Leading a youth small group can be tough! Whether you’re a full-time, part-time or volunteer youth worker, you’ve certainly experienced difficulties in a youth small group.
I can’t tell you how many volunteers and youth workers have confessed to me that they experience major anxiety before meeting with their small groups. A volunteer once told me he has a hard time sleeping the night before, and his palms get sweaty when it’s almost time to break into small groups.
But a youth small group doesn’t have to be that way! It can be one of the best ministry experiences you ever have. Maybe you weren’t trained or need a refresher on how to make small groups an enjoyable experience.
No magical duct tape will fix all your youth small group issues, but the essentials listed below will help you lead the best small group possible.
Follow these 7 steps to youth small group success
1. Create a safe environment.
First, it’s important to create an environment where students feel safe. Make the group a place where kids know their words will stay there and they’ll be loved. Start every session by reinforcing to attendees that this is a safe environment where gossip doesn’t happen but where people respect one another’s opinions. As the leader, this means you must be intentional about loving students where they are rather than acting like a parent. Kids need to know that they’re safe when they share and that they’ll be loved and helped rather than scolded or condemned.
2. Communicate that nothing is off limits.
If your goal is to see students grow in your youth small group, they need to be able to share whatever they’re dealing with. Trust me, some gnarly stuff will come up. The world that teens are growing up in is a very difficult place, so they need to know they can share what they’re facing. You can tell a student you’ll talk about something later if what they bring up doesn’t go with the topic at hand. But if you say that, make sure to actually go back and talk about it.
3. Push for real conversation.
Church lifers and Christian-school students are the worst at this. (You know exactly what I’m talking about!) Some students give the “right” answer to every single question just so they can move on. They never actually discuss anything or talk about what they’re really experiencing. Push for real-life answers and authentic conversations. That means you must be real as well. Share your own life experiences. Students need to know you’re not perfect. If you’re willing to be real, that will spill over to the youth small group very quickly.
4. Don’t go deeper than kids are ready to go.
A few years ago, one of my leaders wanted all the students to immediately share with her their drug, sex and alcohol problems because she just knew they all had them. But kids will reveal their deep pain and issues only with relationship and with time.
That can happen, but don’t force students to go deeper than they’re ready to go. Now, if it’s been six months and you don’t even know the names of your students’ friends, then you’ll have to pry. But don’t expect the first week to be about all their deepest, darkest sins.
5. Don’t get discouraged if students don’t get it right away.
We’ve all had the experience of asking a question and getting only silence and eight blank stares. It’s brutal! Push kids to talk in the youth small group, but remember the previous point: It takes time. One of my former students never talked in small groups; he maybe said 20 words all year. But that summer, we were playing at the beach, throwing sand at each other, and he began asking me a bunch of deep theological questions about the existence of God.
Kids might not answer right away, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get it. They may text you or message you the next day to discuss something or talk to you about it two months later at camp.
6. Allow for fun to happen.
When you get a bunch of teens together, they’re going to goof off—and that’s okay. You need to allow for fun and also acknowledge when funny things happen. If you don’t acknowledge that junior high boy’s fart, for example, getting back on topic will take way longer than if you’d just made a joke about it and moved on.
Start with a funny game or question, because you do want kids to have fun. But remember to bring the discussion back to the topic at hand. Early on, one of my biggest mistakes was thinking that if I made students behave, they wouldn’t like me. I was so wrong! If you make kids behave, they’ll not only still like you but will also respect you.
7. Give opportunities for salvation.
After all, this is ultimately why we do what we do. Provide opportunities within each youth small group session for students to accept Christ as their Savior.
A youth small group is well worth the effort. Just keep these essentials in mind to create a positive experience for you and the kids you serve.
This article originally appeared here.