It’s happened to every youth leader. The lesson plan called for “discussion,” but instead of the stimulating chatter you’d planned there is only The Dreaded Silence. Your youth are looking at you and you, suddenly feeling quite incompetent, end the lesson and call for a game of hide and seek. Here are a few tips to get you past that hurdle and into the exciting time you’d planned.
- Know the material. I know, we’re all busy and sometimes it’s easy to show up to youth group a little less prepared than we’d like. But if you want to lead a really great discussion, you have to know the material well enough to help your group make connections between their lives and what they read/saw/heard. Nothing kills a group discussion faster than having the leader flip through her book looking for something to comment on. Instead, preview the material and make notes of things that might make good discussion topics. Before the session begins, review your notes. While it’s ok to keep them handy so you can refer to them quickly and unobtrusively, your ultimate goal is to be able to focus on the group and what they’re saying.
- Listen. “Well duh,” as we used to say way back in the day. The truth, though, is that sometimes we leaders get so focused on the points that we want to make that we forget the point of discussion: to let a variety of viewpoints be expressed. Plus, if we’re not well prepared (see point one), our anxiety gets in the way of really hearing what people are saying. Instead, we’re flipping through our books or mentally reviewing the movie while absently nodding our heads. People, yes even kids, see right through that and quickly learn that their views don’t really matter.
- Ask the right questions. Until a group gets to know each other, and gets familiar with the discussion process, you probably won’t be able to walk into a room and say “discuss!” Instead, you’ll have to ask some initial questions to get their brains going. The important thing is to ask open-ended questions. A series of yes/no questions, or ones where there’s a clear right/wrong answer won’t lead to discussion; it’ll just be a verbal quiz. Instead of “did you like the movie,” try, “what did you think of the movie.” It’s usually effective to start with broad, friendly questions and narrow down to more specific items that you want to discuss if needed. You’d be surprised how many times a simple question like, “Why would/wouldn’t you recommend this to a friend?” will lead into a deeper discussion about The Big Issues like God, faith and life.
- Make a list. I’m much more comfortable leading discussion than I used to be, but I still find it helpful to make a list of questions I can ask to get things going, or points that I want to come up during the discussion. Always, always, have more questions than you have time for. You never know what angle the group will need to approach something from in order to connect with it. Be careful, though, that you don’t start thinking of the questions as your “task list” and shooting them out. The goal is not to ask all the questions (this isn’t a quiz, remember?), the goal is to help your youth explore the material.
- Respect silence. Sometimes it takes people awhile to warm up or gather their thoughts. Let them think. Yes, 10 seconds of silence will feel like an eternity to you, but the more you do it the more comfortable you, and the group, will feel. A caveat: you have to be calm and inviting when you do this. Relax, smile at everyone, let them know that you’re ok with the quiet and soon they’ll appreciate it for the invitation it is.
While a few people are natural discussion leaders, most people need practice. Don’t be hard on yourself if things don’t always go as well as planned. With a little time, you’ll be leading great discussions that engage and excite your youth.