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Oct 07

How to lead engaging small group discussions

It’s every youth leader’s worst nightmare. You are leading a discussion with a small group of young people except ‘discussion’ is the most ironic term to describe what’s happening. You ask a question and no one speaks. All eyes are facing the floor so there is no risk of catching someone else’s eye. it feels like a battle of the will to stay silent the longest. You rephrase the question and again silence. It feels as if the clock has stopped ticking and the silence deafens. Awkward doesn’t describe it. Eventually the time ends and you go home feeling a failure and start wondering whether you really should be a youth leader at all.

We have all had those experiences but there are also those times when things go really well. I can remember one time leading a group of five or six young people and we were discussing what a Christian at school looks like. I started with a question which went something like, “how does your life at school look different if you see yourself as Jesus in the corridors?” It was as if I had set light to a touch-paper and could sit back and watch for the discussion to explode. One person started answering and then another chipped in. When someone said something others didn’t understand, they questioned each other. They started dreaming together about what their schools might look like, how things might change, how God could use them. It was a humbling experience.

This discussion took off because there was an atmosphere of respect, openness and encouragement. Now, whilst these things aren’t built overnight, there are 4 things that every leader can do to move away from the nightmares to the dream discussions.

1. use open questions

Try not to ask questions which feel like they have a right answer. Asking what Paul did in verse 4, is not a discussion question, it’s a comprehension question! It doesn’t inspire people to join in. Instead, ask how they might have felt if they had been Paul in verse 4. Now there’s no wrong answer here so they are more likely to speak as they can’t be wrong! Only they know how they might feel in a situation. Equally, try not to use questions which can easily be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Questions beginning with ‘do you’ or ‘have you’ are likely to be answered with one word. Try asking ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘why’, ‘which’, ‘where’ etc. If you can’t answer with one word, there is more chance for something to be said that someone else might want to comment on.

2. body language

Make sure you are sitting in a way that shows you are interested in the discussion. You might want to lean forward, try not to sit cross-legged or hunched as this can communicate you aren’t interested. Most importantly give eye contact the whole time. When someone is speaking look straight at them and give nods of affirmation. Equally, look around the group and give eye contact to encourage people to speak. If someone is floor-gazing, don’t be afraid to ask them a question directly and smile at them when you get eye contact. These non-verbal signs will communicate affirmation and encourage people to join in the discussion.

3. facilitate don’t teach

Discussions are not a replacement for teaching. Discussions should be where people have a chance to share their opinions so try not to correct every time something is said which isn’t quite theologically correct. If you do, that person is less likely to say what they think next time. Instead, ask what others think about what was said and see if you can facilitate discussion by seeking different opinions. This is the hard part as we worry that people will go home with wrong ideas. Actually, discipleship takes time. Foster an atmosphere of acceptance and openness first. Use your teaching to teach and allow the discussions to be where the young people grow.

4. Good preparation

It is important to lead a discussion having thought through what might be good questions to ask and what the purpose of the discussion is. Resist the temptation to not prepare assuming that you will just take it wherever it goes. Good preparation means taking time to commit the discussion to God in prayer and seeking his wisdom for the discussion. As you lead the group, keep praying too and asking God if there is anything you need to speak about.

Leading good, engaging discussions is a skill and takes time. It also takes time with a particular group before they feel comfortable discussing issues with each other so be patient. It is really worth it!

What one thing could you do at your next small group to improve the discussion? What have you found to work well? What tips can you pass on to others? Please leave a comment below.