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Excerpts from "Principles of Leading a Bible Study" by Nancy McGuirk

How to Lead by Being a Witness

A leader of a small group is not just a facilitator—she is also a witness. That is, she leads by example as a disciple of Jesus Christ herself. A leader who is a witness to the reality of Christ’s power in her own life should consider the following questions:
  • Do you have faith in the power and sovereignty of God?
  • Do you believe that God can use you in spite of your own weakness and inadequacy?
  • Do you believe that the Holy Spirit will guide you, make you courageous, help you in your work, and also work effectively in the lives of those to whom you will speak?
  • Do you believe that “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart?” (Hebrews 4:12)
  • Do you believe that the gospel of Christ is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile?” (Romans 1:16) In other words, do you believe “the battle is not yours, but God’s?” (2 Chronicles 20:15)

If you can answer the above questions in the affirmative, then you qualify as a witness to the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Witnesses for Christ should keep the following in mind:
  1. Remember that your own life is a large part of your testimony. You need not be perfect or mature before God can use you, but your life should speak well of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:2, 3; 4:2). The Holy Spirit works most effectively through a clean life.
  2. Earn the right to be heard by sincerely listening to others. Jesus was a friend of sinners and often sat with them (Luke 15:1, 2). Instead of having only the consuming drive to press home a verbal witness, win the confidence of people by being interested in them. Let them tell you their concerns. Ask them what is their greatest need. Just being a good listener will open many doors. It may mean that you get involved more deeply in the lives of people. In the long run, you will have a more sympathetic individual with whom you can share Christ
  3. In witnessing, you are not presenting a formula, outline, or plan but a person —the Lord Jesus Christ. The Scriptures that you have memorized should give you confidence in using your Bible as you share Christ. However, do not make the mistake of thinking that in every case you can start with a Scripture verse, systematically turn from passage to passage, and meet every person’s need. Be sensitive to the individual and use the Scripture discreetly. 
  4. Stress the love of God rather than the fact that we are sinners. We must admit that we are sinners before we will see our need for a Savior, but this does not mean that we must start on that level.
  5. Keep it simple. The apostle Paul said, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to put up a good intellectual or philosophical argument to impress people. The apostle Paul did not let people get him off the track. He stayed with the simplicity of the Gospel and got results (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

The simplest answer to the cultists, who are seeking after ultimate truth or reality, is “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).

To those who are seeking a further revelation, the apostle Paul said, “You have been given fullness in Christ” (Colossians 2:10).

To those who try to make it by works and human efforts, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

In the final analysis, it is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and not human logic that we need for salvation. 

How to Facilitate a Meaningful Discussion

The heart of any small group meeting is meaningful interaction (discussion). To facilitate healthy discussion in your small group, keep the following in mind:
  1. Demonstrate love and acceptance.
  2. Model active listening.
  3. Use questions effectively
  4. Avoid teaching and lecturing. Use the “we” approach.
  5. Practice being “firmly flexible.”
  6. Use silence creatively.
  7. Handle disagreements honestly but with love.
  8. Encourage “every-member” participation.
  9. Focus on application rather than knowledge.
  10. Continually affirm God’s grace.

How to Nurture Your Group

A group leader’s “shepherding” responsibilities are like those of a pastor; they are multifaceted and can sometimes take place outside the formal group meeting.
  1. Telephone members periodically to see how they are, especially if they were absent from a meeting. Phone calls are a good way to follow up on prayer requests and to see if you or the group can assist in meeting personal or family needs. Make sure to call if a member misses two or more meetings in a row.
  2. Establish periodic times to meet for fellowship (in a home, a restaurant, sharing a “brown bag” lunch following the group meeting, recreational and social outings for group members and their families, etc.). Set up a schedule for these early on to minimize scheduling conflicts and childcare requirements.
  3. Pray with and for each group member. Prayer journals, prayer photo cards, and assigning prayer partners can facilitate the use of limited time for intercessory prayer within the small group setting.
  4. When a group member shares a problem, recognize you are being entrusted as a steward with a sensitive part of a person’s life experience. Guard the information carefully, not sharing it any further without the member’s permission. Your primary role is to be a trusted friend, not a counselor. It is not your responsibility to “solve” the need that is being shared. Offer them the valuable gifts you have: A listening ear, prayer, care, and encouragement. Listen calmly as a way to invoke God’s peace; listen carefully with a desire to understand; listen sincerely as a sign of empathy and concern; listen with acceptance as evidence of the acceptance God offers to all. If the problem is serious, and the person is asking for help, refer her to a Pastor or Christian counselor.

One study identified the top 10 relational needs we all have as human beings; Many of these needs can be addressed and met in a small group setting:
  1. Attention: “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25).
  2. Acceptance: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7).
  3. Appreciation: “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2).
  4. Support: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). 
  5. Encouragement: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
  6. Affection: “Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings” (Romans 16:16).
  7. Approval: “Because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men” (Romans 14:18).
  8. Security: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:15).
  9. Comfort (empathy): “Therefore encourage each other with these words” (1Thessalonians 4:18).
  10. Respect: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). 

