Teachers sometimes worry about the number of students in their classes because for many, this is the measure of successful teach-ing. However, Jesus ended His ministry with a small group of disciples—eleven to be exact plus the women. Their ministry became so dynamic that they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). The wise adult teacher never counts numbers as an indication of successful teaching. Adult learners thrive in small group settings! Here they find a safe place to ask questions about the Bible that they may hesitate to ask in a larger setting. More important, adults are more likely to be vulnerable and share about their challenges and struggles as they apply biblical principles to their lives. Some may share details about their marriage and family. Others may reveal their frustrations with caring for aging parents. And still others may need reassurance that God cares for them in their singleness, joblessness, or homelessness. The teacher who is sensitive to the exciting possibilities of teaching adults in small groups will value this time together. Three to twelve students constitute a small group.
A Safe Place
Begin each class with the reminder that here is a “safe place” for sharing. Tell students that whatever is discussed during class time is considered to be confidential. Anyone who shares information about someone in the group will not be allowed to return. Add this disclaimer: Information about sexual or physical abuse of a child must be reported. Teachers are mandated reporters, meaning that they are held legally responsible for alerting authorities about sexual or physical abuse of children.
Initially, it may take as many as four weeks for learners to relax and feel comfortable in the small group setting, especially if they are meeting others for the first time. It’s important for teachers to be sensitive to each student and not allow one talkative person to dominate the entire class session. Allow even the quiet ones a space to share and to respond.
Appoint a timekeeper so that the class session ends on time. If you are allotting 35 minutes for the lesson and 25 minutes for discus-sion, for example, a timekeeper will encourage you stick to the timeframe. Beginning on time honors those students who make the effort to arrive on time. Ending on time signals that everyone’s busy schedule is respected. When you start and stop on time, this provides incentive for students to return again and again, week after week.
Too Large for Small Group?
There may be a time when the small group is no longer a small group. New attendees may expand your class beyond the twelve recommended students. When this happens consistently, it’s time to split the class and form another small group. As uncomfortable as this may seem, students will actually appreciate this protection of an intimate setting, which ensures that everyone gets a chance to be heard.
The leader for this new group may emerge from current students, or it may be a new teacher. If it’s the latter, invite the new teacher to sit in your class for a couple of sessions and help you lead it. This way, students are more accepting when it’s time to separate.
Enjoy your small group! Remember, students may grow more when the class doesn’t grow larger.
La Verne Tolbert, Ph.D., is author of Teaching Like Jesus: A Practical Guide to Christian Education in Your Church (Zondervan).