Mar 30 • 17M

Facilitators or teachers?

The small group leadership debate swings back and forward

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This is the audio version of a regular weekly email journal from Tony Payne, that seeks to apply the liberating truth of Christ crucified to every aspect of life and ministry.
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Before we get started, some news to share: you can now read The Payneful Truth in the new Substack app for iPhone.

Read The Payneful Truth in the new Substack app
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The Substack app is currently available for iOS. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can join the Android waitlist here.

Anyway, on to this week’s subject.


Facilitators or teachers?

Is a small group leader a facilitator? Or more of a teacher?

It’s funny how the answer to that question seems to go in cycles.

In the 1980s, most people in my part of the world would have leaned towards ‘facilitator’. The job of the small group leader was not to deliver a mini-sermon or be a ‘teacher’, but to stimulate some discussion around a Bible passage. Get things moving, try to keep it vaguely on track, but don’t feel it’s your responsibility to impose a conclusion or ‘lesson’ on the group.

In the 90s, there was a pendulum swing away from this thinking, as captured in Col Marshall’s classic book Growth Groups. Col argued explicitly against the concept of ‘facilitator’, and trained a generation of small group leaders to think of themselves more as teachers and leaders—as small-p ‘pastors’ who took a measure of responsibility for the spiritual health of the group members. The leader’s job was to help the group learn what the Bible was teaching, not just share opinions with each other. And this required the leader to do sufficient preparation to understand the passage, and to be able to lead a Bible discussion that revealed and applied the passage’s main points.

In the heyday of Growth Groups, it was assumed that most leaders would prepare and write their own Bible studies most of the time.

Was this a high bar for many leaders and churches? No doubt. And perhaps this is why the pendulum has swung back towards ‘facilitation’ in recent years.

The increasingly common pattern today is for small groups either to do some version of the Swedish method together, or to use pre-written studies, often prepared by the church staff in line with the current sermon series. Leaders see themselves more as a chairperson than a teacher. And if there is a conclusion or landing point to get to, it’s the one that’s been given to them by the pre-written study. Small group leaders writing their own Bible studies from scratch now seems to be a rarity.

I am tempted at this point to do a not-in-my-day rant about falling standards.

But perhaps there is something more helpful to say. Let’s think afresh about the pros and cons of each swing of this pendulum.

On the ‘teacher-leader’ side, the main weakness is simply the high expectations it places on the average group leader. This not only makes it harder to find suitable leaders willing and able to embrace the responsibility, but also means that their training takes longer, and that they are more likely to burn out after a few years. Many churches have found that trying to train all their leaders to this level is unrealistic, and places a cap on how many groups can actually be run. How many churches can find space in their program to run the full 10-week Growth Groups training course for their would-be leaders? Not very many.

Then again, the strength of the ‘teacher-leader’ model is its realism about the ineffectiveness of loosey-goosey, facilitator-type discussions run by inadequately trained leaders. If sermonettes produce Christianettes (as the old saying goes) then meandering group discussions without a landing point produce meandering Christians without a landing point.

The strength of the ‘teacher-leader’ approach is that it recognizes the weakness and potential danger of poorly led opinion sharing, and does something about it. The goal (after all) is not to have a discussion, but to ‘let the word dwell among us richly’ (as Col 3:16 says); to teach and encourage and edify one another in, with and by the Word. This is the goal of all Christian fellowship, of which the small group is one particular type. It’s hard to see why leadership and purposefulness wouldn’t be needed in this context as much as in any other. To think that it will all just happen without well-trained, good quality leadership is a touch naive.

Then again, a well-intended swing towards ‘teaching’ can prompt a teacher-leader to exert too much control over the group, and to squelch or crowd out another theologically vital facet of small group life—the opportunity for members to speak the word to each other for mutual instruction and encouragement. This is the key strength of a ‘facilitated’ group. The facilitator’s whole aim is to stimulate one-another speech, to let the conversation flow freely and go where it will. There is maximum opportunity for mutual encouragement, even if there is also maximum opportunity for missing what the passage is actually about.

So where does that all leave us?

Can we stop this pendulum swinging somehow? Is there a Goldilocks solution?

“Yes!” I hear you pastors say who write Bible studies for their leaders. “That’s why we write these studies. It allows us to exert some direction and quality control over the group discussions, but not place too heavy a burden on our leaders’ shoulders.”

Well, perhaps. Except that pre-written studies can be the worst of both worlds. There is not the freedom of undirected exploration and discovery—since there’s a list of seven questions we all know we have to get through. And unless the studies are very well done, and the leader is experienced, maintaining a natural flow and momentum to the discussion is difficult. It feels clunky, like we’re reading someone else’s lines (because we are). A question seems to be driving at something, but none of us can figure out what it is.

