“Why Won’t They Listen?” The Cry of the Small Group Leader

Jonathan McKee
October 5th, 2014

We are excited to share this post from Jonathan McKee, who was one of our speakers at NYWC Sacramento and we're thrilled to have him with us at NYWC Atlanta

Original photo by Jonathan Powell.

I’ve witnessed it countless times—a small group leader desperately vying to keep the attention of their group. But the teens aren’t interested.

“Why won’t they listen?!!!” the small group leader demands.

Sadly, the answer isn’t always one they want to hear. The fact is, the answer to their own question is this:

They aren’t supposed to be listening. You are.

A Climate that Cultivates Conversation

Think about it. Why do we do small groups in the first place?

To preach at them?


To break up their numbers so they are more controllable?

Okay… maybe a little.

The primary reason I break into small groups is to give everyone a chance to speak, processing out loud the subject at hand. Small groups are simply a tool where we can create a climate that cultivates conversation.

It’s like this. Twenty kids watch a creative YouTube clip. A leader says a few words from the front of the room, then pronounces, “Okay, let’s divide into small groups and discuss this.”

This is our cue. As small group leaders, this is our turn to ask very good questions… and shut up!

They talk… we listen.

A Common Misconception

Sadly, this rarely happens. Most of the time, kids plop down in a circle and the leader begins talking, and talking… and talking…

I see this happen at camps where I speak every year. The camp director asks me, “Can you provide small group questions for our counselors to use when you’re done talking?”

I provide questions, I finish speaking and everyone divides to small groups. That’s when I always notice it. I walk around and plant myself like a fly on the wall watching and listening to these small groups. Here’s what I observe more often than not:

  • The small group leader begins lecturing about the topic at hand.
  • Kids start to get bored. You can see them physically fading, leaning on their hands and falling asleep. They’ve just finished listening to me speak, and now they’re being forced to listen to a second sermon.
  • The leader gets frustrated. “Why won’t they listen?”

Don’t blame these small group leaders. It’s not their fault.

It’s our fault.

As leaders of the ministry, we need to train and equip our leaders to ask good questions that cultivate conversation. We need to train our leaders to actively listen, encouraging kids in their answers and learning more about them as they share. We need to train our leaders to stop talking so much.

Duct Tape

This fall I teach a workshop at the National Youth Workers Convention titled, Leading Small Groups… Without Losing Your Mind (Sacramento and Atlanta). In this fun little workshop I provide small youth workers with 5 basic tools that will help anyone leading a small group.

In that workshop, the first tool I provide is Duct Tape…. to place over our own mouths.

They always get the point.

Small groups are an opportunity to convert our lecturing into listening.

Small groups provide us with a chance to move from monologue to dialogue.

Do you use small groups as an opportunity to cultivate communication?

Jonathan McKee is the author of over a dozen books like the brand new Get Your Teenagers Talking, Connect, and the 10-Minute Talks series. Jonathan speaks to and trains leaders worldwide, and provides free resources on his website. Get a regular dose of Jonathan from his insightful blog. Hear Jonathan speak at NYWC Atlanta.


Jonathan McKee

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