1. Start and end on time. Starting on time will establish a practice of people coming on time. Timeliness on both ends shows respect for people.
2. Make sure the room setup is such that everyone can see everyone else. In most homes, this will be a limiting factor as to the number of people in the small group. Having people sit on a stairway or in an alcove usually inhibits them from participating.
3. Design the room setup and rules of engagement so that there is a minimum of distractions. Have a policy regarding phone calls and childcare so that these and other issues will not be disruptive for others.
4. If your group is young in the faith, consider having multiple copies of the same translation of the Bible. This is also wise if you have Internationals. Your chaplain may be able to help you obtain these copies for a reasonable price. This also allows you to refer to passages by page number for those not familiar with the Bible. If you have more mature believers, you as the leader might want to provide additional translations if you found those translations to be helpful in your study.
5. Avoid praying or reading around in a circle. While many people are comfortable reading aloud, there are exceptions. The same goes for praying. Take volunteers for these tasks rather than risk losing someone because they felt pressure to read or pray. If you detect an unplanned pattern of going from person to person, jump in and break the pattern.
6. Include a short review of previous weeks if the flow of thought is important. With the increased frequency of TDY/TAD and deployed assignments, help those who were absent feel part of the group.
7. Start with easy questions. This serves the purpose of getting people talking. Observation questions—What does it say?—are a natural way to do this. You might even employ an observation or general question about life that most everyone can identify with to open your discussion if doing so sets the stage for the direction you want the study to take. For instance, if your theme is “God’s Discipline,” you might ask people if they have heard the phrase “tough love” and if so, what they understand it to mean.
8. Seek to involve everyone in the interaction. If one or two people are monopolizing the responses, you will need to stop this. Rather than specifically calling on a person, generically ask for responses by those who have not had a chance to say anything. If this practice continues week after week, you should plan to approach the offending party and let him or her know you appreciate their participation but ask them to be sensitive to your goal of involving others.
9. Don’t call on specific people to respond. While you may be confident that some people wouldn’t mind you specifically asking them, others might be apprehensive that you could do the same to them.
10. Don’t let all the questions and responses come to you, the leader. If you see this pattern developing, ask others to respond to a response. Keep this up until the conversation flow is naturally multi-directional.
11. Don’t allow yourself to become the group expert. As appropriate, you may need to encourage people out of their comfort zones to take leadership. Co-lead a study with a new leader or meet with him or her mid-week to answer questions and be a resource. Look for ways to affirm them after the study. Likewise, don’t allow people to view a participating chaplain as the expert. They will appreciate it.
12. Don’t accept a wrong answer for fear of offending. If there is a wrong response, you can ask the person to state the verse or phrase that prompted their response. (By the way, this is a good practice even if the response is correct.) You can also ask others if they agree or if they understand it differently. If a person often gives a wrong answer and you need to have it corrected, look for an opportunity to affirm them when they give a correct answer.
13. Don’t allow statements that denigrate other denominations. The study is intended to be a Bible study, not a justification of one church doctrine over another. There may be a few exceptions if having a variety of responses enhances your purpose. Be careful, however, to ensure this technique will not offend anyone. If the truth is to offend, let that truth come directly from the Scriptures.
14. Be alert to the use of Christian/church-ese. It doesn’t take long for people to invent or use a word or phrase that becomes an “in” expression. Newcomers may feel lost; old-timers may need to wrestle with the concept afresh. When appropriate, ask for basic definitions so that everyone is at the same place in their understanding of the word or phrase.
15. Stick with the text being studied. Almost every passage should have its understanding incorporated in the immediate context. Usually the recipients of one of the Apostle Paul’s letters or epistles were not required to have read a previous letter as a prerequisite for understanding the current letter. When in your personal study you find a cross-reference to be helpful, use it carefully. If you want everyone to see that passage, make a statement and direct people there together. If you observe some mature believers seeking to impress others with their knowledge of other Scriptures, request that they stay with the passage under consideration. The discipline will prove beneficial for everyone. The correlation and expanded development of a concept with other texts can be important. When that is the case, the leader should come prepared to include everyone by having text strips prepared ahead of time.
16. Draw the study to a conclusion. Don’t quit without a summation. Usually this is best accomplished before heading into the application phase. Discovering a bunch of interesting facts does not constitute a good study.
17. Don’t forget to do “application praying.” This helps draw the study to a proper conclusion. Don’t be troubled if it takes a few weeks to get everyone in the pattern of doing this (see Page 5).
18. Structure the small group so that you encourage growth and the incorporation of new people. Have natural entry points if the topic is lengthy and will involve a number of weeks. Make sure newcomers feel welcome, even if it means discontinuing your conversations with close friends. A word of explanation to them should be sufficient and will likely encourage them to branch out. Look for ways to involve new people in the group early on, such as inquiring if they would want to host a study or bring snacks.
19. As you grow, plan to divide the study. This needs to be understood from the start so that you do not meet with resistance when the time comes.
This article originally appeared in COMMAND magazine, or an OCF Ministry Report.