28 November, 2013 Richard Perkins
If you’re a Pastor-Teacher and you want to realise just how limited your influence on a church culture can be, then go and visit your small groups. One of the lowest moments in the last eleven years at Christ Church Balham came when I decided to step aside from leading one small group to go and visit the others. In a subsequent moment of unguarded candour, I told the small group leaders that if I were a member of their small group, I’d stop coming. I know, you don’t need to tell me. They forgave me. But they’d made the Bible boring. And, as Richard Coekin once said, ‘that’s worse than heresy’. It’s not, but he did say it (circa 1996). To their credit, they agreed. And they asked for the help that we should have been giving them and they had every right to expect. From that point on we decided to be more intentional in training our leaders.
What’s emerged over the years is a commitment to training in two main areas. Great small group leaders need two skills, in my view. They need to be good at handling the text so that they teach the Bible faithfully. But they also need to be good at handling people so that studying the Bible in a group is enjoyable.
1. We need to provide training in handling the text
Essential to the task of the leader is the indispensable skill of correctly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). And so we need to equip leaders to grow in their skills of observation, interpretation and application. And that’s something that’s both taught and caught. It’s both event and process. We can teach it in a seminar-style event, which we do at the start of each year in our ‘Small Group Leaders’ Training Day’. But it’s also a process. And so we also have monthly ‘Leaders’ Prep Sessions’ where together we work at the Bible passages that we’ll be studying in the groups over the subsequent weeks. If you and they have capacity, it’s also worth trying to meet up with the senior group leader one to one to study the Bible together. In addition to that, I’ve spent the last couple of years joining a different small group each week. I know it changes the dynamic. But it invariably helps me to see what really happens on the ground, so that I can encourage our leaders and help them address the areas in which they might need some assistance. I’m sure it feels like OFSTED but I try to keep the clipboard out of sight!
One resource that we’ve found hugely helpful in equipping our leaders in the essential skills of Bible handling is the book by Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sach called ‘Dig Deeper’. It introduces the reader to sixteen Bible handling tools which are vital for cracking open the meaning of a passage.
2. We need to provide training in handling the group
If I had to choose between someone who’s good at handling the text and someone who’s good at handling people, I’d take the former every time. Better socially incompetent faithfulness than genial heresy, in my view. But I’d love not to have to choose. And, for those of us who are less naturally socially able, there are things that we can learn to help us address our weaknesses.
Good leaders need to learn to handle a group of people confidently. They need to know how to help people engage with the Bible when it’s nine o’clock on a dark and cold November midweek evening after a shocking day in the office. They need to know how to stimulate group interaction. They need to know how to ask searching questions. They need to know how to silence the overzealous contributor. Or sit on him if necessary. They need to know how to encourage the silent introvert, whose unacknowledged noiseless presence feels like a black hole sucking the life out of the group. They need to know how to lose control of the discussion so that the group discusses the meaning of the passage rather than playing ‘try to guess what answer the leader has in his head’. They need to create an environment where people feel comfortable confessing their personal sins. There needs to be a vibe. And humour. And love. They need to know how to deal with the arrogant opinionated young man who’s simply ruining it for everyone else. We can teach people this stuff if they don’t know it already.
One resource that we’ve found hugely helpful is Orlando Saer’s book, ‘Iron Sharpens Iron’. It’s a terrific book on the practicalities of small group leadership.
Make no mistake: small groups can be truly awful. Go and visit yours if you dare. No doubt, some of the time, the group members are to blame. But most of the time it’s the group leaders. They set the tone and the temperature for the group. If they’re good at handling the Bible and good at handling the group, then people are in for a treat. That’s the context in which you’d expect people to grow in their faith. But, if either of those two things is missing, then the group members might be eyewitnesses to a slow-motion train wreck. But be encouraged. Most group leaders have never been equipped in what to do. And so, with a measure of training, you’ll see marked improvement and massive changes. We did. And our small groups are significantly better off for it.