Many small group leaders feel the need to teach their group members by providing a lot of information, principles, and theories instead of leading an actual discussion. This is a bad idea. It’s called lecturing, and it should be reserved for professors behind their lecterns (and to some extent pastors behind their pulpits).
But that doesn’t mean group leaders should have nothing to say. We should. In fact, I believe it’s important for us to spend a little bit of time explaining the context of a Bible passage or topic before the group digs into a discussion.
I also believe group leaders need to address context on two levels: textual and personal.
The textual context of a Bible passage is the frame that surrounds it and gives it meaning. This frame is made up of several elements:
- The verses that come immediately before and immediately after the Scripture passage under discussion
- The book of the Bible that contains the passage under discussion
- All passages of Scripture that were written by the author of the passage under discussion
- The Bible as a whole
- The culture and historical setting experienced by the author as he wrote the passage under discussion
The first two elements are often referred to as the “immediate context.” They operate like the white lines on both sides of a road—they show us where the text has come from and where it’s going, and they provide a boundary that keeps us from wandering away from the text’s proper meaning. The final three elements are often referred to as the “broad context.” They operate like a map, showing us the country surrounding that particular road on all sides.
Here’s my point: one of your jobs as a group leader is to provide a brief overview of the textual context for the verses your group will be interacting with during a discussion. And you want to provide that overview before the discussion gets started.
You don’t want to get carried away, of course. You don’t have to dig through a myriad of commentaries and hit your group members with every piece of relevant information you uncover. That would be lecturing, and lecturing is bad.
No, your goal is simply to highlight a few facts and ideas that wouldn’t be considered “common knowledge” and that you believe will be helpful to your group members during the discussion. Hopefully, that kind of information will be included with the curriculum your group is using. If not (or if you wrote your own material), you should be able to compile some useful information during the process of identifying a big idea, writing discussion questions, or developing another part of your study.
Personal context refers to your group members’ experiences and attitudes that frame their interaction with each passage of Scripture. In other words, just as the verses before and after a passage have an impact on its meaning, your group members’ personal stories will impact how they interact with that passage and its meaning. This includes their stories as individuals as well as the collective story of the group as a whole.
To continue the analogy I started earlier, if the broad context of a Scripture passage is like a map, and the immediate context is a single road on that map, then the personal context is the condition of the person attempting to follow that road on that map.
That being the case, another of your jobs as a group leader is to maintain some level of awareness regarding the condition of your group members as they prepare to discuss a passage of Scripture.
If most of your group seems exhausted, for example, and you had planned on delving into a deep doctrinal exploration of Romans 5, you may need to change your plan a bit. Or if you were going to lead a discussion on a Scripture passage that deals with grief (Psalm 22, for example) but then you learn that one of your group members just experienced a death in their extended family, you have a responsibility to include their experience in the group’s discussion of the text.
The bottom line is this: it’s important for you as a leader to highlight the textual context of a Scripture passage in order to help your group explore that passage more fully. In the same way, it’s important for you as a leader to point out anything from the lives of your people that may serve as an obstacle or an enhancement to the group’s discussion.
My small group recently worked through the book of Revelation, and we started by exploring the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Here are the nuggets of textual and personal context I provided for the group when we studied the letter to the church in Pergamum (Rev. 2:12–17):
- Reminder: all seven letters to the churches follow the same structure. They start with an image of Jesus; they talk about what the church has done well; they talk about what the church has done wrong; they encourage the church to stand strong in the middle of hard times; and they describe a reward for those who do stand strong.
- Pergamum was located on the coast of the country we call Turkey today.
- Pergamum was one of the rare cities in the Roman Empire allowed to administer capital punishment, which was called “the right of the sword.” This is important for understanding verses 12 and 16.
- I understand that several of you are excited to start digging into the juicy parts of Revelation that deal with the end of the world and all that. But that starts in chapter 4, so we’ll need to stay away from those discussions until we get a little further into the text.
See the idea? Not too long. Not too much information. Just a few helpful facts and observations to prepare the group for an interesting discussion.
Content in this article is taken from The Field Guide.
The premise of serving as a small group leader sounds simple: Invite people to join you in studying the Bible. But the real-world implications of that role are incredibly complex. Today’s small group leaders are asked to function as semi-experts in theology, psychology, evangelism, worship, apologetics, counseling, education, and nutrition–all in service to God and His church. Most of today’s group leaders receive little or no training on how to carry out this important work. They are told to “Go and make disciples,” then left to figure out the details on their own.
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