The next step in preparing for a great discussion (after personal preparation) is to develop a discussion plan. This involves a few things: preparing a place for the Bible study, planning your time, and choosing the questions that will guide your group through a meaningful discussion.
Preparing a place for the study is an essential first step. Your group's meeting place will, in some ways, determine the intimacy level that your group reaches. Most groups succeed in places that are warm and inviting. If you are meeting in a home, then it is easy to prepare this type of a place. Your goal should be to remove as many distractions as possible, such as turning off phones, checking the room temperature, and talking to roommates or others about not interrupting the group time.
If you aren't able to meet in a home, then your goal is to make the room as "warm" as possible. Put the chairs in a circle rather than a lecture setting. Bringing snacks and drinks quickly warms up a room and encourages people to talk and interact with one another. You may also want to consider bringing different lights into the room. Fluorescent lighting has a cold, institutional feel. A floor lamp or two can make a big difference adding warmth and a sense of home.
Plan Time Intentionally
Next you need to determine how you will use your time. Before I share with you a timeline for a "normal" group, let me remind you that no one wants to be in a normal groups. So get creative! Change things up. Move things around. Give yourself permission to lead. With that said, here is a good framework from which you can get creative. I like to have relationship building or hangout time as a part of every (yes, every) study. Dedicate at least 15 to 20 minutes of your group time to this. This communicates a couple of things-that the relationships in the group matter and should be developed often, and it reminds the group that this is more than a Bible study-it's a group that exists to study the Bible and do life together.
After hangout time, transition to the study. I like to dedicate 45 to 60 minutes for a great time of discussion and learning. This allows plenty of time for everyone to be a part of the discussion. It also keeps me from lecturing. If I'm pressed for time and have great content, I will talk too much to ensure that every point gets covered. After the study time, it's time to transition to prayer. This time should include both prayer requests and praying together. It's through this prayer time that your group will grow in intimacy and you will communicate that God is the only solution to the needs of your day.
If you consistently get to the end of your time together and don't have time to pray, that's a problem. But it doesn't have to be. Rather than pressing through the content and skipping prayer time, stick with your planned timeline and transition to prayer based on your schedule instead of where you are with the content. This way, you pray and are already prepared for next week's study. That's a "win-win" situation.
Time Keeps Tickin' Away: Quick-Reference Schedule Guide
Knowing the best way to plan your time is a challenge and depends a great deal on the amount of time allotted for your group to meet. The following breakdown is a good model to follow:
- discussion & learning: 60 percent
- food & conversation: 20 percent
- prayer: 20 percent
Good Questions Are the Key
Now it's time to decide on the questions you'll use to guide your group through a meaningful discussion. The first lesson here is to realize that no curriculum is perfect for your group. You'll need to ignore some questions, edit others, and create your own to make the study fit your group. The second lesson here is to choose the right type of questions.
Every study should include questions that engage the group with each other and with the topic of the session.
Many times, these are called "icebreakers" which allow you, as a leader, to begin to focus your group on the topic. Icebreakers also allow for you to be creative and engage different learning styles in natural, non-cheesy ways.
The next type of question that you need to include are encounter questions where your group encounters God's Word and each other through study. This is where classic-observation and interpretation-Bible study questions should be asked. It's through encounter questions that your group will discover what God's Word says and means. Two of the biggest things to avoid with these types of questions are closed-end questions and "check your brain at the door" questions. Closed questions are questions that can be answered with simply a "yes" or a "no." They have a clear right or wrong answer. Remember, you are leading a discussion not just looking to get the right answer. "Check your brain at the door questions" are questions that ask for obvious answers and require zero thought. These questions don't spur growth. As a leader, you should inspire growth to maturity. This will not happen if we ask easy to answer, "yes or no" questions.
Along with the encounter questions, you need to ask application questions that answer the "so what?" of the passage. Application questions can center on actions we need to take, examples we should follow, or attitudes we should adapt. The key is that these questions lead to action. Prioritize application in your small group, and you will see people grow in ways like they never have before.
There is one last and extremely important step-pray. Take some time and pray that God will work in the hearts and minds of your group. Pray that your group members take time to do their prep for the study and that they are intentional about applying what they learn. Pray that nothing distracts them or keeps them from being a part of the group. Pray that your group members build loving, authentic relationships. Lastly, pray that God would be honored by you as a leader. When I pray for my group, I like to picture the group sitting together in the room where we meet. Since I know where everyone usually sits, this exercise reminds me to intentionally pray for each person.
As you plan your prayer time each week, avoid leading your group into a prayer rut by varying the way you pray together. Consider these meaningful prayer ideas to mix it up:
- Simplify your prayer time using sentence prayers. Lead your group to pray through various areas of their lives such as school, relationships, work, church, etc., by asking them to pray one sentence after they are prompted by you.
- Personalize your prayer time by forming prayer groups. Divide your group into groups of three and have them share their requests and pray for each other. This allows more time to share requests and more time for prayer together.
- Remember God's activity in your group's life by keeping a group prayer journal (consider keeping this online as well to review throughout the week and allow group members to post requests between group meeting times).
- Every few months, dedicate your meeting time to review and remember all that God has done in your lives. To help with this, my groups have built modern day Ebenezers (stones of remembrance) using Legos. Simply write a one or two word praise to God on the side of the Lego, and add it to others in the group. Before you know it, you will have built a tangible reminder of God's activity.
This is part of Mike Hurt's tips series, How to Lead a Successful Discussion-Driven Bible Study.
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