Students everywhere are looking to share their stories and to be heard. They’re seeking real and authentic connection. Some may be able to find that connection in their volleyball team or debate class, but I never knew true connection until I was introduced to a small group at church.
The one place where I knew I could go and open up was my small group.
Small groups are the backbone of our student ministry, so we want to ensure we’re leading them well. Here are a few tips that I have learned throughout my years of ministry…
The power of a name
Have you ever walked into a store and ran into someone you knew, but could not remember their name? You end up saying, “Hey…bud” or “What’s up, man?” It’s the worst feeling when someone knows your name but you don’t know theirs. Names are important. If you show up to small group every week to lead faithfully, yet don’t know your kids’ names, you’ve got some work to do!
- Practical tip: Take a group picture and start putting faces with names. Find that quirky fact about each student that you won’t forget! (Facebook and Instagram are GREAT for this!) Knowing the student’s name makes them feel known immediately. Don’t forget!
Learn your group
Just like in a classroom, there are different dynamics to small groups. Small groups are filled with unique personalities. The fun challenge is creating a rhythm and figuring out what makes your group different. Maybe you have a super quiet group this year. Take them out to do a service project, or just out to ice cream to build relationships outside of group time. These types of activities will allow your students to open up. When kids engage with each other outside of the church, it takes the pressure off of having people stare at them as they talk!
Create a non-judgment zone
Anytime I lead a small group, I start by saying, “What is said in this group, stays in this group.” Small groups are safe zones. It may take a bit for students to get comfortable enough to share, but it all starts with you! If you lead your group with a vulnerability, your students will be more inclined to open up as well. If you are portraying the perfect life, your kids may feel the need to be perfect or that there isn’t space to talk about their problems.
Build a safety zone where students are allowed and encouraged to explore the changes and challenges in their lives as well as what they believe.
I currently live with my grandparents and recently was telling my grandma about a problem I was facing. Before I knew it, grandma jumped in with a “back in my day” story and explained how she solved it. She then proceeded to tell me all the different ways that I could address my problem and BOOM…end of the conversation. I hadn’t even finished describing what the problem was!
As small group leaders, our job isn’t to fix our student’s issues, our job is to listen to their problems and when the time is right, ask if they want help in coming up with a solution. The students we serve, want to and should be heard.
Let me tell you, students are pretty smart and have some deep thoughts when we give them room to speak! You might even walk away from a year of student ministry learning more by listening than from teaching!
Laugh a lot
Small groups are a time to dive deep into what God has been teaching us, but they’re also a time to have fun! I have a pretty bad memory, but looking back on my experiences as a student, I couldn’t tell you the main point of every lesson plan my leaders went over. What I do remember are the stories! Like how Jenny farted in the middle of our small group discussion or the time we pranked the boy’s group who met in the room next to ours.
Junior high students are looking to dive deep and get questions answered, but they’re also looking for an outlet to have fun. They’ve been in school all day already and will need some time to blow some steam. Dive deep with your students and laugh loud with them!
Here are some key nuggets to hold onto this week:
- Be There. Lean into your group time and be as present as you possibly can be. Strive to put aside any distraction or discouragement that would take away your focus from the kids you’re serving.
- Be Focused. Be intentional with those 20, 30, or 50 minutes of precious time that you have with your students every week. It’s really easy for us to get sidetracked in a fun story but let’s strive to leave all our cards on the table when our meeting time is over.
- Be Real. Authenticity is huge. Being present in the life of a student is great, but what they need, more than anything, is the real you! Obviously we can’t share every struggle or every bad story from our past but we can’t portray ourselves as super-Christians either. Ask God to help you find the balance where the students can connect with you but still respect you at the same time.
Haley got dragged to a youth ministry by a friend when she was 12 years old and hasn’t been able to leave ever since! She started serving in junior high ministry back in 2006 and now leads the Junior High program at Parkview Christian Church. Her heart is for the lost, infinity scarves, and family.