How to Lead a Small Group

May 24, 2023
By: Sam O'Neal

Is it easy or difficult to learn how to drive? On the one hand, driving a car is easy. There are two pedals and one wheel. Go. Stop. Turn when necessary. No problem. On the other hand, driving a car requires a new driver to acquire, memorize, and incorporate a huge amount of information about a wide range of possible scenarios. Imagine the first time he has to parallel park, for example. Or the first time he pulls up to a four-way intersection with nobody around to tell him who has the right of way.

There’s a similar dynamic at play when it comes to leading a group discussion. From one perspective, such a task is relatively simple. The leader asks questions, group members respond to those questions, and everyone rinses and repeats for forty-five minutes. There might even be snacks involved.

In reality, successfully leading a group discussion requires a set of important but subtle skills. Most group leaders acquire these skills through experience—through trial, error, and repetition. It’s likely you’ve already developed several of those skills if you’ve served as a group leader in the past. But I want to offer some key principles that can help you get started on the right foot and jump to the next level.

Context is Key

One of the more valuable ways group leaders can serve group members in a Bible study is to provide context for the Bible passage or passages under discussion. By “context,” I am talking about basic information that helps group members understand why that passage was written, to whom it was written, and how that passage fits into the overall message of the Bible book in which it is contained. This information can be easily identified prior to a gathering and quickly explained at the beginning of a discussion.

Setting the context doesn’t have to be a long lecture—in fact, it shouldn’t be a long lecture, and it shouldn’t include a large amount of information. It’s better to be brief. If group members have questions about the context of a passage, they can ask those questions during the discussion.

Silence is Your Friend

The majority of small group leaders I have encountered are uncomfortable with silence in their groups. They don’t like it. They find it awkward and off-putting.

Even more, group leaders often feel like they’ve made a mistake when they ask a question and receive only an extended period of silence in return. They think the question must have been bad or at least presented in a bad way. As a result, they often develop a habit of responding to silence by answering the question themselves or moving on to something else. Unfortunately, this habit is the enemy of meaningful group discussion.

Here’s the truth—silence during a group discussion is almost always a good thing, especially silence that occurs in response to a question. Why? Because that silence means your group members are thinking. It means they are processing the question that was asked, comparing it to their understanding of the Scripture passage, integrating it with their own experiences, and deciding whether the result is something they want to share with the rest of the group. All of that takes time.

So get comfortable with silence in your gatherings. Recognize that silence is your friend, and allow it to do its work each time you ask a thought-provoking question.

Lead from the Back

One of the main ways group leaders inadvertently suppress discussion in their groups is by leading those discussions from the “front.” By that I mean they take an overactive role in managing or guiding the conversation within the group. Sometimes taking such a role is intentional, and sometimes it’s not. But in my experience, it usually leads to a stilted discussion overall.

So one of the main ways you as a leader can create healthy discussions in your group is by leading from the back—by refusing to control the discussion. Yes, there are times when you need to guide or redirect a discussion that is moving off track. And yes, you certainly should feel free to offer your own opinions or insights as a member of the group; leading from the back doesn’t mean being silent. But it’s critical that you consciously allow the group to engage in discussion organically, as a conversation, rather than seek to manage or reply to every new moment in that discussion.

Let the Holy Spirit Do His Work

One of the reasons why group leaders often begin leading from the front is because they want to see their group members experience spiritual growth and transformation. They want to see people change. Those are noble goals, of course, but we as leaders need to remember that God is the Source of transformation among people—not you and me.

God alone changes people. God alone, through His Spirit, causes people to grow spiritually. Therefore, one of the ways we can help our group members as leaders is by stepping back and allowing the Spirit to do His work in and through our groups.

You can create the right environment for your group members to encounter the Holy Spirit and respond to His work. You can do that by gathering people together in a community where they are comfortable being vulnerable and talking about deeper issues. You can do that by helping people not just listen to the Bible but engage with what it says by wrestling with the deeper themes of God’s Word. And you can do that by eliminating the distractions and smoothing out the misunderstandings that often sidetrack us in group settings. Really, that is your goal as you lead discussions in your group. Gather people together in a genuine community. Point them to God’s Word, and give them opportunities to grapple with what it says. Then step back and allow the Holy Spirit to accomplish what only He can accomplish.


Content in this article is taken from The Bible Study Bible.

The NKJV Bible Study Bible is designed to spark deep conversation in small groups and deep thought during personal time in Scripture with study guides for every chapter of the Bible right within the text. Additional materials in the Bible offer help for leading a group through studies on specific topics such as the names of God, prayer, salvation, and suffering.

Click here to learn more


Sam O'Neal

Sam O’Neal is the founder of Write Great Stories, where he serves authors and publishers as they produce great stories that help advance God’s Kingdom. Previously, he served as senior editor at HarperCollins Christian Publishing and editor for at Christianity Today International. He also managed Bible Studies for Life at Lifeway Christian Resources.

Sam’s newest book, The Field Guide: For Small Group Leaders, provides basic training and support to help small group leaders succeed in the critical mission of leading others toward spiritual growth and transformation. Whether you lead a small group, life group, or Sunday school class, this guide will give you confidence and practical tools for fostering meaningful connections, genuine community, and spiritual growth that so many are desperate for. Click here to learn more about The Field Guide.

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