Small group Bible studies are not just a great idea. They are a biblical idea. From the moment the New Testament church was founded, core to its identity was small bands of Christians meeting together and studying God’s word (Acts 2:42-47, Acts 17:11, Colossians 3:16, Colossians 4:15).
Of course small group Bible studies are not as important as the actual church and what happens Sunday morning. And there are certainly other effective formats that fulfill the church’s obligation to teach its members outside of Sunday morning (classes, support groups, one-on-one discipleship, etc.). But one of the clearest signs of a healthy church is a healthy small group Bible study ministry.
I believe if you want a healthy small group ministry, it all starts with having great small group leaders. So how can you be a great small group leader? Or if you’re in church leadership and are looking for great small group leaders, what are some signs to consider?
What follows is not an exhaustive list or one ranked by importance. It is simply a list of 24 keys to being a great small group leader.
1. Take The Fear Out Of The First Night
Many people who sign up for your small group have never done anything like this before. People fear what they don’t know. “Will they make me share my darkest secrets?” “What if they ask me to read out loud? I’m a horrible reader!” “Will I look unprepared since I don’t have the study guide yet?” “Did I sign up for the right day? What if I go and no one is there?”
Sometimes small groups lose people before they even begin because the leader fails to let the group members know what to expect. To have a great first session, send everyone a warm, personal email outlining where/when the group meets, what to bring, what study to buy, and what the first night will be like. And if you want to be a super leader, give everyone a personal phone call a week before the group begins. This will definitely help bring in those people still on the fence on whether or not they should give your small group a shot or not.
2. Avoid Making Your Small Group Bible Study Into A Class Or A Support Group
If your church has asked you to lead a small group Bible study, this is very different than a support group or a class.
A support group is when people get together because they all struggle with a certain problem (divorce, addiction, PTSD, cancer, etc). The conversation revolves around dealing with that certain issue which everyone there has. People typically sit in a circle, share their personal feelings, and the mood is very conversational.
A class is when people get together to be taught by a teacher who downloads information to the rest of the group. People are there not to hear feelings and opinions but to receive trusted information from an expert. People sit in rows with the teacher upfront. The mood is academic.
A small group Bible study is a mix between a class and a support group. People sit in a circle, the mood is conversational, but the discussion is not just all about feelings and personal problems, though it does include these things. The point of the meeting is to discuss a specific Biblical topic and how it applies to your life.
A great leader avoids turning a small group Bible study into a support group or a class. Don’t try to be seen as the chief sinner amongst the group or the super smart professor. You should plan to share rather than teach. As a small group leader, you are there to facilitate a biblical conversation, keeping things free flowing but moving in a general direction towards the specific topic assigned for that night.
3. Keeps Things More Applicational Than Theological
Whether it’s when you are choosing a study, forming questions, or choosing what you want to personally share with the group that night, a great small group leader focuses more on application than theology in most cases.
Again, it’s important to remember the purpose of a small group. People from different stages of maturity and theological backgrounds should be able to participate. This does not mean theology and doctrine are off limits. It simply means the majority of the time should be spent talking about ways to actually apply God’s word.
In a healthy church, the elders elect pastors and teachers to expound the Scriptures. The reason this process is put in place is because not everyone has the gift of teaching. If your church has asked you to lead a small group, this is not the same thing as being a teaching pastor. Again, this doesn’t mean you can’t have deep theological discussions at your group sometimes, but the emphasis of a small group should be more applicational in general.
4. Start And End On Time
Starting and ending on time is really important. It’s a sign of respect. For every person who wants to study Romans 9 deep into the night, there is another person who came to your house after working a 12 hour shift and needs to wake up at 5am to do it again. One of the fastest ways to lose group members is to start late and end late. One of the best ways to get people to come back is to leave them wanting more.
