingness to be vulnerable is also necessary for a successful group, as a class meeting will only go as far as the members in the group are willing to let the Spirit take them. If you are going through a difficult period in your life with God and you are unwilling to be honest with the group about it, your unwillingness to be vulnerable may hinder the extent to which the group can help you regain a sense of the Spirit’s active presence in your life. Vulnerability is necessary because the content of the class meeting is your experience of God’s work in your life, discussing this with others can sometimes make you feel vulnerable. But this is the best kind of vulnerability, because it leads to growth.
Much more could be said about the importance of cultivating self-awareness. The key principle, however, is that a group will be dynamic and powerful if every member seeks to be aware of the ways that his or her own presence and ways of communicating impact the other members of the group.
I wrote more about these kind of transformative, small group experiences in my book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten and Essential Small Group Experience.