Leading a quiet growth group is a secret fear for leaders. Our confidence is tested to the limit as questions are met with seemingly unending silence. As the crickets chirp and the seconds tick by we wonder to ourselves: “Will anyone ever speak? Are my questions that bad? Maybe this ministry isn’t for me?” Or, in desperation, we answer our own questions like a solo performer in a surreal theological drama.
Quiet groups certainly have their challenges, but there’s no need to panic if you find yourself leading one. The Bible can help us by correcting our attitudes, and there are several practical strategies that can get discussion flowing. Leading a quiet group might in fact be just the thing to grow you as a leader at this time in your ministry experience.
A good place to start is to check our thoughts about the group against the Bible. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 reminds us that Christians will often not be the most impressive thinkers and debaters we know. “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” Paul asks in verse 20. His implied answer is that they are not amongst the saved. Instead, amongst the saved (including those in our groups), we can expect to find the foolish, the weak, and the low and despised people of the world (vv. 27-28). Their presence (and ours too) demonstrates the wisdom of God and especially the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption we have in Christ. So don’t be surprised if our group members are slow to think, shy in answering questions or fearful of getting things wrong. These are people who might be weak by worldly standards but are precious to God.
Another helpful lesson from God is the value of thinking slowly over his word. Our culture values speed but in the Psalms we are encouraged to meditate on God’s word (Ps 1:2, 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78, 97, 99). This is an inherently slow process. Psalm 119:148 gives us the beautiful image of the psalmist waking early to give adequate time to his Bible reading: “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise”. So if your group is taking time to answer that’s actually a good thing. They are in some sense meditating on God’s word.
So bearing these truths in mind, what are some practical strategies we can use to encourage helpful discussion among our quiet group members? Note that you might need to adapt some of these tips for prayer time as well.
Before the formal study begins do your best to create a warm and friendly atmosphere in the room. Put on some background music and arrange chairs so that people are reasonably close together. Encourage conversation so that everyone speaks at least once, ideally while the whole group listens. I’ll often ask something as simple as “So, how was your day at work?” or, “How did you go putting the kids to bed today?” Conversation like this can help people get to know each other and normalize the practice of speaking together.
As you begin the study, try asking a simple “getting to know you” question or launching question that everyone can answer, for example, “Where would you go to relax on your day off?” A ‘safe’ question like this helps demonstrate that it’s okay for group members to speak up during the study.
As you get into more questions, work hard at developing a good pause tolerance. By this I mean the ability to withstand silence. Ask your question clearly and with confidence and then pause. Count to fifteen slowly in your head and commit to not speaking. Look calm, smile, and make eye contact briefly with people around the room. If it helps, visualize the petals of a flower slowly unfolding, as an illustration of peoples’ thought processes at work. If someone speaks, respond with as much positive affirmation as you can. If your silence count reaches fifteen (or longer), invite one of your more confident members to share what they think. Encourage them that whatever they say will likely be helpful. Your coleader might break the silence once or twice during the study, but doing so more often will signal to group members that if they wait long enough the coleader will provide the correct answer. Both of you need to learn to wait—it will make a huge difference in leading a quiet group.
As an alternative to frequent long pauses, you can sometimes get people to write down their answers and then share them (possibly going around the room). This gives people time to read, think and write without the awkwardness. An exercise like this is more doable for straightforward observation questions. As questions get more difficult or personal, you should use your judgment as to whether everyone should speak.
Another option is to invite people to discuss a question with the person next to them. Some people might find this less threatening than speaking to the whole group. It also gives them a chance to refine their response to the question. After a few minutes you can regroup and invite people to share what they came up with. Often the discussion will flow much more easily from there.
As you come to the end of the study, encourage the group by sharing how well they did working at the Bible, discussing ideas and applying what they learnt. Afterwards you might even quietly mention to people individually how much you appreciated one of their contributions. You’d be surprised how great an impact this simple encouragement can have on someone’s confidence for the weeks ahead.
Practical ideas like these can really help over time to get your quiet group discussing the Bible together. What’s more, they’ll be doing it in ways that accommodate their personality or experience or fears. However, more important than all the practical tips is that you love the quiet people in your group just as God loves them. Quiet groups are to be loved not feared! And who knows, you might even find yourself growing in patience, thoughtfulness and quietness as well.