5. Hospitality Matters
I hate to break it to you, but not everyone loves Maximus, your “cute” Rottweiler that thinks everyone who sits on the couch must want him to sit on their lap. Some people just can’t focus with your toddler in the room, even though she really is adorable, so adorable no one can focus. And if you have 20 people in a room that comfortable fits 10, about 45 minutes into the group those who are sitting on the floor are going to be watching the clock because their buns are so uncomfortable.
While a great small group leader certainly pays more attention to the content of the study rather than the setting of the meeting, the setting is still an important factor to consider.
6. Not Every Small Group Will Produce Lifelong Friendships, But Some Might
When you signup to be a small group leader, most of us probably imagine amazing lifelong friendships forming in our own lives and in the lives of group members. Certainly this can happen. It’s happened to me.
But you can’t force friendships and intimacy. Sometimes the harder you try to make people open up the more closed they become. Besides, the actual small group meeting time is usually not where real friendships are birthed. People may meet each other for the first time at these groups, but it’s when they make the extra effort to get to know one another outside of the meeting times that real friendships are formed.
7. Accept That There’s Always More That Could Be Said
No matter how great the topic seems or how stimulating the conversation has become, eventually you have to move on. You might want to follow up each comment with a great classic quote that applies perfectly, but sometimes keeping the group moving is more helpful to the majority. People’s attention spans are short. Constantly changing the angle, for example, from theological, to practical, to humorous, and then to serious helps people stay engaged. Also, when you want to end on time, you have to accept that some really good points will need to go unsaid.
8. Don’t Be Passive With Intense Group Members
To be a great small group leader, you will want to create an atmosphere of encouragement and sharing. Small groups are not the place for heated debates, preaching, or want-to-be-counselors. One of the biggest roadblocks to creating this safe place where people will feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and beliefs, even if they know are not Bible scholars yet, will be other group members like the “aggressive talker,” the “self-appointed co-leader,” or the “doctrine Nazi.”
Some people just talk over people whenever a thought pops into their head, which seems to be right during other people’s time to share. Other people love to ask questions they already know they answer to because deep down they think they can lead this group better than you. Other people love doctrine but have yet to learn to love people, so they slam newbie Christians when they say something not quite biblical.
As the small group leader, you can’t be passive with intense group members. If you are, the majority will suffer because of the actions of one – you. It’s your responsibility to lead and facilitate the group.
Sometimes giving your intense group member a personal phone call or meeting him or her for coffee can give you the opportunity to loving show them how they are coming across to the group. They may not even know how negatively they are being perceived. Most of the time someone will humbly receive your words of correction if they feel you are doing so out of concern and love for them. And if they don’t, at least you can rest assured you did your best in leading them well.
9. Create A Culture Of Respect Towards Church Leadership
The longer a group stays together, the more tempting it will be for them to start complaining about church leadership. Sometimes it’s healthy to talk about a frustration you are having in regards to the church, but small group is usually not the best time to discuss it. Besides, you never know who is in the group with you. Maybe the pastor’s third cousin is there. Maybe someone is trying your church after coming from a bad church experience and the complaints are just scaring them off. Overall, it’s just not a good look if you are allowing your group to turn into a “bash the pastor session” each week.
10. Embrace The Life Cycles Of A Healthy Small Group Bible Study
All healthy small groups go through similar cycles. The group begins by hitting it hard, some waver and drop out while others press in, and great fruit and friendships are formed for those who put in the work. It’s after this point where things can get interesting. After great fruit and friendships have formed, typically a break needs to happen in some form or another. Either the group needs to take a month or two off, the group needs to multiply into another group so both can bring in new members, or the group needs to end so everyone can continue to challenge themselves in fresh ways.
This last phase is so important because just like the human body, spiritual growth comes through stress and rest. You workout hard, but then you need to take a break so the growth process can fully occur.
When a group just meets indefinitely without every adding new faces, friendships and great study can keep happening, but other negative things can start happening too. The group can become a clique and closed off to outsiders. The group can get too comfortable so that the members really aren’t challenging one another despite really enjoying each other’s company. Or group members just start leaving, the group dwindles, dies, and then everyone feels guilty about it when they pass each other in the church foyer.
