Retooling Small Groups For Next Year

Steve Cullum
June 13th, 2019

Do relationships really matter in your ministry? Most of us would say they are one of the primary reasons we do ministry, as one of our common goals in youth ministry is to create environments where relationship with God and others can happen and flourish. Once our team began to really think about that idea, we realized we needed to retool our approach to small groups.

We also realized that no matter how much work and put our best effort into creating the best large group experience we could make, the vast majority of students were more excited about getting to their small group. Even though they did not get much time in their groups after worship, speaking, and games, they looked forward to connecting with others in real relationship. Speaker and author Andy Stanley famously says, “Life change happens in circles, not rows.” If we really believe that statement to be true, how should it change our approach to ministry?

When Relationships Matter is a new resource from Orange Books to help ministry leaders create and improve small groups. The authors say, “If small groups become the primary answer, then that ultimately changes everything you do” (27). At the Orange Conference 2019, Tom Schefchunas, co-author of the book, asked if that was actually true in our ministries. In other words, if we really believe that small groups are the answer for student discipleship, then what are we doing to make those environments the best they can be? Shef’s challenge only solidified our plan to retool our small group ministry.

With all that in mind, here is how we are adjusting our youth ministry to improve our students’ small group experience:

Detaching From Large Group

Attaching small groups to a large group environment is not a bad thing. It allows you to have one program, and it allows youth leaders to speak from the stage, play games, and sing songs that set up small groups to thrive. However, we realized that we had several students who were not ready for that intimate experience yet. They didn’t know if they even believed in Jesus, and they surely were not ready to grow in Bible study and hold their peers accountable. So by detaching small groups from our large group, we will be able to cater those environments to students who are ready to take steps toward discipleship. This also allows us to have a pathway for students’ discipleship that they choose, instead of forcing small groups upon every student who comes our way.

Equipping and Empowering the Small Group Leaders

Small group leaders are incredibly important to our ministry, in philosophy. Unfortunately, though, we have sometimes treated them as discussion group leaders. That’s not a bad role, but we want them to be disciplers. Moving forward, we are giving them the entire curriculum, instead of just the discussion guide. They will be responsible for teaching the content in whatever way works for their group. We will also begin equipping and empowering to view their small group as their youth group. Youth ministry veteran, Doug Fields, said years ago that he gave away his “youth pastor” title to his leaders. That’s what we intend to do moving forward by treating each of our small group leaders as youth pastors. This will require more coaching and training, but through this, we will reach many more students for Jesus.

Move to Sunday Morning

We know that very few brand new students will attend a church on Sunday morning. If we get them at all, it will be in the evening. Because of this, we are switching up our evening “large group” environment’s focus to outreach. Small groups, therefore, will move to Sunday morning. Not only do we believe this will help us gain more adult volunteers, who are typically more available on Sunday morning, this will also help encourage students to attend one of our worship services, perhaps as a small group. For example, a middle school group meets at 9:30, they could then go to church together at 11:00. Moving to Sunday morning will help with consistency and momentum, as we will rarely take a break on Sunday morning for a holiday. This move should help families, as they will not have to make multiple trips to and from the church. We are hoping this will also help them attend worship together more often.

Other Ideas for Future Retooling…

Moving forward, we will continue to evaluate and retool. One concept we are considering is letting our junior and senior groups meet off-site at another day and time. This will help them prepare for how things will be in an adult small group. This Fall, we are going to try different ways of teaching in the small groups. We will provide videos, teaching scripts, Bible study outlines, and more for the small group leaders to figure out what works best for their group. We are also praying about content. Do we continue to keep all small groups on the same plan, do we create separate plans based on their grade level, or do we allow small group leaders to choose their own direction from a “catalog” of sorts?

Our small group ministry will certainly continue to evolve and change, but one thing is certain. Students grow in faith so much more in small groups than they do listening to me preach, so we’re shifting our emphasis in order to make those groups be the best they can be moving forward.

Steve Cullum

Steve Cullum is the student pastor at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, CO, where he oversees their ministry to sixth through twelfth grade students and their families. He also hosts The Student Ministry Podcast and volunteers for the National Network of Youth Ministries. You can follow him on Twitter @stevecullum.

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