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Three Principles for Better Small Group Conversations

Three Principles for Better Small Group Conversations

Is there anything worse than awkward silence in a small group? I used to dread those moments and would avoid them as much as possible by breaking the silence and answering my own question or rephrasing it. It was my poor attempt to keep the conversation going because I failed to recognize the most important aspect of a conversation: it requires at least two people!

Small groups do not have to be mini-sermons to mini-audiences. They can be vibrant, comfortable conversations reminiscent of casual campfire talk where everyone is contributing freely and purposefully. The following principles can help you and your small group leaders make some subtle shifts to fill your conversations with laughter, participation, and inspiration.


Facilitators Create the Conversation, Not Dominate It

Leading a small group is a special skill much different from preaching or teaching in other settings. While the essentials of doctrinal faithfulness and spiritual vitality remain the same, the purpose and means change. The goal of a small group discussion is to help everyone participate in discovering and applying the truth of God's Word to their lives. The key idea is that group participation is what makes small groups a unique contribution to discipleship, especially in student ministry.

Students do a lot of watching. They watch their teachers for eight hours a day at school. They watch TV and YouTube when they get home. When they come to church, they even watch a 30-minute sermon. Most of their learning is delivered to them rather than discovered by them. Small group discussion gives them the chance to discover truth in a community, practice vital skills of Bible study and application, and build meaningful relationships with their peers. Thus, it cannot be overstated that in a small group, we should resist the temptation to do everything for them. Instead, we should help foster purposeful, orderly, and fun conversations among our students about the text or topic at hand.

A rule of thumb I strive for is the 30/70 rule. In an ideal small group, the goal for me is to talk about 30% of the time, and students talk about 70% of the time. This means that most of my time is spent setting up questions, telling brief stories, and explaining any context that is not readily seen in the text. Now, this is not always possible and is especially difficult in new groups. But if you strive for this goal over time, students will become more comfortable with one another and take more of the conversation for themselves.

Commercial Breaks Regain Focus While Having Fun

A mentor of mine has often told me that students today need a "commercial break" every fifteen or twenty minutes. By that, he meant a chance to step aside from the flow of the lesson, release some energy, and regain some focus. Just like you mindlessly watch commercials, these commercial breaks should require little mental energy and aim to bring people back in. I have seen many commercial breaks make students put their phones away and draw them back into a lesson they lost interest in ages ago. So, a question about pop culture or a would-you-rather question may be just the thing that gets the conversation going again. In fact, icebreaker questions are not just for the beginning of the lesson but can work great in any other place of the lesson.

Successful commercial breaks can be planned with a well-timed question or captivating activity. However, often, an unplanned rabbit trail brought up by a student will work even better! Often, our lesson will get side-tracked with a discussion of what Minecraft builds students are working on or how Fortnite is still the greatest game ever. Now, I would not choose those discussions myself, but a brief reprieve from the lesson will help students get some energy out and maybe even help them make a connection with a peer they otherwise would not have.


A Variety of Question Types Keeps the Conversation Going

The key to small group discussion is good discussion questions. Unfortunately, coming up with a great list of questions is easier said than done. At their best, discussion questions can be thought-provoking, insightful, exciting, and comforting. At their worst, they can be stale, rehearsed, overly simple, or confusing. The best way to avoid the latter is to use a variety of question types. There are so many kinds of questions, each with its unique purpose and potential. But if you use the same one or two every time you teach, they can limit both the conversation and the discovery of the truth in the text. Below are a few types of questions you could use with examples based on the well-known passage on the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-24:


Icebreaker: "If you had to be any fruit for an episode of VeggieTales, what would you be?"

Facts: "Look in verses 22 and 23. What are the fruits of the Spirit?"

Research: "Look at the cross-references in the margin. Someone go look those verses up and read them."

Story: "Have you ever tried to grow fruit or vegetables in a garden? How did it go?"

Open-Ended: "What do you think Paul meant by ‘against such things there is no law’?”

Definition: "What is gentleness?"

Peers: "How would you explain the fruit of the Spirit to an unbelieving friend?"

What-if: "What if you showed these fruits of the Spirit in your home every day? Would it change anything?"

List: "Which fruit of the Spirit do you struggle with the most? Which do you struggle with the least?"

Prayer Request: "Which fruit of the Spirit do you need prayer for this week? Why?"

Memory: "Let's pick a verse to memorize this week to help with the fruit of the Spirit we want to grow in."

Would-You-Rather: "Would you rather have only fruit and no vegetables or only vegetables and no fruit for the rest of your life?"

There are plenty of other types as well but think of the diversity of this conversation. There are moments of laughter in the icebreaker, would-you-rather, and the story. There are moments of discovery and curiosity in the easy facts question and the more involved research question. There are moments of conviction and application in the what-if, peers, and list questions. At the very least, it will get them talking about the beauty of God's Word for their lives.


Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:

  • How can you use as many different question types as possible in your next lesson?
  • How can you train and empower leaders to give the conversation away by being better facilitators?
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