Leading a youth small group can be hard!
Whether you’re a full-time, part-time or volunteer youth worker, you’ve certainly experienced difficulties in a small group. I can’t tell you how many volunteers and youth workers have confessed to me that they experience major anxiety before they meet with their small groups. I once had a volunteer tell me that 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 small groups don’t have to be that way—they can be some of the best ministry experiences you have. Maybe you weren’t trained or you need a refresher on what to do to make small groups an enjoyable experience.
There’s no magical small group duct tape to fix all your small group issues, but hopefully these seven essentials can help you to lead the best small group possible:
1. CREATE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT.
It’s important to create an environment where students feel safe—this is a place where they know what they say is going to stay there and a place where they feel loved. Start every small group by reinforcing to your students that this is a safe environment where gossip doesn’t happen and what each person says should be treated with respect. This means that as the leader you need to be intentional about loving students where they are rather than acting like a parent. They need to know they’re safe when they share and they’ll be loved and helped rather than scolded or looked down upon.
2. NOTHING IS OFF LIMITS.
If your goal is to see students grow in your small group, they need to be able to share whatever they’re dealing with. Trust me, some gnarly stuff is going to come up. The world these students are growing up in is a very difficult place, so they need to know they can share what they’re dealing with. 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 you actually do 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. I’ve had students give the “right” answer to every single question just so they could move on and never actually discuss anything or talk about what they’re really dealing with. Push for real-life answers and authentic conversations. That means you need to be real as well. Share your life experiences. Students need to know you’re not perfect. If you’re willing to be real, that will spill over to your students very quickly.
4. DON’T GO DEEPER THAN THEY’RE READY TO GO.
A few years ago, I had a leader who wanted all the students to immediately share with her their drug, sex and alcohol problems because she just knew they all had them. Students will only reveal their deep pain and issues with relationship and with time.
It can happen, but don’t force students to go deeper than they’re ready to go. Now, if it has been six months and you don’t even know the names of your students’ friends, then you will 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 that experience of asking a question and getting only silence and eight blank stares. It’s brutal. Push students to talk, but remember the previous point: It takes time. I had a student a few years ago who never talked in small groups. He maybe said 20 words all year. But that summer, we were at the beach playing in the water and throwing sand at each other, and he began asking me a bunch of deep theological questions about the existence of God. Students 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 it or talk to you about it two months later at camp.
6. ALLOW FOR FUN TO HAPPEN.
Get a bunch of students together and they’re going to goof off—that’s OK. You have to allow for fun and acknowledge when funny things happen. If you don’t acknowledge that junior high boy’s fart, it will take way longer to get back on topic than it will if you make a joke about it and move on. Start with a funny game or question—you do want them to have fun.
But remember to bring it back. One of my biggest mistakes early on was thinking that if I made students behave, they wouldn’t like me. I was so wrong. If you make them behave, they will not only still like you, but they will respect you as well.
7. GIVE OPPORTUNITIES FOR SALVATION.
This is why we do what we do. Give opportunities within your small groups for students to accept Christ.
Small groups can be tricky, but hopefully these essentials will help you create a wonderful small group experience for you and for the students you serve.
This article originally appeared here.