Start on time.
That may sound trivial, or persnickety, or overly formal for a group. Whatever. Start on time.
“But, if we were to do that, half our group isn’t there and they would miss it.” Start on time. One of the reasons people show up late to church events is the leadership is in the habit of starting late. We reward the people who are late by accommodating their lateness. We punish the people who are on time by not starting on time.
I would not have thought this was any big deal if it were not for my wife. She does training with me. She trains children and preschool workers, while I train adult workers. She has a talk called K.I.D.T.E.A.C.H. The “A” in this acrostic “Arrive early.” When she first told me that I thought it was a little trivial. But, based on the feedback she has gotten from church leaders across the country, I have come to see the importance of bringing this up. She has told me story after story after story of people who have come up to her after conferences and thanked her for bringing the time issue up. “It is a real problem around here. Teachers don’t show up on time.”
All of the things we talked about in the last chapter can only happen if we are there on time—early in fact. Often visitors are nervous about being able to find their way so they show up early. It is pretty bad if they show up before the people who are in charge. Show up early. Start on time.
Life exposure question
I always start a group the same way—with what I call a life exposure question. The life exposure question does not have to do with the Bible; it has to do with life. It opens the window of each person’s life and lets us peer in. Here are some examples from some recent lessons I have written for The Lesson Vault:
- Let’s each share our name and one favorite fruit. No one gets to repeat a fruit. (The question relates to that day’s study and this verse: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” John 15:16 (NIV)
- Let’s each share our name and how many Christians you work with, or how the people you work with feel about Christians. (The lesson that day had to do with being persecuted. This verse sets the stage for that discussion.)
- Share your name and one time you have been robbed. (The lesson included John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10 (NIV)
As you can see, I try to relate the life exposure question to the lesson of the day. This allows the life exposure to do double duty. The life exposure question can fulfill two purposes at the same time—it exposes a bit of the group’s life to each other, and it helps to teach the lesson itself. (Another example of double duty is using biblical illustrations to make a point. By using a biblical illustration from another place in the Bible, you illustrate your point, while at the same time reminding the group of a biblical story.)
Sometimes, I can’t think of a question that relates to the lesson, so we can’t come up with a question that can do double duty. In this case, I resort to a totally trivial question:
- Share your name and your favorite restaurant.
- Share your name and your favorite fast-food restaurant.
- Share your name and your favorite burger.
Notice, we always start with “share your name and.” If the group is doing any kind of outreach, there will be people there who do not know each other. Or, more likely, they kinda know each other, but they can’t remember that name. If you feel strongly that you don’t need to do this, I have a thought for you to consider: maybe you need to do more outreach. If everyone there knows the name of everyone there, it is time to go out and get some new people. The best way to do that is through parties. Have a party once a month and invite every member and every prospect. That is a great idea, but not the subject of this book.
Benefits of life-exposure questions
They get everyone talking
I often encourage groups to engage in a question and answer style of teaching, rather than a lecture style. Sometimes, people object. Their objections go something like this. “But our group doesn’t talk. They don’t like talking. They like hearing me talk. They are a listening kind of group and I am a lecturing kind of teacher. We are a match made in heaven. I talk. They listen.”
Or, sometimes people will say, “I tried to get my group talking; they just didn’t want to open up. It was awkward.”
Here is what I have found. If you can get everyone’s mouth open in the first part of the hour, it goes a long way toward creating a discussion during the rest of the hour. Sometimes, you get their mouths open and you can’t get them shut, but that is a topic for another day. Life-exposure questions get groups talking.
They create connections
I have seen it happen a million times. We ask a question like, “Share your name and where you were born.” Someone says, “I am Bob and I was born in Baltimore.” Some shy person from across the room will say, “No way! I was born in Baltimore. Aren’t the crabs the best there?” “Absolutely, best crabs on the eastern shore. What is your favorite crab place?” About this time you might have to encourage the group to continue this crab conversation after class.
Over time, these little connections turn a group of strangers into a group of friends. It doesn’t happen in a day. It doesn’t happen in a week, but, week after week, layer upon layer, this kind of experience creates a groupness. It creates a bond, a sense that we know each other and love each other and know one another’s stories. We feel connected.
