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The Small Group Fail


I can recall my first major small group fail vividly from about 17 years ago.  

I had been in youth ministry for a few years by then, so I thought of myself as a little bit of an up-and-coming relational expert.  We were in the middle of a great discussion (or so I thought) when one of the girls announces, “Someone in this room keeps looking at me funny, and it is ticking me off.”

Thinking I had mad conflict-resolution skills I say, “Ok, well that’s not good let’s take the time right now to work this out.”  Needless to say, I was the one they thought was giving them the stink eye, and things only spiraled downward from there. In the end my ten girls were split down the middle: 5 and 5 in a heated debate about my skills as a small group leader while I desperately tried to regain control. I confess it ended with me in tears and 2 girls using it as an excuse to quit youth group. Although, when I came back the next week another girl said to me, “You must really love us, because there is no way I would be back after the beating you took last week.”

The small group fail happens to the best of us. What do we do in these situations? Here are three situations you might encounter and how I have handled them:

 Eat Your Words:

  • In this situation you unintentionally say something that pushes a hot button for a student. This happened to me just last week. We were talking about a pretty heavy topic in small group. I thought it was going well when all of a sudden a student took something I said out of context,  feelings were unintentionally hurt and I had to undo my words. Often times it’s when we make a broad statement about an issue that we have no idea hits home.  Something like, “God’s original intention was not for there to be single parents.”  You get, “So you’re saying single parents are bad? My Mom loves me.”  Uh oh. You were not attacking this student’s home life.
  • What to do? Make sure the student knows you were not attacking. Apologize that you hurt them in any way, that was not your intention.  Sometimes if a student is struggling with something this opens a wound you didn’t even know was there. Reword your point, so they know the point you were making. You may need to try a different example. Take back the time and readjust. You may need to talk to the student after the small group time to ensure they understand that the point was not at them at all.

The Awkward Moment:

  •  You are trying to make a point and say something in a way that just gets them snickering. It takes you a second to realize what you have done. There was the time as a newlywed my husband said,  “I’m sorry I’m not better prepared. I got busy last night.” There was much whooping. There was also the time when I coughed and farted at the same time, both loudly. The group starts with a small under the breath giggle and by the end they are guffawing. In the meantime you realize what you have said (or done), and are bright red.
  • What to do?  Shake it off.  Acknowledge it.  Laugh at yourself.  At the cough/fart I said, “Let’s just get the laugh over with. Yep, you heard it right. Everybody has gas.”  Let them have their moment of laughter. It’s ok to be embarrassed and even admit it. “Well, if you hadn’t guessed before now, I’m just not cool.” Then regain composure and redirect the group to get back to topic. It may take a few tries. It might be the point in the group where you can’t regain the deep discussion and that is alright. This might be the time where you say, “Alright, let’s just talk about how things are going for you in life right now. Tell me about the craziest thing that happened to you this week. Mine was that moment right there.”  It just might the time you get to know your students more deeply.

The Blank Stare:

  • You are in an impassioned speech about Jesus with multiple points. It may not be totally on topic but it’s important and they will see this. That is when you look around and notice one student is asleep, two have their heads on the table and the rest have a glazed look in their eyes. You have lost them. Your rambling rabbit trail missed entirely.
  • What To Do?  Ask a question. Stop talking and get them back. Say something like, “Well, I have talked enough, what do you think?” They may ask, “I’m sorry. About what?” Pick one thing you were trying to get across and ask about that question. Bring it back to them. Small groups are not meant to be a sermon series, they are meant to be interactive. Sometimes when we can’t get students to engage we like to fill the silence. Just sit there and wait for them to answer you back. Chances are they weren’t bored, they were thinking. Sometimes we just need to give them a moment to process.

Remember this, God is bigger than our small group fails.There are going to be moments when we walk away and say, “That didn’t work at all.”  There are going to be other times when we saw the Lord at work clearly.  Whether you can “feel” Him or not, know Jesus is big enough to be at work in the heart of our students when we don’t measure up. I think it might be in those times our students actually see Him more clearly. It isn’t the failing that matters really, it’s if we are willing to fess up, say sorry, and move forward…

What about you?

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The Small Group Fail

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