How to Manage Challenging Situations in a Small Group

Wherever two or three are gathered together, there are likely to be challenges. People are different, and when those differences surface in the close quarters of a small group, there can be discomfort if not conflict. If we restrict small group membership to those who are mature enough never to do or say the wrong things, then we will never win new people to Christ or see immature believers gain maturity. Therefore, part of small group leadership is managing challenging situations, modeling acceptance and love, and maintaining progress toward group goals. Here are three suggestions for managing challenging situations:
  1. Understand the methodology the person is using to disrupt the group. There is usually a predictable pattern than can be identified (for example, dominating the conversation, disagreeing with the teaching, promoting a personal or pet view or issue, criticism of other group members, attempts to “shock” the sensibilities of other group members, etc.).
  2. Be able to identify the primary characteristics or underlying attitudes of the person. Disruptive behavior in adults, just as with children, is often a symptom of a deeper issue.
  3. Have a strategy for dealing with the challenging situation before each meeting. Keep notes if necessary for future reference.

If it becomes necessary to approach the group member about their behavior, follow these guidelines:
  1. Make sure you have all the facts.
  2. Always approach the person in private.
  3. Never approach while you are angry.
  4. Always get both sides of a story if more than one person is involved.
  5. Don’t take offenses personally.
  6. Listen more than you talk. Seek to understand, not to be understood.
Don’t be vague about the issue and what you expect. Get to the point and make your point clear. Ask for feedback to make sure the person has understood.

How to Handle Common Problems

Here are some common problems that occur in small group Bible studies and a few suggested solutions:
  1. Aimlessness
    Symptom: The group has lost its focus; interest has declined; attendance is falling off. The group doesn’t seem to know where it is going, or why.
    Solution: Take time to discuss the problem with co-leaders and trusted members on how can you stay on track better with your lesson. Maybe invite a member of the Group Leader Committee to attend if possible. If attendance is extremely small, discuss with group members and let them take ownership of problem.
  2. Exclusiveness
    Symptom: The group members do not want to grow; or they do not want new members to violate the closeness the group has developed. Some don’t want their level of spirituality to be watered down by “less mature” new members joining.
    Solution: While it is not ideal to have a new member join the group later down the road as the group has been progressing, sometimes this is the only or most appropriate group to add the new member. Group leaders should always welcome the new member enthusiastically and/or if she has time before new member joins, remind existing member that someone took time to shepherd them and now it is their turn to be patient with others.
  3. Too Many People for Sharing
    Symptom: If the group continues to have new members joining, it will soon be too large for effective sharing, discussion and nurturing. Research has shown that a group larger than 12 begins to have group dynamics problems.
    Solution: When the group reaches the size of 8, 12, or more consider breaking up into smaller groups of four for the Bible study/discussion portion especially in the beginning of the year. Likewise if the group is 12 members, break into 3 groups of 4 and or if its 16 members break into 4 groups of 4. This may require leaders to delegate a temporary facilitating responsibility to an existing member during this period. Conduct the gathering and introductory portion of the study as a large group, divide into the smaller groups for Bible study, then gather together as one group for prayer. There may also be the need for more than one leader to affectively nurture and make follow-up with all the members. 
  4. Unbalanced participation and Personal Issues
    Symptom: Some group members dominate the discussion while other group members remain quiet. Sometimes those who dominate will do so without knowing it by discussing a personal issue or crisis that takes over the entire meeting. All members need to have a chance to participate equally in the discussion.
    Solution: When members dwell on personal issues, it is best to have a brief discussion to show compassion and interest during the meeting and then suggest that this member meet afterwards with the leaders for prayer time and further discussion. If it’s simply a dominant personality, we discussed how to handle this in the previous section. If you have a quiet member, slowly and gently offer to give that person some responsibility in the group or periodically ask for their advice or thoughts on a particular subject. It’s important not to put them on the spot. Make the attention brief and let them know their response is appreciated.
  5. Arriving Late
    Symptom: Some members might arrive late, interrupting the continuity of the group discussion.
    Solution: First, make sure you, the leader, are on time. Second, close the door for a period of time to show that a private discussion has begun. This will make late entry a little more uneasy. If this continues with a particular member, ask her to help you get everyone to be there on time. Give her some responsibility in this situation. (Also, establish the policy from the beginning that when a latecomer arrives, the group meeting will continue without everyone stopping to greet the latecomer. Greetings can be exchanged after the meeting is concluded. It is the leader’s responsibility to keep the meeting on track when someone comes in late.)
  6. Not Doing Homework
    Symptom: As the year progresses members might get slack and come in unprepared, having not done their homework.
    Solution: It’s important to ask questions weekly of your members from their homework so they learn that being prepared for discussion is a requirement. If several of your members begin to fall into this pattern, discuss the problem with the group and ask them to join you in a renewed commitment to completing each homework assignment. Enlisting the members’ help to assist you with a “problem” results in a more willing response