Most people with a fair amount of experience with small groups have experienced it: the person who can’t wait to impress everyone by answering every question. They shower you with their “wisdom,” often in a way that makes the person asking the question feel sorry they asked. Sometimes it’s the leader, sometimes it isn’t. Regardless, it serves to stifle productive discussion, causes many people to decide not to speak up, and blocks the creation of true community.
One of the great, often overlooked strengths of the 10-week Alpha course is all of the leaders are trained specifically not to answer the questions people raise—at least not during the first few sessions—so people share far more openly. Instead, they teach the creative use of questions to guide the discussion. They also train leaders on ways to keep control when others try to take control and shower their knowledge upon others.
It’s a well-known principle in education: People remember the things they discover for themselves far longer than the things they are taught. It’s the same principle parents learn when they continually tell their child, “Don’t touch that, it’s hot!” Once we touch it and discover for ourselves that it burns, we never forget it. It’s just human nature.
So if our goal is to build community and help people truly grow, we need to create an environment in which group members aren’t fed facts but are encouraged to discover deep truths for themselves. In that environment, more people participate and more people have life-transforming insights.
For ministry leaders, this means biblical depth and the gift of teaching aren’t the primary criteria for selecting your small-group leaders. It’s more important that they’re good listeners and have the fruit of self-control! Instead of having answers, it’s more important they be willing to simply say, “That’s interesting—what do the rest of you think?” then stop talking. Sure, they need enough grounding to be able to keep things from going spiritually astray. But there’s a huge difference between saying, “No, you’re wrong because the Bible says …” and saying: “That’s an interesting point. Let’s all read 1 Corinthians 10:13 together and see if that affects our thoughts on this.”
For small-group leaders, it means reassessing your goals. If you’re trying to be a leader and impress people, you’re probably in the wrong place. If you’re trying to help people connect with each other and grow spiritually, then honestly assess the methods you’re using. What percentage of the group’s time is spent with you talking? How many people really open up? When did somebody last really express something highly controversial? Or are they afraid to express themselves, because someone in the group will immediately jump on them?
Small groups don’t need teachers; they need discussion facilitators. And often, that means being willing to not answer your group members’ questions. And just maybe, with all that extra time you’ll spend listening, your group members will help you find the answers you’ve been asking God for.