Coaching Small Group Calls to Faith

A small group is an incredibly fruitful context in which to invite students to consider becoming followers of Jesus. It is a safe place, where there is a community of friends. And after someone makes a new faith decision, they can continue to thrive in that same small group community.

Asking student leaders to make these calls to faith in their small groups, however, can produce deep fear in them. There are a number of hurdles to overcome. Thus, it is essential to coach students in how to do it.

But be forewarned: coaching is a long process. And when we don’t do a thorough job of coaching, we may be setting our students up to fail, and they may feel burned by the experience. But good and thorough coaching builds trust, fosters faith in the face of failure, and creates opportunities to pass on a number of kingdom skills and values which may bear lifelong fruit in them as disciples.

I learned this the hard way. Back in 2012, I started coaching student-led calls to faith in my first year of planting at University of Kansas (KU). I had two thriving small groups and a core team made up primarily of freshmen women. Raeann was my go-to female on campus: a smart, eager risk-taker who quickly became the natural leader of the group. As a pre-med student, she had been trying to grow in boldness to reach her other pre-med friends, some of whom had come in and out of our small groups. After some convincing and after cashing in all of my relational capital, she agreed to give a call to faith at a joint small group meeting with the other thriving group.

I knew this was a major moment for our chapter and would determine if others would follow her example. So I spent more than the usual amount of time coaching Raeann. Together we looked over Scripture, determined discussion questions, practiced giving a gospel presentation using the Big Story over and over to each other, offered constructive feedback each time, and worked hard on how we wanted students to indicate their response.

When the night of the small group came, I was there and eager to cheer Raeann on. She was excited and nervous that four of her non-Christian friends had come. When the moment came, Raeann wonderfully pulled together the threads of the conversation and began her gospel presentation. Each student wrote their response on an index card and gave them back to Raeann. It was great.

When the night was over, Raeann was beaming. But without even glancing at the cards, she handed them over to me. In my surprise, Midwestern-nice took over and I reached out and took the cards from her. ApparentlyI was going to do the follow-up. She thought she was done. She had invited a response, and the moment I accepted the response cards, I let her opt out of the unfolding process.

As I drove home that night, I was both proud of her and kicking myself for not realizing I had to show her that there was more to this than just presenting the gospel. Because I failed to coach the whole process, much fruit was sadly squandered that night.

Four years later, I now have a five-step process for coaching students to give calls to faith in small groups, and it has borne much fruit.

5 STEPS TO COACHING STUDENT-LED CALLS TO FAITH IN SMALL GROUPS

1. Prepare the content with the student before the call to faith. Let’s assume that you have cast vision for your student leaders and have a willing volunteer ready to make a call to faith in their small group. I have found that it takes at least a week for a thorough preparation process. Expect it to take longer than you think it will.

a. The first thing that I do is prepare the Scripture study with the student. You want to make sure that they have thought carefully through the discussion questions and observations that will lead toward a smooth connection to the gospel. Once that’s done, we each write a summary of the Scripture and gospel presentation using the Big Story gospel presentation. Then we share our summaries with each other, practicing and improving our work. The point here is to help your student practice giving a clear, compelling, spiritual-authority-filled summary and call. They will do much better when they can hear how it sounds out loud; knowing where to pause, what to emphasize, etc., becomes more intuitive.

b. Decide how students will be prompted to respond, and prepare for that group time. One of the easiest ways to have people respond is to simply have them hold up the number of fingers that corresponds to the world they currently find themselves in. Both Christians and non-Christians can easily do this and talk about why they chose that world. Once you have decided how everyone will indicate where they are at, you will want to have some discussion questions for the group. We typically use: “What world are you in and why?” followed by “What would it take for you to move to world 4? Are you ready to make that change tonight?”

c. Make an ending plan. I have us plan for three different scenarios: (1) no one is ready to move that night, (2) there are people ready to make a decision, or (3) someone is talking a lot, processing through their feelings about life and faith. In the case of number three, you need to be able to release people to leave the small group, yet still focus on the one who is processing. The plans don’t have to be complicated, but decide how you will pray to close in each case.

d. Next, I plan out a follow-up plan. It is easy to wing the follow-up, but we miss so much of what God is doing if we do! The call to faith starts at small group but doesn’t end until everyone has been followed up with. My rule of thumb is that anyone who indicated that they are in world 2 or 3 or anyone who moved from 2 or 3 to world 4 should be followed up with within 48 hours. Anyone who started in world 4 can be followed up with within the week to get them more deeply plugged in or begin to move them from a member toward apprenticeship on the Leadership Pathway. Help your student think of the information they will want to gather from the members of their group during the follow-up time and then craft the follow-up questions. Some key information includes their experience of the night, what their response was (changes/movements they made in their spiritual life), whether they have any barriers to following Jesus, and what their next steps are in their spiritual journey.

e. Last, set a time and date for your debrief conversation.

2. Have the student run through the call with another student. After my students have prepped with me, I ask that they practice and prepare with another Christian student in their study. I have three reasons for this: (1) Practicing again with someone with fresh eyes and ears will make the call to faith clearer. If the helper student doesn’t understand how to respond, no one else will either. This extra practice provides an opportunity for things to be adjusted. (2) It builds ownership for the call to faith in both students. Now they’re partners! The helper student can be prepared to share first to break the ice if necessary and provide a clarifying example of response. (3) It can create a built-in team for follow-up. This is a great way to begin to mobilize a member to be an apprentice or to develop the apprentice in follow-up after the small group.

3. Support your student during the small group that they give the call to faith at. When the night of the small group arrives, my job as a coach is to be there, watch, and cheer on my student. I can also jump in and have an impromptu debrief with the small group to capitalize on momentum or head off a difficult night at the pass. (If you can’t be there in person, text before and after the call, so they know you are praying.)

4. Help them follow-up and count decisions. Immediately after the study, I gather my students who will be doing follow-up. We remember together who they need to follow up with and what questions or information they want to gather. We only count decisions once follow-up has happened. This puts some urgency behind the follow-up and helps my students see that we need to discern with those who responded what their decisions actually mean.

5. Debrief with the student. One or two weeks after you helped your student leader grow in anticipation of this invitation to faith in small group—after you prepped them, watched them give the call, and sent them to follow up—you should debrief. I always make sure to ask some version of the following questions:

a. What happened?How did the non-/nominal Christians respond to the call?

b. How did you see the non-/nominal Christians responding to you or your small group? Note: This question is especially key if none of the non-Christians were ready to decide to follow Jesus, as it can help your student see that God has used them and the small group to build trust and walk with others on their spiritual journey. It can also give you insights on how to help your student manage their relational capital or tension.

c. What were the stated barriers to the gospel/response?

d. What are the deeper heart issues behind the stated barriers? Note: As staff we naturally ask ourselves what the deeper issues are behind a student’s reasons for not being ready to follow Jesus. We learn to try to deal with the heart issues. Sometimes our students can think that the stated objections their friend gives and their heart issues are one and the same. This question helps you train your students to do deeper discernment. They may need to go back and ask a few more questions before they can answer this one.

e. What is your next step? Note: This keeps the Discipleship Cycle going. Helping your students determine the appropriate response to the non-/nominal Christians in their small group is key in them continuing to lead and walk with them.

One more note: I ask these questions even if someone made a decision to follow Jesus, because (1) it helps unlock the testimony of the new believer and (2) it helps the student leader better understand what God has done.