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Middle School Ministry: The False Positive of My Small Group's Success

By Mark Oestreicher | Middle school ministry advocate; author; formerly with Youth Specialties and lives in El Cajon, California. | August 1 2013
As I write, my seventh grade guys' small group has two more weeks of weekly meetings this school year. We break for the summer and won't be meeting again until early September. I've been with this group of guys for two years and have one more to go.

This is my third small group of middle school guys at this church, with the guys in the previous two cycles of three years each now finishing their first and sophomore years of college, respectively. This "three different small groups in the same church context" gives me a rare opportunity to look at the groups comparatively.

My current group is massive to be a small group. We regularly have about 15 guys, sometimes 18. In a sense, it's not a small group but a youth group. In another sense, it would be easy to conclude that my current group is substantially more successful. I mean, we have 18 guys! My previous groups only had five and six guys. Do the math, and it's pretty obvious which group is rocking it and which ones struggled to be anything approximating significant ministry.

For two years, I've outwardly whined about the challenges of leading a middle school small group of this size; I've inwardly puffed myself up with a sense of accomplishment, an implicit value. The guys love the small group, and their parents have nothing but positive comments. The pregnancy test strip of my ministry success had a big red plus sign on it.

However, I've had a growing sense of uneasiness that something's not quite right. A few months back, I started wondering if the success indicators were, in fact, false positives. They were indicating a win, but I was entertaining the idea of needing to seek a second opinion.

I started paying attention. Particularly, I looked more closely at the nights my co-leader and I would say were good nights. (If you lead a middle school small group, you certainly understand that plenty of nights are not officially good.) I had an a-ha: I had shifted my definition of a good night without realizing it.

This became clear when I had a reunion with the group of guys who are now in college. We met at one of the guy's houses that has a pool and spa, and merely spent an evening getting caught up with each other. As we sat in the spa, one of the guys suggested they each take a turn saying what he was doing in life, where he was headed, and…(he paused to think) what he remembered about our small group.

As they shared, I was almost moved to tears. Each shared about how significant our group had been as a safe place where they really could talk about the questions they had. Funny…none mentioned the curriculum we used, the instruction I provided or the information they gained about following Jesus. Each focused exclusively on the rareness of a place where, as middle school guys, they could be honest about their questions.

That's when the false positive of my current group hit me. Our good nights these days are those when we have a reasonably good spiritual discussion about a topic of my choosing, but we never (or hardly ever) get to a place of unscripted honesty and safe sharing.

I'm sure the shift is more complex, but the single biggest variable that changed is the size: 18 middle school guys simply cannot be honest about their difficult-to-articulate ruminations, longings and doubts. As fun and educationally valuable as my current group might be, it's not safe; there's simply not room for exploration. Maybe it would work with high school guys but not with middle schoolers.

Bottom line: A small group program isn't the point. There is only incremental value in shifting our large group teaching time to a small(er) group context. If my small group is going to be effective next year, we absolutely must take courageous (and likely painful) action on what the word small actually means.
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