For as long as I can remember I have been the poster child for relationally driven ministry. Perhaps it’s because I came out of the roller skating party era of youth group where it was more about programs than going deep. Maybe, it’s because all I wanted was a place to wrestle with hard questions about the way bad stuff happened to the ones I loved, and what did God think about that. I formed small groups before they were a “thing” and far before I read any books on being purposeful in my approach. This is the flag I wave. Go deeper. Model your ministry after Jesus who spent a good portion of his time with a hand full of people here on earth.
You can imagine the lump in my throat when my own three teens admitted to me they don’t really like small groups. (They attend another youth group in addition to ours.) As a matter of fact since their youth pastor is a great preacher they say they would rather sit in a large group setting taking notes.
What on earth could they be talking about? These were supposed to be the moments when you get to share your heart, and go deep, wrestling with your faith. Their reasons for hating small group time fascinated me.
Here are their thoughts:
I Don’t Learn Anything
Small group ministry means lots of volunteers stepping in. Volunteering means you have a life with responsibilities other than running a small group. It is easy to pick up the packet of curriculum and read it as you are teaching. The trouble is students can feel a million miles away and that you weren’t totally engaged in being there. It’s difficult to lead when you haven’t really gotten ready for what could come along. It creates a scenario where the leader can care more about the information they are teaching than what the group is learning. We call it “running the curriculum,” in our house. The trouble here is that students don’t know when to ask questions and if feels like a mini-sermon, with some rambling on whatever comes to mind. We need to prepare for who is in our group (the personalities and learning styles) and learn the best way to engage them. We need to pre-read the lesson and see where it is going and why it is going there. In short take five minutes and prepare.
My Leader Just Hangs Out
It’s easy to try to be friends with our students. Small groups are a wonderful opportunity to learn more about our students and who they are. We can get tired of trying to get the silly student settled and just use this time to “talk.” On one or two occasions this is fine and perhaps even necessary. However, this is a generation that looks for the meaning and purpose in places they are involved. In youth group this means large groups are for preaching and singing, special events are for fun and fellowship and small groups are a place to understand their faith. There is a time to hang out. There is a time to let students be silly and out of control. My kids would say small group is not the place for this.
There’s No Depth
The challenge of the church at large today is that everyone is at a different place on their journey with Christ. This is magnified at youth group. There are students there because their parents make them, others don’t know Jesus at all, some are there for friends and others because they like the leaders. These are all the ones we tend to set our programming up for. Yet, there are ALSO teens who WANT to learn more and truly know what belonging to Christ means. Yes, it is difficult to teach to both sides of this coin: the shallow and deep. Yet, in a simple way just keep order in your group. It might be a rabbit trail that has nothing to do with the lesson or drama that someone else creates, but at some point one of the students hijacks the small group. You can stop this. Keep order, stay on topic and answer questions that are meaningful (not when does the next blockbuster movie get released.) I think if we went deeper more often than not the students who are goofing off will be engaged. At least this is my personal experience.
The Introduction Is Too Long
This one was really interesting. It made me think of the time we had no place (due to building usage) to meet together for an opening. Instead, when students arrived, they were greeted by small group leaders and spent the whole youth group there. There was no large group and our students loved it. Those who came early actually had that extra time to talk to their leader and get to know them. My son calls large group before small group he “mini-sermon set up.” These are well done, but then by the time they get to small groups and the leader can take control, there is no actual time to get to anything meaningful. Maybe you need to rethink that time before small groups or make sure small group time is longer?
Sometimes the trouble is that we don’t take the time to really teach our leaders how to run a small group. How do you handle the student who takes over? What about the one that’s really hurting? They need our attention and taking them aside before or after group is entirely appropriate and helpful. Instead recognize that during small groups our students have more than often come with bated breath hoping to have some confusions in their Christian walk cleared up. Create a space where they are engaged, involved, and where we expect them to grow in the Lord. My problem is that too often I don’t expect most of my students will actually grow. Maybe the issue is really just one of expectations.
Thanks for loving students,
P.S. – Check out 99 Thoughts For Small Group Leaders for you and your volunteers (great for rookies and veterans)!