A lot of times the church’s small group system put in place by church leadership will make this decision for you on when to take a break, multiply, or end. But if you are the one calling the shots, you have to consider what phase of the healthy life cycle your group is in and how you are going to keep the group from dying off in an unhealthy way.
11. Every Meeting Does Not Need To Include Calvinism Vs. Arminianism, The Gifts Of The Spirit, And Other Highly Tempting Topics To Debate
You know the saying: When all you have is a hammer . . . . Some people have a certain topic they just love, love, love to talk about, and they have an amazing ability to turn any conversation towards that topic. For example: I’ve found that basically every small group meeting can end up as a debate between the Calvinists and the Arminians in the room if the small group leader allows it.
Sometimes a great small group leader will just name the elephant in the room, “Well Bob, you really dropped a bomb by bringing that subject up again . . . .” A great group leader not only gives people right answers, she shows people how to learn alongside other Christians who don’t have the exact same beliefs when it comes to second tier doctrinal issues. And then she asks a different question really fast before people can object!
There are many topics within Christendom that have been debated for literally centuries. The odds of your small group putting a bow on one of these topics so everyone finally agrees is slightly unrealistic. It’s usually best to allow a healthy conversation to go on for a few minutes when a topic like this comes up, but then a great small group leader knows how to keep the peace, not alienate anyone, and keep the discussion on point.
12. Come Up With A Plan On How To Handle The “Dominator”
Every group has one. They come in all shapes, genders, and ages. They can be single or married. They can be funny or serious. What they all have in common is there total lack of self-awareness and an amazing ability to dominant the group by answering every question first, talking way too long, or telling random stories that don’t relate to anything being discussed. Meet the “dominator.”
If you don’t have a plan on how to handle these types of people, this person will completely take over the group and everyone will know it except them. I find it helpful to come loaded with premade phrases that can be used when everyone’s internal shot-clock has expired and yet this person is still talking.
If she’s been gabbing for awhile, pick a point in her dialogue and gently cut in and say something like, “You know, that’s a great point, it actually relates perfectly to our next question.” Or if he is waving his hand to be called on even though he’s answered the last two questions, perhaps say something like, “Thanks Gareth, but I’d like to hear from someone else this time.” Or if your dominator is one of those people who just tells crazy stories or says off-the-wall kind of stuff, rather than agreeing or affirming what was just said, transition out of the awkwardness by saying, “Those are some interesting points. Does anyone else have anything to share that relates to question 8?”
Everyone’s different. Do what works for you. The important thing is that you have a plan in place when the dominator tries to take over. Don’t just let one person completely consume the group week after week. No one may be complaining, but trust me, everyone knows who the dominator is in the room. And as the group leader, they are looking to you to do something about it.
13. Don’t Replace Your Church With Your Small Group
As a group leader, you must set the tone for the entire group. Oftentimes people feel that if they go to small group, they don’t need to go to Sunday service. A great small group is like a great Christian book. Great books don’t replace the Bible. They make people want to read the Bible more. Likewise, an effective small group will not try to take the place of church but will cause people to want to invest more into the church. Something is wrong if your small group is getting so closed off that the group is forgoing Sunday morning all together.
A healthy Christian can be a part of a church and not a small group Bible study. A healthy Christian, however, cannot be a part of a small group Bible study while not regularly attending and supporting a local church.
14. Empower Your Group Members To Use Their Gifts To Serve The Small Group
A great small group leader does what all great leaders do: they recognize someone’s gifts and then give them opportunities to use those gifts for the betterment of others.
Is Janice a natural servant? Ask her if she would be willing to lead and organize a monthly service opportunity for your group. Is Jeremy a prayer warrior? Ask him to keep track of the prayer requests each week and send out a reminder email to the group so his passion for prayer can ignite others. Does the Smith family have the gift of hospitality? Perhaps ask them to host the group next semester so you can just show up at their house and lead while they gets to do something you don’t particular care for but they love.
