“Dad, why do I keep going to my Sunday morning group if I already know everything about the stories we’re talking about?”
A valid question from a 5th grader who rarely hesitates to speak his mind, and clearly associates going to church with learning. What he learns about God and the Bible at church is as true to him as what he learns about math and history from his mother, so why else would you go if you already know it?
What my son fails to understand is that we’re not to learn the Bible in the same way that we learn other facts or skills: we learn the Bible to obey it. We learn it to apply it. God did not give us His Word merely to inform us, but to transform us.
But my son’s problem is not unique to his age. The most common struggle group leaders have is that of bringing the discussion to the point of application: “What will we do as a result of what we’ve discussed and studied? How will we change?”
So how do group leaders grow in our ability to lead our groups to do what the Word says? Here are five helps.
First, think of yourself as more of a shepherd and less of an educator. Shepherds have a vested interest in the lives of the people they lead. When group leaders think of themselves as shepherds and not just educators, preparing and facilitating a discussion takes on a whole new level of significance, and often a different direction. Overall, more time is spent discussing how lives will change, because shepherds care more about how their people live than educators, who tend to love ideas more than people.
Second, be honest in assessing why you and your group members neglect application. Different motives necessitate different remedies. If you simply didn’t know that you were supposed to apply God’s Word, the remedy for that scenario is different than one for the group leader who avoids application to keep everyone in the room comfortable. So are your group members uninformed? Complacent? Comfortable? Fearful? When you honestly assess your motives, you can directly apply the right remedy.
Third, be sensitive to your group’s specific context. The better you know your people, the better you can frame your study for where they are. Real life change is inherently relational. Have everyone take a free personality profile and learn how to speak to the individuals you have in your group. Be aware of the events and activities going on in their lives. The more aware you are of your group’s context, the better you’ll be at applying the study to their lives.
Fourth, listen for the level of spiritual maturity present in your group. Some of your group members are mere infants in Christ: Everything is still about their wants and needs. Others are growing, learning to serve others. Even others are quite mature and are capable of discipling other Christians. Application of a given text will look different for those who are infants and those who are quite mature. The more aware you are of the spectrum of spiritual maturity in your group, the better you’ll be at bringing application to bear. And one of the best ways to cover this spectrum is to ask members of your group what they are thinking about when it comes to applying the text.
Finally, have a “3 A.M. statement.” A “3 A.M. statement” is your answer to the question, “What is our group discussion about?” when someone calls you and wakes you up at 3 in the morning. If you can’t answer the question under those circumstances, you may not really know what it is you’re trying to say and have your people do as a result. But with a simple, direct “3 A.M. statement,” you begin the discussion with a laser-like focus, giving you more time to discuss application, and giving you a single idea or concept to focus your application on. In this sense, saying less really can be saying more.
Staring at an execution, Paul wrote to Timothy one last time: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Paul was not concerned with Timothy and his church merely knowing God’s Word, but being changed by it. Group leaders should have the same concern, spending more time rebuking, correcting, and training in their groups.
Rob Tims has been married to Holly for nearly 15 years. They have four children: Trey (10), Jonathan (9), Abby (1), and Luke (born April 10). He has served in the local church for 20 years as a children’s pastor, student pastor, and senior pastor. He currently serves on a team at LifeWay Christian Resources that develops customized Bible studies for groups and teaches two classes for Liberty University School of Divinity Online. He is the author of the book Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt.