Spice it up

spiceitupSpice It Up, by Mike Hanlon and James Leitch, is not a Spanish cookbook, nor a guide to better sex! It’s a course to equip leaders to lead more engaging Bible studies. If Bible studies are your thing, then I hope you haven’t had the experience of being bored to death (especially if you’ve been in a group with me!) Far too many studies end up being mundane and pedestrian. Sometimes we plough through the passage, asking basic comprehension questions, and fail to understand what it really means or what we should do in response. This course aims to overcome these problems. Bible study should be stimulating and life-changing.

Spice It Up is an 8 week course aimed at giving confidence to leaders in handling the Bible in a small group environment. The beauty of this course is that it’s compact and simple, while integrating wisdom from other books and resources. It acknowledges dependence on ideas and material from Growth Groups by Col Marshall and Leading Better Bible Studies by Rod and Karen Morris. This is a great start for new leaders, but it’s also an excellent refresher for those who have previously received training in leading Bible studies. It covers the following topics:

Week 1   Why Bible Study Groups
Week 2   Basic Bible Study
Week 3   Making Bible Study Come Alive
Week 4   Group Dynamics
Week 5   Understanding and Integration
Week 6   Learning Cycle – Application
Week 7   Preparation
Week 8   Practice Sessions

A real strength of this material is how it pushes the leaders to be more interesting AND to go deeper into the Bible. It’s a big mistake to think that the Bible and fun are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Instead of superficial pedestrian yes/no type questions, we’re urged to use creative strategies that connect people to the text and highlight it’s relevance. For example, instead of asking…

  1. What does it say?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. What does it mean to us?

we’re encouraged to explore with the group…

  1. What is surprising?
  2. What is thought provoking?
  3. How does it inspire and challenge us?

This course helps us to use questions well. We should consider the likely responses to any question we ask, but avoid questions that are really a quiz, asking people to discover the answer in our heads. We’re encouraged to have prompting questions up our sleeve that keep the discussion going. These might include extending questions (e.g. Can you explain that a bit more?”), justifying questions (e.g. How does that fit with what we’ve been talking about?”), and redirecting questions (e.g. Any other thoughts?”).

People learn in different ways. Some are more auditory, some visual, and others kinaesthetic. Recognising this opens up creative opportunities for engaging the group. The authors are huge fans of engaging people in a common space, especially by the use of a whiteboard. If people speak and get to write things on the board, then all three learning styles are engaged to some extent.

Spice It Up encourages leaders to add a step between meaning and application. This step asks how what we are learning fits with or shapes our overall theology and connects with the rest of the Bible. It helps people to do theology in a practical way. It also demonstrates that our thinking and practice are to be shaped by the Bible, rather than simply filtering the Bible through what we already believe.

The course also pushes us to apply ourselves to application. Too often we overlook this area and then tack on a question like “So how does this apply to us?” if there’s time! If the goal of Bible study is to see people’s lives transformed by the Word of God, then this is simply not good enough. The advice is to use more concrete and specific questions, to probe more deeply, and to introduce scenarios that highlight what the passage will mean in specific situations.

There are so many practical tips in this material. A whole chapter is devoted to how to go about preparing a study. There’s a string of appendices covering issues such as discovering your learning and communication styles, templates for preparing and writing studies, specific issues for studies from the Gospels and parables, factors of group life, relationships between leaders and personal ministry to members of the groups, and memory prompts for quick Bible studies.

Spice It Up describes the groups as Bible Study Groups. In our church context we’ve given small groups a variety of names and the current one is ‘growth groups’. They’re not intended to be simply Bible study groups, but also involve prayer and personal ministry. For this reason, I’d be inclined to speak of Bible Study in Groups instead. Maybe, then, this course could be accompanied by a series of other courses such as Prayer in Groups, Relationships in Groups, Promoting the Gospel in Groups, Personal Ministry and Care in Groups!

However, the strength of the book is in assisting us with leading better Bible studies. It does this with clarity and simplicity. It’s an excellent resource that is backed up by a website that includes training videos, Bible studies and other resources. The course material can be purchased from this site.

Why churches should stop small groups

Hear me on this one. I believe that home groups, growth groups, prayer and Bible groups, gospel groups, connect groups, cell groups, small groups – or whatever else we may call them – are a vital part of church life. They enable people to develop relationships with others in ways that are otherwise difficult in a larger church. They provide an excellent opportunity to read, learn, discuss and apply the Bible in fellowship with others. They enable personal prayers to be shared with one another. People can be encouraged, supported, and cared for, without always relying on the professional pastor to do all the work.

Stop_SignBut we need to stop them! Some groups just seem to go on and on, without clear expectations or direction. Some groups become so cliquey that nobody can ever break into them. Others get so toxic with gossip, divisions, or grumbling, that they need to be shut down for the sake of everyone involved, and often the church as a whole. Some groups develop there own agenda which clearly competes with that of the church as a whole. Sometimes groups are simply unhealthy and need to be stopped.

However, it’s not the euthanasia of groups that I’m primarily concerned with here, but the need to build helpful rhythms into our groups. I want to apply some of the insights from Bruce Miller’s helpful book, Your Church in Rhythm and Larry Osborne’s book on small groups, Sticky Church. We need to communicate about when and how our small groups will begin and end. We should also consider the value of various starts and finishes within the life span of the groups. Let’s consider Miller’s chronos cycles and examine the benefits to be gained by pacing our groups wisely and oscillating them between intensity and renewal. Let’s work out when and how to stop them!

Yearly cycles

Starting and stopping our groups each year, helps people to pace themselves. It allows time to build relationships and it also offers an opt-out when the relationships aren’t really working, or we simply want to get to know others. Life changes each year. We move, we get new jobs, our kids get older, we enter into new relationships. These changes often mean people should move to a different group.

Consider carefully when groups begin. Our church often waited until March, when uni students got back into town, but this frustrated others who were looking for a group in January or when school started. It might be wise to advertise a number starting times. But equally, set a stop time, so that the group can finish on a strong note, people can be thanked and farewelled, celebrations can be shared. It’s not good when groups simply taper out and dissolve. This can be a recipe for hurt and disappointments. We need to stop our small groups well!

[This is not to say that we should dissolve our groups every year. Some groups will continue for years and continue to be healthy. But giving people some time out at the close of the year can be very healthy. Taking a break from the small group can function like an annual sabbath to enable everyone to have a rest – pastors, leaders, participants and their families. Sometimes, short term summer holiday groups can fill the gap for those who need a group during this period.]

Term-based cycles

There is much to be gained by arranging our groups according to seasons, and often the most obvious is school terms. While not everyone’s life is shaped by terms, it does have the benefit of pacing the life of the group. We can oscillate between 9-10 weeks on and 2-3 weeks off. It gives the leaders and the group a break. People get time off for other things and don’t resent their group for always demanding their time.

It can also be helpful to match these groups with program of the church. If the teaching is term-based this allows integration across the church. A short teaching series is offered in the school holidays and the groups get some time off. Osborne also suggests that breaking between terms gives the groups an opportunity to take stock, reevaluate how the group is going, and sometimes to help people transition into another group if things aren’t working out. Stopping our groups in the holidays can also give space for doing other things with the group, perhaps a social outing, a special dinner, or a weekend away. If we want people to stay excited about the groups, I think there is great value in stopping our groups at the end of each term.

Weekly cycles

If our groups go for 9 or 10 weeks followed by a break, then we should plan how to use these weeks. Are we following the sermon series? Will the group need some variety over this time? Perhaps, a 4-1-4 plan to do studies, with a night of prayer in the centre, or a dinner together, or combine with another group in the church for a night. The church might encourage groups to do something different in one of the terms, perhaps encouraging the groups to do a training course, or to choose their own studies. If so, then we need to communicate well ahead and prepare people for the changes.

Sometimes the group will face a particular crisis and we need to break with the timetable or plan. Maybe a member is in hospital and the group will choose to stop a week so everyone gets a chance to visit. It could be a big issue that is facing the group that needs addressing, so we might stop the program and give this issue the attention it needs.

Daily cycles

It’s also worth considering the basic shape of each group meeting. How much time is given to catching up with each other, sharing needs or joys, learning and discussing God’s word, praying for one another and other things? Does the group share food together – a meal or simply refreshments? Is the group excited about how it uses it’s time?

People are creatures of habit and they build their expectations on their experiences. If a group always starts late and finishes after the agreed time, people will start coming late and often still get irritated when the group goes overtime. If we stick to the group’s agreed timetable, this will build confidence in the group and create a less stressful environment. If you need to, then agree together on extending the time we meet, otherwise we should stop our groups on time!

I hope these reflections help increase the joy and decrease the stress in our small groups!