15. Pick Studies That Are Bible Saturated
There’s no perfect premade workbook or Bible study on the market. Each one has their pros and cons. When choosing a study, the best advice is to pick one that does not replace the Bible but helps your group members understand the truths of the Bible more clearly. When it comes between picking a topical study or just picking a book of the Bible to go through, I’ve found a 1-2 ration works best: For every one topical study your group goes through, you should be going through two studies which simply focus on a book of the Bible itself.
Some small group leaders are so committed to the Bible, that they feel nothing but the Bible should be used. This is typically a big mistake unless everyone in the group is a very mature Christian. Most people need help throughout the week to understand what Bible passages really mean and how they can apply to real life. Picking a helpful Bible commentary from a trusted author is super important to the success of your group.
Consider the makeup of your group when picking topics. Don’t do a marriage study for 12 weeks if you have singles. Don’t talk about parenting every chance you get when you have people in all different seasons. Don’t talk about sexual stuff if it’s a coed group.
The other big temptation for small group leaders is to make their own material. The reason this is usually a bad idea is that making your own material is a lot harder than it sounds and will turn into a full time job. By the middle of the semester people will start complaining that you are late in sending out the notes, the notes will start lacking because your energy level will start diminishing, or you simply won’t be that good at making written content people understand and relate to.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Pick a solid, safe study and then use your creativity to bring in your own personal flare and perspective.
16. Don’t Take Each Group Meeting Too Serious
Some nights will be better than other nights. Remember that it’s not your job to make sure people grow, have a great time, and like the study. Your job is to give people the opportunity to experience these things. You need to keep distractions out and foster an environment conducive to learning, fellowship, and unity. But if people don’t put in the intellectual, emotional, and relational effort needed, there’s nothing you can do to make your group succeed. You as the leader are a very important part to the success of your group, but the group members have a lot of responsibility too. If they don’t put in the effort, try as you might, your group will be average and unmemorable at best.
17. Be Yourself, But Don’t Be Weird (If You Can Help It!)
Singing at a small group can get weird, skits are always weird (unless children are involved), and just because you grew up holding hands in a circle when you pray does not mean other adults want to pray like this too.
With all that said, a great small group leader has to stay true to themselves. Besides, people like people who are comfortable in their own skin, even if they are corkier than the average Joe. Some people are just close-talkers, huggers, or super loud laughers. If you are someone that others would describe as “a little different,” this doesn’t mean you can’t be a great small group leader. But if you know yourself and you know everyone is not like you, do your best to think about the group more than your own tastes and preferences. You have to be yourself, but don’t scare people away by being too weird, if you can help it!
18. Resist The Urge To Do Every Good Idea
Small groups can do so many good things other than study the word of God, pray, and fellowship with one another. But these three things are the primary goals of a small group. Service opportunities, block parties meant to evangelize the neighborhood, weekly potluck dinners on a different day of the week than the small group meeting time, and other good ideas can end up detracting rather than adding to the health of your small group
A great small group leader knows how to be balanced in doing “extra” stuff with the group. Most of your group members are busy. Offer options but don’t make demands. This is especially important if these expectations were not discussed during the signup process which would allow people the freedom to decide if they can really fulfill these obligations or not.
19. Prepare Appropriately (Not Too Much Or Too Little)
You don’t want to over prepare since most groups start having diminishing returns after two hours. The brain can only take in so much information. You are wasting time and energy if you have 20 pages of notes for each week’s session.
But being underprepared is probably worse. People can feel it when you’re winging it. Yes you should rely on the Holy Spirit in the moment, but that doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is not leading you to prepare too. Do the assigned readings, answer all the questions, and have a few backup bonus questions in case the group is moving super fast. If you put real thought and prayer into each week, trust me, people will notice and thank you for it.
