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Culture

Why Less Can be More

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October 3rd, 2009

Two youth workers meet at a training event and strike up a conversation that, although new to them, follows a predictable script. The first question will be, “So are you salaried or volunteer?” and the second will be, “And how big is your youth group?” Those who can answer in at least double figures will find it hard to keep smug smiles from their lips. Those who admit to single figures can often feel like failures.

But why? Why do we equate size with success? Are there young people out there who are happy with their “small is beautiful” youth group? And if you’re struggling with just a few young people, how can you turn the size of your group to your advantage? Here are a few thoughts from the United Kingdom where perhaps we’re more used to small youth groups than our cousins across the pond.

Helen’s a volunteer youth leader in Leeds. Her youth group has three girls on a bad day and six on a good one, but she’s not complaining. The group began when members of the Girls’ Brigade, a uniformed organization at the church, wanted to learn more about God and Helen jumped at the opportunity to get to know the members. “We have three 11-year-olds who love the group,” she says. “They’re the ones who want to go deeper into some of the issues, while the older girls often skim the surface. We regularly split the group up so it’s easy to do one-to-one work without it being too obvious. People can tend to measure success by the size of your group, but I would hate to know only 20 kids a little and lose the depth of relationship that I have with these girls.”

Some churches are making deliberate attempts to reorganize their youth ministry into small groups. Since the concept of cells was introduced here, many churches have discovered them to be an appropriate model for young people, whether peer-led or adult-led. Laurence Singlehurst, in the YWAM manual Cell It, extols the virtues of small groups in terms of relationships and accountability. “In large groups we can all get away with mutual love…the ‘you-be-my-best-friend-and-I’ll-be-your-best-friend’ syndrome. That type of love is good as far as it goes, but it will never change the world….Cells create the environment where mini-communities of real love and sacrifice are built.”

He also explains how in small groups there’s more of a need for everyone to contribute and get involved, so it’s not so easy to be a passive spectator. “So far, much of our youth work has been like a spectator sport, encouraging the mindset which says, ‘If you entertain me, I’ll come along.’ But cell life only thrives when all contribute,” he says. Whether you’re into cells or not, principles like that apply to small groups everywhere.

Tracey’s a volunteer youth worker near Bath in the west of England at a church where they’ve chosen to adopt a cell model for their 20 young people. The cells are called youth homegroups and Tracey leads one with five or six teenagers. “It works really well,” she says. “The young people like the fact that they can build closer relationships with each other. And it has enabled some of the quieter ones to contribute and feel more confident.”

The church has a full-time salaried youth worker who coordinates the materials for each small group and they meet altogether about three times a term. The decision to split into cells was because the young people didn’t seem to know each other well in the bigger group and were forming small cliques. The youth work had reached a stage where there wasn’t much growth spiritually or numerically and, after a lot of prayer, the team of youth leaders decided to make the change. Splitting into cells has meant that the busy volunteers, who are vital to the youth work in the church, are able to get to know the young people in a way that wasn’t possible before.

In spite of many youth leaders feeling positive about their small groups, not everyone shares their enthusiasm. Church members can drop comments about previous youth workers who had bigger groups. Carl leads a youth group of seven young people at a Wesleyan church in the West Midlands, and although the church has a total of only 40 members, he’s aware that many are looking to him to increase numbers. “I have had people say, ‘He is not doing his job properly’ if the youth group hasn’t grown,” he says. “I try to block this out and concentrate on the group I’ve got at the moment. Some parents of the young people have given me positive comments about how they’ve seen their children grow which is really encouraging.” Other youth workers have met a similar attitude. One youth worker confided, “There seems to be a real ‘bums-on-seats’ measure of success. I wish people would stop pressing for numbers rather than quality. My young people get pressured to go to lots of other services as well as youth group just so that the church can feel pleased that they have young people there. It’s just going to drive the young people away.”

And unfortunately, other youth workers can be just as bad. One salaried youth worker I spoke to meets regularly with colleagues who are part of the same church network. “Some of them are very dynamic and have a couple of hundred in their youth ministries. They can seem quite dismissive when you admit that you have less than ten. Although, as time has gone on and I’ve got to know them, they’ve become more supportive. I think sometimes it comes down to insecurity. Youth workers can try and impress each other with the number of nights a week they work, or the number of young people they have in their group—we’re all in the same work! My church leaders are very supportive and are more focused on where the young people are with God rather than how many of them they are.”

So apart from more time for relationships, what are the other benefits of small groups?

