Recently while sitting at a round table discussion with several youth pastors I was surprised when one of them declared, “I hate small groups, they never work and so we don’t bother to have them anymore.”
If I am brutally honest I had to hold back a scream at this statement. From the moment I started in youth ministry over 2 decades ago I have made relational ministry, and small groups central to my approach. I believe it is in these settings that lives are transformed through authenticity, delving into the hard topics and genuinely getting to know Jesus on a deeper level. In large group they hear the information and in small groups they unpack it.
While all of this was whirling around in my head, I simply asked the guy, “Why did you scrap them?” “The kid’s just fooled around and got off topic, the leaders hated it, and no one took them seriously, so it wasn’t worth my time. I would rather pack the night with things the kids are engaging in.” That’s when everyone at the table started discussing their own small group woes as well. Yet, as I listened I began to find the reason why so many of us struggle with feeling like small groups are unsuccessful. I believe there are some things we have to keep in mind.
Get To Know Yourself
Some of us are wired in a way that prefers large group centered youth ministry. We are the ones who favor events, stage talks and looking out on a sea of faces in the crowd. The more bodies in the room, the more people who will hear about Jesus. Some of us are wired in a way that would always choose deep conversation with a small number of people. We favor an approach that helps students understand faith not just by hearing, but by having a chance to process and wrestle with it. The first step to our understanding of small groups working, is to understand in our own personalities if we prefer them or would avoid them. This helps us to take a healthy assessment on the small group status of our ministry. Then we can find out if we need help with them, would like to focus on them more, or even might need to find someone else to help us make them successful.
Pay Attention to Your Team
Often the reason why small groups fall apart is because we don’t train or equip our leaders well enough. We put a curriculum in their hand, hold a planning meeting and send them on their way. We haven’t helped them know HOW to lead the small group I once heard that those of us who intuitively love and understand teens consider ourselves in a position with a title of “Youth Worker.”
However, most volunteers without a title give their time because they want to help fill a need, not necessarily because feel called to teens. This means that running a small group that requires keeping teens on topic, answering hard questions, dealing with the 140 things that might be lobbed at them in an evening might not be something know HOW to deal with. Ask them to show up 15 minutes early to youth group and have quick ideas ready on what they can do to enhance their time. Send them articles, and videos that might be helpful. Take them to a one day conference that might come close to your town on a Saturday. Create longer trainings on a day that is easy for them to attend, and provide child care if needed. In short let them feel well equipped and then small groups feel more successful.
Take A Better Look At Your Group
Our set up of small groups are often based off of the usual models. You know we break kids up by gender and age. However, what if we take a deeper look at our own youth group and what is and isn’t working in our small group settings. Instead of one curriculum for all, could you offer a 6 week series where several different topics area offered. That way students get to dig into subjects that interest them most. What about asking students to ask their deepest questions on index cards anonymously, and then working to answer those in small groups? Really the point is to take a step back, look at your group as a whole and see if there is a better way to break groups up to meet the need of YOUR students.
In the end you may need to make some adjustments or you may decide, like the youth worker in my discussion that small groups don’t work. Take a deep breath and know that’s alright. The point isn’t small groups, it’s seeing students transformed by the knowledge they belong to Jesus and then putting that into action. Small groups ultimately are just one method we use to make that happen.