"It was pretty difficult to sit through the discussion questions on Sunday," said one of my small group leaders in an e-mail about his group of freshman guys. Two weeks into the new school year, it was clear he was having a hard time with his group's periods of prolonged, awkward silence.
Was it because the questions were bad? Perhaps, but more than likely it was because I hadn't prepared him to adjust how he ran his group based on who was there. His group wasn't ready to respond to the kinds of provocative questions the older groups gladly discussed. He needed help adjusting the structure of and his expectations for what was normal for his particular group of freshmen.
Managing small groups depends on assessing the different maturity levels of today's high school students. On one end of the spectrum, you've got barely-teens who are three months removed from being classmates with sixth graders, some of whom haven't yet hit puberty. On the other end are almost-adults, guys who can bench press twice my weight, girls who could pass for 25, young men and women who are ready for more sophisticated discussion.Establishing Goals and Expectations
The first and most important thing leaders can do is to establish a goal for their small group time. For some leaders, their own expectation is that they will spend virtually all of their time in a discussion about the biblical text. That is often unrealistic for a younger group of students.
You can help your leaders by clarifying your expectations for small group gatherings. In my ministry, the most important goal for any younger group is to create community through sharing about one another's lives. That in turn lays the foundation for Scripture to come alive and be applied to their life situations.
Picture a simple graph where the arrow starts low and points up and to the right. That's a snapshot of how much time your small group should be spent in deep theological discussion as time passes. For freshman groups (especially, but not always, guy groups), talking about the Bible lesson should be only a small portion of your time. The hope is this group will be around for four years, so creating a sense of community is the most important thing.
Of course, if the group is one of those unique ones in which the students are precocious and able to go deeper, that's excellent! More than anything, we want our freshmen to create bonds with their leaders and their friends, invite their unchurched buddies, and have a desire to want to come back. If they feel as if their leader is more interested in teaching them Bible lessons than taking an active interest in their lives, they won't feel cared for, and they won't want to get invested.Start with Highs and Lows
The best method we've found for helping students open up about their lives is Highs and Lows. Each person (leaders included) shares one high and low from the previous week. Not only will this provide the chance for students to share their lives with each other; but it also forces everyone, including the quieter students, to say something. We want every student to feel heard every week.
When it's time for discussing each week's lesson, I encourage my leaders to start by asking, "So what did you think of the talk?" This may be all they need to get the conversation headed in the right direction, and they simply become facilitators for the rest of the time.
As for discussing the questions I have provided to my group leaders, I encourage my leaders to look at the questions in advance, get the gist of them, then ask the questions in their own words. This keeps students from feeling as if they're getting canned questions that fail to lead to organic discussion.
Life change happens in small groups—always has and always will—but only if we're willing to focus on relationships first, which then provides the open door for Scripture to come alive.