They allow everyone to participate
When we get into the Bible study itself, some will be hesitant to participate. Perhaps they don’t know very much, or they are just especially sensitive about being wrong. For a hundred reasons, it is difficult to get 100% participation during the Bible study time itself, although we push in that direction. But, during this time, everyone can participate. Everyone may not know the meaning of the word perdition, but everyone knows where they were born.
Making Life-exposure questions work
You want these to go quickly. Spend five minutes—max—on this question. If your group is so big you can’t get to everyone in five minutes, you might consider creating another group, but, again, that is a topic of another book. This question needs to go fast.
We get fast by modeling fast. I’d start this way, “Let’s all go around the room, sharing our name and favorite restaurant. I am Josh and my favorite restaurant is any Mexican food restaurant. Next.” By modeling fast, you give everyone the hint that you don’t want the complete Zagat’s guide restaurants in your town. The life-exposure question is important, but it is important that it be done quickly.
I would prepare this question ahead of time, rather than dreaming it up on the fly. The reason is safety. Make sure this question is safe and won’t embarrass anyone. You want to make sure that this question can’t go wrong. Please learn from my mistakes on this.
I was teaching a single’s group once and came up with this question off the top of my head: “Let’s all share our name and how old you were when you first kissed someone of the opposite sex. Not your sister or your mother, but an honest to goodness romantic kiss.” My line of thought with that question was that singles don’t do a lot of kissing, so maybe they would enjoy talking about it. And, we did have some fun. One gal was four and we kidded her playfully. One guy was nineteen and we ribbed him a bit. Then we got to one gal, and, (how do I say this gracefully?) not the prettiest gal in the room. In the south they would say it this way, “Bless her heart, she was not much of a looker.” In the South you can say anything about anyone, no matter how blunt or rude as long as you proceed it with, “Bless her heart.”
Anyway, this gal, bless her heart, not the prettiest in the room confessed, “I am twenty-nine and I have never been kissed.” Ouch.
I hurt her. I crushed her. If she is in a group twenty years from now and the question was, “Who can tell us about a moment when you were really embarrassed,” that moment in my group would come to mind. Learn from my mistakes. Think through these questions ahead of time.
Let me ask you to work on this a bit by filling out the following chart:
||What is wrong with it
|State your name and where you graduated from high school.
|State your name and what is your favorite book.
How did you do? Here is my answer. The first question is bad because there may be someone in the room that didn’t graduate from High School, but they don’t particularly want to talk about it. You can get at roughly the same information by asking the group, “State your name and where did you live during your teenagers years.” They may not have graduated, but they did live somewhere.
The second question is a bad one because, sad to say, most people don’t read. Most people have not read a book in years, and many have never read a book. This is a point of embarrassment to many people because, although they don’t read, they feel like they should.
I remember getting my hair cut one time and had just stopped by a book store and picked up a new book. I was fired up about it and was reading while I was getting my hair cut. I was reading until the lady cutting my hair began to confess her guilt. “I feel so badly. I should read more. I hardly ever read. I know I should.” I am not sure why people feel they should read but don’t read. All I know is that is fairly common for people to feel badly about the fact that they don’t read.
Why not prayer?
You might notice that I didn’t suggest we start the group time with prayer. This may seem odd to some. Here is what experience has taught me. If you start with prayer requests, it can take a long time, especially as the group gets to know one another well. If you are not careful you can spend half the hour talking about prayer requests. This kind of thing can ruin your group. (Notice, I did not say too much prayer can ruin your group; I said too much talking about prayer requests can ruin your group.) We want to spend some time discussing prayer requests, but not half the time. Thoughtful people will get restless and anxious for us to get to the lesson.
The solution to this dilemma is as simple as it is effective. Do prayer requests last. Leave five or ten minutes at the end for prayer requests and prayer. People are not nearly as apt to talk and talk and talk about prayer requests at the end of the hour as they are at the beginning of the hour. My practice, then, is to do prayer requests and prayer last.
The first five minutes set the tone for the rest of group time. The first five minutes after people walk in should be filled with greetings, introductions and small-talk. The first five minutes of the group time itself should be around a life exposure question—each person peeling back the layer of their lives just a bit. With this beginning, we are ready to get into the Bible study.
Josh Hunt, How to Use Questions to Stimulate Life-Changing Discussions, Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking (Las Cruces, NM: Josh Hunt, 2010), 19–25.