Flexibility

If you launch into a session on the Kingdom of God and are met with blank faces, you have the time and flexibility with a small group to stop and find out what questions they have, and whether you need to approach it differently. Practical arrangements are also much easier for a smaller group. Taking eight young people on a trip only needs two cars and another driver, whereas if you have 50 to transport…

Honesty

Having a small group can be a good introduction to youth work. It’s far easier for a youth worker who’s starting out to deal with five young people than with 20. It also means young people need to be honest about the youth work and what they think of it. It’s harder for them to hide their lack of interest or the fact that the teaching’s going over their heads. So youth workers with small groups have to know how to deal with constructive comments from the group (and the moans too).

Seen and Known

With only a few in the group, there’s less opportunity for members to hide behind others. While this could potentially scare some off, it means that young people have to engage with the issues that the group’s addressing.

However, none of the youth leaders I spoke to would claim that small groups are problem-free. Here are some of the drawbacks:

Missing Members

You really notice when even one or two young people are missing. If you’ve planned drama or even a discussion and only two or three people are there, you know it’s just not going to work. That’s when you need to be really flexible and creative. In the book, The Essential Groupworker, a handbook on teaching and learning creative group work by Mark Doel and Catherine Sawdon, the authors discuss the virtues of different sizes of groups saying that “size should be determined by purpose and the desired mood.” While few youth workers get to choose their ideal group, the advice to be flexible is well worth listening to. “The size of the group ultimately depends on the very obvious factor of who turns up….It pays to have a plan for the group which is not dependent on a specific number; for example if you are planning to break in to smaller subgroups at some point in the session, make sure you can break into combinations of 2s, 3s and 4s. Flexibility is crucial in the planning stage and beyond.”

Like Minds

With a small group, sometimes you’ll find that everyone thinks alike on some topics. It’s then impossible to have a discussion because they’ll all just agree with each other! The leader can end up playing devil’s advocate just to get them going. Personality clashes, gender imbalances, wide age ranges, and members who only come occasionally all stand out more, too. Youth leaders may feel that they’re trying to meet so many different needs that they don’t actually fulfill any of them. In fact that same range of needs may be present in a larger group, but not in such an obvious way because it’s easier for people to hide. The solution is a varied program that doesn’t try to please everyone all of the time, but does pay attention to the individual’s needs over a period of time.

Navel Gazers

There’s a danger that small groups can become insular and navel-gazing. Their experience of what it means to be a Christian can be very limited because they don’t have many peers to learn from. Joining in with larger area youth events can be really important to show your group members that they’re not the only people their age who are Christians.

Other Issues

As well as being aware of the pros and cons of small groups, youth workers also need to think strategically. In some geographical areas, small groups are the best way to do youth work; context is an all-important issue to consider. A youth group that meets in the middle of a rough urban estate may be able to cope with small numbers, but struggle with control and discipline if many more came. In some rural settings where there are perhaps ten young people in a village, having five of them come to your youth group could be deemed a huge success. You also need to consider what other demands there are on young people’s time; they can’t go to everything.

Perhaps the most important issue when it comes to group size is the vision of the youth leader. If you have a view of youth work that equates success with numbers, then you’ll have a nagging sense of failure if your group doesn’t get many young people coming to it. And you may find it difficult not to subtly communicate your disappointment. Youth leaders need to feel secure in their setting. You may need to move from quantity to quality as the byword for your youth work—not that the two are mutually exclusive, but rather than waiting for more young people to come along, appreciate the depth of relationships you can have with the few young people with whom you are in contact.

Employed youth workers may find they’re judged more by concrete results than are volunteers. As contracts come up for renewal, churches will analyze whether they got “value for the money” from their paid staff and, unfortunately, the number of young people will often be used as a measure of success. Youth workers need to provide other ways of showing that their work is adding value. It’s also important to clearly communicate to the whole church what your vision of youth work is all about. If they don’t know much about what you’re doing, then it’s perhaps not surprising they have unrealistic expectations about how many young people they think you should be bringing along to church services. Ask for an opportunity to talk about your vision for youth at a service or a church business meeting, and let people ask you questions afterwards.

However, with increasing concern about the numbers of young people leaving the church, it would seem that small youth groups may become more common in years to come. It’s crucial therefore that youth leaders can see the benefits of smaller groups and are able to communicate those to their churches, as well as find strategies to overcome some of the negatives inherent in smaller groups. So next time you’re at a training event and you get asked that question, look them straight in the eye and say it loud—“we’re small and we’re proud!”

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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.

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