We gather once a week and each share the latest anecdotes about work, life, and kids. At one point, I nicknamed our group, “The Tribe” and it stuck. At first, we were strangers but as we gathered weekly, we pulled off our masks. Our stories became threads that weaved into each other’s lives. These strangers are now my people: my truth tellers, my warriors, my accountability partners. They are my built-in family.
This is the essence of what a small group is about. The key to building such a strong bond is the intimacy created through sharing real life with each other.
We’ve all encountered awkward small groups. For one reason or another the group didn’t click. Conversations stayed on the surface and more times than not, silence filled the room. Disappointment reaches high levels and we drop the group while still yearning for connection.
It’s vital to create an environment where people connect and thrive. Most followers of Christ will state small groups are one of the many tools that help them stay grounded in their faith and expand the way they experience God.
Life groups are crucial for spiritual growth but how does a small group leader nurture these relationships and encourage real talk? It begins with creating an environment where the depth of community can be transformative. While there is no perfect formula, here are seven tips to create more intimacy and encourage real talk in your small group.
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As leaders, one of the ways to increase intimacy is the willingness to be authentic ourselves. Real life conversations take place when we let our walls down. In other words, deep meaningful conversations happen when someone talks openly without fear of attack or judgement.
Unfortunately, we feel we are unable to be fully truthful because to do so would invite judgement, criticism or shame. This fear has played out since Adam and Eve when they hid from God in the garden. They were afraid to share their shame and sin. Instead of leaves, we hide behind masks hoping to project a respectable image of ourselves.
We were made for relationship. One of the overarching themes found throughout the Bible affirms this truth. However, relationship begins with authenticity, which then leads to deeper relational conversations. The definition of authenticity means to be true to one’s spirit, character, and personality without pretenses.
As the leader, be willing to share real life examples of your struggles, challenges, feelings, and triumphs. This creates trust, vulnerability, confidentiality, and honesty. If authenticity isn’t modeled, the depth of the group will stay in small talk mode.
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2. Think Friendship
Consider promoting your small group as a social gathering where people can make friends casually. There’s no point in making friends with people if you can’t share personal things. There is no substance in that.
Those who are considering joining a small group are hoping to meet other individuals with commonalities. If you promote your group as a social place, it will remove unnecessary pressure and create a more comfortable setting to participate on a deeper level. This cultivates an environment where bonding begins as failures, doubts, questions, and similarities surface.
This also allows natural intimacy to develop within the group. Friends don’t just see each other on Sundays, they see each other outside the four walls of their church. As relationships begin to take place, real life conversations happen as small group members see different layers of each other. It tears down the idea that each person needs to be on their “best church behavior.”
Plan gatherings outside of small groups. BBQ’s, family nights, game nights, sporting activities like bowling or even going to derby races are a great way to increase relationship building.
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3. Actions Speak Louder than Words
Look for ways to demonstrate the axiom, “Actions speak louder than words.” It’s easy to meet every week at a scheduled time but in order to intimacy, relationships need to dive deep.
If there is a need, lead your group to meet that need. For example, if one of the group members is moving, going through a divorce, or facing another challenging situation, find a way to help. It could be as simple as asking members to make a meal, transport kids, pack boxes, host a baby shower, etc.
My small group became my tribe after my husband was hospitalized. Our leader rallied the troops; they made arrangements to take care of my kids, clean my house, make meals, and so many other little things. Their actions truly spoke louder than words.
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4. Thoughtful Prep
Read the material ahead of time and think of the conversations you want to have. The questions and discussion can then be facilitated from surface level to more in-depth conversations. It plows the ground to cultivate real conversations as those in the group begin to relate to each other in their faith journeys.
If the material or questions provided are not open-ended questions, construct questions yourself or rephrase them to require a personal response. A question like, “Do you think Eve was ignoring God?” will lead to “yes” or “no” answers. Instead, ask open-ended questions such as, “Can you relate to how Eve was blinded by deception of the enemy?” or, “Is there a time in your life when you thought you were doing the right thing but realized you were deceived?”
If questions do not focus on how Scripture relates to and guides our lives today, the personal application is lost.
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5. Think Pinball
Vince Antonccui is a teaching pastor at Verve Church in Las Vegas, Nevada. Part of how he trains small groups leaders is through the analogy of a pinball machine. The goal is to get everyone involved in the discussion.
“In the group discussion, the pinball is who is talking. Your role is to be the flipper. In pinball you don’t score points when the ball is touching the flipper, and in a small group ‘winning’ happens when people are thinking and talking, not when you’re lecturing.”
The goal is to get everyone involved in the discussion. While it’s important to share your thoughts and opinions, try not to get into the habit of answering all the questions or having the final word. As you flip the conversation, encourage group members to be thoughtful in their responses.
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6. Establish a Covenant
The covenant of your group establishes sacredness through boundaries, expectations, or rules. Believe it or not, every group has one whether it is intentionally designed or just assumed. Just like marriage, a covenant establishes boundaries and protection within the group. This makes your group a place of trust and mutual understanding.
Establishing a convent clarifies right off the bat what is expected and what the group is about. When creating a covenant, consider things like a purpose or mission statement that explains the reasons for the group, as well as specific rules. Ask for confidentiality, commitment, respect, honesty, and regular attendance as well.
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7. Active Listening
Communication is the cornerstone of any relationship but that doesn’t make it easy to master. Active listening takes work. It’s about being an engaged listener rather than a passive listener.
Jesus modeled active listening throughout his short ministry. He focused on their spiritual condition and concerns. He listened to people’s ideas and emotions. He asked questions that allowed him to find out what was really going on in their hearts. He listened with his whole heart, mind, and eyes. He took the time to give people he encountered his undivided attention.
Look at Luke 24:17-20 as an example: “After resurrecting from the dead, Jesus approached two men walking along the road to Emmaus and asked them, ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’ They stood still, their faces downcast. Cleopas asked the Lord, ‘Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ ‘What things?’ Jesus asked” (NIV).
Active listening can be modeled and taught by being fully present and reflective. Listening well builds a greater sense of cohesion. As a group's cohesion increases, so does its level of intimacy and a deeper understanding of God’s Word.
Heather Riggleman calls Nebraska home (hey, it’s not for everyone). She roams small towns looking for stories and coffee with her husband and three kids. She writes to bring the perspective of bold truths and raw faith into universal concepts women face from marriage, career, mental health, depression, faith, relationships, to celebration and heartache. Heather is a former national award-winning journalist and is the author of Mama Needs a Time Out and Let’s Talk About Prayer. Her work has been featured on Proverbs 31 Ministries, MOPS, Today's Christian Woman and Focus On the Family. You can find her at www.heatherriggleman.com.
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