20. It’s Okay To Admit You Don’t Have All The Answers
One of the most important qualities of great small group leaders is authenticity. A great small group leader is not afraid to walk into uncharted territories with group members, but she is also able to recognize when things are getting over her head.
Your group members will respect you more, not less, when you admit you don’t fully know the answer to a certain question posed by a group member or that came out of that weeks study. Come ready with a plan on how to handle difficult questions you’re unsure of how to answer, “You know, that’s a great question. To be honest, I’m not totally sure how to answer that at the moment. Let me think about it and do some research this week and get back to you on that one.”
21. Set Measurable Goals For Each Session
A great small group leader will know exactly what he or she hopes to accomplish that night for the meeting. In your preparation time, write down 2 or 3 specific measurable objectives you want to accomplish with the group that week. It’s important that these goals are measurable so that there is concreteness to the content you are presenting. “I want each group member to grow closer to God” is an objective that is really hard to determine if you accomplished or not. But if you say, “I want each group member to able to give one biblical answers for why Jesus loves them so much how,” this is very measurable.
I believe every meeting can be considered a successful night if these three specific things happen: group prayer, reading and studying the word of God together, and fellowship with other believers. If your group does these three things, no matter what else happened that night, I believe that group was an overall success.
22. Don’t Be The First Person To Answer Your Own Questions. Empower Shy Group Members
When you pose a question to the group and no one immediately answers it, the natural urge is to fill the empty space with your own words through either asking a different question or just answering it yourself. A mature small group leader will be comfortable with the silence. Waiting for someone to answer puts the responsibility on your group members to participate.
I found that eventually, someone will break the silence and take a crack at it. Some people are really shy or just super polite, so they will defer to other people. But if a few moments of silence goes by, this gives these people enough time to work up the courage to participate.
Lastly, be creative in empowering shy group members. Don’t put people on the spot who are obviously nervous. But after a few sessions go by, give your shy group member a softball question you know they can answer with confidence. Ask them their opinion since there is no wrong answer here. Or ask them to read a passage of the Bible for the group, which allows them to participate but without having to come up with things to say on their own.
23. Take Care Of Your Own Heart First And Prepare Through Prayer Most Of All
A great small group leader knows he must not only feed others but also be fed himself. You have to take care of your own heart first if you hope to be effective in your stewardship of the small group God has given you. This is why a wise Christian surrounds herself not only with ministry opportunities but also with people willing to minister to her. We need three different types of people in our lives: People we can minister to, people we can minister beside, and people who can minister to us.
The list of things that make a great small group leader could go on and on forever. But perhaps the most important thing all great small group leaders do is that they prepare through prayer.
No matter how much you know, no matter how great your questions will be, and no matter how friendly a host you are, if God does not intervene, great fruit for the Kingdom of God will not be produced through your small group. And likewise, no matter what deficiencies you might have as a small group leader, God can always bring glory to himself through someone who is willing to obey and follow him.
Prayer will soften your heart towards your group. It will help you unlock the truths found in Scripture. It will prepare the atmosphere in your home to be warm and welcoming. Prayer will help your group members have a mind ready to learn. Prayer is the most important way to prepare if you hope to be a great small group Bible study leader.
24. Lead Your Group For The Sake Of Christ And In Obedience To The Great Commission
Leading a small group week after week is not easy. Cleaning your home, making sure snacks are taken care of, sending out reminder emails, calling group members from time to time to see how they are doing, preparing for the actual study, and doing all the other things that make a great small group take a lot of time and effort.
And then when you have a bad group meeting, someone is rude to you, people start complaining about the study you picked, or the attendance starts dipping, it can feel truly defeating at times. This is why it’s so important our motivation for leading our small groups is rooted in Christ. Only when we are leading for Christ will we always have a strong motive to keep pushing forward. Be encouraged. If you are leading a small group, you are obeying Jesus’ Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Small groups are essential and effective in “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Keep going! It’s always worth the effort if God has called you to lead a small group Bible study.