Why Imaginary Conversations Are Key to Improving Small Group Experiences
We’ve all had moments in life when we needed a little rehearsal time to achieve optimal results. If you’ve ever prepared for a job interview, broken up with someone, shared bad news, or even proposed marriage, you’ve had imaginary conversations with yourself. Before you ever entered into any of these situations, you probably mentally walked through how the conversation might go so you could be prepared for any curve balls, questions, or other challenges.
As a church leader, you also need to have some imaginary conversations if you want to create a message that can be effectively experienced and processed in your small groups. You may be sharing the greatest message of all time, but you only have the attention of kids and teenagers in your weekly programming for around an hour, so you have to make the most of it.
Here are two critical ways imaginary conversations can help contextualize, customize, and personalize your curriculum to enhance your small group experience:
Have imaginary conversations so . . .
WHAT HAPPENS ON THE PLATFORM WILL PROMPT WHAT HAPPENS IN THE SMALL GROUP.
Some things are communicated better from a platform than in a circle. That’s why we think it’s important to structure your ministry in a way where large group environments work as a step to group, as a step to a better experience in group, and as a step to create a culture of groups. But there’s also a relational benefit to letting a skilled communicator teach: so your small group leaders don’t have to.
Putting the most dynamic, articulate teacher you have on the platform will inevitably improve your small group experiences. But you can take it a step further. Your communicators can leverage their message to prompt what happens in small group. And here are four practical ways to do that:
START WITH THE SMALL GROUP EXPERIENCE.
Before you write or customize a message, think about what you want to happen in a group. Have an imaginary small group conversation. What do you hope they’ll talk about? When you begin with the end in mind, it will change the way you set up the conversation.
SAY WHAT YOU CAN SAY, SO THEY DON’T HAVE TO SAY IT.
Your small group leaders’ primary goal is to give kids a safe place to process faith. So when you leverage a master communicator to present truth, you do something remarkable for the group. You give them a leader who is neutral, someone who didn’t just teach them something they may want to challenge. As you consider the message, think through what a master communicator can say from the platform so the leader can spend less time wearing a teacher hat, and more time facilitating the conversation.
SET UP THE TENSION.
When a communicator explains the idea too thoroughly, answers every possible critique, and makes every possible application, there’s very little left to talk about in small group. It seems counterintuitive for most communicators, but it helps the group experience when a communicator can leave a few things unresolved. It’s okay to resolve tension when you’re communicating to preschoolers, but as kids get older, unresolved tension will become an important tool to keep kids engaged and to set up groups to win.
SAY ONE THING.
There’s a limit to what a kid (or adult) can really process in one hour. Small group experiences help kids personalize and apply biblical truth, but that can’t happen when they have to spend the first half of group trying to figure out what the message was about. Your message should have one, clear bottom line. The clearer the message, the faster your small groups can get to the application.
Have imaginary conversations so . . .
WHAT YOU SAY TO LEADERS DURING THE WEEK WILL GUIDE WHAT THEY SAY TO KIDS DURING SMALL GROUP.
Every leader wants a plan and a script for their group time. Without a script, your leaders might do nothing but talk about the mating habits of wild boar every week, or try to take their third-grade girls through Mere Christianity. Being relevant and strategic about your environment means you don’t let your leaders run rogue. Instead, you spend a considerable amount of your week evaluating your small group materials.
If you want the application of your message to be experienced in a small group context, then the activities and questions you give your leaders are one of the most critical elements of your weekly curriculum. Effective activities and questions take time and a lot of imaginary conversations. Here are just a few things you should keep in mind.
ACCOMMODATE A VARIETY OF LEARNING STYLES.
Not every kid processes information in the same way. Some kids learn better by listening, some by talking. Some learn better by watching, some by doing. Since one style won’t fit all, your activities should never be weighted too much toward one learning style.
CONSIDER THE AGE OF YOUR AUDIENCE.
A preschooler is very different from a first grader, and the mind of a first grader isn’t the same as the mind of a third grader. When you evaluate your curriculum, the activities and questions should change according to the age and stage of the child. If child development isn’t your thing, find an educator you trust, someone who understands child development, and have them review your small group curriculum. We actually wrote a whole book about this called It’s Just a Phase to help church leaders understand how they can leverage the unique opportunities of each stage of a kid’s life in their development of faith.
RELATE TO THE CULTURE OF YOUR DEMOGRAPHIC.
No curriculum will ever be exactly what you need for your context. So, take the material through some filters. Are the examples and applications reflective of your socioeconomic, ethnic, and regional make-up? How can you customize this material to leverage your particular culture for the sake of your message?
RARELY GIVE THEM SOMETHING THAT CAN BE ANSWERED WITH ONE WORD.
Whether the answer is “Yes,” “No,” “Jesus,” or “The Bible,” posing a question that can be answered with one word is typically a conversation killer. The exception to the one-word answer rule is if the question can be answered with a variety of singular words. “What’s your favorite Olympic sport?” is a one-word question that can open a conversation.
DON’T CONFUSE A CONVERSATION GUIDE WITH A STUDY GUIDE.
The purpose of a small group is to help kids process and apply biblical truth, not to help kids pass a biblical literacy test. That means your small group materials guide conversations. A study guide in an open group setting can quickly alienate kids who are less adept learners. If every question has a right answer, kids will determine for themselves whether they’re smart enough or not smart enough to belong in church. Please don’t miss this: Church isn’t a place where smart people belong. It’s a place where everyone belongs.
ASK SOME QUESTIONS “JUST FOR FUN.”
Seriously. Groups should be fun. If you want kids to come back, and if you want them to enjoy being with their leaders and with each other, then they probably need to laugh together. If they don’t laugh together, they’ll probably never feel comfortable enough to talk with each other about their questions, their doubts, or their life experiences. So, give them something fun to do and something fun to talk about—every week.
Building a ministry where “small group” is the answer for discipleship means more than just organizing your ministry to connect kids in consistent groups with consistent, well-trained leaders. It also means being intentional about the way you create a weekly experience so kids can worship, hear biblical truth presented in a relevant and direct way, and process that experience in a small group. When you get in the habit of having imaginary conversations as you prepare your curriculum, you can enhance what’s already happening in your small groups so they happen even better.
Adapted from When Relationships Matter: Make Your Church a Place Where Kids and Teenagers Belong, by Reggie Joiner, Kristen Ivy, and Tom Shefchunas, © 2019 The reThink Group, Inc. Used with permission from the publisher. To find out more (and to download free resources for leaders), visit WhenRelationshipsMatterBook.com.