By Robert Noland
As someone who has taken on every conceivable role in the church from pastor to custodian, and also taught Sunday school and led small groups from teens to baby boomers, I have dealt with almost every possible dynamic that can exist in a group of people. One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is, “How do you get people today to talk? To open up?”
Well, the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” most definitely applies here. You can get people to gather in a room for a spiritual purpose, but you can’t make them share their hearts.
The phrase—place, space and grace—has been around in counseling and pastoral settings for many years, but it is also some of the most simple and practical preparation in leading people to open up and share life.
The physical setting is crucial to people feeling comfortable and “the vibe” in a room being right for sharing with depth. Is the place private? Are they concerned about anyone else hearing what is discussed? Does the room feel sterile or does it have warmth? Is it classroom chairs or couches? Be sure the place is optimum for your people. It’s about what works for your group. If you’re a peer of your group, what makes you comfortable will likely make them comfortable. But if you are much older or younger, you may want to ask for help from someone in the group.
Two major errors many leaders make are not allowing enough room for people to talk and not allowing the silence to think and process. In a setting where emotion and risk are both dynamics at work, most people have to work up the courage to speak. Be certain there is plenty of breathing room in your meetings. Silence is not a lack of participation; it’s an invitation to think, listen and wait for God to work. Don’t be tempted to talk in the gaps; pray the Lord will fill them.
To paint with a broad brush for a moment, we have been through several decades in the church where many people have felt condemned, manipulated and chastised. A new and positive trend over the past decade is to offer grace and mercy in church settings—to offer people a place where “there is therefore now no condemnation.” Grace tells a person that he or she is not alone, not the only one struggling, and that it is OK to admit failure in order to get up, step up and move on in health. Grace has to come from both the leader and the group participants.
To be an effective small group leader, be inspired and challenged to honestly evaluate your place, space and grace. Ask some of your core members to be honest and discuss ways to improve any or all of these very crucial areas to helping people get to the Living Water and drink, so they will never thirst again.
Robert Noland has been in Christian ministry for more than 30 years.