3 Vital Tips for Leading Discussion in Small Groups
Youth ministry is coming to an era where small groups are vital to the success and longevity of students in ministry. They provide relationships for students, and if done well can create a bond of friends and a mentor (small group leader) who are inseparable. I recently realized that a lot of the success of the group depends on the leader’s ability to facilitate discussion. Some leaders are incredibly gifted at this and others really have to work at it. I’ve developed three huge tips for leading healthy and vital discussion in small groups.
1. Be incredibly intentional about how you read Scripture.
This may seem rather small and unimportant. But if students can’t understand any of the Scripture you are reading your entire discussion and study will be inadequate. What I mean by this is if you are reading the Bible in any context of your group, pay close attention to how they can focus on what you all are covering. I generally tell our leaders, never have students read one verse at a time in a circle. Because no one is listening, they are just staring at their verse waiting for their turn. It ends up completely futile, and most times leaders need to reread it for them to understand anyway.
Furthermore, if you have a student read the entire passage and its more than a few verses, remember 2 things.
- Make sure they can read well. I know it seems kind to include everyone in reading, but if a student is really struggling reading it is going to distract the whole group. It doesn’t mean exclude them, just have them engage in the study in a different way than reading the passage.
- Cut in during verses that are troublesome or take a timeout from the verses if there has been a lot said. Don’t just plow through 15 verses for the sake of getting it done, because most times students won’t remember anything because they are so blasted with information. If you want them to discuss and wrestle with the Scriptures you must be intentional about the delivery and form of how they will hear and understand it.
2. Lead the group.
Don’t forget to be confident within the small group. Students want to see that you are confident AND passionate about the study and the students. If they can tell that you are just showing up, they won’t focus or engage nearly as well. Leading a small group is all about setting the tone and the environment for students to feel safe and comfortable. It creates an opportunity to share and grow together. You need to speak into the discussion as if you were a student yourself. When I lead a group, I almost always find a way to inject my own personal “wrestlings” within the discussion.
For example, if we talk about the friendship between David and Jonathan, I would say something in the discussion like: “I have a really hard time making close guy friends like Jonathan and David because I feel like no one values it or supports the idea of it. I just am personally struggling with the thought of how I can invite close guy friendships into my life…”
When you give a little bit of yourself to the group, students can realize that you are human just like them, and you aren’t this flawless, perfect, Bible-scholar of a robot. Because no one wants to be in a group with a perfect robot. The greatest thing that you have to offer in small groups is yourself.
3. Allow for Purposeful Variance.
Now I know that “purposeful variance” may seem like an oxymoron, but stay with me here. Often times leaders will ask a question or want feedback from students in the group and you will have this student who just says something completely wrong or borderline heresy. Our instinct as leaders is to immediate cover up their wrong answer and correct them with the right one. By doing this, we don’t allow for students to wrestle and to question, we just shove answers down their throat. So allow for variance in that you allow a wrong answer and direct it to the thoughts of other students.
For example, Johnny answers the question “What do we have to do to receive the gift of salvation?” by saying “I think you just need to be a good person. You don’t really need to accept Jesus, but just live a good lifestyle.” Immediately in your brain, your red flag goes up, but here is how you handle this. You say “Hmm, well why do you say that?” and he will explain, then you say “Well what do you all think of that?” Engage the entire group in wrestling with this.
It seems as Christian leaders, we are so fearful of being wrong or wrestling that we just brush it all under the rug when in reality we are dying to ask seemingly dumb questions or prod a concept deeper that no one wanted to let us talk about. When you engage the group in a conversation they are able to wrestle through it together, and they will take ownership of what they are learning and discussing as opposed to you just laying down the law on them. I’m not saying that you don’t instill any type of doctrine and solid theology in them, but don’t be so quick to grab the reigns and choke the variance that may be healthy for questioning students, especially high schoolers (You may have to be a little tighter with middle schoolers).
You can also allow variance by breaking the routine. Maybe you pick a certain student to read the passage or you let a quiet student know that he is going to have to answer this question in a few minutes. Don’t always assume that having everyone go around in a circle and answer is the best philosophy. Some internal processors are going to be terrified because they don’t have time to externalize their thoughts. Allow for the silence. Leave room in your group for the Holy Spirit to work in ways you would never have planned for or deemed imaginable. Loosen your grip on the schedule of the group, and allow variance, because it will truly allow students to feel open and vulnerable.
As a final word, please note that every small group is different! Gender, age, demographics, size, and leaders all can change the dynamic. But these three tips work for most groups you’ll encounter and have led to great success in any type of ministry I’ve been entrusted with. If you have other ideas/questions, I would love to know about them! Youth ministry is ALWAYS changing, and if we aren’t always learning we will fall behind.
TREY GILMORE is the Pastor of Students at Vail Christian Church in Tucson, where He is currently working through his second year of full-time ministry. He seeks to empower students to become lifelong Christ-followers and to teach, write, and inspire in a way that exhibits the gospel in a profound but simple way. Apart from ministry, He loves fly-fishing, Taco Bell, and thrifting. You can follow him on Instagram, @TREEGILMORE.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.