There’s an epidemic in small group communication. You ask a question, and only the sound of crickets greets you. It’s not just once—it keeps happening. This epidemic isn’t anything new, but it’s gotten worse as small groups moved online, where video chats make it harder not to talk over each other.
What can you do about this lack of participation?
Here are seven ideas for creating the type of camaraderie and connection that help make small groups so worthwhile.
1. Check your group size
While they’re called “small groups” for a reason—and a small group can definitely be too large—it can also be too small.
According to Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups, “Groups of seven or fewer people have a significantly higher failure rate, produce less fruit, and cause everyone involved more frustration and anxiety than larger groups.”1
With a group of eight or more, even as attendance fluctuates, you’ll still have enough people to host thought-provoking discussions and avoid the same couple of people answering all the questions.
2. Start with an icebreaker that gets people talking
Children, pets, food, and post-COVID-19 plans are all reliable places to start. Speaking up about something they love or are excited about helps loosen people up to speak throughout your small group.
Here are some conversation-sparking questions from Small Group Qs: 600 Eye-Opening Questions for Deepening Community and Exploring Scripture:
- If you could spend the afternoon with someone famous, who would you spend it with?
- If you could live in the past or the future, which time period would you choose?
- If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would you eat?
- If you could give up one chore for the rest of your life, which chore would you give up?
- If you had to live in another country for a year, in which country would you live?2
3. Ask get-to-know-you questions, too
One Leader Guide: A Small Group Journey Toward Life-Changing Community recommends leaders ask these questions:
- What is your name? Where are you from? What would you like to share about your family or home life?
- What do you hope to accomplish by being part of this . . . study?3
Allow plenty of time for this; don’t rush it. This is not a beginning activity that must be done before the “real work” can begin. The real work begins right here! Remind the group to listen actively to one another. As the group leader, it’s important that you model this behavior. Make a note of each person’s responses, and ask one or two follow-up questions where appropriate.4
4. Set expectations
You’d think everyone would realize you want participation, but calling it out helps urge people to do more than sit back and listen. Let everyone know that you’re looking to hear from everyone and that when you ask questions, you’ll wait for a response.
5. Be okay with silence
Waiting through silence takes patience, but if you wait long enough, odds are someone will fill it. And the more people realize you won’t be answering your own questions—that you really do expect answers—the more motivated they’ll be to speak up. Plus, silence gives people time to form more thoughtful answers.
6. Don’t be satisfied with the first response to your question
Avoid setting a question-answer-question-answer pattern. Here’s a better way to start a discussion: Ask for several responses to your question, then encourage dialogue. Move them from answering questions toward discussing or conversing—with each other, not just with you.
Start the ball rolling in this direction by asking “Why do you think that?” and “What do the rest of you think?” Then don’t let it rest with the first answer but encourage discussion. Draw students out by asking questions to which the answers aren’t so obvious.
Occasionally play devil’s advocate and question . . . responses—especially if they tend to give typical “church answers.” This will help challenge kids who’ve grown up at church to go deeper and examine their own faith, rather than live the one that’s been handed down to them.5
At the start of each small group, give a short recap of what you talked about last week, weaving in mention of several good questions and comments. Even if the people you mention aren’t there this time, hearing how you took notice will show that participation really does matter, and it’s appreciated.
Looking for a good small group study curriculum?
Check out the video small group study from apologist Josh McDowell, Is God Just a Human Invention? McDowell is an experienced teacher, so he does a great job of keeping your group engaged. And since each episode is only a few minutes long, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to talk through what you learn. (Plus, it comes with a free discussion guide.)
It’s available right now through Faithlife TV, free for 30 days, no credit card required. Start your free trial today.
- Nelson Searcy, Kerrick Thomas, Jennifer Dykes Henson, Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups, (Baker, 2018). Big Idea #2.
- Laurie Polich, Small Group Qs: 600 Eye-Opening Questions for Deepening Community and Exploring Scripture (Zondervan, 2010). Session 1.
- Nick Cunningham and Trevor Miller. One Leader Guide: A Small Group Journey Toward Life-Changing Community (Abingdon Press, 2016). Starting Out.
- Cunningham, Starting Out.
- Laurie Polich, Help! I’m a Small Group Leader! 50 Ways to Lead Teenagers into Animated and Purposeful Discussions (Zondervan, 2010). Chapter 5.