Leading a genuine discussion towards a conclusion is not an easy thing to do. You need to know where you’re going, and to have identified some key milestones along the way. This is impossible without training and preparation. The kind of leader who can make good use of pre-written studies is usually the kind of leader who doesn’t need pre-written studies.

So what is the solution?


Before I say anything else, I have a confession to make.

I reached this point in the first draft of this article, and began to outline a way to think about small group leadership that preserved the key strengths of the ‘teacher-leader’ model of Growth Groups but at a more achievable level for the average or beginner leader in most churches.

And it was only at that point that I remembered that I’d written and published a training course a few years ago that did precisely that. (That’s what comes of churning out too much stuff over too many years I suppose.)

So this nice little article that I was quite enjoying writing suddenly changed into a thinly-disguised promotional piece to get you to buy one of my training courses—which as an Australian is embarrassing.

If you’re prepared to believe me (thousands wouldn’t, as my mother used to say), I’ll leave further mention of the training course to the end, and continue with what I was about to say.


A useful way to think about the leader of a small group Bible study is that he is neither a full-on teacher, nor merely a chairperson or facilitator. He is a tour guide. His role is to lead the group into the Word so that they arrive at the major landmark that every Bible tourist needs to see—that is the main points of this passage, and what they mean for our lives. There is almost always more than one route that will get you there. There may be side-streets and other attractions to view along the way. And occasionally, you may spend so long stopping to look at something really interesting that you don’t get to the major landmark.

But the key point is this: the small group tour guide can only lead and nudge and direct his rag-tag group of easily distracted tourists to the destination if he knows the way. He can only lead them to the right spot if he’s been there himself already. He may have a printed map or a set of directions in his hand (a pre-written Bible study), but if he doesn’t actually know the way himself, the journey will be clunky and dissatisfying for the tour group, and they will wonder why he didn’t just give them the map and let them figure it out for themselves.

In other words, there is no avoiding the reality that a small group leader must personally understand the passage and its key points before he embarks on leading others in a discussion of that passage. This requires three things:

  • a decent amount of experience as a Christian in reading the Bible (i.e. newish Christians don’t make good small group leaders);

  • a decent amount of training in how to understand a passage and lead a group to that understanding (i.e. providing pre-written studies cannot replace the need for good quality training);

  • a decent amount of prayerful preparation time each week (around two hours for most people); enough time to get to know the passage well, and to understand what God is saying in it. The leader needs to feel confident that whatever twists and turns the discussion might take, he knows the destination.

With this training and preparation under his belt, the tour guide leader can use a number of approaches in shepherding his group toward the destination, depending on his personality and experience. He might favour a fairly easy going approach—“let’s just start exploring and see what we find”—but this works because he’s very familiar with where he needs to get to. He might prefer to write down his own set of directions in detail—his own Bible study. Or if he’s a beginner tour guide, he might prefer to use someone else’s map, with some of his own notes scribbled on it—a pre-written Bible study.

Whatever the method that is finally used, the desired outcome is a genuine group exploration of God’s word, with enough freedom to enjoy the journey along the way, as well as enough direction to arrive at the destination—which is to hear the message that the living God is speaking to us through this passage of his life-giving word.


PS

Growth Groups is the Rolls Royce training program to equip leaders for this kind of tour guide leadership. (In fact, there’s a nice little section in Growth Groups about balancing ‘control’ and ‘freedom’ in small group Bible discussions, much along the lines of this article.) However, as I’ve already noted, for many people, Growth Groups functions these days more as a resource book than an actual 10-week leader training course (as it was originally written to be).

The new training framework that Marty Sweeney and I put together a few years ago is called The Small Group and the Vine. It’s a more achievable five-part program, with a workbook and videos. It could be done in a series of Saturday seminars, or over a weekend, or on five consecutive Monday nights—but whatever the format, the idea is to provide small group leaders with a clear understanding of their role, along with the basic tools to prepare a Bible passage for themselves so as to be a good ‘tour guide’ for their groups. (Follow the link above for a free sample chapter and video intro to what it is about.)

Whether or not you use this particular resource, the important question to consider is how we are training and equipping all our group leaders to be good ‘tour guides’ of the Word.


Some of you may have noticed a consistent use of ‘he’ and ‘his’ throughout this article. In case this comes across as chauvinism, rather than grammatical convenience (which is what it is), let me say that many of the best-prepared and most skilful small group tour guides I have known have been the female leaders of women’s Bible study groups.