Factotum #6: Do-it-yourself-church

Are you amongst the 5 per cent that watch SBS television? Usually I’m not, but I read the TV guide and there it was: the movie The Factotum. I watched the first part of it. It’s a clever comedy about an unlikely speech writer for an aspiring Italian politician. The factotum is summoned from his teaching job to write for the politician. He is given no choice; his whole life is disrupted as he does his master’s bidding. Not a bad model for us as factotums, except we are given the script, rather than producing our own.

This edition of ‘Factotum’ picks up some more issues and tips for the Do-It-Yourself Church. I hope you are clarifying your ministry vision and becoming a provider of church, rather than a consumer.

Creative Bible study discussions

A major part of most small group activity is the Bible reading and discussion. There are all sorts of ways this can be done—using pre-prepared studies, writing your own studies, or simply reading a passage and getting people to comment on it. In a DIY church, such a Bible discussion is likely to be an important part of the church’s teaching strategy.

Leading a Bible study discussion is like guiding a hike. It requires:

  • Leader preparation
  • Group member preparation
  • Getting it started
  • Keeping it going
  • Winding it up

These are the main strategies in leading a discussion.

1. Leader preparation: plan thoroughly, but be flexible

The leader of a hiking party must prepare thoroughly, working out the final destination and how to get there, but adjusting the plan as the trek unfolds.

The discussion leader needs clear teaching goals and a discussion package that takes the group on the journey toward the goals. But we need flexibility in using our plan. A certain subtlety and finesse is essential because you don’t know what will come up. Rather than bulldozing on through your set questions like a quiz, deal with topics as they arise. The group then knows you are responding to their input. They are genuinely involved in setting the agenda.

2. Group member preparation: establish the ground rules

To make the most of the hike, each member of the party needs to prepare. Getting out the maps, knowing the track, anticipating points of interest and possible obstacles will all add value to the excursion.

The discussion and learning process will be much more efficient if each member does some preparation before the study. Discuss this ground rule upfront, best of all, as a condition of joining the group. The type of preparation will depend on the maturity and educational background of the group.

An important hint: don’t use preparation questions to start your discussion. The tendency is for the group to read their answers, which can be deadly dull.

3. Getting it started

You are more likely to get to the top of the mountain if your level of enthusiasm is high at base camp. If the climbers are dragging their heels from the first step, it’s going to be uphill all the way, so to speak.

Your launching question gets the group moving, and then you guide them up the hill. The launching question has to open up the discussion. It should create healthy tension by raising a topic that is relevant both to the passage and the group, and by throwing up many possible answers. The group then becomes caught up in the discussion in an endeavour to relieve the tension—not unlike the unfolding plot of a good story.

4. Keeping it going

Starting is one thing; trudging on through the late afternoon to reach camp for the night is a whole new challenge. What strategies keep the group working on the text and reaching conclusions?

  • More questions

    The role of the leader is to ask questions, not answer them. Even when the group asks questions, the leader ought not answer them, but ask another question instead. The principle is: don’t tell them what they can work out for themselves. When you give answers, you relieve tension: the adrenalin stops and so does discussion. Try asking other guiding or probing questions, like these:

    • Extending: What can you add to that? Could you explain that more fully?
    • Clarifying: What do you mean by that? Could you re-phrase that statement?
    • Justifying: What reason can you give for that? Would you explain that from the passage?
    • Re-directing: What do others think? Mary, what do you think?
    • Reflecting: What I think you’re saying is … Is that right?

  • Welcome pauses

    Don’t be afraid of silence. Pauses are essential to give time to think, to formulate responses and to maintain the tension. As leaders, we tend to be vacuum-fillers and blurt out anything to end the silence, usually because we are insecure about how the discussion is going.

  • Value every contribution, but not equally.

    Every input to the discussion is valuable, both to the individual because it required thought, and to the group because they have to think to respond. And showing genuine interest in every contribution is a key to getting high participation.

    A number of points follow from this:

    • We can’t always be thinking about our next comment or question.
    • Our body language should indicate interest through leaning forward and making eye contact.
    • We should use the actual words and expressions of members to show that we have taken their ideas on board.
    • We need to be enthusiastic about their input to the discussion.

    It’s a process of using the group input to build the discussion and unravel the issues. But discrimination is needed: each contribution does not have the same value when it comes to determining right answers.

  • Keep interacting with the text of the Bible.

    There may be all kinds of interesting diversions and sidetracks on a bushwalk, but to get to the destination, you need to follow the map.

    In a Bible study, there is tendency to get absorbed in ideas and generalities rather than wrestling with the meaning of the Bible. We would rather speculate on all kinds of topics that interest us instead of doing the harder work of Bible reading.

  • Encourage the group to ask questions.

    A good reason for hiking in a party is the value and enjoyment of interaction (as well as keeping each other on course). It is a great moment in discussion groups when the leader slips into the background and the group goes solo. Everyone starts interacting in an excited effort to get to the bottom of what they are discussing. The leader has not lost control, but conversation is flying all over the room and the group has developed its own momentum.

5. Winding it up

Getting to the destination together with everyone still on board, is a good result. There are a number of less satisfactory endings to an expedition: everyone wandering around in the bush for a few days, everyone ending up in the wrong town, or the group leaving one or two behind. These are variations on a theme: it’s called getting lost.

Winding up the discussion is the art of not getting lost. Here are some tips:

  • Summarize what truths the group has agreed upon thus far.
  • Draw out the applications and pray.
  • Also identify where the group has not agreed or where unanswered questions remain. This can provide fuel for further enquiry. Giving permission to hold and express different views, and postpone conclusions, is a prerequisite for growth.

With these steps, the group discussion is summarized with integrity, the group is confronted with clear conclusions from the passage and the sense of enquiry is not totally evaporated.

(This article has been condensed from a training manual for small group pastors, soon to be published by St Matthias Press.)

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