I’m going to be honest; there are times in youth ministry when having a large number of students is better. I wrote this article while on a mission trip in Mexico and the work we had been asked to help with required many hands. One night while walking on the beach, an impromptu game of “Red Rover” became one of our evening activities. It might not have been as fun if it was with just a few people. In our weekend services, I love singing and worshiping with a large group of people. It sounds better than I ever could sing by myself. The more the better! However, while there are times where more is better, there are times when smaller is even better, and healthier. Growing deeper, sharing life together, becoming more intimate, real, honest and open really comes from the power of small groups. Again, I will be honest and say I want our ministry to grow as we reach more students, but I don’t want us just to steer a herd. I want us to be healthy and connected. Small groups have been an effective tool in helping us achieve this. Here is how small groups have helped us become healthier:
Small Groups Build Community
One of the most important things for a student is their desire to belong. They don’t just want to be another face in the crowd; they can do that just by walking down hallways of their high school each day. Students want to be known and cared for. When a group of five to eight students come together, it creates an opportunity for students to listen and talk to each other. When someone is not there, the rest of the group takes notice. Two years ago we started a new small group with students who were part of the 40 Days of Purpose Campaign. Today that group of students is a very close group. They gravitate towards each other when we have other events, they have each other’s cell phone number so they can keep in touch during the week, they share their problems with each other, and when they are with other people they share some of their funny stories from their time together. What is neat is that while it would be easy for them to become a clique within our ministry, they have continued to invite other committed students to be part of their small group. They became a model to other students for what authentic fellowship is.
Small Groups Help Students Process the Tough Stuff
I know I can’t answer all their questions in a twenty-minute message each week. While teaching and instruction is important, there needs to be an outlet to wrestle with the things we are talking about. Small groups allow students to dig deeper with others who are just as confused as they are. About two years ago, one of our female volunteers wanted to start an intense small group that was based on helping girls work through issues like purity, self-esteem, inner beauty, and other issues that were important for becoming a godly woman. The group met for twelve weeks, and required a commitment to attend each meeting during that twelve week period. During those twelve weeks, the girls quickly learned that it was ok to ask the questions about sexuality, or share the feelings and struggles they had about faith issues. This small group created a platform for these girls to say “I doubt”, or “I don’t understand”, while it gave us a platform to say “Let us teach you”. At our weekly meetings, I know that there are many students who come because their parents make them. Students come to small groups on their own accord because they want to learn more, and grow deeper.
Small Groups Help Students Form A Deeper Level of Trust for Each Other
Small groups create a sense of intimacy that no other programs provide. We see this when the walls of security that students build around themselves come down in a small group setting. This usually happens when one person shares about the “junk” or “struggles” in their life. In an instant other students hear one of their peers become transparent and real. Perhaps those students are going through the same thing as what the person shared and they relate because they have experienced the same thing. In a large meeting, students will not share as much as they do in a smaller setting because it is not safe. Safety comes from smaller numbers, intentional shepherding, a mutual permission that it is okay to share, and that information will not go beyond the ears of their group.
Small Groups Help Keep Students From Falling Through the Cracks
Sometimes I think we (as youth workers) talk more about this in theory than we do in practice. We do not want to accept that we were not able to provide what a student desperately needed. I must admit we have not been perfect in keeping students from falling through the cracks, but small groups have helped become better at avoiding that pitfall. There have been times when a student has come to our weekly meetings either on their own or with a friend and they got through the night with as little as a “hello”. In some ways we are intentional about that because don’t want to create a place where students feel like they are being sold something. But as they become a regular attendee, I want them to get connected because I can’t personally meet all the needs of my students. Small groups help us keep track of students and make sure they get more than just a “How are ya!” each week. We have small group leaders who are responsible for checking in with students, spending time with them, and helping make our ministry a place where every student actually does belong. In our junior high ministry, we have incorporated small groups into our weekly program. We divide them up by age and gender and use the time to debrief the message. In addition, each small group leader is responsible for being in touch with their students during the week, as well as meet for special events throughout the year. These small groups also serve a long term objective by priming the pump for when our junior high students move into senior high, which is where we expect them to engage fully in small groups.
We are certainly not perfect in the area of small groups. But I believe they help us fulfill the purposes of fellowship and discipleship quite well. If you are thinking about incorporating small groups in your ministry, or if you are looking for a little encouragement, here are a couple things I have learned along the way:
1. Begin With A Few Students
I admit I was intimidated when I talked with other youth workers who had many small groups, many leaders and many students participating in them. We started our small group ministry four years ago with three students. It wasn’t rocket science; we just began with who we had, and who was willing to commit to building community within a small group. Each year we have an increase of students and have built a few groups that meet regularly. That is what is great about small groups, they are meant to be small! If there are just a handful in your group who have some interest, get your stake in the ground and start with them. John Maxwell says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly”. The takeaway here is not that your ministry should be done poorly, but that we may not have a fine tuned machine and there is a value in small groups that can be built on over time. Sometimes just starting a small group is the biggest obstacle.
2. Be Thoughtful When You Add More Groups
This year one of our small groups grew to over a dozen students in regular attendance. It was great having that many students involved, but I began to notice that some of the more “outgoing” students would do all the talking, and the more “reserved” students would not speak or share. When this happened I realized that we were defeating the purpose of small groups. My experience has been that a group of six to eight students should be the maximum amount of people grouped together before that group loses its intimacy and effective sharing. This was a great time to divide that group in half, and start an additional small group.
3. Use Some of Your High School Leaders to Help Lead Small Groups in Junior High
I’m a firm believer that we need strong adults to mentor students if we want healthy ministries. But there have been times where I have used some of our high school students as small group leaders in junior high. The beauty of this is that those students who understand the value of small groups (by being in a small group of their own) can communicate and model that value to younger students. I experimented with this one year because we were short a small group leader. To be honest, that student was a better small group leader than I was, but I was able to invest in one (the high school student) in order for them to invest in a few.
4. Let Other Students Be Your Advertising
When we first began small groups, I wanted everyone to be involved. The problem was many of our students lead very busy lives and did not see the value in taking the risk of adding another thing in their hectic pace. Over time, it was the students who were already part of the small group each week who encouraged other students in our ministry to give it a try. Occasionally we will have dinner for those who are coming from a practice or rehearsal before a meeting. Also, students give each other rides and even correct each other’s homework at the end of their group in order for them to come.
I’m not an expert in small groups, but I see the power of small groups in the lives of our committed students. Remember, it’s about becoming smaller and healthier as you grow larger!