Facilitate so Your Group can Participate
By Michael C. Mack
Question: Last year, I struggled to get my group involved in discussion, serving together, or doing much of anything else outside meeting times. As we restart our group this fall, what advice would you give me as a leader to help my group participate more?
Answer: Great question! Here are 10 ideas from my experience to help get your group more involved.
Before getting started, decide on some plans and goals for the group for this fall and beyond. People want a purpose for being together, a sense that the group is striving for something, not just existing. A group with no plan is like Jesus’ story about a blind man leading another blind man—into a pit!
How do you plan so you can avoid the pits? Start your first meeting this fall by praying together for God’s guidance in determining your goals. Then ask the group about their expectations, interests, and needs. Together, formulate some specific goals, and then go for it, being sure members take ownership in reaching the goals you’ve set.
2. Keep an eye (and an ear, nose, mouth, and skin) on the details.
The poet Stephen Spender wrote, “There is always a tendency of the body to sabotage the attention of the mind by providing some distraction.” Who understands that better than a person in a group who cannot focus on spiritual matters because of an uncomfortable atmosphere?
Here are several tips to remember when preparing the physical environment of your meeting to keep participants involved.
• Circle up, so everyone can see the face of every other person. A circle helps everyone participate equally.
• Check the thermostat. It doesn’t take many people in a room to increase the temperature. One expert advises that 67 degrees is an ideal temperature for groups.
• Sniff around. We can get so accustomed to the smells in our homes that we don’t notice them anymore. Pets, things children spill in odd places, heavy perfumes, that night’s dinner, even room deodorizers can irritate people’s noses. Try lighting a few candles in the house.
• Make your meeting tasteful. Straight-from-the-oven brownies, popcorn, or a tray of fruit lets people know you want them there and have planned ahead.
• Find the right room size. A meeting may feel intimidating in a huge room. A group of 12 may feel claustrophobic in a very small room.
• Let your light shine, but not too brightly. Low lamplights are better than bright fluorescent lighting. Keep it bright enough so everyone can read, but low enough to feel cozy.
• Don’t allow couples to share books. One of them will be less involved in the discussion.
• Guard against distractions. Ask members to turn off cell phones. Put pets in another room or outside. Turn off TV sets and radios.
3. Build relationships outside the meeting.
People will participate more when they feel like friends, not just group members. A group isn’t just a once-a-week meeting—it’s life! The early church met together “every day” (Acts 2:46), encouraging, caring for, and instructing one another.
Find creative ways for members to “meet together.” Start a Facebook page for the group. Get together to walk or play golf. Hold a garage sale together.
4. Discover one another’s gifts.
The group’s thumbprint depends on each person’s unique gift. A spiritual gift inventory may work for some groups, but, better yet, get the group involved in ministry with one another—both inside and outside the group. Then, during a meeting, ask the group to share with one another what gifts they see in others.
5. Pass the Roles.
One of the best ways to get everyone involved is to be sure everyone has a role in the group. Decide on which roles each person will take and allow them to have complete ownership of them. Roles include: communications champion, worship leader, prayer facilitator, social chairperson, serving project organizer, evangelism director, host/hostess, food planner, and timekeeper. Let members use their gifts and passions in their roles!
People won’t interact if you do all the talking or don’t listen well. I’ll provide some practical tips for improving your listening skills in an upcoming column.
7. Be real!
A leader who models vulnerability and openness with the group will draw out others to do the same. Be yourself; don’t try to lead like someone else or act like you’re something you’re not. Share your own struggles and how God is working in your life.
8. Build trust.
When participants know they can trust others in the group, they will be more likely to share deeply. Remind participants that what’s said in the group stays there!
Have fun as a group—before, during, and after the meeting—and your group will open up like you never imagined. “A cheerful heart is good medicine” for your group (Proverbs 17:22). When people laugh together, they usually share more openly together, too. Laughter breaks down the walls we build around ourselves. It can help people who are burdened with life’s demands to release pent-up emotions in a positive way.
Try using history-sharing icebreakers to get the group laughing together. For instance, ask the group to bring photos of themselves from elementary or high school. Out-of-date clothing and hairstyles start people laughing, and stories about their childhoods keep them chuckling. Ask members to share the funniest thing that has ever happened to them. Ask couples how they met or what humorous things happened when they were dating.
10. Disciple individuals; facilitate the group.
Don’t get these two confused. Jesus taught the crowds, but he discipled Peter, John, and James individually, often taking them away separately. Spend time with individuals between meetings and invest your life into theirs. Write notes of encouragement. Make a phone call when you notice a member needs ministry. Lovingly discipline as necessary.
Enjoy your time with your group as you begin a new ministry season. Get everyone involved and group members will keep coming back—and invite their friends as well!
Michael Mack is the author of a dozen small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? How to Guide an Effective Small Group (Standard Publishing). E-mail your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.