The master skill for group leaders

When facilitators don't know the answer to a question, they are generally instructed to own up, admit that they don't know and offer to find out. Then they research (usually by calling the pastor) and come back next week with the answer. Right? Except that it misses the point of small groups. They are not about answers. They are more about interactive experiences.

Small groups are not so much about the answers as they are about the questions. The facilitator should be asking far more questions than answering them. Questions form the skeleton outline of a group-the basic structure on which everything else hangs.

IF I WERE GOING TO FACILITATE A GROUP but had only one skill, I'd pick this one: the ability to ask good questions. It doesn't matter what kind of group it is-it could be anything from an in-depth Bible study to a support group. I'd still pick asking good questions. When I was a small groups pastor, so many potential facilitators I talked with had the same fear about leading a group: "I don't know enough-I've never been to seminary. What if they ask questions and I don't know the answers?" What they don't realize is that 90 percent of leading a group is about having the right questions, not having the right answers.

Questions are the banks of the river, providing some definition and direction as the current carries things along. Too much limitation and the flow of the river is impeded. Too little and the river becomes directionless, spreading the water out into a broad, stagnant marsh.

Questions-not statements-form a general outline for group discussion. If facilitators walk in with a list of questions, they don't necessarily have to use them all; they may change the order and other questions may come to mind in the moment. But by preparing some good questions ahead of time, a facilitator can mine the insights of the group and help people engage the topic at hand.

Questions are better than statements as the foundation for a group because they are interactive, they go somewhere, they make us engage. Most people don't grow closer to God through information. That's a modernist idea. The era of modernism passed down to us the idea that knowledge will save us-if we know enough about the world, we can tame it. This idea has enjoyed a good deal of popularity throughout the last few centuries but is far from universal.

Is there a place for information? For knowledge? For learning some basic information about the Christian faith? Absolutely. Sometimes people simply need information. Sometimes it is helpful to suggest to a new believer, "Start by reading the Gospel of John and then let's meet and we'll go over it." Information and suggestions and content are helpful. The problem is that we tend to go there first. The first place to go is to engage with the person as a person-and that's often best done by asking him or her a question or two.

Sometimes when someone in a small group asks an informational question, they're looking for more than just information. As a facilitator, look beneath the surface. Informational questions can be a safer way of broaching subjects that may not feel safe. So by all means, dispense information when necessary. Just don't start there.

Say someone in a group asks about the apparent difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. That's a legitimate question, but if the facilitator immediately goes into an explanation of dis- pensationalism or covenant theology, he or she is likely to have missed the real point of the question.

Usually there's an underlying question more along the lines of, What is God like? Will he strike me down if I anger him? Or is he my buddy? Or something else? Am I supposed to fear God or love God? Does he care about me? Does justice matter to him? How do other people experience God? So, for instance, that last question might present a better direction to go. When someone asks about the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, the facilitator could respond by asking, "How do you experience God?" directing it to not just the person who asked the question, but the whole group-and the discussion moves to a deeper and likely more productive level.

Tara Miller;Jenn Peppers. Finding the Flow: A Guide for Leading Small Groups and Gatherings. Kindle Edition.