Sunday School small group classes represent a special opportunity for spiritual transformation in the lives of believers. A small group class is not a sermon. Neither is it a personal one-to-one conversation. What happens in a small group setting is not heralding (preaching) and it isn’t private dialogue (one-to-one). Small groups are unique in that the fundamental essence of teaching dwells within the framework of conversation among several people. Effective small group leaders are a tremendous gift to the local church because they master the art of utilizing conversation while maintaining a teaching environment that will incorporate traditional lecturing. That is quite difficult to do.
From what I have experienced over the years in listening to small group leaders facilitate classes, I have discovered one area that I consider to be the central problem for maintaining effective small groups: The teaching element (by which I mean traditional teaching tools, primarily the lecture) ultimately gives way to the conversational element, creating a group that exists on desultory chit chats about a great many things, most of which are inconsequential to genuine spiritual transformation and are quite purposeless in their content.
Let’s be clear – conversation and interaction within a small group format are absolutely essential. Again, this is what sets it apart from the sermon (although there will always be a school of thought that says sermons should be more open to a participatory audience, but I digress). A small group class should desire to see its members asking questions, bouncing ideas off one another, and growing in their ability to think for themselves. More often than not, it will be the insight or conviction of another member in the class that will resonate the loudest and longest among the other members of the group. So we definitely want to see those conversational pieces of a small group study in place. But not divorced from a leader who is teaching and overseeing the conversation toward a specific goal for the purpose of gaining understanding and growing in faith.
If you Google something like, “how to be a small group leader”, you will probably be flooded with posts cautioning the leader to avoid lecturing and encouraging the leader to simply facilitate the conversation. This is sound advice insofar as I have mentioned the benefit of group discussion in the above paragraph. But most of these articles go too far. Just as it would be a mistake to neglect the interactive element among small group members, it is equally problematic to neglect the opportunities throughout the class where clear, concise, passionate lecturing is helpful to establish points, shape the discussion, and maintain beneficial dialogue throughout the group.
Here are a few reasons why I believe small group leaders are prone to lose the lecture element and overemphasize the conversational element:
- Leaders are afraid of being considered boring. Hey, I appreciate the concern. I don’t want to listen to a boring teacher or a boring preacher (although I am certainly guilty of both at times, I’m sure).
- Leaders are afraid they do not know the Bible or the topic well enough to fully engage the lecture element, so they default to the conversation.
- Leaders think that true learning somehow involves a myriad of questions and conversations without drawing any conclusions.
- Leaders believe their group has “heard it all before” and does not need another traditional teaching element on Moses at the burning bush. I mean come on, how many times can we hear that story?
My response for all of these reasons is essentially the same: Psalm 147:5.
“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; His understanding is beyond measure.”
Now let me address the previous 4 reasons through the lens of this Psalm.
- The greatness, abundance, and infinitude of God is captivating. If a leader has a passion for those attributes of God, it will carry over in their teaching. Remember, we are not suggesting that the class is dominated by the lecture element. Only that it needs to be present. The more passion a leader has for the greatness of God, the less boring they will be.
- You don’t know the Bible or the topic well enough and neither do I. I can say that because God’s understanding is beyond measure. So, be as prepared as you possibly can, study the material well (before Saturday night or Sunday morning at breakfast), but then let this fear go.
- The Psalmist is making declarations about God. This isn’t a hypothetical conversation concerning his greatness, power, or duration. God is these things. There are times when it is beneficial to say “we just don’t know” and there can be true growth that occurs in the context of uncertainty. But we must equally be willing to come down on and teach a specific position. Paul Washer has recently said that “Christianity is a ‘truth’ religion. When its truth becomes undefined, Christianity becomes vague and powerless.” I agree with him. Members will ultimately get annoyed if all they hear is “it could be this or this, you figure it out” and there are times when our transformation is deepened by a leader standing firm on truth and not always stepping back to punt.
- God’s understanding is beyond measure. Therefore, our teaching will never scratch the service of the fruit available for our ongoing spiritual growth. Regardless of the number of times we address the topic of Moses at the burning bush, God is infinite. We can never exhaust His depth and riches. This is why leaders of senior adults must teach with bold declaration. Senior Adults’ maturity in Christ and their wisdom from Christ and their familiarity with the stories does not limit what they can learn about God. On the contrary, those things set them up to learn even more because of the infinite nature of God’s being. If you are a small group leader and feel that you should just converse about super specific, pointless things (such as whether or not Jesus was pierced in his hands or wrists, etc) and neglect the teaching of the topic at hand, then turn away from that attitude and remind yourself of God’s infinitude. You cannot reach the limits of his knowledge. So lecture! Engage in conversation! Ask questions! Make a declaration! Ask more questions!