Small groups are not the end of ministry; they are the beginning. Many youth workers believe that if they can get kids into small groups, their job is done. But the real job has just begun. Ministry is about life change, and for this to happen, there needs to be an intentional approach to HOW small groups will nurture and shape students’ lives.
Often in youth ministry, success is measured by attendance. But having good attendance isn’t what makes your small group ministry successful. It’s what happens to your students once they get there. If we don’t take the time to answer key questions like, Why are we using this ministry strategy? or What are we hoping to accomplish? we can find ourselves with frustrated leaders, directionless students, and very little life-change. In one small group, after weeks of meeting together, a student asked his leader, “Why are we here anyway?” A question like that—though typical of adolescence—is a sign that something may need to change.
Small groups can be exciting, challenging, and spiritually transforming. But again, they are the starting point of ministry—not the end. Each group needs to have an intentional goal and vision that is embraced by every member.
Before we dig into what that all means, here are three foundational principles every small group leader should understand:
SMALL GROUP MEETINGS ARE VALUE-DRIVEN, NOT CURRICULUM-DRIVEN.
The significance of getting kids to connect is always greater than the goal of finishing a lesson. Therefore, a successful small-group experience is defined by whether or not kids participated in a meaningful discussion, not whether or not the lesson was completed.
How many times have you heard from a small group leader who came equipped with a lesson plan and was ready to fire away— only to leave discouraged because her students didn’t “get into” the meeting? (This is especially frustrating when that leader is you.) All it takes is a long sigh, a distracting comment, or the notorious “nap jerk” to realize you just aren’t reaching your audience. And therein lies the problem: Your students have become an audience.
Sometimes a leader is unintentionally more committed to the lesson plan than the spiritual growth of the students. This happens when spiritual growth is understood as the transmission of information rather than the understanding of biblical truth. This basic difference can make a group curriculum-driven rather than values driven.
As a small group leader, it’s important to evaluate your group on the basis of your values. This takes some honest thought about what is happening—and what you want to happen—in your small group. That’s what this book is about.
Your values, whether stated or unstated, will drive your small group ministry. If you don’t take the time to explore those values, your small group may reflect values you don’t really have. This book will help you develop clearly stated values that make small groups worth leading—and give you ideas and activities for how to experience those values in your group.
SMALL GROUP RELATIONSHIPS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN SMALL GROUP ATTENDANCE.
The core of small group ministry is relationships, not attendance. In his book, God at the Mall, Pete Ward says, “Relationships are the fuel on which youth work travels. To be engaged in building relationships with young people is an intentional activity.”
Leanne loved the other girls in her small group and loved sharing life with them, but when her life fell apart, she pulled back. Leanne didn’t want to talk about the mess at home, so she withdrew. Leanne’s leader would see her every couple of months at church, but when she asked her to stick around for small group, Leanne always found an excuse to duck out. Two years passed before Leanne was finally willing to come on a trip with her small group. It was then that she recommitted her life to Christ. Her telling comment was, “I can’t believe you let me come back. You always let me come back.”
“GOOD LEADERS ARE ALWAYS ON THE LOOKOUT FOR WAYS TO MAKE CONNECTIONS WITH KIDS OUTSIDE THE MEETING”
Small group attendance doesn’t guarantee a good relationship between leader and student anymore than a lack of attendance guarantees a lack of relationship. A student can meet with his small group religiously but fail to bring himself to the table. In contrast, a student may have poor attendance, but have a vital connection with the group. Good small group leaders develop relationships with students not only by leading them during the meeting, but also by pursuing them outside of the meeting. Remember Jesus’ strategy with his sheep. When 99 showed up, he went looking for the one who didn’t.
Jesus lived out this strategy with his disciples in a more profound way. Mark 3:14 says, “He appointed 12—designating them apostles—that they might be with him” (emphasis ours). Being with Jesus was the first and most important goal for this renegade small group. The unbelievable invitation of Jesus is that he calls us to a ministry of inviting kids to be with us—so that they can be with him!
SMALL GROUP MINISTRY GOES BEYOND THE SMALL GROUP MEETING.
Our impact on the lives of kids is not limited to the 70 minutes we have their attention. (Let’s make that seven minutes for those who work with junior high.) Good leaders are always on the lookout for ways to make connections with kids outside the meeting. If there is a spiritual understanding within the meeting, look for how it can be experienced in the real world of the students. If there is a spiritual or relational deadlock, look for avenues outside the gathering to overcome these obstacles.
“THE MISSION OF A SMALL GROUP LEADER IS TO DEVELOP MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS WITH STUDENTS AND TO HELP SHAPE THEM INTO THE PEOPLE GOD DESIGNED THEM TO BE.”
Small group leaders should look for ways to foster spiritual discovery with their students beyond “once-a-week.” This requires taking the ministry beyond the four walls of the meeting and placing it in the field where kids live, eat, play, and breathe the stresses of everyday life. This isn’t to say that the safety and intimacy of the meeting is not important. Transforming leaders simply look for ways to springboard faith connections into the real world. Conversations with kids during an afternoon of cookie baking can make a bigger impact on them than three weeks of carefully planned curriculum. It’s all about having the willingness to move beyond the usual confines into everyday life.
The mission of a small group leader is to develop meaningful relationships with students and to help shape them into the people God designed them to be. Small group meetings, and the activities and ideas that go along with them, are not the mission. They are the vehicles we use to accomplish the mission—namely, spiritual transformation in the lives of our kids.
In the following chapters, you will find strategic change to approaches to small group ministry that will help you accomplish this mission. You will learn how to run a small group meeting in such a way so that your students will be ministered to personally and effectively. You will learn not only how to nurture your students’ spiritual development by evaluating where they are, but also how to encourage them toward the next step. Finally, you will be equipped with meaningful ideas and activities that are specifically designed to help students live out their faith at every level of spiritual growth.
The goal is clear—your students will discover who Jesus is and embrace the relationship he has for them. While you can’t control their spiritual journeys, you can provide a nurturing context for growth to take place. This book will help you do just that.
Laurie Polich and Charley Scandlyn, Small Group Strategies: Ideas & Activities for Developing Spiritual Growth in Your Students (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).