Creating a Safe Zone for Discussion in Sunday School/Small Groups, Part 1

Tuesday 30th September, 2008

Many teachers begin serving without training. That means that they can only build off of what they have experienced. Most witnessed their Sunday School teachers lecturing each week. We should not be surprised when that is the method they choose to employ. And we should not be surprised if they don't know the best ways to facilitate discussion.

Discussion can be a great method. It involves more people than lecture. It can bring more collective intelligence and experiences to bear upon the subject at hand. What can be done to create a safe environment which results in healthy, productive discussion in Sunday School/small groups?

I recently read a helpful blog post by Grahame Knox entitled 10 Ways to Encourage Discussion in Your Small Group. While Knox applies his points to teenagers, his simple points apply to adults as well. In Part 1, I will share the first five ways to create a safe environment which encourages discussion. Knox's five ways are in all capitals followed by my commentary:

  • A POSITIVE ENVIRONMENT. The bottom line: provide a comfortable environment that is free from distraction. Make sure that visual and sound interruptions are minimized. Check the room temperature. Make sure lighting is adequate. Make sure equipment and furnishing are appropriate. If seating is uncomfortable, then give breaks by moving the group around. Make sure there is enough space for an open discussion, preferably circle or semi-circle. Help the group to benefit by being able to see one another--since 93% of communication is nonverbal.
  • BREAK THE ICE. I have written about the importance of icebreakers before. Check out Five Suggestions for Using Icebreakers Well in Sunday School/Small Groups, Nine Reasons to Use Icebreakers in Sunday School/Small Groups, and Using Icebreakers Purposefully in Sunday School/Small Groups. I enjoyed Knox's list of ways icebreakers and games can get things moving and encourage interaction: (1) helping new members integrate into the group; (2) helping the group feel comfortable together; (3) encouraging cooperation; (4) encouraging listening to others; and (5) creating a good atmosphere for learning and participation. You can even download a free resource called 40 Icebreakers for Small Groups. Knox also mention providing food which can relax a group and give them some casual social interaction time.
  • IT'S OKAY TO TALK. This is a great suggestion. Give the group permission to talk from the beginning. Try to get everyone to participate (without embarrassing). One way to get everyone involved would be to divide into smaller groups (3-6 people). In groups that size, those who are introverts will not be as intimidated about talking. This means the teacher/facilitator has to keep the group moving toward its objective.
  • USE OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS. Avoid using questions which ask for yes, no, or one-word answers. Get them thinking. Encourage the group to ask good questions. Feel free to turn the questions back toward the group. Ask questions which bring out knowledge and experience. He shared a helpful post called That's a Good Question. Also, check out Keys to Increasing Verbal Participation in Sunday School. I like Knox's final statement here: "Help them to discover and apply what the Bible says for themselves." Lead the group to help each other to do this!
  • LISTEN. As the teacher/facilitator, your example is important. But you also need to lead the group to learn how to listen well to each other. Give the group time to think and to respond to your questions. As Knox said, "If necessary, rephrase them until they are clearly understood." Ask the group to tell you what they just heard. Teach them not to cut each other off. Don't rush. Check out Improve Your Small Group by Listening Better, Part 1, Improve Your Small Group by Listening Better, Part 2, and The Best Sunday School Teachers and Leaders Are Great Listeners!.
Discussion is an important tool in the teacher's planbook. Used well, it can produce amazing results in group interaction as it advances knowledge and commitment to obedience of God's Word. In Part 2, we will look at Knox's final five ways to create a safe environment which encourages discussion: be inclusive, be creative, be affirming, the sound of silence, and summarize. For more information about discussion, check out Effective Discussion in Your Sunday School Class, Part 1, Effective Discussion in Your Sunday School Class, Part 2, and Effective Discussion in Your Sunday School Class, Part 3. Create a safe place for discussion. Be revolutionary!

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